Does Genesis 50:20 Support Divine Determinism?

Calvinists believe that everything that happens happens because God causally determined it to happen. Not a single drop of water falls from a leaf of a tree apart from God's eternal decree. Every thought, word, and deed of every human being, every thunder storm, every motion of subatomic particles is caused by God. This is known as universal divine determinism. Universal divine determinists will sometimes appeal to Genesis 50:20 in order to support their view. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph, talking to his brothers says "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."  

For those readers not familiar with the Biblical story of Joseph, let me summarize the context of Joseph's statement. Genesis chapters 37-50 tell the story of Jacob's son Joseph. Joseph was Jacob's favorite son. This was very evident in how Jacob treated Joseph compared to his other children. For this reason, Joseph's brothers were very jealous of him. One day, they decided to kill him, but they instead decided to sell him into slavery. Joseph went into slavery, but the Lord was with Joseph and He helped him do everything right.  So Potiphar made him his helper, and put him in charge of everything that he owned. When Potiphar's wife tried to seduce him, Joseph turned her down for the reason that he did not want to disgrace either his master Potiphar or God. Out of spite, Potiphar's wife falsely accused Joseph of trying to rape her, and she had him thrown into prison. While in prison, Joseph met two men. One was a cup bearer, and the other a baker to Pharaoh. One night, both of them had a dream. They told their dreams to Joseph and he told them that he could interpret the dreams for them (this was an ability Joseph had that God had granted him). Joseph told the cupbearer that he would soon be let out of jail.  "Please tell Pharaoh about me, and ask him to get me out of here."  Joseph said. One day, the Pharoah had two dreams that he couldn't understand. The cup bearer told Pharoah about Joseph, and Pharoah commanded Joseph to be brought before him so he could interpret Joseph's dreams. Joseph told Pharaoh that the two dreams meant that for the next 7 years, they would have an abundance of harvest, but 7 years of famine would follow after that. Pharoah put Joseph in charge of storing up food during the 7 years of abundance so they would have food during the 7 years of famine. Once the famine came, Joseph's brothers came to Egypt to buy grain. They didn't recognize Joseph at first, but eventually Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. By this time, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon and the others were remorseful over how they treated Joseph. But Joseph told them "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." (Genesis 50:20)

The Calvinist's argument is that since the same word is used with regards to the actions of Joseph and God, that therefore God must have determined Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, etc. to sell Joseph into slavery. They had the exact same intentions. Joseph's brothers meant for it to happen, and God meant for it to happen. But is this really what the text is saying? I submit to you that the Calvinist is eisegeting the text when he appeals to the story of Joseph to support determinism.

Meticulous Providence? Yes. Determinism? No.

I think this scripture definitely shows that God providentially orders human events. God was behind the whole orchestration of events. From the brothers selling Joseph into slavery, to Potiphar’s wife falsely accusing him resulting in Joseph being thrown into prison, to the cup bearer and baker having dreams, to Pharoah having his dream, and the entire string of events from beginning to end. All of these were under God’s meticulous control and sovereignty. However, why does that necessarily entail determinism? Couldn’t God meticulously orchestrate events without being a grand puppet master?

I submit to you that He can. As a Molinist, I believe that God had 3 logical moments of knowledge; natural, middle, and free. In His middle knowledge, God knows what any creature WOULD freely choose under any given circumstance. God can act on this knowledge of what people would choose in circumstances to get them to choose certain things without overriding their freedom. If God chooses to act on this knowledge and create a person in such a circumstance, thus bringing about that particular action, then God knows what a person will choose (i.e a proposition in God’s free knowledge).

God knew that IF he created Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, and so on in the time in place that he in fact did create them, and if He created Joseph in that time and place, then Jacob would shower Joseph with more attention than his brothers. God knew that if Jacob showered Joseph with more attention than his other children, then they would come to resent them. God knew that if they came to resent Joseph, then they would sell him into slavery in order to get rid of them. God knew that if they sold him into slavery, then Joseph would become the housekeeper of Pontiphar. God knew that if Joseph became Pontiphar’s housekeeper, then Pontiphar’s wife would freely choose to seduce David, that David would freely choose to resist the temptation, then Pontiphar’s wife would freely choose to falsely accuse him of trying to rape her, and then the Egyptians would freely choose to throw Joseph in prison. God knew that if Joseph were thrown in prison, that he would freely choose to interpret the cup bearer’s and baker’s dreams. He knew that if Joseph interpreted their dreams, that word would get back to Pharoah and Pharaoh would demand that he interpret his dreams as well. All of these propositions were contained in God’s middle knowledge prior to God even creating the world. All God would need to do to providentially bring about these circumstances would be to just create these people at the certain times and places that He did in fact create them, and just watch the events unfold.

On the Molinist model, God meticulously controlled the circumstances, but nevertheless everyone retained their libertarian free will throughout the entire process. The story of Joseph is just as compatible with a Molinist’s model of divine providence as it is with the Calvinist model of divine providence. Of course, this begs the question as to whether or not the Molinist model of divine providence is even true. I haven’t attempted to defend Molinism in this particular blog post, but I give my reasons why I think it’s true in blog posts such as “Is Molinism Biblical?” and “Molinism and Divine Foreordination”.

If you want an entire book on the subject, I’d suggest picking up “Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach” by Kenneth Keathley.

Did God Intend For Joseph’s Brothers To Sell Him Into Slavery?

In one sense, yes. In another sense, no. God does not want anyone to do evil or commit sin. What they did to Joseph was sinful. Nevertheless, God wanted Jacob and his children (as well as many other people) to survive the coming famine. So God allowed something he took displeasure in (Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery) in order to bring about something He did take pleasure in (i.e “the saving of many lives." – Genesis 50:20). So in one sense, God did NOT want Joseph to be sold into slavery because He is a holy God who hates sin and evil. On the other hand, He wanted Joseph to be able to interpret Pharoah’s dreams so that the Pharoah would know to store up food during the 7 years of abundance. God created Joseph and his brothers in the time and place they were so that this string of events would come about, all the while preserving their free will.

One member of The Society of Evangelical Arminians offers the following: “Normally, when one person does an action and means something for it and another person who does not do the action also means something for the action, there is no suggestion that the person who did not do the action somehow really did do it or irresistibly caused the other person to do it. If my son chooses to sign up for baseball, and means to have fun by it, and I mean for him to learn discipline by it, it does not mean that I made him sign up or that I irresistibly caused him to sign up or somehow irresistibly caused him to desire to sign up. He means it in the way appropriate for the person actually doing the action, and I mean it in a way appropriate to someone who has authority over the situation and power to stop the action. I’m simply taking what he desires and using it in a way that good may come of it. Here is another analogy: My son meant to go to college to party, but I meant for him to go to college to get an education. Does the parallel nature of the statement have us both intending the same thing? Obviously not! Another point that is lost among Calvinists is that God didn’t need for any of this to happen, since God could have easily brought Joseph into power in Egypt a different way, and going to Egypt at all was no necessity upon God, that is, a God who controls the seas, the rains or what have you. There is no necessity at all. Rather, God is simply using the situation to His advantage, in order that His will would be achieved regardless. In other words, what God ultimately did was act in a way that was partially contingent on the free will actions of various human agents involved. In summary, it is perfectly natural–and indeed, the normal meaning–for the performer of an action to intend an action in one way, as the originator of the action, and one who has power, to intend it in a different way, that does not involve any instigation or causing of that action. Normally, when one person does an action, and means something for it, and another person who does not do the action, also means something different for the action, there is no suggestion that the person who did not do the action, somehow really did do it, or irresistibly caused and instigated the other person to do it. He takes account of what the actor wants to do, and then responds and reacts to that, and decides to allow it and permit it for another intention. Perhaps he might direct certain aspects of the events to bring about the result that he intends. But he doesn’t instigate the evil." (this quote is an excerpt from the article “Genesis 50:20 In Light Of Calvinism” from the Society Of Evangelical Arminians Website).


The Joseph story isn’t a good biblical argument for determinism. It can fit just as well with a Molinist view of providence, and possibly, maybe, with an Arminian view of providence. The Calvinist is eisegeting the scriptures when he appeals to the story of Joseph to support his belief that God causally determines all things.

A Lesson To Learn from Genesis 37-50

What the Joseph story does show is that God can work through evil and suffering in order to bring about a greater good. Given that many people deny the existence of God on the basis of evil and suffering in the world, the story of Joseph is a good biblical example of how even though God permits people to do evil actions, causing suffering to others, the reason He doesn’t intervene to stop them is because He has a better plan in mind. What people mean for evil, God means for good.

If God hadn’t let Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, Joseph would never have been able to interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams, and that would mean that Pharoah would not have known to save up food during the 7 years of abundance so that they would have food to eat during the 7 years of famine, and that would mean that thousands of people would have died of starvation. In hindsight, we can see why God allowed these things to happen, but if we were witnessing Joseph’s trials in real time, we probably wouldn’t be able to come up with any good reasons why God would allow those things to happen to him. We can imagine from the perspective of present observers that God had no good reason for allowing those men to sell Joseph into slavery, or to allow Potiphar’s wife to get away with falsely accusing him of rape, thus having him thrown into prison. A real time observer might complain that God could have immobilized Jacob’s sons so that Joseph could get away, or that He could’ve caused Potiphar’s wife to be unable to talk, so that she wouldn’t be able to lie about Joseph. A real time observer might conclude that because he cannot come up with good reasons why God would allow these things, that therefore God doesn’t have good reasons, and therefore probably does not exist. But we see from the scriptures that if God had intervened in those ways, Pharaoh would not have never known to store up food during the 7 years of abundance. And if Pharaoh hadn’t stored up food during the 7 years of abundance, many people would have died of starvation including the people whose familial line the messiah would come into the world!

God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting suffering. We may not always know what they are, but He has them. The story of Joseph reminds of this.

By the way, God could have stopped Jesus’ suffering as well. But Jesus knew God was allowing these evil men to crucify him for a greater good. Jesus knew God The Father could intervene, but then how would humanity be saved of their sins? As He said to His disciples “Don't you realize that I could ask my Father for thousands of angels to protect us, and he would send them instantly? But if I did, how would the Scriptures be fulfilled that describe what must happen now?"  (Matthew 26:53-54, NLT). In other words, Jesus was saying that God could intervene to stop Him from suffering, but the greater good that He had planned to come about would not come about if He did.