Mortuary Practices in the Old Testament—1 Kings 13:31

The Israelites developed distinctive practices for burial. The surrounding nations, especially the Egyptians, spent much time and resources on constructing and furnishing their graves and tombs. But Israelites showed comparatively little interest in how they interned their dead.

During the First Temple period, wealthy families would often cut graves in stone, following a small house model. The grave had one or more chambers, each with several rock benches, often with indications as to where to place the head and heels of the bodies. They covered the deceased with just a piece of cloth. The grave would be closed with a massive stone placed at its entrance. The tombs would not be opened until a new burial. After the flesh decayed away, family members would place the bones in a repository dug under the benches, clearing them for new burials.

Jewish thought had come to regard death as a kind of atonement for sins committed in life since death itself was a result of sin, a concept that they began to discuss more thoroughly during rabbinical times (Siphrei, Shelah 112). Thus, a person’s death could purge the individual’s sin (Shab. 8b). Furthermore, sin was thought to reside in the flesh and therefore underwent atonement through putrefaction, but the bones were eternal. They had to be preserved as a guaranty of future resurrection.

A man who had been stoned or crucified could not be buried in the family grave, but after the decay of his flesh, the family could place his bones there. Graves must not be desecrated, and even today, religious Jews carefully make sure that archaeologists do not commit sacrilege when excavating ancient tombs.

Because Jews believed that dead bodies were defiling, they did not allow burials inside an inhabited city and thus located graves outside the city walls. In Jerusalem alone, within the many necropolises surrounding the city, archaeologists have surveyed about 1,500 graves. As indicated by the types of ceramics found in a particular tomb, its period of use could last from two or three generations to 500 or 600 years.

The largest tombs near Jerusalem are located in the necropolis north of the Damascus Gate, where there are two tombs of more than 100 m2 each in the courtyard of St. Stephen’s Basilica. The tombs are well carved. One of them has two sarcophagi—the only ones in Jerusalem—which has led some to believe they could be the tombs of the kings of Judah.

Examination of the bones from tombs revealed that they belonged to approximately 46 people, 26 adults and 17 children. The oldest was about 60 years. Men were 157-167 cm tall, and women 144-152 cm. The teeth do not show decay, but the bone around the eye sockets of the skulls showed that they might have suffered from anemia. People who lived during that period had short life expectancies and significant health issues. The data gathered from the tombs help us learn more about their food, physical condition, diseases, age of burial, financial situation, and beliefs about life after death.

The Jews did adopt some pagan burial practices, as evidenced by the artifacts found in the graves: ceramics, jewelry, and weapons. Their presence and quantity vary according to family wealth. Grave pottery differed from the types found in their homes. A tomb or grave usually had the following kinds of pottery: clay pots both large and small, perfume jars, and oil lamps used to light the tomb. The lamp was placed next to the body’s head and the pots to its feet. Archaeologists have found numerous jewelry pieces, such as those listed in Isaiah 3:18-21, as well as beautifully crafted golden objects, especially earrings but also ivory or bone miniature models and gemstones. Weapons, unlike in pagan graves, usually consist of arrowheads instead of knives and swords. The grave goods further reveal a belief in the existence of life after death.

Generally speaking, graves do not contain inscriptions because of the Deuteronomic rule of using uncut stones (Deut. 27:5, 6). Only one known grave of an individual named Shebna has an inscription carved on its structure, but the prophet Isaiah cursed the practice (Isa. 22:15-18). Archaeologists have, however, found seals, bullae, or metallic pieces with inscriptions. The most famous grave containing such writing is the seventh-century BC one from Ketef Hinnom that had two silver scrolls inscribed with the oldest known examples of biblical texts.

Graves represent strong evidence of the people’s faith. The essential element in Jewish ones is the bone repository, placed under the stone bench of the deceased. The custom of storing bones together from entire generations of the same family is probably the practice that many biblical texts refer to when they say that “all that generation had been gathered to their fathers” (Judg. 2:10; 2 Kings 22:20). Both the biblical expression and the mortuary practice demonstrate a widespread belief and hope that families would be together once again. The burning desire of religious Jews was to be buried together with their family in their father’s tomb.


Geva, Ancient Jerusalem Revealed, 107, 108.