What do you mean God speaks?

S3E17: Is God the 'Author' of our suffering? Yes... and No (Joseph Pt. 3)

August 10, 2023 Paul Seungoh Chung Season 3 Episode 17
What do you mean God speaks?
S3E17: Is God the 'Author' of our suffering? Yes... and No (Joseph Pt. 3)
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The series is back again, as it nears (steadily and slowly) the completion of Season 3! Thank you everyone for waiting!

This episode will explore,  as we conclude the life of Joseph, this perplexing question.  If everything that happens is what God speaks forth, could God not have spoken something else? Could God not have brought about different happenings, different things, different life, a different world? If our reality unfolds like a story, and God is like  the Author, is God also the author of our suffering?

Did Joseph have to go through the painful years of slavery, and wrongful imprisonment, just so that he could save the world around him and his family from the famine?  Why?

Note: the discussion of Creation in this episode draws significantly from the first half of Season Two.         

  3:05      Idea of God as the "Speaker" and Reality that could be         
 10:50      Asking if God could have "done better"         
 19:43      "Other people are living lives just as real as mine."         
 27:53      The story of Joseph's brothers         
 35:11      How what we do, what Nature does, become part of God speaking                     

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[ Pendulum ]

Human beings are creatures haunted by their knowledge of possibilities—we perceive not only what is, but what can be, and we relive not only what has been, but what could have been. It is what led humanity to engage all of reality as God that-speaks-forth-all- things, for it seemed to us that reality unfolds like an open story that is being spoken forth into our lives. Yet, as we explored in a season two episode regarding the Genesis account of the Fall, it is this openness of reality to possibilities that keeps us fearful of this ‘God’, for we’ve realized that what is being spoken forth can hurt us. Because we perceive what can be, we fear what will be; because we relive what could have been, we resent what actually has been. 

So, those of us who engage reality as God that-speaks-forth-the-story-of-our-lives find ourselves haunted with this question: could God not have spoken forth a different story for our lives, unfolded different things? In the Christian Gospels, this is a question that Jesus himself poses to God, the night before he was to be betrayed and crucified, when he cried out: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup—this suffering—be taken away from me.” But, just what is possible, and what is necessary? 

Take the life of Joseph in the book of Genesis. God spoke to him through the images in his dreams, that he would one day save his family, including his brothers who hated him. Yet, this would happen through betrayal and false accusation, through years of slavery, solitude, and suffering. Could Joseph not have saved his family without this suffering? Could God not have spoken forth a different life-story for Joseph? 

What is God doing, when God seems to be the author of our suffering? 

Yet, in asking this question, we tend to forget that we are not the only character in the story. What God speaks forth is composed of not only our lives, but the lives of others, and not only them, but of all things, from the stars in the sky, to the dust of the earth, each with its own story, its own nature and destiny/course. So, we’ll explore what this means in this episode of… 

[ music / ]

… "What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs, and everyone in between.

I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our 17th episode of the third season, “God as the ‘Author’ of our Stories, the Good and the Bad. The Life of Joseph Pt. 3”

[ / music ]

Everything we say of God is an analogy; we’re trying to characterize reality as a whole, at the most fundamental and comprehensive level, with words that are available to us. One such analogy, which is at the core of this series, is: “All of reality is God speaking.” (Note the tense: speaking, as in it is what is happening even now). Now, on the one hand, this analogy articulates the biblical tenet that God created the world by speaking it into being, and that all things continue to exist because God is even now sustaining this act of Creation. On the other hand though, this analogy is rooted in a general philosophical insight that reality is like a kind of speech. At its most fundamental level, principles and laws define and govern the entire universe, from how everything comes into being, to how they evolve, and continue to exist even now; yet principles and laws are more like speech or thoughts, than say, rocks or gases. Furthermore, all of history, of the universe, Life, humanity, and our lives can only be described narratively—that is, by stories. Of course, going from this insight, to an actual belief in ‘God’, relating to reality as a whole as ‘Who,’ as a ‘Person,’ requires something more: a personal encounter and a lifelong journey, and that is what is recounted in the Bible. Yet, there is another aspect to this insight that we have not yet considered. To characterize reality as like a kind of speech does not quite add up to our analogy that “all of reality” is “being spoken forth by God.” There is one more step: the idea of the Speaker of that speech. 

[ Short pendulum ]

Have you ever wondered why we distinguish a speaker from what they speak, or more specifically, a story from its author? Now, in an important sense, the story is the author; it is their imagination, their words, their thoughts. Likewise, what we say truthfully and whole-heartedly, are us. But, there are still two key reasons—I mean there may be others, but these two are the most significant—why we distinguish a story from its author, or the speaker from what is being spoken. The first is the most obvious: we exist “outside” of what we speak. Our bodies physically exist separately from the sounds we make when we utter words. For stories, authors exist in a world “outside” their fictional stories. This first reason, however, cannot apply to God, because “all of reality is God speaking,” and there is no outside to “all of reality.” What that means is that there is no world “outside” God speaking, in which God exists. [1] But, remember: there is a second reason why we distinguish authors from their stories, or speakers from what they speak. Author of a story can tell stories other than the one that was told, and speakers can say things other than what was spoken. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, but he could have written a different story instead, or chosen not write it, and he has in fact, written stories other than Hamlet, like King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and many others. And I may be speaking this podcast episode right now, but I could have spoken something different instead, and have in fact, spoken many other, different things in my life. 

Likewise, to say that God speaks forth our world, also means that a very different world could have been spoken forth instead. You could have lived a different life, experienced different things, met different people, or followed a different career. The history of our nations could have been different, so that, say, the U.S. never declared independence, and America remained a British colony. The very course of evolution could have been different, so that, say, dinosaurs evolved into sentient beings instead of us humans. The universe as a whole could have been different. In fact, some scientists even claim that there may actually be other versions of the universe “out there,” where not only different things happened or different things exist, but which are governed by different laws of physics altogether. This is the idea of the “multiverse.”[2] So, this is the other side to the Christian analogy that “all of reality is God speaking”; Reality is like a kind of speech, but there is a myriad of other possible “speech-like” realities that could have existed instead, and so, it is like reality is being spoken forth by a Speaker or an Author —‘God’ speaking forth this world, with this set of principles and laws, and authoring this history, yet this ‘God’ could have very well have spoken forth something different. 

We can glimpse just how different everything could have been in the Genesis creation account—something we explored in our second season. In that account, the Spirit of God broods upon the fathomless deep of water and darkness, until God speaks forth the Light, setting the cycle of light and darkness of the cosmos. God then speaks forth an expanse that separates the fathomless “waters” into “above” and “below”. Now, if we consider what things like “waters” or “light” or “darkness” meant to the ancient societies that first read the Bible, the account is presenting the following ( and you can check the detail in the second episode of season two). God conceives an infinite array of possibilities of what reality can become, symbolized by dark, fathomless waters, then “speaks forth” our reality. This reality is perceivable and comprehensible, symbolized by the Light that God first speaks forth; events in this reality follow sequences, or “time”, symbolized by the cycle of night and day; in this reality, one set of possibilities can be distinguished from another, symbolized by the “waters” separating into “above” and “below”. But, then the question is, how can any world, any reality, be different from that? Can there be a world that cannot be perceived or comprehended, or a world where events do not follow any sequence, or different sets of possibilities are indistinguishable from one another? And the answer is: We don’t know. That kind of reality is like the dark, fathomless deep in the opening of Genesis, which we cannot peer into; it is something we cannot even imagine. But, according to Genesis, that infinite deep is held by the Spirit of God, and God could very well have spoken forth an unimaginable reality.

My point in all this is that the notion that our world could have been different is closely linked with the analogy of God as the Author of our world. But, this in turn raises our next question: if so, could God not have authored something different for our lives?  

[ Pendulum ]

We’ve all had times when we wished, desperately, that our world, and our lives, could have been different than what it is now. Take the life-story of Joseph in Genesis. Could his life have been different? Could his life have unfolded without the animosity of his brothers and their betrayal, his slavery in Egypt, his wrongful imprisonment, and years of solitude? Sometimes, people turn such question upon themselves, especially if they are particularly responsible or thoughtful, because such people understand, all too well, that there were things they could have done back then, so that things could’ve unfolded a different way. So, they may go through a number of “if only I did this” scenarios in their heads. But, sometimes, these “if only” scenarios turn out to be impossible things; there really weren’t any other way it could’ve unfolded. During the years that Joseph lived as a slave, Joseph could’ve wondered if there were things he could’ve done to improve his relationship with his brothers so that they didn’t sell him into slavery. And perhaps, there were. If he had refrained from telling them his dreams about how they would bow to him, that could’ve kept their resentment against him just below the boiling point. But, for how long? Their resentment ran deep, and it likely would have broken out eventually in some form or another; Jacob’s favoritism toward him ensured that would happen. And during the years he languished in prison, Joseph could’ve wondered what he could’ve done differently when his master’ wife came on to him. But, there was not a lot he could’ve done; she was a noblewoman, and he was but a slave. What he did most likely was the best he could’ve done; to refuse her advances. But, of course, that landed him in jail. So, in effect, the moment his father’s favoritism toward him poisoned his relationship with his brothers, the larger contours, at least, of his life was set. The kinds of people around him, and kinds of people he met, would’ve fixed in place at least most of the misfortunes he encountered, even if not the exact misfortunes. 

But, what could God have done? Could God not have unfolded his life differently? Yet, it was because God spoke to him through his dreams, that his brothers hated him even more and sold him into slavery in Egypt, where he was falsely accused and imprisoned. But, years later, when Joseph saw his brothers in Egypt, trying to buy food to save their families—food that he had led Egypt to stockpile for the famine—he realized that there was a purpose for what God unfolded in his life. His years of suffering led to his fateful meeting with the Pharaoh, which in turn placed him in a position to lead Egypt with what God was speaking to him. And through that, Joseph was able to save the land from the famine, along with the lives of his brothers and their families. Later, he would say these words to his brothers. “It was to save lives that God sent me here. So, it was not you who sent me, but God. You intended to harm me, but God intended them for good.” 

But, could God not have unfolded these things without him suffering for all those years? Maybe an Egyptian official could have met Joseph in his home during some diplomatic journey, and conveyed to the Pharaoh about this young man who can interpret dreams from God. Or, maybe his brothers could have taken Joseph along on some trading trip to Egypt, and he could have met the Pharaoh—or his official—then. In fact, why even go that far? Remember that in our previous episode, Joseph told the Pharaoh why he had two different dreams which meant the same thing—the seven years of good harvest, followed by seven years of famine; it was because God had firmly fixed what was going to happen, and nothing would change it. Which is to say, it was God that spoke forth this famine! So, instead of unfolding for Joseph the years of slavery and imprisonment, so that he could save the world from a famine, God could have, you know, not brought about that famine in the first place! Considering all this, how could Joseph say that what happened to him was because “God intended them for good”? 

[ Short pendulum ]

However, what are we really asking God to have done instead in this case? It turns out that this question is much more difficult to clarify than it may seem. For example, when we ask God to not bring about a famine, what are we really asking for? Are we asking God to not bring about a famine during our lifetime? Then, are we asking God to bring it about some other time instead—maybe in our children’s lifetime? Or, are we asking God to speak forth a world where there is no famine at all? But, what would that world be, exactly? Are we asking God for a different planet, with different distance to the sun, or different atmospheric compositions, which would have resulted in different climate? Yet, the conditions that define our planet are so finely-tuned, that planets with different conditions will most likely end up incapable of sustaining human life. Or, are we asking that the very laws of physics that God speaks forth, which underlie how climate works are different from what they are? But, the laws of physics that govern this universe are so extremely fine-tuned, that nearly every universe with a different set would either not exist for more than a single moment, or would be incapable of forming stars, let alone complex matter, let alone Life, let alone us. In fact, this is one of the reasons why some scientists theorize that we live in a “multiverse,” and that our universe won a kind of cosmic lottery with its set of laws. Or, is it that we asking God to have spoken forth a completely different kind of reality, where none of these things apply. But, then, we can’t meaningfully compare that reality with ours, because nothing we know about the world would apply to it; it’d be like peering into that dark, fathomless deep in Genesis. 

I’m not arguing, by the way, that this world is somehow the best possible world we could have lived. We don’t know that. Now, we can argue that it is better for us to live in this world than most other worlds that can realistically exist. But, that’s not my point. I’m saying that some questions are really dead-ends; they don’t lead to any fruitful answer. These questions tend to be about imagining ourselves in God’s position, asking whether we could’ve done a better job. So, we ask, wouldn’t it have been better if Joseph had become a leader in Egypt without his brothers selling him into slavery, or even better yet, if there was no famine at all. But, what do we mean by “better”? Y’see, these questions assume that we already know what God is trying to do, by speaking forth the things that happened—that God is trying to make the safest and the most pain-free world we can live, a kind of cosmic nursery. So, God unfolded painful things in Joseph’s life so that he could save a multitude of other people from the famine and the suffering it would bring. But, we can then ask, wouldn’t it be even better if Joseph did not suffer either?

However, we don’t really know what God is doing, let alone why. At the very least, those who ask if God could’ve done “better”, do not seem to consider whether there could be something that is of greater priority to God—a greater purpose to what God is speaking forth—than us avoiding pain and suffering. And there does seem to be something that is of greater priority in how God speaks forth and unfolds what happens, if we survey the larger narrative of the Christian Bible as a whole. 

If I were put it into words, it’d be this: God is speaking forth our world, so that how each of us live out our story, becomes an intrinsic part of what God speaks. And by “us,” I don’t mean just us humans, but all of Creation. But, we’ll return to that point at the end. To explain what I mean, we need to turn to the life-story of not just Joseph, but his brothers as well.  

[ Pendulum ]

One of my early childhood memories is when I was about five—or maybe four. I was on a bus, coming back from a kindergarten trip, and I had just lost my handkerchief, which my mother specifically told me not to lose. Feeling like it was the end of the world, as a child of five can feel about such things, I looked outside the bus window, and saw a man running in the rain. He looked rather miserable, running in the rain and all that, so, I wondered what happened to him. Did he lose something, like I did? Then, a thought struck me, one so sobering that the memory of it remains with me to this day. Everyone, including this person—a complete stranger I never saw before and will likely never see again—are living out their lives, with hopes, dreams, and troubles of their own, which I will never know about, yet are just as real and pressing for them as mine are to me. It was a dizzying thought for a five year old, that countless lives, and their stories—every one of it just as real as mine—were unfolding at this very moment, just as mine was.  

And just as Joseph was living his life, through the years of slavery and imprisonment, his brothers were living theirs. In our previous episode, Joseph saw his brothers again when they were trying to buy food in Egypt to save their families from the famine. But, we’ve actually skipped a significant portion of the Genesis account on what happened. Just after Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, Genesis shifts the perspective away from Joseph to that of his brothers. 

After they sold their brother, they took the special, many-colored coat that their father, Jacob, had gifted to Joseph, dipped it in blood of a goat they slaughtered, then brought it back home. Many years ago, Jacob had deceived his father, Isaac, so that he would receive his blessing. And now, his sons deceived their father, as they showed him the torn, bloodied coat and asked, “Do you recognize this coat we found in the wilds? Did it belong to your son?” Jacob recognized it, and at that moment, his entire world fell to pieces. “It is Joseph’s!” He cried out. “He was mauled and devoured by wild animals!” Then, unable to bear his shock and grief, he tore his clothes, wailing and screaming, and for many, many days, he did nothing but weep. All his sons and daughters tried to comfort him, but Jacob refused, saying, “Leave me be, I will die of grief, and join my son.” It seems that his sons were really shaken—not to mention guilt-stricken—by how devastated their father was, as we will see later in the story. 

But, Genesis then recounts another story—something that happened around this time to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob, the one who convinced his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery rather than killing him. Scholars believe that this was a separate story that was being told among the tribe of Judah regarding their ancestor, but those who put together the book of Genesis placed this story squarely in the middle of the story of Joseph. And in doing so, I think they introduced an important detail to what God was unfolding in the larger world around Joseph, because in that story, two of Judah’s sons die. Now, the story does not tell us what led to their deaths, other than that God brought it about—which isn’t helpful, since everything that happens, at least in some way, is something that God brings about. We are told that these two men were evil before the LORD, but unlike say, the story of Cain earlier in Genesis, we are not told what really happened between them and God, because this is not their story; it is Judah’s (and as it turns out, his daughter-in-law Tamar’s, though unfortunately, we’ll have to leave the umm, lurid details of that for another time). The significance of their story to that of Joseph is that while he languished in prison, and his father, wasted away in grief, Judah, who sold him into slavery, experienced the death of his own sons.

Then, years passed. Wounds in their hearts stopped bleeding, but they never really healed. Judah was deeply affected by the death of his two sons. Jacob, his father, somehow continued living. But, now, he never let his youngest son, Benjamin, a fully grown man, out of his sight. He was terrified that he’d lose him like he lost Joseph—that he’d lose his only remaining son born to Rachel, the wife he loved the most. For more than twenty years, the sight of their frail father, clinging fearfully to Benjamin would’ve been a constant reminder for Jacob’s sons of what they had done.   

Then, the famine came, a famine worse than anything they experienced. Prices of grain rose and rose, and then one day, people simply stopped selling food altogether. As the brothers looked to one another, fearing what would happen when their store of grain finally ran out, their father spoke up. He had heard the news that somehow there was still food in Egypt. So, he told them to journey there to buy food—all of them were to go except Benjamin, who could never leave his father’s side. So, they left for Egypt, to a city near its borders, situated by the Nile Delta region. 

At first, things were hopeful. There were indeed food in Egypt, and though life seemed hard here during this famine, people’s faces weren’t filled with the kind of desperation they saw in their own land in Canaan. But, things quickly turned bad when they came before the Egyptian officials in charge of trading food to foreigners. It seemed that their case caught the eye of someone very high up—the lord of the entire region, appointed directly by the Pharaoh himself to oversee the Egyptian stockpile of grain. As armed guards surrounded them, and interpreters relayed the words of this man, they learned that they were under suspicion of spying. They frantically denied it, but he interrogated them, about their home, their occupations, and their clan and family. “You are lying,” the Egyptian lord said through the interpreter at the end. When they swore that they were telling the truth, he stopped them. “Then, prove it! I’ll let you buy your food this time, but next time, you must bring your youngest brother you claimed was with your father. Unless you bring him to me, you won’t be allowed back here, and just to be sure, I will keep one of you here as a prisoner until you return.”

Then, as one of their own—Simeon, the second oldest—was taken into custody, they looked at each other, and they knew everyone was thinking the same thing. They all had thought it, all these years. “It’s because of what we’ve done to Joseph, our brother.” “We all knew we will be punished for what we’ve done one day.” And that was this day. Fearful and dejected, they quickly returned home, and relayed what happened to their father. Jacob, whose heart was already fragile from the loss of Joseph so many years ago, trembled with fear when he heard the news. “Look what’s happened to me!” He cried. “First Joseph, and now Simeon too!” But, worse was to come. When they opened their sacks of grain they bought from Egypt, they found their bags of money at the top. It seemed that unbeknownst to them, someone had returned all the money they had paid the Egyptians for the grain. And after what had happened, being accused as spies by the Egyptians, and seeing one of them taken away to be imprisoned, they could not help but imagine the worst—that this was some trap to convict them. But, they also knew that if the famine continued, they had to return. So, they told his father, “Unless we take Benjamin with us next time, they won’t sell us food!” But, Jacob shook his head. “No, it’s too dangerous! I’ll never let Benjamin go with you!” 

[ Pendulum ]

Eventually, their supply of grain ran out, and they had to return to Egypt to buy more food. But, Jacob was too afraid to let Benjamin go, even when his other sons urged him. Then, Judah spoke to him. “Let the boy go with me, so that all of us can survive this famine— us, you, and our own children. I will personally keep Benjamin safe, and if anything happens to him, you can blame me; I’ll bear all the blame.” 

And it was these words of Judah, who also lost his sons, which reached Jacob. “Go,” he said. “And take these gifts with you for that Egyptian man: some honey, nuts, spices, and perfume. Hopefully, the money in your sacks was just a mistake. Give them back double the money.” Then, for the first time in this account since the death of his wife, Jacob calls on God again. “May El Shaddai—God Almighty—grant you mercy before that man so that he will let your captive brother, and Benjamin, can come back here!” Then, with a mix of courage and resignation, he said, “If I lose my children, so be it!”  

The brothers quickly returned to Egypt, and requested an audience with the Egyptian governor who had accused them of spying. After a while, the man appeared, and cast a long glance at their youngest brother who came with them. Then, turning to his steward, he spoke something in Egyptian, who in turn bowed, then beckoned them to follow him. Nervously they did so, and they noticed that they were leaving the trading center, and proceeding deeper into the government complex. Were they being taken prisoner, after all, because of the missing money? With their hearts pounding, they approached the steward walking ahead of them, and said, “We found our bags of money we paid you inside the grain we purchased. We don’t know how they got there, but here it is, double the amount!” The steward looked back, and replied. “You don’t need to be afraid. We received your money. It was your God, who gave you the treasure you found.” Then, they saw Simeon who was being led out to meet them.

Greatly relieved, they were given time to rest and wash, and then were led to a large banquet hall. They had been given the honor of dining with the Egyptian lord, who now sat at the high seat. The brothers approached the man with the gifts his father had sent, and all of them bowed low to the ground before him. He looked at them with a strange expression, as if seeing something far away, or perhaps reminiscing about something. Then he spoke up. “How is your father doing? Is he doing well?” They said yes. Then, he turned to Benjamin, and said, “So, this is your youngest brother.” His voice was surprisingly warm. “God be gracious to you, son!”

Then, they were led to their seats, where dishes after dishes of food were carried out and were placed before them. To their surprise, Benjamin was treated as an honored guest, given special treatment and portions of food by the servers. In high spirits, they feasted, and in the morning, they left for home with their donkeys laden with grain. 

But, after they had travelled for a short while, a contingent of Egyptian soldiers caught up to them, with the steward of the Egyptian lord, leading them. “One of you stole a silver cup that belongs to my lord—the one he uses to gain mystical knowledge!” They indignantly replied that they were innocent. “If any of us is found with that cup, you can put him to death, and the rest of us will become your slaves!” 

The steward replied, “The one with the cup will become a slave, and the rest of you can go free.” He then proceeded to search their belongings, and to their disbelief, he found the cup among Benjamin’s possessions. Shocked and dismayed, they all hurriedly back to the Egyptian lord’s mansion, along with Benjamin, and when they saw him, they fell to the floor to beg for mercy. But, he said, “Only the one who stole the cup will be my slave. The rest of you are free to go back to your father.”

But, Judah stepped up and said, “My lord, please let me speak.” The Egyptian lord gazed at him impassively, the stern face of a judge. Judah began telling him that long ago, their father had lost the son he loved the most and that Benjamin was his younger brother, the only child left of their mother. “My father loves him,” Judah said. “If he loses him too, it will crush him and he will die! So, I promised him—promised him—to keep him safe! ” The Egyptian’s steady gaze quivered, just the tiniest bit

The brothers were kneeling before him with their heads bowed, like men confessing  their sins, though they dared not say what really happened to their brother who was lost. Years ago, they had tried to kill him, because they hated how their father loved him the most. But, after twenty years, they were now desperate to save the life of his younger brother, because their father loved him the most—because only he could keep their father going. They had regretted what they had done ever since that day. Their secret had seared at their insides, and every time they saw their father, a mere husk of who he had been, they spat curses at their younger selves. 

Judah continued. He knew what it was like to lose his sons now; he could understand what his father must have felt—so, he pleaded, “My lord, I beg you! Take me as your slave instead, and let the young man go home to my father!” Judah, who once sold his brother to Egypt as a slave, was now begging an Egyptian to make him a slave, so that his younger brother can be free. Tearfully, he pleaded again. “Take me as your slave instead of him. Please, don’t let me go back to see my father die in misery!”

[ Genesis music x 2 ]

It happened suddenly. The impassive face of the man before them, crumpled before he turned away and shouted something in his language. The guards and the attendants jolted in surprise, then, quickly left the hall, leaving their lord and the brothers alone. The man slowly fell to his knees. Then, he let out a loud scream, a wailing, which poured out from him as if being burst forth from somewhere deep inside. It took a while for the brothers to realize that the man was crying—crying like their father had once cried when he thought that his son, Joseph died.

Then, after a long while, the man looked up with tears streaking down his face, then he said in Hebrew. “I am Joseph, your brother. Please tell me. Is our father really alive? Is he well?” The brother they had sold to Egypt as a slave, was now before them, as the lord over the land of Egypt. Ever since he saw them again, Joseph was afraid that his brothers would one day turn on his younger brother, as they did to him. But, now he knew, that they had changed. 

“Come nearer to me,” he said to them. “Don’t be distressed. And don’t be angry with yourselves any more for selling me here. It was God that brought me here. It was not you, but God who sent me, to save all of your lives.” 

Just as Joseph was wrestling with God alone in Egypt, and hearing God speak to him through what unfolded in his life, his brothers who sold him into slavery were wrestling with what they’ve done, and hearing God speak to them through what unfolded in their lives. And God was speaking to them, for every truth presented to us is God speaking. 

Through enduring the years of slavery and then prison, Joseph became a man who could lead Egypt safely through the famine, without using his authority for vengeance or selfish gains. That was his story, and he had to live it out, and God would not invalidate the life he walked. Likewise, his brothers had to live out their story. Their hatred of Joseph, their betrayal, and their subsequent regret and change of heart—that was their story, what they had to live out. God spoke to them, from time Joseph told them about his dreams, but it took them many more years until they listened, and through their sense of guilt, witnessing the grief of their father, and in Judah’s case, the death of his own sons, they turned toward where God had been beckoning to them. 

Everyone is living their life, and all of it become part of what God speaks; God would not override what Joseph’s brothers did, any more than God would override what Joseph did—any more than God overrides what we’ve done. Each of us live out our own lives, follow our own ways and dreams. We do so within the limit of the kind of beings we are, as finite, physical, thinking creatures, but that we can do so, and have done so, is part of our reality—what God is speaking forth. But, in the midst of this, God also speaks to us, whether we listen or not, every time we’re presented with the truth, or the “better” version of who we can become, as we explored in episode 10.10 of the first season. And how we respond becomes part of what God then speaks forth.

Human beings are creatures haunted by their knowledge of possibilities—of what can be, and what could have been. But, a large sum of those very possibilities that God sets forth, are composed of us, of what we do, and how we live. All of that is then woven into that larger history of the world that God is speaking. 

And it’s not just us. All of creation—each and every thing in our reality—have their own existence, their own course, granted to them by God. Sun and the stars have their own being, as do each atom and molecule, and each living organism. They may not have the sheer range of freedom granted to us (human mind and will), but what they are and what they do, within the parameters of the laws that govern this universe, is their own. For Christianity, all of that is God speaking, spoken forth long before humanity, like a promise made between God and Nature. That is why the universe is governed by laws—or to be precise, why the analogy of “laws” characterizes what structures our reality, rather than “whim” or “caprice.” The laws are covenant, a promise God speaks, which will not be broken, any more than the promise God has spoken to human beings like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Or in the words of the prophetic book, Jeremiah in the Bible, “This is what the LORD says: ‘If I have not made my covenant with day and night and established the laws of heaven and earth, then I will reject the promise I made with Jacob and David my servant.” And what Nature is promised the freedom to do within such laws, includes climate catastrophes and that becomes part of what God speaks.

Yet, even through these things—Nature following its own course, and each and every one of us living our own life, all within the boundaries that God speaks—through all of that, God still unfolds what was promised to people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and now Joseph. And so, the brothers did bow to Joseph, and Joseph did save their families. When God first spoke to Joseph in his dreams, what everyone was doing, by their own will—his father, his brothers, his captors, fellow prisoners, the Pharaoh, and even Nature itself!—were already part of what God was speaking forth to fulfill His promise. God was charting a path before Joseph, through them all, and because of the kind of people they were, and who Joseph needed to become, what awaited him was adversity and suffering. According to Christianity, that is the path of those who God empowers to save the world around them, a world where Cain kills his brother, where Lamech rules over the people with tyranny, where Judah sells Joseph into slavery, and the Egyptian noblewoman lies to put him in prison. That is the path of the Cross, the path that Jesus Christ would walk.

But, what God speaks to those willing to listen will chart a path toward a new direction —a new possibility, beyond where everything had so far been headed. And so, Joseph heard God speak, beckoning him toward a path which turned him from an heir of a family to the leader of a nation, a land headed for devastation, to a nation that would overcome it, and from brothers filled with resentment, to a family reconciled. We’ve asked whether God could have spoken forth a better world, but that better world will unfold only when we set out toward where God beckons us, and our journey will then become part of what God will speak forth to our next generation.   

And that is how those who wrestle with God will save the world. 

[ ending music ]

Thank you for listening, and waiting! Please join us next episode, as we wrap up the threads remaining in our exploration of Genesis, and finally completes Season Three. 

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[1] Which is why I sometimes simply say, “God is Reality,” so that we won’t mistakenly think that God is some entity in yet another realm “outside” ours, a different corner of reality…. All of reality—thus every realm—is God speaking, so God we can point to, is simply, reality as a whole. This still raises the question. In what sense then is God the “Speaker” then?

[2] Again, we should note that this idea remains pure speculation, at least so far, since there is no way of finding out if they exist at all.

Idea of God as the "Speaker" and Reality that could be
Asking if God could have "done better"
"Other people are living lives just as real as mine."
The story of Joseph's brothers
How what we do, what Nature does, become part of God speaking