Revista Studii Teologice


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"Perspectiva biblică asupra practicilor funerare în Israelul antic"

The Biblical Perspective on Funeral Rites in Ancient Israel

Autor(i): Teodora TECULESCU

Summary: The Biblical Perspective on Funeral Rites in Ancient Israel
Funeral rites of Ancient Israel express the old Jewish vision on man, death and afterlife, since no ritual could be adopted if it weren’t rooted in faith. Any aspect of old Jewish burial is relevant and should be interpreted only in its proper Jewish context.
Like the Babylonians, Jews did not see death as a total annihilation of the being. The afterlife was imagined as low-intensity life, the dead having in general a dim kind of existence. Terms such as nephesh, ruah and neşama, usually translated by “soul” or “spirit”, are only rarely used as elements distinct from the body, therefore there is no clear-cut distinction between soul and body, and man is seen as a unity. Thus, as long as the body exists (at least the bones), the soul exists too, as a shadow, in a very weak condition; a living person is a “living soul”, while a dead person is a “dead soul”.
The Jews understood we all die sooner or later and saw in this a natural occurrence. The Old Testament provides no example of Jews who manifested any excessive fear of death. The Patriarchs “join their parents” without any disap-pointment or regret. After death, all people share the same unfortunate condition, but is was considered that their fate depended on the attention given to them by the living: adequate funerals, bringing food or beverages to the graveside (although the Bible does not mention this custom), and especially preserving their name, hence the importance of having children through whom the dead “lived on” within the respective community.
Funeral rites knew various forms during Antiquity. The Bible shows they slightly differed in the times of the Patriarchs, the Pentateuch legislation, after the settling in Palestine and in the New Testament times.
Immediately after death, relatives or friends would close the eyes and mouth of the deceased, then gave them a final hug and kiss, and prepared the body for burial. Cremation was only used for infractors or the cursed ones. Burial, or deposition within caves, generally did not presuppose a coffin, except for the cases of Jacob and Joseph.
There is no Scriptural argument as to how long after death the burial was per-formed, but, because of the climate and the absence of embalming practices, it most likely took place on the same day as death.
What all burials had in common throughout the times was the mourning. In brief, in first- and second-century Palestine, mourning included: tearing one’s clothes, weeping, lamenting, fasting, flinging oneself to the ground, shaving the head, putting on sackcloth, walking barefoot, cutting or covering the beard, body cuts, putting ash on one’s head, or putting the hands on one’s head.
The dead one was mourned for, then buried, after the “mourning days”. Mourning could last up to seven days; however, Egyptians mourned for Jacob for seventy days. During the Levirate period, mourning generally lasted for 7 days, as in the Patriarchs’ times, but lamenting for national leaders such as Aaron and Moses lasted for 30 days after their burial.
Mourning differed according to one’s rank in the priestly hierarchy, given the fact that touching a dead body defiled the one who did so. Thus, the priests according to the order of Aaron were allowed to mourn by weeping, tearing their clothes, loosening their hair, but were not allowed to touch the deceased one, which would have defiled them; however, they could touch their closest relatives: mother, father, son, daughter, siblings. The great priest was not allowed to tear his vestments, to uncover his head or to touch any dead person, not even his mother of father. Nazirites weren’t allowed to touch any dead person, including their parents, brothers or sisters.
Although the Old Testament does not provide many details concerning funerals, it clearly reveals the wish to keep in touch with one’s community, even after one’s death. This presupposed entombing successive generations in the family grave, generally a cave or a grave carved in rock, “adding oneself to one’s people” in familial solidarity.
The writings subsequent to the settling in Palestine provide additional infor-mation on funeral rites. We learn that the dead person’s relatives had to wash them, wrap them in a white shroud, then place them on a bed full of “spices and other fragrances” and that many incenses were burned.
The graves were generally carved in rock (especially for wealthy families) or sand (for the poor ones), outside the towns (with a few exceptions); it was most desirable to entomb one in the family grave, however a substitute could be used, or a foreign tomb. A dishonouring burial was to throw the killed one in a pit and pile stones or, worst of all, performing no burial at all.
The New Testament gives further information on funeral rites in Ancient Israel: the washing ritual is very important, then the corpse is wrapped in the shroud, the mourning is extended to 30 days and finally 12 months. Mourning was only complete after collecting the bones, which was probably the reason for extending the mourning period.
In studying any old religion, death is greatly significant as an existential event. Many times, the only extant material traces relate to death: graves, objects accompanying the deceased person, or funerary inscriptions. The same applies to Ancient Israel. Therefore, deepening our vision on death is, paradoxically, a lesson on life.

Pagini: pp. 185-214