Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Calvinism, fatalism, and self-fulfilling prophecies

Craig Blomberg recently cited Gen 50:20 to justify his Calminian theology. I commented on his appeal. I limited my comments to what was most germane to the immediate issue at hand. However, this text raises a number of larger issues which are worth exploring in their own right.

i) If a reader came to this text, in the context of the Joseph cycle as a whole, without any theological presuppositions one way or the other it would be natural for him to treat this verse as a prooftext for fatalism.

Now, it’s typical for opponents of Calvinism to brand Calvinism as fatalistic. Reformed theologians typically reject that charge by drawing attention to basic differences between Calvinism and fatalism.

For now, though, let’s discuss Gen 50:20 on its own terms. Let’s place it in context, and compare it to some other scriptural or extrascriptural passages.

ii) Before we proceed any further we need to define our terms. “Fatalism” is a rather ambiguous term. It can mean at least one of two different things:

a) No matter what you do, or refrain from doing, you end up fulfilling your fate. Nothing you do or don’t do makes any difference to the outcome. All pathways lead to the same destination.

b) But there’s a different form of “fatalism,” called the self-fulfilling prophecy. In this case, you fulfill your fate by trying to avoid your fate. In that sense, there’s only one pathway to that destination, yet it’s unavoidable and ironic. Ironic because you fulfill your fate by trying to do the opposite. Going in the opposite direction. And it’s inevitable in the sense that some men inevitably react a certain way which, in turn, triggers the very outcome they disdain.

iii) There is another ambiguity which we need to clarify. We tend to think of fatalistic scenarios in which the ill-fated individual is either futilely striving to escape his fate, or sadly resigned to his sorry fate. He’d escape if only he could.

Here he’s consciously fated against his will. The unwilling victim of his misfortune because he’s doomed to end badly. And that seems unfair.

However, a self-fulfilling prophecy need not be an oracle of doom. It can result in deliverance from harm.

Let’s take some paradigm cases of “fatalism.”

The Joseph Cycle

5Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. 6He said to them, "Hear this dream that I have dreamed: 7Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf." 8His brothers said to him, "Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?" So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.
9Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, "Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me." 10But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, "What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?" 11And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.

25Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26Then Judah said to his brothers, "What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh." And his brothers listened to him. 28Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt.

4So Joseph said to his brothers, "Come near to me, please." And they came near. And he said, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, 'Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; do not tarry. 10 You shall dwell in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, and your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 There I will provide for you, for there are yet five years of famine to come, so that you and your household, and all that you have, do not come to poverty.'

1So Israel took his journey with all that he had and came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. 2And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, "Jacob, Jacob." And he said, "Here am I." 3Then he said, "I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. 4I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes."

20As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. 21So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones."


1Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him." 3When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
6 "'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.'"
7Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him."

13Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." 14And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, "Out of Egypt I called my son."

16Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
18 "A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more."


After Solon’s departure, the weight of divine anger descended on Croesus, in all likelihood for thinking that he was the happiest man in the world. Soon afterwards, while he was asleep, he had a dream which accurately foretold the calamities that were going to happen to his son. Croesus had two sons…The dream was about Atys, and its message was that he would die from a wound caused by an iron spearhead. When Croesus woke up, he reflected on the dream and it made him afraid. First, he found a wife for his son, and second, although Atys had regularly commanded the Lydian army, Croesus stopped sending him anywhere on that kind of business. He also had all javelins, spears, and similar weapons of war removed from the men’s quarters and piled up in the bedrooms, in case any of them fell from where it hung onto his son.

While he was busy with his son’s wedding, a man [Adrastus] arrived in Sardis who was oppressed by misfortune…So Adrastus lived in Croesus’ house. While he was there a huge monster of a boar arrived on Mount Olympus in Mysia and kept coming down from his mountain base and ruining the Mysian’s fields….In the end a Mysian delegation came to Croesus to tell him about it…’Could you send us your son with some of your elite young fighting men, and dogs too, so that we can drive the beast from the land.’

Faced with this request, Croesus remembered his dream and replied as follows: ‘No, I won’t let my son go to you, so you had better forget about him…But I will send you some of my elite troops, and you can have the whole pack of my hunting dogs…’

That was good enough for the Mysians, but then Croesus’ son, who had heard the Mysians’ request, came in to see his father…’Please, either let me go on the hunt or persuade me that this course of action is better for me.’

‘Son,’ Croesus answered, ‘I’m certainly not doing this because I’ve noticed a cowardly streak in you…But an apparition came to me in a dream while I was asleep and told me that you didn’t have long to live, and that an iron spearhead was going to cause your death…I’m taking these precautions in case there’s a way for me to hide you away while I am alive.’

‘What a dream!’ the young man said. ‘I don’t blame you for tying to protect me. But there’s something you don’t understand about the dream, something you haven’t noticed, and it’s only fair to let me explain it to you. You say the dream told you that an iron spearhead was going to cause my death. But does a boar have hands? Where is its iron spearhead for you to worry about? If the apparition had told you that a tusk or something like that was going to cause my death, then of course you should have taken these precautions. But in fact it was a spear. So since it’s not men we’re going up against, please let me go.’

‘All right, son,’ Croesus replied, ‘I give in. Your explanation of the dream does make a king of sense. I’ll change my mind and let you go on the hunt.’

Some time later they set out, along with the elite young fighting men and dogs. Once they had reached Olympus, they started searching the mountain for the beast. They found it, stood in a circle around it, and began to throw their spears at it. This was the point at which…Adrastus threw his spear at the boar, missed it, and hit Croesus’ son.


Well, then! Oedipus, my king! Forget everything and listen to me. No mortal knows the will of the gods. Let me show you proof of this. Once, an oracle came to Laius –I’m not saying from Apollo directly, but from his servants- that it was his Fate to die by the hand of his son – his and my son! However, word has it that Laius was killed by strangers, thieves, at a three-way cross road.

As for the boy, three days after he was born, the king has his ankles pinned and gave him to someone to take him to some forest where no human ever went. And so, neither the child was allowed by Apollo to kill his father, nor did Laius suffer murder in the hands of his own son.

That was god’s real intention, not what some seer said would happen. If the god wants something done he’ll tell us himself.

Since I’ve come so far into the depths of fear, Jocasta, I won’t keep you in the dark. I’ll tell you everything. Who else could I possibly disclose such Fate?

My father was the Corinthian Polybus, my mother, the Dorian Meropi. There, in Corinth, I was loved by all, until one day when something odd happened. Odd and not worthy of the attention I gave it at the time.

A drunk, during a banquet said that I was not my father’s son, that I was a false son, an adopted son. I held my temper that day but the next I asked my parents and they, too, were highly insulted by what that drunk said.

I loved those two. Still, some thought at the back of my head was eating at me, at my very soul. One day then I went secretly to Apollo’s shrine and asked him about it but the god gave me no answer to any of the questions I’d ask him but… he’d tell me all sorts of other horrible, dreadful prophesies, prophesies like, one day I’d become my mother’s husband, or that I’d spawn a generation hated by mankind, or that I’d murder my father! At that I let the stars guide my path and left Corinth behind me. I walked away from there so that I wouldn’t give the slightest chance for these awful prophesies to come true.
I walked and walked until I came upon that forked road where you’ve told me Laius was murdered.

Let me tell you the truth, wife. As I got to that spot, I came across a herald and a man on a horse-drawn carriage. Both, man and herald came and tried to push me roughly out of the way. I got so angry that, in the fight, I hit the driver of the carriage. The old man saw this and as I walked past the carriage he picked up the double goad and hit me over the head with it. Let me tell you, wife, for that little act, he paid double. I lifted my own staff and hit him back. He rolled to the ground from the carriage, flat on his back. Then, as I fought on, I killed all the rest of them.

But if this stranger now has some light to shine upon that incident –

Oh, wife! Who would be more unfortunate than me? More hated? By man and by gods?

Neither a stranger nor a citizen could let me into his home nor even speak with me but send me on my cursed way. And it was I who announced this course upon me, no one else.
These hands! With these very hands I gripped at the man whose wife I hold now. Am I not then an evil man? Am I not a vile sacrilege? If I must leave, I will neither be able to see my family nor go back to my own country, Corinth. Or else, the prophesy says, if I go back to Corinth, I shall marry my mother and kill Polybus, my father, the man loved me and gave me life and raised me. Would it not be true if someone said of me that a cruel god is pursuing me?

I felt pity for the child, my Lord. I thought, well, he’d be taken to another land, one far away from his father’s and so he’d be free of that oracle. No problems that I could see. Unfortunately though, my Lord, it looks like that was a bad decision, saving the child, I mean, because, well, because if that child is you, then, by Zeus, I fear gravely for you, too… my Lord.

O, how gruesomely clear it has all unravelled! O light! Let me enjoy you for one last time. One last time from the time I was born, for I was born from the wrong parents, I was bonded with the wrong people and I’ve killed those I should have never killed.

i) As we can see, all these examples share a common motif: an unwelcome prophecy or prophetic dream. Some of the participants try to foil the prophecy. Yet their efforts to foil the prophecy are the very means by which the oracle comes true.

The stories from Herodotus and Sophocles are examples of what I think most folks would classify as paradigm-cases of fatalism. Yet the stories involving Joseph and Herod are clearly in the same vein. Some obstreperous parties set into motion of chain of events resulting in the fateful denouement. So, in that respect, there is a fatalistic strain to some Biblical events.

ii) Does this represent God’s general modus operandi? No. For example, Joseph is not resistant to the prophetic dream–only his brothers.

iii) What we may say about the Biblical examples is that God occasionally uses fatalistic methods to make a point: even defiant sinners cannot defy his will. And to make that point, God orchestrates some actions and events so that a sinner’s defiance of his will is the very means by which his will is accomplished. He turns their seditious intentions against them–to serve his own purposes. Even their insubordination is subordinated to his will. They obey him by disobeying him. Hence, rebellion is futile.

iv) At the same time, it’s also striking that, in the case of the Joseph cycle, his brothers are ultimately the beneficiaries of fatalism. As it turns out, the prophetic dream was an oracle of salvation rather than an oracle of doom. Benevolent fatalism. Likewise, Herod’s loss is our gain.

v) Another reason for God’s occasional use of fatalistic methods is the delicious propriety of such methods when dealing with wicked schemers. Who can fail to appreciate the poetic justice of a wicked schemer whose wicked schemes result in sealing his own fate?

A classic biblical instance of judicial fatalism is the case of Haman. He sets a trap for the Jews. Or so he thinks. Yet he unwittingly sets a trap for himself. As one commentator puts it:

“The whole book of Esther can readily be seen as one grand reversal…The narrator had no need to enlighten his audience about the origin of this reversal: with resonances of the Joseph and Exodus stories throughout the book, the activity of God will have been entirely plain. The great the number of ‘coincidences’ necessary for the salvation of the Jewish people, and the more implausible they seem, the more directly the role of God is pointed to. God, as a character of the story, becomes more conspicuous the more absent he is,” D. Clines, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (Eerdmans 1992), 269.

v) Esther also illustrates the sense in which the same outcome can be fatalistic for one participant, but not for another. In one respect, Haman is a willing participant–but only because he labors under the conceited illusion that he’s calling the shots. He’s like a miniature chess player sitting on God’s chessboard. The Jews are his pawns, but he is God’s pawn.

By contrast, Esther and Mordecai are not attempting to sabotage God’s plan. As pious Jews, they have implicit faith in God’s providence. So the reversal of fortunes is fateful for Haman, but not for Esther or Mordecai.

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