Having blessed his twelve sons, having gathered his feet into the bed, and having stretched himself out in a relaxed position upon the bed, Jacob gave up the ghost, and was gathered with his fathers. Thus the matter is presented to us in the last verse of Genesis 49.
There is nothing strange about all this. His death was not unexpected. For that matter no death is really unexpected. We may not expect it in the exact way in which it comes. We may not expect it to come in the place where it occurs. The exact day and hour may take us by surprise. But actually we should not say that a person’s death is unexpected. In Hebrews 9:27 we read, “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” And how can it be otherwise? We are, as well as David was, “shapen in iniquity” and conceived in sin, as Psalm 51:5 teaches us. “There is none that doeth good, no not one,” Psalm 14:3 declares. And Paul speaks the truth when he says in Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.” We can and must expect death. By nature we deserve it.
And as children of God we need it. For flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven. What is more, we need the purifying power of death to be delivered completely and forever from the old man of sin. As Jesus told us, “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” And it is death that delivers our hearts from all that is impure; for we leave the old man of sin behind in the grave, and for the first time in our lives have a heart that is pure in more than principle. And therefore we must expect death also in the sense that we look eagerly forward to this moment when the new man in Christ, of whom John declares in I John 3:9 that he doth not and cannot sin, because he is born of God, is freed from the old man who does and can do nothing but sin. That deliverance Jacob had. And that deliverance God gives to all His children through His servant that we call death.
Now the whole passage that speaks of Jacob’s death and burial has two elements that are stressed by Moses in the account. First of all, there is the fact that the sorrow, the mourning over Jacob’s death, revolves around Joseph. And I do not simply mean that only of Joseph is it said that he fell on Jacob’s face and wept upon him and kissed him. This is true. The other eleven brothers are excluded entirely from this notice of the sorrow that followed Jacob’s death. But note that verse 7 of chapter 50 speaks again of Joseph going to bury his father. Indeed, verse 8 does speak of Joseph and his brethren and his father’s house. The eleven brothers most assuredly went along to Canaan with their father’s body to bury it. But again in verse 10 it is mentioned only of Joseph that he made a mourning by the threshing floor of Atad, which is beyond Jordan. It is not until we come to verse 12 that we read that “his sons did unto him according as he commanded them.” Before this, all the emphasis falls on Joseph.
Now it is true that Joseph, although he was not the oldest son among the twelve sons that God gave Jacob, was a political leader in Egypt and did have authority over his brothers. The dream was still in force as far as its meaning is concerned that they must bow down before him. And Joseph it is who must approach Pharaoh through his servants to get permission to go to Canaan and to bury his father there. Yet that first verse in the chapter that speaks only of Joseph showing his love for his father and deep sorrow at his death; and excludes even one word about the other sons—who were all there and had just heard the blessings pronounced by their father—when it would have taken little effort on Moses’ part to change it from Joseph to Jacob’s sons, is revealing to say the least.
I do not at all mean to imply that the other sons did not feel the loss. It may not be said that they had no love for their father. It was Judah, way back in chapter 44, who made such a passionate plea for his father and showed deep concern for him. We cannot picture him here by his dead father as one unmoved and cold about it. Certainly Benjamin, who was so dear to his father’s heart, especially after Joseph had been sold into Egypt, never showed any of the cruelty that the other brothers did when they lied to their father about Joseph. But it is evident that no one was touched as deeply as Joseph. In a situation such as this his political power over his brothers did not give him the right to bar them from doing as he did. And deep love would disregard all this. Yet we do not read of one of them doing so.
It is quite plain that the other brothers did not love their father as deeply as Joseph did. And the ten or more years of separation from his father, because they occurred in the way that they did, namely, by his forced separation from a father he loved dearly, may account for this.
But the other element is the extravagant funeral arrangements and procession to the burial spot. The embalming in this instance was quite necessary. Since they had to make a long journey through an extremely hot climate, the body could not be taken without the embalming. Otherwise to embalm a body in order to keep it with you is not according to the Scriptures. We are taught to sow it in the ground as a seed with the hope of a glorious harvest.
But note for a moment the extravagant funeral arrangements and procession. The details reveal an extravagant funeral arrangement. We read in Genesis 50:8 of “the house of Joseph and his brethren, and his father’s house.” This is understandable and to be expected. But then in verse 7 it had already been stated that “all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt” went along to Canaan to bury Jacob. What is more, in verse 9 we read that there went up with Joseph “both chariots and horsemen; and it was a very great company.”
The time of deep mourning likewise was over an unusually extended period of time. There were the forty days of mourning during the embalming. This was followed by several days of traveling to Canaan. At the threshing floor of Atad there was another period of seven days. And we read that “there they mourned with a great and very sore lamentation.” That makes at least, and most likely more than, fifty days of deep mourning.
Now remember that this is the burial of an aged, feeble little-known stranger who was the father of a group of shepherds. To be sure, he was the father of the man next to the king of Egypt. And that means that it was out of respect for Joseph, rather than for Jacob who had died, that explains this large company that traveled to Canaan for the burying. The Egyptians did not feel the loss, and would not miss Jacob, who had been quite far removed from them in the land of Goshen. It was not love for this man, who came out of Canaan with all his family to escape the ravages of the famine, that explains their presence. They were ordered by the king to accompany the bereaved family. And yet the Canaanites, in verse 11, because of the presence of these elders and those chariots and horsemen called it “a grievous mourning to the Egyptians.” It was formality and outward show, not true sympathy and loving concern.
Do we need all that? Do we need unbelievers at our funerals? What can they add that counts? Can they bring us true comfort? They come not with the Word of God which alone has comfort for the bereaved. Will they come with the Word of God that speaks of His Son being (as we read in Romans 4:25 in the Greek) raised on account of our justification? Will they point us to God’s promises and the truth Paul expresses inPhilippians 1:21, that to die, for the believer, is gain?
And did it have to be with such a display of pomp and outward show that Jacob’s request, that stemmed from faith in God’s promises, should be carried out in this way? Would Jacob have wanted it? He did not ask for anything like that. He only requested being buried in the land of promise. Besides, all these unbelievers could only pour salt into the wounds, and touch the flesh of the bereaved who felt, the loss, by saying that it was too bad that it happened, and by expressing sympathy for a loss, and leave it there. There would be no mentioning of Jacob being gathered unto his brethren in heavenly glory.
The chariots and horsemen in a sense were the least extravagant part of the whole funeral procession. Protection along the way may have seemed necessary. Yet Jacob and his family came without it. For God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in time of need. And He showed this, not only when Jacob came with his whole unarmed family, but also some 400 years later when He brought about two million people, descendants of Jacob, out of Egypt and into Canaan along the same route that this funeral procession took. This procession was prophetic.
But all that weeping and deep mourning over a period of fifty days; did that stem from faith? For the unbeliever who has no hope, and has no promises from God, there is room for weeping until he dies. For the believer there is joyful reassurance of a reunion before the throne of God, and a peace-bringing conviction that the departed believing loved one is in heavenly glory. And though fifty days—and even fifty weeks—after the separation, he may still shed tears, the Word of God will have taken hold of him so that he speaks with more emphasis upon the departed believer’s gain than his own loss.
But once again let us note that by God’s appointment the chaff serves the wheat. It pleases God to use the wicked for the good of His church. As the dead body of Jacob entered the promised land with the help of unbelievers, to whom God gave no promises of blessings, and who would die in their sins, so through men who were grinding their teeth in anger, God brought His Son to the cross to open the way for our dead bodies to leave the grave and enter the heavenly Canaan in the day of Christ’s return. As the dead body of Jacob, the elect child of God, was furthered in its crossing of the literal Jordan to enter the typical heaven with the help of spiritual Esaus, so our dead bodies will be brought over the Jordan of death and the grave into the coming kingdom of heaven with the help of bitter enemies. For although the unbelievers are striving to bring forth the kingdom of the Antichrist, they are being used to prepare the way for the Christ to return, when all the believers will enjoy the resurrection of their bodies and heavenly glory with body and soul.