Question: "What does Joseph mean when he says, "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good" (Genesis 50:20)?"
Answer: After being hated by his brothers, left for dead, and sold into slavery, Joseph was able to forgive his brothers, recognizing that God’s sovereign goodness overrides all. Joseph told his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). He could speak with that perspective because of how God had worked after the brothers’ hateful act.
It started when Joseph was seventeen, when he brought a bad report about his brothers to his father, Jacob (Genesis 37:2). Jacob loved Joseph more than his other sons and even made Joseph a multicolored tunic to show his love (Genesis 37:3). On top of that, Joseph had a dream that his entire family would bow down to him (Genesis 37:5). Joseph’s brothers responded poorly to these things and hated Joseph greatly (Genesis 37:4–5) and were jealous of him (Genesis 37:11). They plotted one day to throw him into a pit and tell their father that a wild beast had killed and eaten him (Genesis 37:18–24). After doing the deed, they decided that, rather than leave him in the pit to die, they would sell him to Midianite and Ishmaelite traders who were going to Egypt. Upon arriving in Egypt, those that had bought Joseph sold him to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s captain (Genesis 37:36).
God blessed Joseph, and Joseph grew in influence and prominence, until Potiphar put Joseph over his whole house (Genesis 39:8). Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph (who fled to avoid the situation), and then she lied to Potiphar, accusing Joseph of trying to take her by force (Genesis 39:17–18). Joseph was thrown into prison, but even there God looked after him (Genesis 39:21–23). Even while imprisoned, Joseph prospered, and God gave him the interpretation of dreams. When Pharaoh had a troubling dream, Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembered that Joseph had interpreted the cupbearer’s dream accurately, and he told Pharaoh (Genesis 41:9–13). Pharaoh had Joseph released from prison, and after Joseph told him the interpretation of the dream—that there was a famine coming—Pharaoh promoted Joseph over all Pharaoh’s house (Genesis 41:38–41). In the seven years that followed, Joseph led the preparations for the famine, and when the famine finally arrived, Egypt was prepared (Genesis 41:46–49) and people from all over the world traveled to Egypt to buy grain (Genesis 41:56–57).
Joseph’s brothers were sent from the land of Canaan to Egypt to buy food, and when they encountered Joseph, they did not recognize him, but Joseph recognized them. After some elaborate investigation and planning (Genesis 42—44), Joseph revealed to them who he was (Genesis 45:1–5). His brothers were terrified—Joseph was alive, and he had the power to kill them for what they had done to him. But Joseph understood and explained that God had sent him to Egypt so that he could preserve their lives, not seek judgment against them (Genesis 45:5, 7). Even years later, after Jacob had died, the brothers still had some fear of retaliation, but Joseph again spoke kindly to them and reminded them that what they had intended for evil, God had used for good so that many lives could be preserved (Genesis 50:20).
This historical narrative is important as it teaches us two things. First, God keeps His word, no matter how seemingly impossible the fulfillment might be. God had promised that the sons of Israel would be blessed and would be a mighty nation (Genesis 12, 15, 49, etc.). If the sons of Israel had died in the famine, as they surely would have without Joseph’s deliverance, then God’s covenant promises would have been broken, and God would have been a liar. God kept His word, even using the unrighteous deeds of some to accomplish His plan. What they meant for evil, God meant for good. God is in control, and He is trustworthy.
A second important lesson from this narrative is seen in the personal example of Joseph, who, because he trusted in God was able to understand God’s big-picture plan and forgive his brothers. Even though they had caused great harm to Joseph, God didn’t abandon Joseph. Rather than respond with hate and anger, Joseph was able to respond with love and forgiveness, being a blessing to those who had intended to destroy his life. Joseph came to realize that what his brothers had meant for evil, God meant for good.
God provided for Joseph’s brothers, even though they had acted evilly. If God works in our lives in this way and cares and provides for us even when we are behaving in an unloving way, then we, like Joseph, should care for even those who are unloving toward us.