4

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

Footnotes

        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

Jer. 34:4–5

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

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Footnotes

        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

Footnotes

        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

Footnotes

        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?


References

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.

4

Note that in all cases the burning is made "for", not that he is burnt:

  1. 2 Chr. 16:14 וַיִּשְׂרְפוּ לוֹ
  2. 2 Chr. 21:19 וְלֹא עָשׂוּ לוֹ עַמּוֹ שְׂרֵפָה
  3. Jer. 34:5 יִשְׂרְפוּ לָךְ

In all cases the burning is "for him", or "for you", that is, in his honor, not that he is burned, which would have used the direct object form וישרפו אותו/ישרפו אותך as in:

  1. Judges 15:6, וַיִּשְׂרְפוּ אוֹתָהּ וְאֶת אָבִיהָ בָּאֵשׁ
  2. Joshua 7:25 וַיִּשְׂרְפוּ אֹתָם בָּאֵשׁ
  3. Leviticus 20:14 בָּאֵשׁ יִשְׂרְפוּ אֹתוֹ וְאֶתְהֶן

From the latter examples it is clear that burning of bodies was considered an atrocity which prevented a person from being "gathered to his fathers", i.e. buried with his ancestors.

Note that 2 Chr. 16:14 starts out וַיִּקְבְּרֻהוּ בְקִבְרֹתָיו, "they buried him". Likewise 2 Chr. 21:20, uses the language of וַיִּקְבְּרֻהוּ בְּעִיר דָּוִיד, "and they buried him in the city of David". Similar language is used in the cases of other kings where a bonfire is not mentioned.

Bonfires in honor of important people were common in the ancient world, as mentioned in in the mishna in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Avoda Zara, top of page 8a, "... the day that the (non-Israelite) king is inaugurated, and his birthday and the day of his death [it is forbidden to deal with them]. And the sages said, "Any funeral [of the non-Israelites] for which there is a bonfire there is idol worship [because of the incense]." Here it is clear that the reason for the abomination is not that a body is burnt but that there is incense that is burnt, which is against the prohibition of incense except for use in the service of the LORD in the temple.

Johann Jahn's comment appears to be not founded on what we would consider to be scholarly grounds today. For one, we would expect to see an archaeological record of cremation sites associated with the late first temple, and there is none. We would expect that if kings were cremated then other nobles might also be, yet there is no evidence on the ground for this. Unfortunately, Jahn references only "Talmudists" without specific reference to a passage. The only passage that I am aware of is the passage cited above in Avoda Zara, a careful reading of which shows that the concern of the sages is the incense, not that they though a corpse was burnt.

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  • Your initial comment about the ל seems a bit simplistic, ignoring the nuances of Hebrew, of which I know you are aware. Does לְיִרְמְיָהוּ in Jer. 40:2 mean “for Jeremiah”? – Der Übermensch Jul 11 at 23:24
  • @DerÜbermensch In Jer 40:2 the lamed is a short form of ויקח לו as in Genesis 4:19, 16:10, indicating that the commander specifically sought out Jeremiah for himself in order to deliver his message. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Jul 11 at 23:41
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    I was going to reference the passage in Avodah Zara myself, but you said it first. One point worth noting- the commentators there explain that it was customary to burn the king's items when the king died, so that nobody else would use them. It was a sign of honor for the king and was done for both Jewish and non-Jewish kings (the talmud discusses there the similar custom of injuring the royal horse so no one would use it, and whether that violates the prohibition of causing animals unnecessary suffering.) Thus a king great enough to warrant his items burned was great enough for his death to... – Binyomin Jul 12 at 16:58
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    ...made into a holy day with sacrifices. Which is why I think the burning mentioned in the verses also refers to the burning of the king's item's not just incense (although there could be incense as well.) Either way your answer to @DerÜbermensch's question is correct. – Binyomin Jul 12 at 17:00
2

Genesis 25, in regard Abraham:

9And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre;

Genesis 35, in regard to Isaac:

29And Isaac gave up the ghost, and died, and was gathered unto his people, being old and full of days: and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.

Genesis 50, in regard to Jacob:

13For his sons carried him into the land of Canaan, and buried him in the cave of the field of Machpelah, which Abraham bought with the field for a possession of a burial place of Ephron the Hittite, before Mamre.

Whatever one might think "burning" refers to, it could only ever mean "cremated" if there existed evidence to support the claim that "buried him" did not mean "interred his body", i.e. that "buried him" was equivalent to "buried his ashes".

My opinion, and I believe that is all one can offer in regard to this question, is that "buried him" throughout the Bible has always meant "interred his body".

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