(Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28)
I love time-travel movies and books; maybe you do, too. They are entertaining and a bit mind-bending. They ask the question of what would happen if you could go back in time and change history.
Guns of the South is a novel by Harry Turtledove that imagines the changes to our country that come about when time travelers go back to the Civil War South and equip Lee’s army with AK-47s.
Back to the Future tells the story of Marty McFly, escaping to 1955 in a car-shaped time machine and entering the world of his parents when they were teenagers.
The Terminator is a classic piece of science fiction, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a robot sent from the future to 1984 Los Angeles. His mission is to kill the mother of the man who would go on to be a hero.
Even the Harry Potter series dabbled in time travel. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry and Hermione use a “time turner” to try to save Hogwarts.
More recently, the superheroes of Avengers: Endgame use time travel to save the universe from a big, purple monster man (aka Thanos).
Time-travel stories. They raise an intriguing question: If you could go back in time and change one thing, what would it be?
The Atlantic magazine from November 2019 asked this question of some university professors. Duke professor Sandy Darity says, “I wish that Radical Reconstruction had been made a reality after the end of the Civil War.” If this had happened, former slaves would have enjoyed full political participation, along with control over the schooling of their children, protection by the Union Army, and land grants of 40 acres for farming.
Marina Warner of the University of London wishes that Ferdinand and Isabella had torn up the Alhambra Decree, which drove all the Jews out of Spanish territories. “History would look very different,” she says, “if the coexistence of Jews, Muslims, and Christians had continued in 1492.”
Rutgers professor Samantha Kelly has a suggestion that will surprise you. She wishes that agriculture had never been invented. Yes, agriculture. There would be “far less environmental degradation and income inequality,” she says. “A world without industrial agriculture would pretty much be the Eden of the Bible.”
Kelly wants to go back in time: To the garden of Eden.
How about you? What change would you make? Would you prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln? Overthrow Adolf Hitler before the Second World War? Save Jesus from the agony of the cross?
In the book of Genesis, a man named Jacob settled in the land of Canaan. He had 12 sons, and one of them was named Joseph. Jacob “loved Joseph more than any other of his children,” says Genesis, “because he was the son of his old age; and [Jacob] made him a long robe with sleeves” — sometimes called “a coat of many colors” (Genesis 37:3). You can just imagine how his brothers responded to this. Actually, you don’t have to imagine, the passage tells us: “they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him” (v. 4).
In addition, Joseph was a dreamer, and one of his dreams contained the message that his brothers would bow down to him. When they heard this, “they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words” (v. 8).
If you could go back in time and change history, you might say to Jacob the father: “Don’t play favorites with Joseph! His brothers hate him!”
At age 17, Joseph was shepherding the flock with his brothers, acting as a helper. Four of them were misbehaving in the field, so “Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father” (v. 2). Joseph ratted out Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher – threw them under the bus.
If you could travel back in time, you might say to Joseph: “Don’t be a snitch! Your brothers are going to terminate you!”
Sure enough, the situation went from bad to worse when Joseph was sent to check on his brothers as they pastured their father’s flock. Joseph went after them and found them at a place called Dothan. His brothers “saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him” (v. 18).
One clever definition of the word “siblings” is this: “people you either plan to murder or plan a murder with. There’s no middle ground.”
The brothers said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams’” (vv. 19-20).
If you could employ a Harry Potter “time turner,” you might say to the brothers: “Don’t do it! You’ll never get away with murder!”
Fortunately, the eldest brother Reuben talked some sense into his younger siblings. “Let us not take his life,” he said. “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him.” Reuben’s plan was to rescue Joseph later and return him to his father (vv. 21-22).
Give the eldest brother credit. He made a good decision, right in the middle of this tragic tale of favoritism, hatred, snitching and blood-lust.
When Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe and threw him in an empty pit. Feeling hungry after their exertions, they sat down to eat. But as they were eating, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, carrying precious cargo to Egypt.
Between bites, middle brother Judah said to his siblings, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. So they drew Joseph up and sold him to the Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver. And the traveling traders took Joseph to Egypt (vv. 23-28).
If you could be an Avenger and do time travel, you might say to the brothers: “Glad you didn’t kill him. But selling him into slavery? Is that a good Endgame?”
The story of Joseph and his brothers makes us want to go back in time and make changes. And why not? Most of us can think of positive choices that would have changed history and improved the world. Protecting Jews in 15th-century Spain. Saving Lincoln from assassination. Supporting Reconstruction after the Civil War. All would have been good for God’s people in some terribly tumultuous times.
But we should never forget that God is always working toward a surprising conclusion, even when humans are acting in horrible ways.
In the book of Genesis, Joseph was sold to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials (37:36). That’s bad.
Joseph found favor in Potiphar’s sight, and was put in charge of his house (39:4). That’s good.
Then Potiphar’s wife saw how handsome Joseph was, and she said, “Lie with me” (39:7). That’s bad.
Joseph refused (39:8). That’s good.
Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph of misconduct, and he was thrown into prison (39:20). That’s bad.
Then God showed him love, and gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer (39:21). That’s good.
Bad, good, bad, good, bad, good. Clearly, God is always working toward a surprising conclusion, even when humans are misbehaving. If we were to go back in time and change history, we might disrupt the work that God is doing in the world.
While in prison, Joseph became an interpreter of dreams, and eventually he offered insight into the dreams of Pharaoh. He was released from prison and rose to power in Egypt, becoming second-in-command to Pharaoh himself. Eventually, famine struck the entire region, and people from many countries came to buy bread in Egypt.
Among the hungry people were Joseph’s brothers. At first, Joseph did not reveal his identity, and treated them harshly. But eventually, he agreed to help them and said, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people” (50:20). At the end of the story, Joseph forgave his brothers and provided for them, as God wanted him to do.
“You intended to do harm to me,” said Joseph, naming clearly that his brothers did a great evil to him. But knowing that God is always working toward a surprising conclusion, he also said, “God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people.”
In every time and place and situation, God is working God’s purposes out. Sometimes we humans cooperate with these purposes, and sometimes we don’t. But nothing deters God in the work of saving people from destruction. Even the bad things that we would like to change – in world history and in our own personal histories – can be transformed into good.
God is not responsible for the evil that people do, but history shows that God can turn bad into good. God did it with Joseph and his brothers. God did it with Jesus on the cross. God did it with Paul, who moved from a persecutor of the church to an apostle to the Gentiles.
Nothing is wasted with God. When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, they set the stage for his rise in Egypt. When Jesus died and was buried, He was put in the right place for resurrection. The zeal of Saul the persecutor changed into the passion of Paul the apostle.
Each of us has committed sins, suffered defeats, made terrible mistakes and been treated terribly. We might want to jump in a time machine and change the past. But remember: God is always at work in your life, turning evil into good.
Since nothing is wasted with God, there is no point in trying to change history. Instead, trust God to transform your future.