10 April 2009

What Began in the Garden Ends in an Egyptian Coffin

Genesis 49:33-50:26:
And Jacob ceased giving charges to his sons; and having lifted up his feet on the bed, he died, and was gathered to his people. And Joseph fell upon his father's face, and wept on him, and kissed him. And Joseph commanded his servants the embalmers to embalm his father; and the embalmers embalmed Israel. And they fulfilled forty days for him, for so are the days of embalming numbered; and Egypt mourned for him seventy days. And when the days of mourning were past, Joseph spoke to the princes of Pharao, saying, If I have found favour in your sight, speak concerning me in the ears of Pharao, saying, My father adjured me, saying, In the sepulchre which I dug for myself in the land of Chanaan, there thou shalt bury me; now then I will go up and bury my father, and return again. And Pharao said to Joseph, Go up, bury thy father, as he constrained thee to swear. So Joseph went up to bury his father; and all the servants of Pharao went up with him, and the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt. And all the household of Joseph, and his brethren, and all the house of his father, and his kindred; and they left behind the sheep and the oxen in the land of Gesem. And there went up with him also chariots and horsemen; and there was a very great company. And they came to the threshing-floor of Atad, which is beyond Jordan; and they bewailed him with a great and very sore lamentation; and he made a mourning for his father seven days. And the inhabitants of the land of Chanaan saw the mourning at the floor of Atad, and said, This is a great mourning to the Egyptians; therefore he called its name, The mourning of Egypt, which is beyond Jordan. And thus his sons did to him. So his sons carried him up into the land of Chanaan, and buried him in the double cave, which cave Abraam bought for possession of a burying place, of Ephrom the Chettite, before Mambre. And Joseph returned to Egypt, he and his brethren, and those that had gone up with him to bury his father. And when the brethren of Joseph saw that their father was dead, they said, [Let us take heed], lest at any time Joseph remember evil against us, and recompense to us all the evils which we have done against him. And they came to Joseph, and said, Thy father adjured [us] before his death, saying, Thus say ye to Joseph, Forgive them their injustice and their sin, forasmuch as they have done thee evil; and now pardon the injustice of the servants of the God of thy father. And Joseph wept while they spoke to him. And they came to him and said, We, these [persons], are thy servants. And Joseph said to them, Fear not, for I am God's. Ye took counsel against me for evil, but God took counsel for me for good, that [the matter] might be as [it is] to-day, and much people might be fed. And he said to them, Fear not, I will maintain you, and your families: and he comforted them, and spoke kindly to them. And Joseph dwelt in Egypt, he and his brethren, and all the family of his father; and Joseph lived a hundred and ten years. And Joseph saw the children of Ephraim to the third generation; and the sons of Machir the son of Manasse were borne on the sides of Joseph. And Joseph spoke to his brethren, saying, I die, and God will surely visit you, and will bring you out of this land to the land concerning which God sware to our fathers, Abraam, Isaac, and Jacob. And Joseph adjured the sons of Israel, saying, At the visitation with which God shall visit you, then ye shall carry up my bones hence with you. And Joseph died, aged an hundred and ten years; and they prepared his corpse, and put him in a coffin in Egypt.

This is the last Old Testament reading for Pre-Sanctified Liturgies. The ones for the three days next week all come from the New Testament, and all deal with the Parousia. So, we must ask ourselves, what is the significance of this reading on the night before Lazarus Saturday?

I think the answer is probably obvious. Our exile from the Lord, because of our sin, ends with the working out of the curse of death upon man. Is it coincidental that the Egyptians spent so much of their religious thought thinking about death? Is it coincidental that the Israelites spend centuries in slavery and bondage to the Egyptians? No, I think in a larger framework, we are seeing biblical typology at its finest here.

Please understand--I am not saying the events here in Genesis did not literally happen; God forbid! What I am saying is, in addition to the historical record, Genesis offers us something more than merely history. The sin of man in the Garden, and the result of sin, which is death, and its marring of the world, is the lens through which this text (and the structure of the lectionary) beg us to read not just Genesis, but what is about to happen as we progress through Holy Week.

Sin and death mar the relationship of God to man, then of man to woman, then of man to the earth, and finally, man to man. Think about how often, in addition to the big, epic displays of man's failures (the iniquity of man leading up to the Flood, the incident at Babel, the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah) we see depictions of man's very personal evil toward one another--even inside the family, which we tend to think of as the "strongest natural bond." I confess, I have been more aware of news stories this Lent which detail the shocking and grizzly murders of children by parents, parents by children, sisters by brothers, and so on. However, in reflecting on the lectionary readings for the Pre-Sanctified services, it's all there in Genesis. These terrible, horrible things are just a single example of the horror which comes with the life lived away from God.

And then, we have Joseph. The Holy Fathers teach us that the patriarch Joseph is a "type" of Christ in the Old Testament. He certainly is one of the few exemplars of holiness to be found in Genesis, and we see that he lives a life that finds favor with God. And yet, Genesis ends with his death, in a land not his own, entombed among another people...but with the promise that the Lord will visit his people, and redeem them out of the land of their exile.

And so, with that, we begin the end of Great Lent, and embark upon the week which commemorates the wonder of God's salvation of his people: Holy Week.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the thoughts, Justinian. The Scriptures grow richer and richer as I see how they all tie together. The typology is fascinating and powerful. Another one of the riches of Orthodoxy! Yes, sadly, there has been so much death in the news. Lord have mercy on us! Thank God for the hope of the Promised Land, and for Holy Week!