Joseph does four main things in this chapter, the last one where he’s alive, and the last one in Genesis.
First, he buries his father. Or rather, he mummifies his father. Yes, yes, the NRSV translates this as “embalmed,” as does the NCT, but embalming in Egypt meant mummification, and verse 3 even gives time periods of 40 and 70 days, both of which we know are durations within the traditional mummification process.
And if you remember that obsession you had with Egypt as a kid (well, I had one, anyway), the mummification process was highly polytheistic. Just to dispose of your organs, you had to entrust them to the four sons of Horus, and if you wanted the full right with mouth opening and everything to ensure your immortality in the afterlife, you’d have to invoke Ptah, Thoth, Osiris, the list goes on. Since Jacob is the first in Genesis to insist that all foreign gods be thrown out by his family, let’s assume they skipped the mouth opening – but even then, the “physicians” (read “funeral priests”) would probably still be using the canopic jars with the heads of Horus’ sons. I suppose Jacob wouldn’t have cared. He didn’t believe in an Egyptian afterlife, after all, believing he’d go rest with his ancestors in Sheol or wherever, not the Duat. Joseph is also embalmed after he dies, and placed in a coffin, which would likely have been in the shape of Osiri. Like I said, Joseph was pretty assimilated – but he still wanted to eventually be re-buried in Canaan with his family.
So why didn’t they just stay in Canaan? The Pharaoh lets them go; the only one who promises to come back is Joseph (v 5), presumably because Pharaoh doesn’t want to lose his chief
money-maker counselor. But why don’t his brothers stay? Instead of going with their families, they go with the Egyptian court, and after it’s done, Joseph returns to Egypt with his brothers (thing #2 that Joseph does in this chapter).
Did the pharaoh want all of them to stay? Or, perhaps more accurately, did he want “their flocks and their herds” (v 8) to stay? And did he make their children stay behind as a kind of insurance that they not leave (a strategy employed by the Tokugawa shoguns)? Jacob was supposed to be very wealthy; did his family’s presence help bolster the Egyptian economy post-famine?
Or did the brothers not want to return to Canaan? After all, they had a pretty sweet deal going in Egypt, getting food from Joseph during the famine for free and keeping all their property rather than paying a fifth of it to the pharaoh. Who needs a promised land when you’ve got it all in Egypt?
Either way, they weren’t supposed to stay. It’s not just that God told them to settle in Canaan, it’s that Joseph actually promised the pharaoh this would only be temporary. Instead, they become permanent residents, and eventually are enslaved.
And when they return to Canaan, it’s as conquerors. Which makes me wonder, if they’d returned to Canaan like they were supposed to, would, via marriage and sale, have come to possess the whole land without mass slaughter? I know, it’s agreed by most scholars that the conquest never actually happened (at least not as written in Joshua), but I mean in a narrative sense. Did Joseph ensure that the return to Canaan would be violent?
The third thing that Joseph does is formally forgive his brothers. They’re afraid that he’s just been waiting for his revenge, so they lie and say it was Jacob’s dying wish that he forgive him. Joseph says he already has, there’s a lot of weeping, you get the drift. I’m still trying to regain the liking I formerly had for Joseph, but he still comes across as only caring about his family and not considering the harm he’s done to Egypt’s social structure.
And lastly, Joseph dies. His final wish is that he be eventually taken out of Egypt… and here’s where I start to think the “Pharaoh won’t let them leave” option is reality, since Joseph seems to assume that even after he’s dead, it will take God himself to bring them out of Egypt and into Canaan. I think, in between the lines, the Israelites came to Egypt to live the good life and discovered there it was a honey trap. They’re not slaves yet, but they’re prisoners in a country that is discouraging them from returning and taking their wealth and numbers with them.
Well, I’m through with one book! It took me a month longer than I expected, which does not bode well for this project. Maybe I’ll have to scrap my plans of reading the Zenpen when I get there, but we’ll see. That’s a few years (!!) down the road.
The Japanese: jii “court physician,” nakigara “remains, corpse,” boufu shochi “embalming treatment” (v 2), tsuiyasu “to spend, to devote” (v 3), juushin “chief vassal, senior statesman” (v 7), seidai “grand, magnificent” (v 9), sougon “solemn, grave,” tsuitou “mourning, memorial” (v 11), shikaeshi “getting even, reprisal” (v 15), kaisu “to use as an intermediary” (v 16), toga “fault” (v 17).
For all my panic over the last, very poetic chapter, I have gotten a lot better at reading these chapters in Japanese. And in the last few months that I’ve been doing this, my Japanese tutor has been noticing that I’m suddenly getting much better at reading pieces in my textbooks. Should I tell her I’ve been practicing on the Bible? Or will she think that’s weird? It’s hard to judge in Japan, where overt sectarianism can be considered rude.