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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Genesis 50

This chapter concludes the astounding Book of Genesis, giving an account of the burial of Jacob and the death of Joseph.

This chapter records one of the great actions of faith. Joseph was one of the most popular and successful Prime Ministers (if we may call him that) who ever lived. This man Joseph might indeed have been buried in one of the pyramids, or have received the most elaborate and expensive burial that the wealth of Egypt could provide, but he renounced all of that and took a pledge of his brothers that when they went up out of Egypt into the land God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they would also remember to carry his bones along with them and bury him in the land of Canaan - this must be reckoned among the great actions of faith in God.

Genesis opened with, "Let there be light!" It ends with a mummy case in Egypt, but that very mummy case was a symbol of faith in the "Light of all Nations" which, in time, should yet arise out of Israel and provide redemption for all in that One who is the "Light of the World."

Verses 1-3

"And Joseph fell upon his father's face, and wept upon him, and kissed him. And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father: and the physicians embalmed Israel. And forty days were fulfilled for him; for so are fulfilled the days of embalming: and the Egyptians wept for him three score and ten days."

Although none of the other brothers are mentioned as displaying such emotion over Jacob's death, we should not believe that only Joseph did this. The probable reason for these actions of Joseph being mentioned was the promise which God made to Joseph in Genesis 46:4. It was therefore most fitting that the sacred text should have made it clear that Joseph indeed was present for the death of his father Jacob.

"His servants the physicians ..." "No doubt the eminence of Joseph's position called for a very great retinue; even a special detail of physicians was commissioned to watch over his health."[1] These were skilled in the science of embalming, probably even more than the professional embalmers. The reason for Jacob's being embalmed lay in the fact that a long period of mourning was scheduled, and also in the necessity to transport the body over a great distance to the land of Canaan.

Regarding the process of embalming, Dummelow had this:

"The brain and intestines were removed, and the stomach cleansed and filled with spices. The body was then steeped in a mixture of salt and soda (called natron), for forty or more days, to preserve from decay. Next, it was bound up in strips of linen smeared with a sort of gum; and finally it was placed in a wooden case, shaped like the human body, and deposited in a sepulchral chamber."[2]

"Egyptian mummies preserved for centuries bear silent witness to the remarkable efficiency of these embalmers."[3] This method of preparing bodies for burial was followed for generations by the Jews, as evidenced in the burial of Jesus himself (John 19:40).

The two time periods mentioned here, the forty days for embalming and the seventy days of mourning probably ran concurrently, since they would hardly have waited until the embalming was completed to begin mourning. This long period of public mourning indicates that the Egyptians gave Jacob "a royal funeral, since it was customary to bewail a Pharaoh's death for seventy-two days."[4] This honor was very similar to that conferred by the United States when a "nineteen gun salute" is accorded a prime minister, contrasted with a "twenty-one gun salute" for the head of a state.

Verses 4-6

"And when the days of weeping for him were past, Joseph spake unto the house of Pharaoh, saying, If now I have found favor in your eyes, speak, I pray you, in the ears of Pharaoh, saying, My father made me swear, saying, Lo, I die: in my grave which I have digged for me in the land of Canaan, there shalt thou bury me. Now therefore let me go up, I pray thee, and bury my father, and I will come again. And Pharaoh said, Go up, and bury thy father, according as he made thee swear."

The question that arises here is why Joseph approached Pharaoh through messengers, rather than personally; and the question may not be answered dogmatically. Among the suggestions made are: "He approached Pharaoh through the priests who were principals in the house of Pharaoh, and since the burial of the dead was closely connected with their religious rites."[5] Peake thought it might have been that, "Joseph was a mourner, therefore unclean."[6] "Unshaven and unadorned, because of deep mourning," he could not see Pharaoh personally (see Genesis 41:14)."[7] "Another Pharaoh, not so friendly to Joseph, had ascended the throne."[8] Kline mentioned "diplomatic considerations,"[9] which is not unreasonable since Joseph's leaving Egypt was involved. It appears to us that Kline's suggestion is the most likely.

"My grave which I have digged for me in the land of Canaan ..." This is another instance of additional information being supplied in subsequent references to an event already mentioned. Certainly there is no need for finding here some evidence of "another document"! Abraham had indeed purchased Machpelah; but, probably, upon the occasion of Leah's burial there, Jacob also prepared for himself a grave within the cave. "There is no reason to object to the idea that Jacob went into the cave and digged from the rock his own grave."[10]

Verses 7-11

"And Joseph went up to bury his father; and with him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, and all the house of Joseph and his brethren, and his father's house: only their little ones, and their flocks, and their herds, they left in the land of Goshen. And there went up with him both chariots and horsemen: and it was a very great company. And they came to the threshing floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, and there they lamented with a very great and sore lamentation: and he made a mourning for his father seven days. And when the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, saw the mourning in the floor of Atad, they said, This is a grievous mourning to the Egyptians: wherefore the name of it was called Abel-mizraim, which is beyond the Jordan."

The sheer size of this great pageant was most impressive. The houses of Jacob, and the brothers, especially that of Joseph, and of all of Pharaoh's principal ministers and officers constituted in the aggregate an immense company. It is most apparent in this that Pharaoh did not grudgingly consent for Joseph to leave the capital and go to the land of Canaan to bury Jacob, but on the other hand supported the mission approvingly. Josephus tells us that all of this was done "at great expense."[11]

In the Old Testament, the perspective "beyond" practically always means "west of"; and therefore it must be understood here as an indication that the funeral cortege entered the land of Canaan from the eastward. We are not told why this circuitous route was taken, but it is certain that good reasons dictated this. "There may have been some political complications had this company taken the usual well-traveled route to Canaan."[12] Keil did not accept the conclusion received here, namely that the floor of Atad was west of the Jordan, basing his objection on the fact that Genesis 50:12 states that Jacob's sons "carried him into the land of Canaan," but what Keil overlooked is the fact that in all probability Jacob's sons (who carried their father throughout the journey) had already done this, the thing meant in Genesis 50:12 being that they carried him further into the land of Canaan to the cave of Machpelah. This slight misplacement of such a detail as this is absolutely in keeping with the Biblical style throughout. In fact, Genesis 50:12 and Genesis 50:13 are a summary of what was done.

Verses 12-13

"And his sons did unto him according as he commanded them: for his sons carried him into the land of Canaan, and buried him in the cave of Machpelah, which Abraham bought with the field, for a possession of a burying-place, of Ephron the Hittite, before Mamre."

These two verses are clearly a summary of the whole event, as the words "as he commanded them" indicate. There is no evidence whatever here that the floor of Atad was east of the Jordan, despite the preponderance of scholarly opinion to the contrary. John Skinner stated that "practically all commentators" agree that the words for east of in Genesis are "in front of," not "beyond,"[13] as was noted earlier in our studies of Genesis 2:14. Therefore, if the text here was saying that Atad was east of Jordan, the words would have been "in front of," not, "beyond." Of course, the location of the place is unknown, and some have eliminated the difficulty by translating "near Jordan," instead of "beyond Jordan,"[14] but receiving these verses as a summary of the whole event makes such a device totally unnecessary. Since the whole party admittedly entered Canaan from the east, it is just as reasonable that they stopped on the west bank for the seven days of mourning as to suppose that they stopped on the east bank. Certainly, it was on the way to Machpelah, and perhaps near there. It appears that the great company of the Egyptians, at this point, returned to Egypt and permitted Joseph and his brothers to inter Jacob's body in the cave with some degree of privacy that they no doubt desired; or, that if they did not do that, might merely have remained in camp until the brothers returned from Machpelah. And then all returned to Egypt together, as seems to be indicated in Genesis 50:14. Such a conjecture is not required by the text, but Genesis 50:14 does not deny the possibility of it, for Genesis 50:14 is also a summary of the entire return of the whole company to Egypt.

Verse 14

"And Joseph returned into Egypt, he, and his brethren, and all that went up with him to bury his father, after he had buried his father."

This magnificent royal funeral accorded the original Israel was fully deserved by the founder of the nation which in time would deliver to mankind the blessed Messiah, and it was provided through that same Providence which marked every event in the rise of this people from such a small beginning to that eminence which they later received.

Verses 15-22

"And when Joseph's brothers saw their father was dead, they said, It may be that Joseph will hate us, and will fully requite us all the evil which we did unto him. And they sent a message unto Joseph, saying, Thy father did command before he died, saying, So shall ye say unto Joseph, Forgive, I pray thee now, the transgressions of thy brethren, and their sin, for that they did unto thee evil. And now, we pray thee, forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of thy father. And Joseph wept when they spake unto him. And his brethren also went and fell down before his face; and they said, Behold, we are thy servants. And Joseph said, unto them, Fear not; for am I in the place of God? And as for you, ye meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as in this day, to save much people alive. Now therefore, fear ye not: I will nourish you, and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spake kindly unto them."

The Biblical narrative does not always give the exact chronological sequence of events related; and we probably have another instance of it here. It seems to us that the logical time for the brothers of Joseph to have pleaded for the full forgiveness of Joseph would have been before they had returned to Egypt, where, of course, they were completely in his power. Josephus, in fact, states this as the case:

Now at the first his brethren were unwilling to return back with him, because they were afraid lest, now their father was dead, he should punish them; since he was now gone, for whose sake Joseph had been so gracious to them. But he persuaded them to fear no harm ... so he brought them along with him, and gave them great possessions, and never left off his particular concern for them.[15]

Despite such a statement, we do not know that that is the way it happened. In any case, Joseph reassured his brothers, whose guilty consciences had so sharply accused them, making them feel, no doubt, that they deserved the worst that Joseph was able to do them. It appears here that we have the very first confession of the brothers of their sin against Joseph. Perhaps the social distance between them had prevented an earlier expression of their sorrow over what they had done.

Another question that naturally rises in this situation regards the commandment which the brothers allege Jacob had sent to Joseph through them. Many respected scholars see nothing unreasonable in such an allegation, but to us it simply does not ring true. If Jacob had wanted to give Joseph a message about forgiving his brothers, he, it seems to us, would have given such a message to Joseph himself, rather than leaving it for the brothers to tell it. On this account, we feel strong agreement with Willis who wrote:

"All this looks suspicious, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Joseph's brothers invented this story in a desperate effort to assure their own safety."[16]

Such a view is no reflection upon the veracity of the Scriptures, because the Scriptures do not say that Jacob said what the brothers reported, but that they said he did. It should be remembered that they are also the ones who dipped the coat in blood and told Jacob they had "found it."

In any event, Joseph magnanimously forgave his brothers, probably long before the event related here, and he even wept at the knowledge that they still held him to be capable of taking revenge against them.

"Am I in God's place ... ?" Willis stated the meaning of this to be, "Is it my prerogative to judge men and to punish them for their injustice to others?"[17] Jacob asked the same question of Rachel who had complained about not having a child; and there, it meant, "Do I have the power to enable you to conceive and bear a child?" As Willis said, "The answer, in both cases, of course, is no."[18]

"Ye meant evil against me, but God meant it for good ..." Francisco's comment on this is:

There has never been a more vivid picture of the providence of God than in these words of Joseph to his brothers. He was not saying that God caused them to think evil against him, for they were responsible for their own thoughts. But God, in his wisdom and power used their evil purpose to achieve his will.[19]

Verses 22-26

"And Joseph dwelt in Egypt, he, and his father's house: and Joseph lived a hundred and ten years. And Joseph saw Ephraim's children of the third generation: the children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were born upon Joseph's knees. And Joseph said unto his brethren, I die; but God will surely visit you, and bring you up out of this land unto the land which he sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence. So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old: and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt."

"Joseph lived a hundred and ten years ..." Many have pointed out that such an age "represented the Egyptian ideal of a complete life."[20]

"The third generation ..." It is not clear whether "grandchildren," or "great grandchildren." are meant, depending on whether "third" is figured from Joseph or Ephraim. However, regarding the children of Machir, it is clearly the great grandchildren which are meant. And, from this, it is usually assumed that the same is true of the descendants of Ephraim.

"Born on his knees ..." In some circumstances, these words imply the adoption of the children so born, but we agree with Leupold that this meaning is "not suitable here."[21] It appears to mean that they were born while Joseph still had the strength to take them upon. his knees, thus loving them.

"Machir ..." This individual headed "a powerful Manassite clan."[22]

The outstanding thing in this whole chapter is the conviction of all of Jacob's sons that God, in time, would remove them from Egypt and bring them into the Promised land. This appears in Genesis 50:17, where the brethren of Joseph referred to themselves as "the servants of the God of thy father," and again here, where Joseph refused to be buried in Egypt and took an oath of the children of Israel that they would take his remains with them when they went into Canaan, a promise that was fulfilled (Exodus 13:19; Joshua 24:32). Of course, the same conviction motivated and sustained Jacob throughout his whole life, appearing dramatically here in these final chapters of Genesis in the dying patriarch's requiring an oath of Joseph that he would bury him in Canaan. This faith was continued throughout the history of the old Israel. However, it may be doubted that they understood fully the spiritual purpose of God in bringing in the Messiah through them. Nevertheless, despite their focal attention upon the land promise, there always continued to be a remnant Israel who were deeply aware of the Messianic import of their separation from the pagan nations about them. Even from the tribe of Simeon, one of his descendants also called Simeon "looked for the consolation of Israel" (Luke 2:25), and Anna the prophetess was "of the tribe of Asher" (Luke 2:36). From this, it may be inferred that despite the apostasy of the great majority of Israel, each of the Twelve Patriarchs had a part in the fulfillment of God's purpose. The failure of the majority of men did not foil the purpose of the Eternal.

This chapter records the burial of Jacob by the side of Leah, instead of by Rachel his favorite wife. Apparently, Jacob finally accepted the rightful place of the long-despised Leah as actually his true wife. Francisco has this:

After the death of Rachel, Leah had Jacob alone for a number of years. Did she finally win his love, and did Jacob see that her love was far more meaningful than the fitful passion of the more beautiful Rachel? We cannot tell for certain, but this passage hints at Leah's ultimate victory over Rachel.[23]

In connection with this, it should be recalled that Judah (Leah's son) emerged as the spiritual leader of Israel, that the Messiah came through Leah, and that, at last, in the cave of Machpelah, her body rested alone by the side of Jacob. On the other hand, Rachel apparently continued to be an idolater, as witnessed by her stealing the gods of Laban, and her son Joseph's marriage to the daughter of a pagan priest probably planted the seeds of destruction for all of northern Israel (the Ten Tribes).

"He was put in a coffin in Egypt ..." "Coffin" here was not at all like the burial caskets used today. "The word in Hebrew is [~'arown], primarily meaning a box, and also used for the `ark of the covenant.' Here the term indeed may mean coffin, but the type of coffin used for mummies in Egypt is the familiar, painted, wooden mummy case."[24]

What a glorious book is the Book of Genesis! In this marvelous narrative, the principal purpose was that of outlining the providential manner in which God brought about the separation of the Hebrews in order to bless "all the families of men," how He providentially over-ruled the sins, hatreds, failures, and disobedience of men in order to achieve His purpose, and how, for thousands of years, He guided the Chosen Nation to that hour when the angels of heaven would shout over the hills of Judea, "Glory to God in the Highest ... for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour which is Christ the Lord."

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 50". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/genesis-50.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.