Joseph’s Bones as the Fulfillment of Promise

Both the book of Genesis and the book of Joshua end with the reference of Joseph’s bones. What does this fact signify? In his book, Joseph’s Bones, Jerome M. Segal insists that the first six books of the Hebrew Bible opens with a promise about Joseph’s bones and ends with the fulfillment of that promise.  

Joseph’s bones are mentioned three times in the Hebrew Bible.Josseph's Bones

So Joseph made the Israelites swear, saying, “When God comes to you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” And Joseph died, being one hundred ten years old; he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt (Gen 50:25-26).

And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, “God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here” (Exo 13:19)

The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem, in the portion of ground that Jacob had bought from the children of Hamor, the father of Shechem, for one hundred pieces of money; it became an inheritance of the descendants of Joseph (Joshua 24:32).

 According to those passages, Joseph died four hundred years before the Exodus, and was embalmed and placed in a coffin (Gen 50:26). In the Exodus, the Israelites took Joseph’s bones with them through the forty years in the wilderness. Eventually, the passage of Joshua tells us that Joseph’s bones were buried in the Promised Land.

It is interesting to note that the references of Joseph’s bones are related to the theme of “fulfillment of the promise,” demonstrating the compilation of Hexateuch. According to G. von Rad, the historical credos found in Josh 24:2-13 and Deut 6:20-24 and 26:5-9 are the confessions of faith, comprising Genesis through Joshua. The structure of the Hexateuch shows a problem not only in the position of the Sinai traditions within the framework of the whole, but also in the relationship between the patriarchal theme and the Exodus theme. So George Coats asked the prominent quesiton: “What kind of relationship did the patriarchal traditions, with their focus on strife/promise have with the exodus tradition, with its focus on redemption from oppression?” (Coats, 981). He states that the references of Joseph’s bones answer the question. The three references of Joseph’s bones link the patriarchal traditions with the exodus tradition.  

Reference List

Coats, George W. “Joseph, Son of Jacob.” ABD III (1992): 977-82.  

Segal, Jerome M. Joseph’s Bones: Understanding the Struggle between God and Mankind in the Bible. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007.

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8 Responses

  1. Thanks for the post.

    What exactly does Segal mean by “promise”? Is this being viewed as an argument for a Hexateuch (the Pentateuch + Joshua)?

  2. Thank you for your comments.
    I don’t remember exactly whether Segal mentions the scholarly hypothesis of the Pentateuch and the Hexateuch in his book. But since Segal mentions three references of Joseph’s bones, Gen 50:25-26, Exod 13:19, and Joshua 24:32, I would say the idea of promise for Segal should be best understood in terms of Hexateuch.

  3. I just read Segal’s “Joseph’s Bones”. For me, Segal’s main theme wasn’t so much the fulfilment of promise but the struggle between God and His chosen people. Segal points to the fidelity displayed by the ancient Israelites to Joseph’s remains as a yearning – that the God who has chosen them – YHWH – would be forgiving – just as Joseph was forgiving of his brothers. For me, Segal’s most startling argument is that the Hexateuch – read without theological lenses – also offers a YHWH who had to learn how to relate to humankind and to be ‘accountable’ to this yearning by humans. Segal also points to the striking similarities between Joseph and Yeshua (Jesus). He posits that the story of Jesus presents a God who, having learnt, could finally relate to humankind with forgiveness and love.

  4. “Segal’s most startling argument is that the Hexateuch – read without theological lenses – also offers a YHWH who had to learn how to relate to humankind and to be ‘accountable’ to this yearning by humans. Segal also points to the striking similarities between Joseph and Yeshua (Jesus). He posits that the story of Jesus presents a God who, having learnt, could finally relate to humankind with forgiveness and love.”

    I find this argument not only ridiculous, but offensive. Could the One with infinite knowledge need to learn? Surely the Potter understands his clay.

    • “I find this argument not only ridiculous, but offensive. Could the One with infinite knowledge need to learn? Surely the Potter understands his clay.” Segal states he is reading the Torah with eyes as free of his learned theology as he can, and is presenting a literary view. If someone who had never been indoctrinated picked it up and read it, like any other literary work, you could come to this conclusion rather easily. I still have a couple chapters to go, but the book has challenged me. I see nothing offensive about that.

  5. No one who reads scripture without indoctrination, no matter how objective they may claim to be, can truly understand scripture. Scriptures are meant for doctrine among other things. The scriptures are spiritual. They are meant for believers – those who will allow indoctrination by the same scriptures. Thus, no believer can take serious any teaching about God that claims to be objective. The bible was never meant for the objective. Many study it but it is the persuasion of the reader before reading that counts. More often than not arguments such as Segal’s Learning YHWH; and indeed any other are matters of whether the writer reads the bible as a theology text or reads it for spiritual nourishment.

  6. FOR HOW MANY YERAS DID HIS BONES TAKE FOR HIS BONES FROM THE TIME OF DEATH TILL BURIAL IN THE PROMISED LAND

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