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  • He Answered Them

Genesis 50 15-26

The Book of Beginnings reaches a conclusion in Chapter 50. In the final verses we revisit the theme of promised land, as stated in the Abrahamic Covenant, providing a neat segue to the Book of Exodus. In this essay we shall exegete verses 15-26 of Genesis chapter 50. Following the toledoth formula present in Genesis, we can establish the limit of the text; beginning in chapter 37:2 and running until 50:26, we find one of the longest parts of scripture exploring the account of Jacob. We are immediately introduced to Joseph, on whom the tenth and final cycle of the patriarchal narrative centres.

Form and Structure

The text takes the form of a narrative, featuring dialogue, and is structured around two passages from which we identify two pericopes: verses 15-21 can be identified as Joseph reconciles with his brothers whilst verses 22-26 can be identified as The Death of Joseph. With the former pericope, parallels can be drawn with the Jacob and Esau narratives; at the death of Isaac, a fraternal threat of revenge is brought to the fore[1] mirrored here with the conduct between Joseph and his brothers. The parallel with the latter pericope centres around the use of rhetoric and the last words of Joseph which highlights a literary unity with Jacob’s death narrative in Genesis 49:29-33.[2]

Source Identification

Regarding other ancient Near Eastern text as source, we cannot draw on anything definitive as a source in terms of the narrative, yet Egyptian and Hebrew traditions go some length to qualify the portrayal of the burial practices. Literary parallels within the book itself have caused some debate between the scholars who attest to the Documentary Hypothesis; Wenham, in his commentary, expresses that earlier scholars indicated the use of the E source.[3] This hypothesis arising from the use of the name Jacob. However, he points out that much of the final chapters of Genesis are underpinned by the realisation of promises made throughout the book; therefore, there is an inherent element of complexity as the narrative continually refers to earlier verses. He notes that later scholars, Gunkel, Skinner, Schmitt, all held to the view of a dual source comprised of J and E.[4] Wenham remains critical of this too, noting that the P source and later expansions and amalgams of the Joseph story have been posited by Westermann.[5]

Theological Themes

Joseph reconciles with his brothers (15-21): here we can see the theological idea of God’s plan not being usurped by human initiatives. The act of forgiveness, by Joseph, providing a blessing that allows for growth of God’s chosen people. Moreover, the very existence of Joseph at this point, beyond all the evil that his brothers had intended for him, stands as a testament to God taking evil and turning it into good. The plans of man completely derailed and placed beneath those of God.

The Death of Joseph (21-26): Joseph in his final act clings to a part of his Egyptian experience with the act of embalming, yet he also displays much of the Israelite tendencies that remind us of his Hebrew faith.[6] The last pericope alludes to the promise of progeny, when we hear of his children, and beyond this he speaks of the promised land when he instructs them to carry his bones to Canaan. The death scene alludes back to the promises made to Abraham and indicates the partial fulfilment of two of the three divine promises, a further reminder of God’s plan.

Exegetical Detail

(15) The original Hebrew text does not include punctuation, but a question is being posed by the brothers which most translations reflect. There is a sense of collective guilt as no individual is singled out as the questioner. Previously, in Gen 37 Reuben had spoken out and saved Joseph’s life, yet here, all the evil that the brothers expect to be repaid upon them is assumed to be intended for all. However, there is nothing to suggest it is a forgone conclusion which is what gives rise to the question.

(16) The NIV translates this verse as Your Father left these instructions before he died, whereas much of the other English translations use the word “charged” or “commanded”; the Hebrew word “tsavah” is in use which does imply a more authoritative or imperative meaning. The command itself may be a ruse by the brothers out of their fear of reprisal from Joseph, as they had previously acted immorally towards him; perhaps it truthfully reveals the uncertainty that played on Jacob’s mind as to what Joseph may do after Jacob’s death.[7]

(17) There is a plea, regardless to whom it is correctly attributed, that begs forgiveness for the brothers; moreover, it connects and names the brothers as servants of God thus placing a higher responsibility on Joseph. It may be for this reason that he weeps? Alternatively, it is the first explicit request for forgiveness from the siblings, yet it comes in the guise of a parental request begging the question: do the brothers truly want to repent?[8]

(18) As the brothers fall down before his face - meaning to bow prostrate, they proclaim themselves to be his slaves or servants, thus completing the very first dream of Joseph in Gen 37:7. The gift of prophecy indicating Joseph’s divine favour and elevation. However, it should be noted that not only Israelites are given the power of prophecy in the Bible. In the story of Balaam, found in the book of Numbers, we see that God’s blessing of the Israelites cannot be reversed by powerful magicians; we should conclude therefore that even Joseph’s effective control over his brothers would not affect God’s intended outcome.

(19-21) These verses form the key element of this pericope, the use of Do not be afraid appears in verse 19 and in 21, bringing about an inclusio in the structure. Throughout the Old Testament this phrase is commonly linked to God: fear can always be allayed when trust or faith is placed in God (cf. Gen 15:1, Ex 14:13, 20:20, Joshua 10:25, Isaiah 41:13, 43:1). It draws more familiar parallels with the New Testament angelic messages given to Mary (Luke 1:30) and to the Shepherds at the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:10). Through his gift of prophecy, Joseph has already taken on the role of divine messenger, it continues here with his message to the brothers but comes with the caveat of the question “am I in the place of God?”. This subtly divorcing Joseph from any judgement that may yet fall on the brothers at the hand of God. Joseph gives the strongest assurance of forgiveness from himself and highlights his trait as a pious individual, but he makes no claim beyond himself.[9] As Von Rad points out it is in verse 20 that we find the “inmost mystery” to the Joseph story, that despite all the evil perpetrated by the brothers, God has turned it into good[10]. The NIV translates “ra” as harm, but many of the other translations use “evil”. The “evil” had been directed solely towards Joseph, yet God would take the good from it for the “saving” or “preservation” of multiple individuals. The word “chayah” expresses both having life or sustaining life, so both translations are applicable.

(22-23) Waltke, drawing attention to Hamilton’s work, points out that these two verses are rich in symbolism: notably Joseph’s age fitting a numerical formula for the age of the Patriarchs and perhaps suggesting a conclusion to the “patriarchal narrative”.[11] If so, this would back Westermann’s thesis of the original ending to Genesis being v 21. God’s blessing is highlighted here: 110 was viewed as an ideal lifespan in Egypt, and scriptural themes of grandchildren (Ps 128:6, Proverb 17:6, Is 53:10) not only show Joseph was blessed but confirm the Abrahamic covenantal promise of progeny.[12] Joseph’s adoption (placed at birth on Joseph’s knees) of Makir, meaning “one who is sold” is also rich in the symbolism of Joseph’s life and parallels Jacob’s adoption of Joseph’s own children.[13]

(24) I am about to die, these same words spoken by Jacob (48:21) show the literary unity and perhaps reflect the length of God’s planning throughout the two lives. Joseph remembers the oath given to the patriarchs, that the Israelites will be taken out of Egypt to the promised land.

(25) Joseph recalls his place in God’s plan and his own complicity in the blessing by requesting his bones be taken to the land; this indicating his lack of doubt that God would fulfil His word. The Hebrew word “paqad” meaning to attend or visit is used, with the NIV translating: God will surely come to your aid. This being the best way to foretell the coming events of the Exodus; this is perhaps Joseph’s final prophecy? However, the inclusion of surely makes it read as not so definite and more a prayer of hope than a prophecy. Hebrews 11:22 draws attention to Joseph’s faith.

(26) Joseph is embalmed as is tradition of the Egyptians and placed in a coffin. Hamilton points out the simplicity of the verse betrays its deeper meaning. “Aron”, meaning coffin, may denote a sarcophagus befitting Joseph’s position in Egyptian high office; however, it is also the word used for ark in which the decalogue tablets were placed.[14] Hamilton states that Jewish tradition holds that Joseph upheld the covenantal law long before it was instituted at Sinai. Once more we find the plan of God intimately at work, not just through the life of Joseph but also in his death. The threefold Abrahamic promise is not outwardly obvious, yet slowly it is coming to fruition with Joseph as a catalyst.

[1] Genesis 27:41-45, Jacob Flees to Laban [2] Nicholas P. Lunn, ‘The last words of Jacob and Joseph: a rhetorico-structural analysis of Genesis 49:29-33 and 50:24-26’ Tyndale Bulletin, 59.2 (2008) p161-179 [3] Wenham G., Genesis 16-50, (Dallas, Word Books, 1994) p461 [4] Wenham G., Genesis 16-50 p461 [5] Westermann C. Genesis 37-15, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002) p 208 [6] Waltke B, Genesis, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 20021) p 627 [7]The New Biblical Commentary, 2nd ed, ed. F. Davidson, A.M Stibbs, E.F Kevan (London: Billing and Sons, 1954) p105 [8]The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 2nd ed, ed. Raymond.E Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Roland E. Murphy (London: Burns and Oates, 1995) p 43 [9]Commentary, Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, ed. R. Jamieson, A.R Fausset, D. Brown (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan 1961) p 53 [10] Von Rad. G, Genesis: A commentary, (London, SCM, 1963) p 427 [11] Waltke B, Genesis, p 626 [12] Waltke B, Genesis p 626 [13] Waltke B, Genesis p 627 [14] Hamilton Victor P, The book of Genesis Chapters 18-50, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1995) p 712

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