72. Genesis 49:29 – 50:26

III. D. 5. continued

c) Israel’s Death (Genesis 49:30 – 50:21)

And so Israel died in about the year 1850 b.c. and was taken back to the land of Canaan to be buried with Leah, with Isaac and Rebekah, with Abraham and Sarah; it was his last request. He had been in Egypt for seventeen years but his title to the cave at Machpelah, that Abraham had purchased from Ephron the Hittite, was still known among the Canaanites (there was efficient and systematic record keeping in the Middle East even at that early time, even on the outskirts of the great cities, even though the Canaanites had moved in and taken over from the Amorites) and there was no problem in going back to his old home and reclaiming the site. The Egyptians had long been involved with a colony at Byblos on the Mediterranean coast, less than a hundred miles north of Canaan, so they were a familiar presence in the land from both directions.

The famine had been over for twelve years, so it is unlikely that Joseph still had authority or duties in the government of Egypt. Nonetheless, he retained some official role in the court of Pharaoh and was not simply free to come and go as he pleased. He had to obtain Pharaoh’s permission to take his father’s body to Canaan for the burial. Joseph still enjoyed the favor of the Egyptians and the Pharaoh, though, and easily obtained Pharaoh’s approval. That Joseph spoke to the household of Pharaoh rather than to Pharaoh himself suggests that he no longer saw Pharaoh regularly. He had not been fired, but his job had disappeared from under him when the crisis was over. He had been retired, but was known as a great man and diviner, at this point in his mid-fifties, probably serving as a dream interpreter and magician along with the Egyptians trained in the occult.

Israel was embalmed in the Egyptian fashion, the only other Israelite to be embalmed besides Joseph. Finding these mummies today would be a great find indeed. The Egyptians mourned for Israel for the seventy days of mourning, as if he had been an Egyptian prince. The Canaanites, who were in awe of Egyptian civilization, were impressed at the great honor they showed to Israel. Most of Pharaoh’s court went to Canaan to bury Israel and honor both Joseph and Israel. The funeral went on for a full week, the usual time frame. Certainly the local Canaanites were impressed by the presence of so much Egyptian royalty, who usually came to their land only with an army. They must have wondered why the Egyptians honored a foreigner like this; we do not know how much of the story of Joseph was remembered or known outside of Egypt. It was not remembered for long even inside of Egypt.

It would seem that Joseph’s brothers, since they were all in Canaan for Israel’s funeral, could have just stayed there and circumvented the years of slavery. It is curious that they went back to Egypt. They were quite a bit richer in Egypt than they had been since they were now in charge of Pharaoh’s herds. This may have been the determining factor in their return. But they did carry with them the oral tradition of their family and some of them may have thought about the prophecy to Abraham about being enslaved. Joseph’s brothers were not the sort of men to meditate long and hard on the family spiritual inheritance; Joseph was the only one likely to have done much meditating and he had to go back. In the end they may have gone back to the land of their future enslavement without thinking much about what it meant.

It was natural for the brothers to think, with Esau as a precedent, that Joseph had been just waiting for his father to die before he took his revenge. Now was the time to do whatever was necessary to avert his anger, his perfectly justified anger. In suspecting Joseph of such intentions, they judged themselves. We must know a sin pretty thoroughly from the inside in order to suspect someone else of it. They were afraid Joseph would do to them exactly what they would have thought of doing to him had they been in his place.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, but always remember that others may do unto you as you would have done unto them if you had had the chance.

But Joseph had long ago forgiven them; he had dismissed the whole thing from his mind, and it distressed him to think that they thought he might still hold a grudge. He had grown to genuinely love his brothers. His years in slavery, his toying with them when they came to buy food, and his seventeen years of living with them in happy and prosperous times had healed him of his bitterness. He was beginning to realize, on a spiritual level, that for better or worse his family had been chosen by God for some reason, and he had been chosen by Him to save their lives. Was he to turn around now and bring up old grievances? He was beyond that point, and it grieved him that his brothers were still afraid of  him.

Joseph’s reply to his brothers is the fitting and perfect end to the book of Genesis. It is the high point to which the first phase of revelation had been aiming. “Am I in God’s place?” Who before, of the whole human race, had thought of asking that question? Perhaps Noah; perhaps Abraham. But human history shows clearly that we are all only too eager to act in God’s place if we get the chance. Joseph, and Joseph the first of all, saw revenge for what it was. To take revenge for the evils done to you is to put yourself in the place of God, to act as judge over your brother (in this case literally), as if being a victim were the only qualification for being a judge.

Even worse, to take revenge is to judge God. Joseph, and Joseph first of all, saw how supremely powerful and good God was. His brothers had meant evil to him and no mistake; Joseph never romanticized his brothers motives or tried to excuse them. They had done evil to him and no mistake, but God had meant it for good. It had all come about because of God, and God had been the power behind it, making an evil thing into a good thing. To take revenge would be to pronounce judgment on God, to condemn Him as mistaken, or as too weak to bring forth the good that He intended; or else it would be to judge the good He brought forth as an inadequate compensation for the suffering he had endured. To put ourselves in the place of God is to judge God as insufficient for our needs.

d) Joseph’s Last Days (Genesis 50:14-26)

Joseph rounded out the first phase of revelation that had been going on since the Fall, the revelation of grace. God’s sovereignty is the other side of His grace. Grace without sovereignty, without power, is just wishful thinking. “Go, be warmed and filled”, He might say to us, but we would go away hungry because His good will toward us would be unable to accomplish our salvation. Similarly, sovereignty without grace is horrible, tyrannical, the power of master over slave. It is the marriage of the two that make up God’s character and being. This is one of the major points of the revelation through the centuries narrated in Genesis.

Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten in the year 1796 b.c. Senusret III, Joseph’s Pharaoh, had died in 1839 b.c. just more than a decade after Israel. He had reigned over Egypt for thirty-nine years during which Egypt had prospered greatly, due in great part of course to Joseph. Senusret III was succeeded by his son, Amenemhat III, who also had a long and peaceful and prosperous reign of over forty-five years, and died within a year or two of Joseph’s death. During his reign the Middle Kingdom of Egypt reached its cultural zenith. His son, Amenemhat IV came to the throne in 1794 b.c., just after Joseph died, and was probably an old man when he came to the throne. He was succeeded by his wife, Sobekneferu, and with her short reign the twelfth dynasty came to an end, about sixteen years after Joseph’s death. Thus the steady decline of the years, the change of fortunes, and the terribly short memory of men quickly brought about an Egypt that did not remember the deeds of Joseph, and did not distinguish his family from the other tribes of Asiatics that filled the land of Egypt. The stage had been set for their enslavement and the next phase of revelation. Meanwhile the descendants of Israel settled down and became numerous and prosperous and eventually began to make the Egyptians nervous

One last comment. There are no Egyptian records of Joseph’s existence, and that is significant. The Egyptians kept careful, though biased, records. It is necessary to account for Joseph’s absence. I think two reason can be given that go a long way to explain it. One is the Egyptian hatred of foreigners, which was only briefly set aside during this one century of their history. Joseph’s memory would have been loathsome to later Egyptians and it is quite possible his name was simply erased. The other reason is that Joseph served in the capital, Itjtawy, whose ruins have not yet been found. It is just possible that when we do find those ruins that we will find his name mentioned there. Itjtaway continued to be the capital of Egypt for a while as the political unrest engulfed the land subsequent to the decline of the Middle Kingdom, and then it disappears in the years of confusion. Whether it lasted long enough to have Joseph’s name erased is not yet known.

**************************************

An Overview of Genesis.

Originally this book was written to be the first chapter in an “overview of the Bible”. Obviously it has gotten out of hand and no longer even qualifies for the title of  “Overview of Genesis”. However, it is perhaps useful to take a few paragraphs and try to summarize the main points of Genesis and where it fits in to the Bible as a whole. In other words, I will try to give a genuine overview of Genesis at this point.

How it fits into the Bible as a whole should be easy enough to answer: it is the beginning. Genesis lays the foundation for all of the themes that are found in the rest of the Scripture together. There is nothing important in the Bible that does not begin in Genesis. The incarnation? Genesis is imbued with an incarnational perspective, easily noticeable by anyone who knows the concept. Redemption? Ditto. Grace? Even more of a ditto. Perhaps a better image than the revelation as a building and Genesis as its foundation, would be the image of revelation as a tree. Then Genesis is the trunk of the tree, and all the other branches sprout directly from it.

The plot is the easiest bit to get a handle on. It begins at the beginning, as it should, but before we are off to a decent start everything falls apart. This has been a standard plot outline for human novels ever since. The body of the novel, like the body of history, like the body of revelation, consists in putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, or destroying the Ring of Power, or in facing that final confrontation with Voldemort. We were alive and now we are dead; how are we ever to come back to life?

Genesis does begin at the beginning, but then it immediately skips to the middle. The existence of evil begins outside of the physical universe where we can’t look. The story of God’s response to evil starts outside of time where we can’t look. So the plot of Genesis starts with a handicap like all stories and novels since. No story can give all of the background; at best a story can give a patchwork account of the previous history of our characters to explain how they got into the pickle our plot will then follow. Similarly, Genesis can’t really proceed in an orderly fashion from the very beginning. It has to give a patchwork account of the previous history of a Creator who springs into action and sets everything up and then, in the greatest inexplicability of all time, let’s it all fall apart. But Genesis does give us this brief glimpse of the cosmic past in a totally masterful way, setting the stage for the greatest of all paradoxes: the all powerful, purely good Creator who let His perfect creation fall into evil. “What is the meaning of life?” is the question it raises and does not answer: life is this paradox, and we can feel in our bones how true to life this non-answer is.

Genesis sets the stage for the drama to follow but it does much more than raise the pertinent questions: it creates The Pertinent Question. One might say that it invents The Pertinent Question: if God is so good and so all powerful, how did everything get so badly ruined? Where would all those philosophy classes be if it weren’t for Genesis? If we had never been told that God was purely and simply and completely good, or if we had never been told that God was the all powerful Creator, then we could have relaxed into a comfortable dualism and been content with the “force”. Genesis sets the stage and stacks the deck against the very God it presumes to reveal. It forces us into the corner that the rest of the Bible will squeeze us further into. It impales us on the horns of a dilemma so that the only viable option to go between the horns. It forces us, it was designed to force us, to decide if we believe or if we don’t. There is no question that the God we are being asked to believe in is as strange and unbelievable as can be. And it all starts with Genesis.

Genesis lets the unanswerableness of this central question lead us into a more answerable second question: what’s to be done about it? To this second question Genesis gives only the beginning of an answer: the promise of a Hero. This has now become the standard fare of novels as well. To obtain this hero, a particular family must be chosen to be His family, and here the story gets a little bizarre. The family that is chosen to bring forth the hero is not a very promising family: a couple who are already passed their prime, who seem to need fertility counseling more than anything else, and a man who is not particularly forceful or dynamic. They finally have a son against all odds who is also pretty non-descript and who marries his cousin who then alienates everyone with her scheming and deceit. She at least has twins but she and her husband soon have them hating each other and playing off one parent against another. Finally the least admirable of the two has to run away from his furious brother. He seeks refuge with his uncle, a con artist who tries to take him for everything he has. After two decades this twin manages to create, on a larger and more dramatic scale, all the family politics and ruthlessness that made him what he had become. But his next to youngest son, a spoiled brat who is sold as a slave by his own brothers, against all odds turns out to be a hero with a small “h”. While working out some of his personal issues he saves the day and turns out to be a nice guy after all. He is kind of a practice hero for the real one that is still to come. And thus ends the first part of the revelation. It ends on a hopeful note but with the orchestra playing sinister music and a hard glint coming into the Pharaoh’s eye as the scene fades out.

So much for the plot. What can we say about the “lessons” to be drawn from it all? What is the appropriate sound bite to come away with? What is the central cool aphorism we can print on our bumper stickers? Practically speaking, how does Genesis shape the way we live today? Let me just say that I don’t think Genesis was given to us to “teach us lessons”. No doubt it is true that we can learn wisdom from it. No doubt we can derive principles from it that will help us make better choices. But as worthwhile and noble as these things may be, they are not its purpose. Genesis was given to us to help us think about God and ourselves more correctly. Once we begin to think more truly, once our imaginations get trained to see the universe through the eyes of Genesis, we will naturally begin to fall into patterns of behavior that conform to our better understanding. This is how we are designed to work: first to understand, then to reflect, then to behave accordingly. Reversing the procedure does not usually work well.

Rather than asking, “What lesson for today can we draw from this book?” we would do better to ask “What is the dramatic premise, where is the dramatic pause, that drives the story in Genesis?” Deliberately I am making the question sound pretty obscure and academic. I do this because we must ask our questions deliberately, reflectively, carefully, attentively. If the question itself wakes us up and makes us think then there is more hope we will be awake to notice the answer. But really it is just a fancy way of asking what the book is about, of asking what direction we should approach the story from, of asking what we can expect to get out of it if we do our work correctly, of asking why we should bother reading it in the first place.

The clue to help us find the answer comes from the opposite end of the Scripture. In one sense, the book of Revelations is the opposite end of the Scripture; certainly it is the opposite end physically and in time. But in another sense, the polar opposite to Genesis in so far as revelation goes, in so far as theological meaning goes, is the letter of Paul to the Romans. Here we see clearly that the dramatic pivot of Genesis is chapter 15 when Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. This event is the pinnacle of the story, or the hinge on which it all turns. This is the primary event of all the events, the one we need to understand in order to understand all that came before and all that came after. This is the “moral” to the story from which all the other morals spring. Get this one right and the rest will begin to fall into place.

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3 Comments on “72. Genesis 49:29 – 50:26”

  1. kim g. Says:

    I want to thank you for your insight into the book of Genesis! I read every section as a devotional and thoroughly enjoyed it. There were sections where we did not meet eye to eye, but we found common ground in the end. You made me think about things I had read many times on a deeper level and that makes for a great study! I hope many will come across your gem here and thank you for sharing your interpretation and heart.


    • Thank you, Kim. Not many have the patience and energy to read a book like this and I really appreciate it that you did. And the sections where we don’t meet eye to eye and the ones that are the most rewarding, ultimately. I am so glad you got some benefit from it.


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