Mourning of Egypt

As soon as Jacob had *stopped breathing*, Joseph threw himself on him, weeping and kissing his face. This sort of behaviour is what prime ministers exhibited then – 4000 years ago. Today they behave more circumspectly. At least outwardly they do. What a difference 4000 years makes.

After having composed himself, Joseph ordered the physicians in his service to embalm Jacob’s body. This was done in forty days. Compared with today this was a long time. Today, embalming takes no more than an hour, although applying the cosmetics, and dressing and casketing the body may take several hours. Still, it’s a lot less than the forty days this used to take.

The Egyptian nation officially mourned Jacob’s death for seventy days. This says much for Egyptians then, given that Jacob was a Canaanite Hebrew.

Then there was Joseph’s promise to Jacob that when he died, he would accompany his body from Goshen (in Egypt) to his native Canaan where he would be buried next to his (Jacob’s) grandfather Abraham, and father Isaac. In those days – 4,000 years ago – this journey took at least 11 days. So it would take 11 days to get there, and 11 days to return. And not to speak of the few days it would take in Canaan arrange the burial and burial service.

Joseph could therefore count on being away at least a month from his official duties as prime minister of Egypt. How would Egypt cope in his absence? This was on Joseph’s mind when he asked the Pharaoh for official leave.

“That’s quite alright old chap” said the Pharaoh. “Honouring his father’s dying request to be buried in these circumstances, no matter how inconvenient and onerous they are, is what any decent prime minister would do. Egypt, now on a firm economic and political footing thanks to your stewardship, will do just fine while you’re away. To show my appreciation for what you’ve done for Egypt, I’m going to let you take the dignitaries of my court and the dignitaries of all Egypt with you – all these in addition to your own household and your father’s household. I’m therefore putting much trust in you, that I just know you, as prime minister of Egypt, will honour.”

Hence the retinue that Joseph took with him on this journey to Canaan was large.


On arrival at the threshing floor of the area of Atad, which was beside the Jordan river, in the vicinity of which the burial would take place, Joseph and his retinue set up camp. He decreed seven days of mourning for his father. Whereupon everyone began wailing loudly, so loudly that the local inhabitants, wanting to keep on the good side of the prime minister of mighty Egypt, renamed the area Abel-mizraim, which in today’s English means “mourning of Egypt”.

Now, all that remained was to go ahead with the actual burial.

Source: Genesis 50, 1-11

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4 Responses to Mourning of Egypt

  1. Lucy says:

    This posting is a little jewel. The words are few, but they say so much.

  2. Charles says:

    Joseph, as prime minister of Egypt, counted on being a month out of the country in order to bury his father in Canaan. So, for that entire time, he would for all intents and purposes be incommunicado from the Pharaoh, as well as from Egyptian officialdom generally, because there were then no radios, no telephones, no telexes, nor hardly any other communication tools that today we take for granted.

    So, were there to be a big emergency Egypt while Joseph was away, how could the Pharaoh apprise him of this?

    A letter by post, perhaps? But was there a postal service then? I doubt it. Perhaps messages strapped to the backs of carrier pigeons, eagles, or falcons? Possibly. How about clairvoyance? Again, possibly.

    The only other example I can think of, of a country’s leader being out of that country for a long time on official business, was that of Woodrow Wilson, who was away in Europe attending the Paris Peace conference from early March 1919 to early July 1919 – a period of of four months.

    Unlike how it was in Joseph’s time, there were many ways to apprise Wilson in 1919 of emergencies in America while he was away – radio, telephone, telex, as well as letter-post.

    It’s good to remember all this, to give us perspective.

    • Christopher says:

      I like your mention of clairvoyance as a feasible way of official communication over long distances. Since clairvoyance cuts right through lies and prevarication, it would spell the end of Fake News.

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