Thursday, October 06, 2011

Joseph, the Problem of Evil, and a Book Review

"Come closer to me," Joseph said to his brothers. They came closer. "I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt. But don't feel badly, don't blame yourselves for selling me. God was behind it. God sent me here ahead of you to save lives. There has been a famine in the land now for two years; the famine will continue for five more years—neither plowing nor harvesting. God sent me on ahead to pave the way and make sure there was a remnant in the land, to save your lives in an amazing act of deliverance. So you see, it wasn't you who sent me here but God.
~Genesis 45:4-8, The Message

This past summer, while I was in the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, I read Joseph's story in Genesis from my new copy of The Message.  It's one of my very favorite Bible stories.

I admit to some unsettling thoughts, though, as I read the passage above.  I was expecting the famous "What you meant for evil, God intended for good" line; it actually comes later, after Jacob dies and the brothers worry that with their father gone, Joseph will now take his revenge.  Instead, Joseph is all excited about how God is saving a remnant from the terrible famine that has only just begun...and all I could think was, if I were Joseph, wouldn't I be wondering why God didn't just send rain?

Of course, from my vantage point, I can see the bigger picture of how God used the famine to get the whole nation of Israel relocated to Egypt, so that they could eventually become enslaved and then rescued from bondage.  It's the most significant incident in Jewish history and identity, and the informing metaphor of salvation.

I can see that, but Joseph?

From the typical American perspective, it's hard not to imagine Joseph's suffering during those lost years, imprisoned, enslaved, ripped away from his family and home before he was even old enough to join his brothers in the fields.  All that time gone, all those potential childhood memories, opportunities, education erased from his youth.  Sure, he ended up in a position of power and what he had lost was restored, but at what personal cost?  He could never have those years back.

Couldn't God just have sent some rain?

These are the kinds of questions my kids ask me all the time.  Couldn't God just (fill in the blank)?  Our perspective is so small.

Around the same time, I read Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, by N.D. Wilson.  It's a kaleidoscopic look at the world, at God, at good and evil and faith and suffering--and it's extremely well-written and exceedingly funny. I haven't enjoyed a non-fiction book so much in ages, although half the time I was only guessing at what he was saying.  It's helpful if you've had at least an introduction to philosophy, and like all philosophy, it's helpful if you read it fast, and then go back for the finer points.

As he says in the preface:  "This book does not go straight.  It is not a road in Wyoming.  ...It attempts to find unity in cacophony.  The barrage of elements (philosophy, poetry, theology, narrative, ad nauseum) may at times feel random.  ...It is intended to be symphonic:  dissimilar voices and instruments moving from dissonance to harmony.  ...Like the earth and the Tilt-A-Whirl, you will end at a beginning."

And it refreshed my faith that in the midst of suffering, we don't have to understand why or obsess about the personal cost to ourselves.  In fact, we take ourselves way too seriously.  Like hobbits, he says, we are in the midst of an epic story, and we can trust the Author of the story.  Just like Joseph.

N.D Wilson wraps up a section exploring different views of God and death:

Three postcards await our perusal, yea, three visions of the world.

One:  I see a theme park where there are lots of rides, but there is nobody who can control them and nobody who knows how the rides end.  Grief counseling, however, is included in the price of admission.

Two:  I see an accident.  An explosion of some kind inhabited by happenstantial life forms.  A milk spill gone bacterial, only with more flame.  It has no meaning or purpose or master.  It simply is.

Three:  I see a stage, a world where every scene is crafted.  Where men act out their lives within a tapestry, where meaning and beauty exist, where right and wrong are more than imagined constructs.  There is evil.  There is darkness.  There is the Winter of tragedy, every life ending, churned back in the soil.  But the tragedy leads to Spring.  The story does not end in frozen death.  The fields are sown in grief.  The harvest will be reaped in joy.  I see a Master's painting.  I listen to a Master's prose.  

On our role in the story:

Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?

...Who sinned, this little bit of black oil paint or its parent elements, that it would be used by Rembrandt to do the dark scary bits beneath the windmill?

If you are a glop of blue paint, blessed to be sitting in the sky overlooking Van Gogh's sunflowers, are you there by any effort or righteousness of your own?  Why are you not more grateful?

...The problem of evil is a genuine problem, an enemy with sharp pointy teeth.  But it is not a logical problem.  It is an emotional one, an argument from Hamlet's heartache and from ours.  It appeals to our pride and our nerve endings.  We do not want to hear an answer that puts us so low.  But the answer is this:  we are very small.

And a lot of the rest of the book is about how small we really are, and how grateful we can be for that, and how much we can trust the Creator of  it all, the Author of the story.  The book is also full of wonder and appreciation for the amazing and miraculous world we live in, the story that is played out all around us in creation and in our everyday lives.  It echoed Ann Voskamp's One Thousand Gifts in its emphasis on seeing, sensing and appreciating the world around us.  Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl is zanier and funnier, but heart-stopping in a similar way in its breathtaking descriptions of beauty in the world.

So, back to Joseph. I think Joseph trusted God completely with the big picture. Sure, God could have sent rain. He could have thought of some other way to get the nation of Israel down to Egypt. But the Author of the story wrote this role for Joseph...and Joe didn't balk at playing his part, even if he was a victim.

Do we really want to skip straight to the last chapter?   Or do we want the whole novel, tension, struggle, conflict and all?

God didn't leave him there.


Margaret said...

Nice, Jeanne. I like the idea that the problem of evil is an emotional problem because I think when God answers us it's with an emotional answer: "Never will I leave you never will I forsake you." My Pearla's favorite story is of Joseph the younger getting the nice coat, maybe because he needed it. She calls it "The Pit Story." It has refreshed my vision of it to see it through her eyes. MB

At A Hen's Pace said...

Margaret, nice to hear from you! "The Pit Story"--that's so appropriate. You'd really like the book I recommended, I think!