How important is your final resting place here on Earth? Have you provided instructions as to where your body is laid to rest when this life ends? I guess much depends on how old you are as to how much attention you give to this inevitable reality. No doubt, any instructions we may give would not require significant delay or difficulty in accomplishing them. Yet, one biblical character’s unique final resting place involved both delay and difficulty.
A Vow Taken
In the Old Testament, we find the remarkable record of Joseph’s instructions concerning his final resting place (Genesis 50:24–25). Nearing death, he declared to his brothers that God would visit the Israelites to accomplish His covenant promise to bring them into Canaan, the land sworn to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (v. 24).
Joseph then made his brothers vow to ensure that his bones would be relocated to this land when that occurred. He repeated that God will visit them while they are settled in Egypt, expressing a certain but yet future event.
An Almost Impossible Mission
At this point, Joseph and his family were in Egypt; and his descendants would remain so for 430 years (Exodus 12:40) before this promised return to Canaan. Joseph died, being 110 years old; and his body was embalmed and placed in a coffin located in Egypt. His family multiplied in Egypt over the next four centuries, and the vastly increased number became a threat to the Egyptians.
In response, the Egyptian pharaoh enslaved them to ensure they could not side with a possible enemy (1:7–14). This pharaoh, who had no knowledge of Joseph, intensified his subjugation by commanding the death of male infants at birth by their midwives, but without success (vv. 15–21). Unable to rely on the Hebrew midwives, he then commanded his people to kill every Hebrew male infant by drowning in the Nile River (v. 22).
Even if somehow the Israelites did escape Egypt and return to Canaan, would they be concerned with taking Joseph’s body with them?
During this entire extended period, Joseph’s body remained in Egypt along with his descendants. His declaration that God would bring the Israelites back to the Promised Land seemed impossible to fulfill. Along with it, the sworn promise to relocate his embalmed remains to that land seemed equally impossible. Even if somehow the Israelites did escape Egypt and return to Canaan, would they be concerned with taking Joseph’s body with them? After such a long period since making the commitment to do so, who would remember and act on it?
A Promise Kept
God did visit His people as He promised in the call of Moses and Aaron, who confronted Pharaoh to release the Hebrews (chaps. 5—14). Through a series of targeted judgements on the gods of Egypt mediated by Moses, God pried open Pharaoh’s hand, and Pharaoh eventually let the people go. As the numerous Israelites departed from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, the bones of Joseph accompanied them in fulfillment of their vow (13:19). Moses remembered that past solemn oath; and, in the midst of a rapid, intense Exodus from Egypt, he ensured Joseph’s remains went with them.
The Israelites did not enter the Promised Land of Canaan soon after departing from Egypt, because of their failure at Kadesh (Numbers 13—14). They wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, and leadership passed from Moses to Joshua. Throughout this time, Joseph’s remains continued to accompany the Israelites, who carried them from place to place, which would have been a significant additional burden, offering nothing for their survival in a difficult environment. Finally, after Joshua established the Israelites in the land, the Israelites buried the bones of Joseph at Shechem in their final resting place (Joshua 24:32). The vow made so long ago was fulfilled.
Lessons in Faithfulness
Despite delay and difficulty, the Israelites made good on their ancestors’ commitment through Moses and Joshua taking responsibility for its completion. This faithfulness to honor Joseph’s desire for burial in his homeland serves as an example to us. We should also be true to our commitments, especially with regard to spiritual matters, so that our testimony points to the faithfulness of God.
We would do well to follow Joseph’s example, believing God’s promises and looking for our final resting place in God’s presence as citizens of heaven.
Joseph’s remarkable faith in God for the future Exodus of Israel and relocation of his bones also serves as an example for us. The writer to the Hebrews includes Joseph as an example of faith specifically in these communications to his brothers (Hebrews 11:22). Joseph believed that God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which included the land of Canaan, would be fulfilled despite the immediate need to be in Egypt. By faith, he also identified as an Israelite despite his high position and home in Egypt, which meant that his final resting place must be Canaan rather than Egypt. We would do well to follow his example, believing God’s promises and looking for our final resting place in God’s presence as citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20–21).
The Christian life is one of faith and commitment. This episode of Joseph’s final resting place captures both elements. Trusting God to fulfill His promises and taking responsibility to fulfill our commitments demonstrate our faith in God’s presence in our lives.