Commentary on Genesis 50:19-21

“Have no fear, for am I in place of God? Though you intended me harm, God intended it for good, in order to accomplish what is now the case, to keep alive a numerous people. Now, therefore, have no fear – I will provide for you and your little ones.” This is what Joseph, near the end of Genesis, tells his miscreant brothers who are afraid he will take revenge on them for selling him into slavery.

Joseph mentions God twice. First to indicate that he is not a stand in for God. And then to tell his brothers that everything that happened was part of a good plan by God. How he knows this the bible does not specify. Joseph’s declaration assumes God has a plan. How can we be sure that He does have one? Or if He does have a plan that can we decipher it?

In the pentateuch God often seems close to the image of the old man in flowing robes and hair who seems very much like us, only more knowing and powerful. We are constructed in his image. He had a face though He won’t let anyone see it. On rare occasions, He will talk directly to one of a favored few. Other times he sends a messenger – an angel. Two have names – Michael and Gabriel. Maimonides listed 10 ranks of angels. God also made promises to people. Whether they have been kept is debatable. My subject is how should a modern person see God today?

To begin with, I must be very hesitant taking on this task as, of necessity, my resources are so unequal to the task. But this attempt must be made. To start with, while we may be made in God’s ‘image’, He is not made in ours. While, I say “He” when referring to God it’s only because of the limitations of the English language. Gender cannot be applied to God.

What qualities must we assume of a God  worshiped without qualification? I think there must be at least four. He must be morally perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, and exist outside of time. This final characteristic is typically forgotten by mediocre minds who dismiss the argument of first cause. This is the argument that states everything has a cause and thus something had to start the world. Some commentators on the first cause argument, George Bernard Shaw is just one of many, smugly counter that if everything has a cause then God must have had a creator who in turn had a creator ad infinitum. They thus dismiss the first cause argument out of hand. Modern physics posits that even time had a beginning. Time is a concept that does not apply to God and thus a first cause argument likewise does not apply to Him.

The remaining three characteristics present a problem that’s hard for the human intellect to resolve. Why does a morally perfect God who is all knowing and all powerful allow terrible things to happen? The question is not unexpected, but is of course unanswerable – at least by us. How can humans who know so little about themselves or their surroundings fathom the actions that result from an omniscient intelligence? It’s not an accident that there are a lot of question marks in this piece. God’s reasons, a concept probably not even appropriate when talking about Him, are forever closed to us.

Consider the most basic problems of existence: How did the universe start? How did life start? How did human consciousness start? And finally, why does the passing of each decade make it more likely that we are alone in a universe so vast that the mind cannot comprehend it. We know a lot about a handful of subjects, alas human behavior is not among them, but our knowledge is less than infinitesimal compared to what could be learned and admits no comparison to what an omniscient God knows.

Modern science’s best explanation for the first of the above questions is that the universe suddenly appeared out of nothing and then expanded to an enormous size in less than a second. Much evidence supports this view, but if you don’t find it at least as miraculous as the Genesis story, you are not a critical thinker. The other two questions require answers just as miraculous as the Biog Bang.

Obviously, it was unnecessary for Joseph to say he was not in place of God, except perhaps as a reminder to physicians. Coming off the bench in place of God is a position no one can assume. When God told Moses that he could not see his face; He (God) didn’t mean that He had a face like ours, but rather that even the greatest leader could not comprehend his essence. So should we just give up and be corks in a moral Gulf Stream? I think not. God has given us free will, pay no attention to neuroscientists who think otherwise while being unable to even define what the human mind is. We can tell right from wrong and good from evil. We know that Joseph’s forgiveness was right and good.

Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.
Sir Arthur Eddington

Sir, we know our will is free, and there’s an end on it.
Samuel Johnson