• W. Austin Gardner

A Time to Weep


Genesis 50:1–13

Joseph threw himself upon 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 as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite, along with the field.

Years ago a Presbyterian student went off to college, joined a fraternity, and made himself obnoxious to his fraternity brothers by talking about Presbyterianism. According to the student, Presbyterians were best. They had the best churches, the best form of church government, the best worship services, and above all, the soundest and most unshakable faith. Everything about Presbyterianism was in first place. His fraternity brothers were mostly Baptists, and they were not about to accept this. So they devised a plan. One evening they slipped sleeping powder into his coffee, and when he passed out they loaded him into a car and took him out of the city to a remote graveyard. They had placed an open coffin there, resting on a large flat tombstone, and they put him in it. Then they hid behind the nearby tombstones to see what he would do when he woke up.

For a long time nothing happened. Night passed. Dawn came. Then, as the long red rays of the rising sun began to pierce through the graveyard, casting gray shadows and causing the mist to rise slowly from the ground, they heard a sound from the casket. Their fraternity brother was waking up. “It won’t be long now,” they thought. “As soon as he wakes up and begins to look around the graveyard he’ll scream, jump out of that casket, and tear off through the woods. We’ll laugh about it forever.”

As they waited, an arm slowly rose out of the casket and stretched itself. Then there was another arm. Finally the young man sat up and looked around. His friends thought, “This is it! He’s going to scream now!”

Instead he suddenly shouted triumphantly, “Hallelujah! It’s the resurrection morning, and the Presbyterians are the first ones up!”

Inevitably a person’s religious convictions (or lack of them) bear fruit in the way he looks at death. But the tragedy of our time is that a society that used to approach death from the standpoint of Christian faith now increasingly approaches it in a purely secular spirit, with devastating results.

In the mourning of Joseph at the death of his father, Jacob, we have a reminder of what a believing person’s proper response should be.

A Death-Denying Culture

Franz Borkenau is a historian who believes that cultures can be analyzed by their attitudes toward death. He says there are three basic attitudes. In ancient Greece he finds a death-accepting attitude. In the Judeo-Christian sphere he finds a death-defying attitude. In our own modern, post-Christian era he finds a death-denying attitude, the most inadequate of all.

We need not go far to find examples of this last view. The most obvious—and a very modern approach—are the death-denying views of Mary Baker Eddy and the religious movement known as Christian Science, which she founded. According to Mrs. Eddy, death is an error of the mind. It is not real. This attitude has worked its way into the editorial pages of the Christian Science Monitor, a well-respected newspaper, where the word “death” is never printed. The funeral industry does something similar. It renames death for marketing purposes. So does the insurance industry, whose chief product, “life insurance,” is a misnomer if there ever was one.

Richard W. Doss explains in a book on death in America just how this happens. “A massive cultural conspiracy is at work in creating a ‘new image’ for death. We attempt to reshape our understanding of death by the language we use, particularly imaginative euphemisms we have invented to soften the reality of death. Consider what takes place when a person dies. If he dies in a hospital (and the odds are he will), it will be announced that the patient ‘expired’ and the attending physician will sign a ‘vital statistics form.’ No longer a ‘patient,’ the person enters a new state as a ‘loved one.’ The ‘remains’ of the ‘loved one’ are removed to the mortuary where the family arranges ‘the memorial estate.’ After ‘preparation’ the ‘loved one’ is placed in the ‘slumber room’ (sometimes called the ‘reposing room’). If he is a member of a church, the minister announces from the pulpit or in the bulletin that ‘Mr. Jones has gone home to be with the Lord’ or ‘passed to his heavenly home.’ The newspaper states succinctly that ‘Mr. Jones, beloved father, passed away. …’ This is the accepted social practice for speaking of death. If you are so coarse as to mention in a matter-of-fact way, ‘Did you hear that John Jones died last week?’ people may think you to be in poor taste or indiscreet. Use of softened language indicates a strong need to deny the harshness of death.”

In his analysis of Western culture Doss finds three reasons why our society is death-denying. The first is psychological. Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, spoke of death as a great unconscious fear of man. Consequently, the more one is faced with death, the more one denies it personally. America is bombarded with death. It stares at us incessantly from the television screen and leaps up at us from the newspaper. Through real-life pictures of death (as on television) or fictional death (as in violent television shows or movies) the average Western child sees more death before he goes to grade school than the average person of a previous age saw in a lifetime. Such persons deny the reality of death because they see so much of it.

The second reason is cultural. American society emphasizes youthfulness, vitality, and productivity. The worth of persons is measured by what they do. Wholeness is measured in terms of thinking and acting young. In America death is not the last enemy as the Bible describes it, but an enemy to be defeated now—through gyms, spas, facelifts, health foods, and other body-enhancing pastimes and procedures.

However, in Doss’s judgment the chief reason for America’s having become a death-denying culture is religious. “Religion has been a major force in shaping the ideas and life-style of the American people. Our forefathers came to this country with a clearly defined view of man and the world. From the Puritan settlement of New England to nineteenth-century life on the western frontier, a theological framework supported and interpreted man’s place in society and his relationship with nature and God. Men believed and felt that God had a purpose for life, and more, that every man could know and understand God’s plan. Death was one element within this religious framework and thus could be dealt with openly and treated as a natural part of life. Burial of the dead was carried out with religious rites which gave expression to this view of God’s purposes for man. Burial rites supported the needs of the community to affirm not only the life of the one who died, but the life of the community as well. God, man and the community were integrally tied together in the funeral service.”

But this worldview has evaporated as Western man has rejected God and religion. Doss writes, “The twentieth century has seen a virtual abolition of the traditional Christian framework with no new proposal to take its place. Secularization has separated modern man from older understandings of man and society, and in so doing has separated death from the means by which it had been explained for so many years. As a result, death has been isolated and denuded. With no meaningful framework for understanding death, our culture has adopted a style of denial and avoidance.”

Of course, the reality of death cannot ultimately be avoided. We treat it as fiction. But suddenly death steps across the threshold of our home or into our neighbor’s, and we tremble.

A Death-Accepting Culture

The ancient Greeks are an example of what Borkenau calls a death-accepting culture. The chief example—one of the best-known deaths of all time—is the death of Socrates. Socrates was the philosophical mentor of Plato, who records the story of Socrates’ last hours in the “Phaedo.” Socrates had been sentenced to death by the rulers of Athens for corrupting the city’s youth by his “atheism”—he denied the literal reality of the Greek gods—and the moment approached when he was to drink the fatal draught of hemlock. His friends, the youth, were gathered about him, and some were weeping. Not Socrates! He used the occasion to reason with the sorrowing young men about death’s significance. He did not shrink from it. When the cup at last was presented, quite readily and cheerfully he drank of the poison and thus perished.

What gave Socrates power to die in this fashion? It was his commitment to reason. Earlier in the story, in a dialogue recorded in the “Crito,” Socrates argued that he was then seventy years of age and that a man at that age ought not to shun death. But chiefly his reasoning was about the immortality of the soul. In the Greek system the soul was part of the spiritual or immaterial world and hence good and permanent, while the body was part of the material and evil world and thus perishable. Death is the only way an individual can be set free from bodily existence, which is evil, the Greeks believed. Hence, death is the soul’s friend. Death frees the soul from a body that keeps it from functioning on the highest level.

The problem is that it is difficult to die serenely on the basis of a philosophical hope. And death is still a loss for the survivors! Plato was Socrates’ star pupil. But in the “Phaedo” he confesses that when his mentor drank the hemlock, he, along with the others, burst into tears at having lost such a just and wise companion.

Is this the best we can do? Must we either accept death with philosophical stoicism, as Socrates did, or else deny its reality, which is the approach of our materialistic culture?

A Death-Defying Culture

Franz Borkenau does not think so, for he speaks in the third place of the Judeo-Christian or death-defying culture. It is epitomized in the defiance sounded clearly by the apostle Paul:

Where, O death, is your victory?

Where, O death, is your sting?

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 15:55–57

The phrase “death-defying” is not, to my mind, the best way to encapsulate the biblical perspective. But it is close enough, because it embraces the acknowledgment of death’s reality and horror on the one hand, while recognizing a life beyond death and a triumph over it on the other.

This is what we see in Joseph’s reaction to the death of his father, Jacob. We see Joseph accepting death and grieving over it. But at the same time we also see a death-transcending hope that culminates eventually in the resurrection faith of mature Christianity.

The most striking feature of Joseph’s reaction to his father’s death is grief. In our culture, where death is denied so strenuously, it is considered improper to grieve, or at least to grieve visibly or long. Undertakers report that the trend in funeral arrangements is to “get it over with” as quickly as possible and that the survivors often prefer the arrangements to be made by some impersonal third party.

This is not how Joseph responded. Genesis tells us that Joseph “threw himself upon his father and wept over him and kissed him” (Gen. 50:1). Then he entered upon a formal period of seventy days of mourning while he and the brothers were still in Egypt, an unrecorded period of time (perhaps three weeks) while the funeral procession was on its way to Canaan, a week at the threshing floor of Atad, near the Jordan, where the Egyptians particularly grieved, and finally a period in which the sons carried the patriarch’s remains across the Jordan to the cave in the field of Machpelah, where they buried him.

Can you imagine someone doing that today? If someone you know should act that way in response to the death of a parent, child, or spouse, you would regard him as mentally deranged and the mourning as intolerably morbid. You would give him a sedative to calm him down or even lock him in his bedroom and stand guard over him. Joseph was not deranged. On the contrary, he is a model of faith. He was what we would term one of the most self-possessed characters in all Scripture. Yet he grieves loudly and long.

Are we wiser than Joseph? I think not. I have a friend who lost her husband in a sudden plane crash some years ago. She is a woman of strong faith and great self-control. Yet she told me recently that it has only been lately, after the passage of perhaps a half-dozen years, that she has been able finally to recover from her loss and get on with life fully.

The second thing we notice about Joseph’s response to the death of his father was service to his father’s memory and to the physical parts of him that remained. In Egypt the prolonged and skillful process of embalming was an attempt to cheat death of its inevitable ravages and illustrate what was believed to be an undiminished exercise of life’s functions and pleasures in the next life. The Egyptians were preoccupied with death, so much so that students of ancient Egypt have termed it “a culture of the dead.” We are not to think that Joseph was motivated by any of these unworthy concerns. He did not think that preserving Jacob’s body would somehow preserve him for the land of shades. But neither did he forego the normal decent preparation and honoring of the body that was customary in that culture.

In the same way, it is not wrong and is actually beneficial for us to have funerals and graveside services in which we honor the memory and serve the remains of the one who has died. These rites of passage are proper for the deceased and are helpful for us in working through the grief process.

Third, Joseph honored the promises that he had made to his father earlier. Jacob did not want his body to be left in Egypt and had made Joseph swear an oath that he would carry his body out of Egypt and bury him in the cave in the field of Machpelah in the land of his ancestors. This was an expression of Jacob’s faith in God’s solemn promises to Abraham and Isaac, and Joseph was not about to disregard them. On the contrary, this was also his faith. So when the time came for him to die, he likewise made his survivors swear to “carry my bones up from this place” (Gen. 50:25).

Can we think that this failed to have a strong beneficial impact on the Egyptians? If Joseph had not expressed grief over the death of his beloved father, the Egyptians would have concluded merely that he had not cared for him, that perhaps he was even glad to have the old man out of the way. If he had expressed nothing but grief, the Egyptians may have concluded that the hope of an afterlife by these Semitic people was no better than their own dark hopes and may even have been inferior to theirs. But what about this trip back to Canaan? What about this burial in the ancestral tomb of Abraham, Isaac, and the others? Are we to think that Joseph was silent during these many months concerning the nature of the God he served and the promises God had made to his people? I think Joseph took charge of these rites of mourning, as he took charge of almost everything else, and that he used them to testify to God’s salvation promises.

So must we who believe in Jesus Christ. We grieve, but not “like the rest of men, who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). We believe that Jesus rose and that because he rose, those who have died in faith in him will also live again. Death is defeated. The grave is robbed of spoil. Therefore, we “encourage each other with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18).