The Burial of the Patriarchs

The words death and die occur over 80 times in the book of Genesis—a stark reminder of the divine judgment that resulted from taking the forbidden fruit: “in the day that thou eatest of it thou shalt certainly die” (Gen. 2: 17). However, it is also instructive to note that from Abraham onward, the people of God are recorded as burying their dead (see Gen. 23: 19; 25: 9; 35: 8, 19, 29; 48: 7; 49: 31; 50: 13). We get a clue as to why this might be in Hebrews 11, where the writer relates Abraham’s faith in relation to the offering of Isaac: “counting that God [was] able to raise [him] even from among [the] dead” (v 19). Other similar intimations from the same period also exist: “And [as for] me, I know that my Redeemer liveth, and the Last, he shall stand upon the earth; And [if] after my skin this shall be destroyed, yet from out of my flesh shall I see God; Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19: 25-27). The patriarchs (and their descendants) buried their dead because they recognised that death was not the end, and that a day would come when spirit, soul and body would be reunited. The oft-repeated refrain that a person that had died “slept with his fathers” (1 Kings 2: 10 etc., my emphasis) is a deliberate choice of language. It implied that the body would one day wake up. The prophet Daniel also knew this: “and thou shalt rest, and stand in thy lot at the end of the days” (Dan. 12: 13).

   The most significant incident relating to this subject is the burial of Sarah, for the Spirit of God devotes an entire chapter to it. The background to Abraham’s actions are given in his words to the sons of Heth: “I am a stranger and a sojourner with you” (Gen. 23: 4, my emphasis). These expressions are telling. A stranger is one who doesn’t belong here, and a sojourner is one who is not staying here—he is just passing through. That is why Abraham buried his dead. It does not follow that Abraham was inconsistent when he “came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her” (v2), for he felt the new gap in his life. He did not, however, grieve like those “who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4: 13), because he knew that death was not the end.

   In Heb. 11 we read that “By faith Joseph [when] dying called to mind the going forth of the sons of Israel, and gave commandment concerning his bones” (v22). Joseph was a great man in Egypt—he asked his brethren to tell his father of “all my glory in Egypt” (Gen. 45: 13)—but he sought no monument there. His eye was on another place: “God will certainly visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones hence” (Gen. 50: 25). He was expecting an exodus, and he had no doubt about the matter as the words “By faith” and “certainly” prove. It was not a hope-so kind of hope, but a hope in the future grounded in a firm conviction. You and I, as Christians, have an even greater hope: “For if we believe that Jesus has died and has risen again, so also God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus. (For this we say to you in [the] word of [the] Lord, that we, the living, who remain to the coming of the Lord, are in no way to anticipate those who have fallen asleep; for the Lord himself, with an assembling shout, with archangel’s voice and with trump of God, shall descend from heaven; and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we, the living who remain, shall be caught up together with them in [the] clouds, to meet the Lord in [the] air; and thus we shall be always with [the] Lord. So encourage one another with these words.)” (1 Thess. 4: 14-18). May we indeed be encouraged!