Does the idea of a ‘God’s Plan’ really make sense?

Observant Judaism seems fundamentally founded on a doctrine that says that virtually everything that happens in the world, and with mankind, is preordained – that God, perhaps at the beginning of time, mapped it all out in futuro.  How extraordinary, perhaps disturbing, a concept — that we go through a life that has been predetermined.

We approach the cyclical end of the Book of Genesis, once again painfully reminded by the Rabbis of  “the Plan” —  God’s carefully choreographed design that we can’t fathom, but that somehow explains and rationalizes (even justifies) virtually everything that has supposedly happened to us along the way.

Where does God’s Plan begin? For no apparent reason, as Abraham fell into a deep sleep, God told Abraham that his descendants will be strangers for 400 years in a nation that doesn’t belong to them, and they will be enslaved there (only to emerge with great wealth).  (Genesis 15:13)  It would be one thing if God’s announcement were merely a prediction, even a prophecy. But no. It’s part of “the Plan,” we’re always knowingly told  – I’m placing your descendants into slavery (even though they seemingly did nothing wrong to deserve it). And, by the way, don’t ask Me why! Everything’s a Plan (just like some hardliners might argue that the Holocaust was part of a causeway en route to formation of the State of Israel).

Where does the Torah take us on our journey to enslavement?  To Joseph, of course.  He is hated by his brothers, so they sell Joseph into slavery to the Ishmaelites, and he ultimately lands in Egypt.  Bingo: Egypt is the slave capital of the world. However, if Joseph dies in prison, the prophesy can’t possibly come true – Jacob and his sons won’t have followed there, nor reconnected with him. So, Joseph became Potiphar’s slave, but that didn’t last too long. Thank God for Mrs. Potiphar, the seductress, and her wicked ways – because of her lies, Joseph was sent back to jail. An important step because it was there that he met the Pharaoh’s butler – his eventual ticket to the Pharaoh himself.  Joseph interpreted the butler’s dreams, then the Pharaoh’s dreams and so rose to be the Pharaoh’s viceroy.  Years later, as Joseph prophesied, there was a famine.  His brothers were dispatched to Egypt to get food. Brother tricked brother; brother imprisoned brother; and Joseph was reunited with Jacob and his entire family. Pharaoh died. Joseph died. New Pharaoh, afraid of the House of Israel and oblivious to what Joseph had done for Egypt, enslaved them.  Simple. God’s Plan for the enslavement of Abraham’s descendants, every step of the way.

Actually, when you really think about it, we needed Joseph to anger his brothers; we needed his brothers’ hatred to sell him into slavery; we needed Joseph to go to prison to meet the butler and interpret his dream; we needed Joseph to trick his brothers to cause Jacob to come with the whole House of Israel to Egypt for food; and we needed Pharaoh to die off with an ingrate successor who didn’t appreciate that it was the Hebrew Joseph who saved Egypt from ultimate starvation.

Let’s assume that God caused all of these events to occur in this sequence precisely in order to fulfill His “promise”, if you can call it that, to Abraham that we would be slaves in Egypt for 400 years, as God had prophesied. The question remains: why did He condemn our forebears to slavery for 400 years in the first place? What terrible wrong –  dreadful iniquity – did Abraham commit to warrant doing that to his descendants?  After all, Abraham would have been long dead by the time the penalty was effectuated.

Or was it simply God’s intention, for reasons clearly too unfathomable for Him to articulate to us, that He wanted the House of Israel to suffer miserably – maybe just to know what suffering was like. Or, alternatively, for the House of Israel to, later, fully appreciate God’s redemptive quality in rescuing the Jewish people from slavery?  Either way, it really doesn’t seem too God-like, don’t you think?

Instead, if one truly sees God as a merciful God, it almost makes one wonder if, instead, the Author simply backdated the future of the Jewish people. Meaning, the Plan wasn’t a Plan, after all. The slavery simply happened in the normal course of human events without God’s intercession and, for some odd reason, God preferred to make it seem as if He actually prophesied the future of the House of Israel while Abraham was still alive, by pronouncing in Scripture that He warned Abraham that it would happen.  The backdating not ideal either, right?

What should we do with this enigma?  Should we accept that God is arbitrary in how He chooses to deal with us?  Or should we believe that the Bible, the honest-to-goodness Word of God, is written with almost Shakespearean cynicism?  Finally, should we believe that there really always was “the Plan” and we should simply give up trying to figure it out? By the way, lest it go unsaid, there is nothing at all about “the Plan” in the Bible.

At day’s end, God’s intention in all of this is exceedingly hard to understand – perhaps even unfathomable. Still, I’m not altogether sure that labeling it all a Divine Plan is anything but simply a rationalization.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.
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