It seemed to be a matter of great ignonimy to be burnt upon one’s death or burnt to death:1 “From this it may be concluded that the burning of the human body was looked upon with horror.”2
1 Gen. 38:24; Lev. 20:14, 21:9; Jos. 7:15, 7:25
2 The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 342, “Cremation”
However, there appears to be mention in the Torah of Israelite kings being burnt as a customary practice, and not one of punishment. Compare the following verses:
2 Chr. 16:13–14
13 And Asa slept with his fathers, and died in the one and fortieth year of his reign. 14 And they buried him in his own sepulchres, which he had made for himself in the city of David, and laid him in the bed which was filled with sweet odours and divers kinds of spices prepared by the apothecaries' art: and they made a very great burning for him. KJV, ©1769
2 Chr. 21:18–20
18 And after all this the LORD smote him in his bowels with an incurable disease. 19 And it came to pass, that in process of time, after the end of two years, his bowels fell out by reason of his sickness: so he died of sore diseases. And his people made no burning for him, like the burning of his fathers. 20 Thirty and two years old was he when he began to reign, and he reigned in Jerusalem eight years, and departed without being desired. Howbeit they buried him in the city of David, but not in the sepulchres of the kings. KJV, ©1769
4 Yet hear the word of the LORD, O Zedekiah king of Judah; Thus saith the LORD of thee, Thou shalt not die by the sword: 5 But thou shalt die in peace: and with the burnings of thy fathers, the former kings which were before thee, so shall they burn odours for thee; and they will lament thee, saying, Ah lord! for I have pronounced the word, saith the LORD. KJV, ©1769
Note: In Jer. 34:5, the KJV has the word “odours” italicized, indicating that it was not translated from the Hebrew but added by the translators.
Johann Jahn wrote,3
3 Johann, § 210, p. 245–246
Gesenius, in the 1st edition of his lexicon, wrote that the verb שָׂרַף was used „Vom Verbrennen des Leichnams und dem damit verbundenen Leichenbegängniss“, that is, “of the burning of the corpse and the things associated with the burial.”4
4 Vol. 2, p. 1097
As easy it as it would be to dismiss the notion due to the presence of the prepositional ל after the verbs,5 which is typically used to indicate the indirect object rather than the direct object, there are several instances in the Tanakh where the prepositional ל is used to indicate the direct object (i.e., functioning in place of the accusative particle את).6
5 2 Chr. 16:14: וַיִּשְׂרְפוּ לוֹ; Jer. 34:5: יִשְׂרְפוּ לָךְ
6 Jon. 4:6: לְהַצִּיל לוֹ; Job 5:2: לֶאֱוִיל יַהֲרָג; Isa. 11:9: כַּמַּיִם לַיָּם מְכַסִּים; Jer. 40:2: וַיִּקַּח... לְיִרְמְיָהוּ; Lev. 19:18: וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ; Psa. 129:3: הֶאֱרִיכוּ לְמַעֲנִיתָם; notably, 1 Chr. 29:20 where בָּרְכוּ נָא אֶת־יְהוָה occurs first, followed by וַיְבָרֲכוּ כָל הַקָּהָל לַיהוָה, a clear demonstration that ל can replace אֶת to indicate the direct object of a verb. see Ewald, § 277e, p. 39 and § 292e, p. 117; Gesenius, Hebrew Grammar, § 117n, p. 366.
Does the Hebrew text suggest that the corpses of the kings were burnt, or was it indeed the spices that were burnt?
Ewald, Georg Heinrich August. Syntax of the Hebrew Language of the Old Testament. Trans. Kennedy, James. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1879.
Gesenius, Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm. Hebräisch–Deutsches Handwörterbuch über die Schriften des Alten Testaments. 1st ed. Vol. 2. Leipzig: Vogel, 1812.
Gesenius, Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm. Hebrew Grammar. 2nd ed. Trans. Cowley, Arthur Ernest. Oxford: Clarendon, 1910.
Gottheil, Richard. “Cremation.” The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Desriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. Vol. 4. Ed. Singer, Isidore. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1903.
Johann, Jahn. Jahn’s Biblical Archaeology. Trans. Upham, Thomas C. 5th ed. New York: Newman & Ivison, 1853.