Famous last words: Genesis 49
"Everything is going according to plan."
"Don't worry, it will only be a small explosion."
"Hey, y'all watch this!"
"They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance" (Nearly the last words of General John Sedgwick at Spotsylvania in the Civil War. His actual last words were to the man who had just dodged a bullet right in front of him. The, the sharpshooters didn't hit an elephant. They hit the General. Story here)
We refer to the dying statements of great people as their last words, and sometimes we speak of those with disdain, as "famous last words" is not a cliché for when someone seems to invite doom by their statements of assurance.
Yet what put that idea in our minds was a long tradition of recording the closing words of great leaders and people. There's often a good closing thought—even if the words aren't exactly their last but are, rather, their planned last words.
That's what we have from Jacob in Genesis 49 (link). His intended last words. Now, much ink has been spilt over the years analyzing his blessing on his twelve sons, and his lack of blessing on some of those sons.
It's been pretty good ink, though, and I'll not rehash all of it here. It is interesting to note the Jewish Midrash (scribal teaching/rabbinic writings) that consider Genesis 49:10 as a Messianic prophecy. Some would posit that since Jesus came, the Messiah of the Jews who saves both Jews and Gentiles, there will not again be an actual king of Israel. I'm not so sure about that part. (The king part, not the Messiah part.)
I want to instead put our attention to Jacob's last words after he blesses his sons. Take a look, if you could, at Genesis 49:29-32 and consider what we find there:
1. His view of death: Jacob views death as "being gathered to his people." Compared to all the ways we speak of death, I think this is one worth recovering into our usage. While nothing surpasses remembering that all that is left is the shell and the nut has gone, we would do well to view death as about who we are going to and where we are going more than about what we are leaving. For the Christian, the greatest part is going to the presence of Christ, though it's hard not to consider gathering with our people from the ages a good one.
I look forward to being gathered with Hibbard Redgrafesthorpe and asking how England was without those blasted Normans. Assuming he's there, of course, which might be a big assumption. Back on task, I would simply highlight that death is not an ending point for Jacob, but a transition point. A one-way point, to be certain, from whence no man returns, yet just a transition all the same. He will walk the rest of the road he started walking at Bethel and will find himself in the true "House of God" surrounded by his people. What of the rest of us?
Original language note: I find fault with the New Living Translation here. In their effort to translate with dynamic equivalence, they add the word "die" and make the statement "I will die and join my ancestors." There's a Hebrew word for "I will die" and it's not present. Translating "gathered to his people" as "join my ancestors" is not a big problem, but I find something missing in adding "die." Jacob's statements indicate no such sense of finality as we take in that word.
2. Jacob asks to be buried back in the land of promise. Why? I think that it's partly because it's home for him, and where his wife is buried, and his father, his mother, his grandfather, and grandmother. Partly, though, I think it's to remind the family that Egypt is not home. That's important to him, and will be important to them in times to come.
Likewise for us: don't forget that this is not home. True, it's a nice enough campground and we ought to leave it better than we found it, but there will be more time spent in eternity than there will be time spent here. What choices are we making about that? Are we going to leave, even in the end, a legacy that reminds others of the God Who Is or will we leave something else?
3. Finally there's this: honor your father and mother, even to the end. While it's somewhat of a struggle to put exact actions into that commandment in modern days—does that mean no nursing homes? What is the respectful way to tell them they're too old to drive? How do I tell him/her that he/she is too old to get remarried? Those are just examples of the questions that come to mind.
Yet however we answer those questions, we must come back to the Scriptural concept of honoring our parents. We see it explicitly stated in the Old and New Testament, and we see it implied in the actions of the sons of Israel here. They listen and respect their father. They don't write him off as a crazy old man or any other such insult. We should remember that.