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Passover: The Exodus That Could Have Been
Video 3 of 5
וַיַּעַבְרוּ, יְמֵי בְכִיתוֹ, וַיְדַבֵּר יוֹסֵף, אֶל-בֵּית פַּרְעֹה לֵאמֹר: אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן, בְּעֵינֵיכֶם--דַּבְּרוּ-נָא, בְּאָזְנֵי פַרְעֹה לֵאמֹר
The days of mourning were over. And Joseph spoke to [those in] the house of Pharaoh, saying: ‘If I have found favor in your eyes – please speak [on my behalf] in Pharaoh’s ears, and say [the following]... (ibid., 50:4).
So notice that Joseph seems to be avoiding a direct discussion with Pharaoh. He talks to “people in the court of Pharaoh,” and wants them to carry a message to the king for him. Also, look at the language Joseph uses to address these lower-level courtiers: “If I have found favor in your eyes, please…” He’s beseeching them to go to Pharaoh on his behalf. Who is he talking to, so plaintively? I mean, Joseph outranks every last member of Pharaoh’s court. It’s as if the Vice President were beseeching the deputy Housing Secretary to deliver a personal message on his behalf to the President. The whole spectacle must have seemed just absolutely absurd.
Seemingly, Joseph is avoiding a one-on-one audience with Pharaoh. And we can certainly understand why:
Think about what Egypt had done for Jacob. They had not only mourned him, they had embalmed his body for thirty days. Why? Well… what’s the whole point of embalming?
In the religion of Ancient Egypt, one enters the afterlife with his physical body. You would embalm a body to preserve it from decaying, eventually, into dust – so that it will be available as a vehicle to take you to some other world beyond our own. And now, consider what it was that Jacob wanted done to his body. He wanted it buried in the earth. Think about it: Burial and embalming, they aren’t just two different ways of relating to a corpse – they are exact opposites ways of relating to a corpse.
Burial, the Israelite custom, facilitates the body’s return to dust. As the Torah states: You are dust, and to dust you shall return! (Genesis 3:19). Egyptians, then, would be horrified at the notion of burying one of their royalty. Why would you do such a thing? You are destroying his vehicle to the afterlife!
So Joseph, if you think about it, has really gotten himself backed into a corner here. I mean, if, after forty days of embalming and seventy days of mourning, Joseph finally gets around to asking permission to bury Jacob in the ground – well, at the very least, he could expect Pharaoh to ask rather acidly why Joseph didn’t bring up this fine idea seventy days ago. What are we supposed to do now? Pretend that all the embalming and mourning didn’t happen ? The honor and fanfare that we gave to your father means nothing to you? At best, Pharaoh might be incredulous; at worst, rageful. Perhaps Joseph doesn’t want to be there, in person, to see Pharaoh’s response. Perhaps this is an idea better brokered to him by somebody else.
So, here’s the message Joseph asks those courtiers to deliver:
אָבִי הִשְׁבִּיעַנִי לֵאמֹר, הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי מֵת--בְּקִבְרִי אֲשֶׁר כָּרִיתִי לִי בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, שָׁמָּה תִּקְבְּרֵנִי; וְעַתָּה, אֶעֱלֶה-נָּא וְאֶקְבְּרָה אֶת-אָבִי--וְאָשׁוּבָה.
My father made me swear, saying: ‘Here, I am going to die. In my grave that I’ve carved out for myself in the Land of Canaan, that’s where you must bury me.’ And so now, let me go up, please, and bury my father – and I will return. (Genesis, 50:5)
The very first thing Joseph mentions to Pharaoh, through these courtiers, is Jacob’s oath – and his meaning is clear: If it weren’t for this oath, we wouldn’t be talking about this.. I just can’t break a solemn oath to my father, I’m sure you can understand that. The oath, Joseph hopes, will take some of the sting out of it for Pharaoh. It’s ironic, perhaps – and one wonders whether Jacob anticipated this at the time – but the oath Jacob made Joseph take, in the end, was not just something that bound Joseph to his promise, but it became a tool Joseph could actually use to make good on the promise. The oath doesn’t help the fact that Jacob’s body has already been embalmed, but the oath does give Joseph just a little bit of distance from a request that, were it to have originated simply in Joseph’s heart, could have been explosive.
Finally, Joseph says one last thing to Pharaoh: ‘and I shall return.’ It seems strange that he would even need to say it, as if he needs to assure the king that his loyal servant will faithfully return. But Joseph is doing what he can to reassure Pharaoh. It is like he’s saying: I don’t intend to be disloyal. I will come back to you. Please just let me do this.
And so, with those final words, Joseph has finally said to the king what he has to say. The die is cast. It is now up to Pharaoh how to respond.
And how does Pharaoh respond?
Pharaoh actually says yes. Now, at first, it seems like a very reluctant yes, uttered through gritted teeth:
וַיֹּאמֶר, פַּרְעֹה: עֲלֵה וּקְבֹר אֶת-אָבִיךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר הִשְׁבִּיעֶךָ
Pharaoh said: ‘Go and bury your father, as he made you swear’ (Genesis, 50:6)
Those last words, ‘as he made you swear’, really color the tone of the statement. As Rashi puts it, Pharaoh appears to be saying: I’m not going to make you violate an oath you made to your father. Were it not for that oath, though, never would I allow such an outrage...
But if you were Joseph, in that situation, look, you’d take what you can get. A halfhearted yes is better than no yes at all, you would probably tell yourself. Joseph has the permission he needs, even if it was given begrudgingly. And as for Pharaoh, with his cold ‘yes,’ he can just wash his hands of this whole awkward affair, and move on to other pressing affairs of state. The drama, basically, seems over.
But then, in the very next verse, something remarkable happens.
וַיַּעַל יוֹסֵף, לִקְבֹּר אֶת-אָבִיו; וַיַּעֲלוּ אִתּוֹ כָּל-עַבְדֵי פַרְעֹה, זִקְנֵי בֵיתוֹ, וְכֹל, זִקְנֵי אֶרֶץ-מִצְרָיִם
Joseph goes up to bury his father -- and with him, go all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his court, and all the elders of Egypt (ibid., 50:7).
When the time comes for Jacob’s burial procession to actually get under way, it turns out that it is not just the family of Jacob who goes, quietly and unobtrusively, to do what they have to do in the Land of Canaan. An entourage from Egypt accompanies them – a delegation of such stature that it could only have been sent by the king himself. All of Pharaoh’s servants set out with the family, along with the elders of the king’s court. And it is not just they who go; the palace officials are joined by ‘elders of Egypt’ – leaders of the general Egyptian populace. All of these people, they’re all going to accompany Joseph’s father on his final journey.
And one last very special group will be coming along, too:
וַיַּעַל עִמּוֹ, גַּם-רֶכֶב גַּם-פָּרָשִׁים; וַיְהִי הַמַּחֲנֶה, כָּבֵד מְאֹד
And along with [the family and the entourage], chariots and archers went up, as well; the camp was very great (Genesis, 50:9).
Chariots and archers. What would chariots and arches be doing here? This was a funeral, after all, not a campaign of war! But a moment’s reflection is enough to settle that question. They were an honor guard. Pharaoh had sent them, too, to escort Joseph’s father on his final journey.
All in all, when the time actually came for Jacob’s burial procession to depart, Pharaoh did not adopt the stance of a ‘cold yes’ at all. He sent the finest of Egypt to accompany these Hebrews on their mission to Canaan. All the pageantry of Egypt accompanied a procession of Jacob’s family on their way to a little Mesopotamian backwater called Canaan.
What a peculiar sight that procession must have been! The text tells the reader as much when it says that when the procession stopped to eulogize Jacob, the local Canaanites looked on in disbelieving wonder:
וַיַּרְא יוֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי אֶת-הָאֵבֶל, בְּגֹרֶן הָאָטָד, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, אֵבֶל-כָּבֵד זֶה לְמִצְרָיִם;
And the Canaanites of the land saw the mourning, in Goren Ha’atad, and they said: ‘What a heavy show of mourning this is for Egypt!’ (ibid., 50:11).
Note that the Canaanites viewed this as mourning for Egypt – even though it was really mourning for Jacob. On the one hand, Pharaoh and Egypt had “adopted” Jacob as a kind of national father for Egypt itself; that’s why they mourned him so deeply. It really was a mourning for Egypt, like the Canaanites said. And yet, Pharaoh also recognized that Jacob couldn’t be entirely recast in Egypt’s image. Jacob’s true wishes needed to be honored, even if they conflicted with the greater glory of Egypt.
A state funeral beyond Egypt’s borders. A great figure of Egyptian royalty buried according to Hebrew, not Egyptian custom. What will all the other nations say? For Pharaoh, it didn’t matter. Public relations concerns, what the Canaanites would say, that was not going to be a factor. The loyalty of Egypt to its adopted father is not going to stop at Egypt’s door.
Will there be some cultural awkwardness in all this for the royal courtiers and the captains of the King’s Guard? Yeah, there probably will be. And burial after embalming? Look, it certainly wasn’t the easiest thing to get used to, this is, after all, how Father said he wants to be honored. It is not about us, it is about him.
The story of Jacob’s burial, in the end, is the story of two heroes. The first is Joseph. Joseph risked everything to bury his father according to his wishes. He risked the loss of power, prestige, and perhaps most of all, his good standing in the eyes of his adopted father, Pharaoh. But the second hero, unlikely as it may seem, is Pharaoh himself. He resisted the urge to impose upon the venerated Jacob an exclusively Egyptian identity. He allowed Jacob to be who he was – Israelite, not Egyptian – and still, he and the populace would cherish him; still, he and Egypt would regard Jacob as royalty. They would accord him all the honor of a king, a national father, notwithstanding Jacob’s rather public decision that Canaan was his true home.The humility evinced by Pharaoh’s stance is nothing short of remarkable.
Having looked carefully at the story of Jacob’s Burial, we are now in a position to come back to the questions we asked earlier about the way in which the Exodus seems to parallel that story. As we saw before, the text includes many connections between these two events. What are we to make of those? What would a burial story for a patriarch have to do with an Exodus of hundreds of thousands of people from a land that oppressed them? I’ll give you my thoughts on that in the next video.
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