27 Now the Israelites settled in Egypt in the region of Goshen. They acquired property there and were fruitful and increased greatly in number.
28 Jacob lived in Egypt seventeen years, and the years of his life were a hundred and forty-seven. 29 When the time drew near for Israel to die, he called for his son Joseph and said to him, “If I have found favor in your eyes, put your hand under my thigh and promise that you will show me kindness and faithfulness. Do not bury me in Egypt, 30 but when I rest with my fathers, carry me out of Egypt and bury me where they are buried.”
“I will do as you say,” he said.
31 “Swear to me,” he said. Then Joseph swore to him, and Israel worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.
(Genesis 47:27-31 NIV)
In our last passage, Joseph led the people of Egypt through the five-year famine. When the people ran out of money to buy grain, Joseph bought their livestock, land, and labor (servitude) in exchange for grain to survive. Joseph then worked out a system where the Egyptian people would farm the land, and split the harvest with Pharaoh, with Pharaoh receiving 20% of the harvest and the Egyptians keeping 80% of the harvest. The Egyptian people were so thankful for Joseph’s leadership that they gladly gave their allegiance to Pharaoh and followed Joseph’s directions.
In today’s passage, the focus switches back to Jacob and his family living in Goshen. Moses records that they acquired property there, and were fruitful and increased greatly in number. God was indeed fulfilling His promise of making a great nation of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, even as lowly shepherds living in Egypt.
As Jacob sensed his time on earth was coming to an end, he requested that Joseph come to him. When Joseph arrived, Jacob asked Joseph to promise that he (Jacob) would be buried in Canaan, not in Egypt. Jacob remembered God’s promise to make his offspring a great nation, and that God promised the land of Canaan as their permanent home. Jacob wanted to be buried where God had promised their permanent home, even if it was just his remains as reminder to God’s redemptive work and promise.
Jacob asked Joseph to make this promise versus all the rest of Jacob’s sons, as Joseph had shown the most loyalty to Jacob. Jacob also knew that Joseph, because of his position, had the financial, political, and physical means to fulfill this promise.
Jacob knew that Joseph’s hand would soon close his eyes in death; he asked Joseph to put his hand under his thigh in life to fulfill that promise.
Jacob had no means of forcing Joseph (or any of his sons) to fulfill his wish of being buried near his ancestors back in Canaan – to fulfill this request would mean that Jacob would be dead. Jacob was relying on his son’s continued loyalty in death as he had shown him in life.
Jacob asked Joseph to swear (make an oath) to him that he would bury him back in Canaan. Joseph had given his word – why would Jacob require an oath? By asking Joseph to make an oath, Jacob was transferring responsibility to fulfillment of the promise from himself to God. By making the promise, Joseph was telling God that he would honor and fulfill his father’s wishes. If Joseph did not fulfill his promise, then he would be under God’s judgment.
Jacob had lived a long life, 147 years in all. The generally accepted lifespan of Egyptians during that point in history was 110 years, so Jacob had lived far beyond their normal lifespan as well. The text tells us that Jacob lived in Egypt 17 years, so he would have been 130 years old when he met Pharaoh – thus Pharaoh’s question to Jacob asking how old he was (v. 8).
May we look forward to God’s continued fulfillment of His promises, even past our lifetime. God is eternal, and will see those promises through.