Buried in Faith—Genesis 50:1-14

The story of Jacob’s burial, like the story of him blessing his sons regarding the future, is a story of faith. The story of his faith and Joseph’s faith, initially just following God’s leading in their own lives and at God’s initiative, ends up impacting the world around them.

Jacob knows that God will bless his descendants and return them to the promised land (48:21), for God had told him so (46:4). Jacob’s desire to be buried in the promised land (49:29) is thus an act of faith in that promised future (cf. comparable faith in Heb 11:21-22). So significant is his last request that despite the already extensive period mourning for Jacob in Egypt (Gen 50:3), Joseph receives permission to ensure Jacob’s burial in the requested place (50:4-13).

Pharaoh of course grants Joseph a leave of absence to bury his father, recognizing the importance of both filial duty and the duty to which Joseph’s oath to Jacob committed Joseph (50:6). But Pharaoh, who has special regard for his trustworthy right-hand man, does more than than merely grant him permission to take off work for a funeral. Joseph had probably anticipated this, based on his special relationship with this Pharaoh. (Pharaoh regularly lavished favor on Joseph, e.g., 41:41-45; 45:17-20; 47:6-7; whether or not the same Pharaoh is in view here—the Pharaoh’s particular identity does not seem to concern the narrator or his sources—Joseph may ask indirectly [50:4] to avoid dishonorably seeming to directly request too many favors [cf. 46:33-34].)

Many of Egypt’s leaders undertook this journey as well, to honor the holy father of the land’s esteemed wise voice for God, Joseph (50:7; cf. 47:9-10). So great was their mourning for the patriarch that even the local Canaanites took notice (50:11).

Through a man who persevered in serving God through suffering, and most of all through God’s plan for him and for others, God had impacted a nation for a generation. No such impact is permanent—eventually a king arose who did not know Joseph (Exod 1:8; some scholars associate this change with the historical transition from the Hyksos dynasty to those who overthrew it). But making a difference for even one generation makes an eternal difference for the people of that generation. Often God has used just a few people to make a huge difference—for example, consider the impact of three figures from Oxford’s Holy Club (Whitefield and the Wesley brothers) in eighteenth century England and its American colonies. Joseph’s calling didn’t look like any of our traditional ideas of ministry, but he was faithful in hearing God and doing his will. Let us each be faithful to the calling God has given us.

It is not surprising that Israel’s family left their little ones and livestock in Egypt (50:8), since in the short run they planned to return (50:14). The narrator includes this information to notify us that all the other members of the household went to honor their deceased patriarch Jacob (Gen 50:8)—but also because it provides a fitting contrast with a story to come. Generations later Moses will refuse to leave the little ones and livestock behind (Exod 10:9-11) precisely because, as is obvious to that generation’s Pharaoh, Moses does not intend to return.

That “his sons did for him as he had commanded them” (50:12) and carried his body (50:13) was of course honorable filial behavior (cf. Jacob’s obedience to his parents in 27:8; 28:6). Yet it contrasts with the disobedience shown by his sons in earlier years—even to the point of a firstborn defiling their father’s bed (35:22) and most of the others selling his favorite son into slavery (37:26-28).

This new obedience illustrates how God’s grace in a family can bring change, even when that change appears imperceptible in the short term. We may also note that most of the commanding in surrounding chapters has been done by Joseph (42:25; 44:1; 50:2, where his servants include even physicians/embalmers; cf. Pharaoh on Joseph’s behalf in 45:19; 47:11). Now, however, at the end, Joseph’s father who first instilled in Joseph the ways of God is still honored by all his sons, including the one who became Pharaoh’s vizier (Jacob’s command in 49:29, 33; 50:12).

The narrator further reminds his Israelite audience of the burial place in Canaan that Abraham had bought from a Hittite (50:13). Like Shechem (33:19), this was a foothold in the land paid for by their ancestors, footholds that belonged to them even before battles with Canaanites.

This narrative teaches us about faith, through the example of Jacob; about how God can sometimes impact entire cultures through those who live faithful to God; and how God changes families. It also reminds us that even when we do not recognize the foreshadowings in our lives, God is faithful to his long-range promises to us and to his people.

Jacob blesses his sons: some observations—Genesis 49

Jacob has great faith and blesses his sons with confidence in the future that God has for them.

Joseph’s primacy, emphasized already in Gen 48, is further reinforced as Jacob blesses each of his sons in Gen 49. Such blessings were the most important gift that Jacob could pass on to them, greater than dividing the property as in a will. Some of Jacob’s sons, like Judah, will be greatly blessed, but Jacob’s headstrong, firstborn three—Reuben, Simeon and Levi—suffer for their past choices, thereby justifying Jacob’s choice of Joseph over the natural firstborn. In 49:3-4, Jacob emphasizes how Reuben would have had this status but lost it (by going up to his father’s bed, thus trying to seize the status prematurely). Jacob surely recalls that his father’s firstborn Esau lost his status in favor of Jacob.

The blessings show some parallels between Judah and Joseph, the descendants of both of whom will become major tribes in Israel. Judah’s brothers will bow to him (49:8) just as Joseph’s brothers bowed to him (42:6); Judah will also reign (49:10), just as Joseph now was vizier of Egypt. Although Jacob’s special favor rests on Joseph, Judah had shown positive leadership in the more recent part of the Joseph narrative (43:3, 8; 44:14, 16, 18; 46:28) and remains preeminent among Leah’s sons.

Lions were perceived as the most powerful of predators, and the image is here linked with Judah’s future reign (Gen 49:9-10). The phrase “lion’s cub” applied to Judah here in 49:9 applies to Dan in Deut 33:22; but Judah also appears as a full-grown lion or lioness here (like Gad in Deut 33:20). In Num 23:24; 24:9, a lion and lioness become images of a powerful people conquering prey; in antiquity, a lion was an image of strength.

Both Judah and Joseph will also prosper. That Judah can treat wine like rinse water (Gen 49:11) indicates his promised prosperity. (Growing vines and tending milk-producing goats [see 49:12] would not be difficult in the hill country of Judah.)

Yet as in Jacob’s blessings of his sons, Moses’s blessings of the tribes that almost close the final book of the Pentateuch include much prosperity for Joseph (Deut 33:13-17). Joseph will be very fruitful (Gen 49:22; cf. Ps 1:3), a fruitfulness that had already begun in his life when the Lord began exalting him (Gen 41:52: “God has made me fruitful …”). Jacob prays for the blessings of heaven and the deep and of fertility for Joseph (49:25), recalling the blessings of his ancestors (49:26), especially Isaac’s prayer of blessing from heaven and earth for Jacob (27:28). As Isaac blessed Jacob to rule his brothers (27:29), so Jacob blesses Joseph as one special among his brothers (49:26; the term means one consecrated or set apart, perhaps here for rule).

Just as Leah and Rachel gave their children meaningful names in Gen 29:32-35; 30:6-8, 11-13, 18, 20, 24; 35:18, Jacob now puns on some of their names as he blesses them before his death. Judah’s brothers will praise (yuducah) Judah (yehudah; 49:8); Dan will judge (yadin, based on the same root) his people (49:16); raiders (g’dud) will raid (y’gudenu) Gad, but he will also raid (yagud) at their heels (49:19; the verbs are from the root gdd). (Note: I am unfortunately unable to use my Hebrew font here.) Nevertheless, Jacob does not offer all possible plays on names; he does not, for example, call Asher blessed (asher; though this would simply reuse what already appears in Gen 30:13). That both Dan and Gad raid at enemies’ heels (49:17, 19) might recall Jacob’s own prevailing over another’s heel, which earned him his name (25:26).

While blessing his sons, Jacob also praises God in language often developed by his descendants. God is “the rock of Israel” (49:24), perhaps recalling the rock of God’s house in 28:22 but especially emphasizing that God is an unmoving strength and foundation (cf. e.g., 2 Sam 22:2-3, 47; Ps 18:2, 46; 31:3 and passim). “The Mighty One” (Gen 49:24) also becomes a common title for God’s strength (e.g., Josh 22:22), especially in Hebrew poetry (e.g., Ps 50:1; Isa 49:26; 60:16); so also “the shepherd” (Gen 49:24; cf. e.g., 48:15; Ps 23:1; 80:1; Isa 40:11).

All these blessings depend on the recognition that God is the source of blessing and the one who will carry out these blessings. Having lived to see God’s faithfulness, Jacob is bold in his faith for the future. We, too, should recognize God’s faithfulness in our lives, and trust his continued faithfulness in the future. Unlike Jacob here, we often do not know the details the future holds for us; but we do know that God will be with us, and we know the already-promised, ultimate outcome. Whatever our trials in the meantime, God’s faithfulness is the foundation for our hope.

Joseph receives the double portion—Genesis 48:22

As noted earlier, Jacob gives Joseph the double portion allotted to the firstborn son. Because the double portion meant that the first son received twice the share allotted to any other son, Jacob promises Joseph one piece of land more than his brothers (48:22).

Jacob declares that he had taken this land by his sword and bow. This description does not apply to most of Jacob’s sojourn in Canaan, most of which was peaceful. Unless he prophesies the future conquest (cf. 15:16), it apparently applies only to his sons’ unruly conquest of the town of Shechem (34:25-29). Families were viewed as a unit, and this was an action by the family of which Jacob was head and progenitor.

Although Jacob actually disapproved of his sons’ sack of Shechem and initially hurried from that region (34:30; 35:1-5; 49:5-7), this conquered town was in fact part of the future promised land. Jacob had legally bought land there (33:19) and dedicated it to God (33:20); moreover, he eventually came to view the area as safe even for his sons (37:12-14). Even when Joseph disappears after being sent there, his disappearance is (wrongly) attributed to a beast rather than to a vengeful neighbor (37:20, 33). The term sometimes translated “portion,” “ridge,” and so forth in 48:22 can also be translated “Shechem.”

That Shechem ultimately lies in the territory of Ephraim (Josh 20:7; 21:21; 1 Kgs 12:25; 1 Chron 6:67; cf. nearby Manasseh in Josh 17:7), one of Joseph’s sons (Josh 17:7), confirms the likelihood of that meaning or at least that wordplay here. Shechem went not to descendants of the sons who pillaged it (especially Simeon and Levi) but instead to descendants of Joseph, who was likely too young to have participated in that action (Gen 30:21-25; 31:41; 37:2; cf. 29:20, 27).