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.

No comments: