The last chapter of Genesis records the burial of Jacob and – years later – the death of Joseph. Joseph lives roughly half his life after Jacob’s death, but all we know about this time is that he forgives his brothers and lives to see the third generation of his children. His benevolent actions toward his brothers show that he remains faithful to the end and never stops seeing life through God’s eyes. He views the hard times of his life as God’s sovereign will and thus lives more freely and contentedly than his brothers – for all his life. When he dies, he leaves a last wish that sets the stage for the Exodus.
When Jacob dies, Joseph falls on his face and weeps (notice that Joseph is an emotional man – this is the third or fourth time in Genesis we’ve read about his weeping – always at times of interaction with family members). He commands that his father’s body be embalmed (a process the Egyptians have perfected and practice to prepare the body for the afterlife – see below), presumably so there’s time to take the body back to Canaan. The process takes 40 days and the time of mourning lasts a total of 70 days. Joseph and his family mourn Jacob along with the Egyptians. The nation treats his death as the death of an important national figure, showing the status and respect Joseph holds in the country.
The famous Greek historian Herodotus (II, 86) offers one of the more detailed sources on these matters, mentions three methods of embalming. The first, and most expensive, necessitated extracting the brains by means of an iron hook. The emptied skull was subsequently filled with spices. Next, an incision was made with a sharp “Ethiopic stone” which is believed to be obsidian — a glassy black volcanic rock that can be flaked to a razor’s edge.
Obsidian can be sharper and thinner than any surgeon’s scalpel. The first organs to be removed are the upper intestinal tract, and the pancreas. Then comes the spleen, kidneys, bladder, and more of the digestive tract; then comes the colon, stomach and spleen. After the liver comes out the lungs. Only the heart is left in the rib cage because the Egyptians believed that when the deceased approached Osiris, the heart would be weighed.
If it was as light as the feather of Ma’at, the goddess of truth, the person was one step closer to becoming accepted by the gods. All the emptied parts of the body were then cleansed and also filled with spices. Afterwards the body was packed in dry natron for a period of seventy days.
The last stage of embalming by this method consisted of washing the body and wrapping it tightly in cloths soaked in resins. In this state the embalmed body was delivered to the relatives, who would put it in a wooden coffin made in the shape of a human body; this was then placed in an upright position in the burial chamber. (Samuel, Michael. “How Was Jacob Embalmed?” 03 Jan 2010. Web. 07 May 2016. rabbimichaelsamuel.com)
When the days of mourning are over (the length of time is somewhat hard to comprehend – do they stop their day-to-day activities during the 70 days or do they just show they’re in mourning somehow while continuing to function?), Joseph asks Pharaoh’s attendants to ask Pharaoh for permission to take Jacob’s body back to Canaan. Why Joseph doesn’t ask Pharaoh himself is not clear. Perhaps since he’s been in mourning and possibly been around Jacob’s body he’s not ceremonially clean and thus can’t appear before the king.
Joseph explains to Pharaoh that he made a vow to Jacob to bury in him Canaan. He does not mention that Jacob specifically made him vow to NOT bury him in Egypt. Pharaoh honors Joseph’s vow and grants his request.
Joseph and a large retinue of family and servants and Egyptian military (again showing the enormous respect Pharaoh and the country have for Jacob and Joseph) go back to Canaan to bury Jacob. They reach the threshing floor of Atad (an unknown location in Canaan) and spend seven days in intense mourning. Their mourning is such that the inhabitants of the surrounding area actually rename the place and call it “The Mourning of Egypt” (Abel-mizraim). Apparently, 70 days was not long enough to express all the sorrow over Jacob’s death.
After the seven days, Joseph and his brothers bury Jacob in the family plot in the field of Machpelah, just as he commanded them. Having fulfilled his vow, Joseph and the company go back to Egypt.
After the dust settles from Jacob’s death, the brothers become very worried. They worry that with Jacob gone, Joseph will take his vengeance on them for selling him into slavery roughly 39 years ago. They send a message to Joseph saying that Jacob commanded him to forgive them for what they did.
The message they send to Joseph is interesting. They refer to Jacob as “your father” instead of “our father,” probably to highlight the importance of who sends the message and also to acknowledge the special place Joseph had with him. That they claim the message comes from Jacob lets us know that apparently he knew the truth about what really happened. They appeal to God but again describe him as “the God of your father” instead of “our father.” Lastly, they specifically ask for forgiveness – something we haven’t seen them do before.
Their claim that Jacob said this is likely fabricated. Why would Jacob tell them to tell Joseph when he easily could have told him himself? This is likely another sign that no matter how many years go by, the brothers in some ways do not change. And it also shows that – unlike Joseph – they still can’t get beyond what they did. It’s been almost FORTY years and they still live with it. No matter how much time passes or how well things go between them and Joseph, they STILL carry the guilt and fear brought on by that rash decision born of their envy and hate.
When Joseph hears their message he weeps (of course). He’s likely saddened by their paranoia. He can’t believe that after all these years of treating them well and after already telling them that he holds no grudges, they still don’t trust him. He’s sad that the love he’s showed them hasn’t changed their fear.
He talks to them and assures them that he holds nothing against them and plans no actions against them. Jacob didn’t hold him back from taking vengeance – God does. He tells them – just as he did seventeen years ago when they first came to Egypt (45:4-8) – that though they meant evil against him, God meant it for good. Joseph’s presence in Egypt saved thousands of lives – most notably, theirs and the family’s. He ends by telling them they have no reason to fear and that he will continue to take care of them and their families (which he does even though the famine’s been over for roughly twelve years).
Notice that Joseph’s first response to the brothers is, “Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place?” This is very similar to how he responded to Potiphar’s wife when she propositioned him – “How then could I do this great evil, and sin against God?” (39:9). In both cases (several decades apart) he shows that he looks at life by looking at God. He didn’t see the allure of Mrs. Potiphar – he saw the danger of offending the One who walked with him every day. Here he doesn’t see a group of men in need of payback – he sees God’s hand working to save a country and his family. He doesn’t look at circumstances or people. He looks at God. And because he looks at God, life looks different to him than it does to others – notably his brothers. They go through life scared and regretful. He lives freely and without bitterness and thus is free to love others who don’t deserve it. He looks at God and resists temptation. He looks at God and loves his brothers.
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace
Joseph lives another 54 or so years after Jacob’s death. He sees the third generation of his sons’ children. It’s possible that he adopts some of them just as Jacob adopted his sons (the statement that some sons were born on Joseph’s knees may be a reference to adoption). He lives a total of 110 years (less than Abraham’s 175, Isaac’s 180, and Jacob’s 147).
When he is near death he makes his loved ones swear to take his body to Canaan and bury him there – just as he did with Jacob. He says he knows God will take care of them and will bring them back to Canaan. When they go, they must take his body with them. With these words he shows he trusts God to the end. He knows the promise God made to his great-grandfather, his grandfather and his father and knows He will fulfill it. The descendants of Israel will inherit Canaan – and he wants his body to go there with them.
Amazingly – and likely incomprehensibly to Joseph – the people will fulfill his dying wish almost four centuries from now. They somehow never forget and keep track both of the vow and his body. He lies in Egypt for almost 400 years. Unlike with Jacob, they don’t take him to Canaan immediately after his death. They take him with them when they follow Moses out of the country (Ex 13:19).
And so the book ends. Joseph’s death sets the stage for the book of Exodus. What he can’t know in his last days is that with his passing so passes the era of goodwill between Egypt and the descendants of Israel. There will soon rise a Pharaoh who doesn’t remember Joseph and what he did to save the country. The new Pharaoh will only know there is a large and growing nation in Goshen that represents a threat to the security and sovereignty of the country. His solution to the threat will be to enslave all of them for hundreds of years. What he won’t know – until it’s tragically too late – is that his solution will lay the groundwork for God’s redemption of His people and the fulfillment of His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the dying wish of Joseph.