Genesis 50

The great story comes to a close. The previous chapter finished with Jacob’s passing, and this chapter begins in that exact moment wherein “Joseph flung himself upon his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him” (verse one). The Patriarch faded, and with him the last of the famous trio who had ventured out, coming and going from the land, with the Promise of home and progeny always hanging above them and away from them, even in those days when they had partially realized it. In our framing here that story is yet to be told (it is of course the tale of Exodus and Joshua; with quite a lot of detail in between!), and we remain frozen on Joseph mourning his father. Permission from Pharaoh to go up to Canaan and fulfill Jacob’s request of a specified burial is asked for and received, and on a scale that Joseph probably could not have imagined. (That is, if we fall into the fiction, suspend our disbelief, and take the character as a person: granting the ability to do this is one mark of an excellent narrative.) The mourning period and the interment completed, Joseph and his immediate family, Jacob’s other sons and theirs, those of Jacob’s household who survived him, and “all the officials of Pharaoh, the senior members of his court, and all of Egypt’s dignitaries” who had joined them (verse seven) return to Egypt where the people would of course remain until Moses leads them forth (as the next great saga has it). Here, in its parting, Genesis has one last ethical lesson to teach.

Joseph’s brothers, perhaps rightly, fear that he will hold the past against them and with their father now no longer there to hold him back (directly or indirectly) he will exact his revenge (verse fifteen). Their solution? To lie, to put words into Jacob’s mouth to the effect that Joseph is to forgive them, that these are the “wishes of a dying man” (as it were; this from verses sixteen through seventeen). Joseph’s response is classically him as we have come to know him (the figure of him) throughout these chapters: He first openly displays his deep emotions (17b: “And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him [his brothers with Jacob’s “quotation”].”), and then reminds them of what he has already told them (in 45.5 just after he reveals his true identity and what the brothers took for simply the Egyptian vizier from whom they sought charity transforms into their long-lost sibling), namely that: “although you intended me harm [in selling him into slavery; 37.28], God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people” (verse twenty). Grace, and an expressed trust that despite it all there is a plan in the background, an unfolding. This is a comforting thought — it would have been to its original audience and, I should think, is no less so for us today — and whether we believe it or not (the world can certainly seem a sticky, messy, wholly unjust, brutal and cold place) we too can recognize the beauty of the sentiment. While this metaphysic (of sorts) is probably undecidable for us (we have faith or we do not), emulating Joseph’s act is well within our reach if we make sufficient effort.

As his father had, Joseph requests to be laid to rest in Canaan (verse twenty-four) — it is rather odd that he is reported as asking this of his brothers since as the second to last born of the lot one would think many of them would already have passed away before him; such details are ignored in the text but I cannot be the only curious reader — and the extended narrative has this done by no less a personage than Moses (Exodus 13:19). Thus the final verse in the chapter, the very last in the book of Genesis reads:

50.26: “Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.”

We have come a long way. From the creation of the cosmos through the grand sweeps of pre-Abrahamic history in chapters one through eleven, to the journeys and legacy of Abraham and his family in chapters twelve through the first half of twenty-five, and then the focus narrows on only one part of Abraham’s descendants (let us not forget the eldest Ishmael and those who came after Isaac) as we have a brief accounting of Isaac and thereafter the focus on Jacob and his children in the remaining chapters. The stories we have read have struck us as alternatively incredible, moving, disturbing, provocative, motivating, dreadful, and awe-inspiring; and always, always deeply human as they have swung between the axes of exploring the relational nexuses between the divine “above” and we here “below” (up and down only conceptually, of course) and the plateau of person-to-person. On a last analysis this may well be one of the books in our received literary canon that best uses the fantastic to communicate the everyday, the sublime to teach the necessary, the larger-than-life to express just that: Life, with all its warts. May our reading — and our thinking it — never end.

Genesis 49

Jacob, the character who tends to dominate every storyline he appears in, calls his sons (excepting his adopted “sons” of Joseph: Manasseh and Ephraim) together and delivers a final farewell to each. That some of what is spoken is quite positive while other portions very negative should perhaps not surprise us given everything we have encountered from Jacob heretofore, but the reader is advised to remember that whatever the setting given in the first verse of the chapter may be, these are words about the tribal units within the context of the (narratively later but contemporaneous for intended listeners/readers) nation of Israel, and we must also think that the highs and lows – as it were – of these comments likely also at least somewhat reflect the conditions prevalent at the time of the text’s closing editing and redaction. Reuben, for instance, which group became quite insignificant in the larger politico-economic scheme, has that reduced position explained in verses three through four: although Jacob’s first born and hence traditionally set for leadership, the founder/progenitor figure’s (whether a person who actually lived or not) misdeed in consummating a physical relationship with his father’s concubine (as described in 35.22) dooms the descendants in that lineage to subservient status. Similarly in verses five through seven Simeon and Levi are censured for what is almost certainly a reference to another legendary deed: the revenge attack on Hamor, his son Shechem, and the whole inhabitants of the city ruled by Hamor (see Chapter 34: there the area is called a “country” in verse two, a “town” in verses twenty, twenty-four, and twenty-seven, and a “city” in verse twenty-five). Following that act Jacob, so the tale goes, rebuked both brothers (34.30), and here in our chapter he now states that they will be “divided” and “scattered” (verse seven). The tribe of Simeon was to become part of the tribe of Judah, and Levi of course transformed into the priestly tribe that had no lands of its own and instead provided succeeding generations of Temple workers and others engaged in performing and managing religious rites and rituals. Thereafter Judah is highly praised (verses eight through twelve; and verses ten through twelve have often been interpreted messianically), and we know that it grew into the most important of important tribes: producing the famous King David (and again, whether empirically real or not the meaning-generative and association-laden symbol of the man is “real” enough) and forming both the core of the eventual Southern Kingdom and of the people who were to survive the Babylonian exile, return and rebuild, or remain and/or travel elsewhere to begin new communities in other lands. These examples should suffice for how the sayings of Jacob might be taken in this chapter. They are interesting, but possibly for us with so many years in between and far outside of the socio-political context in which they were recorded (and redacted, edited, et cetera) not terribly evocative.

Note, however, Jacob’s closing remarks and last wish (verses twenty-nine through thirty-two): He asks to have his remains taken back to the ancestral burial cave where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and his own wife Leah were laid to rest. He does not want his body to remain in Egypt after the breath has left it. This is quite poignant, it is very human, and it is touching in the way it forces us to consider our own mortality and that of the people we love and hold dear. The argument could be made – and it has, often enough – that it does not matter one bit what happens to the body after death since the person has ceased to exist; yet this is not how we usually think. Perhaps there is something like a universal intuition of post-mortem continuation that even the most ardent of materialists find it hard to overcome when confronted forcefully enough by the reality of cessation that it is no longer able to be thought about merely in the abstract. The Jacob figure of our stories is naturally no “ardent materialist”, and his fervent desire is to join those in his lineage who preceded him in that passing which we all face. This gives us pause, and here at the cusp of Genesis’ own ending we are made to meditate on the temporality of the individual and the continuity of the connections made and genealogies contributed to during a lifetime (whether through children, through influences, or otherwise). Nothing human will last forever, and the most well-established families eventually fade, but here in the days we have with those who surround we ask what was and might have been; and hopefully in our reflections prove a little more generous than Jacob.