Number 1.1       
October 2006      


The Agency of God: A Reading of Joseph

by Amanda Huffman

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.

Old Testament 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.

Fretheim notably 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."[1] 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 unity.

Fretheim's three 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 humanity.

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. 43:29).

In 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, Judah reasons 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.

Only 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.

We 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 God's will.

Similarly, when 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.

Furthermore, in 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.

Another contrast 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).

Unlike their 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 Joseph's forgiveness.

In the 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 living God.

"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." (Gen. 45:5-8)

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" (Gen. 45:13).

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.

Just 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.

While 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.

The 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 brothers.

However, 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.

Through 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 plea.

The Acts account serves to clarify both of these issues, shedding more light on the extent of God’s 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 Judah’s speech makes it impossible that God’s disclosure through Joseph was a result of human repentance.

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.

Regardless of 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?


[1] Terrence 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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