by Jack Hay, Scotland
The focus of this chapter is on the last words of Joseph in Genesis chapter 50, but it may be fitting to incorporate some brief comments about the chapter as a whole. The last chapter of Genesis stands in sharp contrast to chapter one. The volume of Holy Scripture opens with a scene that is vibrant with life. On day three of creation vegetation was luxuriant. By day five the oceans were teeming with marine life and the sky was filled with every possible species of bird. Day six saw animals and reptiles cover the face of the earth, significantly designated in a general way as “the living creature” Gen.1.24. Life, activity, expansion: that is the spectacle that greets us as we open the Book of Genesis. The smell of death hangs heavily on the final chapter; it is replete with sorrow and funeral scenes, with the final two verses making mention of “bones” v.25, and the unedifying sight of a man “in a coffin in Egypt” v.26. What had made the difference? “Sin … and death by sin” Rom.5.12. Very early in human history, the tragic consequences of Adam’s rebellion were all too obvious. Thus the last chapter of the opening book of the Bible stands in vivid contrast to the first.
This last chapter of Genesis also differs dramatically from the last chapter of the first book of the New Testament and almost epitomises the contrast between these major sections of the Word of God. Matthew chapter 28 is all about resurrection, joy and excitement. In contrast to the mention of a skeleton there is a risen Man promising His presence “unto the end of the world”. In contrast to a man in a coffin whom death had stripped of the power and authority he had wielded over the greatest nation on earth, there is a living Man vested with all power “in heaven and in earth” Matt.28.16-20. God’s remedy for sin had been introduced by the death and triumphant resurrection of the Lord Jesus; Hallelujah, what a Saviour!
Another contrast is to be observed between the first and last recorded words of Joseph. His complaints against his brothers are mentioned in general terms, but really, his first recorded words are the accounts of the two dreams he had experienced: portents of his glory in Egypt and the subservience of his brethren, Gen.37.1-11. His last words are an indication that all that had been was now past and assigned to history; death beckoned; the sheaf of the dream was now shrivelled and dry, and the star of the dream was fading fast. Like Joshua, he was “going the way of all the earth” Josh.23.14. How different from the Lord Jesus! Even on the eve of His crucifixion He spoke about a “hereafter”, when He would be seen “sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven” Matt.26.64. His power and majesty will be permanent and His glory eternal, for He lives in “the power of an endless life” Heb.7.16. Joseph spoke of “his bones” Heb.11.22, but the flesh of the Lord Jesus “saw no corruption” Acts 13.37, and “the world to come” will be “in subjection” to that living Man, Heb.2.5; “He shall bear the glory” Zech.6.13.
Joseph’s last words were varied, and we will note that he spoke words of authority, words of courtesy, words of sympathy, and words of prophecy.
At the death of his father Joseph’s grief knew no bounds. For the first seventeen years of his life Jacob had showered him with favours, not least his distinctive coat of many colours. For the last seventeen years of Jacob’s life Joseph had been able to requite him by providing a haven from the ravages of famine. Goshen was an environment where a clan of shepherds could comfortably ply their trade, sufficiently isolated from mainstream Egyptian life, and avoid inciting prejudice, Gen.46.34. It is a Biblical principle that in Christian families ‘payback’ time arrives, when the care that parents have exhibited and the finances that they have expended in rearing a family, are finally reciprocated, 1Tim.5.4. To fail in this duty is to deny the faith and be “worse than an unbeliever” v.8, R.V. At the time of writing, in the U.K. the estimated cost of rearing a child to age 21 is getting close to a quarter of a million pounds, which is a staggering statistic. It would be a shameful thing if the sacrifices of parenthood were forgotten and in the later stages of life an aged father or mother was left to scrimp and scrape.
But now Jacob was dead and “Joseph fell upon his father’s face, and wept upon him, and kissed him” v.1. The last verse of the previous chapter refers to Jacob’s feet; now there is a reference to his face. Joseph was no stranger to tears. He had wept as he listened to his brothers discuss his mistreatment, Gen.42.24. The sight of his younger brother, Benjamin, had hurried him to his private quarters to break his heart, Gen.43.30. Loud weeping accompanied the disclosure of himself to his brethren, Gen.45.1,2. “A good while” of shedding tears followed the reunion with his father, Gen.46.29. Here again he weeps: a grown man, a powerful man, a famous man, and he is crying!
The first mention of weeping in the Bible is in connection with Hagar’s grief as she anticipated Ishmael’s death in the searing heat, Gen.21.16. The first record of a man weeping was at the death of Sarah when Abraham came “to weep for her” Gen.23.2. As Abraham knelt beside the mortal remains of the wife of his youth, and as he viewed that cold pale visage, a flood of memories would have surged into his heart, but we would be entering the realms of conjecture if we tried to imagine his thoughts! What we do know is that he wept. He was a strong old man; had he not climbed the mountain in the previous chapter? And yet he wept. He was a courageous old man; had he not been willing to obey God despite the cost? And yet he wept. He was a believing old man; had he not the conviction that God would raise his son Isaac from the dead? Heb.11.19. And yet he wept. Neither strength nor courage nor faith dammed the flow of tears that evidenced a broken heart. But why should his eyes be dry? He was bidding farewell to a beloved wife.
And why should Joseph stifle his grief at the passing of his dear old father? One far greater than he was described as a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” Isa.53.3. On three recorded occasions His tears are noted and one of these incidents was in connection with bereavement. As He walked towards the grave of His friend Lazarus, “Jesus wept” Jn.11.35. Tears are not a token of weakness but of tenderness, and although we “sorrow not, even as others which have no hope” 1Thess.4.13, the sorrow of bereavement is real. Had the beloved Epaphroditus died, Paul would have had “sorrow upon sorrow” Phil.2.25-27. God places our tears in His bottle and records them in His book. The bottle and the book tell of His sympathy and His compassion towards the distraught believer, Ps.56.8.
Of the twelve brothers at the deathbed, Joseph was the only one whose grief was palpable. Perhaps some of the others were still crimson-faced at what Jacob had said to them that day. Likely they were too ashamed to be demonstrative in their mourning considering that they had consigned their father to years of agonising grief, Gen.37.34,35. When approving his journey to Egypt, God had promised Jacob that Joseph would put his hand upon his eyes, Gen.46.4, probably referring to the fact that Joseph’s fingers would close his eyes in death. The Divine prophecy was now being fulfilled. When Jacob had arrived in Egypt, Joseph had fallen on his neck “and wept on his neck a good while” Gen.46.29; it was the embrace of welcome and reunion; the tears were tears of joy. Things were different now: these were farewell-for-ever embraces and goodbye kisses; these were tears of desolation. In his poem “Adieu”, I.Y. Ewan captured the atmosphere of the final parting, whether at the death-bed or graveyard:
- One last adieu, and then the curtain falls;
- The rain-swept path again the sad pursue;
- While echoes on through mem’ry’s sacred halls
- That last adieu; that long, that last adieu.
- One last adieu, and then the silent years,
- The vanished form, the voiceless void unknown,
- The unshared way, the unshared hopes and fears;
- One last adieu, then oceans vast and lone.
- One last adieu until the morning break;
- God’s morning fair, in radiant, holy light;
- Till then His pilgrim people calmly take
- One last adieu; one final last Good-night.
- One last adieu upon this troubled shore,
- Again to meet in scenes forever new,
- That parting word to utter nevermore;
- That last adieu; that long, that last adieu.
Joseph now busied himself with funeral arrangements. Under oath he had promised his father that the old man’s remains would be interred in the family vault in Canaan, Gen.47.28-31. The distance and the heat necessitated an embalming process, and this is where his words of authority feature: “Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father” Gen.50.2. He still wielded power, and the best of Egypt was at his disposal. However, it is significant that these top-drawer physicians had been helpless to prevent Jacob’s death. Neither the skill of eminent doctors nor the advance of medical science can postpone what God has decreed: “Seeing his days are determined, the number of his months are with Thee, Thou hast appointed his bounds that he cannot pass” Job 14.5. Added to that, what people call ‘fighting’ a disease is equally futile in the long run; death will be the inevitable winner. “There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death” Eccl.8.8. So Jacob died despite the availability of elite physicians; the best that they could do was to embalm him. In contrast, the One Who “saw no corruption” had no need of embalming!
The embalming procedure took forty days, Gen.50.3, and we will not weary the reader with technical details or a stomach-churning description of the long process! Egyptian mourning for Jacob extended to seventy days, either a token of the reputation he had earned in his years among them, or out of respect for his illustrious son who had saved their nation from calamity. Whatever way, Jacob was mourned. He had “a good report of them which are without” 1Tim.3.7. King Jehoram was so different; he commanded no respect and he “departed without being desired” 2Chr.21.20. Will our passing create genuine sadness or a feeling of relief? ‘Live to be missed’ is a healthy motto for every believer, as seen for example in the lives of Josiah and Stephen. “All Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah. And Jeremiah lamented for Josiah” 2Chr.35.24,25. “Devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him” Acts 8.2. So then, in both Old and New Testaments there were those whose promotion to glory left a vacuum; hearts were broken, eyes were moist and eulogies were honest.
“Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt” Col.4.6. Ruth is a wonderful example of this. She did not march into the field of Boaz demanding her gleaning rights, pointing to chapter and verse to establish her entitlement to be there. Her language was respectful: “I pray you, let me glean and gather after the reapers among the sheaves” Ruth 2.7. It could be argued that she had no option but to be deferential: she was a foreigner, she was a widow, and she was in penury.
Joseph was different. He was the most powerful man in Pharaoh’s administration and yet he did not assume that he was at liberty to take time off for a funeral. He made polite representations through the proper channels to request leave of absence to fulfil his father’s request regarding the funeral arrangements: “If now I have found grace in your eyes, speak, I pray you, in the ears of Pharaoh” Gen.50.4. The lesson is that no matter a person’s status, gracious words and a courteous demeanour are always fitting. Even when under provocation “a soft answer turneth away wrath” Prov.15.1. Joshua’s “soft answer” mollified the pompous “children of Joseph” who came to him boasting, “I am a great people” Josh.17.14-18. Gideon was equally astute when he handled their bullying descendants, Judg.8.1-3. A subsequent generation of these same people tried to intimidate Jephthah, but he preferred the ‘mailed fist’ to the ‘kid glove’ and it ended in carnage, Judg.12.1-6. Tact and courtesy are never out of place, and the mighty Joseph used both when making representations to be free of duties for an extended period of time. Paul was equally as sensitive when writing to Philemon. He was dealing with a thorny issue in pleading for the rehabilitation of a runaway slave who had probably been guilty of thieving at the time of his defection. It would take us too far off course to highlight his prudent use of language; suffice to say that the whole epistle is couched in terms that illustrate his own injunction to the very assembly with which Philemon was associated: “in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another” Col.3.16, J.N.D.
The message that was to be relayed to Pharaoh contained Joseph’s recollections of a conversation with his father. He had had three encounters with Jacob in his final days. The first was a brief personal visit at Jacob’s instigation, Gen.47.28-31. The second was in company with his two sons when a carer summoned him as it became obvious that Jacob was sinking, chapter 48. In that second meeting there was a disagreement: Joseph was displeased that Jacob transferred the rights of the firstborn from Manasseh to Ephraim. He attempted to remove his father’s right hand from the head of Ephraim, but the old man had been “guiding his hands wittingly” v.14. Despite being blind and bedridden, the aged patriarch still had spiritual discernment: Jacob was right; it was an act of faith, Heb.11.21. The third visit was when Jacob summoned all his sons and Joseph was a silent bystander as his father made his assessment of each of them in turn, then gave renewed instructions about his funeral and slipped away; this was followed by the outpouring of grief to which reference has been made.
Joseph’s message to Pharaoh related to the first encounter, his personal interview with his father. “My father made me swear …” Indeed Jacob had insisted on a solemn oath that under no circumstances would his remains be interred in Egypt, but carried to Canaan. Once more, Joseph’s diplomacy is to be commended. The message to Pharaoh made no reference to the fact that Jacob had said, “bury me not … in Egypt … carry me out of Egypt” Gen.47.29,30. Joseph was careful to present only the positive side of the request: “the land of Canaan, there shalt thou bury me” Gen.50.5. He was selective in recounting his father’s instructions, omitting anything that may have appeared to be offensive to Egypt, anything that could have irritated Pharaoh. I call it diplomacy rather than duplicity! To leave out part of a story with a view to deception cannot be condoned; it is sinful. All that Joseph was doing was ignoring the part of Jacob’s request that could have been perceived as a slight on Egypt; he had no desire to hurt anyone’s feelings unnecessarily. Such a desire is justifiable. Reference has been made to Paul’s appeal to let our speech be always with grace; that is immediately preceded by this injunction: “Walk in wisdom toward them that are without” Col.4.5. In his interaction with the Egyptians Joseph combined courteous words with a considerate walk.
Joseph referred to Jacob having dug a grave for himself in Canaan, Gen.50.5. That can only be understood in the sense that in that commodious cave called Machpelah Jacob had provided a burial shelf for his own body, possibly at the time of Leah’s burial. Like so many in Scripture, he was aware of his mortality and had made provision for his burial. King Asa had “hewn out for himself” a sepulchre in Jerusalem. One would almost think that he occupied it prematurely because of serious failure at the end of his life including the fact that in his last illness he relied more on the physicians than on God, 2Chr.16.12-14, R.V. Shebna was a top official in Hezekiah’s cabinet but he had a massive ego and in his pretentious ways he hewed out a sepulchre for himself in Jerusalem that he would never occupy, Isa.22.15-21. Joseph of Arimathaea was another who had chiselled out a burying place from the rock, and Divine timing is such that the job was completed just in time to receive the holy body of the Lord Jesus, Matt.27.60. These individuals all had a sense of the inevitability of death.
As believers, there is no need for us to entertain morbid thoughts about death, for we anticipate the imminent return of the Lord Jesus. However, it is good to keep focused on the fact that what the Bible calls “the life that now is” 1Tim.4.8, is transient, and the journey of life could reach its terminus at any time either by rapture or death. Paul never lost sight of this and it seemed to be one of the things that kept him motivated to use what time was still available to maximum advantage. He tells us that we are as fragile as “earthen vessels”; the outward man is perishing; the flimsy tent that is our body will have to come down; we will be absent from the body, 2Cor.4.7-5.10; in other words, “the time is short” 1Cor.7.29. Because of that, spiritual issues must have precedence, the work of God must take priority and the assembly must have primacy in our lives. In His service, the Lord Jesus lived in light of the fact that His time here was limited: “I must work the works of Him that sent Me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work” Jn.9.4. So then, enshrined in Joseph’s last words there was this reminder that his father had lived with the awareness that his body was a “mortal body” Rom.6.12.
“Let me go up, I pray thee, and bury my father” Gen.50.5. “My father”: Joseph’s father! Pharaoh would have remembered him well. He would have recalled the day seventeen years previously when “Joseph brought in Jacob his father, and set him before Pharaoh” Gen.47.7. Joseph had made good; as far as status was concerned, he was on the top rung of the ladder, and yet he never forgot his roots. He was unashamed of his old father and so he brought him to meet the king. David displayed the same respect when he stepped onto the public stage for the first time: in that hour of magnificent triumph he said to Saul, “I am the son of thy servant Jesse the Beth-lehemite” 1Sam.17.58. The passing of the years never diminished that esteem, for in his last words, before ever he referred to his regal dignity as the anointed king or his poetical and musical skills as “the sweet psalmist of Israel”, he described himself as “David the son of Jesse” 2Sam.23.1. There is something particularly distasteful about people who become so full of their own importance that they want to conceal a humble upbringing and try to make elderly parents invisible. It is particularly obnoxious when these same parents have scraped and sacrificed to provide the education that set their offspring on the road to ‘success’.
As suggested, Pharaoh would never have forgotten the day when that old weather-beaten nomad came limping into his throne room. Possibly the monarch was still fairly youthful, for even the young man Joseph described himself as “a father” to him, Gen.45.8. In the presence of one so aged and dignified as the patriarch this relative novice seemed tongue-tied and the only thing that he could think of was to ask him his age! Gen.47.8. It is likely that it was to his astonishment that it was the old man who took the initiative and twice over we are told that “Jacob blessed Pharaoh” Gen.47.7,10. “Without all contradiction the less is blessed of the better” Heb.7.7. In the Divine estimation, the gnarled pilgrim shepherd was “better” than the greatest sovereign on earth; he was the one who was in touch with God; he was the one who was in a position to bless others. Let that be a lesson to us. Ambition for the political power of a Pharaoh might not be our problem; possibly prestige in the business world could be more alluring or the rank connected with a senior appointment in our career. God places a greater premium on the life of faith and devoted service and commitment to Christ. These are the qualities that place us in a position to bless others, rather than any status that relates to this present life.
Linked to Joseph’s request to leave for Canaan was this promise, “I will come again” Gen.50.5. Perhaps he thought that Pharaoh still regarded him as an essential part of his government. Maybe he felt that the king suspected that his old familiar homeland would entice him to defect. Whatever, he gave the solemn pledge that when his father was suitably buried he would return to his post in Egypt. That promise was kept: “And Joseph returned into Egypt” v.14. As ever, Joseph was a man of his word. Every promise that he had made to his brethren had been fulfilled bountifully when he settled the whole extended family in Goshen. The commitment he had made to his father about his burial was fulfilled to the letter despite the inconvenience, and in spite of the fact that no one had witnessed the agreement. Joseph kept his promises consistently. Do we? King Saul reneged on his promise to give his daughter to the man who would slay the giant, 1Sam.18.19. Another young man promised his father that he would go and work in his vineyard, but he “went not” Matt.21.30. Rich men selfishly withheld the promised wages of their labourers, and cries of injustice and anguish from these workmen echoed around the vaults of heaven, Jms.5.4. Among other things, God hates “a lying tongue” Prov.6.16,17. Joseph was the epitome of honesty, integrity and reliability; his word was his bond. What about us?
Pharaoh acceded to Joseph’s request, v.6, and Jacob’s family accompanied his body on the journey to Canaan with Egypt’s nobility in attendance, v.7. In this section of the chapter Joseph is silent, and as our basic theme is his last words, even to comment briefly is a digression so we will confine ourselves to only one or two remarks. The fact that the whole government of Egypt attended the funeral is another indication of their respect for Joseph and his father. It is interesting that the Egyptians get a mention before the family! There is still the thought that the brothers’ earlier treatment of their father left them reluctant to be prominent at the funeral lest they should be branded hypocrites. Firstborn rights had been transferred from Reuben to Joseph, 1Chr.5.1, so he was the one who took the lead in all the funeral arrangements: “Joseph went up to bury his father” v.7. The others seemed to take a ‘back seat’. As an aside, perhaps the presence of the military, v.9, was just to ensure Joseph’s return! There is just the suspicion that Pharaoh was afraid of losing such a valuable asset to his administration.
Interestingly, we are told that the children of Jacob’s clan were left behind, as were their flocks and herds, v.8. It was a different story at the time of the Exodus. At the stage when the then Pharaoh was negotiating with Moses and proposing compromises, one of his suggestions was that only the men should leave Egypt, Ex.10.11. Then a further concession was proposed: families could go but flocks and herds would be left, v.24. Moses was unyielding: “there shall not an hoof be left behind” v.26. Things were different at the time of Jacob’s funeral. There was no thought of his people evacuating Egypt at that point because undoubtedly they had knowledge of God’s promise to both Abraham and Jacob. When first intimating to Abraham that his descendants would be living in a foreign land, God had spoken of four hundred years, and had said that it would be into the fourth generation before they re-emerged, Gen.15.12-16. When sanctioning Jacob’s departure to Egypt, God had said to him, “… Egypt; … for I will there make of thee a great nation” Gen.46.3. The status of nationhood was still a good way off so there was no thought of them abandoning Goshen just then, and thus little ones and livestock were left behind. Let us be like them: interpret the Word of God, lay hold of the promises of God intelligently and allow them to dictate our course and the life-choices that have to be made.
On the border of the land another seven days of intense mourning ensued, Gen.50.10, and the event left such an impression on Canaanite observers that they immortalised it in renaming the place “Abel-mizraim”, interpreted by some translators as ‘The mourning of the Egyptians’. One can hardly read of the crowds, the pomp and the extravagant expressions of grief without the feeling that it stands in such sharp contrast to the simple, quiet, private burial of the Lord Jesus. Two men were in attendance with a couple of women observing the proceedings; the crowds had all gone home. For Him there were no leisurely seventy days of mourning augmented by another seven; His burial was rushed so as to beat the sabbath deadline. His was a new tomb which was left as clean as when He was placed there. Jacob shared his resting place with his ancestors and his wife, and their dust is still there; Christ’s flesh saw no corruption: “He is not here: for He is risen” Matt.28.6.
- Thy death of shame and sorrow
- Was like unto Thy birth,
- Which would no glory borrow,
- No majesty from earth.
- (R. C. Chapman)
From the threshing floor of Atad the cortege proceeded to Machpelah, and reference is made to the fact that Abraham had bought the field with its cave, Gen.50.13. There Jacob was buried. Two generations had passed since the purchase of that plot, and one wonders when even Jacob had last been in the vicinity, and yet his right to be buried there was secure. Abraham had covered every detail when negotiating the purchase, right down to the very trees that bordered the acreage, Gen.23.17,18. There is a lesson in that. When it comes to legal issues, as laymen we are negotiating a minefield. Hence the importance of suitable advice to ensure that every ‘tree’ is covered, to avoid headaches for future generations.
Life goes on, and with the lengthy funeral period behind them, Jacob’s family members now fall back into the routine of life, Gen.50.14. However, the patriarch’s passing had left his sons very uneasy. It is evident that because of their treatment of Joseph the worm of conscience had been active throughout their lifetimes. Many years after the event, when faced with harrowing circumstances they saw it as retribution for the mistreatment of their brother: “We are verily guilty concerning our brother” Gen.42.21. With Jacob’s death they felt vulnerable and nervous, anticipating a backlash, now that their father’s perceived restraining influence was removed. They were aware of the sowing and reaping principle: they had hated Joseph, Gen.37.4; possibly he would hate them, Gen.50.15. They thought that likely this was ‘payback’ time and he would requite all the evil they had done to him. They were assessing things as they would be normally and naturally. When their father cheated their uncle, had not Esau hated Jacob? Did he not vow to kill him when their father Isaac was dead? Gen.27.41. They could see the parallel: Jacob was now dead and any obstacle to Joseph’s vengeance had been removed. They did not take into account the effects of the grace of God in a man’s life, with the ability to behave contrary to natural impulses and accepted norms. Joseph was different; they should have known that, and yet they trembled.
Initially, they failed to muster the courage to face Joseph personally, and so a message was sent, Gen.50.16. It would appear that the whole thing was a fabrication; their own deceitful hearts invented the story of their father’s concerns. If Jacob had had any anxiety about the matter, would he not have personally communicated his misgivings to Joseph? However, it must be conceded that they were masterly in the way they framed their plea! There was an element of emotional blackmail: “Thy father”; “he died”; “thy brethren”. Along with the emotional appeal they dropped in the religious factor: “the God of thy father”. The word “command” was used to leave Joseph with a sense of obligation: “Thy father did command” v.16. There was at least a tacit acknowledgement of their guilt as they articulated this alleged message from their father. They used the word “trespass” twice, along with “sin” and “evil” v.17. Their father had supposedly appealed for forgiveness for them; they personally reiterated that plea: “now, we pray thee, forgive …” They gave the impression that they were changed men now, describing themselves as “the servants of the God of thy father”.
That emotive appeal was calculated to soften Joseph and was followed by a personal visit. They “fell down before his face” Gen.50.18. As in chapters 42, 43 and 44, they were prostrate in the presence of “the lord of the land”, and memories of Joseph’s dreams must have exploded in their minds yet again. No doubt he too recalled these harbingers of his supremacy, but, knowing his character, there was never anything of an ‘I told you so’ attitude. In their timorous emotional condition, they offered themselves to Joseph as his servants. It is almost reminiscent of the prodigal son when in his contrition he would have happily occupied the role of a hired servant, Lk.15.19. The abiding lesson is that “the way of transgressors is hard” Prov.13.15. Who would have thought that the crimes of the past would have haunted them for so long and that even in later life their state of mind would have been so seriously disturbed? Is it not a great mercy that, unlike Old Testament sacrifices, the sufficient work of Christ provides a balm for the conscience, “no more conscience of sins”? Heb.10.1,2.
- The terrors of law and of God
- With me can have nothing to do;
- My Saviour’s obedience and blood
- Hide all my transgressions from view.
- (Augustus Toplady)
It must have pained Joseph to receive such a communication from his brothers and then to see them grovelling at his feet. No wonder he wept again, Gen.50.17. In v.1 his tears were the natural outcome of bereavement, but this was avoidable, this was man-made. How could they misjudge him so badly? Had the record of his beneficence not given evidence of forgiveness? How could they think that he was just biding his time to get even? Why ever did they scheme so shamelessly? With such questions and emotions swirling in his mind, Joseph wept; their representations had cut him to the quick.
Despite their duplicity he was still conciliatory. He stands as a major example of Paul’s teaching to the Ephesians, “forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” Eph.4.32. Their treachery had consigned him to years of servitude and unwarranted imprisonment, and yet he repaid it with kindness. They “could not speak peaceably unto him” Gen.37.4, and yet there is now a “Fear not” from his lips, Gen.50.19. They sold him and yet he succoured them. It is the spirit of Christ, “Who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not” 1Pet.2.23. Joseph had never had any appetite for reprisals. Potiphar must have been quaking when Joseph was promoted, and his wife must have been terrified beyond words, but Joseph just got on with his new job in the ‘Ministry of Agriculture’ and made no official complaints. David had the same attitude to his would-be assassin Saul. These men are a condemnation of us. Sometimes we allow little snubs, perceived or real, to sour relationships for a lifetime! On occasions people whose debt of ten thousand talents has been written off want to brutally throttle their one hundred pence debtor, Matt.18.21-35.
“Fear not” Gen.50.19, relates to their bad behaviour in the past; there is to be no fear of revenge. “Fear ye not” v.21 relates to the future and the promise of continued nourishment for them. They had no need to be concerned about reprisals for the past; pardon was granted. They had no need to be anxious about resources for the future; provision would be maintained. The Scottish poet Robert Burns made the interesting observation that, while present circumstances are the only things of concern to animals, humans recollect the past and anticipate the future, and so in addressing a terrified mouse he said this:
- Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
- The present only toucheth thee:
- But, Och! I backward cast my e’e.
- On prospects drear!
- An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
- I guess an’ fear!
Burns was saying that he had regrets about the past and fears about the future and that is exactly where Joseph’s brothers found themselves, and the double “fear not” catered for both these needs. Thus it is with us; the work of Christ has dealt with a guilty past and guarantees a bright tomorrow for those who have been freed from the bondage of the fear of death, Heb.2.15. “Fear not: for I have redeemed thee” Isa.43.1.
“Am I in the place of God?” Gen.50.19. Joseph was simply articulating truth that had still to be written: “To Me belongeth vengeance, and recompense” Deut.32.35. To believers Paul said, “avenge not yourselves” Rom.12.19, and he reinforced that command by quoting the Deuteronomy passage. The desire to get even is innate. When Tamar was treated so disgustingly, her brother Absalom kept his cool, but allowed his hatred of Amnon to simmer for “two full years” before exacting the revenge that had been determined on the very day of the offence, 2Sam.13.20-39. The followers of Christ are encouraged to be different and to stifle the urge to retaliate. “See that none render evil for evil unto any man” 1Thess.5.15. “Not rendering evil for evil” 1Pet.3.9. Peter had already cited the Lord Jesus as One Who had committed His cause to God, 1Pet.2.23. Never act as a vigilante in your own interests; leave matters in God’s hands and, like Joseph, never see yourself “in the place of God” when it comes to meting out vengeance.
While Joseph comforted his brothers, he did not in any way play down the enormity of their crime: “ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good” Gen.50.20. As happens at times, while God never compels people to behave badly, He has the ability to turn evil conduct to good account. For example, the treachery of Judas was a major cog in the machinery of Divine purpose in the circumstances of the crucifixion. The stoning of Stephen with its attendant hurricane of persecution had the effect of bringing refugee believers to places that in the normal course of things might never have been reached with the gospel so soon, Acts 11.19-21. Paul’s unjust imprisonment at Rome had the effect of introducing many to the gospel: people as diverse as the elite praetorian guard and a runaway slave, Phil.1.12,13; Philemon v.10. So then, Joseph was willing to see God’s hand in his circumstances, viewing himself as a crucial instrument in God’s sovereign plan to “save much people alive” Gen.50.20, even though the pathway that led to that involved desperate mistreatment at the hands of his brothers. It would be good for us all to be able to detect God’s hand at work in our lives, using us in circumstances that might not have been of our choosing; things like hospitalisation or enforced relocation on account of redundancy.
Joseph’s final word of comfort and kindness was his pledge to “nourish” them and their families in the future, Gen.50.21. He had done it admirably since the early days of the famine, and now he gave notice that despite the passing of the head of the clan their interests were still secure; they would never be impoverished or hungry. Joseph’s track record would encourage us to believe that he fulfilled his commitment, and the fact that he was still in touch with them till his dying day, v.24, shows us once more that he was a man of his word. What he did for them physically and materially, the Lord Jesus has done for us spiritually. He has catered for our spiritual hunger in a permanent way: “he that cometh to Me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on Me shall never thirst” Jn.6.35.
The balance of Joseph’s life is passed over with the minimum of words. Reference is made to his continued residence in Egypt with the rest of the extended family, Gen.50.22. There are also allusions to his immediate family and his interaction with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It must have been a great pleasure in the autumn of life to enjoy something of what might be described as normal family life after all the traumas and tensions of the years. He was spared the sorrow that his son Ephraim experienced: Ephraim was inconsolable when some of these family members were slain by the men of Gath when rustling their cattle, 1Chr.7.20-23. Joseph could never have anticipated that these little children who played at his feet would in course of time meet such an untimely and violent death but such are the twists and turns of life. Thomas Gray gave it thought when he observed the boys of Eton College and pondered their unknown future with the sorrows they could face:
- Alas, regardless of their doom,
- The little victims play!
- No sense have they of ills to come,
- No care beyond today.
He concluded his ode with the famous lines:
- Yet ah! Why should they know their fate?
- Since sorrow never comes too late,
- And happiness too swiftly flies.
- Thought would destroy their paradise.
- No more; where ignorance is bliss,
- ‘Tis folly to be wise.
Death beckoned for Joseph and so he assembled his brethren, firstly to deliver a word of prophecy. He believed God’s promise to Abraham regarding the Exodus, Gen.15.14, and thus his words, “God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land” Gen.50.24. Frequently in Scripture, though not exclusively, a visit from God meant blessing, and when the Exodus was imminent, God intimated to Moses at the burning bush, “I have surely visited you, and seen …” Ex.3.16. What God saw on that visit, the affliction that He observed, prompted Him to come down to deliver them. Joseph had simply believed the message of God to his great-grandfather and conveyed it to the present generation. Paul’s attitude to the Word of God was equally confident: “I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me” Acts 27.25. If we profess to be Bible-believing people, then we too have a duty to communicate to others what we have learned and believed.
Not only did Joseph believe the message about their deliverance, but he also believed the message about their inheritance: “the land which He sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” Gen.50.24. The first part of his prophecy was fulfilled in the Book of Exodus, and the second in the Book of Joshua. Their deliverance was physical and their inheritance was earthly; ours are spiritual and eternal. We have been made “meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light”, but that entailed us first of all being “delivered … from the power of darkness” Col.1.12,13. We bless God for the emancipation from sin’s power and the expectation of eternal glory. Not only do we “rejoice in God” in respect of “reconciliation”, but we also “rejoice in hope of the glory of God”, Rom.5.2,11, R.V.
Joseph’s second reason for summoning his brothers was to elicit a promise from them. He wanted a clear commitment that his bones would be carried up from Egypt at the time of the Exodus. Obviously his immediate generation would have no ability to acquiesce, but he wanted it to be common knowledge among the people that his skeleton was to be removed to Canaan in due course. He “took an oath of the children of Israel” to that effect, Gen.50.25.
Elsewhere Scripture perceives that to be an act of faith; the mention of the departure of the children of Israel and the commandment concerning his bones gave evidence that this man of faith always took God at His word, Heb.11.22. And so Joseph died and his embalmed body “was put in a coffin in Egypt” Gen.50.26. The word “coffin” is exactly the same Hebrew word as “ark”, as in the ark of the covenant, so in all the years of their wilderness journey, the children of Israel carried these two chests with them. Moses was thorough in fulfilling the commitment of that previous generation; so “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him” Ex.13.19. Ultimately these bones were interred in Shechem, Josh.24.32, so during forty years great care had been taken in transporting that coffin.
Very likely, questions would have been asked about the significance of conveying that chest of bones. Any enquirers would have been told of the man who had kept the family from extinction and had saved Egypt from famishing; this was the man on whom was conferred the name Zaphnath-paaneah, the ‘saviour of the world’. As they journeyed through the wilderness, these bones reminded the nation of their saviour. The One Who is the true Saviour of the world left tokens by which He could be remembered, a loaf that symbolised His body, and a cup that represented His blood. These were to be eaten and drunk with the clear instruction, “this do in remembrance of Me” 1Cor.11.24,25.
- Sweet the feast of love Divine,
- Broken bread and outpoured wine;
- Sweet memorials, till the Lord
- Call us round His heavenly board,
- Some from earth, from glory some,
- Severed only “Till He come”!
- (E. H. Bickersteth)
Thus having given “commandment concerning his bones”, Joseph died, Heb.11.22. The voice that in this last chapter of Genesis had both commanded and comforted now fell silent; Joseph’s last words had been spoken.