The Book of Genesis ends with the words “And Joseph died at the age of 110 and they embalmed him, and he was placed in a coffin in Egypt.” And yet, Joseph is buried in Shechem (Nablus) in the Holy Land. How did he end up there?

The story of Joseph’s coffin is an incredible story of hope, miracles and prayer. Let’s unpack this story from the beginning.

Why Joseph Was Buried in Egypt

Joseph ruled over Egypt as viceroy for 80 years, from the age of 30 until his death at 110 (in the year 2309 from creation, or 1452 BCE).

As the leader who had saved Egypt from hunger and who had led with kindness and generosity, Joseph was held in high regard by the Egyptians, so they planned to place his body in a lead casket and sink it into the Nile.

They had two reasons for this:

  1. The Nile was their source of food and sustenance, so they felt that his holy remains would bring blessing to the Nile.1
  2. They didn’t want the Jews to be able to find the casket.2 The Egyptians knew that the Jews would not leave Egypt without it, as per Joseph’s promise to them, “G‑d will surely remember you, and you shall take up my bones out of here.”3

Joseph himself knew that the Egyptians would want to keep his coffin in Egypt, and he was fine with that, provided that his brethren would take it with them when they would eventually depart. In contrast, Jacob asked that his remains be taken directly to the Holy Land for burial.

In a sense, this reflects Joseph’s unique ability to be immersed within Egyptian culture, politics and leadership, all the while retaining his unique sense of self and moral compass.

Died on Shabbat Afternoon

Joseph’s time came on Shabbat afternoon, as did Moses’ and King David’s. Indeed, this is why the Shabbat afternoon service includes three verses from the Book of Psalms, in which we extoll G‑d’s justice, declaring our dedication and faith even in the face of tragedy.4

Years Later

One hundred and thirty nine years after Joseph’s passing, the Jews were finally freed from their bondage in Egypt. The time had come to fulfill their promise to their great leader and source of inspiration. Moses spent three days looking for the casket. Finally, on the night of the Exodus, Moses turned to Serach, daughter of Asher and niece of Joseph, who had been blessed with a long life. In the words of the Talmud:5

And how did Moses know where Joseph was buried? It was said that Serach, the daughter of Asher, remained from that generation. Moses went to her and asked, “Do you know about where Joseph is buried?” She replied, “The Egyptians fashioned a metal casket for him and set it in the Nile so that its water would be blessed.”

Moses stood on the bank of the Nile and said: “Joseph, Joseph, the time regarding which G‑d promised that ‘I will redeem you’ has arrived, as well as the time of your oath that you administered on the people of Israel. If you present yourself, good. If not, we are absolved from your oath.” Immediately Joseph’s coffin floated up.

(Alternatively, Rabbi Nathan cites a tradition that Joseph was buried in the crypt of the Egyptian kings. When Moses came to the burial site and made his declaration, Joseph’s bones rattled, signaling to Moses whose they were.)

There is a midrashic tradition that Moses brought Joseph’s coffin up from the Nile by taking a clean piece of pottery, writing G‑d’s mystical name on it and the words ‘Rise, oh ox!’ and throwing it into the Nile. The casket then floated to the top. The appellation “ox” was a reference to Jacob’s blessing to Joseph in this week’s Parshah, comparing him to an ox.6

The Two Arks in the Desert

The Talmud continues to tell us that as the People of Israel traveled in the desert, Joseph’s coffin was right alongside the Ark of the Covenant. People would wonder about the strange association, and others would answer that it was appropriate because “this one [Joseph] fulfilled all that is written in this one [the Ark, which contains the Torah].”

In Israel

The Book of Joshua tells the story of the Jewish people’s arrival in the Holy Land. Towards the end of the book, we learn, “And the bones of Joseph which they had brought up from Egypt, they buried in Shechem, in the portion of land that Jacob had bought from the sons of Chamor, father of Shechem, for 100 pieces of money.”7

Rashi on this verse says: “It was from Shechem that they [the brothers] stole him, and it was to Shechem that he was returned.”8 Remember that when Joseph was sold as a slave by his own brothers and taken away from his dear father, it was in Shechem. Bringing him back to this site was an act of closure and historical justice.

No Room for Arguments

According to the Midrash,9 there are three places in the Land of Israel that are undisputedly ours, since we acquired them through business transactions:

  1. The Cave of Machpelah—where the patriarchs and matriarchs are buried—which was purchased by Abraham.
  2. The Temple Mount—where our two Temples stood in Jerusalem—which was bought by David from Araunah the Jebusite.
  3. The portion of Joseph in Shechem, which was bought by Jacob.

In an ironic twist of fate, Jewish movement and freedom are severely restricted in these three spots, and visiting Joseph’s tomb entails special security arrangements.

May it be G‑d’s will that Jewish freedom be once again restored in the Holy Land and in all of the world with the coming of Moshiach. Amen.