27 Mar 2016

The Lesser of Two Evils Is Still an Evil

Religious 7 Comments

Happy Easter everyone! He is risen indeed.

No, this isn’t a post about the election. It’s broader than that.

In our Bible study session this week we covered the horrible and amazing tale of Joseph, whose brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt but in so doing provided for their own salvation. (Note the similarity to Jesus.) Here is Genesis 37: 17-30:

So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. 18 But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.

19 “Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. 20 “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.”

21 When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. “Let’s not take his life,” he said. 22 “Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.” Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father.

23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe—the ornate robe he was wearing— 24 and they took him and threw him into the cistern. The cistern was empty; there was no water in it.

25 As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt.

26 Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? 27 Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed.

28 So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels[b] of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.

29 When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. 30 He went back to his brothers and said, “The boy isn’t there! Where can I turn now?”

Now at this point it seems that Reuben should be given a pass, and yet, he went along with lying to Jacob (their father) later on. Furthermore, if they had come clean, wouldn’t Jacob have justifiably said to Reuben, “You did WHAT?! You thought you were saving Joseph by telling them to cast him into a cistern?! Why didn’t you flip out, warn Joseph to run, and tell your evil brothers you would die fighting them?!”

An even more interesting case is Judah. He is implementing the equivalent of revenue-neutral tax reform. (And I’ve written up a policy study like that; I’m not judging here.) He is saying, “*Given* that you guys are going to kill him, I have a tweak that is more advantageous. You still get the result you want, and it reduces the moral affront.”

We can imagine Judah too explaining to Jacob that it was a good thing he (Judah) was there, lest Joseph would surely be dead. But yet again, I don’t think Jacob would have been pleased with such an answer.

The callousness of Joseph’s brothers is amazing. While he is still alive in the cistern and presumably within earshot, they sit down to eat. Then one of them points out that killing their own brother would be a faux pas, and recommends instead selling him into slavery.

I think the above story is a good metaphor for what happens in Washington DC (obviously), but more generally with evil in the world. I think most people who commit monstrous acts are probably believing themselves to be averting greater evil that those really bad people are intent on doing.

And yet, as clever and efficient as we think we have been, when we see our Father later He is going to say, “You did WHAT?!”

P.S. As we studied this text, we reflected on the fact that these brothers are the 12 tribes of Israel. (Some complications with Joseph, later on.) These are God’s chosen people. This is what He has to work with.

7 Responses to “The Lesser of Two Evils Is Still an Evil”

  1. Reader says:

    Happy Easter, Bob!

  2. Jim says:

    Based on the title I thought this was going to be a Hillary/Trump post. My favorite slogan this political season (to bring it back around to religion) is:

    “Why settle for the lesser evil. Cthulu, 2016. #nolivesmatter”

  3. knoxharrington says:

    Are the brothers really morally culpable? Joseph being sent to Egypt and raised to a position of importance ultimately allowed for the survival of the chosen people because Joseph was in a position to help them when the famine hit. But for the “evil” act of the brothers all the tribes of Israel might have perished. Can they really be said to be acting immorally when they were acting according to God’s plan?

    I ask this question believing that there is not a grain of truth in the story. (pun iintended)

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Yes Knox the Bible is clear on this issue. They acted evilly but God turned it to good.

      By the same token, the people who crucified Jesus were murderers, but they unwittingly allowed Him to save us.

      • knoxharrington says:

        This is going to devolve into a Carlin routine but if God knew the brothers were going to treat Joseph in this way did he engineer this to happen.? Did God “give” Joseph the coat of many colors and laud him as the favorite son in order to get the brothers to act as they did? What I’m saying is a version of the omniscience/omnipotence question – if the brothers acted according to a plan put in place by God they could do nothing else but what they did and from that standpoint lack the capacity to make moral judgments. They are automatons. They acted in the only way they could according to the plan – God “made” them do it. On the other hand, if God was surprised by their actions and then turned that into a good result by elevating Joseph and so on than his omniscience is in question.

        My position is well known but I think it is a fruitful discussion in deciding on whether it is appropriate to blame the brothers or the Sanhedrin or whatever. If they could do nothing but what they did are they really guilty? This is not even the Milgram experiment – the brothers had no choice but to push the button.

  4. Nick says:

    Check out this book, which is a truly phenomenal literary-theological study of the story of Joseph and his brothers.


    The typological presence of Christ is all over the text, and Gage & Barber do an excellent job of not just explaining to the reader, but actually teaching the reader how to see even more depth in redemptive history. I can’t recommend this one enough.

    More from the author here:


  5. Ryan says:

    Damn you Murphy, put some share links on this blog! It’s so difficult to copy the link and come up with my own tweet about it.

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