Is God in Control? - Revisited
Why was the dream doubled for Pharaoh? Because the matter has been fixed by God, and God will shortly cause it to happen. (Bereshit / Genesis 41:32; CJB)
A few weeks ago I posted a message entitled, "Is God in Control?", where I concluded that God's control of life should encourage us to trust him in the midst of a dysfunctional world. I began that message by explaining that among believers in God, there is a wide range of understandings regarding God's control of life. Some think he is absolutely in control to the extent that every single thing that happens in the universe, from a drop of rain to genocide, is intentionally and purposefully directed by God personally. Others believe that after creating the world, he has been hands off, lettings things work out on their own. Most others are somewhere between these extremes.
This week's parsha (Torah portion) has a comment that may help us determine the Bible's perspective on this issue. Joseph, after being imprisoned in Egypt for many years, is summoned by Pharaoh in hope that he would interpret Pharaoh's dreams. As part of Joseph's interpretation, he explains the reason why Pharaoh had two different dreams containing the same message of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. This is because "the matter has been fixed by God, and God will shortly cause it to happen." By this Joseph is saying that nothing could change what was going to occur. God had determined it; God would cause it to happen.
Those committed to a more extreme view of God's absolute control over all of life might regard this as an emphatic way to describe what is always the case. According to this view, Joseph was driving home to Pharaoh that God always does what he determines to do, and that's that. But is this really the correct biblical perspective?
There are several Bible stories that suggest otherwise. For example, the prophet Jonah was called by God to preach judgment upon the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in the eighth century before Yeshua. Jonah's reluctance to obey God was based on the possibility that if the city repented, God would spare it. When Jonah finally went as God commanded him, he didn't tell the people this, but rather preached judgment alone. Yet, just as he dreaded, they did repent and God relented. Unlike the Joseph and Pharaoh story, God's word in this case was not fixed.
Still, some may assert with regard to Nineveh that God controlled the entire unfolding of circumstances - a setup in other words. Jonah preaches judgment, Nineveh repents, and God relents - all this according to plan just as God determined. The problem with this is that the story doesn't read that way. The story of Nineveh is told as if anything could have happened in contrast to Pharaoh's dreams, where only one option was available.
Most of the Bible doesn't read as if God is in control in the extreme absolute sense. The predetermined, no-other-possibility scenario given to Pharaoh is a rare exception. The more usual non-mechanical, non-deterministic language of Scripture has led some to deduce that God is not in control after all. But the problem with this conclusion, however, is that it doesn't take into account that God was able to predetermine the agricultural destiny of Egypt. It also doesn't sufficiently grapple with the Bible's overall understanding that God will, without a doubt, work out his purposes in history.
That the Bible could describe life with a such lack of unpredictability, including options and changing circumstances - all the while asserting God's sovereignty over our affairs, including fixing events at will - expresses a level of control beyond comprehension, yet thoroughly reflects reality. God's intimate overseeing of human affairs in which he provides for legitimate choice and responsibility should encourage us to live life to the fullest, trusting him every step of the way.
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