Bible studies with Don Isaac Abravanel’s commentary (also spelled Abarbanel) has withstood the test of
time. For over five centuries, Abravanel has delighted – and enlightened – clergy and layman alike,
offering enduring interpretations of the Bible.
Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. Chapter 50 closes out the book of Genesis, chronicling the state funeral procession
accorded to Jacob, the third Hebrew patriarch. Indeed, the procession had been widely attended by
family and Egyptian royalty. “And all the house of Joseph, and his brethren, and his father’s house, only
their little ones and their flocks and herds, they left in the land of Goshen. And there went up with him
both chariots and horsemen. And it was a very great company.”
“And when the days of weeping for him were past, Joseph spoke unto
the house of Pharaoh saying: If I have found favor in your eyes, speak, I
pray you, in the ears of Pharaoh saying: My father made me swear,
saying: Behold, I die. In my grave which I have dug for myself in the land
of Canaan, there you shall bury me.”
The Bible mentions that the Jews’ children, as well as their flocks and herds, remained back in Egypt.
Abravanel questions why Bible students need to know about the cattle and sheep. Was the livestock
planning on taking part in Jacob’s burial, digging his grave? Were cows and goats to deliver stirring
words of eulogy, Abravanel wryly remarks?
Here is the import. Regarding court protocol, Abravanel writes that while Joseph grieved over his father,
he did not permit himself to speak to Pharaoh’s attendants, let alone to Pharaoh himself. This reflects
mourning practices, requiring immediate family of the deceased to rend their garments and put on
sackcloth. It would be an affront to the throne, had Joseph appeared publicly.
“Joseph spoke unto the house of Pharaoh”, for Abravanel, is not literal. Rather, it teaches that Joseph
coached his brothers. They appealed to the house of Pharaoh, soliciting them to have Pharaoh grant
permission to bury Jacob in Hebron. “Now therefore let me go up, I pray you, and bury my father. And I
will come [right] back.” Joseph’s family bolstered their petition with an oral promise made by Joseph to
the patriarch: “My father made me swear…”
Pharaoh granted leave. He was duly impressed with the solemn oath: “And Pharaoh said: Go up, and
bury your father, as he made you swear.”
Great care went into the planning of Jacob’s funeral procession; it would pay homage to the patriarch.
“And Joseph went up to bury his father, and with him went all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his
house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt.” Abravanel interjects that Pharaoh may have had ulterior
motives. That is, the monarch may have feared that Joseph and his family might decide to stay in
Canaan, after the interment of their father. It attests to Pharaoh’s observation that Jacob held great
affinity for the Holy Land, while he lived, and even in death. In fact, the twelve tribes hoped to emulate
Pharaoh wouldn’t hear of it. He began eying the Jews as a potential cheap source of labor. The Hebrews
sought to assuage the king’s concerns, assuring him they had no intention of remaining in Canaan. “Only
the little ones and their flocks and herds, they left in the land of Goshen.” Their womenfolk, babies, and
livestock served as surety; they would not abandon their families and wealth.
Thus, the Bible describes Jacob’s funeral procession. It included the Hebrews and Egyptian notables.
Notably, not all of the patriarch’s family was allowed out. “Only their little ones and their flocks and
herds, they left in the land of Goshen.” For the Hebrews, a storm was brewing.