Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Thaptology: Biblical history

Biblical history

The first biblical record of a burial is that of Sarah, Abraham's wife, in Genesis chapter 23. There is no reason to assume it is the first ever burial, but it nevertheless is the first biblical account. The law says little about burial. It mainly speaks to avoiding defilement for and by the dead (Num. 19:16, 28; Deut. 14:1-2; 21:22–23). The law prescribed burial for a man executed by crucifixion (Deut. 21:22-23).

Some Bible characters whose burials are mentioned include: 

  • Sarah (Gen. 23:1-20)
  • Abraham (Gen. 25:8-10)
  • Deborah (Gen. 35:8)
  • Rachel (Gen. 35:19-20)
  • Isaac (Gen. 35:28-29)
  • Jacob (Gen. 49:33-50:13)
  • Joseph (Gen. 50:25; Exod. 13:19; Josh. 24:32)
  • Miriam (Num. 20:1)
  • Aaron (Deut. 10:6)
  • Moses (Deut. 34:5-8)
  • Joshua (Josh. 24:30)
  • Eleazar (Josh. 24:33)
  • Samuel (1 Sam. 25:1)
  • Absalom (2 Sam. 18:17-18)
  • David (1 Kings 2:10)
  • John the Baptist (Matt. 14:12)
  • Lazarus (John 11:17-18)
  • Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:5-10)
  • Stephen (Acts 8:2)
  • Jesus Christ (John 19:38-42)

It was the custom of the Jews to bury and burial occurred soon after death, often the same or next day (Deut. 21:23; Acts 5:6,10; 8:2; though there were exceptions, cf. Acts 9:38ff). Preparation of the body for burial included washing (Acts 9:37), as well as the use of spices and wrapping the body (2 Chron. 16:14; John 19:39-40; John 11:44; John 20:7). In two cases of prominent patriarchs – Jacob and Joseph – the Egyptian method of embalming was practiced. No exact form of service can be inferred from the Scriptures, but we can piece together elements of funerary from the biblical record. The body might be laid out for preparation mourning in the house of the deceased (Eccl. 7:2; Acts 9:37). There was private and public mourning and a procession carrying the deceased to the gravesite (2 Sam. 3:31; Luke 7:12). Often associated with mourning were rending the clothes, putting on sackcloth & ashes (2 Sam. 3:31; Jer. 6:26), singing of lamentations (Matt. 9:23; Matt. 11:17) and a funeral meal served after the burial (Jer. 16:5-9; 2 Sam 3:35; Ezek. 24:17). David made a brief address regarding Abner, or perhaps chanted or sung it (2 Sam. 3:33-34). Pagan customs, such as cutting/self-mutilation, were forbidden (Lev 19:28). Tombs were usually located outside of cities (Matt. 27:52-53; Luke 7:12).

Exclusion from the family burying grounds was a sign of disrespect or punishment (1 Kings 13:22). To die without burial was a great indignity (2 Kings 9:10, 34-35; Isaiah 14:20; Jeremiah 22:18-19). Burning a body, or cremation, was only practiced by Israelites under rare circumstances. The men of Jabesh-gilead rescued the mutilated bodies of Saul and his sons from the Philistines and burned them – probably to prevent any future possibility of mutilation (or perhaps because the body had been mutilated). The bones that remained were then buried (1 Samuel 31:11-13; Cf. also 2 Samuel 21:12-14). Burning is mentioned in Amos 6:8-11. God, recorded in Amos 2:1-3, condemns Moab for burning the bones of the king of Edom. Burning of bodies is often seen as a sign of judgment (Josh. 7:25), the greatest of which can be seen in the fate of those whose names are not found written in the Book of Life – Revelation 20:15.

Two great miracles of Jesus were performed at a "funeral" and at a grave. He showed compassion for the grieving and His power over death. The first of these is recorded in Luke 7:11-17. In it we see a would-be burial, preceded by a procession of weeping mourners. The weeping and the burial itself are stopped when Jesus tells the young dead man to arise. The second miracle is found in John 11:1-44, where Jesus commanded Lazarus to come forth out of the grave. In this case we see nothing of the "funeral" since Jesus arrived four days after the dead body of Lazarus had been put in the grave. But some mourning continued after the burial and until Jesus arrived.

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