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The Nature of Providence

In his book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes the case that, in the Old Testament, tragedy is not possible. Sacks emphasizes this point by making numerous distinctions between the stories in Genesis and Oedipus Rex, a Greek tragedy written by Sophocles. He especially contrasts the terms “fate” and “providence.” Fate is the guiding force in Greek tragedy, while providence is the divine wisdom and knowledge of the God of Abraham. Sacks correctly argues that, from a Christian and Jewish perspective, there can be no tragedy, but he misses key points about the nature of God and redemption.

Sacks first focuses on the story of Isaac and Ishmael. Contrasting the story of Ishmael with the story of Oedipus, he writes that in Genesis, Ishmael is not portrayed as a tragic hero, but instead as “a child abandoned, about to die.”[1] Instead of being portrayed as a strong, good man thwarted by his fate, Ishmael is presented as a vulnerable child. Ishmael is not the typical tragic hero.

Secondly, Sacks notes that the conflicts in the Isaac and Ishmael story are different than the conflicts in a typical tragedy. Instead of a conflict between human will and fate, the conflict is “within the minds of the protagonists.”[2] Sacks continues, “Sarah is torn between her desire for a child and her envy of the pregnant Hagar. Abraham is torn between his love of Ishmael and his obedience to God.”[3] The conflict is an inner, psychological conflict, rather than a conflict between a character that knows what she wants and is simply kept from the goal by fate.

Sacks’s third point most strongly highlights the difference between providence and fate in the story of Ishmael. He asserts that in tragedy, the characters are bound by nature. In his words, “What makes myth tragic is its realization that nature ultimately defeats the strongest.”[4] However, in the story of Isaac and Ishmael, God does not allow nature to succeed. As Sacks points out, “God chooses those who cannot do naturally what others take for granted.”[5] The entire story of Isaac and Ishmael is a reversal of what would happen according to nature. Sarah, a barren, ninety-year-old woman gives birth to a baby. Isaac, the second son, receives the blessing of the first. God chooses Isaac over Ishmael, even when Ishmael is described as physically strong and capable. The primary difference between God’s providence and fate is that with providence, nature does not win. The God of Abraham is able to work outside of nature’s constraints, unlike the fate of Greek tragedy.

Sacks contrasts fate with providence once again in the story of Joseph and his brothers. This example is trickier to understand, because in this story, Joseph has a dream that indeed comes true, which is very similar to the way that, in Greek tragedy, prophecies come true by the pagan concept of fate. What separates Joseph’s dream from the prophecy that Oedipus’s parents receive at the beginning of the play? It would seem as though the only difference between the two stories is the ending, which appears to be an arbitrary difference. It was good for Jacob that his dream happened to be positive and thus ended well, but what keeps the next dream from being just as tragic as Oedipus’s fate?

Sacks does not address this question particularly well. The only difference Sacks explicitly points to between these two stories in this chapter is the fact that Joseph’s dream is fulfilled unexpectedly. Joseph’s response to his brothers, Sacks argues, gives them the chance to display “perfect repentance.” Sacks explains that “perfect repentance,” “comes about when you find yourself in the same situation but this time you act differently. This is proof in action of a change in heart.”[6] Joseph gives his brothers the opportunity for perfect repentance when he accuses Benjamin, his father’s new favorite son, of stealing a cup. Joseph offers to let the brothers go in exchange for keeping Benjamin as a slave. Instead of selling his youngest brother into slavery, as he did the first time this situation presented itself, Judah offers to take the place of his brother. Instead of making the same mistake twice, Joseph’s brothers perfectly repent of their actions.

Sacks concludes this analysis by highlighting the fact that God’s providence rests in human freedom. “If we can change,” Sacks writes, “then the future is not destined to be an action replay of the past. Repentance is the proof that we can change.”[7] Sacks argues that the brothers’ repentance is proof of human freedom, and an argument against the traditional notion of fate. This line of arguing is not very convincing. The idea of human freedom working together with divine providence is not a new one, nor is it completely wrong. However, Sacks fails to sufficiently explain how this is different from Oedipus’s human freedom.

When Oedipus’s parents receive the prediction from the oracle, they are not told exactly how the murder and incest is going to happen. Oedipus does not have the gods coercing him to kill his father along the side of the road, or forcing him to marry his mother. Though his fate is predicted, these are also choices that Oedipus made willingly. Sacks addresses the fact that while humans have the freedom to do good, this also “necessarily entails the freedom to do evil.”[8] What is the fundamental difference between Oedipus and the Joseph story? It would seem that, according to Sacks’s argument, Oedipus used his freedom to do evil, while Joseph and the brothers used theirs to do good.

This difference, however, cannot be enough. If the difference was only in the choices of the two men, this would mean there is no fundamental difference between the nature of providence and fate, only a difference in the character of the men. This, however, cannot be the only difference. Although Sacks does not address them, there are several further distinctions between the nature of fate and providence that strengthen his argument.

First, the nature of God shapes His providence. In Greek tragedy, the gods are not as good, loving, and merciful as we believe the God of Abraham is. In this way, fate, orchestrated by the volatile gods of Greek tragedy, has the possibility of being tragic, while providence never does. In tragedy, a man’s heroic actions somehow get twisted into something bad, as they do in the case of Oedipus, but in Genesis, the reversal of expectation is always positive. Joseph himself summarizes this reversal when he speaks to his brothers: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”[9] Though the ending to the story might seem arbitrary, it actually has to do with the nature of God. The “happy” or, more appropriately, “good” ending of Genesis is not due to the arbitrary good choices of men, but is instead due to the nature of God. Christians and Jews believe in the mercy, justice, and goodness of the God of Abraham. A God of this nature would not – I would even go so far as to say could not – orchestrate a tragic story. At some points, we might perceive the story as being a tragedy–just as Joseph might have when he was trapped in the ditch, waiting to be sold into slavery–but ultimately, not in spite of, but because of  God’s providence, the story will never be a tragedy.

The concept of truth is deeply related to the concept of tragedy. Because truth stems from God, truth itself can never be tragic. This becomes more complicated, because certainly news and information that is true can also be bad news. We cannot possibly look at the couple who receives news they can never have children, or the children of a parent who has just died, and say these truths are good. They are certainly not, and it is important to acknowledge that things can happen that are not good. Tragic things can happen, but the end result is never a tragedy. The difference between God’s providence and fate is that the story never stops in the middle of the apparent tragedy. Even when it might appear that all hope is lost, Christians and Jews have the hope of redemption. While very bad things do happen all the time to people who do not deserve them, this is never the end of the story. As Christians with faith in Jesus, and Jews with faith in a coming Messiah, we both have hope that one day all of our suffering will be redeemed. In this way, the deeper truth of any situation is redemption, even when there appears to be no hope left.

While Sacks contrasts many elements in the stories of Genesis with pagan tragedy, his extensive analysis was not quite enough to distinguish the difference between providence and fate in the Joseph story. Sacks addresses human freedom, but does not appeal to the nature of providence, or to the nature of truth and redemption. Sacks correctly points out that, with God’s providence, there can never be an ultimate tragedy. However, this truth is ultimately reflected in the truth of the redemption, and not simply in the truth of human freedom.



[3] IBID.
[4] IBID.
[5] IBID., 117.
[6] IBID., 154.
[7] IBID., 157.
[8] IBID., 156.
[9] GENESIS 50:19 (NRSV).