Joseph’s Faith in Death
A key figure in the closing chapters of the book of Genesis, Joseph is known for several things: his “coat of many colors,” being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, and his remarkable ability to interpret the dreams of the Egyptian pharaoh. But when the author of Hebrews looks back on the life of Joseph in chapter 11 (the so-called “hall of faith”), Joseph is remembered for something else. “By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones” (v. 22).
Joseph was the eleventh son of Jacob. Rachel was his mother. Joseph became the apple of his father’s eye and the recipient of the famous coat—a gift from his father, provoking great jealousy on the part of his brothers. Joseph even had the nerve to claim he had a dream in which his older brothers bowed down to him. When Jacob sent the seventeen year-old upstart to find his brothers, they plotted to kill him. One of his brothers, Reuben, talked the others into throwing Joseph down a well, knowing that he (Reuben) would return later and rescue him. Instead, Joseph was sold to traders, who took Joseph into Egypt, where he was sold again to Potiphar. While in Potiphar’s care, God was with Joseph and he thrived. Through a series of remarkable events, including interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams (Gen. 41), Joseph became viceroy over all of Egypt.
When famine struck the land of Palestine, Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to purchase grain (Egypt possessed a great surplus of grain, thanks to the skills of Joseph). In one of the greatest of biblical ironies, Joseph recognized his brothers, who were forced to bow down before him—in fulfillment of Joseph’s earlier dream. Joseph quizzed them for information about his family and father. He arranged for his brothers to return to Canaan to retrieve a missing brother (Benjamin).
When his brothers appeared before him a second time (this time with Benjamin), Joseph revealed himself and arranged to meet his father Jacob in the land of Goshen. It was here that the Israelites would dwell until the Passover and exodus, when God led His people back to the Land of Promise. When Joseph learned that Jacob was ill, he went to see his dying father. In Genesis 49:22–26, Jacob gave Joseph this remarkable blessing: “Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring; his branches run over the wall. The archers bitterly attacked him, shot at him, and harassed him severely, yet his bow remained unmoved; his arms were made agile by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob (from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel), by the God of your father who will help you, by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that crouches beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb. The blessings of your father are mighty beyond the blessings of my parents, up to the bounties of the everlasting hills. May they be on the head of Joseph, and on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers.” While Joseph received the greatest blessing from Jacob, Jacob did bless all of his sons as heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. Joseph knew that Israel’s future was not in the land of Goshen (in Egypt) but in that land that God had promised to his great-grandfather Abraham, his grandfather Isaac, and his father Jacob.
As we learn in the closing verses of the book of Genesis, “Joseph remained in Egypt, he and his father’s house. Joseph lived 110 years” (50:22). When it came time for Joseph to die, “Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob’” (v. 24). Even though Egypt was his home, and that place where he had risen to great prominence, Joseph had not forgotten God’s promise to give the descendants of Abraham the land promised to them.
Before he breathed his last, “Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, ‘God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here’” (v. 25). Joseph would be buried in the Land of Promise, not Egypt. Genesis ends with these words: “So Joseph died, being 110 years old. They embalmed him,” according to Egyptian custom, “and he was put in a coffin in Egypt” (v. 26). When God led His people Israel in the exodus, Moses took Joseph’s remains with them. Joseph was eventually buried in Shechem, in the heart of the land God promised to give His people (Ex. 13:19; Josh. 24:32).
When the author of Hebrews looks back on the life of Joseph, he does not mention Joseph’s wisdom or managerial skills, Joseph’s rise to power, or his brush with death. He does not mention Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams. But he does mention Joseph’s desire to be buried in the Land of Promise. This is the sure sign that Joseph believed God’s promise to give his people the land of Canaan. And this makes Joseph a man of faith.