Grief and Caring for the Body (vv. 1-3)
When his father died, Joseph burst into tears. Knowing that he would die is not the same as seeing him dead; nothing can fully prepare us for the death of one whom we deeply love. The wages of sin is death, and the toll of death is high. At the same time, Joseph believed in the resurrection, as all his subsequent actions and confession make clear, so his grief was not the despair of one lacking faith and hope in God’s promise. Some of Joseph’s grief undoubtedly reflected a realization that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were now sleeping with their fathers. That era of God’s dealings with his people was at an end. Joseph and his brothers now had the responsibility to carry forward faith in God’s promises, even in Egypt. The promise of salvation rested upon their shoulders. These layers of grief would unfold in following years. For the moment, Joseph loved his father deeply. No two men within the household of faith enjoyed so much affinity as had Jacob and Joseph. The fires of natural affection burned much hotter for they shared the same faith and hope in God. They had lived in the same drama of redemption together; both stood in awe of his working and faithfulness. They had endured the same trials together. It was as if they shared one soul.
Let us never try to staunch these springs of grief or pour cold water upon these fires of holy affection. We must not grieve as the world, to be sure, but the ability to grieve in faith, sincerely, and purposefully is a wonderful gift from heaven. We must not pass too quickly through a season of death, for it is a good and humbling teacher. It is one of the deadly immaturities of our age that we do not want to pause at the grave and consider – the wages of sin, our finiteness and fallenness, our imminent subpoena to the judgment seat of God. We need as many sermons as possible on our mortality and eternity. Embrace these seasons, child of God. Let sanctified grief do a good work in you – to bolster flagging resolve, reset priorities, and lead to our lovely Savior. Where love is deepest and purest, it is able to weep freely at the death of a beloved family member or saint, without shame or regret but with joy and peace. Yes, with joy and peace, at a life well-lived, faith realized, hope attained, and rest entered.
The care of the body during that age shows at one level a vast superiority to today’s tendency to cremate, a barbarous practice, whatever specific motivations are. The Egyptians made a great to-do with their embalming, mourning, and funeral spectacles. Their preparations for the after-life manifest at a broken level God’s image and his truth present but buried under superstition. At least they were not rank materialists but showed a reverence for the body of the dead. Joseph did not adopt the Egyptian religion, but being a man of the true religion, he appreciated their care for the body. He knew that this life is not all there is and that the day of resurrection and judgment is coming. These faith commitments, coupled with the very practical need to preserve the body for the long period of mourning and funeral procession to Canaan, led him to have the body embalmed in typical Egyptian fashion. It required normally forty days to remove the brains and internal organs, cure the body with injections of saltpeter, and then preserve it by anointing with various ointments and wrapping with copious bandages. To this normal process the Egyptians added thirty more days of mourning, undoubtedly at Pharaoh’s command, as a token of deep gratitude for the father of the man who had saved their entire civilization from famine and ruin.
While I by no means recommend that the expense of embalming be incurred today, for a quick burial in most situations is both sufficient and possible, veneration for the body of the deceased is most necessary. This is not because we are superstitious but because our faith requires us to view the human body as a special creation of God (Gen. 2:7; Ps. 8:5). It is part of his image. To burn it in the fire is at best an unthinking act of ingratitude and disrespect. One suspects that there is more than frugality to the modern predilection for cremation. A larger funeral is occurring before our eyes, and I pray you are weeping over the death of the West’s practical faith in the resurrection of the body, final judgment, and even of an afterlife of any description. In this, at least, the naturalists have triumphed for the moment, but it will be a short-lived victory. Science, war, entertainment, and technology make very poor deities and impotent substitutes for living faith, especially in seasons of death.
A consistent Christian witness requires that we make our boast in our Savior’s empty tomb and promise of resurrection as much as we boast in his cross and sufferings. If we hold fast to his promise, we must “sow the body” (1 Cor. 15:44) in hope of what will be when our Lord returns to raise our bodies from the dead. To maintain this doctrine requires nothing less than faith that God is able to reassemble the matter of our former bodies and reanimate them; he is able to gather what has been burned, eaten, drowned, and otherwise treated with disrespect. He who knows the hairs of our head sees all the articulated elements of our body, however, scattered, crushed, or otherwise lost beyond the reach of all human knowledge. He is God. He will raise them up to new life by the power of Christ. The way in which we treat the body at death reveals whether or not we believe this.
Honoring His Father’s Request (vv. 4-6)
Joseph had every intention of honoring his father’s request to be buried in Canaan, but it is evident that the trip and all connected with it needed Pharaoh’s approval, even his imprimatur. Joseph was the Grand Vizier and recent deliverer of Egypt, but he was also Pharaoh’s servant. In the message he sent to Pharaoh, parental honor was emphasized – not Jacob’s “I do not want to be buried in Egypt.” Joseph sent his request with great humility. He did not presume upon the good will of his superior and was sincerely deferential. Having made clear to Pharaoh that his father wished to be buried in his native land and that Joseph had pledged to fulfill his dying wish, he humbly asked permission to keep his promise. Pharaoh directed Joseph to do so. It is always a wise thing to lay our plans before those in authority over us – even with our friends and family. There is too much presumption of the correctness of our own opinions and willfulness in pursuing our objectives. This is an application of our Savior’s “take the lowest seat,” rather than taking the best seat first. Joseph willingly took the place of a servant, as our Savior would later do in order to redeem us. And now that he has delivered us from sin and made us slaves of righteousness (Rom. 6:18), rather than outdoing one another to see who is first, let us instead find our delight as he did in serving others and putting them first as far as possible.
They Buried Israel in Canaan (vv. 7-13)
Jacob’s family became a large funeral procession. Only their smallest children remained in Egypt, undoubtedly with trusted servants. This would also have told Pharaoh that the death of Jacob would not lead to Joseph’s departure from Egypt. Hence, the large attachment of soldiers from Pharaoh’s household was not to ensure Joseph’s return. It indicates rather that Pharaoh sent part of his army to protect his most trusted advisor. Reaching the other side of Jordan, the party stopped and mourned for seven days. This was likely the main family time of grieving. Strong were the emotions upon their return to the land of promise. Would they return soon? Joseph had not likely been “home” for over fifty years. Did his heart yearn for God’s promises and to be settled in Canaan? It is likely. A man of Joseph’s sensitivities and tastes would not mindlessly pass through these events as formalities. He entered into each one of them, remembering his youthful haunts, his walks with his father, and perhaps the treasured spots of family memory where God had appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Canaanites were amazed by this procession. Perhaps leaving the Egyptian retinue at a respectful distance, Joseph and his brothers came to Mamre and buried their father in the cave of Machpelah. They fulfilled their father’s dying command. They planted his body in the hope of the resurrection; they also planted his body in hope of God’s promise.
God Meant It for Good (vv. 14-21)
14 And Joseph returned into Egypt, he, and his brethren, and all that went up with him to bury his father, after he had buried his father. 15 And when Joseph's brethren saw that their father was dead, they said, Joseph will peradventure hate us, and will certainly requite us all the evil which we did unto him. 16 And they sent a messenger unto Joseph, saying, Thy father did command before he died, saying, 17 So shall ye say unto Joseph, Forgive, I pray thee now, the trespass of thy brethren, and their sin; for they did unto thee evil: and now, we pray thee, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of thy father. And Joseph wept when they spake unto him. 18 And his brethren also went and fell down before his face; and they said, Behold, we be thy servants. 19 And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God? 20 But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. 21 Now therefore fear ye not: I will nourish you, and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spake kindly unto them.
The Fear of Jacob’s Brothers (vv. 14-17)
The family returned to Egypt. Soon after, Joseph’s brothers send a messenger to him. They feared reprisals for their former villainy. If we wonder at their fear, remember that with a point from his little finger, Joseph might have had them all killed. But they did not understand their brother. Their lives were not as settled as they should have been in God’s mercy and sovereignty. Mercy would have convinced them that Joseph was not likely to take up an offense committed forty years earlier. A greater appreciation for God’s hand in all that had happened would have united their hearts to Joseph’s in worship and gratitude. It is not that they were unbelievers, but they are hounded by guilt. It is clear that they had told Jacob most of what happened – or he had figured it out – or Joseph told him. But had they repented? The heart may be purged from its guilt only by true confession and forsaking of its sins, looking unto Jesus as its righteousness and peace. This was very hazy to Joseph’s brothers, and their crimes were heinous. Would their assault upon every tie of family and faith be as easily forgiven as Joseph made it appear? He treated them with kindness while their common father lived, but with him dead, Joseph might easily become their executioner. They did not understand him at all. They even related a plea from Jacob beyond the grave that Joseph would forgive his brothers.
Joseph Response (vv. 17-19)
Their uncertainty of his love and forgiveness broke Joseph’s heart. By this time, he had summoned them, and they rehearsed these words in his presence. He wept before them. This is an astounding scene. Seventeen years earlier, he had wept with joy to reveal himself – is he still a stranger to them? Do they not know his heart? He had truly forgiven them. It is not too much to say that he had likely not thought much of those events for many years. He was a powerful man in Egypt; he was a humble man in Zion. He had been too happy that they were together again, safe and blessed. Joseph must have been thinking: our father is sleeping with his fathers, and we have only each other. How can we enjoy brotherly affection and live together unless we have one heart and mind in something as basic as mercy and forgiveness? How can we keep alive the memory of God’s covenant and his pledge of salvation through the coming Seed – now revealed to be coming through Judah – unless we bury the past in the ocean of mercy and see God’s hand in it? Have I ever been to you anything but gracious? I have drawn you into my bosom and nourished you who tried to kill me – I bring this up not to accuse you but to silence such foolish pleas.
In unison they fell before him and said, “We are your slaves.” They made this offer seventeen years earlier, when it was only right for them to express the most abject repentance and self-renunciation. To make the same offer now after seeing God’s sovereign hand and faithful provision, and recently buried their father together, it was too much for Joseph – “Am I in the place of God?” If you are still troubled about the past, go make your peace with him. Do not drag me into your guilt complexes and schemes. If he has not forgiven your sins, can I? The humility Joseph expressed is staggering. He was the most powerful man in Egypt, save one, and he placed himself on the same plane as his brothers. I am only your brother, not your master. Is it possible that a man can survive untainted such power and wealth? Yes, with God all things are possible, and Joseph walked with God as few perhaps before him did except for his fathers and Enoch. He had their lives in his hand, but he sent them packing – straight to God. He had assumed that they had grown more in love and understanding so that among them, he was simply Joseph. Never had vengeance crossed his mind. He only wanted their love and fellowship.
Life Settled When We See God’s Hand in Everything (vv. 20-21)
It is beyond wonderful that this opening book of Holy Scripture should end with such words – “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” This could easily be God’s gracious testimony to our fallen race. It is surely a fitting theme for Genesis. Everything – from the Fall, through the Flood, all the division of Babel and subsequent wars, down through Abraham’s family and all its trials – God meant it for good. For Joseph to confess this now – the Holy Spirit saved his purest and brightest work in this man until this very moment. Yes, you meant it for evil – he did not now, even now, call his brothers evil – only that their intentions were. But God was at work, ruling and overruling, to ripen his good, holy, and wise purposes. To every believing heart, this is the end of the supposed conundrum between God’s sovereignty and man’s will or freedom. To those who have stood honestly before God’s throne – where all our philosophy and reasoning is seen in its puny impotence – there is no conundrum. All the men and women who have stood there – you are HOLY! HOLY! HOLY! All the evil lies in us. You are gracious and ready to forgive; we are the villains who have spoiled your beautiful world and brought such miseries upon ourselves.
Can there be any wonder that Joseph’s soul was so settled during those years of confinement in the dungeon, separation from his beloved father, and temptation to doubt and despair? That he when given the opportunity embraced his would-be murderers as brothers and only sought to do them good? That the passing of years since did not pique any desire for vengeance but only hardened his resolve to be a blessing to his family? He had suffered more than them all, but he was the readiest to forgive, the first to embrace, the last to think of reprisals. Joseph did his own wrestling with the Lord, not at Bethel, but in an Egyptian dungeon. The Lord subdued him at this very point. Yes, I have revealed myself to you in dreams, and you will be great, but I will bring you first through the crushing vise of affliction. You will learn that I am your good and that I intend good for you, regardless of what you see with your eyes or feel in your spirit. I am working good. What a gospel lesson! All our stability in this world lies in believing that God rules and rules for good and works only good for his people. The worst evil imaginable will bring forth the greatest good for those who trust him (Ps. 31:19). Believing this is the only way we smile when dying of disease, turn the other cheek, forgive every offense, and be harmless and gentle, the children of our heavenly Father.
God Will Surely Visit You (vv. 22-26)
22 And Joseph dwelt in Egypt, he, and his father's house: and Joseph lived an hundred and ten years. 23 And Joseph saw Ephraim's children of the third generation: the children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were brought up upon Joseph's knees. 24 And Joseph said unto his brethren, I die: and God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land unto the land which he sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. 25 And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence. 26 So Joseph died, being an hundred and ten years old: and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.
God Blessed Joseph Greatly (vv. 22-23)
I hardly know whether to laugh or cry when we come to these last lines of Genesis. This is our history, not only because we are men and women created in God’s image, but also because we are the children of Abraham by faith in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:26-29). The darkness of life would be impenetrable and unbearable without these precious lines – our origin and fall, God’s gracious promise of redemption through the seed of the woman, his grace to Abraham and his seed, who is ultimately Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16), and the trials of faith. And look at how Genesis ends – Joseph was extremely tested. Nothing breaks down resolve, cheerfulness, and love as much as grievous suffering through real injustice. The end or crown of Joseph’s life was God’s blessing upon him for his last sixty or so years. He lived to be 110, an ideal lifespan according to the Egyptians, and saw his children’s children. The children of Machir, Manasseh’s son, were brought up on Joseph’s knees – a poignant touch, a father’s promise to Joseph fulfilled, a long life enjoyed as the fruit of faithfulness and enduring faith. Truly, there is a reward for the righteous (Ps. 58:11), and we must never forget it!
I Die – Look to God’s Promise (vv. 24-26)
After the famine ended, God’s people enjoyed a period of numerical growth and prosperity. Joseph saw the first long stretch of this, but as with his father, it did not make him forget the higher blessings. If all for which our fathers then cared were full bellies and purses, then Egypt would have satisfied them. It did not, and Joseph looked for the city that had foundations. It was not Egypt. No amount of prosperity and power, even the joy of seeing his family grow and prosper, made him forget what was left behind. He must have thought much about God’s promises in those last days of his life. He called his brothers to him – he was very old, rich, and powerful. What would he say to them?” “Brothers” likely means his extended family, for some of his older brothers were undoubtedly sleeping with their fathers by this time. I die – but God will surely visit you. What glorious last words! Let none of the blessings here (or struggles) make you forget God’s promise. Egypt is a temporary home. God will call you to your true home in Canaan. Joseph put them under oath to take his bones home to Canaan when they left, which they in fact did (Ex. 13:19). Thus, Joseph died, the most imminent picture of Jesus Christ of his generation. A few centuries would pass until God raised up another type in Moses.
Pray, believer, that your dying words may be of Canaan, the true rest that God has given us in his Son. Like Joseph, resolve to live unto him and enjoy the fruits of his mediation in your years of trouble and work, so that when it comes time to sleep with your fathers, your testimony will direct toward heaven the hearts of those remaining behind. Know that to die in good hope, you must live in true faith. Then, whether our deaths are peaceful and idyllic, a rare gift, or hard and tortuous, we share with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph the hope of God’s eternal rest in Christ. In your life and death, live by faith in the Son of God and point all men to God’s promises. They are our food. They kept hope and faith alive in the years after Joseph’s death and the horrible slavery that God’s people endured. They will keep us, for we live by every word of God’s mouth. He will surely visit us. He will keep what he has promised. He will exalt his Son’s kingdom, build his church, make the name of Jesus Christ a praise in the earth, and topple every mountain of tyranny and persecution raised in opposition to the reign of his beloved Son. Build your life upon his promise, and you will endure and overcome all the storms of Egypt.
Profiting from the Word and Searching Our Hearts
1. How is death a good teacher?
2. How does the care of the body at death reveal the faith of a man? Of a culture?
3. What is it about the Christian faith that enables us to grieve deeply without grieving hopelessly?
4. Explain the implications of 1 Corinthians 15:44 for our treatment of the body at death? Or, why do Christians bury the body at death?
5. Why were Joseph’s brothers fearful? What settles the conscience respecting the evil deeds that we have committed?
6. Why was Joseph able to forgive complete his brothers’ villainy?
7. Do you have a practical faith in God’s sovereign, personal hand in all that happens to you? In what those closest to you say and do to you? How can you tell?
8. Why was Joseph’s heart broken by all this? How does he manifest humility?
9. Where – when – how did Joseph learn his great confession in verse 20?
10. How is this the secret to a settled faith, patience in adversity, forgiveness when suffering wrong?