As good stories usually end to keep you wanting for more, Genesis ends with a cliffhanger. Joseph prophesies, “‘I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob'” (Genesis 50:24). We are left wondering, “What does this mean?” To understand what he means, we first need to backtrack all the way to God’s covenant with Abraham, “Then the LORD said to Abram, ‘Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years'” (15:13). Abraham probably didn’t know what God meant, and indeed, he didn’t live to see what God had meant.
God’s warning is, of course, about the slavery Israel would suffer in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen. The Book of Exodus will begin telling us as much. At the end of Genesis, Abraham’s offspring do end up being sojourners in a land that is not theirs—they settled in the land of Goshen in Egypt (47:27). And now, at the end of Genesis, Joseph speaks to his brothers just before he dies, not warning them of the slavery that is going to occur upon their people, but rather reiterating God’s promise to their forefathers. By speaking to his brothers, Joseph is proleptically speaking to the tribes of Israel that are named after Jacob’s sons.
To reiterate, Joseph doesn’t speak of the incursion of slavery to come upon their people but rather of the promise of God. Therefore, as we continue God’s Story in the Book of Exodus, our focus mustn’t be the slavery the Hebrews are undergoing but rather God’s promise. This is perhaps difficult for us as Americans whose country has an unfortunate, tragic history with slavery. Thus, in Bible studies and so forth we often focus too much on the chattel slavery they underwent. While it has historical importance, we perhaps spend too much time comparing and contrasting Hebrew slavery to African slavery and not enough time on God keeping His promise. And perhaps we also spend some wasted time and effort wondering and conjecturing why God would allow His people to suffer slavery for 400 years. We don’t know the answer because God doesn’t tell us. To remain theologians of the cross, we must simply say what the Word says and try not to speak on things the Scriptures are silent on. Therefore, what we can speak on is God continuing His promise despite the suffering of His people.
Without falling into allegory, perhaps that is our lesson here—that human suffering cannot prevent the promises of God. If there’s anything the Scriptures make irrevocably clear about sin and evil, it’s that Satan and evil are forcibly carried along with God’s omnipotence for His good and gracious will. Satan and evil are like a rabid dog on God’s leash; the frothing dog can only go as far as God allows it. And eventually, God will put the beast down. Indeed, his head was crushed when Christ hung on the cross. And when Christ returns, He will return to finish off the beast by decapitating its evil head and rescuing us from our bondage to his evil as well as the evil within each of us.
Theology Terms Used
- Allegory: interpreting a narrative symbolically. E.g., just as Jesus calmed the storm, so He can calm your anxiety (Mark 4:35-41). Can Jesus help calm your anxiety? Yes. Is this what the text is about? No! Allegorical interpretations basically turn a narrative into vain, moral platitudes and thus undermine the true meaning of the text.
- Theology of the Cross: Luther created and defined this term in his 1518 Heidelberg Disputation, “The person deserves to be called a theologian, however, who understands the visible and the ‘backside’ of God [Exodus 33:23] seen through suffering and the cross. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is” (Wengert, 84).
Wengert, Timothy J., Hans J. Hillerbrand, and Kirsi I. Stierna. The Annotated Luther: The Roots of Reform. Volume 1. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.