Alice C. Linsley
The burial of Jacob, who is called "Israel," poses a fascinating suggestion of thematic bracketing in Genesis. This becomes evident as we explore the two different accounts of Jacob’s burial. One places his grave in the cave at Machpelah (Gen. 23) near Hebron, and the other places it at Goren-ha-Atad (“threshing-floor of the brambles) near Shechem (Gen. 50). Because Jacob was embalmed and buried according to Egyptian custom, the local inhabitants called the place where he was grieved and buried “Abel-mizraim,” meaning the meadow (or field) of the Egyptians.
Clearly two tribal areas are competing for the right to be known as Jacob’s final resting place. One is Hebron, in the kingdom of Judah, and the other is Shechem, in the kingdom of Israel. So we have evidence of competition between tribes. But is this the meaning intended by the author of Genesis? Are we to take away from this discrepancy simply an acknowledgement of competing tribal claims or is there a deeper story?
In Genesis, conflicts between tribes or clans are conflicts between brothers. We see this in the conflict between Abraham and Lot, his brother's son, between Ishmael and Isaac, and between Jacob and Esau. The archetypical conflict is between Cain and Abel, which results in bloodshed.
To discover the intent of the author, we must pay attention to the etymology of the word “abel,” which means field or meadow. We first encounter “abel” in Genesis 4 in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain killed his brother in a field or meadow. From that field Abel’s blood cries out to God (verse 10). Abel is betrayed by his brother and God sees the betrayal and imposes judgment on Cain. Divine judgment involves Cain's having to leave the very land that is marked by Abel's blood.
The fact that the author of Genesis mentions “abel” again at the very end of the Genesis narrative suggests thematic bracketing. Abel is betrayed by Cain; likewise Jacob or Israel is betrayed by Mizraim or Egypt. This implies that those who ruled Egypt were blood relatives to Jacob and his people. It also implies an expectation that God will vindicate Israel and impose judgment on Egypt. There is further evidence for this idea of thematic bracketing in the account of the Egyptians’ journey to Goren ha-Atad. The burial procession corresponds to the route of Israel’s exodus under Moses’ leadership.
Different Burial Practices
According to Genesis 50, Jacob was embalmed and the process took at least 40 days to complete. More typically the process took 70 days. Genesis says, “It required forty days, for such is the full period of embalming. The Egyptians bewailed him seventy days.”
The Egyptians practiced embalming for thousands of years, yet no Egyptian embalmer recorded the process. It remained a secret until the Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt around 450 B.C. Herodotus described the embalming process as follows:
As much of the brain as possible is extracted through the nostrils with an iron hook, and what the hook cannot reach is dissolved with drugs. Next the flank is slit open with a sharp Ethiopian stone and the entire contents of the abdomen removed. The cavity is then thoroughly cleansed and washed out, first with palm wine and again with a solution of pounded spices. Then it is filled with pure crushed myrrh, cassia, and all other aromatic substances, except frankincense.
The incision is sewn up and then the body is placed in natron, covered for 70 days, never longer. When this period, which may not be longer, is over, the body is washed and then wrapped from head to feet in linen which has been cut into strips and smeared on the underside with gum, which is commonly used by the Egyptians as glue. In this condition the body is returned to the family....
This elaborate embalming process does not represent the oldest burial practices of the Egyptians, however. Before 3400 BC, Egyptians were buried intact. Because of a lack of cultivatable land, the early Egyptians buried their dead in desert pit-graves where the heat and dryness of the sand produced natural mummification. This natural process produced remarkably well preserved bodies. Later tombs for nobility were brick lined burial chambers that didn’t provide the same conditions that led to natural mummification in the desert graves. To artificially preserve the bodies, embalming became the norm. The preserved bodies of men were often covered in red ochre and the bodies of women in yellow ochre.
The burial practices of Abraham’s people do not include embalming. Instead the body was to be buried in such a way that it would “return to the ground” from which God first formed humanity (Gen. 3:19). The blood of Abraham marked the ground where he was buried near Hebron, but since Jacob’s blood was removed as part of the embalming process in Egypt, his blood did not mark the ground near Shechem.
Returning to the first Abel’s blood (Gen. 4) we understand that his blood shed in the field marked that place. The absence of Jacob’s blood in Shechem suggests that Israel does not call out to God for vindication from Shechem, but from Egypt where Jacob’s blood would have been ritually disposed.
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