Saturday, July 11, 2015

Beit She'arim and the Jewish Burial Practices at the time of Yeshua

Israel’s Beit She’arim National Park is the site of a small Jewish town in the lower Galilee dating from the second temple period. After the Bar-Kochba revolt in 135 C.E., the Sanhedrin, the Jewish authoritative body, moved from Jerusalem wandering around the Galilee region eventually settling in Beit She’arim. Beit She’arim became the center of Jewish learning in the land up through the early part of the fourth century. It also became the favored burial place; Jerusalem was closed to the Jewish people, so this site, favored by the rabbinic leaders of the time, drew the people for both learning and as the ultimate resting place.

Ancient synagogue at Beit She'arim
The caves, dating back to the second temple period, reflect the changing Jewish habits and customs. As the centuries passed, the uniquely Jewish embellishments became mixed with Roman and Hellenistic symbols with the greatest mix of symbols in the caves of the Rabbis. Given the history and practice of the Jewish people to separate themselves from the gentile population, it raises an interesting question: Does this practice represent the ever-present danger of assimilating into the broader culture or does it show the ability to glean nuggets from other cultures without losing one’s own identity? This is an interesting question to ponder!

Large burial chamber with Jewish and pagan symbols
What intrigued me most about the tombs in Beit She’arim was that each cave held places for many bodies to be interred. The simplest burial cave had shelves cut out of the wall with recessed places to place the body. Bodies could be placed side by side with only a small raised section between each body.

Side by side burial shelves

Most caves had small rectangular doors sealed by one or more stone doors pivoting on hinges. The larger caves had larger openings, but again the openings were shaped into a traditional door shape with larger hinged stone doors. The stone doors were embellished with decorations and symbols sometimes including information about who was interred in the cave. One cave was designated as that of the Itzak Zaira son of Shimon. Most caves had several different chambers of various sizes. Some chambers held burial shelves; others held large stone coffins intricately carved and inscribed with the name of the person interred within. One cave with three large chambers was designated as the cave of Rabbe Yehuda Hanassi, one of the leading Rabbis of the time.

The stone coffins were a relatively new custom picked up from the Romans. The bodies would have been anointed with burial spices, wrapped in linen cloth, and placed either on the burial shelf or in the stone coffin. The bodies placed on the burial shelf would decay quickly. And when the flesh had fully decayed, leaving only the bones, the bones would be placed in a stone ossuary in another part of the tomb. The shelf would, then, be available for another body. A cave used for multi generations of the same family would contain many such ossuaries.

Why did I bother to relate all this? For the simple reason to illustrate the burial practices that would have been in place at the time of Yeshua’s death, burial, and resurrection. We read that Yeshua was laid in the tomb of a man named Joseph of Arimethea.

Luke 23:50-54 NKJV 50 Now behold, there was a man named Joseph, a council member, a good and just man. 51 He had not consented to their decision and deed. He was from Arimathea, a city of the Jews, who himself was also waiting for the kingdom of God. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a tomb that was hewn out of the rock, where no one had ever lain before. 54 That day was the Preparation, and the Sabbath drew near.

There are several pertinent facts in this short passage. First, Joseph was not from Jerusalem. Scholars differ on where they believe Arimathea was located placing it as far away as Dan in the North to within 10 miles of Jerusalem. But the point is that even though Joseph was not from Jerusalem, he wanted to be buried near Jerusalem. The sages believe that the resurrection of the dead would begin with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then, after the patriarchs, the resurrection of the dead would begin at Jerusalem. To this day, burial plots near Jerusalem are coveted and expensive to aquire. A cemetery on the Mount of Olives just east of Jerusalem is a popular site even today. Instead of burial caves, the graves are dug in the ground very much as you would see in any typical western cemetery.

Jewish cemetery on the Mt. of Olives
So, Joseph of Arimathea had purchased a rocky area and had a tomb hewn from the its face. We tend to think that the tomb would be large enough for just one body, but the tomb may have been fairly large. If Joseph had a family, he would want it large enough to provide burial space for the whole family. It might even have had several chambers or at least room for the construction of several chambers! It did have had a fairly small doorway, like those found at Beit She’Arim, instead of the huge cave-like opening usually thought of when picturing Yeshua’s tomb. When Peter and John went to the tomb the third morning after Yeshua’s death, they had to stoop to look into the tomb.

John 20:4-5 NKJV 4 So they both ran together, and the other disciple outran Peter and came to the tomb first. 5 And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the tomb was small; many of the tombs in Beit She’arim had small doors but room for many bodies, and even more than one chamber.
Showing both small and large stone doors of burial chambers

Finally, this tomb had never been used! No dead body had ever been placed on the burial shelf which Yeshua’s body occupied for three days. No ossuaries containing the bones from previous occupant! This is an important point. The ground where he lay, the chamber where he was interred had never been unclean because of the presence of a dead body. No body except Yeshua’s had ever been placed in that burial cave. Also, it was so new that apparently the stone door that would seal the cave and allow it to be opened for further use had not yet been prepared. Joseph had to roll a large stone in front of the opening. Instead of having an ornate door intricately carved and attached with hinges, a simple stone was rolled across the opening. This stone may have been put there, near the opening, in preparation to be carved into the stone door which would have had hinges for opening.

But instead this stone was not yet hewn and had no ornamentation. Stone that had any connection with God was to be unhewn stone, from the stone used to build an altar to the stone that Daniel describes as crushing the kingdoms of the earth.

Daniel 2:32-34 NKJV 32 "This image's head was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, 33 "its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. 34 "You watched while a stone was cut out without hands, which struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces.

Even in death, Yeshua had a special tomb prepared for the three days of His death. The tomb was new; no body but Yeshua’s was put into it. I wonder if Joseph of Arimathea ever did use that tomb for himself or his family. The tomb was sealed with an unhewn stone.

Yeshua’s tomb was not the only one that was left empty. Through an interesting play on the name “Joseph,” we find another empty tomb. Yeshua’s burial tomb belonged to a man named Joseph, and Yeshua’s earthly father was named Joseph. At the first Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread during the Exodus, the children of Israel took Joseph son of Jacob’s, bones with them when they left Egypt.

Exodus 13:19 NKJV 19 And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had placed the children of Israel under solemn oath, saying, "God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here with you."

This left Joseph’s tomb in Egypt empty foreshadowing Yeshua’s resurrection.

Shalom and be blessed
Dan and Brenda Cathcart

The Burial Tomb of Yeshua

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Reflections on Jerusalem

Dan and I took the bus into Jerusalem from the city of Zichron Ya’akov on the coast. As we approached Jerusalem, I watched avidly out the window looking for my first glimpse of God’s chosen city. The road began to wind higher and higher up and away from the coast. The traffic got heavier, the bus went slower, horns honked, drivers boldly elbowed their way from lane to lane. We experienced a loud, crowded, vibrant modern city with all the brashness characteristic of European and East Coast cities. Those of us on the west coast tend to be a little more laid back!

We finally arrived at the Central Bus Station and made our way out to the street. We had arrived! We were in Jerusalem! Our thoughts were totally focused on finding our way to our hostel. But as we started walking, the hostel was a short 15 minute walk away, it began to sink in; we were in Jerusalem. What a mixture of old and new. The sounds of construction were everywhere. The evidence of an ancient city next door to a new high-rise going up!

After we checked in, we headed out for the Old City, once again walking; it was only another 15 minute walk down Jaffa or Yaffo Street. We walked past small cafes with tables out front, shops with their wares displayed outside their doors, people hurrying here and there. We kept watching for our first glimpse of Jaffa Gate, but first, we walked by the City Hall, and the New Jaffa Gate, then around a slight corner and down the stairs, Jaffa Gate and the Old City!

As we entered through the gate and stopped to look around, I’m sure we looked like just what we were, first time tourists looking in awe at all we saw. Sucker written all over us! A shop keeper approached lured us, me especially, into his shop for a session of “Can I make you buy?” We survived, barely, and

continued our walk; we weren’t going anywhere in particular, just looking at what was there. We decided we had better head straight so we could find our way back out! So, into the bazaar we went. Small crowded street, people elbow to elbow, pushing one way and the other; shop keepers calling out to buy their goods! The cacophony overwhelmed the senses. Dan got grouchy! He did not like being in those small spaces with all the people crowded around and shop keepers looking for their next prey, er… customer!

We walked just a few minutes and decided retreat was a good idea! It was time for lunch and stepping back just a bit. We were scheduled to meet our new/old friend Christine Darg of Exploits Ministries in a coffee shop in a shopping mall just down the street; so we turned our feet away from the ancient and returned to the modern—A modern shopping mall about 10 years old as opposed to a teeming bazaar a couple thousand years old!

What was it like for the average Jewish person of Yeshua’s time to enter Jerusalem for the first time? Chances are the average person only went to Jerusalem at the time of the pilgrimage feasts, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles!

Deuteronomy 16:16-17 NKJV 16 "Three times a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Tabernacles; and they shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed. 17 "Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the LORD your God which He has given you.

Josephus tells us that the population of Jerusalem soared to 2.5 million people at these events. Today the population is 800,000 in an area much bigger than that encompassed by the Old City. Imagine the pushing, shoving, and jostling of the crowds of people three times as many as today! Not buses, trucks, cars and taxis; but horses, donkeys, camels, carts, and wagons. People carrying their offerings they were bringing to the LORD; perhaps leading a bull, sheep or goat to be offered to the LORD. Perhaps carrying their offering in a bundle balanced on their heads or over their shoulders, all looking for a place to stay and get settled before bringing their offerings, before seeking out the Temple. So, after that first glimpse of the temple, they might have retreated to their camp, their inn, or relative’s house to rest after their long journey and prepare to enter the House of God.

One of the essential preparations was to undergo the ritual cleansing of the mikvah. Only those who were clean could enter the temple. Any number of activities could make a person unclean including sexual relations, childbirth, touching a dead animal or being in the room with a dead body, walking over a grave, eating the flesh of an unclean animal, as well as sin. The remedy for all of these included a ceremonial washing. Special baths called mikvot were used for this ceremony. They could be found all around the temple as well as in most if not all Jewish homes.
God, through Moses, described the cleansing process necessary to set the Levites aside for His service concluding with the following words.

Numbers 8:7 NKJV 7 "Thus you shall do to them to cleanse them: Sprinkle water of purification on them, and let them shave all their body, and let them wash their clothes, and so make themselves clean.

Another preparation that many of the Jews would need to make was obtaining an offering to bring before the LORD. Many people brought their offerings with them, but those traveling from afar would have to purchase their offerings in Jerusalem.

Deuteronomy 14:24-26 NKJV 24 "But if the journey is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, or if the place where the LORD your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, when the LORD your God has blessed you, 25 "then you shall exchange it for money, take the money in your hand, and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses. 26 "And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household.

As a result a thriving business dealing in temple offerings sprang up in and around Jerusalem including within the Temple itself! All pilgrims had to bring an offering; God commanded that they not appear before Him empty-handed. The pilgrims, then, were at the mercy of the merchants! The merchants could and did charge exorbitant prices for their goods. This coupled with setting up shop within the Temple itself is why Yeshua drove the moneychangers and merchants out of the temple!

John 2:14-16 NKJV 14 And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the moneychangers doing business. 15 When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers' money and overturned the tables. 16 And He said to those who sold doves, "Take these things away! Do not make My Father's house a house of merchandise!"

Are you ready to enter the House of God? Like the pilgrims of Yeshua’s time, we need to get ready; we need to be ritually clean to enter the House. How do we get clean? What do we do? Peter’s words to the Jewish people gathered at the Feast of Weeks when the Holy Spirit empowered them are just as true today.

Acts 2:36-39 NKJV 36 "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ." 37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" 38 Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 "For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call."

Acts 2:41 NKJV 41 Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.

On our first trip to Jerusalem, we toured the city by bus seeing important places and buildings both old and new. We stopped and looked out over the city from Mt. Scopus and Mt. Zion. We met up with old friends and new.

We walked from the top of Mt. Olives down to the gates of the Old City, following a path very like the one Yeshua walked when He came into Jerusalem. We saw the Beautiful Gate, the gate Yeshua entered through, sealed off with a thick stone wall.

We visited the Israel Museum where we learned about the antiquities of Israel discovered by the archeologists who dig into Israel’s past. We saw the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Shrine of the Book Exhibit which verify the integrity of the scriptures as they have come down to us virtually unchanged over two thousand years. We saw the model of the city as it existed in Yeshua’s day, at the time of King Herod and Roman rule.

Next time we visit Jerusalem, we will approach the Western Wall, the only wall of the temple still standing where Jewish pilgrims can approach to worship and pray to God. We will visit the site of the archeological excavations of the ancient city of Jerusalem, the city of David. We will also visit the Holocaust Museum, as we remember those Jews who were slaughtered just because they were Jews, the people set apart by God as His chosen people. God will bring His people back and cleanse them making them ready to enter into His presence.

Ezekiel 36:24-28 NKJV 24 "For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. 25 "Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 "I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. 28 "Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God.

Shalom and be blessed,
Dan and Brenda