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B'resheet/Genesis 50:14 And Yosef returned to Egypt, he and his brothers ... after he had buried his father.
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Ya'akov has died, after extracting an explicit promise from Yosef - "Do not bury me in Egypt, but let me lie with my fathers. Carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burying place" (B'resheet 47:29-30, NJPS) - and placing a general obligation upon all his sons to bury him in the Machpelah cave with his wife Leah, his parents Yitz'khak and Rivkah, and his grandparents, Avraham and Sarah. The Machpelah cave, we must remember, is "to the east of Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Avraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place" (49:30, NJPS). This is a deeply family commitment; it is why the Torah tells us that - having set all this in place - "he drew up his feet into the bed and breathed his last and was gathered to his people" (49:33, NJPS). This is Ya'akov's last defiant affirmation of covenant and promise. As Walter Brueggemann powerfully articulates, "[Ya'akov] does not die an Egyptian. He does not want to die an Egyptian. He most fears that he will be buried in the wrong place as a son of the empire. Both his acts, the binding of his heirs and the provision for burial, are militantly Israelite acts. They reject and resist any accommodation with Egypt. The acts are intended to place the narrative and the family squarely in the current of the promise."1
Yet the narrative moves on to tells us that Yosef has his father's body embalmed, a move that exactly follows Egyptian practice. The Egyptians, who firmly believed in life after death, held that it was necessary to preserve the body so that the deceased person could enter the afterlife 'whole'. Although we can surely offer Yosef the benefit of the doubt and assume that this process was instead intended to preserve Ya'akov's body through its journey across the desert to Canaan, so that there would still be something to deposit in the Machpelah cave. After seeking Pharoah's permission for an exit visa - "Let me please go up and bury my father. Then I will return" (50:5, NJPS) - the narrator tells us that "Yosef went up to bury his father. With him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, as well as all the household of Joseph, his brothers, and his father's household" (vv. 7-8, NJPS). Although Yosef leads the procession, the rest of the family - Yosef's eleven brothers and the rest of Ya'akov's household - are relegated to third place behind a crowd of Egyptian leaders, politicians and government officials.
In fact, given that Yosef himself looked the archetypical Egyptian - so that even his brothers hadn't recognised him when they appeared before him to buy grain - this looks like a totally Egyptian affair. James McKeown comments that "a large Egyptian entourage accompanies the funeral procession to Canaan, and a seven-day period of mourning is observed. Significantly, the Canaanites who see these proceedings believe that it is an Egyptian who is being buried."2 This last, of course, is derived form the Torah's own text, "When the inhabitants of the land ... saw the mourning on the threshing floor of Atad, they said, 'This is a grievous mourning by the Egyptians'" (v. 11, NJPS). Leon Kass wryly adds: "The Canaanite witnesses see an enormous Egyptian party performing a clearly Egyptian rite of mourning; in this they are not mistaken."3 At this point, however, after a last seven days of mourning, it is the brothers who alone carry out Ya'akov's final wishes, taking the body into Canaan and laying it to final rest in the Machpelah cave. Yosef is reduced from Grand Vizier of Egypt to the second youngest brother of twelve, bearing the body of his father as he walks side by side with his brothers into the cave to leave their father's remains in respectful silence.
At this point in the narrative, before the narrator picks up the story with the final resolution between Yosef and his brothers, our text tells us that Yosef and his brothers return to Egypt. For more than a week they have walked the ground of their childhood, smelled the familiar scents of home, seen perhaps the very houses and neighbourhoods where they had got married and started their families, felt the tug of emotional ties and remembered the covenant promise that this land belonged to them and their descendants. What are they doing? Why are they going back to Egypt? Didn't they want to stay in Canaan? The famine had been over for some years; couldn't they just settle back down and pick up where they had been, in their own land? Was there no room for negotiation? Gordon Wenham points out, naturally, that "Yosef's return to Egypt fulfills his promise to Pharaoh."4 This was, of course, one of the conditions of Pharaoh granting permission in the first place. But surely, we can imagine the others saying, only Yosef had given his promise, what can't the rest of us stay? There was, of course, the little matter of their families - only the men had been allowed to be part of the funeral processions - "their children, their flocks, and their herds were left in the land of Goshen" (v. 8, NJPS) and, to look after the children, the flocks and herds, all the women as well! Perhaps Pharaoh wanted a practical tie - would it be too cynical to use the word 'hostage'? - to ensure the return happened.
From the bigger picture and the hindsight of having read the whole story, we know that there was still much to do and much time to pass in Egypt in order to accomplish the promise that HaShem had given Avraham: "your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years" (B'resheet 15:13, NJPS). The Israelites were still a family, a large household or extended family; they had not yet reached - and wouldn't for several hundred years - the size and proportion of a nation. Critically, also, Bruce Waltke points out - referring to the second part of HaShem's promise, "they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete" (vv. 16, NJPS) - "the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet full."5 The Land and the sins of its current inhabitants were not yet ready for the judgement that HaShem would pour out when the Israelites returned, cleansing and possessing the Land.
Nevertheless, before we ask ourselves some important questions that spring from this story, we need to consider carefully what was passing through Yosef's mind as he helped his brothers fulfill their father's last command and then rounds everyone up to start the journey back to Egypt. Kass nicely voices this for us: "Am I the Egyptian viceroy in the chariot, or am I the dutiful son of the Israelite ancestors?", before pointing out that "What happens next will depend in large measure on how Yosef handles the question of his identity. How, we want to know, and in what spirit was it that 'Yosef returned to Egypt ... after he had buried his father'?"6 Would Yosef resume the position of obedient Egyptian civil servant, living an Egyptian lifestyle and raising his children to be good citizens of the empire, or would this experience strengthen his awareness of being in exile, determined to maintain his identity as a descendant of Avraham, Yitz'khak and Ya'akov, looking to the day when his children would inherit the promisesHaShem had given as a sovereign people living in HaShem's Land and promises? His final actions give us the answer: "Then Yosef made the sons of Israel swear, saying, 'G-d will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here'" (50:25, ESV).
Returning to the present day, when the pressures of exile are starting to bite, the temptation of escape is always present. As we consider our homes, communities and families, when is it right to "go back" - in this case, to continue to work with what we have where we are, against the challenges that try to drag us down and in spite of the desire for something better - and when might it be right to move on, to find greener and softer pasture, to escape from the daily grind in a better life? Are we free to escape and seek a better place? If the congregation is getting to be really hard work, people always sniping and criticising, talking against each other and the leadership; if the worship no longer moves us as it did and the gifts of the Spirit don't seem to be flowing; if we are getting bored and frustrated, not learning much and felling pretty cheesed off, can we move on? Can we visit a few other congregations and enjoy their worship and fellowship, sampling a bit here and a bit there until we find something that suits us better and makes us feel comfortable and wanted?
The prophet Ezekiel is told, "you shall set your face toward the siege of Jerusalem, with your arm bared, and you shall prophesy against the city" (Ezekiel 4:7, ESV). This is to go on for over a year - 390 days - while HaShem says, "I will place cords upon you, so that you cannot turn from one side to the other, till you have completed the days of your siege" (v. 8, ESV). However much he might have wanted to escape, Ezekiel chose to obey his calling and remained faithful to G-d. Likewise, the gospels tell us that this was Yeshua's choice: "When the days drew near for Him to be taken up, He set His face to go to Jerusalem" (Luke 9:51, ESV). Although He prayed in Gethsemane that G-d would "let the cup pass", He was insistent that "nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will" (Matthew 26:39, ESV) and saw His passion through to its full conclusion. Yeshua offers the same thought for those who would follow Him: "No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of G-d" (Luke 9:62, ESV).
Unsurprisingly, the same still applies to us today: while we may pray for an improvement in our situation - and may be granted the freedom to move - we are otherwise expected to keep our hand on the tiller and leave as straight a wake as possible until we are relieved or we reach the journey's end. Yeshua promises everything we need to complete the assignment, including His presence and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, empowerment and enablement as well as encouragement from Him at every step of the road. He does not call us to something that we cannot do or that is beyond our reach, though we may find ourselves stretching and growing along the way. Like Yosef and his brothers, until the time comes for our freedom - when He comes to set everything to rights, may it be soon and in our days - we must keep our promise and continue with the work that he has set before us. The whole of heaven is watching to cheer us on and see us cross the finishing line well!
1. - Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), page 368.
2. - James McKeown, Genesis, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), page 191.
3. - Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2003), page 654.
4. - Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16-50, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1994), page 489.
5. - Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), page 621.
6. - Kass, page 655.
Further Study: Matthew 11:28-30; Philippians 3:13-16
Application: Do you struggle with the daily effort of working in the kingdom so that you long for something different and less arduous? Know that you have already been equipped with everything you need and the Chief Instructor is waiting to help you put it into practice - why not give Him a call today?
Comment - 03:15 01Jan23 Bonnie: This was so good and I thank you.
Comment - 06:22 01Jan23 KK: Precious! Thank you.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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