Genesis (Part 223)

Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

Genesis 50:1-6

50 Then Joseph fell on his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him. And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father. So the physicians embalmed Israel. Forty days were required for it, for that is how many are required for embalming. And the Egyptians wept for him seventy days.

And when the days of weeping for him were past, Joseph spoke to the household of Pharaoh, saying, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, please speak in the ears of Pharaoh, saying, ‘My father made me swear, saying, “I am about to die: in my tomb that I hewed out for myself in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me.” Now therefore, let me please go up and bury my father. Then I will return.’” And Pharaoh answered, “Go up, and bury your father, as he made you swear.”


Jacob passes away and his funeral arrangement are made. From The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 50:1

And Joseph fell upon his father’s face, and wept upon him, and kissed him. Joseph had no doubt closed the eyes of his revered and beloved parent, as God had promised to the patriarch that he would (Genesis 46:4), and now, in demonstration both of the intensity of his love and of the bitterness of his sorrow, he sinks upon the couch upon which the lifeless form is lying, bonding over the pallid countenance with warm tears, and imprinting kisses of affection on the cold and irresponsive lip. It is neither unnatural nor irreligious to mourn for the dead; and he must be callous indeed who can see a parent die without an outburst of tender grief.

Genesis 46:4 I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”

Continuing in the next verse with Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:

(2) The physicians embalmed Israel.—The command given first by Jacob to Joseph (Genesis 47:29-30), and then urged earnestly upon all his sons, and with the reminder that the cave of Machpelah had been purchased and belonged to him by right (Genesis 49:29-32), made it specially necessary that the patriarch’s body should be prepared for so long a journey. It was also usual at that period to embalm the dead; and during the many centuries while the custom lasted, from B.C. 2000 to A.D. 700, it is calculated that no less than 420,000,000 bodies were thus preserved. For the process, which was very expensive if done in the best manner, see Rawlinson, Egypt, i. 511 ff. The embalmers are not generally called physicians, but probably what is meant is that the embalming of Jacob’s body was superintended by the physicians attached to Joseph’s household. Egypt was famous for its physicians, who were in advance of those of other countries, and were subdivided into classes, which had each the charge of some special disease. (See Rawlinson as above, i. 305 ff.) Mas-pero thinks that their real knowledge was inconsiderable, and that there were specialists only for the eyes, and one or two similar diseases (Hist. Anc. 82). Ophthalmia continues to be one of the most common diseases of Egypt.

The Pulpit Commentary includes even more information (some of it somewhat gruesome) regarding the physicians / healers / embalmers of Jacob, and the process itself:

Genesis 50:2

And Joseph commanded his servants, the physicians—literally, the healers, הָרֹפְאִים from רָפָא, to sew together, to mend, hence to heal, a class of persons which abounded in Ancient Egypt, each physician being only qualified to treat a single disorder (Herod; 2.84). The medical men of Egypt were held in high repute abroad, and their assistance was at various times required by persons from other countries, as, e.g; Cyrus and Darius. Their knowledge of medicines was extensive, and is referred to both in sacred (Jeremiah 66:11) and profane writings. The Egyptian doctors belonged to the sacerdotal order, and were expected to know all things relating to the body, and diseases and remedies contained in the six last of the sacred books of Hermes. According to Pliny (7.56), the study of medicine originated in Egypt. The physicians employed by Joseph were those attached to his own household, or the court practitioners—to embalm his father:—literally, to spice or season (the body of) his father, i.e. to prepare it for burial by means of aromatics; ut aromatibus condirent (Vulgate); ἐνταφιάσαι τὸν πατέρα αὐτοῦ (LXX.), which is putting part of a proceeding for the whole (Tayler Lewis). According to Herodotus (2. 86), the embalmers belonged to a distinct hereditary class or guild from the ordinary physicians; but either their formation into such a separate order of practitioners was of later origin (Hengstenberg, Kurtz, Kalisch), or Jacob was embalmed by the physicians instead of the embalmers proper because, not being an Egyptian, he could not be subjected to the ordinary treatment of the embalming art (‘Speaker’s Commentary’)—and the physicians embalmed Israel. The method of preparing mummies in Ancient Egypt has been elaborately described, both by Herodotus (2.86) and Diodorus Sieulus (1.91), and, in the main, the accuracy of their descriptions has been confirmed by the evidence derived from the mummies themselves. According to the most expensive process, which cost one talent of silver, or about £250 sterling, the brain was first extracted through the nostrils by means of a crooked piece of iron, the skull being thoroughly cleansed of any remaining portions by rinsing with drugs; then, through an opening in the left side made with a sharp Ethiopian knife of agate or of flint, the viscera were removed, the abdomen being afterwards purified with palm wine and an infusion of aromatics; next, the disemboweled corpse was filled with every sort of spicery except frankincense, and the opening sewed up; after that the stuffed form was steeped for seventy days in natrum or subcarbonate of soda obtained from the Libyan desert, and sometimes in wax and tanning, bitumen also being employed in later times; and finally, on the expiration of that period, which was scrupulously observed, the body was washed, wrapped about with linen bandages, smeared over with gum, decorated with amulets, sometimes with a network of porcelain bugles, covered with a linen shroud, and, in due course, transferred to a mummy case.

Genesis 50:3

And forty days were fulfilled for him; for so are fulfilled the days of those who are embalmed: and the Egyptians mourned (literally, wept) for him threescore and ten days—i.e. the whole period of mourning, including the forty days for embalming, extended to seventy days, a statement which strikingly coincides with the assertion of Diodorus Siculus (1:72), that the embalming process occupied about thirty days, while the mourning continued seventy-two days; the first number, seventy, being seven decades, or ten weeks of seven days, and the second 12 x 6 = 72, the duodecimal calculation being also used in Egypt. The apparent discrepancy between the accounts of Genesis and Herodotus will disappear if the seventy days of the Greek historian, during which the body lay in antrum, be viewed as the entire period of mourning, a sense which the words ταῦτα δὲ ποιήσαντες ταριχεύουσι λίτρῳ κρίηψαντες ἡμέρας ἐβδομήκοντα (Herod. 2.86)will bear, though Kalisch somewhat arbitrarily, but unconvincingly, pronounces it to be “excluded both by the context and Greek syntax.”

Returning to the text with Ellicott in verse 4:

(4) Joseph spake unto the house of Pharaoh.—It may seem at first sight strange that Joseph should make his request through mediators, but probably no one in the attire of mourning might enter the royal presence. (Comp. Esther 4:2.) The dress of a mourner was squalid, his beard unshorn, his hair in disorder, and while these outward signs of grief were maintained, he was also expected to confine himself to his own house.

In case you have wondered why Joseph did not speak directly with Pharaoh, who has met with Jacob and who seems fond of Joseph’s family, now you know. Finishing this section with The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 50:4Genesis 50:5

And when the days of his mourning were past, Joseph spake unto the house of Pharaoh, saying, If now I have found grace in your eyes, speak, I pray you, in the ears of Pharaoh,—that Joseph did not address himself directly to Pharaoh, but through the members of the royal household, was not owing to the circumstance that, being arrayed in mourning apparel, he could not come before the king (Rosenmüller), since it is not certain that this Persian custom (Esther 4:2) prevailed in Egypt, but is supposed to have been due, either to a desire on Joseph’s part to put himself on a good understanding with the priesthood who composed the courtly circle, since the interment of the dead was closely connected with the religious beliefs of Egypt (Havernick), or, what was more likely, to the fact that Joseph, having, according to Egyptian custom (Herod. 2:36), allowed his beard and hair to grow, could not enter the king’s presence without being both shaven and shorn (Hengstenberg, Kurtz, Keil). It has been suggested (Kalisch) that Joseph’s power may have been restricted after the expiration of the famine, or that another Pharaoh may have succeeded to the throne who was not so friendly as his predecessor with the grand vizier of the realm; but such conjectures are not required to render Joseph’s conduct in this matter perfectly intelligible—saying, My father made me swear (Genesis 47:29), saying (i.e. my father saying), Lo, I die: in my grave which I have digged for me—not bought (Onkelos, Drusius, Ainsworth, Bohlen, and others), but digged, ὤρυξα (LXX.), fodi (Vulgate). Jacob may have either enlarged the original cave at Machpelah, or prepared in it the special niche which he designed to occupy—in the land of Canaan, there shalt thou bury me. Now therefore (literally, and nowlet me go up, I pray thee (the royal permission was required to enable Joseph to pass beyond the boundaries of Egypt, especially when accompanied by a large funeral procession), and bury my father, and I will come again.

Genesis 50:6

And Pharaoh said, Go up, and bury thy father, according as he made thee swear. Pharaoh’s answer would, of course, be conveyed through the courtiers.

Joseph explains through intermediaries that he wants to bury Jacob, per his father’s wishes, in Canaan. Pharaoh approves of this plan and lets Joseph and his people go with an understanding that Joseph and his family will return to Egypt after.