A Living Witness

This morning my scripture reading took me through the final chapters of Genesis, which details the deaths of Jacob (Israel) and Joseph (his son) and into Exodus, when the Israelites who settled in Goshen (in Egypt), became enslaved by the new Pharaoh. As I read these chapters, something struck me as odd about the transition from one book to the next.

In the last chapter of Genesis, we find Joseph weeping over his father’s death bed. Just prior to his death, Jacob had made Joseph swear an oath that he would not bury Joseph in Egypt, but would return him to the land of Canaan and bury him in the cave that Abraham had purchased from Ephron the Hittite (where Abraham, Sarah, and Leah were all buried). Following Jacob’s death and embalming, Joseph went immediately to Pharaoh and asked permission to take his father and bury him according to his wishes.

Now this pharaoh was an amazing guy. When he became a witness to the power of God through Joseph’s interpretation of his dreams, he not only thanked Joseph, but gave him control over the entire land of Egypt and his own household. Since that time, everything that Joseph asked of him was granted in the most magnificent way imaginable. Pharaoh (at least this one) was a wise ruler, and more importantly he listened when Joseph gave glory to God for all that he could do. Though we don’t have any indication that pharaoh stopped worshiping the Egyptian gods, we do see that he honored the servants of Yahweh.

So, when Joseph asked permission to bury his father Jacob according to his wishes, Pharaoh not only said yes, but he sent his own personal honor guard along with them to honor Jacob. I believe that he did this because 1) he knew Joseph and 2) he knew God through Joseph.

Now fast forward a few verses to the end of chapter 50. As Joseph was on his death bed, he made a request of his brothers that was similar to his father’s request of him.

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”And Joseph made the sons of Israel swear an oath and said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place.” (Genesis 50:24-25)

Now, if we hadn’t already seen several times in Genesis that Joseph’s brothers weren’t equal to his character, then we might expect them to follow through with his dying wish.  I mean, they already tried to kill Joseph once and ultimately decided to sell him into slavery.  Since that time, he had been elevated to a position of power in Egypt which allowed him to save the entire family from starvation during the seven-year famine.  He had moved the entire clan to Goshen and given them (at Pharaoh’s command) the best of the lands in Egypt.  He had helped them to prosper while the rest of Egypt had been subjugated to slavery under Pharaoh.  And even after his father Jacob’s death, when his brothers feared retaliation for their evil deeds earlier in life, he assured them that he would take care of them and love them.  So in reading this passage, one might expect them to show a little bit of gratitude.

Unfortunately, that’s not what we see.  In verse 25, Joseph’s brothers swear an oath to take his bones out of that place.  In verse 26 we see that:

So Joseph died at the age of a hundred and ten. And after they embalmed him, he was placed in a coffin in Egypt.

Say what?  Um, I’m pretty sure that a coffin in Egypt wasn’t what Joseph had in mind.  Nice job on that one.  Epic fail!

So, by now you are wondering “what’s the point in your mad ramblings, Isaac?”  I’m so glad that you asked.  I mentioned at the start of this post that I saw something odd in the transition from Genesis to Exodus.  What strikes me as so unusual is that we would go from a pharaoh who has clearly seen God working in the lives of his servants, and has honored them because of it, to a new pharaoh in Exodus who subjugates the Israelites as slaves.  What happened?

I think the key to this question lies is one simple phrase in Exodus 1:8: “Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt.”  This phrase begs a question.  Why didn’t the new Pharaoh know about Joseph?  Even in a culture where new kings destroy all the stuff that old kings had built and had the old king’s name removed from everything in the kingdom, something as devastating to the history of a county as a seven-year famine would be remembered.  And I can assure you that the memory of a hero like Joseph in a time such as that, who saved the country from starvation, would be remembered.  So I’m not convinced that we should take this verse at face value.  I think it is conveying something deeper.  When the writer of Exodus tells us that the king did not know Joseph, what I think he is conveying is that the king did not know Joseph’s God.

If the previous pharaohs blessed Israel as a people because of Joseph’s testimony to God’s greatness, why wouldn’t that continue?  Instead, what we see is this:

“Look,” he [the king] said to his people, “the Israelites have become much too numerous for us.Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”

So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. (Exodus 1:9-13)

Not only does this new king not know or fear the God of Israel, but he seems ignorant of the fact that God continues to bless his people, even in their enslavement.  Since he doesn’t recognize the work of God, he retaliates against it.

Now it is possible that this pharaoh is simply a wicked man, who would have enslaved the Israelites anyway, but I find it telling that this section of scripture begins with the statement that this king did not know Joseph.  And since we have seen that his brothers were not prone to glorifying God with their lives, I wonder if the witness to God had simply died out.  Perhaps the king didn’t know Joseph, because his own people no longer remembered him.

When I think of this story, it makes me very aware of how I life my own life, and I have to ask myself these questions.  Am I living in such a way that when people see me they see God?  Am I letting the light of Christ so shine in me that it becomes a spotlight pointing to Him?  When I pass into eternity, will those that I leave behind me remember me in such a way that God is glorified?  Will I be like Joseph or will I be like his brothers?

What about you?

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One thought on “A Living Witness

  1. Interesting insight and through-provoking question! I hadn’t realized about his brothers’ non-compliance with his death wish. But one is left to wonder if the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt would have happened or looked the same as it did had they actually taken his body to the place he requested. Thanks for sharing this! I’ve always identified with Joseph: younger of brothers who goes away from his family, albeit beyond his control, and has a growing realization of how his dreams from his childhood are to come true. I remember Dr. Kalas preaching on the “seminary training” of Joseph in chapel my first year at ATS. That has really resonated with me as it took some time and process for me to become aware of where specifically God had been leading me since my youth.

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