Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

By Roland De Vaux ; John McHugh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
DEATH AND FUNERAL RITES

THE distinction between soul and body is something foreign to the Hebrew mentality, and death, therefore, is not regarded as the separation of these two elements. A live man is a living 'soul' (nephesh), and a dead man is a dead 'soul', a dead 'nephesh' ( Nb 6: 6; Lv 21: 11; cf. Nb 19: 13). Death is not annihilation. So long as the body exists and the bones at least remain, the soul exists, like a shade, in a condition of extreme weakness, in the subterranean abode of Sheol ( Jb 26: 5-6; Is 14: 9-10; Ez 32: 17-32).

These ideas account for the care bestowed on the corpse and the importance of honourable burial, for the soul continued to feel what was done to the body. Hence to be left unburied, a prey to the birds and the wild beasts, was the worst of all curses ( 1 K 14: 11; Jr 16: 4; 22: 19; Ez 29: 5). Yet the corpse which was doomed to corruption, and the tomb which contained it, were both considered unclean, and conveyed uncleanness to those who touched them ( Lv 21: 1-4; 22: 4; Nb 19: 11-16; Ag 2: 13; cf Ez 43: 7).


1. Treatment of the corpse

In Gn 46: 4 there is an allusion to the custom of closing the eyes of the dead; this almost universal custom is perhaps simply explained by the resemblance of death to sleep. The nearest relatives embraced the body ( Gn 50: 1). It is probable that it was then prepared for burial, but we have no information earlier than the New Testament ( Mt 27: 59 and parallels; Jn 11: 44; 19: 39-40). The pins and other ornaments found in excavated tombs show that the dead were buried fully clothed. Samuel came up from Sheol with his cloak around him ( 1 S 28: 14), and Ez 32: 27 tells us that soldiers were laid to rest in their armour, with their swords under their heads and their shields under their bodies.

Embalming was never practised in Israel: the two examples known, those of Jacob and Joseph, are explicitly ascribed to Egyptian custom ( Gn 50: 2-3). The corpse was not placed in a coffin (cf 2 K 13: 21), but carried on a bier ( 2 S 3: 31; cf. Lk 7: 14). Joseph's body was placed in a coffin; but it is the only example recorded, and this also is to be explained by Egyptian custom ( Gn 50: 26).

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