Three verses, narrating the death of Joseph, seal the book of Genesis. Like his father, Joseph asked to be buried in the land of Israel as opposed to Egypt. However, in contrast to his father Jacob who was buried in the land of Israel shortly after his passing, Joseph did not request to be buried immediately. Instead, Joseph instructed the people of Israel to take his remains along with them only when they eventually leave Egypt. This seems strange. It is fair to assume that as one of the most powerful people in the greatest civilization of his time, Joseph could have easily arranged for a burial in the place of his choice soon after his passing.
A close examination of these verses yields a remarkable insight. I am particularly grateful to my colleague and friend Rabbi Jonny Hughes for inspiring this idea.
Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am going to die; God will surely remember you and take you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob’. And Joseph adjured the children of Israel, saying, ‘God will surely remember you, and you shall take up my bones out of here’. And Joseph died at the age of one hundred ten years, and they embalmed him and he was placed into the coffin in Egypt. (Genesis 50: 24 – 26)
It is possible that Joseph knew the people of Israel would endure unimaginable suffering in Egypt. Either because of a shrewd prediction or because Joseph may have been told by his ancestors that God revealed to Abraham, ‘[…] You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them for four hundred years’ (Genesis 15: 13). Dreading an unbearable future for his nation, Joseph wisely and lovingly planted a seed of hope which would inspire the people to dream of freedom, liberty, and the land of their ancestors. Before his death, Joseph declared that, ‘God will surely remember you and take you up out of this land to the land that He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob’ (Genesis 50:24). Yet, this became far more than a verbal assurance. Joseph bonded his own destiny, in the form of his dead body, to the truth of this promise.
This message of hope, one can imagine, became the core Jewish identity of the slaves over the course of subsequent dark centuries. Because of their collective oath to Joseph, promising him to take his remains with them on the day of their freedom, parents told their children, generation after generation, that there was once a great Jewish figure by the name of Joseph who ruled this land and assured us that one day we will be free. If we are not liberated in our life time, the parents would continue, it might happen in your lifetime. And when you are free, remember to take Joseph with you.
Joseph in his final recorded message to his family, and in the closing verses of Genesis, ensured that the nation will never forget that they are destined to be free.