Death and Burial in the Bible
Posted by foryourfaith on April 14, 2013
The Psalmist tells us that “the years of our life are threescore and ten,” meaning that a person may expect a lifetime of 70 years (Psalm 90:10). But in all likelihood, few people in ancient times lived so long. War, famine, and disease put them at hazard. Medicine was primitive; people died of injuries and infections that today are considered minor and that we are able to treat effectively with simple antiseptics. Anything as serious as a wound received in battle, or a mangled limb, would most likely prove fatal. And, not understanding how disease spread, people in ancient times could not guard against plague.
A set of burial rituals evolved among the ancient Israelites in accordance with the circumstances of the times. None was more important than to bury the dead as quickly as possible. The hot Middle Eastern climate made a speedy burial essential; more pressing, however, was the age-old fear, pervasive throughout the Mesopotamian region, of lying unburied after death. It was believed that after death the soul continued to feel what was done to the body.
Archaeological evidence has revealed that the Israelites did not develop their own burial practices but instead adopted the customs of Mesopotamia. “May the earth not receive your corpses” is a curse frequently cited in Mesopotamian texts. Its echo can be found in Deuteronomy 28:26, where the litany of curses for those who disobey the Lord’s rule includes: “And your dead body shall be food for all the birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth; and there shall be no one to frighten them away.”
The urgent need to provide the dead with a proper grave is the focus of the poignant story of Rizpah, one of King Saul’s concubines, told in 2 Samuel 21. When famine struck the Israelites after Saul died, it was blamed on Saul’s breach of a treaty with the Gibeonites, entered into years before by Joshua (Joshua 9:3-27). Seeking to ease the famine and placate the Gibeonites, Saul’s successor, King David, agreed to let the Gibeonites execute two of Saul’s sons together with five of his grandsons. The two sons were Rizpah’s children.
The seven were hanged and their bodies were left unburied as a way of expiating the bloodguilt of Israel. Rizpah kept faithful watch at the execution site for a period of several months, guarding them against birds and animals. When David heard of her vigil, he journeyed to Jabesh-gilead to retrieve the bones of Saul and Jonathan, which had been buried there after the father and son died in battle against the Philistines (1 Samuel 31). Then he buried their bones with those of the seven hanged men, laying them all to rest in one grave.
For the ordinary Israelite family, the rituals of death began when, following a precedent set in Genesis 46:4, a close relative closed the eyes of the deceased. The body was then bathed, fully dressed, and carried on a wooden bier to the grave site. Coffins were not in common use. Ideally the deceased would be buried in a family tomb, but most Israelites could not afford such a luxury, so the dead were interred in pits, trench graves, or caves.
Embalming was not practiced by the Israelites, nor was cremation, since it would have run counter to the precept given in Genesis 3:19, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Leviticus and Deuteronomy are very clear in their bans against excessive rites of mourning, such as cutting one’s hair or mutilating one’s own flesh, but there is evidence that the Israelites engaged in these immemorial customs all the same. For instance, in mourning the destruction of Moab, the prophet Jeremiah writes that “every head is shaved and every bead cut off; upon all the hands are gashes.” Expressions of grief that were not forbidden included fasting, the wearing of sackcloth, the tearing of one’s clothes, and, of course, weeping and wailing.
Professional mourners, usually women, played a prominent role, and assured an orderly and ritually proper ceremony. More than that, they orchestrated the grief, making sure that the cries of woe were rendered at the appropriate times. The professional mourners often wrote their own songs or poems for the dead; the more distinguished the deceased, the longer the dirge.
It is remarkable that many of the lamentations preserved in the Bible lack specific religious content. This may be because the Old Testament itself prescribes no special veneration of the dead, nor does it set any rules for honoring them. On the contrary, it apparently takes the view that the remains of the dead are unclean.
Did the Israelites believe in an afterlife? In Genesis 37:35 is the first of many references to Sheol, a dismal underworld inhabited by the shades of the deceased where there is no memory or possibility of action. Psalm 139:8 is one of several passages in the Old testament expressing the belief that the dead are subject to the rule of god, although in Sheol they are not aware of his presence.
The Christian concept of resurrection is believed to have developed from two other important themes in the Old Testament – death as a form of sleep and death as a condition that the Lord can ultimately conquer. In Job 14:10-12, for example, we find death viewed as a sleep from which there is no awakening; later, in Isaiah 25:8, we come upon the prophecy that “the Lord will swallow up death forever.” These two passages are taken by scholars as the major building blocks leading to the concept of resurrection, introduced in the Bible in Daniel 12:2: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
For the ordinary person of the ancient Middle East, however, the most one could hope fo in the way of immortality was to be remembered by one’s family; remembered, especially, by sons who would bear one’s name into the future.
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