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Bible Dictionaries

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology


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In ancient Israel burial occurred soon after death. In a hot climate, internment took place as quickly as possible after a person had expired (Deuteronomy 21:23 ). For this reason rules about dealing with corpses arose limiting what could take place (Numbers 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 (Leviticus 19:28; 21:5; Deuteronomy 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 (Genesis 9:6 ). No disfigured person could approach God because this was inconsistent with his holiness (Leviticus 21:17-23 ).

Cremation was considered an outrage reserved for criminals (Genesis 38:24; Leviticus 20:14; 21:9 ). In Amos 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 Samuel 31:12 ).

Rites observed at the death of Abner (2 Samuel 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 (Jeremiah 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 (Jeremiah 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 (Jeremiah 9:20 ). Funeral songs were frequently composed and published in collections (2 Samuel 1:19-27; 3:33-34; 2 Chronicles 35:25 ). Curiously, the only two dirges written for individuals are secular in content (2 Samuel 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 9:9-11,16-21; Ezekiel 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 (Jeremiah 22:19 ). The seven months needed for burying of Gog and Magog (Ezekiel 39:12 ) was a strong contrast to the usual speedy burial. In mocking parody to the funeral meal, vultures will feed on their corpses (Ezekiel 39:4 ). In the New Testament an angel even appears to invite these creatures to this "funeral banquet" (Revelation 19:17-18 ).

Jesus compared some in his audience to uncooperative, unresponsive children who will not join in a funeral game (Matthew 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 (Matthew 9:23-25 ).

Paul Ferguson

See also Burial; Death, Mortality

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 Statement
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.

Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Funeral'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. 1996.

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