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B'resheet/Genesis 50:6 And Pharaoh said, "Go up and bury your father as he made you swear."
Before Ya'akov died, he made his son Yosef swear that he would bury him in the Machpelah cave, where Avraham, Sarah, Yitz'khak, Rivkah and his own wife Leah were laid to rest. Now that Ya'akov has died, Yosef has to fulfil his promise. As the Grand Vizier of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself, this should have been straightforward: just filling in the routine leave application, the usual four week notice period being waived on compassionate grounds; Yosef could even sign the form himself, once he had run it past Pharaoh. Yet the commentators suggest that the situation didn't work out quite like that.
RabbiHirsch starts one verse back with Yosef's request to Pharaoh: "'And now I would go up, I pray thee, and would bury my father and come back again' Yosef is the perfect statesmen in dealing with Pharaoh's court officials. He expresses decision, courtesy, politeness of form. The form of speech which a higher statesman uses is extremely polite, it is in the tone that one can recognise his consciousness of his position ... He knew quite well that they would not refuse him, on the contrary, be only too pleased to do a favour to man in his position." This sounds very promising - go and come back - what could go wrong at this stage?
Pharaoh's words seem quite simple. - the ms imperative from the root , to go up - and - the Qal ms imperative from the root , to bury - are a straight-forward command: "Go up and bury". Next comes the direct object, , your father. is is a compound of the prefix , as or like, and the relative pronoun , here translated 'as' but 'like' would be possible. The last word in Pharaoh's instruction, - the Hif'il 3ms affix from the root , to swear or take an oath, with a 2ms suffix pronoun, 'you' - refers to Ya'akov: he made you (Yosef) swear. The JPS translation puts this together as, "Go up and bury your father, as he made you promise on oath". The obvious meaning seems to take 'as' to mean "just as" or "in the way that". However, not all the commentators agree.
Rashi puts extra words in Pharaoh's mouth that completely alter the perspective: "But were it not for the oath, I would not let you." The Talmudic Sages suggest that Pharaoh could not learn to speak Hebrew, even though Yosef tried to teach him, thus proving that he was not a god, and that Yosef had promised not to expose him by revealing this. According to this narrative, Yosef was then obliged to use this against Pharaoh in order to get permission to go. "Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: When Yosef asked him, 'My father made me swear, saying ...', he remarked to him, 'Go, ask to be released from your oath.' He replied to him, 'I will also ask to be released from my oath concerning you'. Therefore, although it was displeasing to him, Pharaoh said to him, Go up and bury your father, as he made you swear"(b. Sotah 36b). Ya'akov guessed that Yosef might not be as free as he thought he was and so extracted the oath from his son before he died, so that Yosef could use it to justify the trip back to the Land.
Gunther Plaut makes an interesting observation to a phrase in verse 8, two verses further on: "They left in Goshen only their little ones - They, along with their flocks and their cattle, may have been Pharaoh's assurance that Yosef would return. His high position robbed him of his freedom to come and go." Hostages were required before Yosef was allowed to leave the country. Harold Kushner considers this the beginning of enslavement. Certainly by the time of the Exodus, this was expected. Before the plague of locusts, Pharaoh's courtiers urged him to let the Israelites go, "So Moshe and Aharon were brought back to Pharaoh. And he said to them, 'Go, serve the L-RD your G-d. But which ones are to go?' Moshe said, 'We will go with our young and our old. We will go with our sons and daughters and with our flocks and herds, for we must hold a feast to the L-RD.' But he said to them, 'The L-RD be with you, if ever I let you and your little ones go! Look, you have some evil purpose in mind. No! Go, the men among you, and serve the L-RD, for that is what you are asking.' And they were driven out from Pharaoh's presence" (Shemot 10:8-11, ESV). Then Pharaoh too tried to use the children and livestock as a hostage to prevent permanent departure.
The fact is that Yosef is still a slave. A high-ranking slave, with considerable privilege, wealth and possessions; but a slave nonetheless. He had been sold as a slave to Potiphar and although brought out of prison and raised to the position of Grand Vizier of Egypt, he was still a slave. His owner had changed: from Potiphar to Pharaoh, but once a slave, always a slave. Nothing changes. Yosef remained a slave in Egypt until his death and was then buried in Egypt; there was no escape even then. In his turn, Yosef took an oath from his brothers: "Yosef made the sons of Israel swear, saying, 'God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here'" (B'resheet 50:25, ESV). In spite of his status and position, Yosef couldn't get out again. Job speaks of She'ol, saying "The small and the great are there, and the slave is free from his master" (Job 3:19, ESV); the master and the slave are equal in death and the slave is set free.
The Psalmist has a vision of freedom in this world - "Out of my distress I called on the L-RD; the L-RD answered me and set me free" (Psalm 118:5, ESV) - at the hand of the G-d of Israel. The Torah legislates for the year of Jubilee, a release of debts, land and slaves to be proclaimed throughout the Land of Israel: "he and his children with him shall be free of your authority; he shall go back to his family and return to his ancestral holding" (Vayikra 25:41, JPS). This is predicated on the people of Israel being G-d's own chosen people: "For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt" (25:42, JPS). But this is not enough; the prophets share G-d's heart that His people should be at the forefront of proclaiming His freedom to all peoples: "Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?" (Isaiah 58:6, ESV. Isaiah felt the hand of the L-rd on him to "proclaim release to the captives, liberation to the imprisoned; to proclaim a year of the L-RD's favour" (61:1-2, JPS). These words were fulfilled by Messiah Yeshua when he read from scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth and added, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21, ESV).
Whilst the church rightly focuses upon the freedom from sin and death that is available to believers in Messiah - for that is part of our inheritance as followers of Yeshua - there is less emphasis upon the freedom that is also available in His name. Just as the Psalmist called on the L-rd, so can we. Just as the Psalmist had a vision for freedom, shared by the Torah and the prophets, so much more can we. We can know release from oppression, release from habits and patterns that drag us down, freedom to worship and liberty in the Spirit. That is not to say that there will be no consequences for bad decisions we have taken in the past, but it does mean that in spite of those consequences, we will know freedom from the oppression of the enemy and the ability to live in the power and presence of G-d.
So when does this happen? Is this, as some would teach, a promise for the future, for the world to come? That doesn't appear to be the teaching of Scripture. Rav Sha'ul writes, "one who has died has been set free from sin" (Romans 6:7, ESV); if we have been crucified with Messiah, if we have been united through baptism into His death and resurrection, then we have - notice, past tense, have - died to sin and therefore to the power of the enemy over us. That means us, now: we are already free. "Having been set free from sin, [we] have become slaves of righteousness" (v. 18, ESV) - we have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light and we now serve the King, the most High G-d who has taken us under His wing and given us citizenship in His kingdom. Peter adds, "Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of G-d" (1 Peter 2:16, ESV). We are to live our lives now as free people, not simply pretending to be free while hiding bad behaviour. We must resist attempts to reduce us back into slavery - "For freedom Messiah has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1, ESV) - for that is not who we are and, like the Israelites in the wilderness, there should be no turning back; we cannot go back to Egypt. Yeshua set us free so that we might be free, live free, think free and worship free. That freedom is revolutionary and will turn our lives upside down as we put it into practice; not selfish freedom to simply do what we want, but freedom not to have to do what we want and to do what is right instead! Now that is freedom!
Further Study: Psalm 118:6-14; Zechariah 9:11-14; Galatians 5:13-14
Application: How free are you? Do you have any habits from which you long to be free? Freedom is yours for the asking - just call out to the Master today and He will proclaim His freedom over you. Yeshua said, "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32, ESV). Hear His truth in your life right now!
© Jonathan Allen, 2015
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