In ancient Israel burial occurred soon after death. In a hot climate, internment took place as quickly as possible after a person had expired ( Deut 21:23 ). For this reason rules about dealing with corpses arose limiting what could take place ( Num 19:11-22 ; 21:1-4 ). The short period of time between death and burial also placed limitations on ancient Israelite funerals.
Some customs were forbidden, such as self-mutilation ( Lev 19:28 ; 21:5 ; Deut 14:1 ). In the Baal epic, El cuts deep gashes in his chest because Baal is in death's domain (cf. 1 Kings 18:28 ). In the Bible the body is part of the image of God ( Gen 9:6 ). No disfigured person could approach God because this was inconsistent with his holiness ( Lev 21:17-23 ).
Cremation was considered an outrage reserved for criminals ( Gen 38:24 ; Lev 20:14 ; 21:9 ). In am 2:1 the cremation of the king of Edom is classed as a heinous war crime. The burning of the bodies of Saul and Jonathan may have been an unusual local custom ( 1 Sam 31:12 ).
Rites observed at the death of Abner ( 2 Sam 3:31-36 ) included public mourning, tearing of clothes, and donning of sackcloth. There was a solemn procession followed by the king himself. At the grave there was a great deal of weeping and the king chanted a lament. On the same day all the people came "to console David with food" (v. 35, neb). David's refusal of this food is impressive.
In the Old Testament a funeral meal may have been served after burial, designed to console family members ( Jer 16:5-9 ; Amos 6:4-7 ). Amos denounces the lavish excesses of such feasting and the fact that the national demise has been ignored ( 6:6 ). Jeremiah is told by God that no consolation will be given to Judah ( Jer 16:5-9 ). Perhaps the inappropriateness of such funerary gaiety is hinted at when the preacher states that it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting ( Eccel 7:2 ).
In biblical days mourning was a fine art. One needed a teacher to learn such a profession ( Jer 9:20 ). Funeral songs were frequently composed and published in collections ( 2 Sam 1:19-27 ; 3:33-34 ; 2 Chron 35:25 ). Curiously, the only two dirges written for individuals are secular in content ( 2 Sam 1:19-27 ; 3:33-34 ).
Biblical prophets borrowed this lament genre to add realism to their predictions of doom. They were so certain about them that they sang funeral songs in advance ( Jeremiah 9:9-11 Jeremiah 9:16-21 ; Ezek 19:1-14 ; Amos 5:1-2 ). Amos predicted that in the ensuing judgment so much mourning would need to be done that laypeople would have to be enlisted to help the professionals ( Amos 5:16-17 ). At times the prophet reversed his style by forbidding mourning rites. Ezekiel was forbidden to carry out such practices for his own wife ( 24:16-19 ). This was done to show that God would have no compassion when Jerusalem fell.
The announcement that people would not have a proper burial served to emphasize the serious nature of their sins. For his opulence and lack of sensitivity to poor workers, Jehoiakim's body was to be thrown outside the gates like a donkey's ( Jer 22:19 ). The seven months needed for burying of Gog and Magog ( Eze 39:12 ) was a strong contrast to the usual speedy burial. In mocking parody to the funeral meal, vultures will feed on their corpses ( Eze 39:4 ). In the New Testament an angel even appears to invite these creatures to this "funeral banquet" ( Rev 19:17-18 ).
Jesus compared some in his audience to uncooperative, unresponsive children who will not join in a funeral game ( Matt 11:17 ). He stopped the funeral procession at Nain by touching the bier. Thereby he showed that the uncleanness of death could not taint him. By restoring the son to his mother, he showed that the kingdom of God had broken through into human history ( Luke 7:11-16 ). In ejecting the mourners and musicians at the death of Jarius's daughter he prefigured a day when grief would be no more ( Matt 9:23-25 ).
Bibliography. W. Coleman, Today's Handbook of Bible Times and Customs; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel, vol. 1; P. King, Amos, Hosea, Micah An Archaeological Commentary; M. Pope, Ugarit in Retrospect.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Funeral'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".