Agency of God: A Reading of Joseph
The sovereignty of
God is a theme widely recognized by each of the Abrahamic traditions. Since it is so all-encompassing a topic,
there are several avenues regarding God's agency that one can explore. For example, to what extent is God's
authority absolute? Does His sovereignty
differ between the Heavenly and the earthly realm? Even more specifically, this paper will
address God's agency in relation to human agency.
Christian scholar Terrence Fretheim uses the Genesis account of Joseph in order
to reveal the nature of God's sovereignty.
Specifically, Fretheim discusses the extent to which earthly events are
the work of God versus the work of humanity.
In his reflections on the Joseph story, Fretheim introduces three
propositions that each describe the scope of God's activity. First, Fretheim suggests that God's plan
stands paramount to the human will in every sense. This perception, in which God is the only
real agent, assumes an irrelevancy of human action when compared to the
divine. For example, God is the subject
of the key action verbs, revealing his guiding hand, not that of humanity,
throughout the Joseph narrative.
In opposition to
this stance, Fretheim secondly suggests that the acts of God and man both play
a role in earthly events, but that ultimately God's will always prevails in the
end. In contrast to the first view, this
second stance attributes some responsibility to human action, but never an
authority that overrides the will of God.
For instance, throughout the Joseph story, the characters act according
to their own will; yet in the end, God's actions provide for the eventual
conclusion of the narrative.
disagrees with both of these notions that human action is fundamentally
overridden by divine will. Instead,
Fretheim takes on a third stance incorporating "the effectiveness of both
divine and human agency in the drama, in which both can influence and be influenced,
resist and be resisted." He proposes that while God's activity is
decisive in the end, He is forced to work within the context created by
humanity. For example, while the
brothers set the stage of the story through their sinful behavior, God is able
to work with their actions in order to present a climactic scene of familial
propositions certainly inform a close reading of the Joseph narrative. The aim of this paper, however, is not
necessarily to fit the extent of God's agency into one of Fretheim's categories;
rather, it is to examine the narrative on its own terms in light of the meaning
of both divine and human activity. As a
result, this paper examines the place of the Joseph story within scripture as a
tool for understanding the extent of God's actions on earth. I will closely examine the text of the Joseph
story as both told in Genesis and re-told in Acts in order to trace how the
extent of God's agency is revealed through the contrast between the Divine and
In order to reveal
the difference between the power of divine and human wills the narrator creates
typecasts from Joseph and his brothers.
Specifically, the narrator portrays Joseph as an example of one
consistently faithful to God, while he depicts the brothers as a fallen and
sinful humanity. The narrator reinforces
these paradigms by showing God's role in Joseph's life versus that of his
brothers. In order to do so, the
narrator emphasizes Joseph's respect of God's judgment, the notion that God is
acting through Joseph, his attribution of God's action through himself, the
presence of God alongside Joseph in times of hardship, and Joseph's success
within each station he holds. Finally,
by tracing these elements within the text, one can see that Joseph is depicted
as possessing the wisdom to know God, while the brothers in ignorance fail to
recognize God's character.
In terms of
respecting God's judgment, in several instances Joseph speaks of standing
before God. For example, when Potiphar's
wife continually tempts Joseph to sleep with her, Joseph recognizes God's
judgment: "How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?"
(Gen. 39:9). Joseph does not merely
allude to a general conception of morality that he would be defying, but rather
to the specific hand of God under whose rule he is living. Additionally, when Joseph gives the initial
orders for his brothers to return with their youngest sibling, Benjamin, he
proclaims: "Do this and you shall live, for I am a God-fearing man" (Gen.
contrast, when jealousy overwhelms their hearts and leads to the conspiracy to
kill Joseph, the brothers ask not how God would judge them but rather how they
could benefit from the act. Specifically,
with his brothers, "What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his
blood?" (Gen. 37:26). Although deciding
to sell their own flesh and blood into slavery would not be considered an act
of mercy out of this context, certainly it is better than murder. Yet however minute this act of mercy, one
must note that Judah
argues his point not by the reasoning that they stand under God's judgment but
rather that their persons will not be benefited. In this way we see the brothers characterized
as self-serving, not in the least bit God- fearing.
later, after confronting Joseph to obtain some food and being instructed to
return with their youngest brother, Benjamin, do the brothers mention the name
of God. Their dismay at finding the
money returned in their sacks takes an ominous tone, "What is this that God has
done to us?" (Gen. 42:28). Yet despite
this mention of God's judgment, the brothers do not try to reconcile their
deeds with God, but rather through Joseph, and only when they become in dire
need of food. Whereas Joseph recognizes
his own humanity before God in every instance, the brothers recognize God only
through their guilt. While his belief in
God influences Joseph's motives and actions, divine meaning for the brothers
symbolizes only retroactive punishment.
can add further detail to the contrasting paradigms of Joseph and his brothers
by tracing their own attributions of specific actions. Throughout the entire narrative, Joseph's
constant acknowledgement of his own actions as reflections of the will of God
can be differentiated from the lack of divine attribution exhibited by his
brothers. For instance, Joseph ascribes
his ability to interpret dreams as the work of God. More specifically, when Joseph is imprisoned
with two of Pharaoh's servants, the cupbearer and the baker, he offers assistance
in interpreting their dreams. Yet
instead of taking credit for the ability to understand the dreams' hidden
messages, Joseph makes clear that the power is not human, but divine: "Surely
God can interpret! Tell me your dreams."
(Gen. 40:8) While he could easily take
the credit for his knowledge, Joseph instead views himself as a vehicle for
Pharaoh learns of Joseph's wisdom and enlists him to interpret his own dreams,
Joseph responds that while he will do what the Pharaoh asks, it is not he, but
rather God, who will look after the Pharaoh and reveal what he must do for his
people (Gen. 41:16, 25, 28).
Furthermore, when Joseph informs the ruler of his dreams' meaning,
Pharaoh is able to recognize the workings of the divine within Joseph as he
exclaims: "'Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of
God?' So Pharaoh said to Joseph, 'Since
God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you'"
(Gen. 41:38-39). Here Pharaoh sees that
it is the spirit of God that provides Joseph his visionary power, and this
spirit is to be given high regard.
While Joseph and
even the Pharaoh consistently recognize God's hand, the brothers notably make
no mention of God's will throughout the narrative. In fact, when Joseph informs them of his
dream, they scoff at the thought that he may rule over them (Gen. 37:8). Instead of respecting his visions, the
brothers mock Joseph as the "dreamer" and make plans to enact their vengeance
(Gen. 37:19). Even when the brothers do
make the acknowledgement that God may be disciplining them for their earlier
treatment of Joseph, the emphasis is on the punishment as the result of their actions rather than on any plan or
power of God. In other words, while Joseph
consistently accepts his suffering as the will of God, the brothers attribute
their suffering to their own actions.
addition to Joseph's belief that his own actions are those of God, the language
of the narrator reflects the notion of God's companionship. In particular, the narrator reveals God's
presence in Joseph's life throughout his hardships. For example, when Joseph is sold to Potiphar,
"The Lord was with Joseph" (Gen. 39:2), and again when Joseph is imprisoned,
"The Lord was with him" (Gen. 28:33). In
this way, the narrator shows that although Joseph is enduring adversity, God
has not forsaken him, but rather is absolutely by his side. One does not know yet what this means for
God's agency in the situation, but clearly God is present.
While God stands
by Joseph's side despite the hardships that befall him, the narrator excludes
similar language when describing the brothers.
For example, that narrator does not mention where God is when the famine
causes Joseph's family to go hungry. As
we have seen that the brothers do not seem to live under the judgment of God or
give God credit for the happenings within their lives, in tandem the brothers
do not feel the presence of God in their privation. They do not ask God for help; instead, father
Jacob sends the family to see Joseph.
Interestingly, as the bearer of nourishment, this is yet another way in
which Joseph seems to be positioned as a direct venue for God's action. While Joseph gives the brothers physical
nourishment, God additionally uses Joseph to impart spiritual nourishment.
between Joseph and his brothers can be found in their respective successes and
failures. This is significant
particularly because the narrator attributes Joseph's successes to God's
presence in his life. "The Lord was with
Joseph and he was a successful man" (Genesis 39:2). Joseph's trials begin when he is sold into
slavery, yet his master Potiphar makes him the head of his household. As God is with him while he serves Potiphar,
he earns respect and responsibility despite his position. Joseph's suffering continues as he is
unjustly thrown into jail. Nevertheless,
by way of God's presence, Joseph again earns responsibility and a place in
charge of prison affairs. Joseph's
achievements climax when he becomes "Lord of all Egypt"
and distributes rations to keep the nation from starvation (Gen. 45:9).
brother, Joseph's siblings seem to be plagued by failure. Not only do they exhaust their own supply and
become dependent upon Joseph for food, they cannot complete the tasks he asks
of them in order to obtain the food. For
example, first they do not bring their youngest brother Benjamin, and then they
are found stealing from Joseph. Whereas
Joseph's unjustified misfortunes ultimately end in success, even the crimes for
which the brothers are not specifically guilty end in punishment (i.e. running
out of food and being framed for stealing the chalice). The difference between the success of Joseph
and the failure of the brothers is God's presence. Whereas Joseph can trust God's plan to
prevail and give purpose to his hardships, the brothers remain reliant on
humanity and blind to God's work in their lives.
The theme of
Joseph's knowledge versus the ignorance of the brothers serves to tie all of
the aforementioned contrasting elements together. Thus the ultimate characteristic of the
typecast becomes the ability to see God versus blindness to his presence. Though the narrator threads this theme
throughout the entire narrative, he does not explicitly reveal the key to the
puzzle until the end. Although we see
the action of God in and through Joseph's character and the lack of divine
reference from the characters of the brothers, we are unsure of the meaning of
the God language. However, through the
final three scenes the narrator reveals the importance of God's agency to the
Joseph story. In these scenes Judah
makes a plea on behalf of the brothers to spare Benjamin's life, Joseph reveals
his true identity, and Jacob's death reveals the brothers' continued doubt in
antepenultimate scene, head brother Judah begs Joseph to have mercy on
Benjamin, who appears to have stolen a chalice.
He does not recognize Joseph as his own brother, but instead flatteringly
compares him to Pharaoh: "Please my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord,
and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh"
(Gen. 44:18). He recognizes his grievous
need and stands at the depths of humility before his estranged brother. Next Judah
recounts the story of Joseph's requests to see Benjamin and Jacob's reluctance
to part with his youngest son. This
reflective exchange situates the brothers between the demands of their earthly
father, Jacob, and their heavenly father, acting through Joseph (Gen.
44:19-29). Unfortunately, the demands
that they know how to follow, those of Jacob, leave them hungry. In order to be filled, the brothers must
learn to understand the true Lord, God.
In the close of
his speech, Judah
asks to stay in Benjamin's stead, showing the brothers' faithfulness and not
their jealousy to their father and half-brother: "Therefore, please let your
servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go
back with his brothers" (Gen. 44:33).
This change in the behavior of Judah
on behalf of the brothers causes the reader to wonder if the brothers have
truly experienced a change of heart.
Joseph's reaction serves to further illustrate this question.
In response to
this first scene, Joseph's compassion overwhelms his stoic appearance and
causes him to reveal his true identity.
Notably, as Joseph reveals his true nature, the narrator reveals God as
the true agent of affairs. All at once
Joseph is exposed not only as the living brother, but also as an agent of the
"Now do not be
distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save
life that God sent me ahead of you. It
is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still
five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your
survival on earth, and to save your lives in extraordinary deliverance. So it was not you who sent me here, but God;
and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord [over] or all his household, and
ruler over the whole land of Egypt."
Suddenly Joseph reveals to the
brothers knowledge of the hidden agency of God. Joseph makes clear that God is the actor:
"God sent me," "God has made me" (Gen. 45:7-8).
Rather than the brothers being responsible for Joseph's death, he makes
clear that God deserves the responsibility for the actions that now result in
familial unity, not death. Furthermore,
God has a purpose for each and every one of his actions, and He sends Joseph
for the purpose of his family's deliverance.
At last the characters' paradigms are broken, and the brothers are
afforded the knowledge that Joseph encompasses the entire time. Finally, they can see: "And now your eyes and
the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you"
At this point, the
narrative not only comes into perspective for the brothers but also for the
reader. The characters that previously
existed as models for believers and unbelievers quickly seem to take on the
roles of Christ and humanity. Joseph
moves from a general vehicle of God to the ultimate sacrifice that God makes
for the benefit of his sinful creation.
as humanity still doubts God despite the fact that he has been revealed and
sacrificed for their life, however, the ultimate scene exposes the brothers'
continual doubt. When their father,
Jacob, dies, they fear that Joseph's compassion is untrue and that he will
still enact revenge upon them for their previous deeds: "What if Joseph still
bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we
did to him?" (Gen. 50:15). In response,
Joseph weeps as his brothers use a false plea from their father to elicit his
forgiveness. Joseph sheds tears because
they still do not understand the workings of the heavenly father that he
represents. Joseph once again reiterates that it is not himself, but God, who
is the master of their fate: "Do not be afraid!
Am I in the place of God? Even
though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to
preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for
you and your little ones" (Gen. 50:19-21).
Despite the glimmer of hope that comes with
Joseph's remarks, and although the family weeps together in the end, the reader
does not know whether it ultimately comprehends. Perhaps to understand completely would be to
overcome their symbolism of humanity, and thus the narrator suspends the
brothers in a state of unrelenting doubt.
Looking beyond the scope of the narrative in
Joseph, God's agency within scripture can also be addressed. I have explored the narrator's use of human
versus divine will to reveal the extent of God's agency through the Joseph
story in Genesis, but a look at the New Testament reference to Joseph employs
an entirely different method of expressing God's work.
the narrator of Genesis uses the contrast between Joseph and his brothers to
show God's guiding hand throughout the story, he does not explicitly disclose
the uniting theme of God's agency until Joseph reveals himself in the final
chapters. Stephen's speech in Acts,
however, takes a much less subtle approach.
Instead of tempting the reader with clues so that God's plan is
understood little by little, the narrator of Acts pulls out the essential
elements of the Joseph narrative and makes them externally applicable:
"The patriarchs, jealous of Joseph,
sold him into Egypt; but God was with him, and rescued him from all his
afflictions, and enabled him to win favor and to show wisdom when he stood
before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who appointed him ruler over Egypt and over all
his household. Now there came a famine
throughout Egypt and Canaan,
and a great suffering, and our ancestors could find no food. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt,
he sent our ancestors there on their first visit. On the second visit Joseph made himself known
to his brothers, and Joseph's family became known to Pharaoh." (Acts 7:9-13)
Whereas in the Genesis account of
Joseph the reader can become distracted by the numerous and detailed actions of
the characters, Acts leaves little room for discrepancy. For instance, the Acts text provides two immediate
clarifications of the Genesis account.
The first is that God is much more clearly in control of Joseph's
actions. God is with Joseph, rescues him
from suffering, and enables him to achieve success. He is also the source of Joseph's
wisdom. While Joseph serves as a vehicle
for God in the Genesis account, the Acts text allows little confusion regarding
whether Joseph the man is in control or Joseph as a vehicle of God is
dominant. In this case, God's actions
are clearly paramount.
second clarification provided by the Acts passage is somewhat more
complicated. Although the brothers seem
to act according to their own will when they sin, it is God's agency that
allows them to repent. For example,
while God takes on all of the action verbs regarding Joseph, one must note that
the patriarchs are still the ones doing the selling of Joseph. One could take this to mean that the
brothers' selling, i.e. sinning, is truly an act of their own will, and that
God is not somehow behind the plan. The
synthesis of the brothers' actions into one verb specifically contrasts the
ambiguity of the Genesis text, presumably to extract the meaning. In the Acts
account, there is no discrepancy as to who is behind the selling of Joseph. If one stops here, it would seem that God's
agency is active through Joseph, but has a counterpart in the agency of the
whereas the Genesis text provides evidence for a change of heart within Judah
as he offers to sacrifice himself, there is no such opportunity in Acts. The brothers clearly make two trips to Egypt,
and yet the reader learns of no details regarding the first visit and only that
Joseph reveals himself on the second visit.
As the narrator has already established the agency of God in Joseph, the
reader can infer that it is God, not man, who is doing the revealing. Similarly, the omission of Judah's
contrite speech shows that it is God, not humanity, who has the agency in
repentance. God, through Joseph, does
not offer his deliverance because humanity repents but out of His own volition,
according to his own plan, in his own time.
this method of reading the New Testament account of Joseph in Acts over top of
the Old Testament account of Joseph in Genesis, the reader becomes exposed to
an entirely new dimension of the text.
The Acts account serves to clarify the Genesis narrative, while the
story in Genesis can fill in the missing details of Acts. A careful reading of Genesis exposes the
reader to the notion that God's plan comes into fruition in the end. God's agency through Joseph is clear. The
evil and the brothers' repentant deeds are not clarified in Genesis. One cannot fully discern the extent to which
the brothers' selling Joseph is their own action and similarly whether Joseph's
revealing himself is a reaction to Judah's
The Acts account
serves to clarify both of these issues, shedding more light on the extent of
Gods agency. While God enacts the verbs
describing Joseph, the single action of the brothers can be attributed to their
own agency. Additionally, the absence of
makes it impossible that Gods disclosure through Joseph was a result of human
Having examined both the Genesis and Acts
texts in comparison, one realizes that Fretheim's distinctions of God's agency
suddenly seem quite pertinent. One can
certainly understand how the narratives can be construed to disregard human
will entirely and read completely as a narrative directed only by God. Similarly, one can understand the drama of
human action superseded by divine pursuits.
Finally, Fretheim's primary claim, that God's ultimate agency exists
only within the context created by human action, comes into focus.
Fretheim's specific interpretation, using the agency of God to read both
Genesis and Acts reveals not only questions regarding the extent of God's
agency, but also questions regarding how one learns of this agency. In the Joseph story, God uses the visions of
Joseph to combat the blindness of the brothers.
Yet in the end of the narrative, the brothers still do not understand
the true nature of God. Thus scripture
makes a second attempt through the New Testament. This time God uses Stephen, who in turn uses
Joseph, to show humanity something of God's character. When read in terms of God's agency, the
Joseph passage not only provides for textual analysis but also speaks to the
state of humanity today. How many times
and in how many ways will scripture continue to reveal God's nature? And even more interestingly, to what extent
is God working in our lives, yet we are blind to his actions?
E. Fretheim, "The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections," The New Interpreter's Bible, vol. 1 (Nashville:
Abingdon), 1994, p. 646.
© 2006, Society for Scriptural Reasoning
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