By contrast, Canaan represented redemption, freedom, and life. When Israel came out of Egypt, it was through the mighty hand of God reaching down into history to “visit” the Egyptians with judgment but also to bring the people of God out of slavery and into a blessed land flowing with milk and honey. Canaan was the earthly antithesis of Egypt and was the much-hoped-for destination of the people of Israel. Though time might dim the memory and hope of Israel, the promise did not dim in the mind of God, and as surely as He pledged, He would also fulfill. Joseph’s hope, then, was in the sure and steadfast promises of God. God had already proven Himself faithful to Joseph. The dreams God gave to Joseph in his early days were prophetic, and they spoke of things to come in Joseph’s life. Though the providence that brought God’s promises to fruition was not always easy to bear, Joseph learned to hope beyond that which he currently embraced, and to believe in that which he could not yet see. Ironically, Joseph’s stay in the Egyptian prison would turn out to be a dramatic preview of Israel’s future. As Joseph was forgotten and imprisoned, Israel would also be enslaved in Egypt when there arose a new Pharaoh who “did not know Joseph” (Ex. 1:8).
In the light of these things, we might understand what it was that Joseph was actually requesting. Joseph had very little use for his bones; he knew that. But it was of utmost importance for him that his hope in the promises of God be actively and dramatically displayed. Indeed, Joseph’s request would serve as a catechizing echo of the past, not only as a reminder of what God had already done in Joseph’s own life but as a harbinger of what God would do for the corporate people of God—bring them out of sin’s bondage and into the blessing of covenant life. In a very real sense, then, Joseph’s hope was nothing less than a display of the hope of the resurrection. Joseph would die, but his bones, the very emblem of his life, would be brought up out of the land of the dead and into the land of the living. It was as though Joseph were saying: “Bury me in the land of the living, where the blessings of God ceaselessly flow. Do not leave my bones—even my bones—in the land of bondage and death. Bury me in the land of the living!”
God is not the God of the dead but the God of the living (Matt. 22:32). The hope of God’s people is not longer life in the land of the dying, but eternal life in the land of heaven above. In a sublime agreement with the author of Hebrews, Joseph might have said, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). Joseph was seeking the lasting city. Though his request may appear somewhat strange to us, his hope is strikingly familiar—he was hoping in the promises of God and in the power of the resurrection.
What is our hope in this life? The Heidelberg Catechism has a wonderful way of summarizing and answering this in its first question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” Answer: “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.” Everyone hopes in something. What is your hope in life and in death?