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So Which Is It?

On what basis do we call an event “good” or “evil”?

 by Nadia Bolz-Weber

 Old Testament Reading: Genesis 50:15–21

 For Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011 Year A—Ordinary 24

Daytime television has nothing on the book of Genesis. Reversals of fortune, intrigue, murder, cataclysmic weather, betrayal, ugly sisters—it has it all. And the Old Testament reading for today is the story of how this story of good beginnings ends. It’s the closing chapter of the Genesis.

Good or Evil?

Joseph of “Technicolor Dreamcoat” fame was, as we know, sold into slavery by his jealous older brothers. The treachery and betrayal of such an act would surely deem it unredeemable. After all, evil is evil. So we put it in the box labeled “evil” and rightly so.

While in Egypt Joseph finds favor with the powers that be. “Good!” His master’s randy housewife gets him thrown into jail when he refused her advances. “Evil!” While in jail, Joseph starts a little dream interpretation cottage industry—a service which, when used by Pharaoh, gets Joseph sprung from jail and he becomes Pharaoh’s right hand man. “Good!”

Fast forwarding a bit, Joseph’s family is suffering from a famine and come to Egypt looking for grain which, because Joseph is Pharaoh’s guy, means they unknowingly are having to ask their brother who they sold into slavery for help. In the end Joseph has a forgiving heart and helps them. “Good!”

Which brings us to our text today in which Joseph says to his brothers who are groveling before him asking that he have mercy on them for their betrayal: “You meant evil against me but God meant it for good (ESV).”

The Hardest Question

We’re led to this question: On what basis do we call an event “good” or “evil” if God uses what is intended for evil for good? And, furthermore, can’t pointing to God’s ability to redeem evil be a way of not honoring the real suffering that evil causes?

This question is especially interesting in this context given how the story unfolds in Exodus. Sure, Joseph’s family escapes the famine and finds grain and reconciliation with their brother in Egypt. “Good!” Yet in Egypt they become slaves. “________” (you fill in the blank)!

Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber is the founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. She is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television (Seabury, 2008) and blogs at and Jim Wallis’ Nobody really believes she’s an ordained pastor in the ELCA. Maybe it’s the sleeve tattoos or the fact that she swears like a truck driver. Either way…she’s fine with it. Nadia lives in Denver with her family of four.


  1. Jennifer says:

    The difference between the “good” or the “evil” we label the event is time. That isn’t true in every case. But I’ve changed the label enough times in my own life to recognize how relative those names can be.

  2. Jim says:

    I really like Jennifer’s take on it. What my ex-wife did to me (living with her boyfriend in our house while we were still married) was evil. Over time, though, I see it now as good. It forced me out of a poisonous relationship and into a much healthier and happier place. And, now, after 20 years, my daughters have seen me reconcile with their mom and at least give her a hug. Redemption, it seems to me, is the act of purchasing evil intent, smooshing it around, and remolding it into something new and good. The fact that God can do that in Joseph and his brothers, or in me, drops me to my knees in awe.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Wow. I like that definition of redemption. I think I’ll post it on my FB.

  4. Jim says:

    After I talked this over with my current (second and last!!) wife, she pointed out that evil intent is still evil. So maybe we reword it as “Redemption is the act of purchasing the after-effects of evil intent, smooshing them around, and remolding them into something new and good.” What do you think?

How do you read?