THE FLOW OF FAITH AND HOPE IN FAMILIES
In the first theme (Gen. 49:29-50:14), we see that faith and hope are transmitted through the family line. In the deathbed scene of Jacob (49:29-33), the passage opens with a transition from the narrator's brief introduction to Jacob's speech to his sons. Generally, when the Bible narrative is important, the writer will render it mainly through dialogue to show how essential it is. Second, Jacob's words are his last. With death looming, an air of heavy expectation lies over the sons as the patriarch conveyed his final instructions to them. He begins by saying, "I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite" (v. 29). He describes in great detail the place in Canaan where he wants to be buried, then lists the names of family members who have gone before him and are now buried in the same grave. These words bear significance because they are essentially statements of faith and hope in God.
Faith can be defined as confidence in the goodness of God. It is often developed by recalling stories that reveal God's character. The last words of Jacob reflect faith as he remembers his ancestors. By charging his sons to bury him in the cave purchased by Abraham in Canaan, he remembers God's promise to his ancestors that they would possess this land.
One of the striking literary features of Jacob's final words is the detail in which he describes the cave of Machpelah where his forbears are buried. In doing so, Jacob reminds his sons how his family came to possess the cave and why their ancestors are buried there. Jacob relates that Abraham bought the burial site, and it seems that a significant story lies behind this purchase. This is suggested by the repetition of the line that the field with the burial cave was bought from a Hittite (vv. 30, 32). This story is, in fact, one where Abraham's purchase was an act of faith that God would fulfill His promise to give Abraham and his descendants the land of Canaan. The fact that their ancestors had been buried there is proof of their faith in God's promise.
Another notable feature of Jacob's final sentences is the fact that he "buried Leah" (v. 31) here. You remember that Jacob was married to Leah first, but it was his second wife, Rachel, that he actually loved. Interestingly, Rachel was on his mind earlier in the scene when he speaks a blessing to Joseph's two sons. In the middle of the blessing, Jacob's train of thought is broken as he reminisces about Rachel's death: "As I was returning from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan, a little distance from Ephrath. So I buried her there beside the road to Ephrath" (48:7). He obviously still loves Rachel and is greatly attached to her. It would have been a more romantic and touching story if Jacob had asked to be buried next to Rachel on the road to Ephrath, but he does not do this. James Boice has pointed out that his desire to be buried in the cave of his ancestors as a testimony to the fact that his faith was the same as theirs.
Besides faith, Jacob's final statements conveyed hope. Hope can be defined as seeing what is not yet, and envisioning what will be. It is a confidence that God's goodness will arrive. By his statement that he was "about to be gathered to his people" (v. 29), Jacob demonstrated his belief that God was soon to take him to the true "Promised Land" that he longed to inherit. He envisioned a life beyond the grave with those who had gone before him. The patriarch's knowledge of the eternal God implied a share in His life, because "He is not the God of the dead, but of the living" (Lk. 20:3 8). Jacob's hope was realized later when after he died the author said that Jacob "was gathered to his people" (v. 33, italics added).
Ultimately, the family recollections and burial instructions in Jacob's last words to his sons were messages of faith and hope. Jacob's memories of the past and hope in the future were the conduit for an understanding of God's faithfulness to be transmitted to his sons.
The theme of faith, hope, and love being carried through family lines was continued in the account of Jacob's burial (50:1-14). Over half of the final chapter of Genesis describes the mourning for and burial of Jacob. There is a detailed account of the magnitude of the ceremony of mourning. Why is such detail necessary, especially considering only the bare facts of burials of the other patriarchs had been presented? Central to understanding the extended attention given to these events is how it functioned to promote the development of faith and hope in Joseph.
The details of the burial ground that Abraham purchased were repeated just prior to the account of Joseph and his brothers burying their father (50:13). The repetition of Jacob's description of this place indicates its importance. As Joseph not only recalled this story of his ancestors, but also visited the site where they were buried, there is little doubt that God's promise to give the land of Canaan to His people was heavy on his mind. The fact that Joseph had not been back to his homeland for thirty-nine years would have added weight to the event. Certainly placing his father's remains in the grave would have evoked in Joseph the same longings for a life beyond death that he had heard his father express on his deathbed.
The mourning and burial of Jacob were the context for faith and hope to be more deeply rooted in Joseph's heart than ever before. In all that surrounded these events, Joseph was surely reminded of the faithfulness of God to his family and himself.
LOVE: THE FRUIT OF FAITH AND HOPE
The theme of the second segment (50:15-21) is that love is the fruit of the flow of faith and hope through families. When one remembers the past and looks into the future to see God's goodness, he or she will be moved to love others. Persons who walk in faith and hope will live so as to offer a taste of the character of God to others.
This short segment is a major shift in the two and one-half chapter story of the final days of Jacob's life, then his death and burial. With the death of Jacob, Joseph's brothers now feared that Joseph would retaliate for their evil done against him. Perhaps they recalled the death story of Jacob's father, Isaac. Upon Isaac's death, Esau planned vengeance on Jacob for stealing his blessing, saying, "The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob" (27:4 1). Because the brothers' treachery had been great, their fears of reprisal by Joseph were legitimate. They were so consumed with fear that they attempted to deceive Joseph into believing that Jacob had requested that Joseph forgive his brothers for their sins. It is obvious that the brothers were highly conscious of their crime and motivated to do whatever was necessary to escape punishment.
Joseph's response to their deceit was surprising and bore evidence of a life richly rooted in faith and hope. Joseph did not seek revenge, but, instead, poured out love on his brothers. The potential of human vindictiveness was tamed and transformed into love by the vehicles of faith and hope. Joseph asserted that what they intended for harm, God intended for good (v. 20). The stories of God's faithfulness were so alive in Joseph's heart, that his past abuse did not control him. He knew that God was sovereign-that nothing ever came into his life that God had not approved of first. He also knew that God was good; therefore, what came into his life by God's sovereignty were for his (and for others) benefit and not for harm. His perspective and actions gave his brothers a taste of the character of God. Because God had redeemed Joseph's past, love overcame evil. The brothers were obviously stunned by this love because Joseph told them to not be afraid (v. 21), and then reassured and spoke kindly to them (v. 21).
RECONCILIATION: THE FRUIT OF FAMILIAL LOVE
In the conclusion of the story of Joseph (50:22-26), the theme is that reconciliation of family relationships is the fruit of the familial flow of love. This theme is more the expression of an ideal rather than a certain reality in families. The narrator reported, "Joseph stayed in Egypt, along with all his father's family" until he died (v. 22). As a result of the taste of God's love that Joseph gave to his brothers, reconciliation in the family followed. In a home once ruled by deceit and strife, love prevailed.
At the end of his life, Joseph encouraged his brothers by reminding them of their family story. This was the story of hope that God would fulfill His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by eventually returning the people of Israel to Canaan. Like his father Jacob, Joseph wanted his bones returned to the Promised Land. Also like Jacob, he had his sons swear an oath to return his bones when they returned to the land. Though he knew he would never see the day that God's people would occupy Canaan, he nevertheless expressed clearly the hope and trust that he had in God's promise. By twice assuring them that God would come to their aid, he reminded them of God's faithfulness and ultimate plan of reconciliation. To his last day on earth, Joseph lovingly offered his faith (Heb. 11:22) and hope in God's goodness as a testimony for his family and other families to appropriate.
It is apparent that God intends families to be places where faith, hope, and love are uniquely lived out and passed on. This requires remembering family stories, even those fraught with tragedy, in light of God's goodness and sovereignty. The past can then be understood in view of God's redeeming work; family members can envision what God can do in the future, and they can, with the power of God, love well in the present. The flow of faith, hope, and love along family lines will ideally lead to the reconciliation of family members and reconciliation with God. In Joseph's story the restoration followed tremendous evil. But this principle is relevant for all levels of harm we may have known, including the seemingly "small" offenses we experience in relationships almost everyday.
We must remember that the concept of family in today's industrialized societies is different from that described in the Old Testament and in the early church. In Old and New Testament times households and families were large and included extended family members and servants. This implies that God's ideal is for faith, hope, and love to be lived out within the context of not only the nuclear family, but also the larger family sphere. In reality, the instability and smaller size of families today does not always permit this ideal. However, as these ideals are lived out in our modern nuclear families, they can potentially impact larger circles of people. This circle may include extended family, church families, friends, or even others minimally involved in our lives, such as occurred with the Canaanites who witnessed the mourning of Joseph's funeral entourage and renamed the location.
Is such a redemptive pattern alive in your family? Is reconciliation taking place and strife disappearing? If not, actively take time to tell stories of God's faithfulness, remember God's goodness to you, and impress your children with God's protective care over them. It will surely transform your lives.
Reformed Quarterly, Volume 20, Number 1