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Death does not have to be your final note.

Genesis(102) (Part of the Origins(100) series)
by Marc Webb(75) on July 30, 2023 (Sunday Morning(343))

Forgiveness(15), Salvation(84), Sharing Your Faith(2)

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Play Video of “Taps.” “Taps” is a highly recognizable tune that dates back to the American Civil War. Before “Taps” there was a traditional bugle call the Army used to let troops know it was time to sleep, but some believed this didn’t fit the somber reality of war. General Daniel Butterfield thought this bugle call should be more melodious after a long, tiring day so he reworked an existing call and had his brigade bugler play it for the Army men. Soon, buglers from other units spread this 24-note tune. It was so popular it even caught on with the Confederate troops. The tune is probably called “Taps” because of the tradition that was commonplace before this new bugle call which was to play a series of three drumbeats or drum “taps.” Soon after “Taps” was created it was first played for the military funeral of a Union cannoneer who was killed in the war. His commanding officer decided the bugle call would be a safer way to honor the loss instead of the traditional firing of three rifle volleys over the grave of the soldier which could have been seen as an attack by any nearby enemy. “Taps” didn’t become a mandatory part of military funerals until 1891 though it was likely used unofficially long before that. Since then, it’s become a way to honor all those who fought for our country. The song was a way to send troops to sleep after a long day and has become a call for the ultimate rest. There’s something beautiful about having the same tones and notes lingering through the centuries.

I wanted to play “Taps” this morning because we are going to be talking about the death of a patriarch today. Jacob is going to say his final words and people are going to pay their final respects to the grandson of Abraham and Sarah and the son of Isaac and Rebekah. He has lived a long life full of ups and downs, triumphs and hardships and happiness and sadness. He held on to his brother’s heel as he was born, and he held on to God and wouldn’t let go as he wrestled with him. He fought for a birthright and for a blessing, and through it all, in the immortal words of Frank Sinatra, he “did it his way.” But he also was a man of faith, and he was steadfast to the end. He trusted that the blessing of God handed down from Abraham and Isaac to himself and his descendants was something so important that he would not let it go even in death. And in his dying moment he transferred that important faith in God’s blessing and instilled it in his twelve sons. Jacob knew that Egypt was not his home, and that Canaan was the Promised Land of God’s chosen people. But Jacob also believed that there was more to this life than this earth and he wanted his sons to believe it too. He knew that the earth was not his home and that ultimately his home was where God dwelled and where his fathers were residing now. So when he died, he believed at that moment his fathers would say, “welcome home.” The death of his physical body would not be the end of his existence and it would not be his final note. That brings us to our big idea this morning that Death does not have to be your final note.

Before we start our study of this passage this morning let’s offer our time together to the Lord. Dear Heavenly Father, please pour out your Holy Spirit on all that hear your Word. Let it satisfy our souls and refresh us for the week ahead. Use it to teach us, rebuke us, correct us and train us in righteousness for your name’s sake. In Jesus name, Amen.

There are two points this morning, the first is Final Words found in Genesis 49:29-33. Follow along as I read those verses. This is what God’s Word says, “Then he gave them these instructions: “I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, which Abraham bought along with the field as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite. There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried, there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried, and there I buried Leah. The field and the cave in it were bought from the Hittites.” When Jacob had finished giving instructions to his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people.”

These are the last words spoken by Jacob to his twelve sons before he died. They were very important words that he saved until the very end. These final words were his living will instructing them about the final disposition of his body. He tells them that he is about to be “gathered” to his people and then he gives them instructions about where to bury his body. Being “gathered” to his people and the burying of his body were two different things. The first was spiritual and the second was physical. When he said he was about to be “gathered to his people” it was his statement of faith and hope in a life after death. He believed that when he took his last breath he would be reunited with his grandparents, Abraham and Sarah, his parents, Isaac and Rebekah, and his wives Rachel and Leah and others who had “believed by faith” in God and his promises. We see this same expression being used all the way back to Abraham in Genesis 25:8, Ishmael in Genesis 25:17, Isaac in Genesis 35:29, Aaron in Numbers 20:24 and Moses in Deuteronomy 32:50.

Then Jacob gave instructions about the burial of his physical body. He instructed that his body was to be buried in Canaan not in Egypt. This was the third time he gave these instructions. The first two times were to Joseph in Genesis 47:29-31 and Genesis 48:21-22. This time it was to all his sons. He wanted to make sure that they all knew they had the responsibility of obeying his final wishes and keeping this promise after he was gone. But there was more to it than that. Jacob believed in the blessing and promise of the land given to his fathers. He believed that Canaan was the Promised Land that God would give to his descendants. Again, this was a statement of faith in the promises of God. John Calvin wrote that Jacob “did not wish to be carried into the land of Canaan, as if he would be nearer to heaven for being buried there; but that, being dead, he might claim possession of a land which he had held during his life…because it was profitable that the memory of the promise should be renewed, by this symbol, among his surviving sons, in order that they might aspire to it.” Jacob believed God and the promises that he made, and he wanted his sons to believe in them too. But he also knew that his descendants would spend the next 400 years in Egypt and in slavery. His burial in Canaan would be a visible sign to the sons of Israel that God would one day deliver them from slavery, lead them out of Egypt and into their Promised Land. He wanted to give his sons and their descendants hope that no matter how bad their lives would become, God’s promises would be fulfilled.

Jacob also gave them a very specific and precise location as to where to bury his body. Look at the number of times he repeats certain phrases. He mentions a cave, a field and Ephron the Hittite three times. He mentions that Abraham bought it from Ephron the Hittite twice. He mentions Machpelah, Mamre and Canaan one time each. He tells them that Abraham and his wife, Sarah, Isaac and his wife, Rebekah, and Leah are all buried there. This is the first time we are told where Rebekah and Leah had been buried. This description and explanation were for two reasons. First, it was to prove that the place he wanted to be buried was his family’s burial place that was bought by Abraham from Ephron the Hittite in front of witnesses. We saw this in Genesis 23. It was legally owned by Abraham and his descendants, of which Jacob was one, and he had the right to be buried there. Baldwin says, “Land tenure in the ancient near east was dependent on the ability to make proper reference back to the original forefather who held the title authenticating the registration, and from then on transmitting the deeds. By naming the ancestors Jacob reinforces the necessity of his burial in the same location as Abraham and Isaac.” Second, his sons would be able to take his body to the exact place he was to be buried. He had given very specific directions to the cave at Machpelah: In Canaan near Mamre, in the field that his grandfather Abraham had bought from Ephron the Hittite. Hamilton says, “As he lay dying, he still remembered the covenant and thought about his post-death rituals in terms of the promises that have been made to his family by God.”

Once Jacob was done giving instructions to his sons “he drew up his feet into the bed,” “breathed his last,” and was “gathered to his people.” He “drew his feet into the bed” meaning he calmly accepted his physical death and his strong faith allowed him to face it satisfied and unafraid. That he “breathed his last” meant that his physical body was now lifeless. But we never see the words “and he died” as we did with others, such as Abraham and Isaac. The emphasis here was not on dying but on “rejoining.” The author of Genesis wants us to realize the confidence and hope that Jacob had in a life after death with his family and with the Lord. Hebrews 11:39 tells us that Jacob and the other great men of faith died without realizing the promises of God, but Jacob’s faith gave him that confidence and hope in God’s promises which sustained him as he “breathed his last.” As I have already covered, he was then “gathered to his people.” Jacob believed what Paul would write some 1600 years later in 2 Corinthians 5:8: “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” As Jacob faced his death, he exercised his faith in God’s promises. He had never died before and gone beyond the grave. He didn’t know what was waiting for him there, but he had faith, he had hope and he trusted in his God and the God of his fathers. He believed that God was a God of the living and not the dead.

Do we as Christians today have the same unwavering faith, hope and trust in God’s promise of life after death? We have the further knowledge that Jesus resurrected from the grave and is alive in Heaven as we meet here this morning. Jesus’ resurrection is the basis for our hope in our future resurrection, but do we live our lives like we believe it? Do we tell our family, friends and others that we believe it? Do we share this faith, hope and trust with others who do not know Jesus and are in desperate need of a Savior? If we don’t, we should and we must. We are commanded to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with the world. Our mission as Christ-followers is to Pursue, Grow and Multiply Disciples. That brings us to our first next step on the back of your communication card which is to share my faith, hope and trust in an eternal life with God and Jesus in Heaven. We need to be sharing this with our family, friends and especially those who don’t know Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

This brings us to our second point today called Final Respects found in Genesis 50:1-14. Follow along as I read those verses. This is what God’s Word says, “Joseph threw himself on his father and wept over him and kissed him. Then Joseph directed the physicians in his service to embalm his father Israel. So the physicians embalmed him, taking a full forty days, for that was the time required for embalming. And the Egyptians mourned for him seventy days. When the days of mourning had passed, Joseph said to Pharaoh’s court, “If I have found favor in your eyes, speak to Pharaoh for me. Tell him, ‘My father made me swear an oath and said, “I am about to die; bury me in the tomb I dug for myself in the land of Canaan.” Now let me go up and bury my father; then I will return.’” Pharaoh said, “Go up and bury your father, as he made you swear to do.” So Joseph went up to bury his father. All Pharaoh’s officials accompanied him—the dignitaries of his court and all the dignitaries of Egypt—besides all the members of Joseph’s household and his brothers and those belonging to his father’s household. Only their children and their flocks and herds were left in Goshen. Chariots and horsemen also went up with him. It was a very large company. When they reached the threshing floor of Atad, near the Jordan, they lamented loudly and bitterly; and there Joseph observed a seven-day period of mourning for his father. When the Canaanites who lived there saw the mourning at the threshing floor of Atad, they said, “The Egyptians are holding a solemn ceremony of mourning.” That is why that place near the Jordan is called Abel Mizraim. So Jacob’s sons did as he had commanded them: They carried him to the land of Canaan and buried him in the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre, which Abraham had bought along with the field as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite. After burying his father, Joseph returned to Egypt, together with his brothers and all the others who had gone with him to bury his father.”

When Jacob breathed his last, we see a perfectly human and real emotional response from Joseph. He was so overcome with emotion that he threw himself on his father and he didn’t just cry, he “wept”, and he “kissed” him. The NASB literally translates it as he “fell on his father’s face” reminding us of God’s promise to Jacob in Genesis 46:4 that “Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.” This was the fulfillment of God’s promise that Jacob would be reunited with Joseph and he would be present at his death. We can rejoice in the fact that God is a good God and he keeps his promises. He kept his promises to Jacob and Joseph and the Israelite people and keeps his promises to us today.

This is the only time in the Bible that it is mentioned that someone kissed the dead. Such an emotional response reminds us of the strong familial bond between this father and son. We aren’t told that Jacob’s other sons wept at his death, but we can believe that they did. Joseph’s response is the only one recorded since he is the main focus of the narrative. This is the sixth time we have seen Joseph cry and it is interesting that we only ever seen him cry for others and never for himself. The five times he has cried before this was in happiness. This is the first time he has cried in sorrow. Joseph was grieved over his father’s death, but he was not crippled with sorrow. He had promised his father that he would bury him in Canaan, and he immediately sets out to carry out his father’s last wishes. In this way he paid his final respects to his father and showed his faith in God.

Joseph, of all the brothers, with his official position in Pharaoh’s court, would have had the ability to make his father’s wishes happen. So he personally took charge of his father’s funeral arrangements directing the “physicians” to embalm his father’s body according to Egyptian practices. It would have taken forty days to complete the procedure. Jacob is only one of two Israelites that were embalmed in the Bible, the other being Joseph himself. Jacob’s body would have had to be embalmed in order to transport it to Canaan. Joseph employed “physicians” or “healers” to do the procedure instead of the professional embalmers of the day. This procedure involved considerable surgery so the physicians would have been familiar and capable of performing it, but it was usually done by “mortuary priests.” Embalming usually included numerous pagan religious rituals conducted by a trained group of mortuary priests which reflected a particular view of the afterlife. Joseph would have wanted to avoid these pagan rituals while still embalming his father’s body for transport to Canaan. This would have been in accordance with Jacob’s and Joseph’s faith in the one true and living God. Pharaoh commanded the Egyptians to observe an official mourning period of seventy days for Jacob. This mourning period would have included the forty days it took to embalm him. This period was exceptional in the fact that the time of mourning for a Pharaoh was seventy-two days. Jacob was so highly thought of and honored that he was mourned almost as long as a Pharaoh would have been. This was Pharaoh and the Egyptian people’s way of paying their final respects to Jacob. In contrast, the mourning period for the Hebrew people usually lasted seven days but there were exceptions such as Moses and Aaron who were mourned for thirty days each.

After the mourning period had ended, Joseph respectfully petitioned Pharaoh's court to speak on his behalf to Pharoah. “If I have favor in your eyes” emphasizes the importance of the request to him personally. The reason Joseph couldn’t go directly to Pharaoh was probably because he was considered unclean from coming in contact with his father’s dead body and wouldn’t be allowed in Pharaoh’s presence. He wanted Pharaoh’s court to speak to Pharaoh about being able to take his father’s body back to Canaan to be buried. He had made an oath to his father that he would fulfill his final wishes, but Joseph needed Pharaoh’s permission to leave Egypt. Joseph leaves out two things from the oath he made to his father. One, he doesn’t mention putting his hand under his father’s thigh to make the oath because it wouldn’t have made any sense to Pharaoh. It was a Hebrew custom not an Egyptian one. Two, he didn’t mention that Jacob under no circumstances wanted to be buried in Egypt. Joseph was diplomatic and didn’t want it to seem that Jacob was ungrateful for all that Pharaoh had done for his family. Joseph stresses that Jacob wanted to be buried in the tomb that he had “dug” himself in the land of Canaan. Now, we know that Jacob didn’t dig out the cave at Machpelah but Joseph used this nuance to appeal to Pharaoh who would understand wanting to spend eternity in a tomb of his own preparing. According to Hamilton it is possible that the word translated “dug” or “hewn” could also mean “bought” which is what Abraham did. Joseph waited till the end of his plea to ask permission to go, adding that he promised to return to Egypt. Jacob’s insistence on being buried in Canaan with his fathers was a statement of faith to where his children and their families really belonged.

Pharoah agreed to allow Joseph to go and bury his father’s body in Canaan just as Jacob made Joseph swear to do. Pharaoh was impressed by Joseph’s devotion to his father. He repeated Joseph’s words to “go and bury your father as you promised” but he didn’t repeat Joseph’s promise to return. This was an indication that Pharaoh implicitly trusted Joseph to keep that promise. Joseph then “went up” to bury his father along with a very large entourage. This entourage was made up of three different groups. The first were high ranking officials in Pharaoh’s court and in Egypt. This would have included elders of Pharaoh’s household and elders of the land. This showed great respect for both Jacob and Joseph. The second were members of Joseph’s household, his brothers and those in his father’s household. The third was the equivalent of a military escort consisting of chariots and horsemen which was also a sign of respect and honor. They would have also offered protection from bandits, thieves, and foreign countries along the way. The word “all” is mentioned three times reinforcing the largeness of the entourage. All who were able and necessary accompanied Joseph. The only people that did not go were Joseph’s and his brother’s families’ children. They also did not take their livestock. These would have been a sign to Pharaoh that Joseph and his family would return to Egypt according to his promise. We continue to see the fulfillment of the promise of God to make Abraham’s name great. All of Egypt stopped and mourned the passing of Abraham’s grandson and Pharaoh sent this huge funeral procession to Canaan to bury him. Walton says, “The attention paid to one’s death is often considered an indication of the greatness or significance of one’s life. Contrast the death of Jehoram, king of Judah found in 2 Chronicles 21:20: “He passed away, to no one’s regret, and was buried in the City of David, but not in the tombs of the kings.” Jacob believed in the promises of God and God fulfilled his promises in and through Jacob in his life and in his death.

Joseph led his father’s funeral procession to Canaan until they came to the threshing floor of Atad near the Jordan. The location of this threshing floor is unknown except that it is near the Jordan River either right inside or just outside the land of Canaan. This would have been an appropriate spot to stop and observe a more private seven-day mourning period for his father. A threshing floor was chosen because they were usually outside the city, elevated and offered a large clear space for many people to gather at one time. This mourning period was specifically Hebrew and was marked by loud and bitter lamenting. After all this family had been through, they were broken by the death of Jacob and came together to honor him properly. Mathews says, The Hebrew is literally “they mourned there a mourning great and very grievous (or bitterly).” This mourning must have included actions as well as words because it was something the Canaanites in the area “saw” rather than “heard.” Along with the weeping and lamenting there was probably the tearing of clothes and the wearing of sackcloth. Some may have shaved their heads and others may have been walking around barefoot. All of which were visible signs of mourning. The intensity and conspicuousness of their grief is seen in the mention of the word “mourning” three times, as well as the Canaanites of the area taking notice. When the Canaanites saw this, they named the place, “Abel Mizraim,” which means, “the mourning of the Egyptians.” They falsely thought they were Egyptians holding a solemn mourning ceremony which would have been understandable because the coffin and the clothing they were dressed in would have been distinctly Egyptian.

Because of where the entourage stopped scholars believe they did not take the direct route to Canaan. There may have been some upheaval in the countries surrounding Egypt that made they go out of their way. But there are too many similarities to another journey that will be taken by God’s chosen people four hundred years later. Their route was much the same as the one the Israelites will take during the Exodus as Moses leads them out of Egypt and a lot of the same phrases in this narrative occur then as well. Goldingay says, “Joseph’s request “to go up” to Canaan anticipates Moses’ plea for the Israelites to take a trip out of Egypt.” Walton says “His burial procession is seen as a pledge or acted prophecy of the nation’s future move.” That the Canaanites acknowledge the event foreshadows their submission during the conquest. In effect this was a rehearsal for the future homecoming of the nation in fulfillment of the promises of God to Israel.

We are told that Jacob’s sons did as he had commanded them. This is the first mention of the other brothers since Jacob died and it is the first and only time we see all of Jacob’s sons doing anything together. Their obedience is emphasized as they participated in their father’s burial just as the sons of Abraham and Isaac participated in theirs. No matter how much brothers are at odds with each other during their lives they are expected to come together to bury their fathers when they pass away. From this spot, Jacob’s sons acted as pallbearers carrying his body to the land of Canaan indicating they were the only ones who entered Canaan to lay his body in its final resting place. This would have been a highly personal journey carried out by the sons of Jacob as they paid their final respects to their father. The text confirms that they buried him in the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre, which Abraham had bought along with the field as the burial place from Ephron the Hittite. We are again given these very specific details to prove that this burial ground was owned by Jacob’s family, and he had the right to be buried there. It also renewed to the people of Canaan that Abraham’s family had ownership of this land and that they would one day return to possess it.

After they finished burying their father everyone returned to Egypt. Joseph had kept his promise to his father and to Pharaoh. Although the text states that everyone returned the emphasis is singular not plural. Joseph proved trustworthy and faithful to his promise to return. The twice mention of the word “burial” in our final verse points out the magnitude that the author felt about Jacob’s death and burial in the Promised Land. It was supremely important for the future of the Israelite people and the plans and purposes of God that Jacob be buried with his fathers in Canaan.

Play “Reveille.” Winston Churchill planned his own funeral and it included many of the great hymns of the church and used the eloquent Anglican liturgy. At his direction, a bugler, positioned high in the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, played “Taps,” the universal signal that day is done. But then came the most dramatic turn. As Churchill had instructed, as soon as “Taps” was finished, another bugler, placed on the other side of the great dome, played “Reveille”: If you don’t know the words to “Reveille” they are “It’s time to get up, it’s time to get up, it’s time to get up in the morning.” The author of this story didn’t know if Churchill was a true believer in Jesus Christ, but by following “Taps” with “Reveille,” he seemed to be testifying that death is not the final note in history. There will be that “great gittin’ up morning,” when the dead in Christ shall rise. When a loved one dies, there is the sorrow and grief of loss, but for the believer, there is also the hope of eternal life that overcomes the grief.

If you are a Christian this morning, this passage teaches us how to finish our journey of faith. Death is not the final note because as Christ-followers we have hope in God’s promises. We are reminded that there is a place that God is preparing for us, and he will surely come back for us and welcome us home. So how do we live out this journey of faith? How can our lives and our deaths point our family and friends to the Lord? How can we be faithful to our word as God has always been faithful to his? We can forgive others because through the shed blood of Jesus Christ we have been forgiven. We can live in hope because the promises of God are true and sufficient for us. We can die in faith because God offers us eternal life in Christ. That brings us to the second next step on the back of your communication card this morning which is to finish my journey of faith forgiving others, living in hope and dying in faith.

But if you are not a Christian, this passage teaches us that death does not have to be the final note in your life. One day, we will all die and every one of us will be gathered to our people. We will either be gathered to our people in heaven or gathered to our people in hell. There will be no exceptions. Believers and unbelievers alike will be gathered to their people. How, then, can we be sure that we will be gathered with God’s people? The key to being gathered to God’s people is to be gathered to Jesus Christ here and now. It is only as you are saved by the person and work of Jesus Christ that you can be sure of being gathered one day to His people. Those who will be gathered to His people at death are those who are identified with His people in life. So the question is who will you be gathered to when you die? You can only know for sure if you are gathered by Christ to His people in the here and now. Those who know for sure where they are going when they die are those who admit that they are sinners and believe that Jesus Christ died on a cross for their sins and rose again and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. If you do not know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior this morning, I urge you to Admit, Believe and Confess and not let death be your final note. That brings us to the last next step on the back of your communication card which is to Admit I am a sinner, believe that Jesus died for me and rose again, and confess him as Lord so that when I die I am gathered to God and his people.

As the Praise Team comes to lead us in a final song and the ushers prepare to collect the tithes and offering and communication cards, let’s pray: Heavenly Father, I do thank you for your Word and I thank you for your son, Jesus, who came to seek and save the lost. Help us to be bold to share our faith, hope and trust in an eternal life in Heaven with you and your son Jesus. And Lord, as Christians, give us the strength to finish our journeys of faith having hope in your promises for ourselves on this earth and for heaven. And Lord, I pray that those who do not know you as their Lord and Savior will Admit they are sinners, believe that Jesus died for them and rose again, and confess him as Lord so that when they die they will be gathered to you and your people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.