Hope of Israel Ministries (Ecclesia of YEHOVAH):
What Did the Messiah Mean?
"Let the Dead Bury Their Own Dead"!
Many Bible commentators have been critical of the Messiah's response to the disciples who requested some time off to bury their fathers -- the so-called "harsh sayings" of Yeshua found in Matthew 8:22 and Luke 9:60. After all, didn't Elijah allow Elisha to return home from the fields to bid his family good-bye? Was Elijah more compassionate than the Messiah? An understanding of first-century Jewish burial customs throws light on this paradox and reveals WHY the disciples in question received such a "harsh" rebuke from their Teacher!
by John D. Keyser
In the New Testament are mentioned two incidents when one of the Messiah's disciples requested a "leave of absence" in order to "bury" his father.
The first of these incidents, found in the Book of Matthew, occurred when Yeshua was about to take the twelve disciples across the Sea of Galilee to the Decapolis city of Gadara. This trip was the first recorded journey of the Messiah to minister to Gentiles in Gentile territory.
Notice what Matthew says:
"Now when Jesus saw the multitudes about Him, He gave a command to depart to the other side [of the lake]. Then a certain scribe came and said to him, 'Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.' And Jesus said to him, 'Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.' Then another of His disciples said to Him, 'Lord, LET ME FIRST GO AND BURY MY FATHER.' But Jesus said to him, 'Follow Me and LET THE DEAD BURY THEIR OWN DEAD'" (Matthew 8:18-22, NKJV).
Although this request seems reasonable enough, Yeshua gave a seemingly HARSH reply to his disciple! Why the apparent "lack of compassion"? What did he really mean?
In Luke 9 we find an account of the other incident, which occurred when Yeshua was going to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles in the fall of 29 A.D.
Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, 'Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.' And Jesus said to him, 'Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay His head.' Then He said to another, 'Follow Me.' But he said, 'Lord, let me first go and bury my father.' Jesus said to him, 'LET THE DEAD BURY THEIR OWN DEAD, but you go and preach the kingdom of God' (Luke 9:57-60).
A "Hard Saying" of Yeshua?
Critics of the Bible have often considered these as "hard sayings" of Yeshua -- sayings in which he encouraged his disciples to BREAK the fifth commandment (honor your father and mother) by not giving their fathers a proper burial. Is this consistent with the laws of YEHOVAH God? Is the Messiah really demanding this?
Most commentators suggest that Yeshua meant "Leave the (spiritual) dead to bury the (physical) dead" -- see The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, by J. Fitzmyer, and Luke, The Expositor's Bible Commentary, by W. Liefeld. This interpretation, though common and known as the "majority interpretation," simply is NOT consistent with the text and with FIRST-CENTURY JEWISH BURIAL CUSTOMS!
What About Elijah?
To further complicate the issue, there is a similar example found in the Old Testament -- where Elijah calls Elisha to follow him.
So he [Elijah] departed from there, and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he was with the twelfth. Then Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle on him. And he [Elisha] left the oxen and ran after Elijah, and said, 'PLEASE LET ME KISS MY FATHER AND MY MOTHER, AND THEN I WILL FOLLOW YOU.' And he [Elijah] said to him, 'GO BACK AGAIN, FOR WHAT HAVE I DONE TO YOU?' So Elisha TURNED BACK FROM HIM, and took a yoke of oxen and slaughtered them and boiled their flesh, using the oxen's equipment, and gave it to the people, and they ate. THEN he arose and FOLLOWED ELIJAH AND SERVED HIM (I Kings 19:19-21, NKJV).
Here we see Elijah allowing Elisha to return home to bid his parents good-bye BEFORE leaving to serve him. Elijah did NOT insist that Elisha drop everything, leave the oxen in the field and disappear off the face of the earth as far as his family was concerned! Was Elijah more righteous and compassionate than the Messiah?
What's Wrong With the "Majority Interpretation"?
Byron McCane of Duke University (in his book entitled Let the Dead Bury Their Own Dead) reveals THREE problems with the so-called "majority interpretation":
First, it does not give an adequate explanation of the disciples' request, 'Let me FIRST go and bury my father.' The MI [majority interpretation] sees the request as a CONFLICT OF LOYALTIES between the disciple's RESPONSIBILITIES to his dead father and his commitment to follow Jesus. This MINIMIZES the importance of the adverb "first." In each case, the disciple was requesting time to fulfill his FAMILY OBLIGATION regarding the burial of his father. Once this obligation was discharged, the disciple would be free to return and follow Christ. Thus the MI [majority interpretation] DOES NOT explain the disciples' request for time.
Secondly, those who follow the MI generally omit the words 'THEIR OWN DEAD,' because they want to distinguish between two meanings of the word 'dead.' 'Let the SPIRITUALLY dead bury the PHYSICALLY dead.' However, the text says, 'their OWN dead,' indicating that the occurrence of 'dead' is connected in a reflexive possessive relation. There is no need to spiritualize the text regarding the dead; BOTH are physically dead!
McCane's third point argues that the majority interpretation goes contrary to FIRST-CENTURY JEWISH BURIAL CUSTOMS! Under first-century Judaism a person who had just died was taken out and buried IMMEDIATELY in the family burial cave which normally was hewn out of bedrock. This custom was based on Deuteronomy 21:22-23 which states that an executed person should not be left on a tree overnight.
Two examples of this custom are found in the New Testament:
Therefore, because it was the Preparation day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away (John 19:31).
Also, in Acts 5:5-10, we read the story of Ananias and Sapphira:
Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last...And the young men arose and wrapped him up, CARRIED HIM OUT, AND BURIED HIM. Now it was about THREE HOURS LATER when his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter answered her, 'Tell me whether you sold the land for so much?' And she said, 'Yes, for so much.' Then Peter said to her, 'How is it that you have agreed together to test the spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those WHO HAVE BURIED YOUR HUSBAND are at the door, and they will carry you out.' Then immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. And the young men came in and found her dead, and carrying her out, BURIED HER BY HER HUSBAND.
According to Jewish custom, immediately after the burial the family would separate itself from the community and mourn for seven days. This mourning period was known as "shiv'ah." It would therefore have been IMPOSSIBLE for a disciple of the Messiah to make his request for a leave of absence if his father had just died -- he would have been preparing for the period of mourning and would NOT have been in the Messiah's entourage! If he was the eldest son he would have been OBLIGATED BY JEWISH CUSTOM AND THE TORAH to bury his father IMMEDIATELY! As Byron McCane states, "if the MI is correct, the disciple would have been acting CONTRARY TO NORMAL FIRST-CENTURY JEWISH BURIAL PRACTICES."
Did the Messiah fly in the face of a Biblically correct burial custom?
The Secondary Burial
To find a logical explanation for this paradox, we must EXAMINE Jewish burial practices extant at the time of the Messiah.
Notice what Gordon Franz reveals:
After a body was placed in a burial cave, it was left to decompose. The family MOURNED FOR SEVEN DAYS. This initial mourning period was followed by a less intense 30-day period of mourning, called shloshim. However, the entire mourning period was not fully over until the flesh of the deceased had decomposed, usually about A YEAR LATER (Archaeology and Biblical Research, Spring 1992, p. 55).
The next step in the burial practice is explained by The Jerusalem Talmud:
"When the flesh had wasted away, the bones were collected and placed in chests (ossuaries). On that day (the son) mourned, but the following day he was glad, because his forebears rested from judgment (Moed Qatan 1:5)."
This final act of mourning, in which the fleshless bones were gathered and placed into a bone box called an ossuary, was known as the "ossilegium" or "SECOND BURIAL." It was THIS ACT which invoked Yeshua's response. Yeshua's response to the disciples' request makes perfect sense when we consider the Jewish custom of SECONDARY BURIAL. "Their fathers had died, been placed in the family burial cave, and the sons had sat shiv'ah and most likely also shloshim. They then requested anywhere from a few weeks to up to 11 months to finish the ritual of ossilegium before they returned to Jesus" (Archaeology and Biblical Research, Spring 1992, p. 55).
We can also see that Yeshua's SHARP ANSWER fits well with the secondary burial. The fathers had been buried in the family burial caves and their bodies were slowly decomposing. In the tombs or burial caves (along with the fathers) were OTHER family members who had died -- some awaiting secondary burial and others already placed in ossuaries. "When Jesus stated 'Let the dead bury their own dead,' He was referring to the TWO DIFFERENT KINDS OF DEAD in the tombs: the bones of the deceased which had already been neatly placed in the ossuaries and the fathers who had yet to be reburied" (Ibid., p.55). Clearly, the little phrase "OWN DEAD" indicates that the fathers were included among the dead!
The First Excuse!
It has been proffered that in the first case (after Yeshua and the disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee) the disciple asking for a "leave of absence" did so because he did not want to minister to the unclean, non-kosher Gentiles! So he made an excuse, "Let me first go and bury my father."
Gordon Franz notes:
He most likely appealed to the Jewish burial practice of ossilgium, or SECONDARY BURIAL, which would remove him from following the Lord for up to 11 months. Jesus saw this as an excuse not to minister to the Gentiles. As a result He rebuked him with a statement of irony and challenged the disciple to follow Him.
We know from Acts 10:9-22 and Galatians 2:11-21 that Peter had a definite problem associating with Gentiles, so this scenario is not at all unlikely.
The Second Excuse!
In the second incident the disciple concerned asked to be excused for the same reason. It could very well be that this disciple was taking advantage of the trip to Jerusalem for the Feast in order to REBURY THE BONES of his father in the Holy City. If this was the case, Yeshua felt it was far more pressing for him to accompany him to Perea than to rebury the bones of his father in Jerusalem.
In both cases, the father had died MORE THAN A MONTH PRIOR and Yeshua rebuked the disciple with the same stern response.
A Pagan Practice?
We have already asked, "Why would the Messiah respond to the disciples' requests in such a seemingly harsh manner?" For two very good reasons! First of all, the Messiah responded in the way he did to encourage the disciple concerned to faithfully follow him. Secondly, and more important, the Messiah responded in this manner to teach his followers CORRECT THEOLOGY!
Notice the following:
The concept of gathering the bones of one's ancestors is deeply embedded in the Hebrew Scriptures and reflected in Iron Age burial practices (Gen. 49:29; Judges 2:10; 16:31; I Kings 11:21, 43, etc.). However, by New Testament times, the concept had taken on a NEW MEANING. According to the Rabbinic sources, the decomposition of the flesh ATONED FOR THE SINS OF THE DEAD PERSON (a kind of purgatory) and the FINAL STAGE of this process was gathering the bones and placing them in an ossuary (Meyers 1971: 80-85). Jesus confronted this CONTRARY THEOLOGY. Only faith in Christ's redemptive work on the cross can atone for sin, not rotting flesh...Jesus may have rebuked these two disciples rather harshly because THEY WERE FOLLOWING THE CORRUPT JEWISH PRACTICE OF SECONDARY BURIAL. (Archaeology and Biblical Research, Spring 1992, pps. 56-57).
An Amplified Rendition
An amplified (interpretive) rendition of the Messiah's response to his disciples might look something like this:
Look, you have already honored your father by giving him a proper and decent burial in the family sepulcher. Now, instead of waiting for the flesh to decompose, which can NEVER atone for sin, go and preach the Kingdom of God and tell of the only true means of atonement -- faith in and obedience to Christ. Let the bones of your dead father's ancestors gather his bones and place them in an ossuary. You follow Me!
This rendition allows for Yeshua to have UPHELD THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT and to have been consistent with the example of Elijah and Elisha in the Old Testament. It also takes the text of Matthew 8 and Luke 9 at face value -- and DOES JUSTICE to the Jewish burial practices of the first century. This rendition is, therefore, consistent with the laws of YEHOVAH God, the Bible and Jewish tradition. And, above all, it shows WHY Yeshua reacted in such a seemingly harsh fashion to an apparently innocuous request by his disciples.
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