A Journey with Joseph’s Bones, 2017

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This parsha has a tremendous amount of important and interesting moments and language to explore. We run from encampment to encampment, Pharaoh’s army chases us, we cross the Red Sea, we are delivered, the Egyptians drown, the Song of the Sea, Miriam sings & dances….and then the grumblings. But this year we read only the first 1/3 and we only get to the troublesome drowning part & triumphalism.

So …I chose to focus only on the 3rd verse we read today, beginning …וַיִּקַּ֥ח מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־עַצְמ֥וֹת יוֹסֵ֖ף עִמּ֑וֹ And Moses took Joseph’s bones with him… I thought I had a unique topic until I discovered whole books on the very same subject. In the Bible, very little is written; but ideas abound in midrash.

The Bible provides four details about Joseph’s bones.

  1. at the very end of Genesis (Gen.50:25): So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “When God has פָּקֹ֨ד יִפְקֹ֤ד taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” meaning out of Egypt and back to Canaan.
  2. Followed immediately with(Gen. 50:26) Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.
  3. In Exodus, in today’s parsha (Exodus 13:19) we are told that Moses fulfilled the pledge. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, “God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.” That’s our verse 3.
  4. The final act at the very end of the book of Joshua (24:32 ), the 6th book of the Bible; the first one after the Torah The bones of Joseph, which the Children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, were buried in Shechem in a parcel of land Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor, father of Shechem, for a hundred pieces of silver.”

Two vital men in our history, Joseph & Moses are featured.

  • They both changed our direction—literally and morally.
  • One was raised as an Egyptian prince but always remembered he was a Hebrew and became God’s confidant; The other became an Egyptian prince, assimilating and grateful to have forgotten his “father’s house.” That was a quote! They were both bi-cultural Jews…way before we had a name for that.
  • One was 80 when he went to speak to Pharaoh; the other was 30 when he was beckoned to listen to Pharaoh.
  • They were both 17 when their lives changed dramatically. Joseph was sold as a slave. Moses killed an Egyptian taskmaster and escaped into exile. Moses doesJoseph is done to.
  • Joseph’s push-me-pull-you deceptions with his brothers prefigures Moses’s give and take with Pharaoh.

And here in today’s 3rd verse, their names are found together for the one and only time.


I would like to explore two topics:

  1. Practical / the what and how
  2. Ethical / the why

What were the bones of the Viceroy of Egypt stored in? (He was embalmed, but we speak of bones)? Imagine the Israelites trudging through the wilderness, across the Red Sea, and for 40 years with this container. And only at the end of the Book of Joshua do the bones finally get buried.

Let’s talk aesthetics. What construction do we think of as splendid, truly majestic? We are informed by the culture that surrounds us. Luckily, we have a wide net to draw from. (How about: Queen Elizabeth’s throne room, Bernini’s Baldachin in St Peter’s Cathedral or…the lobby of Trump Towers). But imagine what a Hebrew might know after 400 years of Egyptian residence. Those Egyptian processions and funerals must have been spectacular! And they were the gold standard; and that’s all the Hebrews knew.

And let’s think about how these chests/caskets/coffins were designed and transported. I found plenty of images.

Two staves indicate that they would be carried by several men.

The rectangular caskets were almost always made of wood. The finest—of cedar, others were made of sycamore or acacia.

Gold and silver were reserved for kings, Gilding in gold or silver indicated a close connection to the king

Some were equipped with sleds, to be dragged to the burial place.

After the revelation at Sinai, the Israelites get instructions for building the Mishkan (Tent of Meeting or Tabernacle). But also on the construction of a very special container called in Hebrew aron and translated as ark (not the same word as Noah’s ark: tevah). Aron means closet, cupboard, ark, coffin or casket.



Instructions are found in the Book of Exodus (25:19; 37:6)

It is to be 2½ cubits in length, 1½ in breadth, and 1½ in height (approximately 52×31×31 in). Then it is to be gilded entirely with gold, and a crown or molding of gold is to be put around it. Four rings of gold are to be attached to its four corners, two on each side—and through these rings staves of shittim-wood overlaid with gold are to be inserted; these are for carrying the Ark and are never to be removed. A golden lid, the kapporet which is covered with 2 golden cherubim, is to be placed above the Ark.






And Cherubim…what are they exactly? Beings with wings. Not exactly angels, but certainly not humans.

In the ancient Near East, wings above a king or even a god serving as protection was common. Tutankhamen’s throne had massive wings on the sides as armrests. The winged sun-disc was a standard iconographic feature in Egypt. In the Mishkan, however, they served either as God’s throne or as protectors surrounding the deity. The Ark of the Covenant was to be the footstool, seat, or podium for God. (Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber – TheTorah.com)

So imagine now, the Israelites after the Sinai revelation are trudging through the wilderness with not one, but two very special containers.

One, with the bones of Joseph and the other, the ark holding the tablets of the law.
One designed in Egypt when Joseph was the Viceroy and the other designed by God!

Let’s leave aesthetics and visuals aside and consider this:

The Hebrews were in Egypt for hundreds of years. They remembered their ancestors’ promise to Joseph. They dragged his aron with his bones with them when they escaped Egypt, through 40 years of wilderness wanderings, through battles for the land under Joshua, and finally buried him in the land of his fathers.

That’s Astonishing…………….I would call that the epitome of Loyalty and Integrity!

Although our text does not mention the “other” aron that is being carried or dragged alongside God’s aron, the Rabbis certainly did take notice. It was clearly troubling and out of that comes midrash.

In Mekilta Tractate Beshallah we hear several propositions.

  • The Israelites would explain the 2 side-by-side chests by saying: “one is the ark of God and the other is a coffin with a dead body.”
  • Explaining that odd statement they justify Joseph’s aron by saying : “the one lying in this coffin fulfilled that which is written on what lies in that ark.”
  • But Joseph died hundreds of years before there were Ten Commandments. The assumption here is that somehow these Hebrews are truly full of reverence; that they have a profound understanding of Joseph, his morality, God’s laws and how these interact.

Meanwhile our Torah text repeatedly tell us of God’s frustration and disappointment with this people. He is tempted to wipe them out and start again with Moses. Do we believe God’s version? Or the Mekilta? Can an unworthy people really be able to revere someone for centuries just because he was such an evolved and moral person? God has no confidence in His people. An entire generation that experienced Egypt dies in the wilderness. Only those who never knew slavery get to enter the promised land. Not even Moses.


What does Joseph’s aron represent to these people? What does Joseph represent?

God does not trust them…but Joseph did. They are loyal to the man who trusted them to fulfill a pledge. Joseph did not ask his brothers, nor God, to be immediately taken back home for burial. His father Jacob asked for exactly that and got it. Joseph left this task to the later generations…to a time when God would take note of his people….God’s people? …. Joseph’s people?

Now I am left in a tricky spot. Did we have split loyalties? Is there a contest between following Joseph—a sort of ancestor worship… and obeying this new, demanding God, who claims his role as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (more ancestors)? Scholars have explored this divide. Ancestor worship, they argue was the original religion of Israel before Yahvism was introduced by Moses and the Prophets.” (J. Jacobs, Jewish Encyclopedia)

This is where following Joseph’s bones have led me.

Between the scholars and the midrash writers we can keep exploring.

Do you know….1/3 of the Book of Genesis is devoted to the story Joseph. That’s a lot. Actually there is one interruption: 30 verses– that switch to Judah’s story. The Judah/Joseph parallels are deeply important but not our topic today. Maybe next year.

Genesis ends with Joseph’s death followed logically with the Book of Exodus.
Years of slavery are mostly glossed over.

In Shemot, the first parsha in Exodus (4 weeks ago), we got to hear an unusual message from God that validates Moses by linking him to Joseph. In chap.3:16 God tells Moses to go talk to the elders of Israel and say: פָּקֹ֤ד פָּקַ֙דְתִּי֙ I have taken note. And with that coded language they know that he knows about Joseph’s prophesy and that he, Moses is the man to follow. Today we read the fourth parsha of the Exodus story. I focused on one line that had nothing to do with the bulk of the parsha. It is a tag line that glimpses back to Joseph. We will get one more glimmer of Joseph at the end of the book of Joshua. Just glints that remind us that ….there is a sub-text …that seems to have completely disappeared.

Have you ever wondered why we have a pentateuch and not a hexateuch? Why 5 books and not 6 to read over and over each year… Our story is left hanging at the end of the Torah.

We are forever leaving Egypt and never getting in.

But after Joshua…
and after we bury Joseph…
we have arrived.