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Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Genesis 50

JOSEPH

The Life of Joseph (Genesis 37:2 to Genesis 50:26 )

In this section we have the life of Joseph from beginning to end. It quite clearly bears within it the stamp of a deep knowledge of Egypt, its customs and its background, and could not have been written by anyone who did not have that deep knowledge, and who was not familiar with things at court. The correct technical terms are used for court officials. And the whole of Joseph’s stay in Egypt is clearly written against an Egyptian background without the artificiality which would appear if it was written by an outsider.

Verses 1-13

The Burial of Jacob In Canaan (50:1-13).

Genesis 50:1-3

‘And Joseph fell on his father’s face, and wept on him, and kissed him. And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father, and the physicians embalmed Israel. And forty days were taken for it, for those are the number of days taken for embalming. And the Egyptians wept for him for seventy days.’

Joseph is heartbroken at the death of his father. Then he takes charge of preparation of the body and calls for his physicians to embalm his father. The period taken for embalming in Egypt varied in length, but required some considerable time if done properly. ‘Forty days’ probably means just over a month. The Egyptians were experts in the subject.

Embalming consisted of removal of the viscera (brain, heart, liver and so on) for separate preservation, and desiccation of the body by packing in salt Then the body was packed with impregnated linen and wrapped in linen in its entirety.

“Physicians.” This parallels the term seyen, "physician", employed by the Egyptians to denote the embalmers.

“And the Egyptians wept for him for seventy days.” This was the recognised period for mourning in Egypt for highly place persons. The ‘Egyptians wept’ because they were paid to do so or because it was sensible to do so if you belonged to Joseph’s entourage. Weeping at funerals was something that was ensured financially and performed by professionals. This was a sign of great respect. That of course is not to deny that there were genuine mourners. But the private mourning by his family is not mentioned here. Here we are dealing with the official ceremonies.

Genesis 50:4-5

‘And when the days of weeping for him were past, Joseph spoke to the house of Pharaoh saying, “If now I have found favour 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 dug for myself in the land of Canaan, there you will bury me.” ’ Now therefore let me go up I pray, and bury my father, and I will return.” ’

“The days of weeping.” This expression reproduces the Egyptian expression herwu-en-reny, "days of weeping", for the time observed for mourning. Its Egyptian origin is denoted by the fact that it occurs here in connection with Jacob's mourning in Egypt, and nowhere else in the Old Testament. During the "days of weeping" there was an extraordinarily elaborate program of mourning processions, with wailing women crying aloud, rending their garments, and tearing their hair. The mourning program also comprised very complicated ceremonies in which various priests took part.

“Joseph spoke to the house of Pharaoh.” If there was a death in the family, it was not permissible to come into Pharaoh’s presence, however high your position, until the dead had been buried. Thus Joseph has to make his approach through court officials. His approach follows court etiquette.

“Made me swear.” He stresses that what he is seeking to do is as a result of an oath. But Pharaoh was not likely to refuse such permission. It was quite customary in Egypt to convey the dead to distant burial places and to devote long periods for mourning.

Which I have dug for myself.’ This refers to preparations Jacob had already made in the cave of Machpelah to receive his body. Joseph wants Pharaoh to know that a place has been made ready. (For ‘dug’ in this connection compare 2 Chronicles 16:14)

Genesis 50:6

‘And Pharaoh said, “Go up and bury your father just as he made you swear.” ’

The message comes back that permission has been granted. The Pharaoh acknowledged that as his father had made him take an oath, he had to fulfil it.

Genesis 50:7

‘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 brothers, and his father’s house. Only their little ones, and their flocks, and their herds they left in the land of Goshen.’

So Joseph departs from Egypt with a great funeral procession. Egypt was well known for its grand funerals and this was no exception.

“All the servants of Pharaoh.” That is all of the court officials that could be spared. The "servants of Pharaoh" were the court officials who formed a close circle round the king and stood nearest to him.

“The elders of the house.” These are identical with the shemesu - hayit, which means "the elders of the hall". They held high-court rank.

“The elders of the land of Egypt,” These are the leading councillors representing every district of Egypt. They had seats in the supreme council of the king.

“All the house of Joseph and his brothers.” All their servants and retainers apart from a skeleton staff necessarily required to remain to care for the little ones and tend the flocks and herds.

“His father” s house.’ Jacob’s own servants and retainers. This reminds us again that the number who came down to Egypt was quite large.

Genesis 50:9

‘And there went up both chariots and horsemen, and it was a very great company.’

The statements that the cortege was joined by a whole galaxy of high dignitaries and by horsemen and chariots, corresponds to the Egyptian custom of accompanying funeral processions to the burial place in large bands. As a matter of fact, in no other country but Egypt were funerals composed of such elaborate processions, and the interment ceremonies were carried out with the greatest pomp in the case of highly situated personages.

“Chariots and horses.” Chariots and horses were comparatively rare in Egypt before the reign of the Hyksos. This may therefore indicate an elite group. The very best is available for the burial of the father of the Vizier of Egypt. Or it may be that the Pharaoh was now one of the Hyksos. There is no reason why the Hyksos should not have allowed Joseph, as a Semite, to continue in high office. It would provide some kind of continuation in the civil service.

Genesis 50:10

‘And they came to the threshingfloor of Atad which is ‘Beyond Jordan’, and there they lamented with a great and bitter lamentation, and he made mourning for his father seven days.’

The Egyptian official mourning being over, similar mourning now took place in accordance with Canaanite custom.

“The threshing floor of Atad.” This special mention of the threshing floor is significant. The threshing floor was held in great esteem as the place where the heaps of corn were piled in full view of the villagers in harvest times, speaking of blessing from heaven and providing food and happiness. It was therefore considered a place of honour in which an important villager could be honoured in death, and the threshing board was regularly used as a bier, symbolical of the work and the activity of the villager, in a similar way to a soldier being borne on his shield.

A threshingfloor was placed where the winds would be helpful for winnowing. It would be either a rock outcropping or a soil area covered with marly clay.

“Beyond Jordan.” A technical name (compare Transjordan - you can be in Transjordan and still call it Transjordan) that could refer to either side of the Jordan. Thus Moses could use it as referring to the west side of the river (Deuteronomy 3:20) and to the east side (Deuteronomy 9:10). Compare also ‘Beyond Jordan in the wilderness’ (Deuteronomy 1:1; ‘Beyond Jordan westward’ (Joshua 5:1; Joshua 12:7; Joshua 22:7) and ‘Beyond Jordan eastward’ (Joshua 13:8; Joshua 18:7). See also its use in Isaiah 9:1.

“Made mourning seven days.” Here too there was an ostentatious funeral, with official and loud mourners and undoubtedly a period of feasting to mark the occasion.

Genesis 50:11

‘And when the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, saw the mourning in the floor of Atad, they said, “This is grievous mourning ( ’ebel) to the Egyptians.” That is why the name of it was called Abel-mizraim (‘water-course of Egypt’) which is Beyond Jordan.’

There is a pun and play on words here. ’ebel means mourning, and ’abel means water-course or brook. The Canaanites were understandably surprised by this huge gathering of Egyptians in mourning, following Canaanite customs, and it was ever linked to the place in a new name. ‘Water-course’ may refer to the flow of tears thought to be coming from Egyptian eyes. And it was not surprising that they thought that they were Egyptians for that is how they were all dressed and adorned.

Once the typical Canaanite funeral was over the main body possibly remained here while the brothers went on to Machpelah to bury their father.

“Beyond Jordan.” The site of the threshingfloor was not necessarily east of the Jordan. ‘Beyond Jordan’ is a technical name, and mention of Canaanites as ‘inhabitants of the land’ also suggests otherwise (see above on verse 10). But if it was then it would suggest that the party had deliberately taken this route as a less disturbing route. Such a large party could easily have given the wrong impression

Genesis 50:12-13

‘And his sons did as he had 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 burial place, from Ephron the Hittite, before Mamre.’

The final burial was carried out by the sons of Jacob. They bore his body to Mamre and laid him in the place he had prepared from himself in the Cave of Machpelah. So we have three ‘funerals’. The official ceremony in Egypt, a local ceremony in Abel-mizraim and a private ceremony at the tomb. Jacob has indeed died in honour. But his own choice was not to be buried in honour, but to be back in the land that God had promised. For that was where his heart was.

“Did as he commanded them.” Their filial obedience is stressed. They did what was right. They ‘carried him into the land of Canaan and buried him in the cave of Machpelah’. The writer is stressing that that was what he had commanded them, and that that was what they did.

Verses 14-17

The Brothers Fear For Their Lives on the Death of Jacob (50:14-21).

The prime purpose of this section is not so much to deal with the brothers’ fears with respect to Joseph as to stress that all that has happened has happened in the sovereign purpose of God. He it was who was behind all that happened and Whose sovereign control brought good out of evil.

Genesis 50:14-17

‘And Joseph returned to Egypt, he and his brothers, and all who went up with him to bury his father, after he had buried his father. And when Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and will fully repay us for all the evil which we did to him.” And they sent a message to Joseph saying, “Your father gave a command before he died, “So shall you say to Joseph. Forgive, I pray you now, the transgression of your brothers, and their sin, in that they did evil to you.” And now, we pray you, forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father. And Joseph wept when they spoke to him.’

The whole entourage now return to Egypt, and it is then that the brothers’ fears begin to emerge. They have lived for years with this dread in their hearts and now it has to be faced.

It is not surprising to find that the brothers are still carrying a heavy burden of conscience about what they had done to Joseph, for it had been unmentionably cruel. And now that their father was dead they feared that the obstacle which had prevented their being punished had been removed. Sin, even forgiven sin, can demand of us a heavy price, and so it was with the brothers. It had lain hidden underneath but it had never gone. And now it had resurfaced. They now had to face the great Vizier alone. And they did not know what he would do. Thus their next contact with him was by messenger. They were afraid to see him face to face.

And they had prepared for this day. In their fears they had discussed the matter with their father and he had advised them what to do. He had told them to pass on his dying wish that Joseph should forgive them for their general transgression against him and the specific evil that they had done. So this is what they do and add to it their own plea as ‘the servants of the God of your father.’ They not only plead their father’s words but the fact that they are a part of the covenant community and servants of the God of Jacob. And when Joseph receives their message he weeps. He cannot believe that they are still afraid of him and his heart goes out to them. It was probably the news of this weeping that makes them pluck up courage to face him.

Verse 18

‘And his brothers also went and fell down before his face, and they said, “Behold we are your servants.” ’

Once again they fall on their faces before him, fulfilling the dream at which they had once scoffed, as they have become used to doing through the years. And they admit, no, more than that, stress, that they are ‘his servants’. Now they do not get angry at his official superiority. They are eager to admit to it if only it will spare them from his revenge.

Verse 19

‘And Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. For am I in the place of God? And as for me, you intended evil against me, but God meant it for good, to cause to happen as it is this day, to save large numbers of people alive. Now therefore, do not be afraid. I will nourish you and your little ones.” And he comforted them and spoke directly to their hearts.’

Joseph is large minded. He sees things from God’s perspective, and he assures them that he has no intention of harming them because he knows that what happened was all part of God’s sovereign purpose, so that their evil was used for good and he is ready to leave any consequences, both for him and for them, in the hands of God.

“Am I in the place of God?” He is saying that they have all been experiencing the outworking of the covenant God, and asking whether, when He is so working, man can interfere. The whole pattern was God’s. Thus what man would dare to disturb the pattern? So as far as he is concerned all is in the hands of God. If He has seen fit to use their behaviour to save the covenant community alive, and not only them but also vast numbers of other people, then it is He Who must determine the consequences. Meanwhile he will continue to love and nourish his brothers and their families.

And that God’s purpose was good, he adds, has been revealed in that so many now live because of it who would otherwise have died. This message is important for it reveals that to him and to the writer Egyptians matter to God as well as the covenant community. This is no narrow message of mercy but one that has reached out to Egypt and all the surrounding countries.

“And he comforted them and spoke directly to their hearts.” And this was no cold theological position, for his heart was warm towards them and he wanted their hearts to be warm towards him.

Conclusion: Joseph, his Fruitfulness and Death (50:22-26)

Verse 22

‘And Joseph dwelt in Egypt, he and his father’s house, and Joseph lived one hundred and ten years.’

There is no word of condemnation here. For the time dwelling in Egypt was right. In his own way Joseph and his family were witnesses there of the power and glory of their God.

“His father” s house.’ This covers all who came down to Egypt both family and retainers and all who have since been born and remained within the community. It is composed of some tens of thousdands of people.

“One hundred and ten years.” This was seen by the Egyptians as the length of a perfect life. It may thus be a round number indicating the fullness of Joseph’s life.

Verse 23

‘And Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation. The children also of Machir, the son of Manasseh were born on Joseph’s knees.’

That he lives to a grand old age is certain, for he lives to see his great, great grandsons.

“Born on Joseph” s knees.’ That is were placed on his knees at birth as the proud grandfather. Among the Semites the placing on the knees was an important indication of acceptance. This is possibly what is in mind in Job 3:12 where we read ‘why did the knees receive me?’. When a child was adopted it was ‘placed on the knees’ (see on Genesis 48:11).

Verse 24

“And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am dying. But God will surely visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land which he swore to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.” ’

Some of his brothers are clearly yet alive and he calls them and tells them that he is dying. And once he is dead God will then surely visit them and take them back to the promised land. Joseph is strongly aware that the covenant still stands firm and God’s promises to their fathers must be fulfilled.

It would seem that he feels that, now that his position of authority will cease, their purpose in Egypt is done. They must by now have been a fairly large group numbering probably tens of thousands. But they have comfortably settled down and do not return to the land God has promised them, and eventually they will suffer for it. It is not wise to delay in obedience when God commands. And yet as the future reveals, when man fails God finds another way.

Verse 25

‘And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, “God will surely visit you and you will carry my bones from here.”

Joseph is so certain that they will be returning to Canaan that he makes his brothers and their sons, the ‘children’ of Israel their father, swear an oath to take his bones with them when they go. He longs for his final resting place to be in the land of the covenant, the promised land. So does he affirm his strong belief in that covenant that has been his mainstay throughout his life, even in the courts of Egypt.

Verse 26

‘So Joseph died being a hundred and ten years old, and they embalmed him and put him in a coffin in Egypt.’

This verse is not a conclusion but a hesitation, for it describes a temporary situation. The final conclusion awaits the return of his bones to the promised land when God visits His people.

“One hundred and ten years old.” It is repeated and thus emphasised that he lived a full and complete life. And the very fact that this is done in terms of Egyptian thought must surely confirm to us that this was written down at a time when Egyptian thought was primarily influencing the writer and that suggests it was by someone not too long after his death as befitted a great Vizier of Egypt.

“And they embalmed him and put him in a coffin in Egypt.” This is his temporary resting place. He will not remain in Egypt, any more than will the children of Israel. The same embalming and mourning that followed the death of Jacob follows here. But the writer omits it. He mentions only the coffin into which he is placed, richly made and shaped roughly in the form of a man. For the reader is expected to wait expectantly for the next episode. After all, this is the story of God.

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Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 50". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/genesis-50.html. 2013.