Like his father Jacob who also died in Egypt, Joseph wanted to be buried in the Promised Land. But unlike his father whose body was embalmed and taken to Hebron directly after his passing, Joseph had to wait 139 years until the Jews left Egypt and were able to fulfill the promise. The verse describing how Moses carried Joseph’s bones from Egypt hints that this mission was essentially connected to redemption (Exodus 13:19):
And Moshe took with him the bones of Yosef, who had exacted an oath from the children of Yisrael, saying, “Hashem will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.”
One explanation for why Joseph’s remains were not taken to the Land of Israel immediately upon his death is that Joseph had been sold into slavery and, even though he was the second most powerful man in Egypt, he remained a slave. As a slave, his body (including his bones) belonged to Pharaoh. His bones remained with his owner until he, along with all the Jews, was redeemed from slavery.
An alternate theory suggests that Joseph had the political power to require a burial in Israel with the same honors afforded Jacob. Yet his demand to be buried in Israel was an expression of faith in the eventual redemption from Egypt, and therefore was not to be carried out until the redemption occurred.
It is interesting that the word for “bones” in Hebrew is the same as the word for “essence,” (i.e. עצם, etzem). This gives the account a dual meaning; Moses took Joseph’s bone, as well as his essence, with the Jewish people when they left Egypt.
Joseph’s brothers bore the filial responsibility to carry out this promise, a responsibility multiplied by their guilt in selling him into slavery. But the commentators explain that it was not Joseph’s descendants, or even his brothers, who were charged with carrying these bones. Joseph gave the responsibility to the entire nation going so far as to exact an oath that they would fulfill it (Genesis 50:24).
The Midrash explains the miraculous manner in which Moses was able to find Joseph’s bones, though so many years had elapsed since Joseph’s passing, in order to fulfill the promise. It describes how Serah, the daughter of Asher, who descended to Egypt with Jacob, was still living when the Jews left Egypt. Moses asked her where Joseph’s bones were buried. She told Moses that the Egyptians had made a metal coffin for him, which they sank into the Nile in the belief that its waters might be blessed by Joseph. This was also a part of a plan devised by Pharaoh’s magicians and sorcerers, who believed that the Jews would never leave without Joseph’s bones, in order to keep them in Egypt.
When it came time to leave, Moses went to the bank of the Nile and called out saying, “Joseph! Joseph! The time which the Holy One swore to redeem Israel has come, as well as the time to fulfill the oath that you had Israel swear they would keep. If you will show yourself, well and good. If not, we shall be released from the oath that you made our forbears swear.” Immediately, Joseph’s coffin began rising out of the depths as if no heavier than a reed.
Another Midrash tells how Moses brought Joseph’s coffin up from the Nile by taking a piece of pottery, writing God’s mystical name on it along with the words ‘Rise, oh ox!,’ and throwing it into the Nile. The casket then floated to the top. The term “ox” was a reference to Jacob’s blessing to Joseph on his deathbed, in which he compared Joseph to an ox.
Yet another Midrash, attributed to 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.
The story of Joseph’s bones leaving Egypt was reinforced by archaeological research presented in a documentary called “Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus.” In the film, Manfred Beitak describes his finds in Avaris, which the documentary, created by Tim Mahoney, suggests was Goshen, the special region set aside for the Hebrews. At the site, remains were discovered of a palace built around 12 pillars with royal trappings. In the land adjacent to the palace were 12 impressive burial crypts. The most elegant crypt was a small pyramid containing an unusually large statue with skin painted yellow, red hair, and a multi-colored robe. Most intriguing was the fact that the crypt contained no human remains. This corresponds to the Biblical account of Joseph’s bones being carried back to Israel when the Jews left Egypt.