Joseph's Last Words and Death
Genesis 50:15-26 Commentary
Comments and Observations
The book of Genesis is about the God who makes and keeps promises – often in the unlikeliest of situations.
Early in the story, God calls Abraham, and promises that he will give him a family. Through that family, the LORD promises to bless him, make him into a great nation, give him the land of Canaan, and bless the nations through him. As the story unfolds, God makes good on his promises, beginning with giving Abraham a family. But sin is at work. Each generation passes down toxic patterns of favoritism and deceit, which jeopardize the unity of the family and the fulfillment of the promise. By the time we read the account of Joseph and his brothers, the situation looks especially bleak: Joseph’s brothers have torn the family apart by their jealousy and lies; and while Joseph has found a home in Egypt, a widespread famine threatens the family’s survival in Canaan.
But the LORD has not forgotten his promise, and he has not given up on his people. In his sovereignty and providence, God works all things – even evil intentions and terrible circumstances – for good. As Genesis comes to a close, God has made a way for Joseph to be reunited with his family, make peace with his brothers, and provide refuge for all his relatives in Egypt.
In this week’s passage, Joseph lives and dies trusting in the promises of God. Joseph understands his whole life – past, present, and future – in light of the promises and providence of God.
If anyone has reason to be bitter about the past, it’s Joseph. He had been nearly murdered by his brothers, sold into slavery in a foreign land, was falsely accused of adultery, and spent several years in prison. He was harmed intentionally by people he should have been able to trust. He lost so much: his family, his home, his reputation, his freedom. He spent the prime of his life as a slave and a prisoner. And yet, astonishingly, Joseph isn’t bitter. He sees the bigger picture. Joseph tells his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (v. 20). It is an echo of what he told them when they first reunited: “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So, then, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen 45:7, 8). Joseph saw his life in perspective. While it was unfolding, God’s plan was difficult to see. But Joseph sees that God was always at work. He believed that “in all things, [God was] working for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).
It is precisely because of this perspective that Joseph is able to forgive his brothers. After their father dies, the brothers reveal a fear that they have been carrying for a long time: “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” (v.15) Even though Joseph had assured them of his forgiveness seventeen years earlier, they are still guilt-ridden and afraid. And their fear makes sense. How could they blame Joseph if he decided to take advantage of their vulnerable position and hurt them the way they hurt him? But Joseph isn’t looking at the situation from a worldly point of view. He knows that judgment belongs to the LORD. And the LORD has turned their evil intentions and actions into good. What they meant for death, God meant for life. How, then, could Joseph harbor bitterness? So he tells them, “‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God?’ . . . And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them” (v.19, 21).
Even at the end of his life, Joseph trusts God to keep his promises. His living faith enables him to have a forward-looking perspective, even as he approaches death. “By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones” (Heb 11:22). He remembers the LORD’s promise to give the land of Canaan to his people. Presumably, he also remembers what the LORD told his great-grandfather, Abraham: “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions . . . In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here” (Gen 15:13, 16). Joseph is so confident in this promise that he makes his people swear an oath: when God fulfills his promise (and surely he will!), they are to bring Joseph’s bones with them to the Promised Land. Although he dies in a foreign land, Joseph believes God will bring his people “home.” And indeed, God will.
One final word: It is tempting to read this passage and to focus entirely on Joseph’s faith. His trust in God really is exemplary, so the temptation is to write a sermon on “Three ways to trust God like Joseph did.” But there is so much more here. At its deepest and richest level, this passage isn’t most of all about the faith of Joseph. It is about the faithfulness of God. What God says, he does. What God promises, he always fulfills. And Jesus Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises. For those of us whose lives are not exemplary, this is good news. For those of us who feel the ache of living in a world broken by sin, this is good news. For those of us who long for Jesus to return and make all things new, this is good news. “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Cor 1:20-22).
When a word is repeated in Scripture, it is a signal for us to pay attention. In Joseph’s final words to his brothers, he foretells his people’s exodus from Egypt. Twice in two sentences, he says that the LORD will “visit” or “come to” them. (vv. 24, 25). In this context, the word, פָּקַד paqad, literally means to intervene. In verse 24, Joseph emphasizes this by using the infinitive along with the verb: “God will surely visit you.” Because the LORD will surely intervene on behalf of his people, they must keep their hearts set on home – not Egypt, but the Promised Land.
Another word to note is the Hebrew word for coffin, ‘aron (v.26). It is the same word that is used in Deuteronomy 10:5, there translated ‘ark.’ Old Testament scholar Ginzberg says:
Later Jewish tradition did not miss the parallel between Joseph being placed in an ‘aron, and the two tables of the Decalogue also being placed in an ‘aron (Deut 10:5): All this time in the desert Israel carried two shrines with them – the one in the coffin containing the bones of the dead man Joseph, the other Ark containing the covenant of the Living God.
One more thing to pay attention to: Twice, the narrator highlights Joseph’s life span: one hundred and ten years (vv . 22, 26). Bruce Waltke says, “Joseph’s speech of faith is framed by the report of his age at death.” Egyptian culture understood one hundred and ten years to be the perfect life span – a gift given to those who were especially blessed. The narrator wants to be clear that Joseph was indeed a person blessed by God.
The ending of a story matters. In good literature and film, a compelling story leads the audience to invest their time, attention, and emotions in the unfolding drama. The ending provides the last ‘taste’ of the story, which the audience will carry with them when the lights turn on, or the book is closed. Will they feel a sense of satisfaction? confusion? disappointment? surprise? If the storytelling is masterful, the ending also provides a key to unlocking a fuller understanding of the story as a whole.
I experienced the power of a strong ending when I first watched the movie, The Sixth Sense. (Don’t worry – although the film has been out a number of years now, I won’t share any spoilers!) As I watched the movie for the first time, I was able to follow the plot just fine. Or so I thought. Yet, as I watched the final scene, a vital piece of information was revealed, and it changed how I understood the entire storyline. Everything in the film suddenly made sense in a brand new way. Of course, I felt compelled to watch the movie again soon, so that I could understand the story completely, fully.
In Scripture, too, endings matter. Genesis (whose title means ‘the beginning’) is most famous for its opening chapters. But only in light of the conclusion can we understand the story as a whole. Genesis opens with God’s power, speaking order and life into emptiness and chaos; the book closes with God bringing order and peace to a family that has passed chaos from one generation to the next. Genesis begins with the LORD looking at all he has created and saying “It is good”; it ends with Joseph telling his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.” The book begins with God breathing life into creation; it ends with Joseph’s body in a coffin but – as Robert Alter points out – “a new expansion, and new births, [to] follow.” The ending of Genesis speaks powerfully: what God starts, he finishes; what the LORD promises, he fulfills.
Rev. Erin (Marshalek) Stout is a pastor at Faith Christian Reformed Church in New Brighton, MN.
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