Ancient Burial Practices by Dale Manor

I found this on the koinonia blog site.

Dale Manor discusses ancient burial practices as background to the book of Ruth, especially chapter 1.

“The Bible often refers to death as being gathered to one’s people (cf. e.g., Gen. 25:8, 17; 35:29; 49:33; Num. 20:24, 26; Deut. 32:50), and Jacob and Joseph gave specific instructions that their remains be conveyed to the family homeland (Gen. 49:29–32; 50:24–26). These requests are apparently not unique to the Israelites. Archaeology has uncovered a number of cemeteries, many of which yield evidence that the deceased passed away elsewhere and their bones were interred in the cemetery some time after death and decarnation had occurred. Ruth 1 gives no indication that Naomi brought her husband’s and sons’ remains back to the family plot in Bethlehem, but if she had not, she likely was returning with them on this journey.

A proper burial was a matter of great concern for people in the ancient world. The maintenance of the dead was a common practice, as implied in the often elaborate tombs designed to accommodate the extended family. Many tombs have been excavated in the regions of ancient Canaan and Israel; these usually contain various grave offerings such as lamps, bowls, jars, and personal items, implying some concept of an afterlife.

It was commonly considered necessary for the descendants to care for the deceased with proper burial and occasional ritual to ensure their transition from the world of the living into that of the deceased.
Among these practices were sacrifices to the dead that often included meals in their honor (cf. Deut. 26:14). Additionally, some survivors thought the deceased might provide some revelation (cf. Isa. 8:19–20; 65:4; Jer. 16:6–9). While these passages indicate that some Israelites observed rituals for the dead, Moab also had such a tradition that had been part of the Peor apostasy (cf. Ps. 106:28–31).

Ruth therefore commits to her identity in Naomi’s family in perpetuity. She has committed to caring for Naomi in death (from proper burial to ongoing care in what ever way that was customary). Naomi will not have any other family to perform these services, but Ruth accepts the responsibility, and she will undertake it until her own death, even if that puts her at risk (having no family to care for her in the same way). This is a remarkable and selfless commitment.”

E. Bloch-Smith in Judahite Burial Practices and Beliefs about the Dead (JSOTSup 123; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992), 152–245 argues that many of these rituals for the dead were denounced by the prophets, and opposed by those behind the Hezekian and Josianic reforms reported in the Deuteronomistic history.

It is intriguing to think that, much like today, the vast majority of believers of old may have adopted the ideas of the people around about them, without official sanction, and mixed them in with the pure Word of God.

Photo: Stone cut tomb for multiple burials with headrests carved out. Credit: Christie J. Goulart

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