The Slow Voice

Three generations of Old Testament patriarchs received direct messages from God. In various Genesis passages, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob experienced something like personal conversation with him. We want that conversation, too. I do.

But then came the fourth generation, Joseph. His experience was different and new, in that Joseph never experienced a personal appearance and statement from God. If he did, scripture does not record it.

Scripture does record that God was with him—Genesis 39:2. What’s more, Joseph’s implied importance to us seems plain. Out of the 50 chapters in Genesis (a book that covers Adam, Noah, Abraham, and three generations after him), 13 of those chapters deal with the life of Joseph.

Living that life is the way Joseph communed with God. He suffered betrayal and imprisonment, then rose to incredible privilege as the agent of Pharaoh. He practiced a divine gift—dreaming and interpreting dreams—that seemed of no use to himself or anyone else until he met Pharaoh at 30. He proceeded through the events of a life that was by turns desolate, overwhelming, incomprehensible, and exhilarating—simply trying at every turn to hold fast to character and remain true to the calling God gave him.

Significantly, he never even fully understood what that calling was until he looked back on it later, seeing in retrospect God’s working in the events of his life. Genesis 45:8 gives us a glimpse of Joseph looking back on those events this way, working out their meaning.

Out of these Genesis patriarchs, then, whom should our model be? Should we look for the kinds of directly stated personal messages from God that the first three generations received? The line of Abraham was a weak and tenuous shoot in the beginning, needing careful attention from the gardener if it was to take root and thrive. But with Joseph, we see something different, a life now lived with that root beneath it.

I think Joseph did hear from God. He heard from God expansively, through the medium and the process of a life uniquely created for him. It was a life that moved him to the place and position where God wanted him to be, and it was a life in which his understanding was formed for the benefit of us all.

The reason I think Joseph heard from God is because he spoke the line that makes all of the book of Genesis make sense. Why did God allow the serpent into the garden? Why did he allow humans to choose evil when he knew what the result would be? The answer is: God knew even more. He knew not just the result, but also the result of the result. He knows how even the fruit of evil will serve the glory of God in the end. Joseph spoke of this.

Genesis 50:20 comes at the close of the book of Genesis. In this line, Joseph addresses his siblings about their evil toward him decades in the past, but he might have been speaking to the serpent as well. “You planned evil against me,” he said, “but God planned it for good.”

Joseph gathered this insight from the slow voice of God. He heard it from the voice that spoke up to him out of all the events of his life. God was never audible to Joseph, but he was always there. Within the silence, God was speaking to Joseph even more profoundly than he had spoken to any of the generations who came before him.