Notes on Genesis (xix)

‘You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.’ (Gen 50:20).

After a series of well-nigh comic incidents, the plots of Joseph’s brothers are defeated, exposed and forgiven. Commenting on these words, John Chrysostom quotes the Apostle, ‘All things work together for those who love God’ (Rom 8:28) and observes that ‘opposition and apparent disappointment – even these things are turned into good.’ This lies behind the version of these words in the Vulgate, surely an interpretation rather than a translation, ‘You thought evil concerning me, and God turned it to good’ (vos cogitastis de me malum et Deus vertit illud in bonum.) While the Saints may be aware that nothing bad can ever happen to them, for most of us this is a lesson to be learned repeatedly.

On a technical point, the proper way to translate the Greek verb that occurs twice in the quotation at the head of this posting is not clear. (As usual among Orthodox, the Greek text is taken in its own right, without reference to the underlying Hebrew.) While the Orthodox Study Bible goes for ‘meant’, the original meaning of the word (bouleuo in its dictionary form) is ‘took counsel’, and Lancelot Benton translates it this way.  While it easy to see how Joseph’s ten older brothers could have taken counsel concerning him, the applicability of the word to God is not so evident. How should we take take the word?

Sometimes in biblical Greek bouleuo is used with the meaning of thinking deeply or pondering, particularly in Isaiah (16:3, 23:8, 32:7; it is used of God at 14:26, 19:12), sometimes in the sense of  deciding to do something (3 Macc 1:10). But it is often used where the meaning must be that of canvassing opinions, as at Is 3:9, 7:5 Mic 6:5, Ep Jer 48. Similarly in the New Testament it can refer to one person making plans (e.g. Luke 14:31) or a group of people discussing what to do (John 11:53 , 12:10; Acts 5:33  cf Protoevangelium Iacobi 24:4).

In the light of this usage, Benton’s translation is at least plausible, and if adopted God’s taking counsel could be seen as another sign of the plurality within the Godhead already adumbrated at Gen 1:26 (‘Let us…’).

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