Gog's Grave and the Use and Abuse of Corpses in Ezekiel 39:11-20

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The use and abuse of corpses is a powerful trope in biblical texts, extending well beyond the literary imaging of destruction and death to index instead a complex of socio-religious, political, and cultural concerns about the placement, treatment, and status of the dead among the living. As several socio-anthropological and ritual studies have shown, the ways in which the living respond to and deal with a corpse are not simply a matter of disposing of the dead. Rather, the methods and means of dealing with a corpse constitute a process effecting and maintaining the transformation of the deceased from a social person into a nonliving entity, enabling the living community to negotiate and reframe their relationship with that individual.1 In essence, two very broad types of corpse treatment function within this social context of death: the ideal or "good" response to the corpse, by which the optimal social and cultural valuing of the dead is enacted through normative or "proper" mortuary rituals, and the anti-ideal or "bad" response to the corpse, by which the socially normative treatment of the dead is inverted or ignored.2

Several biblical texts portray burial (rather than cremation or exposure) in a marked, remembered, and undisturbed place as the ideal treatment of the corpse, coupled with the performance of other funerary and postmortem practices, including mourning rituals and the remembrance of the dead.3 This ideal treatment of the corpse is itself idealized in many biblical traditions as interment in the family tomb within or upon the bounds of ancestral land.4 Though in many of these texts this particular type of mortuary practice is often presented theologically as a consequence of divine favor and blessing, it likely reflects a complex set of beliefs about the symbolism and effects of this type of burial: interment in the family tomb on ancestral land facilitated the transition of the dead into the underworld and manifested the integration of the individual into the realm of the ancestors. It also transformed the corpse from its liminal state into a once-living-now-dead member of the social group, thereby reincorporating the individual into the community, and it embodied and reinforced the territorial claims of the deceased's living descendants and their socioeconomic well-being.5

In the book of Ezekiel, corpses are frequently subjected to anti-ideal treatments. In 6:4-5, 13 (cf. 9:7), it is asserted that the corpses of slaughtered Israelite worshipers will lie in the ruins of their cult places and that human bones will be strewn around their altars; in 35:8, the landscape of Mount Seir is to be desolated and filled with dead bodies (cf. 6:13); in 37:1-14, unburied bones and the disinterment of corpses form the focus of divine activity;6 and in 43:7-9, royal corpses are apparently to be displaced from their temple location.7 But perhaps most graphically attested is the motif of the abused corpse of a foreign leader, whose body is thrown down and cast about (29:5; 32:4),8mutilated and dismembered (32:5-6; cf. 31:12), left unburied and exposed (29:5; 32:4), and scavenged by wild animals and birds (29:5; 32:4; cf. 31:13).9

The story of the defeat of Gog and his army in Ezek 39:1-20 exhibits some of these features of corpse abuse.10 In these verses, the enemy is killed on the mountains of Israel, and the bodies are plundered of their weapons and left abandoned on the battlefield (vv. 1-10) to be devoured by birds of prey and scavenging animals (vv. 4, 17-20). Significantly, however, the Gog material appears to deviate from other occurrences of the motif of the abused foreign corpse by dealing in detail with the burial of Gog and his soldiers in a mass grave (vv. 11-16). Commentators often describe this particular episode as a secondary expansion of a form of the narrative in which the corpses were simply left exposed to be eaten;11 the distinctive emphasis in vv. …