Joseph’s Command Concerning His Bones

January 9, 2022 / No. 4123

The account before us in our broadcast today concludes the era of the patriarchs recorded for us in Genesis. We read in Hebrews 11:22, “By faith Joseph, when he died, made mention of the departing of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones.” In the next verses of Hebrews 11 we learn of Moses, who delivers the nation of Israel from Egypt some 400 years later. This will be a new era in the life of the Old Testament church. So, with Joseph, we leave the era of the patriarchs behind.

Joseph’s father, Jacob, had also given commandment concerning his burial before dying. He did not want to be buried in Egypt. In keeping with his faith he wanted his sons to carry his body to Canaan and bury him there. After Jacob’s death, Joseph commanded his physicians to embalm Jacob’s body in order to preserve it for the long trek to Canaan. The Egyptians mourned with Joseph and his family for 70 days. Jacob was then carried to Canaan and buried in the cave of Machpelah, where Jacob had buried Leah his wife. Jacob’s burial in Canaan took place immediately after his death. This, as we will find, did not take place immediately with Joseph’s body.

The events of our text may seem as if they follow soon after the death and burial of Jacob. This, in fact, was not the case. Joseph died 53 years after Jacob did. He lived to be 110 years old and saw his great grandchildren. Probably some of the older brothers of Jacob had also died by this time. During this span of time, however, we find that the children of Israel were already multiplying exceedingly—all while Joseph, being the chief ruler in Egypt, was a protector of his family as it grew in Egypt.

Joseph’s life was colorful. The Lord led him through sore trials of his faith. As a young man he was sold as a slave into Egypt. He was accused by Potiphar’s wife of an attempt to rape her. He was cast into prison for years. All the while he was strong in his faith. He refused to be taken in by the temptations and allurements of Egypt. Yet, the writer to the Hebrews does not call our attention to any of these acts of faith. He focuses our attention on the end of Joseph’s life on earth—just as he had done with that of Jacob’s life. He has a certain theme in mind, remember. He desires to point us to the fervent hope the patriarchs possessed that the promises of God would indeed come true. This Joseph reveals when he gave his family commandment concerning his bones.

I. Joseph’s Hope

Joseph’s faith clearly revealed what the writer to the Hebrews defines as faith in verse 1 of this chapter. Faith is confidence in things hoped for and the firm conviction regarding things not seen as yet. This faith reveals itself in this commandment to Joseph’s brothers, and in them to his and their generations. We read in Genesis 50:25, “And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.” Joseph firmly believed that God would, according to His promise, lead His people Israel from the land of Egypt to Canaan. This faith of Joseph was rooted in what God had promised Abraham many years before. In Genesis 15 God informed Abraham that He would give Canaan to the nation of Israel—but only after they would remain for a long time in a strange land. Abraham did not know what land that strange land was. He did not know of the events that would lead his generations to live in that strange land. Joseph now did. The strange land of which God spoke was the land of Egypt. Though Joseph did not live to see this, he also knew that the family of Israel would eventually serve Egypt and that they would be afflicted in Egypt. He would die and be unable to protect his family any longer. The Egyptians would eventually afflict Israel’s family in their generations for 400 years. But God also promised Abraham that after the people of Israel were in this strange land, God would in the fourth generation visit His people, bringing them forth from this strange land. This promise of God to Abraham was passed down orally to Isaac, and then to Jacob, and then to his sons.

Neither ought we to forget the positive aspect of the promise God gave to Abraham in Genesis 15: “I will give to your children, Abraham, the land of Canaan from the River Euphrates on the far north to the River of Egypt on the far south. You will defeat the nations and peoples that have settled in this land.” That these nations had now developed in the land of Canaan was the reason Jacob’s family could not simply return at any time they wished. It was easy enough for Abraham to live in the land among the people there. He was small in comparison to them. But these nations would resist a large developing nation of people moving into Canaan—just as these nations did when eventually the nation of Israel did come to possess the land. The point is this: God promised that not only would He deliver the people of Israel from the bondage of Egypt but He would also bring them to Canaan so that they could possess the land. This promise too was handed down from Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, and to his sons. Joseph had heard this promise—not directly from the mouth of God as did Abraham, but through oral tradition passed on from father to son. And Joseph believed these promises. He who spent the vast majority of his own life in Egypt serving in the courts of Pharaoh did not cast in his lot with the Egyptians. He viewed himself as an Israelite to whom God made His promises just as to the rest of his brothers in their generations.

In this, Joseph’s faith was revealed! You know, it was not as if it would matter to Joseph where his bones would end up. He would be dead. He would not know. His body would be raised from the dead unto the resurrection of life whether it was buried in Egypt or Canaan. But that was not the point. Joseph expresses in his command that he did not desire to be numbered among the Egyptians. He was not one with them in his life, though he had so much to do with them. Neither did he wish to be with the Egyptians in his death. He represented the cause of God in this world. God’s people were his people. He was a pilgrim and stranger in Egypt. Besides, the earthly land of Canaan was intimately connected to the desire of God’s Old Testament people for the heavenly Canaan. They desired another country, that is, a better. This was the faith of Joseph. He, like his fathers, looked for a city which has foundations whose builder and maker is God. That, then, in the first place, as far as Joseph’s faith is concerned.

But more, he believed in the promise that God had given to Abraham that the family of Jacob would depart Egypt. Consider once how bleak that was beginning to look. To move from this land of Egypt to Canaan was now growing impossible simply due to Israel’s size. Besides, after 73 years a new generation of Israelites had grown up in Egypt. The family of Jacob was becoming acclimated to Egypt and its ways. The people of Israel were now becoming wealthy and content in their place there. They were comfortable in Egypt. Can you image how much more that would be the case in another few hundred years? If things looked bleak when Jacob died, now 50 years later it had to have looked more so. But Joseph’s faith was sight! Our text in Hebrews tell us that Joseph made mention of the departing of the children of Israel. This indicates the unwavering faith of Joseph. I know that God will visit you and you will depart from this land of Egypt. I know and am certain—I am convicted—that what God promised Abraham of your departure from Egypt after 400 years will indeed take place. It was almost as if he could see it! And he could! With the eyes of faith he could see it. Joseph’s faith was the substance of things hoped for. Joseph’s hope for the land of Canaan was so strong that he completely disavowed Egypt with all its riches and power. He had no desire to remain where he was.

Neither may we overlook the spiritual significance in all of this for you and me. First of all, Egypt is a type of this wicked world in which we live. We have no abiding place here, fellow believers. This world of sin with all its pleasures and treasures can have a great pull on our flesh, can it not? We begin to lay up treasures on earth. We can become so caught up in the things of this present world that our life becomes consumed in them. Money and what it buys becomes the object of our desires rather than the kingdom of heaven and its joys that await us. From a human point of view, we would turn our eyes away from the treasures that await us in the promised land and become content with our lives in this world. The faith of Joseph is a witness to us of our faith and what we in faith must look for and hope for. With the eyes of faith we must see heaven! It must be real to us.

In the second place, let us not forget that Egypt is also a type of the bondage of sin. We are enslaved to such sin until the time God surely visits us, leading us out of such bondage and making us heirs of life eternal. Such God does through the powerful work of our Savior. Christ is our great Deliverer who, through His death and resurrection, gives to us the victory. He frees us from the guilt of sin and from the hold such sin has had on us. In faith we cling also in faith to that work of our Savior. In life and in death we look to Him. Then our eyes can focus on the hope that is in us—God will visit us once more when Christ returns and will deliver His church from this present Egypt of sin and into the heavenly land of Canaan.

II. Joseph’s Command

Now, the writer to the Hebrews merely explains that Joseph gave commandment concerning his bones, but just what that commandment was is left up to the knowledge of his readers. That knowledge is supplied in Genesis 50:25, where we learn that he commanded his brothers to carry his bones to the land of Canaan when they left Egypt. To be more specific, Joseph commanded the children of Israel that when God led them forth out of Egypt 400 years later, they would take along with them his body to be buried in Canaan. He did not have in mind, however, that his body was to be buried in a particular place in Canaan. Jacob’s body was carried back to Canaan and was buried in the field of Machpelah, in the place of the threshing floor of Atad. We mention this because this field with its sepulcher was the only piece of property that Abraham and Isaac owned in the land of Canaan. To them it represented the promise of God that all of Canaan would one day be their possession.

Abraham first buried his wife Sarah there and later was himself buried there. When Isaac died we read also that Jacob and Esau buried him there. Rebekah was buried next to her husband in this same burial place in Canaan. Leah, and later and finally Jacob, were buried there. The sepulcher in Machpelah therefore had come to represent the inheritance of Israel in Canaan. But Joseph was not buried in this cave. Why not? First of all, Joseph’s body was not buried until after Israel had received the whole land of Canaan as an inheritance. But in the second place, Jacob had purchased for himself another piece of land in Canaan while living there. We do not learn of this in Genesis. But according to Joshua 24:32 Jacob evidently had purchased a field from Hamor, the father of Shechem in what would later become the inheritance of Ephraim. That is where Joseph was buried—in the inheritance of his son. Joseph’s desire to be buried in the land of Canaan therefore teaches us of the faith of Joseph. His eye was set on the promised land and his own inheritance there. This is where Joseph too wanted to be buried.

But more, the faith of Joseph was revealed in the command he gave his brothers. We read in Genesis 50:25 that Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel. He made them swear in the name of God that they would not leave his body behind. So much was Joseph’s desire to be among his people Israel, the church of that day, that he made them swear to him. Egypt was not his home! Ah! That God’s people today would be so committed to the cause of Jesus Christ and the faithful church! It makes us reexamine our place in the church, does it not? How much does the church mean to you and me? Do we take for granted our place among God’s people? What a tremendous blessing it is for us to gather in worship on the Lord’s Day. I love God, surely! I love God’s Word, definitely! But I love God’s people too! My hope is found in the coming of Christ at the end of time. But while I am here, what a blessing I find in the assembling of myself with the saints! Joseph was committed to the church. He lived in the hope of eternal life. Take my bones with you to Canaan! Swear to me I will not be left behind! I wish to be buried in the place of my hope and among my people! What an example he left for the family of Israel in Egypt! What an example he leaves for us today!

We are told specifically that his body was embalmed just as was Jacob’s. The process of embalming was quite elaborate. We are not going to explain it now. But look at it from this point of view: you can go to a museum today and see the mummified bodies, the embalmed bodies, of Egyptians from before the time of Christ. Such a process was taken with the body of Joseph, so that not only his bones, but his body too would be preserved. His body was probably laid to rest in the tombs of the great men of Egypt, there to lie for some 400 years. But these tombs were not the final burying place of Joseph. He was buried in Canaan.

III. Hope Fulfilled

God fulfills His people’s hope. He fulfills the promises He made. Joseph’s body was not left behind in Egypt. Four hundred years later, when Moses and the children of Israel left Egypt behind through the amazing deliverance by the 10 plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea, the body of Joseph was removed from his tomb and carried with the children of Israel. We read of this in Exodus 13:18, 19. Notice: “But God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red sea: and the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt. And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you.” The children of Israel remembered the oath their forefathers had sworn to Joseph and now carried with them his body into the wilderness. That, in itself, is an amazing testimony to the faithfulness of God! God would not allow the children of Israel to forget the oath they swore. Though the night the children of Israel left Egypt was filled with activity and the press of leaving the land, the elders of Israel remembered the oath taken of Joseph. Neither ought God’s people today forget that when our eternal inheritance in the heavens is ushered in with the second coming of Jesus Christ, we will not be forgotten in the grave! Our place in heaven is reserved for us and awaits us there! God will not forget us!

This was true of Joseph’s body. It was taken from Egypt by the hand of Moses. It was carried with the children of Israel for 40 years in the wilderness. It was preserved in a safe place until the time Joshua conquered the land of Canaan. The point is: God fulfilled in every detail the promises He had given to His people. He had promised the land of Canaan for a possession. He had promised to Abraham that this land would not belong to his generations until 400 years had elapsed. Joseph believed that, and for that reason gave commandment concerning his bones. God fulfilled His promise. Joseph in his death came to dwell with God’s people in the land of Canaan.

God always fulfills His promises, dear listener. One day we who are believers will stand before the face of God a multitude without number from all peoples and lands. That is a promise God gives to His church today. One day we will meet together in the heavenly land of Canaan with this people. Now, we in faith and hope look for that promise to be fulfilled. Nothing doubting. May God give to us the faith of Joseph, that what we believe may be sight to us. God will fulfill His promises!