Wednesday, October 9

"In the beginning... in a coffin in Egypt"

Every good story should have a good ending. The Genesis narrative begins with the well-known "In the beginning," yet ends with the lesser known " a coffin in Egypt." Trying to end a narrative that begins with the greatest cosmic event in history would likely fall short, as some think. The ending is not of cosmic significance, but rather alludes to an ancient Egyptian practice of embalming, likely implying that Jospeh was mummified. What does the beginning and ending reveal about the content of the stories contained within the narrative? Why does the narrative end the way it does?

There are a handful of reasons that are worth considering. When we examine Genesis as a book of beginnings, we have to bear in mind that the overall theme of Genesis is precisely that: beginnings. It may not make sense to start on a cosmic scale and end in Egypt, but consider the idea that with the creation of the universe starts with life, but a coffin signifies death. Genesis begins with new life and ends with death, yet it is not the end. Throughout the book, we hear of God's promised land for His chosen people. The Promised Land is visited several times throughout, but each time the chosen people leave in some context. Ultimately, at the end of Genesis the Israelites move to Egypt and have still not made permanent residence in the Promised Land. Again, we begin the story with cosmic significance and the creation of life and end with unfulfilled promises and death. Why?

As aforementioned, Genesis is the book of beginnings. The title comes from the transliteration of  בְּרֵאשִׁית (b'reishit), the Hebrew phrase for "In the beginning." The English comes from the Latin Vulgate, which is itself translated from the Greek word γένεσις, which means "origin." This is important because just as Genesis begins with "In the beginning," the ending "in a coffin in Egypt" still carries with it the connotation of beginnings. Elaboration: the final image brings to mind a picture of the Israelites gathered around the coffin of Joseph with the thought, "What now? Has God abandoned us and forgotten his promises?" as the image fades to black, we realize that the story is not over - it has only just begun. In other words, both the ending and the beginning carry with them the idea of beginnings. The entire narrative - the creation of the universe, the creation of man, the fall of man, invention of early tools and instruments, global flood, confusion of languages, dispersion at Babel and the stories of the patriarchs are all the beginnings of the human story. Genesis may end with "in a coffin in Egypt," but it reminds us that this is only the beginning.

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