Burial in Ancient Israel Part 4: A Biblical Interlude

This is an ongoing series about graves and tombs in the ancient Levant, from the Paleolithic Period until the time of Christ. The entire series can be found here.

Dore used one of the few methods of burial NOT practiced by the Israelites (wall burial) in his “Burial of Sarah”

I want to pause at this point and turn from the archaeological record to the Biblical record to see what evidence we have for burial and attitudes toward the dead in scripture.

Genesis 23:19 tells us that “Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Mach-pe’lah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan.” This is a very specific reference to a location (land being strongly tied to the identity of the Jews) and a type of burial (in a cave). It honors the dead, records the place of her grave, and makes a claim to the land on which she is buried. Gen 25:9 tells us that Abraham was buried in the same place, and later Isaac, Rebekeh, Leah, and Jacob, while Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, was buried under an oak below Bethel (Gen 35:8).

This tomb may be at site called the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, over which Herod built a magnificent structure with walls six feet thick. (This is the last surviving intact Herodian structure.) The site is holy to Jews and Muslims, and a source of constant tension in modern Israel. It has not been thoroughly studied by archaeologists in modern times due to political and religious tensions.

Burial was considered imperative to preserve the dignity of man, made in the image of God, and to prevent any chance of contamination. (Saul is cremated, but this the exception rather than the rule.) The fear, as expressed in scripture, was that the body would be eaten by wild animals (Deut 28:26, 1 Kings 23:22, 24:11, 2 Kings 12:34-37, Jer 7:33, etc), and this was unacceptable. The idea so horrified the Jews that even condemned prisoners (Deut 21:23) and enemy combatants (1 Kings 11:15) were supposed to be buried. Tobit is considered righteous because he buries strangers even though he is persecuted for it.

Tobit Burying the Dead (Andrea di Lione, 1640s)

Although Deut 21:23 refers to the condemned (“his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance”) it was considered the source for the mandate to bury the dead within 24 hours of death, so as not to contaminate the land.

This was major issue, and Num 19:11-16 explains the seriousness of ritual impurity from dead bodies:

11 “He who touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days;12 he shall cleanse himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and so be clean; but if he does not cleanse himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not become clean. 13 Whoever touches a dead person, the body of any man who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiles the tabernacle of the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from Israel; because the water for impurity was not thrown upon him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is still on him. 14 “This is the law when a man dies in a tent: every one who comes into the tent, and every one who is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days. 15 And every open vessel, which has no cover fastened upon it, is unclean. 16 Whoever in the open field touches one who is slain with a sword, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.

This concern for impurity led to observant Jews burying their dead away from living space and marking the graves so that no one might inadvertently walk on contaminated land, and thus become contaminated themselves. Impurity was removed by the Sacrifice of the Red Heifer, which was unusual in that it was conducted outside the camp by the person designated as successor to the high priest, rather than the high priest himself.

Modern view: Tomb of the Patriarchs

These proscriptions and rituals were even somewhat mysterious to the Jews, but the reason for them was not: sin had brought death into the world. Contamination by the dead is the most serious form of impurity in the Torah, not just because of squeamishness (ancient peoples lived in much more pronounced proximity to suffering, dying and death), but because of the connections to sin. The person who dealt with the dead was, in a sense, in the realm of death and sin, and needed to be purified in order to pass back into the realm of the living and the pure.