Maybe the starkest contrast between the Qur’an’s version of Joseph’s life and that of the Bible’s is how God is depicted.

God is BIG in Genesis.  He fills the room.  This is God with thunder and lightning and awe-inspiring actions of creation, protection and deliverance.  The God of Genesis is active and visible.  Water parts and land rises.  Life springs where it was not moments before.  God walks in a garden and confronts sin face to face.  Earth is created, then uncreated, then created again.  This God talks to people, shows up in dreams, visits your encampment.  He gives senior citizens babies.  He commands the inexplicable, then delivers by an angel and ram.  If your lucky, he might even come and wrestle with you until you win a blessing.  This is God in all his majesty and power, a God who is immanent and tangible.

That is until you come to the Joseph story in the Bible.  Scholars have long noticed the change.  Terence Fretheim describes it this way:

The Joseph story depicts the Creator God in ways somewhat different from chaps. 12-36.  Although not mentioned less often (some fifty times), God acts in less direct ways.  God does not offer oracles (God never appears to Joseph) and miracles; rather, God weaves the threads of goodness, mercy, and judgment into the texture of ordinary life, both private and public, working toward the best possible end.  Joseph associates with no centers of worship and builds no altars.  Yet God is with him, blessing him at every turn, and he is imbued with God’s spirit. (Fretheim, The Pentateuch, 91).

The author of Genesis is making the point that God is more than just the flash and bang of Cecil B. deMille movies.  Sure, God is that, see chapters 1-36.  But God also fades into the background of life or, maybe said a different way, He becomes so fused into the everyday workings of life that others become major characters (i.e., Joseph).  This reads like a story of Joseph and his conniving brothers, but what they were intending to be a curse on the surface, God was working together underground to be a blessing (Gen. 50:20).  God is talked about more than He talks in this story.  He is there, there should be no doubt, but in much less obvious ways.  Samuel Terrien called this the “elusive presence” of God.  The point from Genesis: to really “know” and relate to the God of the Bible it is necessary to embrace this much more subtle Guide as well as the mighty Creator or strong Deliverer.

In the Joseph or “Yusuf” stories of the Qur’an, Allah remains every bit as active and obvious as He has been up until this point.  This God cannot be viewed as subtle in any way.  Same story, many of the same details, but God is more out front than He is in Genesis.  For example:

  • We know right from the beginning (not the end like in Genesis) that God has chosen Joseph and will be blessing him (12:6)
  • God verbally reassures Joseph to go with his deceitful brothers because he will get a chance to confront them later (12:15)
  • Jacob looks to God as a present source of comfort when he receives the news of Joseph’s (fake) death (12:18)
  • God is right there keeping track of the misdeeds of the caravaners who take him to Egypt (12:19)
  • God actively “settles” Joseph in Egypt and “teaches” him how to interpret dreams (12:21-22)
  • God has given Joseph evidence of His presence before Egypt in order that Joseph would develop a faith that could withstand the temptations of Potiphar’s wife (12:24)
  • Joseph prays (something I don’t believe ever happens explicitly in Genesis) and God actively strengthens him in sexual temptation (12:33-34)
  • Satan is blamed for Joseph’s fellow prisoner forgetting him and leaving him in prison (12:42) and for the discord between Joseph and his brothers (12:100).  This one is quite different from Genesis.  Satan is no where to be found, rather God uses negative things to accomplish his goal.  One could validly argue that God allowed or even caused negatives (i.e., being taken to Egypt and being thrown in prison) in order to create the greater good of saving Egypt and Abraham’s seed from sure death in the famine of that time.  It appears the Qur’an is not comfortable with this, and inserts Satan as a way to separate God from the negative.
  • God is the active force that makes Joseph an Egyptian governor (12:56)
  • Even Joseph’s brothers know God is the “decider” of all things (12:80)
  • Credit and praise to God is all over the scene where Joseph is reunited with his brothers (12:90-91)

To be fair, there are two caveats in this surah in which the author acknowledges that not all will acknowledge the active presence of Allah:

God always prevails in His purpose, though most people do not realize it. (12:21)

My Lord is most subtle in achieving what He will. (12:10)

It seems what we are finding here is a stronger view of the providence of God in Islam than in some versions of Christianity.  A fundamental tenet in Muslim theology is the supreme power of Allah.  He controls all things.  This is best said in this passage by Jacob, “all power is in God’s hands” (12:67).  If it happens, it is because it is God’s will.  You will notice many modern Muslims will qualify their plans with insha Allah (If God wills it so) because of this view.  Previously we have read this ayah:

Nothing will happen to us except what God has written for us. (9:51)

In the Qur’an, God is the active, providential overseer and engineer of all things.  Allah cannot be anything less than active and involved.  It appears we are seeing an aspect of Islamic theology that is non-negotiable.  At least amongst the majority of Muslim theologies, there is no room for an “elusive presence” or “hidden God.”  This is a very high version of God, but it is also a very controlling version.  Allah is not the responsive God of open theism or process theology.  He is not the accommodating God of theologies that uphold the freedom of humanity.  Of course, there are versions of Calvinistic Christianity that have a similar view of God’s sovereignty.

Maybe the supreme control of God is a comforting idea.  Maybe it is troublesome because there are things that happen that we do not want to associate with God’s agency.  Maybe this just doesn’t conform to our experience.  How do you feel about it?