All these are the twelve tribes of Israel. This is what their father said to them as he blessed them, blessing each with the blessing suitable to him. Then he commanded them and said to them, “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place. There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife. There they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and there I buried Leah—the field and the cave that is in it were bought from the Hittites.” When Jacob finished commanding his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed and breathed his last and was gathered to his people.
Then Joseph fell on his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him. And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father. So the physicians embalmed Israel. Forty days were required for it, for that is how many are required for embalming. And the Egyptians wept for him seventy days.
And when the days of weeping for him were past, Joseph spoke to the household of Pharaoh, saying, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, please speak in the ears of Pharaoh, saying, ‘My father made me swear, saying, “I am about to die: in my tomb that I hewed out for myself in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me.” Now therefore, let me please go up and bury my father. Then I will return.’” And Pharaoh answered, “Go up, and bury your father, as he made you swear.” 7 So Joseph went up to bury his father. With him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, as well as all the household of Joseph, his brothers, and his father’s household. Only their children, their flocks, and their herds were left in the land of Goshen. And there went up with him both chariots and horsemen. It was a very great company. When they came to the threshing floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, they lamented there with a very great and grievous lamentation, and he made a mourning for his father seven days. When the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, saw the mourning on the threshing floor of Atad, they said, “This is a grievous mourning by the Egyptians.” Therefore the place was named Abel-mizraim; it is beyond the Jordan. Thus his sons did for him as he had commanded them, for his sons carried him to the land of Canaan and buried him in the cave of the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place. After he had buried his father, Joseph returned to Egypt with his brothers and all who had gone up with him to bury his father. – Genesis 49:28-50:14 ESV
Even though Jacob and his family find themselves living in the land of Egypt and Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, had been told by God that they would remain there for 400 years (Genesis 15:13-14), the land of Canaan looms large in this narrative. Canaan is the land that God had promised to give Abraham and his descendants. He had told Abraham, “After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, for the sins of the Amorites do not yet warrant their destruction” (Genesis 15:16 NLT). Isaac, the son of Abraham, and Jacob, his grandson, had both received personal assurances from God that they would receive the land of Canaan as part of God’s covenant promise to Abraham. This inheritance from God, which had yet to be realized, had been passed down from generation to generation. The promise of the land was an ever-present reality in their lives. The promise made to Abraham was constantly on their minds.
“This is the everlasting covenant: I will always be your God and the God of your descendants after you. And I will give the entire land of Canaan, where you now live as a foreigner, to you and your descendants. It will be their possession forever, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:7-8 NLT
So when it came time for Jacob to die, he made his sons promise to bury him in the land of Canaan, alongside the remains of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah. In essence, this was the family burial plot. It had been purchased by Abraham from the Hittites many years earlier in order that he might bury Sarah, his wife. Moses records the transaction for us:
Then Abraham bowed low before the Hittites and said, “Since you are willing to help me in this way, be so kind as to ask Ephron son of Zohar to let me buy his cave at Machpelah, down at the end of his field. I will pay the full price in the presence of witnesses, so I will have a permanent burial place for my family.” – Genesis 23:7-9 NLT
Abraham would pay 400 pieces of silver for the cave and the surrounding land.
So Abraham bought the plot of land belonging to Ephron at Machpelah, near Mamre. This included the field itself, the cave that was in it, and all the surrounding trees. It was transferred to Abraham as his permanent possession in the presence of the Hittite elders at the city gate. Then Abraham buried his wife, Sarah, there in Canaan, in the cave of Machpelah, near Mamre (also called Hebron). So the field and the cave were transferred from the Hittites to Abraham for use as a permanent burial place. – Genesis 15:17-20 NLT
Notice the number of times that the reference is made to a permanent burial place. The land, while still occupied by the Hittites, was part of the territory God had promised to give to Abraham and his descendants. While God had not yet fulfilled that part of His promise, Abraham went ahead and bought land because he believed that one day God’s promise would be fulfilled. He knew that it would be a long time before that happened, so in the meantime, he wanted a place where his family could bury their dead. And he wanted that place to be within the land of promise.
So upon Jacob’s request, Joseph and his brothers took the body of their father and headed to “the cave that is in the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, in the land of Canaan” (Genesis 49:30 ESV). And they were accompanied by a large number of Egyptian dignitaries.
So Joseph went up to bury his father; all Pharaoh’s officials went with him—the senior courtiers of his household, all the senior officials of the land of Egypt, all Joseph’s household, his brothers, and his father’s household. – Genesis 50:7-8 NLT
There were even Egyptian chariots and horses. It was quite a funeral procession. And there were so many Egyptians in the caravan, that the Hittites just assumed that it was the funeral for an high-ranking Egyptian official.
So Jacob was buried, with much pomp and circumstance. He was placed in the cave, alongside his father and grandfather. But his sons returned to the land of Egypt where they were destined to remain for more than 400 years. And yet Jacob’s death and burial are meant to act as a hopeful reminder of what is to come. His demise was not the end of the story. That trip to Canaan to bury Jacob was a dress rehearsal for another journey that would be taken by his descendants, four generations later – a huge collection of individuals numbering in the millions. When that day finally arrived, Moses tells us:
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.” – Exodus 13:18-19 ESV
Even Joseph would demand that his remains be returned to the land of Canaan, and centuries after his death, that is exactly what would happen. The promise of God would be fulfilled and the people of Israel would be freed from captivity and led by God Himself to the land of Canaan. Abraham’s death had not been the end. Isaac’s death had not derailed God’s intentions. The deaths of Jacob and Joseph had not brought God’s plans to a screeching halt. They were just the beginning. God was far from done. His promises were bigger than one man or a single generation. His blessings were intended span the generations and to impact the nations. What appeared to be the end was simply the beginning of greater things to come. As God would tell the Israelites while they suffered in captivity in Babylon, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11 ESV). God has plans based on His promises and there is nothing that will stop His plans from taking place and His promises from being fulfilled. And Jesus Himself has promised us, “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14 ESV).