Commentary on Genesis 50

Last updated: December 21, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1Then Joseph fell on his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him. 2And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father. So the physicians embalmed Israel. 3Forty days were required for it, for that is how many are required for embalming. And the Egyptians wept for him seventy days.

4And when the days of weeping for him were past, Joseph spoke to the household of Pharaoh, saying, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, please speak in the ears of Pharaoh, saying, 5My father made me swear, saying, ‘I am about to die: in my tomb that I hewed out for myself in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me.’ Now therefore, let me please go up and bury my father. Then I will return.” 6And Pharaoh answered, “Go up, and bury your father, as he made you swear.” 7So Joseph 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, 8as well as all the household of Joseph, his brothers, and his father’s household. Only their children, their flocks, and their herds were left in the land of Goshen. 9And there went up with him both chariots and horsemen. It was a very great company. 10When they came to the threshing floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, they lamented there with a very great and grievous lamentation, and he made a mourning for his father seven days. 11When the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, saw the mourning on the threshing floor of Atad, they said, “This is a grievous mourning by the Egyptians.” Therefore the place was named Abel-mizraim; it is beyond the Jordan. 12Thus his sons did for him as he had commanded them, 13for his sons carried him to the land of Canaan and buried him in the cave of the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place. 14After he had buried his father, Joseph returned to Egypt with his brothers and all who had gone up with him to bury his father.

15When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” 16So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died, 17‘Say to Joseph, Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” 19But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. 21So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.

22So Joseph remained in Egypt, he and his father’s house. Joseph lived 110 years. 23And Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation. The children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were counted as Joseph’s own. 24And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” 25Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.” 26So Joseph died, being 110 years old. They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.

Notes

1 Then Joseph fell on his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him.

Joseph’s actions fulfill the promise made in 46:4.

2 And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father. So the physicians embalmed Israel.

Jacob and Joseph (v. 26) are the only people in the Bible said to be embalmed. The narrative gives the embalming no religious significance. It was a practical measure so that both men could be taken back to Canaan to be buried (Jacob in the immediate future and Joseph after the exodus).

3 Forty days were required for it, for that is how many are required for embalming. And the Egyptians wept for him seventy days.

It is not clear if the two periods overlap or are consecutive. Detailed information on the embalming process is lacking for the ancient period, but is available from the fifth century B.C.E. and from the late Hellenistic period. Herodotus (Histories 2.86) reports that the body was placed in niter for seventy days. Diodorus of Sicily (Histories 1.91) describes a thirty-day dressing of the corpse with oils and spices and seventy-two days of public mourning for a king. Jacob is apparently being accorded royal honors. Jewish exegetes have by and large understood that forty days were required for embalming, followed by another thirty days of mourning. The time of mourning would be in accordance with the period of public grief observed for Aaron (Num. 20:29) and Moses (Deut. 34:8). Jewish law to the present time requires a thirty-day mourning period after burial (sheloshim) for close relatives, during which various restrictions are observed.1

4-5 And when the days of weeping for him were past, Joseph spoke to the household of Pharaoh, saying, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, please speak in the ears of Pharaoh, saying, My father made me swear, saying, ‘I am about to die: in my tomb that I hewed out for myself in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me.’ Now therefore, let me please go up and bury my father. Then I will return.”

Hebrew kariti, from stem k-r-h, may mean either “I dug” or “I purchased.” But neither meaning suits a reference to the Cave of Machpelah (v. 13), which had been purchased, not dug, by Abraham, not Jacob (chap. 23). In light of this, some moderns have suggested that the verse reflects another tradition about the site of Jacob’s burial. However, as Malbim points out, a similar usage of the verb k-r-h in 2 Chronicles 16:14 (cf. 1 Kings 15:24) indicates that the term may simply mean “to prepare a grave in advance.”2

7-8 So Joseph 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. Only their children, their flocks, and their herds were left in the land of Goshen.

The children and animals were left behind to assure Pharaoh that they would be returning.

10 When they came to the threshing floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, they lamented there with a very great and grievous lamentation, and he made a mourning for his father seven days.

The location of Atad is unknown. A seven day mourning period was common (1 Samuel 31:13; 2 Samuel 11:27; 1 Chronicles 10:12; Job 2:13; Ezekiel 3:15-16; Judith 16:24; Sirach 22:12).

11 When the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, saw the mourning on the threshing floor of Atad, they said, “This is a grievous mourning by the Egyptians.” Therefore the place was named Abel-mizraim; it is beyond the Jordan.

Abel-Mizraim means “mourning of Egypt.”3

15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.”

The text says that the brothers saw that Jacob was dead. This cannot mean that they learned for the first time that their father was not alive, unless we accept a flagrant disagreement between vv. 1-11, 14 (J) – the brothers went with Joseph to Canaan to bury their father – and vv. 15-21 (E). saw means something like, “when the full reality of their father’s passing dawned on them.”

Their suspicion is that Joseph will loathe them. The Joseph narrative started with the brothers hating him (sane, 37:4, 5, 8). At the end of the narrative the tables are turned, and they think Joseph will hate them (satam). Their hatred for Joseph is real, but Joseph’s hatred of them in only imaginary.

If, in fact, Joseph did loathe his brothers, such loathing would not have been triggered by Jacob’s death. It would have a longer history than that, extending as far back as the incident of ch. 37. Maybe we should read the brothers’ feelings not as two coordinate statements, but as a cause-and-effect statement: “Joseph will demonstrate his contempt for us by returning on us all the evil we heaped on him.” Joseph has given them no premonition or reason to think that his spirit is retaliatory, that he has been laying low and waiting for most propitious moment for vengeance. This, incidentally, is the first time the brothers acknowledge their guilt for what they did to Joseph – all the harm [hara’a] we did to him. Joseph himself had discouraged remorse in his brothers by his reconciling words in 45:5 (“do not worry, or reproach yourselves”).4

16-17 So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died, ‘Say to Joseph, Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.

Most traditional commentators who hold that the Testament of Jacob is integral to the narrative argue that, since Jacob makes no clear reference to his sons’ treatment of Joseph, he cannot have known what they had done to him. Therefore they suggest that this plea is, in Sternberg’s words, “desperate fabrication.” In mitigation, it may be said that if Jacob had known, he might have said something like this.

The brothers certainly pull out all the emotional stops in an effort to obtain Joseph’s mercy. First, they approach him through an intermediary: “they sent instructions.” That they did not go in person to start with is implied by v 18, “they came and fell.” Second, they say Jacob gave instructions just before his death, a particularly solemn moment. Third, they twice plead for forgiveness. Fourth, they describe their sin in the most comprehensive way, as “crime” (twice), “sin,” and “evil,” three of the four principal OT terms for wicked deeds (only “iniquity” is missing here). Finally, they implore Joseph to act like their father’s God, who is one who “forgives iniquity, transgression [crime], and sin” (Exod 34:7; Ps 32:1, 5; Mic 7:18).5

19-21 But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.

Their anxiety is allayed at once. Joseph has no interest in seeking revenge because the very idea offends his personal theology. Man dares not usurp the prerogative of God to whom alone belongs the right of punitive vengeance (cf. Lev. 19:18). Moreover, human actions and their consequences are far more profound than human intentions. God may use man’s evil purposes as the instrument for ultimate good, beyond the knowledge, desire, or realization of the human agents involved (cf. Gen. 44:5-7). What may seem to be a chance succession of disparate incidents is in reality a process, so that what has happened and what is unfolding take on meaning when viewed from the perspective of God’s time (cf. Prov. 16:9; 19:21; 20:24).6

23 And Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation. The children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were counted as Joseph’s own.

It is telling that Joseph should adopt the children of Machir as his own. Whatever the historical context of this may be, there is immediate connection between Joseph and Machir in the Joseph narrative. Machir means “one who is sold.” makar is the verb used to describe what happened to Joseph (37:28; 45:5). In a sense Joseph was Machir (i.e., “sold”).7

24 And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”

Some may take this verse to imply that Joseph, though younger than all his brothers except Benjamin, was outlived by his brothers. However, the statements in verses 24-25 suggest he is speaking to the tribes of Israel and thus using the term “brothers” loosely. Clearly his biological brothers do not move to the promised land and bury Joseph’s bones there.

25 Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.”

Joseph may not request an immediate internment in the promised land because the Israelite situation in Egypt has deteriorated since the death of Jacob. Exodus 13:19 and Joshua 24:32 narrate the successful fulfillment of Joseph’s request.

26 So Joseph died, being 110 years old. They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.

The use of a coffin is characteristically Egyptian and is never again mentioned in biblical literature. In striking contrast to the honors accorded Jacob, no ritual or mourning is recorded. The atmosphere, heavy with the anticipation of enslavement, is filled with foreboding.

The formative period in Israel’s history is now over. The divine promise of nationhood has been fulfilled. The great national drama of the slavery and the Exodus is about to unfold. Yet the Book of Genesis closes with an assurance of redemption. The people of Israel will possess the land pledged to them by God by His oaths to the patriarchs.8

Bibliography

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1B. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary 2. Thomas Nelson, 1994.

1Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 348.

2Ibid.

3Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 489.

4Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 701-702.

5Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 490.

6Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 350.

7Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 711.

8Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 351.

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