Friday, February 24, 2017

Why did Joseph's brothers sell Joseph into slavery?

In Genesis 37 Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, was sold by his brothers to some traveling merchants. He eventually ended up in Egypt. After having some really hard times, he became a high official in Egypt. Through his administration, he was able to impose a tax on the Egyptians that eventually saved a lot of lives when a seven-year famine later struck the land. Joseph's brothers went to Egypt to buy food and they discovered that their brother Joseph was now chief of staff to the Pharaoh. They were seized with fear.
Genesis 45:4-5 (NRSV)
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 
Genesis 50:18-20
18 Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 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.
These passages seem to clearly teach that God orchestrated the sin of Joseph's brothers in order to bring about a greater good. The plain sense of a passage is not always the correct sense. Consider evangelist Stephen's explanation in his swan-song sermon in Acts.
Acts 7:9-10
9 “The patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him, 10 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.
According to Stephen, God's action began after the sin of Joseph's brothers. God worked through various people to bring Joseph into a better situation in which the work of God would be evident. He granted that Joseph would have favor in the eyes of his master Potiphar (Genesis 39:4, which did not work out all that well), his jailer (Genesis 39:21) and Pharaoh (Genesis 41:44, Acts 7:10).

Thus, God did indeed mean it for good but only after the fact of the brothers' sin. God did not need the sin of these brothers to accomplish his plan. God took a negative intention and worked out a positive result.

This interpretation was understood by Stephen in Acts. It is also the usual understanding given by scholarly Bible interpreters.

New Interpreter's One Volume Commentary (Abingdon Press):
Joseph has the benefit of hindsight. He sees that God has made good come out of his suffering, preserving the life of his family and many other "families of the earth."

New King James Version Study Bible, 2nd Edition (Thomas Nelson):
God transformed the evil of a group of men into an exceedingly great work. Joseph not only saved the lives of numerous people in the ancient world, he also testified to the power of goodness of the living God. God works His plan even through the evil plans of evil people.
New International Version Study Bible (Zondervan):
Their act, out of personal animosity toward a brother, had been used by God to save life―the life of the Israelites, the Egyptians and all the nations that came to Egypt to buy food in the face of a famine that threatened the known world. At the same time, God showed by these events that his purpose for the nations is life and that this purpose would be effected through the descendants of Abraham.

The following astute observation comes from a Facebook thread. The writer is Rohan Holt. He noticed that the action of the brothers may have actually delayed God's work and did not help it along.
In one of Joseph's dreams he saw the sun, moon, and the stars bow down before him. This was interpreted as his father (the sun), his mother (the moon), and his brothers (the stars). However, because of his brother's evil the fulfillment of the prophecy was so delayed that Joseph's mother had died, so the "moon" never did actually bow down before Joseph when the rest did.
The above understanding requires that Genesis 35:19 (by the Elohist) predates Genesis 37:10 (by the Yahwist). Or, more likely, in order for there to be eleven brothers, symbolized by eleven stars (Genesis 37:9), the Yahwist did not incorporate or know about a tradition of Rachel's death at the occasion of Benjamin's birth. Long-story-short, Rohan Holt's analysis takes a little bit of textual criticism to demonstrate its validity.

We should feel comfortable to conclude that God did not determine for Joseph's brothers to sell Joseph to traveling merchants. God meant it for good only after the brothers committed the dastardly deed.

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