22 By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.– Hebrews 11:22 ESV
Ever since Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers, he had spent the majority of his life living in the land of Egypt. The early portion of his time there had been marked by periods of blessing followed by times of adversity. He experienced both feast and famine, success and failure, but God was always with him. Eventually, he became the second most powerful figure in Egypt, a remarkable turn of events that was not lost on Joseph. Years later, when he was reunited with the men who had sold him into slavery, he confidently told them, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20 ESV).
Joseph recognized that the sovereign hand of God had been directing his life and accomplishing a far greater and grander purpose than his brothers could have ever imagined when their jealousy drove them to betray him all those years ago. Joseph’s meteoric ascension to the upper echelons of Egyptian power was the work of God. It had all been part of God’s divine plan for fulfilling His promise to his great-grandfather, Abraham.
You have to go all the way back to Genesis 15 to see how all of this fits into God’s grand plan for Joseph’s life and the descendants of Israel. Abraham had just finished giving God a lecture about His promise to produce a great nation from an old man married to a barren wife. As far as Abraham could see, God’s plan had some serious flaws, so he confidently proffered a workaround.
“O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” – Genesis 15:2-3 ESV
But God attempted to calm Abraham’s fears by taking him outside and telling him, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5 ESV).
God wasn’t interested in Abraham’s Plan B approach. He knew all about Abraham’s age and Sarah’s barrenness; neither of which would prove to be a problem for God. Not only would God give Abraham more descendants than there are stars in the sky, but He would provide a land for them to live in, and He confirmed it by a covenant in blood. Then God followed this blood-covenant ceremony with an announcement that must have left Abraham a bit confused and apprehensive.
“Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” – Genesis 15:13-14 ESV
Now fast-forward to a scene back in the land of Egypt. Seventy of Abraham’s descendants have migrated to Egypt in order to escape a famine in the land of Canaan. Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, has sought refuge for his small clan in a land that was not theirs because a famine had made the land of Canaan virtually uninhabitable. Because Joseph, the long-lost son of Jacob, had risen to prominence in the Egyptian court, he was able to allocate land to his brothers and their families and provide them with jobs caring for Pharaoh’s vast flocks and herds.
Jacob’s relocation to Egypt had proven to be a boon for his family. They enjoyed their new homeland and were provided with everything they needed by their powerful and influential kinsman. It seems that everyone forgot about Canaan, except Joseph. As the years passed, Joseph came to the realization that he would never see his homeland again. As he grew older, he came to grips with the fact that he would die in the land of Egypt. But he had never given up on the promise that God had made to his great-grandfather, Abraham.
So Joseph remained in Egypt, he and his father’s house. Joseph lived 110 years. And Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation. The children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were counted as Joseph’s own. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.” So Joseph died, being 110 years old. They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt. – Genesis 50:22-26 ESV
Notice what Joseph said. He told his brothers that they were going to return to the land of Canaan. He was confident that God would accomplish exactly what He had promised to do. They would live in the land of Egypt for 400 years, but then God would redeem them from slavery and return them to their land, “with great possessions.” At this point in the story, the people of Israel are not enslaved. They were living in Egypt as the guests of Pharaoh. Their relative, Joseph, was the second-most powerful person in the land. They had land, jobs, houses in which to live, and no reason to complain about their circumstances. But Joseph understood that things would not always remain that way. He remembered what God had said to Abraham; that they would be afflicted for 400 years. But he also recalled that God had promised to return them to the land.
Joseph had been in Egypt a long time and he knew that it would be the place of his death. But he had not given up on God’s promise. He believed that his people would one day return to the land that God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was so confident that he made his brothers swear that they would dig up his embalmed body and take his bones back to the land of Canaan when the time came for them to leave.
The book of Exodus picks up the story from there.
All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. – Exodus 1:5-7 ESV
During their 400-year stay in Egypt, their number had increased greatly. What had begun as a small clan of 70 people had turned into a nation that numbered in the millions. And their meteoric growth would expose a spirit of ruthlessness in the heart of the new Pharaoh.
Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. 1Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves. – Exodus 1:8-14 ESV
God was setting up the perfect scenario to fulfill His plan. He was going to accomplish His will for them and return them to the land of Canaan. But the only person who seems to have believed that any of this would happen was Joseph. Despite all that had happened to him, he never gave up hope that God would fulfill all that He had predicted and promised to do. As the author of Hebrews wrote, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV).
Joseph had longed for the day when his people would return to their land, and he had a confident assurance that it would happen. He harbored a strong and unshakable conviction in the inevitability of God’s promise being fulfilled. So much so that he gave instructions to have his bones returned to the land when it happened. And Abraham’s bones did make it back to Canaan. After suffering all the plagues and the deaths of their firstborns, the Egyptians finally released the Israelites. And the book of Genesis records that auspicious occasion.
“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 13:19 ESV
Joseph placed his hope in God and God came through. He believed the promises of God and God did not disappoint. Throughout his long life, Joseph maintained a future-focused faith that refused to give up on God even when the circumstances of life seemed to contradict what God had promised. His faith in God was based on an assurance of things hoped for and a conviction of things that remained unseen and as yet unfulfilled. But he knew that God was not done. His plan was not yet complete. Joseph was willing to give God time and the trust he deserved.
Even when he considered his brothers’ unjust treatment of him, he knew that it had all been part of God’s grand master plan.
“God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” – Genesis 45:7 ESV
“Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” – Genesis 50:19-20 ESV
Joseph had played his part in God’s plan. Now, he was ready to trust God to accomplish the rest. And he was so confident that God would return his family to the land of Canaan that he made his brothers swear to take his bones with them when they left.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.