Faith in Joseph’s Bones

Last week we studied the stages of faith as seen in Jacob’s life. We looked at his spiritual development along lines similar to the psychosocial development models pioneered by Piaget and Erickson. Spiritual crisis seems to evolve faith. We were toying with the idea that everyone has faith: It’s just that we’re all in a different stage of development. You might say that stage 1 could be classified as the antisocial or selfish phase; stage 2 as the faith of believers, that conveys a sense of certainty; stage 3 as the skeptical faith of the seeker; and stage 4 as the mystical faith of the Universalist.

We’ve asked the question: Is faith more valuable with respect to life in the here and now? Or is faith more valuable with respect to the life to come? We’ve been using Hebrews 11 as the curricular guide to this faith study, looking at the various characters classified there as people of faith, looking at their faith journey as a window into understanding our own faith journey. Today, we’re looking at the faith of Joseph, the second youngest son of Jacob, a character about who we know a fair bit.

Other than Jesus and arguably David, we know more about the life of Joseph than almost anyone else in Scripture. We know about his boyhood. We know about his youth. We know the travails of his life. We know about his colored coat, his sail to the Ishmaelites, his sterling character in Potiphar’s house in relationship to his wife, his captivity in Egypt and his prison time, the mysterious dreams, his elevation to Egypt’s Number Two. We know about the seven fat years followed by the seven lean years. We know about his marriage to an Egyptian woman and his two sons. We know about his reconciliation with his brothers, and eventually, his reunion with his father Jacob.

All in all, in the story of Joseph we see a sterling life of faith. Not a single deviation of faith is mentioned. Not a single story of spiritual indiscretion. I found it puzzling, then, to read in Hebrews 11:22 that It was faith that made Joseph, when he was about to die, speak of the departure of the Israelites from Egypt, and leave instructions about what should be done with his body. Why, after such a faithful life, would the writer of Hebrews pick the disposition of his bones as the greatest demonstration of his faith?

As in previous studies, we must always ask ourselves the question: What does this story say not only about Joseph, but what does it say about God? The route from Egypt to Canaan is the path we all must take from captivity to the promised land. It is God’s journey—it is not ours. It is initiated by him. It is underwritten by him. You remember even in the story of the Exodus just before the Israelites leave Egypt, their neighbors bring them gold and silver in an attempt to get them out of town in more quick ways underwritten by God himself.

It is led by him with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. All along the way we are protected by him and the manna which falls daily is an evidence and a symbol of his grace. You recall that:

 When they measured it with an omer, he who had gathered much had no excess, and he who had gathered little had no lack; every man gathered as much as he should eat. (Exodus 16:18)

This is the way grace works, there’s always just the right amount for you.

Bones represent death, lifelessness, evidence of a life which is past. Bones cannot get to the promised land on their own. It is not by their effort that they can go from Egypt to Canaan—it is the miracle of God’s grace that allows them to make the journey. To be sure, God has his agents to assist the bones in their journey—the Israelites in this case—but it is from start to finish God’s journey.

In Joseph’s request, we see his faith that there will be a journey to the promised land. He is making a statement: “Although I’m in Egypt, I am not an Egyptian. This is not my home.” So too for us. This is not our home. Like Joseph, we’re looking for a better country. When Joseph died, he did so as royalty and was embalmed:

 So Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt. (Genesis 50:26)

Except for this request to have his bones transferred to Canaan we might today see his embalmed body, as we do some of the other the other Pharaohs in the museum of Egyptian antiquities in Tahir Square in Cairo. Notice also the unusual request, and how unusual the request that Joseph had would be. Touching his bones, even the coffin or the sepulchre which held his bones would render unclean the person touching them. Normally, the handling of Joseph’s bones would be forbidden.

But faith makes us think outside of the box. Faith harnesses God’s grace, and negates in some way the “business as usual” way of thinking. Joseph’s faith holds a promise as well, a promise of liberation. It also established a dream, a goal, of faith, and says that despite the odds, God will somehow provide a way of reaching the promised land. God will provide the escape, God will provide the guidance, and God will provide the ability to have our dead bones walk into the promised land.

All of us, you see, are Joseph’s dead bones. We are dead and lifeless and disconnected. We are depleted and spent. We cannot transform or translocate ourselves. We cannot get to the promised land on our own. The plight of the Israelites, like our own plight, is symbolized in these dead bones. But God will somehow provide a way to the promised land. God provided a way for the Israelites. God provided a way for the dead bones of Joseph. And God will provide a way for you and for me, as was prophesied:

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; and it was full of bones. He caused me to pass among them round about, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley; and lo, they were very dry. He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, You know.” Again He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.’ Thus says the Lord God to these bones, ‘Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life. I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin and put breath in you that you may come alive; and you will know that I am the Lord.’”  So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, sinews were on them, and flesh grew and skin covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they come to life.”’” So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. (Ezekiel 37:1-10)

So here we see Joseph’s faith as a faith that sees a future directed and implemented by God. It is a faith with a trip to the promised land. Joseph’s faith does not fear the conventional—this whole business about touching the bones. His faith takes him beyond what is conventionally understood, and shows the extraordinary, not just the ordinary. Joseph’s faith emphasizes God’s effort to get life back into bones, to walk these dried, dead bones into the promised land. Joseph’s own effort was dead and gone.

Joseph’s faith also demonstrates that he was a foreigner in the land of captivity, and allowed him to affirm that his home was in the promised land. What does this story say about your faith? And what does this story say about mine? What insights do you see in our study of faith, and in this faith of Joseph in his request to have his bones interred finally in the promised land?

Donald: We all need a reason for hope. I wouldn’t minimize our spiritual journey as just a construct for us to have hope, but it certainly does provide hope. And without that, life wouldn’t have much meaning. I guess some people go through life and really don’t think about their spiritual journey. They just think about the here and now and when all is done, all is done. That’s hard for me to fathom.

So what is the purpose of faith? It provides meaning, it gives a construct for how to live my life, what my priorities are, to determine right from wrong. Suppose I were a blank slate and had to figure out what my life is here and what the future is going to be and I had a choice of reading one of two books—the Bible or the Qur’an. What difference would my choice make? Are they just different constructs of what faith is and how it is formed? In either case, would I not still have reason for hope?

David: An American philosopher called Samuel Scheffler in 2013 asked a question that no philosopher in over 3,000 years of recorded philosophizing had thought to ask: If you knew that the world was going to end a month after you die, what would it do to your faith in the future? (Here’s a link to an article about it.) What would be the point of being an environmentalist or a cancer researcher?

Scheffler was talking about people with no faith in God, but he’s pointing out that we all have faith in a future. Otherwise, why do we do the things we do, knowing that we’re going to die? It’s because we’re happy in the knowledge that people will pick up our baton and run with it after we are gone. But if we lose our faith in the future of the Earth, what does it make life worth?

The Bible is not asking us to consider the worldly future. It doesn’t matter if the world were to end tomorrow, or a month after we die; it doesn’t affect the spiritual afterlife after death. What Scheffler calls the afterlife is life on Earth after our death—it is the mortal future. But his question is interesting to all who have faith in an immortal future, too, it seems to me.

Don: It is correct, I think, in some sense, that what we do (I can’t think of an easy example that contradicts it) is related to our view of the afterlife and the kind of legacy our life leaves. It’s not just cancer researchers—it’s teachers who are leaving students. architects who are leaving buildings, poets who are leaving anthologies, and artists who are leaving paintings. It seems that everything we do is designed for perpetuating our legacy.

Robin: Why was Joseph so insistent? Was there a family burial plot? What’s the meaning of promising to have his bones taken back?

Don: There was no family plot. There was a tomb—the so called cave of Machpelah where Abraham and Isaac and eventually Jacob himself were laid after he died in Egypt. He’s immediately transported back to Canaan, where he is buried in the cave of Machpelah. But Jacob buys some land in Shechem. This is all recorded, and it’s there in Shechem, not at the Cave of Machpelah, that he’s buried.

Robin: Maybe we can equate it to people wanting to be buried back in their hometown because it has meaning to them. But do we know today where these sites are, or have they been lost?

Don: If you go to the Holy Land today you can visit the tomb of Joseph and you can also visit the Cave of Machpelah. Whether they’re the actual burial places or not, it’s hard to prove. Some people think they’re not. But they are certainly places that have been venerated for a long, long period of time as the places where they’re buried.

Carolyn: Where was Joesph’s father buried, because that seems to be an issue in one point of the story?

Don: His father Jacob was buried in the cave of Machpelah.

Carolyn: Okay, that’s what I wanted to make sure. It’s funny that they wouldn’t be near each other.

Donald: It appears to me that when it comes right down to it, as sure as our faith is, and our confidence that we understand our destiny, we don’t really. The idea of where I should be buried… I don’t even like to ponder the idea that our spouses won’t be with us in heaven. Understanding a heaven presented as golden streets and these kinds of things is hard. God knows what’s best for me and knows what brings joy to us and he will provide that. The details… where my bones are…? The details are pretty sketchy. I just have to have faith.

Carolyn: I think heaven is one of the biggest places to find our faith, and we know that it is going to be so wonderful. We have many promises about what heaven will be like, but when I think of how many things—like the 10 commandments and many other laws that were put down in the Bible for us, and how we should live and all of this—we have very little to grasp and it takes a lot of faith. Some people say: “I just don’t want to ride around on a cloud and walk golden streets.” It sounds pretty good to me but I can see where our vision of heaven takes a lot of faith, to know that it’s going to be perfect, because I don’t think we can conceptualize such perfection. My eyes have not seen, my ears have not heard, so I don’t know. It should be wonderful.

Reinhard: The advantage for us living in this era, in this end of the world, is that we have the Bible and experience and a lot of theologians who discourse on subjects concerning life and death. We have church doctrine and the writing of Mrs. White. I think that’s an advantage. During the time of Jesus people could see him in person and thus have confidence in their faith in God, but also there were some who did not. And before that, people could talk to God directly through prophets.

Joseph’s life is a good lesson in faith. Even at the peak of his career as Number Two in Egypt he already had faith that someday his people would leave; that his bones would be sent to Canaan. His faith was influenced by his environment, above all his family. He knew the message from his great grandfather Abraham and from Isaac and Jacob, that God had chosen them to be a big nation someday in Canaan. He was very confident that someday, while the purpose of coming to Egypt was primarily to save the family from famine, it would multiply, leave Egypt, and become a great nation. His experience and learning about God made his faith strong. I think the lesson is that our environment, our family, are helpful in strengthening our faith, as is this class.

Don: What puzzles me is why the writer of Hebrews would pick the bones as the shining evidence of Joseph’s faith. Here’s a man who lives a very faithful life, who has many, many examples of faith being demonstrated in his life. And the writer chooses Joseph’s particular request to take his bones out of Egypt as the sort of pinnacle, the height, the best demonstration, of Joseph’s faith.

Donald: Sickness is a horrendous thing because it consumes you as you come to the end of your life. But what does it do to people who are told that they have a short period of time—a month, a few weeks—to live? What does that do to one’s faith? Does it break people? Do a greater percentage actually try to define their faith at that point, because it’s so critical in such a short period of time?

Carolyn: Many years ago, I heard a choir number that has impacted all my life since. And I’ve used the number many times. It is: “May the ones that come behind us find us faithful.” And I think that this is the legacy, wherever your work is, whereever you’ve put your time and your efforts. Maybe Joseph just wanted to be with people he hoped would be faithful. I’m trying to think of why he would want his bones moved. Was it to be brought closer to heaven? To be amongst bones of the faithful coming after him, upon whom he had influence, so that together they would share the joy of Christ’s second coming?

Kiran: God promised Canaan to Abraham and his descendants, so it’s the promised land. So the whole journey of Jacob was to come to the promised land. And then because of the famine, they had to go to Egypt. But eventually their minds were set on the promised land. So even if Joseph may have had a perfect life, he knew that he could not get there on his own. So he needed God’s help to get there, as his father needed God’s help to get there. So I think the moral of the story is it doesn’t matter how perfect your life is, you still need God’s help. And you still need to have the faith that he is going to help you at the end of the day, when you can’t help yourself.

David: Perhaps Egypt represents the Earth, mortal life, and the promised land is the paradise promised after death. We cannot have any conception of what that’s like, because it is not like the earth. The Jehovah’s Witnesses picture paradise as life on an utopian Earth. Scheffler’s theory also applies to the question of what would happen if we figure out a way to be immortal. Studies have been done, surveys have been made, and most people think it’s a horrible idea, living forever on this Earth, because they think they’re going to get sick of seeing the same thing over and over, the same people, with no relief ever in sight!

We all talk about Hawaii as “paradise” but it has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. After a while living there, you tend to stop noticing it’s paradise anymore. So I think we have to accept as a matter of faith that the promised land is not something we can possibly understand. We don’t know what it is. But we can and should have faith that it is going to be a wonderful place.

Don: Some people worry about not having their spouse there; other people worry about having their spouse there. 🙂

Donald: But one thing I can understand completely, for sure, is children. Probably one of the most important things in life is to be sure that your family is in heaven with you. You hear that over and over, people hoping that their children, their legacy, find their way there. I certainly can understand that. But in some ways it’s like saying: “I don’t trust God.” My happiness should not depend on who else is there. This is not just a great reunion for me to be in heaven with my family forever. I think the idea is to be close to my Savior.

All you have to do is listen to the news to know that this world is a disaster. We can’t imagine it much worse. However, the environment that I sit in, and the pleasures that I experience that God has provided day to day, is just a little piece of what could be in the future. How can I imagine what that’s like? Why should I even spend the time? Just leave it in God’s hands. It’s not my doings.

So bottom line, what’s my responsibility going into retirement?
Don: Are you willing to leave the trip from Egypt to the promised land in God’s hands? Its his trip. It seems like not the right sequence: There’s me, getting packed up and ready to go and making sure that my preparation for the trip is all done to my needs. But it seems as if this journey is God’s journey and he’s in charge of everything from when and how it starts to when and how it ends, and everything in between, including the daily food ration. Everything is described, in a metaphorical way, of a journey underwritten and supported and led by God with his grace. That seems like a hard journey to me.

Carolyn: I think that is the gift that comes from God when we completely surrender and allow him. He’s the one who calls our numbers of days, and he’s the one that gives us joy. And so no matter what we go through—it could hurt, you’re in pain—but we have the gift of joy and that’s what we can convey to others around us in that last month before the end of the world and we can preach a sermon by the way we had the joy of the Lord at that kind of time.

Donald: I think we make life pretty complicated. Do unto others as you would want them to do to you in kindness. To be kind and generous, not selfish, is what is asked of us, because it’s our nature to be selfish.

Robin: What about the contrast? Moses was in royalty in Egypt and he chose to leave that and go home to enslaved Hebrews and live in the wilderness. Joseph didn’t go home. So was Joseph then like a missionary of sorts where he felt he could be of more use preaching about the God of heaven, the God of creation? That just occurred to me—the contrast between the lives of the two men.

David: If you want to have your family with you in heaven you should join the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their magazines Awake! and The Watchtower depict happy smiling families sitting around picnicking all day while the kids frolic with the lions and the lambs. It’s nice, but whether you could do it all day every day and enjoy it forever, is questionable.

Kiran: When Moses went to Egypt, the pharaoh who remembered Moses died, and also the pharaoh who knew all the good things about Joseph died. That’s why the Israelites were put into slavery. So for Joseph to trust that 400 years later people would remember him [garbled] is amazing. So he really trusted the Lord.

If you trust the Lord, it might not be the way you want to be carried. Probably the best way to be carried would be to mummify him and carry him in a gold chariot. In the end, he made the journey. So the fact that people somehow remembered him after all those years, when the Egyptians forgot who Joseph was and the pharaoh forgot who Moses was, is an interesting thing.

Donald: How do people who are given a short period of time in hospital respond to the news? What’s the common response other than devastation?

Don: Probably for the vast majority it’s not a subject of conversation. They tend more to ignore the future than to confront it. There are occasionally people who have particular insight into their own selves, who are able to articulate their feelings, their fears, their hopes, their aspirations, but these are unusual and very rare. So rare that they get publicized. But this is remarkably uncommon. It’s much more common to act as if there is no limit to the future. So I would say the majority position is to ignore the future or to suggest that it’s not a reality.

David: A perfect example of the uncommon response was a member of our class for a tragically brief time: Alice’s daughter Fay who, in her final weeks of brain cancer, shared with us her thoughts on God and the future. She was not religious, but she was intensely spiritual. I think she enlightened us all, and indeed she was published: We published a book about her called Fayth. Personally I found it a very stirring story.

Don: The book is available from Amazon at

Robin: Stages of faith are like stages to dying. Some people never get to the acceptance stage, I’m told.

Don: I didn’t intend this to be a somber discussion of mortality. But I guess we should have expected it given the fact that we’re talking about Joseph’s bones. We will talk about the faith of Moses next week.

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