Joseph in Egypt
The end of the story
The Last of the Patriarchs - 4
Established in Egypt, Jacob and his family passed into a state of quietude and prosperity they had never before known. Settled in the land of Goshen in the north eastern corner of Egypt, the threat of famine passed,. There was plenty of fertile land for their flocks and herds, they were able to settle in comfort and enjoy their prosperity. From this time the nation that sprang from Jacob's twelve sons began to increase rapidly. It is very probable that their numbers were added to by other Semitic immigrants from Canaan. There would also be some intermarrying with the families of the servants and workers who constituted the households of the eleven sons. In some manner it is certain that the children of Joseph, the twelfth son, became identified with and absorbed into the body of the newly created nation. How this latter was brought about is not told and is not clear. Ephraim and Manasseh, the two sons of Joseph, must have shared their father's exalted position in the land as Egypt's Chief Minister. Since it is said that Joseph saw his descendants to the fourth generation it is probable that until his death at least those two sons had more to do with Egyptian official circles than with the Semitic colony in Goshen. Probably after Joseph's death, and particularly after the advent of the new "king over Egypt who knew not Joseph", and the beginning of Israel's disfavour and oppression, the children of Ephraim and Manasseh became completely identified with their Israelite brethren. That could have been as much as seventy years after Jacob's death.
Jacob himself did not enjoy the new regime in Egypt very long. He had suffered many vicissitudes and sorrows in the course of a long life and the rigours of the famine and the final journey into Egypt must have taken their toll. He felt that the end was near and he sent for his son Joseph to secure a promise that after his death his body would not be buried in Egypt. It would be taken back to Canaan and laid to rest beside his father and mother Isaac and Rebecca, his grandfather and grandmother Abraham and Sarah, and his own wife Leah, in the family tomb at Machpelah. Joseph gave the required promise and the old man was content.
Jacob was seventeen years in Egypt in all. It could not have been long after that promise, therefore, that signs of the approaching end became manifest and Joseph realised that he must do something to ensure the acceptance of his own two sons into the family of Israel before it was too late. Born in Egypt, of the daughter of the High Priest of another religion, there could understandably be some prejudice against their acceptance.
Chapter 48 tells how Joseph took his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, lads of about eighteen or twenty years of age, into his father's presence. The care and dignity with which the ensuing transaction is recorded, in chapter 48, betokens its importance. In point of fact it is the evidence for all future ages of Jacob's formal acceptance of these two lads into his family. Jacob commenced (vv 3-4) by recounting the promise God had made to him at Bethel in the early days of his travels to the effect that He would make of him a multitude of people and give them the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession. He then declared that Ephraim and Manasseh were to be his sons in place of Reuben and Simeon who were his actual eldest sons ‑ both rejected as chief heirs because of their crimes in earlier days. In 48.6 he goes on to tell Joseph that his further children, born after Ephraim and Manasseh, were to be his own heirs. There is no record in the Scripture of Joseph and Asenath having any more children but this silence does not necessarily mean that they did not. To what tribe the descendants of such children were accredited would be a matter of conjecture. The effect of the whole episode was that Joseph, as the eldest son of Jacob's favourite wife Rachel, was accounted by Jacob his firstborn and chief heir, his own two sons, each assuming the position as head of a tribe in Israel, probably in recognition of the fact that Joseph's official position at court made it impracticable to assume the headship of a tribe himself. This would then make thirteen tribal heads, but since in after days the descendants of Levi were deprived of tribal status and constituted a body of priests to live among all the tribes and serve them in the things of God, the number of actual tribes possessing definite tribal territory in the land of Canaan remained at twelve; hence for all subsequent time there were twelve tribes in Israel.
A very human note is struck in 47.7-8 where the aged Jacob evidently wanders a little in his thoughts and speech, from the matter in hand to time long past when he lost his beloved wife Rachel at the birth of Benjamin. He is evidently lost in the past at this moment; then, coming back to the present, has obviously momentarily forgotten what he had just been saying regarding the two lads before him and asks Joseph again "Who are these?" Patiently Joseph told his father "These are my sons, whom God hath given me in this place" and Jacob, content, proceeded to confer his patriarchal blessing upon them. Verse 12 indicates that a very ancient ceremonial was enacted here. Jacob had the two lads stand between his outspread knees as he sat, in token that he had accepted them as his own sons. Joseph then brought them away from Jacob and caused them to bow low before Jacob (the singular "he bowed himself …" in v.12 should really be rendered plural "they bowed themselves") in token that they in turn accepted the obligations devolving upon sons of Jacob. In that position Jacob laid his hands upon their heads and repeated his blessing upon them. Joseph was not altogether pleased that Jacob's right hand, indicating the chief blessing, was laid upon the head of Ephraim who was the second born, but Jacob insisted that he knew what he was about. True to his prophetic instinct, the tribe of Ephraim became predominant relative to that of Manasseh in Israel's later history.>
These two having been thus constituted the heads of tribes in Israel, Jacob told Joseph that there was reserved for him one portion above his brethren—a special inheritance in the land, one which Jacob had himself captured from the Amorites. The reference was to Shechem, which was not, strictly speaking, an Amorite city. Although there were several different races settled in various parts of Canaan, the whole land was known generally as Amurru, the land of the Amorites, so that Jacob was probably speaking in accord with the general practice here.
Chapter 49 records Jacob's dying injunctions and warnings to his twelve sons. Here again he spoke to some extent by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, "Gather yourselves together" he said "that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days". In general his words reflect the individual characteristics of the sons, sometimes laudatory and sometimes condemnatory. Reuben, his firstborn, who had been guilty of a serious crime against one of his father's wives, Bilhah (Gen. 35.22) for which reason he was deprived of the birthright by Jacob, was branded "unstable as water, thou shall not excel". There was goodness in his nature, as is shown in the story of Joseph's betrayal, but he was weak and deficient in self-control, no fit person for the headship of the tribes after Jacob's death. Simeon and Levi, the next two in order, were likewise dismissed as men of blood and cruelty. These were the two who treacherously massacred the men of Shechem over the affair of Dinah, and they too were passed over in the choice of the headship. The next eldest was Judah, (all these four were children of Leah, Jacob's first wife) and for this son Jacob had no word of reproof. "Thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise ‑ thy father's children shall bow down before thee". So Judah became the heir of the birthright, the head of the tribes of Israel, and the one through whom one day the promised "Seed of Abraham", the Messiah, should come. The rights of royalty and kingship were thus confirmed to Judah and his descendants forever. "The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come" (49. 10). This name in the Hebrew is Sheloh and means "whose it is". The sense of the expression is more easily grasped by reference to Ezek.21.26-27. There the prophet declares the end of the Jewish Kingdom in Zedekiah's day in the words "Remove the diadem and take off the crown ‑ I will overturn it and it shall be no more, until he come whose right it is; and I will give it him". The Divine intention to hold the throne of Israel vacant until Messiah comes to take his power and reign is indicated there and the same vision of a coming Messiah to assume headship of Israel was in Jacob's mind when he used the word.
The rest of Jacob's sons received messages which concerned either their personal characteristics or references to the territory their descendants would afterwards inherit. Many efforts have been made to fit these words in vv 13-27 to the subsequent circumstances of the tribes but the details given are really altogether too vague and shadowy to afford a satisfactory basis for any clear presentation. It is much more likely that Jacob as he approached the gates of death in his mind still experienced some flickering of that prophetic insight which was manifested from time to time throughout his life. Now he recounted the fragmentary visions that flashed across his mental horizon, but nothing that was at all detailed
So Jacob yielded up his breath, an old man and full of days. He was the third of the patriarchs who carried the Divine promise and covenant in the line of the promised Seed that shall eventually bless all the families of the earth. With the death of Jacob the pattern of God's purpose began to take more definite shape. He left the nucleus of a nation, a nation that in after days was to be honoured by selection as the chosen people of God, through whom the Divine laws were to be promulgated. They would be a people destined to be a light to the nations, to declare God's salvation to the ends of the earth. That destiny has not yet been fulfilled and the modern descendants of Jacob are not yet ready, as a people, to accept that destiny; nevertheless the word of God stands sure and what He has promised will surely come to pass.
Conforming to his father's injunction, Joseph arranged for Jacob's body to be embalmed in the Egyptian fashion and taken to Canaan for interment alongside his wife and forefathers. The first fourteen verses of chapter 50 tell of the funeral and the wonder of the native inhabitants of Canaan at the impressive cortege which made its way through their country. It is probable that the route lay across the Sinai peninsula into Edom, the territory ot Esau, Jacob's brother, long since dead, and then northward into Moab and across Jordan to Jericho. Before proceeding to Hebron where the tomb was situated they halted near the Jordan for a seven days ceremonial mourning, which so impressed the Canaanites that they named the place Ebel-Mizraim ‑ the mourning of Egypt. Finally they came to the field of Ephron which Abraham had purchased for four hundred silver shekels a century and a half earlier to establish his family sepulchre. It says much for the respect for rights of property in those days that the land and tomb were still the unchallenged property of the family. There they left the illustrious ancestor of all Israel and returned to Egypt.
It is a fascinating thing to reflect that the mummified body of Jacob may still be there. The remains of Egyptian notabilities of even earlier times are still in existence. The tomb in which Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah, were buried, is still in existence and is one of the few ancient sites about which there is no doubt. Ironically enough it owes its preservation during the last twelve centuries or so to neither Jew or Christian, but to the Moslems. Throughout Old Testament times the tomb was of course kept inviolate by the Israelites. After the Saracen conquest of Palestine its sanctity was preserved by the followers of Mahomet, to whom Abraham meant as much as he did to Israel. No "infidel" (Jew or Christian) has ever been permitted to enter the cave, which is now surmounted by a mosque, and this prohibition is maintained to this day. The only non-Moslem known to have set foot in the tomb itself was an officer on the staff of General Allenby during the 1914-18 war. During the advance into Palestine and the capture of Hebron, Colonel Meinertzhagen entered the mosque in search of the city headman and finding it deserted penetrated into the cave below, where the patriarchs were buried. Having only matches with him he was unable to see more in the darkness than the outline of a stone coffin, and then, hearing the voices of the returning guards, judged it expedient to leave without delay.
This is the virtual end of the Book of Genesis. It is as if the author felt he had achieved the purpose of his narrative when the death of Jacob had been reached. Although some fifty years were to elapse before Joseph followed his father into the grave the entire period is dismissed in twelve short verses. Nothing is said of the progress of events in Egypt or the welfare of Israel in that period. There is only Joseph's assurance to his brothers, apprehensive that after their father's death Joseph might no longer be friendly towards them, that they had no cause for fear. He bore them no ill-will: he would still be their protector and friend. The families of the sons of Jacob began to increase and Joseph saw his great-grandchildren before he died. There is wonderful dignity in the last recorded words of Joseph. He gathered his brethren about him ‑ it is certain that Levi outlived him by a few years and probably so did some of the others. "I " he said "and God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land unto the land which he swore to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob ". That was his parting injunction; they were never to forget that they were only strangers and sojourners in Egypt. Attractive as the land was to them, they were not to forget that their Divine commission was indissolubly connected with the country from which they had come; one day they must go back. And to stress the sanctity of that obligation he made them swear on oath that they would preserve his mummified body and take it back with them when the day should come. Joseph intended that his own remains should eventually rest in the hallowed land of Canaan.
He had both his wishes. When at length the Exodus took place, his body in its sarcophagus was taken with the host of Israel. It accompanied them in their forty years' wandering in the desert, was carried across Jordan and eventually interred in Joseph's own tribal territory at Shechem—the special in inheritance which Jacob had given him at his death. And Israel never have forgotten that they were sojourners; their passionate attachment to the land which was theirs at the start has become proverbial. "If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning" was always the cry of the Jewish exile. In our own time and generation, we have witnessed the tenacity with which the present descendants of Jacob have fought to attain and retain that little strip of land which in the year 1948, out of all the possible names that might have been chosen, was renamed "Israel" It is the name of the man whose sons, thirty five centuries ago, gathered around the death-bed of the brother who, under God, had preserved their lives and made the creation of that nation possible. It was because those Hebrew tribesmen, settled in north-eastern Egypt in the latter years of the Hyksos Pharaohs, with all their faults and unbelief never did really forget that they were not Egyptians, that there is an Israeli nation to-day.. They are the sons of Israel, the Prince of God, custodians of a Divine commission to become a means in God's hand for the eventual blessing of all the families of the earth, and the full implications of that national destiny for the wider world have yet to be seen.
The death of Joseph ended the Age of the Patriarchs. During that long span of fifteen hundred
years, from Noah to Joseph, the Lord worked out the details of his
developing Plan through individual men. They were men who were devoted to
him and whose lives were given over unreservedly and completely to his
service. Other such men there were to be, but no longer serving alone,
serving in association with a people, the people of God. For nearly three
centuries after the passing of Joseph the Bible story of the outworking Plan
of God is a blank; the sons of Jacob, growing into a nation in Egypt, are
missing from the records. Then came Moses, and with Moses the emergence of a
nation, nation grown from those sons, bound to God in a Covenant at Sinai
which made them the people of God for ever, a people destined to become the
Lord's instrument on earth for the conversion of the nations. "It is a
light thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and to restore the preserved of Israel. I will also give you for a light to
the nations, that you may be my salvation to the ends of the earth"
(Isa. 49.6). It was the sterling character and faithfulness to God of that
seventeen-year-old lad, sold as a slave into Egypt, which in the wisdom of
God became the means to an outcome which in the fulness of time will have so
stupendous a sequel.