“So Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for I belong to God. But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.’” (OSB)
There are a select few passages in Scripture which provide us with a view “from above,” where we see into the transcendent, providential horizon of the Biblical narrative itself. Genesis 50:19-20 is one such passage.
In Gen 50:19-20, Joseph is shown as a prophetic interpreter of past history: the events of the Biblical history, of Joseph’s own life—in which great evils were perpetrated—were under the providential guidance of God to bring about goodness, with the ultimate purpose of God to save and to reveal Himself to His people and all of humanity. In the context of the story of the Law itself, we realize that without the betrayal of Joseph there would be no descent into Egypt, thus no slavery, no Moses, no plagues, no Passover, no exodus, and on and on.
But in a broader view, we cannot help but see that Joseph’s story is a prophetic foreshadowing of Christ Himself, His betrayal and rejection by Israel, and His subsequent exaltation. St. Peter’s sermon at Pentecost interprets Christ’s story in the same way that Righteous Joseph does his own:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know--Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it. (Acts 2:22-24)
Christ’s Death was both “pre-ordained” by God and an utterly reprehensible and evil act of human free will. This of course takes us to the heart of deep theological questions related to divine sovereignty/providence and human free will—and we as Orthodox would affirm that there is a mysterious synergy between those two, such that human acts are both free (and thus to be judged impartially by God) and yet are all within the purview of God’s one plan of salvation that embraces all of cosmic and human history.
But even more pressing is the question of how we relate to the narrative of Scripture in our own lives as Orthodox Christians. Indeed, this is one of the main problems or tensions for us in the “modern world” as we approach and try to read Scripture: Scripture gives its own interpretation of the events within it, but our lives don’t, even as we are committed to the belief that the Church and our lives are the continuation of the Biblical story of salvation. We don’t have an “omniscient narrator” in our lives revealing how each piece fits within the whole, how each piece—both good and bad, suffering and blessing—is part of God’s larger plan for our salvation. We know the ultimate end of the Story we’re in, certainly, but living in the “in-between” requires us to exercise much faith, hope, and love!
St. Paul famously addresses this tension in Romans 8 when he says (in one version) that “[God] is co-operating with all things unto goodness for those who love God, who are the chosen according to [His] purpose” (Rom 8:28). This is not a pat answer to explain away suffering; it is an invitation to see the Cross as the meaning of our lives, the identity of the Church: our taking up of the Cross, our perseverance in our calling in hope (Rom 8:24-25), is itself the continuation of the history of salvation. And what a profound hope, that as we suffer and die in and with Christ, God the Father is manifesting and bringing salvation to the world!
~ By Reader Justin Gohl