Why didn’t God stop them?

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By Bill Dauster
Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Vayechi, Genesis 47:28–50:26.


It’s one of the big questions: Why doesn’t God stop people from doing bad things — especially when those things hurt good people? This week’s Torah reading gives one answer.

This week’s reading concludes the Joseph story. Many modern readers find it one of the most accessible parts of the Bible. It’s like a finely-structured novella.

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It also strikes many modern readers as realistic. The story relies on no overt miracles. God doesn’t talk to Joseph. The account feels like real life.

Joseph does, however, see God directing fate. In this week’s reading, Joseph sums up a way of thinking about God. Joseph’s statement serves as a moral for the story.


Previously on the Joseph story: Joseph’s brothers hated him, conspired to kill him, grabbed him, stripped him, threw him into a pit, sold him into slavery and lied about it to their father, Jacob. In this week’s episode, Jacob dies and the brothers fear that a now-powerful Joseph will pay them back.

Instead, Joseph says: “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.”

Joseph’s statement is a key to the story. Joseph acknowledges that his brothers did intend harm. Bad people do mean things for evil reasons. Those people cause bad results, often for innocent people. Joseph feared for his life, was assaulted, was hauled to a foreign land in bonds and languished in prison — all because of his brothers’ actions. Joseph does not deny the darker side of human experience. God lets people choose to do bad things.

But Joseph sees God directing Joseph’s fate as part of a larger story. In this conception,
God takes people’s actions and redirects them toward better ends. We people don’t see the whole story. We see only a small part. God sees around the corner. In the words of Jon Levenson, God has a “mysterious providential design.”

As Nahum Sarna argued: “What may seem to be a chance succession of disparate incidents is in reality a process, so that what has happened and what is unfolding take on meaning when viewed from the perspective of God’s time.”

In Joseph’s conception, God’s plan is “for good.” Even though Joseph suffered, he had faith — and indeed lived to see — that God’s plan was for a good result.

In the Joseph story, God’s purpose was “to . . . keep alive a numerous people.” In this conception, the reward of God’s plan occurs here in this world. God’s plan has to do with keeping people alive and well in this life.

In this view, not everyone benefits from God’s direction of events. In the Joseph story, Egyptians and Israelites had to suffer through famine. But God’s plan ensured that great numbers lived better lives.

Joseph urges us to see God in history. Joseph’s words mean to reassure us that even if we don’t see it, God’s universe is designed to point toward a better life for many.

Thus, Joseph gives us one answer to why bad things happen to good people. It’s often the result of evil intentions of people exercising their free will. But this week’s reading also gives us hope that God will bend even evil acts toward good.

Questions for discussion

Does the Joseph story give us a satisfying answer to the question of why God doesn’t stop people from doing bad things?

Is there a better explanation?

If God did stop people from doing bad things, would people still have the free will to choose between right and wrong?

Bill Dauster teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn in Washington program and American University’s Washington College of Law.

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