Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Handling Death

Numbers 19:16-18, 20
Some people must think I'm balmy to be so fascinated with the Pentateuch. I find it such a rich story of an extended family's intimate relationship with God. Anyway, these verses in Numbers deal with how the Israelites should handle death -- or how they shouldn't handle it.

Clearly, God knew that occasionally people would have to touch dead things, or be in the same room with dead things. But He doesn't like it. If a person came in contact with a dead body (human or animal) or even a bone, or even just a grave, He wanted them to know that this is not normative behavior. You shouldn't be handling death.

So He told them, if they did this, they would be unclean. This isn't some meanness on God's part. It's just His way of giving them a consistent reminder that death is bad, and He didn't want them messing with it. He gave them a quick way to become clean again. It was no huge deal;  no permanent stain or damage resulted from touching dead stuff. But it's an issue about which God feels strongly.

Then there's verse 20: "But the man who is unclean and does not purify himself from uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, because he has defiled the sanctuary of the LORD; the water for impurity has not been sprinkled on him; he is unclean."

If you became unclean from touching a bone, grave, or dead body, it took a week for you to be clean again. You had to consider your situation. But any clean person could relieve you of this, over the week's time, by sprinkling this water on you. The only really serious penalty fell on someone who stayed unclean because he'd handled death. One week? Okay. Permanently? No!

This means that nobody in the Israelite camp could make a living as a coroner or a funeral home worker. Nobody could handle dead remains, bones or deal with graves on an ongoing basis. These were not "jobs" that any one person could do full time. So guess who did these jobs?  Everyone.  Just a little, when necessary.

If your loved one died in Israel, you couldn't call your friendly mortician. There was no fellow whose job it was to dig all the graves in your tribe. What about Joseph's bones, which were carried for over 40 years in the wilderness? They must have been passed around from person to person, tent to tent, so no one person remained unclean.

What's my point? Lately, I've been discussing death issues with some lady friends. I tend to lean toward the natural burial position;  I'd prefer a pine box, no embalming, no open casket, no cremation, and being planted in a rural cemetery rather quickly. (My family should take notice of these requests!) I think the family should handle such things, not strangers brought in, whose job day in and day out, is to handle death. Nobody should handle death every day, I think. I'm not disparaging funeral home people; I'm just stating that in my opinion that's not how God intended things to be.

So these crazy rules of His, although they ensure that no one of His people would handle death all the time, also ensured that all of His people might brush with it occasionally. And He gave provision for that. One week, after the event is over (whether a small brush with death, or a big one), you have in order to contemplate the seriousness of death, of how it breaks us all apart. Of how we need help to come back together after its impact.
The grave of one of my ancestors


  1. Interesting thoughts. Do you think that Hebrews allowed Gentiles to deal with death issues for them like disposing of dead animals or to deal with dead criminals and etc?

  2. The Israelites traveled with a "mixed multitude," or a lot of non-Israelites with them. But it seems from my reading that the rules that applied to the Israelites also applied to any aliens who wanted to travel with them -- they even had to be circumcised. I can't find any indication that they hired other non-Israelites to do this kind of death work for them; from what I can see, scripture does not indicate it. So I can't say for sure. Interesting question!

  3. I think a lot of Hebrew law had to do with cleanliness so it makes sense death did as well. I'm changing my mind on many of my thoughts dealing with death; cremation being the largest. I'd wanted to be buried with Dave but that can only happen cremation. So, I'll find a little country churchyard and be buried there... hopefully in the distant future! LOL


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