Posts Tagged ‘Joseph’

Von Rad on God and Providence

January 18, 2010

To tell the truth, I don’t always get on well with Gerhard von Rad, the famous 20th-century German Old Testament Theologian. I suspect that he separates “Salvation-History” (Heilsgeschichte) from actual history in a very damaging way. But, like Luther, I’ll take a nugget of gold from anyone. I came across this the other day – talking about the story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50):

“Only at the very end, when God has resolved everything for good, does one learn that God has held the reins in his hand all along and has directed everything … But how? No miracle ever occurred. Rather, God’s leading has worked in secret, in the plans and thoughts of men’s hearts, who have savagely gone about their own business. Thus the field for divine providence is the human heart. One would ask in vain how God intervened here. The immanently causal connection of the events was as tight as possible; there was no gap, no hollow spot set aside for human intervention. God did his work in the decisions of men.”
Gerhard von Rad, God at Work in Israel (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1980), pp.143-144.

Often we think of God’s involvement in history as passive, except when he intervenes by a miracle. God intervenes by parting the Red Sea and sending fire upon Elijah’s altar, but not in the civil war under David, or in Solomon’s building the Temple. This is not the faith of Israel – instead, every event of history is superintended by divine providence. God is in control of everything, operating in the choices made by human beings just as much as he is operative in the miraculous.

What does this mean for us? The same God is still in control today. And so we can say that all of history – past, current and that yet to occur, is under his control and working to his desired end. Furthermore, we know that the end will be a good one – as Paul says in a well-known verse, “we know that God works all things together for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). And as Joseph was able to say in hindsight: “You [his brothers] intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).

Is this right? Can we really say that the brutal, seemingly senseless course of history is working out for good in the end? Even the horrors of the past century – the trenches, the gas chambers, the gulags and the killing fields? I suspect that the good that is to come is only fully revealed in hindsight. When this present age is over, when Christ returns to consummate history and usher in the new creation such things will make sense. On the personal level, our struggles and seeming lack of success, our apparent setbacks and experienced failures too are ordained by God for good – however invisible that good is to us now. This seems a poor justification of the events of history, doesn’t it? A giant, cosmic “what did Asquith say?” Yet this is the one that the story of Joseph offers us, and one that is thoroughly biblical from Pharoah to Paul, from Cyrus to Christ. And it is one that can give hope.

Oh for the faith properly to believe this!