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Ancient Burial Practices by Dale Manor

Categories Old Testament

Bible-BackgroundsWhen Ruth pledges to Naomi "Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried" (Ruth 1:17), her words are pregnant with far-reaching implications. To understand these we must examine ancient burial practices. Dale Manor provides a good foundation in his Ruth contribution to ZIBBCOT:

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.1

2_240 ketef hinnom tomb img_2951 (2) 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.2

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.3 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.

Zibbcotsetbox Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.


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

1 For further discussion, see E. M. Meyers, "Secondary Burials in Palestine," BA 33/1 (1970): 2–29.

2 For a catalogue of graves and grave goods from the Iron Age in Judah, see conveniently E. Bloch-Smith, Judahite Burial Practices and Beliefs about the Dead (JSOTSup 123; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992), 152–245.

3 For a background discussion of these beliefs, see T. Abusch, "Ghost and God: Some Observations on a Babylonians Understanding of Human Nature," in Self, Soul and Body in Religious Experience, ed. A. I. Baumgarten, J. Assmann, and G. G. Stroumsa (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 363–83. Their application in the Old Testament world is discussed in T. J. Lewis, "Dead," in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, ed. K. van der Toorn, B. Becking, and P. W. van der Horst (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 421–38.

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