Upon the death of his father, Joseph flung himself upon his face, wept over him, and kissed him. He directed the servants skilled in embalming to prepare his father’s body for burial. At the time, the required period for embalming was 40 days. For 70 days, the Egyptians wept for Jacob, probably on account of the high position his son Joseph occupied. (50:1-3) Writing in the fifth century BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus (Book II of his Histories) mentioned the Egyptian embalming procedure as including soaking the dead body in natron for 70 days. Over the centuries, the time involved may have varied. In the first century BCE, Diodorus Siculus (Library of History, I, 91, 6) said regarding what the embalmers did: “They carefully dress the whole body for over 30 days, first with cedar oil and certain other preparations, and then with myrrh, cinnamon, and such spices as have the property not only of preserving it for a long time but also of giving it a fragrant odor.” Over the centuries, the time involved in the embalming process may have varied. If, however, the time for soaking the body in natron continued to be 70 days throughout the centuries, it could be that, in Jacob’s case, the 40-day period was followed by an additional 30 days during which his corpse lay in natron. This would also account for the reference to the 70 days of weeping.
After the days of weeping for Jacob had passed, Joseph asked members of the “house [doubtless high officials in the royal court (powerful ones [LXX])] of Pharaoh” to speak for him to Pharaoh, preceding his request with the words, “If now I have found favor in your eyes.” Probably Joseph was still attired as a mourner and so would not have been in a suitable condition to appear before Pharaoh to make his request in person. He informed the men of Pharaoh’s house or the royal court that his father had made him swear that he would bury him in the burial place he had dug for himself in the land of Canaan. Therefore, Joseph asked them to tell Pharaoh that he wanted to fulfill his father’s request, requiring permission for him to leave Egypt to bury his father. Thereafter he would return to Egypt. After being granted permission to depart to bury his father, Joseph left. Accompanying him were “all the servants of Pharaoh” (likely major officials), elders of Pharaoh’s “house” (senior members of the household or royal court), “all the elders of the land of Egypt” (doubtless the most prominent men in Egypt), all members of his own “house” or household, his brothers, and “the house [or household] of his father.” Joseph’s brothers and members of the household of his father would have had flocks and herds. It would have been these flocks and herds that were left behind in Goshen (Gesem [LXX]). Children or little ones (“kindred” [LXX]) also did not leave. It logically follows that adults would have needed to be with small children, and this makes it likely that the women remained behind, with only Joseph’s brothers and men of Jacob’s household departing for Canaan to the burial place Jacob had prepared for himself. It may well have been at the time he buried his wife Leah that he dug a burial place for himself beside her. (50:4-8; see the Notes section.)
Likely for protection along the way, horsemen and skilled warriors in chariots accompanied the impressive large company that left Egypt. Upon arriving at the “threshing floor of Atad [the bramble]” (Goren-ha-Atad [probably on the west side of the Jordan River]), the entire company gave way to great lamentation and mourned seven days for Jacob. Canaanites who witnessed this were moved to say that it was a “grievous mourning” to the Egyptians (Mitsraim [Mizraim]) and, for this reason, the site came to be called Abel-mizraim (mourning of the Egyptians). The Genesis account does not reveal why this mourning took place there, for the burial itself occurred in the vicinity of Hebron. (50:9-11)
Joseph and his brothers did everything that their father had commanded them, burying him in the cave in the field at Machpelah that Abraham had originally acquired from Ephron the Hittite to bury his wife Sarah. The field was located near Mamre (close to Hebron). (23:17) After the burial had been completed, Joseph, his brothers, and all who accompanied them returned to Egypt. (50:12-14)
It appears that Joseph’s half brothers still doubted that he had forgiven them. They feared that he would hate them, repaying them for all the evil they had done to him. This prompted them to send a message to Joseph, telling him that, before he died, their father had commanded them to say to Joseph that he should forgive their sin. They then petitioned for his forgiveness and referred to themselves as “servants of the God of [Joseph’s] father.” This moved Joseph to tears, for he bore no grudge for what his half brothers had done to him. Still plagued by a recognition of the enormity of their guilt, they prostrated themselves before Joseph and said to him, “Look, we are your servants.” Reassuringly, Joseph responded with the words, “Fear not, for am I in the place of God?” According to the Septuagint rendering, Joseph indicated that he belonged to God, suggesting that God had worked out his purpose. His next words confirm how Joseph viewed everything that had happened. Whereas his brothers had intended evil or harm, God purposed it for good so that many people would be preserved alive. By means of Joseph, God made it possible for grain to be stored during the seven years of plenty and, as a result, many people were rescued from death by starvation. Joseph reassured and comforted his half brothers, telling them not to fear and informing them that he would continue to provide for them and their households. (50:15-21)
With all the household of his father Jacob or all of his descendants, Joseph continued to live in Egypt. He died at the age of 110. How many, if not all of his brothers, continued to live after his death is not disclosed in the Genesis account. Joseph did see Ephraim’s sons or offspring “of the third generation.” As for the older son Manasseh, Joseph experienced the joy of having the sons of his grandson Machir born on his knees. This probably meant that they were placed on Joseph’s lap at the time of their birth. (50:22-23) Targum Onkelos interprets the birth on the knees to mean that Joseph brought up the sons of his grandson Machir. Targum Jonathan says that Joseph circumcised these sons.
When Joseph realized that he would soon die, he expressed his faith in God’s oath-bound promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, telling “his brothers” that God would visit (or turn his attention to) them (their descendants) and bring them out of Egypt back to the land (Canaan) that he had promised on oath to their forefathers. He then made them swear that, at that time, they would take his bones away from Egypt to the land of Canaan. After being embalmed, the corpse of Joseph was placed in a coffin. (50:24-26; see Hebrews 11:22.) Years later the descendants of Jacob fulfilled Joseph’s request. (Joshua 24:32)
Josephus wrote that Joseph’s brothers were initially unwilling to return with him to Canaan, for they feared that Joseph would punish them as their father was no longer alive. He, however, persuaded them that they had no reason to fear harm and that they needed not to be suspicious of him. (Antiquities, II, viii, 1) The Genesis account, however, refers to the brothers of Joseph as expressing their fear after they had buried their father in the land of Canaan.
In verse 10, the Hebrew word that pertains to the location of the “threshing floor of Atad” (Goren-ha-Atad) in relation to the Jordan River could be understood to refer either to the east side or to the west side. A location on the east side appears to be less likely, for it would have required traveling out of the way along the east side of the Dead Sea. Moreover, the Canaanites occupied the land west of the Jordan River, and they witnessed the mourning over Jacob. (Verse 11) There are, however, translations that specifically identify the location as being east of the Jordan River. “When they came to the threshing place at Atad east of the Jordan, they mourned loudly for a long time.” (TEV)
The name Machpelah (in verse 13) is believed to be drawn from a root word that means “double.” This explains why the Septuagint uses the expression “double cave.”
Verse 16 does not indicate through whom the message was sent to Joseph. Targum Jonathan and Targum Neofiti say Joseph’s brothers instructed Bilhah to convey the message, and the Jerusalem Targum says that it was done by the “tribe of Bilhah.