The author of the epistle to the Hebrews justly includes Joseph in the company of the great men and women of faith among the Old Testament saints. But the event that chiefly exemplified Joseph’s faith to this sacred writer was the instruction Joseph gave regarding his own burial (Heb. 11:22). Of all the acts of faith in the life of Joseph, what a remarkable choice this is! It appears that the way we direct arrangements for our own death can especially please God by showing our faith in Him. In fact, the instructions we make when facing death can be the greatest testimony of our faith while living. How can the faith of Joseph instruct us as we, too, prepare for death?
It is remarkable that the writer of Hebrews passes over Joseph’s prophetic faith in his revelatory dreams (Gen. 37:5–10), his righteous faith in renouncing the advances of his master’s wife (39:7–9), his persevering faith in interpreting the dreams of the pharaoh’s ministers in prison as well as the dreams of Pharaoh himself (40:8, 41:16). Further, the sacred writer doesn’t mention the patience of Joseph’s faith whereby he waited for years, after his exaltation in Egypt, without seeking to confront his brothers in Canaan. He waited in the confidence that his brothers would yet bow down to him, according to the dreams he had. Moreover, the apostle passes over the forgiving faith Joseph expressed toward his brothers when he revealed himself to them after suffering so much rejection and betrayal at their hands. But to illustrate the “faith that pleases God,” the Hebrews author does not choose any of these remarkable aspects of Joseph’s faith; rather, he directs us to consider Joseph’s instruction for his burial rite — an account that constitutes the climax of the first book of Moses (50:24–26).
Joseph announces his impending death, which surely would have grieved his family, but he does so by way of reminding them that the covenant God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would surely “visit” Israel and bring them up out of Egypt to receive their inheritance in Canaan, just as God had sworn many years before to Abraham (Gen. 15:13–21). So Joseph directs that his body is to be embalmed in Egypt, but unlike his father Jacob, whose embalmed body Joseph and his brothers had returned to Canaan for burial, Joseph directs that his body should be placed in an unburied coffin and left in Egypt. That is, his body is to rest in a cenotaph, a sarcophagus not intended for interment. Why would he do this? And how does this demonstrate such noteworthy faith?
First of all, Joseph’s refusal to be interred in Egypt had an evangelical purpose among the Egyptians. According to the Egyptian cult of the dead, resurrection to the afterlife was only possible to those buried in Egypt. The Egyptian myth of resurrection recounted that the god Osiris had died in Syria, and so his wife and sister Isis had to retrieve his body and return it to Egypt before she could restore him to life by her magic spells. By refusing Egyptian interment, Joseph testified against the false Osirian theology of the priests of Egypt.
Second, by refusing to be interred in Canaan like his father, Joseph left a memorial among the sons of Israel, who were to suffer the bitterness of Egyptian bondage. Joseph’s cenotaph was left as a reminder among the generations of Israelites to come — a memorial during those difficult days that God had sworn Israel’s deliverance and that at the appointed season He would bring them up out of Egypt in a great exodus.
Third, Joseph’s direction regarding his bones was intended to accomplish a redemptive purpose. The very brothers who had disregarded and betrayed Joseph and sold him into Egyptian bondage would themselves suffer bonds in Egypt. But in the day of deliverance to come, the sons of those very same brothers would lovingly bear the bones of Joseph home so that Joseph could be gathered to his fathers in the land of promise. And God did visit Israel in Egypt during the days of Moses as God had sworn. The account of the exodus reads, “God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle. Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, ‘God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones with you from here’” (Ex. 13:18–19). And so Israel came into the land promised to their fathers, and “as for the bones of Joseph, which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt, they buried them at Shechem, in the piece of land that Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for a hundred pieces of money. It became an inheritance of the descendants of Joseph” (Josh. 24:32).
Finally, the body of Joseph was removed from Egypt, the land of the graves (Gen. 37:35; Ex. 14:11) in order that Joseph might be gathered to his fathers in the land of promise. This constituted a beautiful testimony to Joseph’s faith in resurrection. Joseph suffered a virtual death when he was sold into Egypt by his brothers (Gen. 42:13). The return of his bones to Canaan, therefore, foreshadowed his resurrection.