This article in our Bible Studies series looks at the story of Joseph from Genesis 37-50, and examines what it can teach us about fate.
“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul”. These are the final two lines from the poem ‘Invictus’ which was created by the poet William Ernest Hensley in 1875. ‘Invictus’ is Latin for ‘invincible’, with the poem itself being a love letter to the ancient stoic philosophy which prizes – above all else – the control of human emotion in the face of adversity.
In just four short verses, the message is crystal-clear; whilst fate is always unpredictable, it can be mastered not by controlling what will happen to us in the external environment (that is impossible), but by how we react to what is thrown on the road of life. Do we navigate around the obstacle or beat our heads against it? Do we escape turmoil with little injury, or do we let it destroy us?
These are the decisions which fate asks us to make, always, every day. In fact, the doctrine of fate has become so engrained in the human psyche stemming from its omnipotence in the physical world that the field of philosophy has collectively exerted far more energy over a longer period of time in examining fate rather than religion.
For example, the father of Political Science, Niccolò Machiavelli, writing in his book The Prince, observes that fate either creates opportunity or destroys it completely, with there being nothing that a skilled, cunning and ruthless individual can do to circumvent this or influence its materialisation.
Etymologically, the word fate stems from the Latin word ‘fatum’ which means ‘that which has been spoken’, indicating that fate is preordained rather than random, thus revealing that the universe exists in a state of order rather than chaos. Therefore, an obstacle is not thrown onto the road of life by chance, but was always destined to appear there.
This view of fate exists strongly in the Christian faith, with God serving as this commander of fate – a role best exemplified by the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis (chapters 37-50). However, mortal humans do not know what this order is or what form it will take; they are forever trapped in a state of chaos and uncertainty. Although they do retain free will, and so have autonomy over how they react to God’s will, they continue to suffer from the affliction of being unable to predict the future.
Yet one such individual spared from this curse is Joseph, who possesses the extraordinary ability of being able to accurately interpret dreams which foretell future events. Joseph is also the favourite son of his father, Jacob, (as he was conceived in his old age) which earns him the envy of his brothers. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is when Joseph deciphers a dream that foretells that one day, he will rule over his brothers.
Unwilling to be subservient to the preferred child, they originally plot to slay him, but elect to sell him into slavery instead as they did not wish to spill familial blood. Despite this invaluable ability to predict fate, he is still a casualty of it because the dreams simply foretell what will happen, providing no blueprint on the actions necessary to transform the dream into reality.
No dream warned him that his brothers would ultimately turn against him. In fact, it was his power to interpret dreams which forced his brothers into action so what fate had supposedly gifted him had resulted in his downfall. Joseph is trafficked to Egypt where he is sold to Potiphar, a high-ranking Egyptian official. Potiphar quickly noticed that the Lord’s presence was with Joseph, so he made him commander of the house which God appreciated and showed his gratitude by blessing the house.
God’s concern for Joseph originates from Joseph’s character as it is stated that ‘Joseph was a goodly person’ (Genesis 39:6) which is shown through his actions. A key lesson to be learnt here is that fate, symbolised by God, is more likely to favour the good. Joseph did not fantasise about taking any sort of sadistic revenge against his brothers; he simply observed the situation (his own enslavement) and attempted to make the best life out of the circumstances which fate chained him to.
However, fate returns once again to thwart the relatively decent quality of life which Joseph had acquired under slavery. Potiphar’s wife began to lust after Joseph and after one encounter where he rejected her advances, she falsely accused him of desiring her, which resulted in Potiphar casting Joseph into prison. In the jail cell, Joseph comes across the chief Butler and chief Baker of the Pharaoh who confess to Joseph that, one night, they had dreams which they were unable to interpret.
Joseph, being kind-hearted, offers his assistance, proclaiming that the Butler will be restored to his post, and the Baker hanged. This prophecy comes true. Although Joseph accurately predicted the future, it was ultimately unnecessary, as neither of the two men (especially the baker) could have escaped their fate. Even if we manage to magically predict what would happen in the future, avoiding fate is often impossible, regardless of action.
The stoics link this line of reasoning with the natural, inevitable human condition of death to emphasise that there are some happenstances in life which we cannot control, even if we know that they will occur. If the Baker believed that the interpretation of the dream was true, he could still do nothing about it. If he tried to resist, he would only be beaten into submission by the guards and possibly hanged sooner.
Then, one night the Pharaoh himself has a dream. He calls forth his magicians to explain to him what it means, but they have no answer. Word of Joseph’s power reaches the ear of the Pharaoh through the Butler who recalls to the Pharaoh about his experience with Joseph. Joseph is released from prison, placed before the Pharaoh and asked what the dream means. Joseph replies with a warning that there will be seven years of successful harvest in Egypt, followed by seven years of famine.
The Pharaoh is satisfied by Joseph’s answer, who thanks him by way of appointing him his second-in-command over all of Egypt. As can be seen, through fate, Joseph was separated from his family which swept him to Egypt, where he then encountered Potiphar’s wife who was responsible for sending him to prison. He dwelt in prison the same time the Baker and Butler were present there, giving him the chance to interpret their dreams which gave the Butler the knowledge that he possessed this power, allowing him to inform the Pharaoh the exact location of someone who could clarify his dream.
Joseph’s gift, also assisted by fate, was enough to propel him to an extremely powerful position in Egypt, at the time one of the world’s strongest civilisations. If his brothers had not conspired against him – if they had loved him – then the chain of events needed to make Pharaoh and Joseph cross paths would not have occurred. Joseph would not have been able to alert the land of Egypt of the approaching peril.
The famine, as well as the dreams, were God’s/fate’s plan all along which is revealed by Joseph when he calmly says to the Pharaoh ‘God hath shewed Pharaoh what he is about to do’ (Genesis 41:25). God wanted Joseph to answer to the Pharaoh otherwise the dream would be an untranslatable riddle, rather than a simple message transmitted through Joseph. When the famine arrives, it encompasses not just Egypt, but the entire world, with Egypt fairing the best amongst all others thanks to Joseph’s (as well as God’s) intervention.
To conclude, God is the unchallenged master of fate which humanity is eternally subjected to however humanity can control how it responds to implicit warnings and changing (sometimes into disastrous) circumstances. But tragically, there are countless events which humans – including good-natured people such as Joseph – cannot prepare for, whether they are inevitable, unexpected, or both.
Header image: Jacob sending Joseph to his brothers.
Photo by Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts on Flikr.