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B'resheet/Genesis 46:30 "I can die now after seeing your face, for you still live."
This is Ya'akov speaking to his son Yosef as they meet after a twelve year parting. Given that Ya'akov has been in mourning for Yosef throughout this time, refusing all consolation, these words seem more than a little strange; doesn't Ya'akov want to spend time with his son, redeveloping their relationship, catching up on what's been going on in both of their lives since Yosef's departure, simply enjoying each other's company? The picture is complicated by the first of Ya'akov's words: , the Qal 1cs prefix form of the root , to die, with a paragogic , simply "I will die". However, this is the only occasion that this exact form is used in the Hebrew Bible, suggesting some significance. With many other verbs, this construction signifies a cohortative meaning, which here would read "Let me die" almost connoting a wish to die that is followed by a number of translations (ESV, NASB, NKJV), while others suggest "I am ready to die" (NIV) or "I can die" (NJB, NRSV, JPS). How can this be?
The Septuagint, the earliest translation that we know, chooses , the middle future voice, implying either a degree of causation - this will cause me to die - or reflexion: I will die myself; the NETS translation renders it "I shall die".Targum Onkelos, translated a few hundred years later, expands the first two Hebrew words to seven in Aramaic, offering "Were I to die at this time, I would be consoled", making it an unwanted but not wholly unreasonable condition. Rashi explains, "He is not predicting or wishing his death, but expressing a feeling." Drazin and Wagner add, "Ya'akov is now calm and can state unemotionally that he is now satisfied with life and willing to die." The Radak takes the Onkelos paraphrase a step further, elaborating the whole phrase to "I am not concerned if ... I will die at this time since I have seen your face."
Hirsch assumes that Ya'akov could never feel happier: "Now let me die! He felt himself at the zenith of possible happiness, felt he could never more be any happier. At this zenith of happiness he would like his life to end", while the Sforno suggests that Ya'akov actively wants to die - "I had other troubles in my life; salvation came, only to be followed by more sorrows. Now that this salvation has come, and I have seen your face, may it be G-d's will that I may die in this salvation before any fresh sorrow comes upon me", lest another swing of the pendulum makes something worse happen. According to this, Ya'akov wants to get out while the going is good! Nahum Sarna offers a more reasoned approach: "I am ready for death now that my dearest wish has been fulfilled."
Let's look at four other occasions in the Scriptures where someone talks of dying. The first is the prophet Elijah who, after receiving death threats from Jezebel - the wife of king Ahaz - following HaShem's stunning victory over the priests of Ba'al, flees for his life and makes an overnight stop in the wilderness near Be'er Sheva: "He came to a broom bush and sat down under it, and prayed that he might die. 'Enough!' he cried. 'Now, O L-RD, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers'" (1 Kings 19:4, JPS). Elijah is discouraged and frightened; he thinks that he is the only prophet in Israel, standing alone against not only the queen but a country that has turned to idol worship. AlthoughHaShem performed an undeniable miracle at Mt. Carmel, Elijah thinks either that he has failed or that he is unequal to the task ahead.
The second instance is that of another prophet: Jonah. After bringing HaShem's word to the people if Nineveh - via a little diversion in the belly of the whale, which probably heightened the dramatic effect - Jonah is sitting outside the city, lamenting that what he anticipated all along has happened. As he sits there, he complains to HaShem that he has been made to look very stupid, bringing a word of judgement when HaShem has responded to the city's repentance by forgiving them: "Please, L-RD, take my life, for I would rather die than live" (Jonah 4:3, JPS). Jonah has got offended and is being petulant, like a spoiled child. Neither Elijah's experience nor that of Jonah seem to match Ya'akov's words or situation.
Our next scenario is that of Shimon haTzadik, the old man who greeted and blessed Yeshua and his parents when they brought him in to the Temple to "present Him to the L-rd" (Luke 2:22, ESV). Shimon takes Yeshua in his arms to bless him and says (in the words made famous in their Latin translation as the Nunc Dimittis), "L-rd, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word" (v. 29, KJV). Reviewing G-d's promise that he should not die before he had seen the Messiah, he affirms, "for my eyes have seen your salvation" (v. 30, ESV) and then gives the family his blessing. This is a much closer match with Ya'akov - Shimon is not asking or, necessarily, expecting to die, but is confirming that he is now ready to die having received what had been promised. His life has reached its peak in seeing the Messiah and knowing that G-d's plan of salvation, for both Jews and Gentiles, has been started in the life of the baby that he holds in his arms; it will happen, so I can go in peace.
The last person we shall consider is Rav Sha'ul. Writing to the Philippians - from prison, awaiting trial - Sha'ul says, "For to me to live is Messiah, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Messiah, for that is far better" (Philippians 1:21-23, ESV). He talks as if he has a choice in the matter, but cannot decide which choice to make. Staying in this life means more hard work, but good and fruitful work, sharing the gospel and his life with the Philippians and others. To leave this life - to die - means being with Messiah and, since Messiah is in heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father, that must be better than anything in this life. He prefers to go, but perhaps recognises that he has a responsibility here, unfinished work perhaps, that needs to be done. He goes on, "But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith" (vv. 24-25, ESV); staying here in this life seems to be what he has to do, so that the churches may be built up and encouraged. Yosef's father Ya'akov lived on in Egypt too, for another "seventeen years" (B'resheet 47:28). Presumably he continued to be the patriarch of the family, guiding his sons through settling in and settling down, having families and building a new life in Goshen. Protected by Yosef's position, the family could grow and become a tribe, then a nation; perhaps Ya'akov saw some reward for or at least relief from the "few and hard" (47:9) years of his life that he described to Pharaoh.
What about us? Where do we stand - do we share Shimon's peace at accepting life or death, or do we feel Sha'ul's tension between here and the hereafter? Those of us with families and young children, those who are helping to look after elderly relatives or grand-children, will hear the call of duty, feeling that they are still needed in this life. Others whose lives are comparatively empty may feel ambivalent: that it doesn't matter much whether they are here or there. Still others, aware of the blessings of heaven and hard-pressed in this life or after a lifetime of difficulties, may yearn to move on, "to depart" in Sha'ul's words, to join the Master in heaven. Yet - and here is the common thread between all four biblical examples and our own lives - we do not have the choice; it is not ours to take, either for ourselves or for others. Ya'akov stayed alive in Egypt, Elijah was recommissioned for several new assignments before being taken up to heaven in the chariot of fire. Of Jonah and Shimon, we know no more, but there is no reason to think that they suddenly died. Rav Sha'ul certainly stayed alive long enough to write a number of letters from prison and tradition would have it that he was eventually released from prison and went on to further missionary work, perhaps in Spain.
What remains for us to do in our lives? Who knows whether we have one, ten or fifty years ahead of us "in the flesh". We can be sure, however, that there is much fruitful work to be done, whether our current commitments and obligations, or new areas of work to which we can be called. Our Father, the one who has promised, "I will fulfill the number of your days" (Shemot 23:26, ESV), has a plan and a purpose that we are to fulfill as our lives unfold, whether we are still at the beginning of our life, in the middle or towards what we may think of as the end. Average life expectancy is precisely that and we are just as likely to be taken before as after. Two things matter: firstly, to live the life we now have at peace with G-d, knowing that our days are in His hands and that "not one [sparrow] will fall to the ground apart from your Father" (Matthew 10:29); secondly, to live every day that we have to the fullest that we can - recognising that different people at different stages of their lives have different abilities and strengths - and sensing G-d's good purpose for each one of those days.
Further Study: 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; 2 Timothy 4:6-8; Psalm 90:10-12
Application: Are you afraid of reaching the time of death, wondering whether you will have done everything that you want or need to do? Know that G-d's timing for that - as for everything else - is perfect and wants to work with you to accomplish everything in His plans for your life.
© Jonathan Allen, 2015
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