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.

Burial in Ancient Israel Part 3: The Bronze Age

Excavation at Bab ed-Dhrah cemetery

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.

The Intermediate Bronze Age is so heavily marked by a rise in lavish burials that it’s one of the central features of the age. One of the largest ancient cemeteries in the Holy Land is at Bab edh-Dhra, where 20,000 tombs have been discovered, including many shaft graves filled with grave offerings. One unusual feature of this location is a charnel house: a room 35×17 feet, with bones and pottery stacked at the center, and an entryway paved with skulls.

Cairn burials were also found at this location. People were buried in shallow graves, which were then stacked with dirt and stones and capped with pile of rock. Tumuli–which are essentially barrows: graves heaped with small rocks and soil–also start emerging during this period. Thousands of tumuli have been found in the Negev Highlands.

As we can see, a rich array of funeral practices was observed in the region as we progress through the Bronze Age. Some tombs were inside of city limits, close to homes. Some were outside. As the Bronze Age continues, there’s a rise in the appearance of larger stone tombs holding as many as 40 bodies.

Bronze Age tumulus at Makhtesh Ramon

The methods of internment in these tombs was unusual. People would be laid out in the center of the tomb on a mat (and, in once case, on a bed), usually flat on the back, sometimes with knees raised. Food and other offerings were left with the body. Jewelry was rare, but personal items like combs, oil, and decorated boxes were quite common. The tombs was closed after each burial and then reopened for the next. Bones and objects from the previous burial were pushed off the sides to form a heap, and the next body laid in the center. As time went on, large mounds of intermingled bones and objects began to line the walls of these tombs.

During the Middle Bronze Age, the region came under the sway of the Hyksos, we begin to see warriors interred with their horse. Such tombs have been found at Jericho and Tell el-Ajjul, but are exceptional rather than commonplace, and represent a clear foreign influence.

Example of a Hyksos horse burial (Tell el-Dab’a, Egypt)

As the region entered the Iron Age (approximately 1200 BC), the people we call the Israelites appear as a force in Palestine. The fading of imperial rule allows local people to build their own authority, and we enter the period described in Judges, leading to the formation of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The Israelites adapt some of the burial customs they find in the region, and reuse preexisting graves. None of the more exotic techniques–such as skull decoration or mounted burials–are used by the Israelites, but it’s fair to say most of the techniques described thus far were in use at some point, and in some places, during the period covered by the Old Testament.

In addition, new techniques begin to emerge that will become more standard for the area, with adaptations that will be used through Greek and Roman periods and into the time of Christ.
Recommended Reading:

Burial in Ancient Israel Part 2: Early Ossuaries and Shaft Tombs

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.

During the Chalcolithic Period (the “Copper Age”), a new kind of burial started appearing along the coastal plain, at sites like Azor, Bene-Berak, and Hedera. This marks the first appearance of ossuaries, which will become a key element in the treatment of the dead. These early ossuaries are made of clay, with a diversity of styles and shapes indicating they were intended to resemble to homes of the deceased, which may suggest a sense of continuity between life and death. (Then again, some ossuaries resembled animals, so perhaps not.) We shall see how these theological elements affected ideas about burial as we get into the Second Temple and New Testament times.

Ossuaries are not meant to contain entire bodies, but only the bones. Along with the discovery of the skulls of Jericho, they show the increasing use of two-stage burials. In the first stage, a person is either buried or placed in a niche or cave until the flesh decays, leaving only the bones. In the second stage, the bones are collected and reburied, or gathered into these boxes and placed in niches dug out of sandstone. The openings of the ossuaries were large enough for a skull (the bone with the largest circumference) to be placed inside. Miniature ossuaries have been found in larger ones as some kind of offering. Doors were sometimes fitted to these openings, and some of these doors contained decorations representing human faces, in either paint or relief.

At roughly the same time the first ossuaries appeared, people in the Levant began using cist burials as well. A cist is, basically, a square hole dug in the ground and lined with stone slabs, sometimes with a slab over the top. Sometimes several appear in a row, and we may assume these were for family burials.

These trends in burial continue for many year, and are joined during the Bronze Age (roughly beginning in 3000 BC) by shaft burials in which a vertical hole was dug in limestone, sandstone, or soil. If it was dug in soil, the walls were lined with stone. A chamber opened at the bottom of this shaft, and was blocked with a large stone. Chambers have been discovered in various shapes (rectangular, circular, and amorphous) and sizes. Three, four, or even more rectangular chambers may branch off from this main chamber, providing niches for the dead.

Because fewer people were buried in these shaft tombs, we see a sudden spike in larger cemeteries during the Intermediate Bronze Age. Many of these are primary burials, but secondary burials are also found in shaft tombs. During this period, modest grave offerings are common. Pottery, metal tools and weapons, pins, bracelets, beads, and coins are common in these graves. The materials are humble, in keeping with the relative poverty of the region.

The BiblePlaces Blog has a superb photo essay showing excavation of shaft graves from the Intermediate Bronze Age. Here’s just one example, but you should see the whole thing to get a sense of the excavation, the shafts, and the burial spaces.

In some tombs, bones were heaped at the center, with pottery and utensils arrayed around the perimeter. Food has been discovered in some vessels, and there are some suggestions that they provide evidence for a final meal with the dead. Eating with the departed in a common practice in folk culture throughout the world. Are these pots, jugs, and utensils evidence of the practice in ancient Palestine?

There are no grand tombs filled with treasures, but rather small offerings intended as gifts for the dead. May we assume these were simply treasures associated with the deceased without implying any metaphysical, cultic, or religious aspect to the offerings? Or does the proximity of the region to Egypt suggest some kind of ties to a developing and vivid sense of the afterlife and the objects one would need to make the journey? As we get into the Second Temple period, the answers to these questions become slightly clearer.

Burial in Ancient Israel Part 1: The First Graves

Rather than just leaving you postless and bereft as I work on an essay, I decided to share little slices of it over the course of the week. The essay concerns burial practices in the Levant, from the earliest evidence up to the time of Christ. The way we handle our dead is of immense cultural significance, bound up in our faith, our sense of family, our ideas of continuity, and our vision of life and the afterlife. The funeral practices of ancient Palestine are no exception.

The earliest human remains in the Levant were found in the es-Skhul Cave on Mt. Carmel (about 13 miles south of modern Haifa, Israel). These date to approximately 110,000 years ago, and are linked to the Mousterian culture of the Middle Paleolithic period, a group of Neanderthals classified by their use of a certain kind of flintwork tool. The caves continued to be occupied (perhaps intermittently) well into the Mesolithic period, with evidence showing that the Natufian culture was present sometime between 13,000 and 9000 BC.

Excavations at es-Skhul uncovered the bodies of 10 individuals buried in pits with their knees drawn up, hands across the chest, and some objects included with the bodies. The various layers of occupation, stretching over so long a time, suggest that graves may be been reused. The burials of es-Skhul were linked to the occupants of the nearby et-Tabun Cave , indicating that these early humans did not go far to bury their dead. The odd, mixed morphological features of these remains suggest, to some, that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals had lived contemporaneously and perhaps even interbred, resulting in a new type identified as Palaeoanthropus palastinensis.

As the region entered the Neolithic period, 10,000 BC, we begin to see different kinds of burials. In homes in Jericho, skulls have been discovered beneath the floors in an extraordinary condition. Plaster had been placed over the skulls to recreate the face of the departed, with shells from the Red Sea used for eyes. The plaster was painted to render facial details, including eyebrows and facial hair. Some lower jaws were removed and reconstructed so the base could be flat, indicating that the item was meant to be displayed, possibly in a niche or shrine.


At the same time, monumental structures were being erected to the dead. The most common was the dolmen: upright rocks (usually two, but sometimes more) with another rock laid across the top, forming a kind of table structure. Hundreds have been found just in the Golan Heights, and more dot the landscape of modern Israel. One or two people may be buried in this kind of tomb, and sometimes earth was piled around the dolmen to bury it, thus creating a barrow. This marks a major shift in the way the dead were memorialized, and they continued to appear until at least the 4th millennium BC.