Tombs in ancient Israel (Judges 17)

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The most important feature of ancient Israelite burials is reflected in the interment of Samson in the tomb of his father. Other individuals are specified to have been buried in their father’s tombs, including Gideon (Judges 8:32), Asahel (2 Samuel 2:32) and Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23). The first such burial noted in Scripture is that of Abraham, interred in the tomb of Sarah, his wife, later followed by their children and grandchildren. Caves were often used for such tombs. Only the wealthiest could afford a tomb that had been quarried out of rock; the prophet Isaiah condemned the royal steward Shebna for his arrogance in constructing just such a  burial monument (Isaiah 22:15-16). The poor could not afford a rock-hewn tomb and were buried in common graves dug into the soil (cf. 2 Kings 23:6, Jeremiah 26:23).

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The graves of the poor have generally not been preserved for archaeologists. Excavations have unearthed many examples of family burials in caves ad rock-hewn tombs from the Old Testament period, with instances of more than 100 individuals interred in a single tomb. These tombs consisted of a square chamber or, in more elaborate examples, up to nine chambers for member of the extended family. Each chamber typically contained three waist-high benches that lined the room on every side except the entrance. The deceased were laid out on these benches immediately after death, along with burial gifts, including bowls for food, perfume juglets, oil lamp s, weapons and Jewelry. The benches included ledges to prevent the contents from falling off, and headrests were frequently carved out of the rock to hold the deceased’s head. After the flesh of the corpse had decayed, the bones were collected along with the gifts and depsited into a repository hewn beneath one of the burial benches. Thus, the repositories were filled with the bones and objects of generations of the family. This process of burial makes it clear that the Biblical phrase “gathered to their fathers” (e.g. Judges 2:10) was more than metaphorical.


 

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