Monday, April 09, 2012

Traveling to Canaan to Bury Jacob - Genesis 50:7-11

So Joseph went up to bury his father, and with him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his household and all the elders of the land of Egypt, and all the household of Joseph and his brothers and his father’s household; they left only their little ones and their flocks and their herds in the land of Goshen.  There also went up with him both chariots and horsemen; and it was a very great company.  When they came to the threshing floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, they lamented there with a very great and sorrowful lamentation; and he observed seven days mourning for his father.  Now when the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, saw the mourning at the threshing floor of Atad, they said, “This is a grievous mourning for the Egyptians.”  Therefore it was named Abel-mizraim, which is beyond the Jordan.

Can you imagine the burial procession going up from Egypt towards Canaan? Scripture tells us the entire households of all of Jacob’s sons went along with the household of Jacob himself, plus it says ‘all’ the servants of Pharaoh.  It goes on to say that the elders of ‘his’ household, most likely with reference again to Pharaoh’s household, also went along with ‘all’ the other elders of the land of Egypt.

Here too is another place we can make a point about truth and Scripture and whether the Bible means exactly what it says.  Did every single servant of Pharaoh go on this trip leaving Pharaoh to fend for himself?  Did every single elder in the land of Egypt go up to Canaan to bury Jacob?  I would suggest that was not the case.  But if I make that assertion, you could well argue that I am questioning the infallibility of Scripture.  Or am I?  First, let me assure you that I believe in the infallibility of Scripture – there are no errors therein.  Second, let me suggest that it is totally possible (that is from a physical perspective) that ‘all’ the servants of Pharaoh and ‘all’ the elders of Egypt did go on this journey.  But, it is highly unlikely.  So, what then are we left with?

It is possible that the word ‘all’ is used to refer to ‘a great number’ along the lines of us saying today, “You should have seen ‘all’ the people at the football game”.  Clearly, “all” the people that exist were not at the game, but there surely were a good number of people there.  It is also possible that the author was writing this from the perspective of what was being conveyed to him over the generations with respect to what those that were there actually saw.  That is, referring to “all the servants” and “all the elders” that they saw, and there were many of them.  Again the point is being made that we have to allow a text claiming to be ‘truth’ to be examined by other probable explanations as to how it is still ‘truth’ and not be quick to judge its validity.  We will find that this test of “other probable explanations” is a good one and will always find Scripture to be true.

The text also tells us that ‘they’ most likely in reference to Jacob’s sons, left their little ones and their flocks back in Egypt.  In order to do so, there must have been either some mothers left behind with children that were being nursed, or some servants to take care of the children.  More evidence that the ‘all’ referred to the vast numbers involved rather than the totality of what was being described.  This is yet another example of how “biblical text answers biblical text” when combined with common sense and a sincere desire to show that our belief of its infallibility is correct.  But what is more significant in this statement about little ones and flocks being left behind is that it is further evidence of the fact they did indeed intend to return to Egypt, as Joseph had promised Pharaoh.  When we make a promise, we need to act accordingly.

The next thing we notice here is that somehow, someone, likely with Pharaoh’s permission, a host of chariots and horsemen accompanied the burial procession to Canaan.  One could argue that this was to make sure the Israelites would return to Egypt.  Perhaps.  But if that were the case, then there was no need for so many of the servants and the elders of Egypt to go with them.  My guess is that this was to protect the Israelites on their journey.  The entire trip from Egypt to Canaan where Jacob was to be buried was approximately three hundred miles.  There is no doubt that this entire entourage would attract attention, some of it not so welcomed.

Our passage indicates that they “came to the threshing-floor of Atad”.  Some believe this proper name as used here may indeed have referred to a common noun that translates to “the plain of the thorn bushes”.  Scholars place it on the border between Egypt and Canaan.  Robert Jamieson in his commentary suggests that this was the last spot where both the family and the Egyptians present could indulge in grieving together and thus called for a prolonged halt.  After this, Jacob’s family likely moved ahead on their own to the actual place of burial.  So, this was to be the place of the last and most demonstrative mourning with respect to wailing and crying and for these reasons, Joseph ensured that the burial company remained here for seven days.

Some may wonder why Scripture only refers to Joseph as observing seven days of mourning here for his father.  Again, we need to look at various possibilities.  It is very unlikely that the other brothers no longer mourned.  Instead, what we have here is the probability that only Joseph is mentioned because he was indeed in charge of the group at the time.  He was the organizer of both the trip and the burial given his position in Egypt.  When we remain true to the idea that Scripture is infallible, we are open to possible explanations that support our premise.

Finally, we note that the local inhabitants in the land of Canaan noticed the serious mourning of the Egyptians.  For whatever reason, they missed the fact that these Egyptians were actually mourning on behalf of their new Israelite friends that had earned a respected place among them since Jacob and his family had come to Egypt and who really were among the mourners as well.  It appeared to the Canaanites that the company before their eyes was indeed homogenous.  What a testimony that is.  What an example we have here of how we should act and live when we go to another culture, another place, especially for the purpose of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We must work hard to earn the respect of those whose land we are guests in.  That is not to imply, however, that we must give up our principles and our beliefs for remember, the Egypt were agreeing to join the Israelites in Joseph’s desire to bury his father in Canaan.  The Israelites did not give in to burying him in Egypt.  There are things on which we are to hold our ground and things that we must not force our hosts to change.  I pray God gives us the wisdom to know which are which.

So well had the Israelites done this that the Canaanites mistook everyone as being Egyptians.  And thus the Canaanites gave another name to that location, that of “Abel-mizraim” which is interpreted to mean “the mourning of the Egyptians” and only used this one time in Scripture.

As we leave this passage, we are reminded of several things.  First, the extent to which Jacob’s family went to mourn his loss and to bury him as per his request.  Second, the respect that Joseph, Jacob, and the Israelites in general had gained in Egypt.  And third, that as “children of God” live according to His will and plan for their lives when it comes to how we deal with others, the world will notice us as the Canaanites noticed the unity of the mourners.   I pray it will be so with us.

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