Traditions About Death!
Today we will complete Genesis 49.
Then Jacob instructed them, “Soon I will die and join my ancestors. Bury me with my father and grandfather in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite. This is the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, that Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite as a permanent burial site. There Abraham and his wife Sarah are buried. There Isaac and his wife, Rebekah, are buried. And there I buried Leah. It is the plot of land and the cave that my grandfather Abraham bought from the Hittites.”
When Jacob had finished this charge to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and joined his ancestors in death.
Genesis 49:29-33 (NLT)
Chapter 49 comes to an end with Jacob commanding his sons that they are to take his body and bury it in the cave back up in Canaan, the one that Abraham purchased, and where Jacob’s parents, grandparents, and his own wife Leah lay entombed. Then, Jacob dies.
This paragraph in Genesis 49 is really the first time that Israel is seen as a nation unto itself, rather than just a man (Jacob) with his growing family of 12 sons. In fact, this is the first use of what will become a well-worn Biblical phrase, “The 12 Tribes of Israel”.
Let’s not miss the opportunity to once again notice the mindset of the ancients at work, when Jacob says “Soon I will die and join my ancestors… Bury me with my father and grandfather .”
When we can begin to grasp that 99% of everything happening in the Bible must be read BETWEEN the lines, then we can start to make all the Bible characters the real people, living real lives, under real and everyday circumstances, that they were.
It is important that we understand that the terms used and what the phrases and idioms they employed meant, were based entirely on the era in which they were spoken. They are neither universal nor timeless. This era had its own beliefs and traditions about death and its aftermath. Israel was no different.
Jacob believed what all the other Middle Eastern societies believed in…ancestor worship. In no way did this seem in conflict in having trust in Yehoveh, or His teachings.
Those other gods, for other people and other nations, did not seem to be in conflict with Yehoveh’s laws and commands. In fact, to this point in the Bible, there has been no mention of an immortal soul living on in Heaven, or any such thing beyond the haziest kind of general statement.
Now, in Egypt, and in a few of the other Middle Eastern cultures, elaborate belief systems and complex rituals concerning the dead had been developed. We don’t find that among the Israelites, but neither do we find it amongst the bulk of the ancient cultures.
Yet, in Israel, we DO find ancestor worship and respect for the dead and an understanding that there IS something beyond the grave, even if it is not fully evident.
Jacob wanted to be buried with his fathers, because if he wasn’t he wouldn’t be able to be with them after his death. After all, here Jacob was in Egypt, and his ancestors were way up in Canaan.
How could his after-death essence commune with his relatives’ after-death essences, if they were interred hundreds of miles apart? That was the thinking.
And, notice the last words that end Genesis 49: “breathed his last, and joined his ancestors in death.” Whoever wrote this down… and it is usually credited to Moses several hundred years later… also believed in ancestor worship because it states matter-of-factly that indeed Jacob WAS joined to his people.