Genesis 50: Jacob’s Death and Its Aftermath

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Jacob has died. Joseph throws himself upon his father, weeping loudly. Nothing is said about the other sons. Surely, they are also grieving, but Joseph is in the forefront. The text, literally, reads: “Joseph threw himself upon his father’s face and kissed him.” It speaks to the intensity of the moment.

Without any input from his brothers, Joseph orders his physicians to embalm his father. Joseph, too, will be embalmed, but these are the only instances of this in the Bible. Mummification is an essential aspect of Egyptian tradition. Believing in life after death, the Egyptians’ great care in preserving the body ensures their right to immortality in the afterlife. Of course, this service is limited to people of importance. Some scholars, however, argue that embalming Jacob and Joseph is purely a practical matter. Jacob has requested to be buried in the tomb of his fathers; Joseph will be reburied later. Both bodies need to be preserved. Also, this is not done by mortuary priests, but by physicians. It does not mention whether the brothers have any issues in foregoing the Israelite tradition of burying the body on the same day of death.

Nonetheless, embalming is a process, and the physicians take a full forty days to complete it, which is typical. During that time, the Egyptians begin their days of mourning. The total days of mourning are 70. If one imagines that the whole country is mourning, that would be an indication of the stature of this family. Obviously, that would have had to be mandated by Pharaoh.

When the days of mourning have passed, Joseph goes to Pharaoh’s court: “If I have found favor in your eyes, speak to Pharaoh for me.” He doesn’t go to Pharaoh directly on this one. Some scholars think it might be because he has been with a corpse. Maybe he’s wearing sackcloth, although the text doesn’t say that. Maybe he’s not certain how Pharaoh will react. Or, it could be that by going through the court, Joseph is making a formal request.

Joseph states that his father has made him swear that he would bury Jacob “in the grave I dug for myself in the land of Canaan.” With that statement, he changes a few things for Pharaoh’s benefit. He does not relay Jacob’s insistence that he not be buried in Egypt. He wants to be buried in the grave of his fathers. Perhaps Joseph is trying to avoid any semblance of ingratitude on Jacob’s part for Pharaoh’s generosity. An Egyptian would place great value on having a proper burial in Egypt. If Jacob has a previous spot reserved, it’s easier for Pharaoh to grant the request. Joseph continues to ask that he be allowed to go up and bury his father. He promises to return afterwards. Some scholars wonder whether that would have been a concern for Pharaoh. It is possible that things are still uncertain after the famine, but more likely, Pharaoh still relies upon Joseph. Of course, Pharaoh gives his permission, recognizing Joseph’s filial duty to his father. He says nothing about Joseph’s promise to return. No doubt, he trusts him implicitly.

It becomes quite a procession to the burial site. It states that all of Pharaoh’s “officials, the dignitaries of his court and all the dignitaries of Egypt” accompany them. Chariots and horsemen also go up. Members of Joseph’s household, his brothers, and all the members of Jacob’s household also make the trip. Only the children, flocks, and herds are left behind. It is quite an understatement to say, “It was a very large company.” It is possible that this is a show of great respect for Jacob and Joseph. But it is also possible that they want to ensure that everyone will return.

“When they reach the threshing floor of Atad, near the Jordan, they lament loudly and bitterly; and there, Joseph observes a seven-day period of mourning for his father.” The people of Canaan observe this and comment that “the Egyptians are holding a solemn ceremony of mourning.” Scholars really don’t know where this takes place, but the Egyptians are clearly involved. It is likely that the Canaanites have no idea for whom they are mourning, only that the Egyptians are involved and that it must be a person of great importance.

After seven days, apparently only the immediate family moves on because suddenly, Joseph speaks to his brothers. Upon his command, the brothers carry their father to the land of Canaan and “bury him in the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre, which Abraham had bought along with the field as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite.” Having fulfilled his promise to his father, Joseph and his brothers fulfill the promise he has made to Pharaoh by going back to Egypt. All the others who have gone with him return alongside them.

At some point, though, the reality of their father’s death strikes a sudden terror within the brothers. They start wondering and ask, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” In earlier times, they admittedly hated Joseph outright. What if he turns the tables now and uses his power for revenge? The quality of the relationship between Joseph and his brothers all these years is simply unknown.

Following the death of their father, they worry that there are no longer any restraints against Joseph. What is he capable of doing? Is he going to maintain his position, or will things become different? Are they in big trouble? In a sense, all bets are off; it’s a whole new day. Interestingly, this is really the first time they have admitted some guilt regarding their behavior toward Joseph. Even when they were telling Joseph their family history, they simply said “one is no more.” No doubt this day of reckoning has been on their minds for some time.

Yet, they cannot bring themselves to approach Joseph directly. Somehow they “send word” to him, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” This is very interesting. Scholars ask whether it is likely that Jacob knows about the brothers’ early mistreatment of Joseph. If so, they argue that he might have said something in his final words to his sons, given the fact that he recalls several other misdeeds among his sons. Also, the message appeals to Joseph’s respect for his father – “Your father left these instructions….” They don’t identify him as their father.

Most importantly, however, this is the first time they identify their behavior as “sins and wrongs.” Please forgive the “sins of the servants of the God of your father.” Regardless of how Joseph might feel about them, they are hoping he will honor his father and the God that unites them. For the first time, they are really humbling themselves. They are putting themselves on the line.

Joseph, it says, “weeps.” No one knows exactly why he weeps. Perhaps, he is overcome with the realization that his brothers have finally admitted their wrongdoing. Or perhaps he is crushed that after all he has done for them, they still don’t trust him. Or the emotion of his father’s death is still very raw. In any event, his response gets back to the brothers. At this point they approach him and throw themselves down before him saying, “We are your slaves.” The irony of this moment is unmistakable. Remember early on when Joseph was having dreams, and in his dream his brothers are bowing down to him. Here, they are bowing down to him. Moreover, they are doing it voluntarily. “We are willing to be your slaves.” “We are your slaves.”

Instead of forgiving them, Joseph tells them not to be afraid. Presumably, he has long forgiven them – perhaps on the day they refused to leave Benjamin behind because it would bring their father to his grave. Then Joseph asks, “Am I in the place of God?” He acknowledges that they intended to do him harm, but God “intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” The theological implications of this point have been discussed by scholars for eons. At best, one can say that God has the ability to use mankind’s evil deeds for good. On the other hand, it does not absolve the brothers’ evil actions. Joseph is content in believing that it is God’s purview to extract punishment as He sees fit. Joseph needs only to reassure. The misdeeds of Jacob’s family have provided for many others, including the Egyptians.

At this point, Joseph reiterates that he will provide for them and all their children. This doesn’t mean that the famine is still ongoing, but that their needs will always be met. It is noteworthy to comment on how much Joseph has changed too. No doubt when he related his dreams, he did so as an arrogant seventeen-year old kid, needling his brothers. Now, when that dream has been fulfilled, he says, “Am I God?” He has matured a lot, and he “speaks kindly to them.”

Roughly five or six decades will pass. Joseph and all of his father’s family stay in Egypt. Joseph will live to the age of 110. He lives long enough to see the third generation of Ephraim’s children. “The children of Makir, son of Manasseh, are placed at birth on his knees.” Makir is mentioned because he becomes the most important tribe of Manasseh. Placing children on one’s knees is akin to adopting them. This cements the connection between Joseph and Makir. Furthermore, these generations speak to Joseph being blessed with long life.

But his life doesn’t last forever. Eventually, he’s on his deathbed, and he tells his brothers that he is about to die. There is no indication whether any of these brothers have already passed on. He reassures them that “God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” This is not the land that God has, on oath, promised to give them. They are in Egypt, not the Promised Land.

Just as God is under oath to the patriarchs, Joseph places his brothers under oath. He makes them swear that when God comes to their aid, “then you must carry my bones up from this place.” Like Jacob, Joseph does not want to be buried in Egypt. Then they embalm him and place him in a coffin in Egypt. There is no mention of mourning or anything else that might be appropriate for a person of his stature. The fact is, that his bones will remain in Egypt until the time of the Exodus – 400 years from now.