We have come to the closing verses in the book of Genesis and our penultimate consideration of this wonderful book. It is our 104th study, and we will conclude our consideration of the Bible’s opening record with our 105th.
The book of Genesis is, literally, “the book of beginnings.” It records the beginning of the universe, the beginning of the nations of the world, the beginning of the nation of Israel, etc. But ultimately it records the beginning of the outworking, in space and in time, of God’s plan of redemption. God was the cause behind all of these beginnings.
The book opens with glorious beauty as God spoke and the universe began. For two chapters we are given all of the information that we need to know regarding the origin of life. We read of God’s intimate involvement with His creation and this is especially the case regarding man.
God forms man from the dust of the earth and then causes him to live as He breathes into his nostrils the breath of life. This is what we know (and all that we need to know) concerning the beginning of man. After this event we read of the beginning of the gift of marriage as Eve is taken from the Adam’s side. We see in this event what family life was divinely intended to be.
As one surveys the information of chapters 1 and 2 it is quite clear that man was the pinnacle of God’s creation, and we marvel at His love. We declare with the psalmist, “What is man, that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4). Praise be to God for His choice to create us! Truly man is blessed!
The brief account of the beginning of man doesn’t give us a lot of information but it gives us enough for us to conclude that God loved man and that He thus had given to Adam and Eve all that pertained to life and godliness (cf. 2 Peter 1:3). He made them a special location in Eden, a beautiful garden, in which they could live and work in their worship and walk with Him. From this location their children were to go forth and to continue to subdue the earth for the glory of God. We see in this the beginning of the cultural mandate; today we call it the Great Commission.
The opening record of these wonderful beginnings is given to us in order to reveal life as God intended, yea commanded, it to be. But we don’t have to read very far until we encounter the beginning of something else, the beginning of sin and its attendant death. The account of creation is followed by a long procession of funerals. From chapter 4 onwards Moses records, over and over, that so-and-so lived so many years, and then he died. Death, burial, and sorrow become a universal fact of life. And thus it should not surprise us that this book which begins with creation in Eden ends with “a coffin in Egypt” (v. 26).
What should we make of this? What is God saying to us? I will seek in this study to prove that the presence of this coffin is actually in sync with the theme of Genesis. In other words, this coffin is actually a message about a “beginning.” It records the end of one era and the beginning of another. And undergirding this is the message that when God’s commanded will is violated, His decreed will continues. This helps us to see that what we may view as a heartbreaking end may in fact be the beginning of something even better.
The Context of the Coffin
Of course, before we can begin gleaning any principles or application from this text we must first determine its proper context. Let us observe several things.
Finishing Well in Egypt
After Jacob’s death and subsequent burial in Canaan, Joseph and his brothers returned to Goshen in Egypt and dwelt there for some 54 years. The text focuses on Joseph’s twilight years.
And Joseph dwelt in Egypt, he, and his father’s house: and Joseph lived a hundred and ten years. And Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation: the children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were brought up upon Joseph’s knees.
At this point, perhaps many of Joseph’s brothers had died, for he, the second youngest son, was himself 110 years old. He had now been in Egypt for 93 years.
In Egyptian culture there was something idyllic about the age of 110 and thus to them Joseph had been blessed by the gods. Of course, we know better: It was Yahweh who had blessed Joseph and it was He who enabled Joseph to finish well.
The Lord had promised Joseph that he would be in a position of leadership over his family, and truly this had come to pass (see chapter 37). Jacob had pronounced a divinely inspired blessing of pre-eminence upon Joseph and his two sons, and here we see that this had indeed come to pass. Joseph was blessed to see his great, great-grandchildren. Truly the blessing of a fruitful heritage was well on its way to fulfilment. The Scriptures tell us that it a man’s glory to see his “children’s children” (Proverbs 17:6) but Joseph was blessed one better!
We are told that the “children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were brought up upon Joseph’s knees.” This phrase is a Hebraism which essentially speaks of adoption (cf. 48:12). Joseph thus adopted the sons of Machir as his own. Later history will show that this family became the most numerous of all of the Manassehites.
Joseph had remained faithful to the Lord over the nine decades that he had lived in Egypt and by God’s grace it was here that he, like his father, finished well. Thank the Lord that He enables us to prosper in our Egypt. God is always faithful to His promises!
Faithfully Worshipping in Egypt
On his deathbed, Joseph gathered his “brethren” (the word can speak of nephews) around him and pronounced that he was dying. But as he did so he spoke with great certainty concerning the promises of God. “And Joseph said unto his brethren, I die: and God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land unto the land which he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (v. 24). Joseph was convinced that God would one day “visit” the Israelites and free them from Egypt. He would then lead them the land which He sworn to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. What a wonderful scene highlighting the faith of Joseph! He knew that this would not take place for some 400 years (cf. 15:13-16) but he believed that “surely” God would keep His word. He believed in the covenantal faithfulness of God.
This is the first time in Scripture that we read the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob triplet. Over the centuries this form of words will signify God’s faithfulness to His Word. We see here that, though Joseph was dying, his faith and his worship were not. Death has a way of putting our declaration of faith and worship to the test.
Final Words in Egypt
Like his father Jacob, Joseph was concerned about the final resting place of his body, and thus, like Isaac (cf. 47:29-31; 49:29-33), he took a funeral oath from his surviving loved ones. “And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence. So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old: and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt” (vv. 25-26).
Joseph reiterated his unshakeable faith that God would “surely visit” the children of Israel and made it clear that, when He did so, the generation “surely visited” were to carry his bones up with them to Canaan. He wanted to be finally laid to rest in the land of God’s people. He didn’t mind dying in Egypt but he did not want to miss out on what God was going to do one day in Canaan!
Some four centuries later Moses would lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and as he did so he would indeed take with them the bones of Joseph, lying in his coffin (see Exodus 13:17-19; Joshua 24:32).
Joseph features prominently in the book of Genesis and his descendants will figure heavily in the later history of Israel. And yet outside of Genesis there is very little print given to him. In fact there are only a handful of references to his name and only twice are his words ever quoted (Exodus 13:19 and Hebrews 11:22, where his words of v. 25 are cited). The sentence is short but it is loaded with significance: Joseph believed God.
The family gave their word to Joseph and he died. In keeping with the custom of the culture, he was embalmed and then his body “was put in a coffin in Egypt.”
An Egyptian coffin was actually a sarcophagus, which was usually hewn from limestone, and the remains of the deceased were placed inside. Oftentimes these sarcophagi were carved ornately in honour of the one who had died.
Most likely this coffin was then placed somewhat conspicuously in Goshen, the home of the children of Israel. And there it would be for some 400 years. For those four centuries it would serve as a reminder of the promises of God. Though the coffin on one hand was an emblem of sorrow, on the other hand it was a symbol of hope. The coffin was a promise of a new era.
With this in mind let us examine the faith of Joseph. That is, let us examine the significance of this coffin in Egypt. What kind of a man was laid in this coffin and how would his faith help the future children of Israel?
The Contents of the Coffin
The man who was put in this coffin in Egypt was a man who believed God. He did not merely believe in God, he believed God. But just what did he believe?
The Character of the Creator
First, we see that Joseph believed the character of the Creator. The story of Genesis is one of devolution, not evolution. It contains the inspired and thus accurate record of that which God made good becoming bad. It records the corruption of God’s highest creation: mankind. As we have been through the pages of Genesis we have viewed the downgrade of man, the pinnacle of creation. The highest beings in God’s creation were marred by sin and eventually decayed in coffins. We have seen a world that was intended to exist in harmony morph into “nature red in tooth and claw.” Where God’s commanded will was life we see God’s decreed will of death. Over and over again we have read of characters living for so many years before dying. Death is writ large over these chapters; from the creation of life in Eden to the making of a coffin in Egypt.
At creation God’s commanded will was life. And this is vital to understand. It was because God’s command was ignored, disregarded and disobeyed that sin with all of its latent coffins entered the world. And yet behind this commanded will of God was His decreed will. And this decreed will included sin and death.
On the surface there may not be much here to encourage us and yet as we have come to appreciate in this book, things are not always what they seem to be. That is, there is a lot more going on behind the obvious “seen.” Yes, what God created to be good had gone bad, but God was nevertheless making sure that what man had made bad, He would work together for good; for the good of His people and thus for the glory of His name!
God was not surprised by the fall of Satan and the subsequent fall of man. In fact, though God did not cause this sin, He had a plan to use this to fulfil His foreordained purpose. That is, the good character of our Creator ensured that He would make all things good once again. His will would be done on earth as in heaven.
This decreed will of the Creator is seen overcoming all human and satanic resistance to His commanded will. And this is why what appears to be the hopeless message of a coffin is in fact a promise of new beginnings. Death will not have the final say for God had the last Word in Eden! Joseph believed this. Do you?
Joseph did not know all that God was doing as he suffered in a sin-cursed world but he was convinced that God was faithful. And thus in death, as in life, he believed that God’s character was trustworthy.
We need such faith as we undergo the coffins of our life. We need to embrace the words of Peter, “Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator” (1 Peter 4:19).
The story of world history is not one of paradise lost but rather it is the promise and prophecy of paradise restored. This is why believers must interpret coffins as promises. This is the philosophy behind Paul’s words to the Thessalonians: Believers sorrow, but not without hope. Positively, those who are Christ’s sheep have great hope as they stand before the various coffins that God has decreed for us.
This coffin in Genesis is a promise of a better day. And so it is with the coffin that is in your life. Perhaps yours is a coffin of a relationship that has died; or the coffin of an economic failure; or the coffin of humiliations through some failure, even a spiritual failure; or a coffin of midlife crisis; or a coffin of parental heartache. Perhaps it is even a literal coffin which houses one whom you loved. Regardless of the nature of the coffin we must trust the character of our faithful Creator.
The Christ of the Covenant
Second, we observe that Joseph believed the Christ of the covenant. As noted above, his dying instructions earned him a spot in the hall of faith in Hebrews 11. But what we must recognise is that this honour roll is a Christ-centred one. That is, what these Old Testament saints believed about God was that He would send the Seed that He had promised in His confrontation with Adam and Eve (3:15-21). The faith that these heroes exercised was that Messiah would come to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). This was at the heart of Joseph’s declaration of faith. Yes, he believed that God would raise up a leader who would lead the children of Israel in their exodus from Egypt; but further, he believed that a greater exodus would one day occur in world history. He believed that the Seed would come who would crush the serpent’s head. Sin and death, corruptions and coffins would one day be no more because God had made a covenant!
We live on this side of Israel’s exodus and on this side of the great exodus won through Christ’s work on Calvary. We have seen that indeed the Christ of the everlasting covenant (Hebrews 13:20-21) has come. And thus we have further assurance that He will come again! It is for this reason that though we sorrow, we do so with confidence that the coffin will not have the last word.
Of course when we deal with this issue of “a coffin in Egypt” we must not miss the obvious implication, namely the promise of a resurrection. Joseph believed, as did his father Jacob, that a day was coming when his body would rise from the grave.
As we have come to see, Joseph was in many ways a type of the Lord Jesus Christ. The life of Christ was foreshadowed in the life of Joseph: Joseph’s afflictions were not dissimilar to those of Jesus; and the grace exercised by Joseph was a taste of the grace that our Lord would one day so magnanimously display. But certainly we cannot read of the death of Joseph and his assurance of the future without thinking of the assurance that the death of Jesus Christ gives to all those who believe in and on Him.
Joseph believed that though Israel would undergo 400 years of coffins he also knew that God is faithful to His everlasting covenant. He was convinced that his descendants would one day experience the promised Saviour in person. He was convinced that this nation would be a blessing to all the nations through God’s promised Messiah. And connected to this conviction was his belief that God’s promised Seed would one day raise him from the dead. You see, Joseph understood that God’s covenant was indeed everlasting and therefore he fully expected to one day enjoy the full benefits of this—on earth (as it is in heaven!). Yes, Joseph believed in the resurrection. Do you?
The only way that you can stand by a coffin with any hope is if you believe in and on Christ. Barring this you have no reason for hope beyond the grave.
As you face the inevitability of your coffin, do you have hope? Does God’s covenant give you any assurance about the future?
Believer, may God grant us the grace to have an ever growing revelation of our glorious Christ of the covenant. Such a vision is the only way to make sense of our coffins in Egypt. Don’t let anyone or anything dull your love for our Saviour. How we respond to the coffin reveals a lot about our relationship with the Christ of the covenant.
The Commission of the Church
The third area of Joseph’s belief that is seen in this chapter is his belief in the commission of the church. He believed that God’s promised kingdom would come and that it would be centred in Palestine. That is why it was so important for him to be buried there. He believed that the church would prevail. He believed that the church would be worldwide. He believed that nothing, not even bondage in Egypt, would derail the people of God from being a blessing to all of the nations. You see, Joseph believed God! And church, so must we!
The book of Genesis is the history of the world in microcosm; these closing verses are the history of the book of Genesis in microcosm; and they are the history of the church in microcosm. That is, they prophesy what the church should expect in light of what she has experienced up until this time. Of course the saints in that time period were looking forward to the future arrival of the Seed while we look back to His arrival. But we also look forward to Christ’s final coming at which He will offer up His completed Kingdom to the Father. But fundamentally not much has changed over the centuries.
Like the church in Genesis, the church is still a stranger in an alien land, and we face many of the same struggles that the old covenant church encountered. We are still in the minority and the world continues to try and enslave us. As we have seen, the church continues to be burdened with the troublesome Simeonites, Gadites, Danites and Issacharites. Yet in spite of these challenges the church continues to move forward by God’s gifts of Judah, Zebulun, Naphtali, Joseph and Benjamin. The net effect is that we see the kingdom expanding.
Just as in Genesis, the church today experiences seasons of glorious creation in which individuals experience the new birth. At such times we rejoice in the fact that saved sinners are beginning to better reflect the image of God and we are heartened by a renewed commitment to bring all under the dominion of the Lord. And yet it is also true that such seasons often become interrupted by the serpent who slithers in and begins to undermine God’s glorious work by temptations to unbelief and subsequent disobedience. The cumulative effect often seems to be a coffin. The dream appears to die and hope seems to fade. What seemed at one time to be a glorious prospect of victory-to-victory now seems like a nightmare. And yet, like this coffin in Genesis 50, I would maintain that such experiences of death are usually an opportunity for a new beginning. Consider some encouraging examples from the Genesis record of this victorious march of the church.
Adam and Eve succumbed to Satan’s temptation and ate of the forbidden fruit. The kingdom seemed to be lost, but God graciously coupled the curse of enmity with the promise of Christ. When God promised to judge mankind with a worldwide flood, the promise seemed to be in jeopardy, but He showed His grace by rescuing the declining seed. At Babel, man seemed united in his rebellion against God, and yet God intervened to scatter man with a future prospect of regathering (Acts 2), and later called Abraham out of his idolatrous lifestyle to follow the true God. When the promise of Messiah rested with Abraham and Sarah, her barrenness seemed to threaten the progress of the church, but God turned her barrenness into an opportunity to witness a miracle of grace. Surely if Abraham offered Isaac on the altar the promise would come to an end, and yet God used Abraham’s obedience to ratify the covenant and to again foreshadow the hope of resurrection. Sarah’s death was saddening, but Abraham purchased a plot of land in the Promised Land as a memorial of the promise to be fulfilled. Isaac and Jacob were later buried in this same place as acts of faith in the covenant-keeping God. The family feud between Joseph and his brothers was used graciously by God to preserve the longevity of the promised line. And now, in the death of Joseph, his coffin acted as a promised surety of God’s visitation.
The point that I am trying to make is that even when the church looks like it is being defeated we are to believe God’s Word and to continue with the conviction that our Lord Jesus Christ will build His church! When we are reminded of sin by the various coffins that stare us in the face let us, like Joseph, believe God for a great work in spite of death.
I recently received a phone call from a young pastor who shared a most remarkable story. For many months this pastor has experienced grief after grief at the hands of church members who have resisted the Word of God. He has sought to lead the church biblically and thus he has led them in the practice of church discipline. One family was recently identified as in need of such discipline because of their lack of church attendance. Many in the church were upset that these members were being publicly identified and they accused the pastor of being “unloving.” In a real sense, he was staring death in the face as the opposition seemed to imply that his ministry was on the verge of collapse. Every way in which he has sought to lead the church has resulted in troubles. How could any good come from this latest development?
Despite the opposition, this pastor held tenaciously to God’s Word and implemented the biblical call to the church to go after this family. As is usually the case, the critics sat on their hands and did nothing; those who were so “loving” would not, and did not, lift a spiritual finger to help restore these whom they “loved” so much. But the pastor did. He not only brought their names before the church but he went after them. And the result? He related to me over the phone that, at his most recent meeting with the family, they broke down weeping, confessed their sin and called upon the Lord to save them!
Do you see the point? This pastor had seen what appeared to be a death; he saw the opposition to the Word in the church as a coffin in which his hopes had died and were about to be buried. But in the end this coffin has turned out to be a new beginning. It would be most interesting to see the response of the “loving” rebels to this new work of God!
The Confidence from the Coffin
Joseph’s commandment concerning his bones was made some 400 years before it would be able to be carried out. Consider: 400 years! To put that in perspective, let us consider the past 400 years of our history. Jan Van Riebeck had not yet landed in South Africa. The pilgrims had just finished their first year on the soil of their new home on the new continent. The King James Bible had not yet been translated; and the world population was less than 100 million. Four hundred years is a long time and yet Joseph believed God as though He was going to work today. Time was of no concern to Joseph because God’s truth was driving him. This is the message that he wanted to get across to subsequent generations. And it worked. Indeed as we have seen, four centuries later the children of Israel honoured Joseph’s dying request. His confidence in the promises of God fuelled their confidence. His coffin served as a faith builder.
This coffin would for 400 years serve to remind the children of Israel of the promises of God. Think about it: Joseph’s death was to be a promise of a future; the end of his life was the promise of a better life. The sarcophagus of Joseph was a frequent, and no doubt public, declaration to the children of Israel that a better day was coming. And by the way, this better day would not be experienced by most of them personally.
Decade after decade the tomb housing Joseph’s coffin was a reminder to the children of Israel that one day they would become the nation of Israel. When the afflictions arose under new Pharaohs the weary Israelites could take comfort through this visible reminder of God’s faithfulness. As they were pursued by the Egyptians upon their exodus no doubt this coffin emboldened their hope. As they wandered in the wilderness a new generation was taught the promises of God through the object lesson of this coffin. One day they crossed the Jordan and then they fought for many years under Joshua to secure the Promised Land. As they nursed their wounds and geared up again to face the enemy they would look at that coffin and find renewed strength in God’s promises. The coffin would give them much confidence until the day in which they carried it to Shechem, to the parcel of ground which Jacob had bequeathed to Joseph. Yes, just as Jacob’s confidence in God was caught by Joseph so Joseph’s confidence was passed on to many generations. “God can be trusted” was the message of his life; and it was a message that brought forth fruit for 400 years. Certainly the children of Israel over the years experienced times of doubt and confusion concerning what God was doing and why He seemed to be inactive concerning their cause. And yet when the confusion arose they would look to the “coffin in Egypt.”
No doubt there had been times in which Joseph was confused as he experienced God’s commanded will being violated; and yet he continued to believe that His decreed will was being accomplished. Though he had heard the creation story he knew that his life would end up in a coffin. But he continued to believe God. He believed because he looked to God’s promised Seed. And his faith helped others to believe.
This box of decaying remains served as a reminder of something that was unchangeable and imperishable: the unalterable promises of God. And I would assert that this is precisely what coffins are still saying to believers today. Believer, let us learn from this coffin in Egypt that God can be trusted.
Perhaps you are confused by the coffin that God, in His sovereign decree, has put in your life. If so then let me point you to the character of the Creator and to the Christ of the covenant. Trade in your confusion for confidence. Place your faith in Christ. Look to the empty grave of the Saviour and take heart as you fight the good fight of faith. God can be trusted. Calvary proves this.
One day Jesus Christ came to earth and the world committed the ultimate violation of God’s commanded will. Rather than worshipping the Lord who had created everything, they murdered Him. And yet in it all God’s decreed will was being accomplished (Acts 2:22-25). By His work on the cross, and by His subsequent resurrection, the Lord Jesus Christ made sure that all who believe in Him, though they be placed in a coffin, will one day arise with Joseph and say, “Surely, God has visited us!” Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift. That, my friend, is the story of Genesis.