You're here: » Articles Home » J.R. Miller » Practical Lessons from the Story of Joseph » Chapter 6 - Joseph in Old Age and Death

Practical Lessons from the Story of Joseph: Chapter 6 - Joseph in Old Age and Death

By J.R. Miller

      "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 50:25

      Our last study brought us to the close of Jacob's life. Word was sent to Joseph one day that his father wished to see him. The old man was thinking of his departure. He knew that he must die in Egypt--but he did not want to be buried in that strange land. He wanted to lie in the land of promise. So he asked Joseph to swear to him, in the crude fashion of the times, that he would not bury him in Egypt.

      Joseph promised. "Swear unto me," said Jacob. And Joseph swore unto him. It was no mere sentiment that made the old man, as his end drew near, crave to lie beside his father and his wife in the cave of Machpelah; it was his strong faith in God's promise to give Canaan to his descendants. He believed that the promise would be fulfilled and he wanted his grave to be where the future home of his children would be. Then he wanted his family, though still abiding in Egypt, to have a constant reminder that Egypt was not their home. He knew that his grave in the land of promise would continually draw upon their hearts.

      There was another incident. Jacob was sick. Joseph heard it and hastened with his two sons to his father's bedside. Jacob adopted these boys as his own, taking them in among his own sons, kissing and embracing them, then stretching out his thin, trembling hands and laying them .on the heads of the lads, while he uttered this beautiful blessing upon them: "the angel who has kept me from all harm--may he bless these boys. May they preserve my name and the names of my grandfather Abraham and my father, Isaac. And may they become a mighty nation."

      Then we have Jacob's death scene. All the sons are there and the dying patriarch, in prophetic words, unveils the future of each in turn. We need not linger on these patriarchal predictions, interesting as they are. But it is interesting to note the blessing pronounced upon Joseph:" "Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring, whose branches climb over a wall. With bitterness archers attacked him; they shot at him with hostility. But his bow remained steady, his strong arms stayed limber, because of the hand of the Mighty One of Jacob, because of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel." Genesis 49:22-24

      It is a solemn moment to a man, when he stands by the deathbed of a beloved and honored father. He lives over again all his own life--as he watches the last breathings of his sire, and listens to the last words of farewell and blessing. Those were intensely solemn moments to Joseph. All his honors seemed small, as he stood there by that patriarchal bed and felt on his head the touch of the hand now growing cold in death.

      At length the feeble voice ceased to speak. The blessings were all pronounced. Then came the dying charge. "I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite." And when Jacob made an end of charging his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and yielded up the Spirit, and was gathered unto his people. What a strange thing is death! He who but a little while ago was breathing out his blessings and his farewells--is gone now, away from earth. The old house is empty. The love that thrilled the heart with its tenderness and flushed the face with its glow and warmth, an hour ago--has passed from earth! Strange mystery of dying! How orphaned it leaves us when it is a father or a mother that is gone. We never are prepared to lose our parents. No matter how old they are, how ripe their life, how full their years--the time never comes when we can lose them without a pang. Life is never quite the same again--when they have left us.

      It is always so, when either father or mother is gone. Life is never the same again. Something has gone out of our life, something very precious, which we never can have again. Never more a mother's prayers lost and missed, now for the first day since we were born. No more a father's love, thought, care, and hope, in this world, lacking now, first, since infancy. The consciousness of bereavement is keener when a parent is taken away in the child's earlier years, and the loss is greater, in a sense--but perhaps the pain is no deeper. No wonder that Joseph fell upon his father's face and wept upon him and kissed him, when he saw that he was dead. His grief was sore, his sense of loss was great.

      Quickly Joseph set about to do all that love could do to honor the name and memory of his father. The body was embalmed. Then followed seventy days of mourning according to the custom in Egypt. After this the patriarch's dying command was obeyed, and the twelve sons, with many Egyptian friends, among them men of rank, bore the body away to Canaan, and laid it to rest beside the bodies of his kindred.

      It was at Hebron, in the cave of Machpelah. This cave is covered now by a great Mohammedan mosque. The entrance is so sacredly guarded that none except Mohammedans can enter it. There are shrines in the mosque for each of the dead who sleep beneath Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, Jacob. In the interior of the sacred building is a small circular opening which leads down into the ancient cave, where, no doubt, the twelve sons of Jacob laid the embalmed body of their father. Mohammedanism cannot always keep such jealous guard over that sacred burying-place, and it is the dream of many that some day this cave may be opened and explored, and that the mummy of Jacob may be found, as, recently, in Egyptian burying-places, the mummies of many distinguished men, including one of the Pharaohs of the days of Moses, have been discovered.

      After the burial of his father, the story of Joseph is almost a blank. Only one incident is given. When Jacob was dead, the brothers grew uneasy. They thought that their father's influence had restrained Joseph from seeking revenge upon them for their sin against him, and they feared that now, when this restraint had been taken away, Joseph would visit punishment upon them. The memory of sin dies hard! It had been forty years since this wrong was committed, and for seventeen years the brothers had lived in the sunshine of Joseph's forgiveness, nourished by his love, without a word or an act to suggest anything of resentment; yet here we find the old dread still lingering. Guilt makes cowards of men! Sins against love--plant thorns in the heart!

      Joseph wept when he heard his brothers' words. It pained him to learn that they doubted his love and forgiveness. When you have been a loyal and faithful friend to another, loving him unselfishly, making sacrifices for him, giving of your life's strength and skill to help him, putting honor upon him--it grieves you sorely to have him misunderstand you, suspect your sincerity and doubt your affection! Seventeen years of such generous love as Joseph had shown to his brothers in Egypt, ought to have made it forever impossible that they should doubt or suspect his forgiveness.

      Do we ever treat our friends so? Do we never treat Christ so? Do we never doubt his forgiveness, or question his love for us? Let us not grieve that gentle heart--by even the faintest doubt of a love that is infinite in its truth and its tenderness.

      Joseph was pained when he heard of the fears and the distrust of his brothers--but his patience did not fail. "But Joseph said to them, "Do not be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, do not be afraid. I will provide for you and your children." And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them." Genesis 50:19-21

      This was his answer to their distrust. It takes a large heart to love on--in spite of doubt, suspicion and unwholesome discontent; but Joseph had a large heart. His generous love never failed. In this case its warm tides overflowed the new barriers his brothers' distrust had cast into the channel, and buried them out of sight. His answer was only a new assurance of affection undisturbed by their treatment; he would nourish them in the days to come as he had done in the past. He would share his honor with them. He would provide for them in the land where they were strangers. He would care for their children. So he comforted them and spoke kindly unto them.

      After this incident, Joseph lived fifty-four years--but nothing whatever is told us of these years. We can picture to ourselves a ripe and beautiful old age, full of honors and full of usefulness. He had saved Egypt and there is no reason to suppose that he failed to receive the gratitude of the people of the country unto the end of his life-course.

      We know that his life continued beautiful to its close. Sometimes old age does not fulfill the prophecy and the promise of the earlier years. Sometimes men who live nobly and richly until they have passed the meridian of their days, lose in the splendor of their character and the sweetness of their spirit--as they move toward the sunset. A great many sermons are preached to the young. No doubt youth has its perils and needs constant warnings. But there is need also of wise words of counsel to those who are growing old. Old age has its perils and its temptations. It is hard to bear the honors of a good and worthy life, as they gather about the head when the years multiply, and not be spoiled by them. It is hard to keep the heart humble, and the life simple and gentle, when one stands amid the successes, the achievements, the fruits of one's life's victories--in the days of a prosperous old age. Some old men grow vain in their self-consciousness. They become talkative, especially about themselves and their own past.

      The ease and freedom from care which come sometimes as the fitting reward of a life of hardship, toil and sacrifice--do not always prove the happiest conditions, nor those in which the character shows at its best. Some men who were splendid in incessant action, when bearing great loads and meeting large responsibilities, and in enduring sore trials, are not nearly so noble when they have been compelled to lay down their burdens, drop their tasks and step out of the crowding, surging ranks--into the quiet ways of those whose life work is mainly finished. They chafe in standing still. Their peace is broken--in the very days when it should be calmest and sweetest. They are unwilling to confess that they are growing old and to yield their places of burden and responsibility to younger men. Too often they make the mistake of overstaying their best usefulness in positions which they have filled with wisdom and honor in the past--but which with their waning powers they can no longer fill acceptably and well. In this respect, old age puts life to a crucial test.

      Then sometimes old age grows unhappy and discontented. We cannot wonder at this. It becomes lonely, as one by one its sweet friendships and its close companionships fall off in the resistless desolation which death makes. Then it is hard to keep sweet and gentle-spirited when the hands are empty and one must stand aside and see others do the things one used to do himself. Feebleness of health, too, comes in ofttimes as an element which adds to the hardness of living beautifully when one is old.

      These are some of the reasons why old age is a severer testing time of character, than youth or mid-life. Many men who live nobly and richly while in their prime, fail in their old age. The grace of Christ, however, is sufficient for the testings and the trials of the old as well as of the young. We should set ourselves the task of making the whole day of life to its last moments, beautiful. The late afternoon should be as lovely with its deep blue and its holy quiet, as the forenoon, with its freshness; and the sun-setting as glorious with its splendor of amber and gold, as the sun-rising with its radiance and brightness. The old, or those growing old, should never feel for a moment that their work, even their best work, is done, when they can no longer march and keep step in the columns with youth and strong manhood. The work of the riper years is just as important as that of the earlier years. Young men for action, old men for counsel.

      The life that one may live in the quieter time, when the rush and the strife are left behind, may be even more lovely, more Christlike, more helpful than was the life of the more exciting, stirring time that is gone. Life ought to grow more beautiful every day to its close. Let no one think that he has finished his task of sweet, true living--when he has got safely through the years of mid-life, into the borders of old age. No! we must not slacken our diligence, our earnestness, our fidelity, our prayerfulness, our faith in Christ, until we have come to the gate of eternity. God's plan for our life takes in all.

      Chalmers wrote: "It is a favorite speculation of mine, that if spared to sixty years of age, we then enter the seventh decade of human life; and that this, if possible, should be turned into the Sabbath of our earthly pilgrimage, and spent sabbatically, as if on the shores of an eternal world; or, as it were, in the outer courts of the temple that is above, the tabernacle that is in heaven. A beautiful thought, and as true as beautiful. Old age is a time for waiting, praying, hoping, and for reflecting to others, something of the peace and love of the heaven we are nearing, and of the Christ we hope soon to see."

      At last the time came for Joseph to die, as this time must come to all. "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." Then the record goes on giving the end of the story: "So Joseph died at the age of a hundred and ten. And after they embalmed him, he was placed in a coffin in Egypt."

      Embalming was a costly process. When the body had been prepared, it was wrapped in bands of fine linen and placed in a stone or wooden coffin or mummy case. The Egyptian funeral rites were very elaborate. Because of his great service to the country, Joseph might have had a burial with the highest honors; but he refused all this. It is said that among the ruins of that wonderful land there has been discovered a tomb which it is thought was prepared for Joseph. It is near the pyramid of one of the Pharaohs. It is the tomb of a prince. It bears the name "Eitsuph" or Joseph, and the title "Abrech" which means "Bow the knee." If this tomb was prepared for Joseph he refused to have his body rest in it. He was not an Egyptian--but an Israelite. Like Moses, afterwards, he preferred to share the reproaches of his own people, rather than receive the honors of a heathen nation. Joseph was not buried at all in Egypt. His body was embalmed there--but not entombed. Egypt had long been his home. It had been the scene of all his honors and triumphs. His wife was an Egyptian. His friends were Egyptians. But he was still a loyal Israelite, and would not lie in an Egyptian grave. He would be buried in an Israelite grave. This is the first thought which Joseph's dying command suggests.

      But there are other thoughts. In the Epistle to the Hebrews when the faith of Joseph is spoken of, it is remarkable that it is this command concerning his bones that is mentioned. "By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones." How did this show his faith? It showed that he believed God's promises concerning his people. His faith was so strong, that he refused to be buried at all in Egypt; his burial must wait until his people went up out of Egypt to their own land.

      Mark the difference in the dying requests of Jacob and Joseph. Jacob, too, refused to be buried in Egypt. He had spent seventeen happy years there, and his family was well settled, with his son honored in all the land. But he could not die until he had the pledge from his children, that he would be buried beside his kindred. Joseph's request was different. He was not to be buried in Egypt, yet his body was not to be carried to Canaan until his people should go there. He was so confident of their exodus--that his mummy was not to be laid in the grave at all until they went back to the land of promise.

      There was a special reason why Joseph made his will in this way. He wanted even his bones to do good after his death. His people would need all the influences that could be put into their lives, in the long, dark years of trial before them, to keep alive in their hearts the memory of the promises, love for Canaan, and the hope of possessing that land. The graves of their fathers were there, which made the country dear to love and hope. But Joseph felt that his mummy left among them unburied, waiting to be carried away to Canaan and buried there, would do more to keep hope alive in their hearts, than if it lay at rest yonder in the cave of Machpelah. Every time they saw it they would remember why it was unburied, and their thoughts would turn toward their land of promise.

      By and by it grew very dark in Egypt. The dynasty of the Pharaohs who had been Joseph's friends gave way to a new dynasty who cared nothing for his memory and were jealous of the growth of the Israelites. Bitter oppression followed. In those days of gloom, who knows how much the unburied mummy of Joseph, with its unspoken words of hope, helped to keep the people from despair?

      Then one night there was great excitement in Goshen. The hour of departure had come. Here is the record: "Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear an oath. He had said, "God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place." Exodus 13:19. Then followed forty years of weary marching and wandering, and during all this time the mummy of Joseph was in the camp.

      At length there was a funeral one day at Shechem, and those bones, in their Egyptian mummy case, were laid to rest by Joshua. Here again is the record: "And Joseph's bones, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem in the tract of land that Jacob bought for a hundred pieces of silver from the sons of Hamor." When tourists journey in the Holy Land, they are shown at Shechem the tomb of Joseph. It is but a little way from the pit at Dothan, into which his brothers cast him to die. So the great wrong is righted, for the world now honors his grave.

      We may take two lessons from Joseph's dying words. One is a lesson of faith. "I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid." He would die--but God would live on and his work would go on. "God buries his workmen--but carries on his work." We have only our little fragment to build in the wall. Then we shall die--but the work will go on, for God lives on and his plans and purpose shall not fail.

      The other lesson is, that we should live so that the memory of our life and its influence, when we are gone, shall inspire those who stay behind. "The memory of the just is blessed." Proverbs 10:7. Joseph's embalmed body, kept among his people, spoke not only of his noble work in the past--but declared ever the word of hope for the future. It said: "This is not your home. You are but tarrying here as strangers and pilgrims. By and by you will go on."

      Such should ever be the impression that our life makes and that our memory keeps alive in other hearts. We should so live that when we are gone, every recollection of us shall make others think of heaven as home. We have not lived at our best--if the memory of our life only makes our friends think of us. The true life must ever speak of spiritual and eternal things!

      Let us seek then to be so filled with Christ that every influence of our life shall incite men upward, toward God, and onward, toward imperishable things, starting in every heart, the prayer of divine longing for our heavenly home!

Back to J.R. Miller index.

See Also:
   Chapter 1 - Joseph and His Dreams
   Chapter 2 - From Prison to Palace
   Chapter 3 - An Interpreter for God
   Chapter 4 - Joseph and His Brothers
   Chapter 5 - Joseph and His Father
   Chapter 6 - Joseph in Old Age and Death


Like This Page?

© 1999-2019, All rights reserved.