Gen. 50:20 – Did God “plan” or did he “reckon”? 4

The Recognition of Joseph by his Brothers Peter Cornelius 1816-1817

The Recognition of Joseph by his Brothers
Peter Cornelius

Gen. 50:20 ואתם חשבתם עלי רעה אלהים חשבה לטבה

This passage is the climax of the Joseph cycle, as his brothers realize that it is their brother Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery, who is now lord in Egypt and holds their fate in his hands.

Gen. 50:18 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.

This passage is often used to show that while man can devise to harm another, God is actually using it to his glory and the benefit of his people. For example, in D. A. Carson’s very good How Long, O Lord which is “reflections on suffering and evil,” he cites the cross and Joseph as an example of cases where not only can something that is “morally evil” result in a good, it may even be “God’s intent.”

In the peculiar way in which God’s sovereignty operates (discussed in chap. 11), even morally evil things may not only have a good result but may be good in God’s intent even if evil in human intent.1 

I want to examine again Gen. 50:20. What is the text really saying? וְאַתֶּם חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַי רָעָה אֱלֹהִים חֲשָׁבָהּ לְטֹבָה  The NRSV renders it “ you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” The author uses the same verb *חשב for both the brothers and God and ordinarily I am a strong proponent of consistent rendering of a term in translation. That is to say, if the translator has decided that translate ἀδελφοί (literally “brothers”) with the more inclusive “brothers and sisters,” as the NRSV does, then that should be the consistent translation unless context dictates otherwise. ((This is one frustration with the NRSV. See Phil. 1 where in v. 11 ἀδελφοί is translated as “beloved” while in v. 14 it is “brothers and sisters” and, to add confusion to bad translational practice, Phil. 2:12 has ἀγαπητοί which is properly rendered as “beloved.” There is nothing in the context to require the changing translation of ἀδελφοί. How is a non-Greek reader to understand that in 1:11 is not the same as 2:12?)) The question that is in my mind is whether or not *חשב should be rendered with “intended” in both instances in this verse. Does the context suggest a different renderin for אֱלֹהִים חֲשָׁבָהּ?

The term *חשב in the Qal does indeed mean “intend, devise, plan”2 but it can also mean “to count, reckon,” as in “[Abram] believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness” (וְהֶאֱמִן בַּיהוָה וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה׃) Gen 15:6.

In the first instance in Gen. 50:20, Joseph is referring to the brothers’s intentions and is referring to a past action. It is clear that the brothers’s planned their actions to harm Joseph and that is what initially transpired. In the second instance, Joseph is referring to how God used or manipulated what the brothers had set in motion. In English “intend” means that one plans or designs something. To render the second instance as “God intended it for good” means that God planned the brothers’ actions.

This is certainly how most commentators and preachers understand the passage. It is intended to encourage those who suffer hardship, to tell us that we may be going through a difficult time, maybe even directly inflicted by others upon us, but God has allowed/planned for this to happen so that some other greater good could result. But I am not sure that this is what the Hebrew text is telling us.

Clearly there is a wonderful symmetry to Joseph’s words, both the brothers and God “חשב.” But the fact that there is a semantic range for *חשב should cause us consider that there may be more to the verse than might at first appear. There is an kind of inversion in the use of the verb with the two subjects: the brothers “intended” with foresight and planning, but God “reckoned” by responding to their actions and transforming them (after the fact) into something good and beneficial.

This use of *חשב is in keeping with what we find in Gen. 15:6. Abram believed what God had told him and then God responded to his belief and “reckoned it to him as righteousness.” There is no suggestion that God was ordaining Abram’s belief, but once Abram did believe in God’s promises, God granted Abram’s belief a moral value, qualified it as righteousness.

Of course in the case of Joseph’s brothers their actions were clearly intended to harm and Abram’s belief was an acceptance of God’s promises, but in both cases God is responding to something they did rather than planning the prior action of the other individuals. If this reading is correct then a rendering in English of Gen. 50:20a would look like this:

Even though you intended to do me harm, God reckoned as (for?) good….

Now the term “reckoned” sounds very “King James” to me, but it is what is used in most Bibles for Gen. 15:6 so it is appropriate here. I might be tempted to render it something more like “God determined to be a good.”

This question is not merely grammatical, as I have hinted at above. All commentators on this passage that I know of read this passage as an affirmation that God intends, as in plans and/or ordains, certain events in our lives that are painful, difficult, or hurtful to bring about a greater good. As Carson said, “even morally evil things may not only have a good result but may be good in God’s intent.” This is troublesome, to say the least, in that it means that God is actively causing harm; what Carson calls “morally evil things” may themselves come directly from God.

If, on the other hand, God is responding to the actions of Joseph’s brothers then God is not initiating the evil, rather God is sanctifying the evil actions they took in order to bring about something good. This is the tension that is at the heart of the biblical teaching on suffering.3 I am still working through how to articulate it, but I believe it is a very important distinction to make, between God’s ordaining evil actions and God’s sanctifying and transforming them into something holy and good. The latter, I believe, comes when we engage with God in our grief and response to suffering.

With these last two paragraphs we have moved into theological considerations which we can never ignored when dealing with the Bible. However, I had intended this post to focus upon the grammatical and lexical aspects of the verse and so I will close.

  1. Excerpt From: D. A. Carson. “How Long, O Lord?.” iBooks. []
  2. see BDB and HALOT for all lexiacl references []
  3. I should add that I Carson addresses it quite well in this book, in most cases, acknowledging that there is much “mystery” in the biblical accounts of suffering and evil and God’s relationship to them. []

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4 thoughts on “Gen. 50:20 – Did God “plan” or did he “reckon”?

  • Don

    Good thoughts, overall. One thing I’ll quibble with: I think–to move into the theological considerations, probably–that a potential danger in saying “God is responding to the actions of Joseph’s brothers” is that it may imply that God is waiting around to see what the brothers will do, and then react accordingly. God may not have planned the brothers’ evil actions, but he preemptively had a response prepared that would turn their evil intent into good. The good, of course, is not that Joseph is saved and gets a cushy government job, but that many people are saved from the greater (non-moral?) evil of the famine.

    • Christian Brady Post author

      Thank you Don. Your suggestion, of course, is a question of God’s omniscience and a particular kind of question at that: Does God know all possible scenarios of every circumstance occurring in human history?

      If I read you rightly, you are saying that God may not have wanted or intended for the brothers’ to do evil, but he had already planned out a response should that be the case. Why do we make that assumption? Because we assert that “God knows all things”? But how does God know them all and does he know even those things which don’t happen? There are various possible answers, but they are all devised by ourselves rather than revealed from God.

      For example, one plausible way of addressing the omnipotence issue is to argue that since God is outside of our linear time frame then he knows all events because, from his perspective, it has already happened. He knew the brothers would sell Joseph, not because he ordained it or because it was one of various possible actions they could have taken but because he allowed them to act and, seeing all of history at a glance, knew the result.

      Some will say that this removes God’s sovereignty but I do no think so. Genesis 1-3 makes it clear that God has granted to humanity authority and the ability to act of our own accord. He grants this out of his sovereignty, but in so doing he also is to some degree limiting himself. Not in any ontological sense; he remains God, but in that he allows us freedom to move and to act. The Bible also then makes it clear that at times he steps in to set matters back on a path towards himself and his original, creative intent.

      • Don

        Chris, I think your last two paragraphs are on point and very helpful. Maybe another way to say “from his perspective, it has already happened,” is that “it happens” or “it is happening” or “it has been happening” or some sort of Permanent Present Tense which I don’t think actually exists in English.

        Regarding the second paragraph, omniscience asserts that God does know all things. But I don’t worry about whether God knows “those things which don’t happen,” because they aren’t actually things. What is there to know about a non-thing? I am sure people have addressed that question, but it seems to me to be a logical inconsistency*.

        • Don

          * Or else I just tell this to myself to make me feel better about not understanding philosophers.