84. Coffins in Israel

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2 Chronicles 16:13-14 says, “Asa rested with his fathers. … They buried him in his tomb, which he had cut out for himself in the City of David. They laid him on a bier that was covered with all kinds of fragrant spices and perfumed ointments, skillfully blended by the perfume makers. They burned a very large bonfire in his honor.” The EHV Study Bible adds the footnote: “Or in a coffin.” Is “coffin” really a possibility? Did they use boxes for burial or even for burning? It does not appear that משכב is ever used for the concept of a box. Wouldn’t suggesting “coffin” be a case of transposing our culture onto that of the text?

“Is coffin really a possibility?” The short answer is “yes” —a possibility but not a certainty or even a high probability. That is why the suggestion is in the footnote.

The first (and maybe the only) person in the Bible who was buried in a coffin was Joseph (Genesis 50:26). Joseph died and was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt, where he would remain for many years until Israel took Joseph with them on the Exodus and buried him near Shechem in the middle of his tribal inheritance in Israel. The Hebrew word for his coffin is aron, which can refer to any sort of box or chest. Most often it refers to the Ark of the Covenant. Since Joseph was being honored as a prince of Egypt, it is likely his coffin was an anthropoid (human-shaped) coffin, the form common in Egypt. It was likely made of metal. Many clay coffins of this type have been found in the land of Israel. Most of them probably are burials of Egyptians, though some may be local nobility trying to adopt Egyptian fashion.

Incidentally, Jacob’s burial at Machpelah also required a long journey across the desert. Jacob was embalmed and his body was kept in Egypt for 70 days before the funeral trip. The text does not say whether he had a coffin, but it seems probable due to the circumstances of the long journey.

The next interesting instance is in Deuteronomy 3:11: “Only Og king of Bashan had remained from what was left of the Rephaim. His bed, a bed of iron, is it not in Rabbah of the people of Ammon? Its length is thirteen feet, and its width is six feet.” EHV has the footnote: “Or sarcophagus.” The relevant Hebrew word is ‘eres, which most translations render as bed or bed frame. CEV, GNT, and NET render it as some form of coffin. The BDB Hebrew lexicon offers coffin as an option. ‘Eres does not seem to be an ordinary resting place but a luxurious one. Israel had just recently defeated Og and seized his territory. The question is whether this was a bed which Israel found in his palace or his final resting place.

That brings us to 2 Chronicles 16:14, which is our text. “They laid him on a bier that was covered with all kinds of fragrant spices and perfumed ointments.” EHV offers the footnote: “Or in a coffin.” Rather literally rendered, the passage says that Asa lay down with his fathers, and they laid him down on or in a lying down spot. All three expressions are from the same Hebrew root. The root shakav can mean lie down in death, lie down to sleep, or lie down to have sex. For the noun lying down spot most translations have bed. Others have bier. A few have coffin. Others simply skip the cognate noun that follows the verb lay down. One Jewish translation has mishgav, a nice non-committal, straddle translation.

The third instance, the funeral procession of the young man at Nain in Luke 7:14, is in some respects the most surprising. The Greek word for his coffin is soros. The BAG lexicon for New Testament Greek defines it as coffin or bier, but the Liddell and Scott lexicon of classical Greek defines soros as: a vessel for holding anything , especially a cinerary container; a coffin; or a nickname for an old person. Soros is the word used for Joseph’s coffin in the Greek Old Testament in Genesis 50. It is clear that the primary meaning of the word was a container for the ashes of the deceased, but by extension it seemingly can refer to a coffin or even a bier to carry the dead (the last meaning seemingly deduced from Luke 7). The most common English translation in Luke 7 is bier, though this is not the original base meaning of the word. Other translations include stretcher, funeral bed, coffin, open coffin, and the thing on which the body lay. The last translation the thing on which the body lay has much to commend it. It reflects the translators’ frustration at trying to find an English word to express the concept.

Ambiguity of terminology is really the heart of the problem. Words have a wide range of meanings and usages, and there seldom is a one-to-one matchup between English words and Greek or Hebrew words. None of the biblical words in our discussion is a one-for-one match with the English word coffin, which is a container used to hold a body, usually small enough to be used in transporting the body. A larger container into which the body is placed at the tomb site could be called a sarcophagus (a flesh-eating stone box). To make things more complicated, a coffin could be placed inside a sarcophagus. Bier means a framework for carrying something; a stand for a coffin; or the coffin with its stand. A stretcher is used to transport a body, but it does not remain with the body. None of the biblical words in our discussion align neatly with any of these categories.

In Luke 7:14 the EHV goes with what is a minority rendering, open coffin. The Concordia Commentary, like many others, has the rendering bier, without offering any explanation for its choice. The choice of the EHV translator, open coffin, is good in that it considers two somewhat contradictory points: the base meaning of the Greek word is container or coffin, but many authorities confidently state that the Jews of the time did not use what we would call coffins. The term open coffin considers both aspects of the issue. The term open coffin also leaves the issue somewhat unresolved since there is not a uniform understanding of the term open coffin. Different writers use the term to refer to either an open box, a plank, a bier, or something else that they were using. The soros, however, seems to be more than a stretcher. It is something funerary, but exactly what it was is uncertain.

So did Israelites ever use what we would call coffins? There are quite a few coffins in the land of Israel, but most of them seem to be burials of non-Israelites, or local elites trying to emulate Egyptian, Assyrian, or Roman practices. A large stone coffin or we might call it a sarcophagus was found at the site of Herod’s tomb. Ahiram, a Phoenician king who was a near contemporary of Asa, was buried in a coffin. It seems clear that the predominant form of burial for Israelites was in a shroud without a coffin. Coffins were used mainly when the body had to be transported some distance. The protective function of a coffin could be served by the structure of the grave or tomb. In family tombs the deceased were placed on a bed. Later, when they had been reduced to a skeleton, their bones were placed in a container with other family members. In New Testament times, the bones could be placed in an individual stone box called an ossuary. One such box may be the resting place of Jesus’ brother James. Simple graves could be made into a coffin of sorts by lining them with stones or packing hard red clay around the body. If the shroud was placed in a wooden box, the only remaining evidence today would be the nails. Though the references to coffins in the Talmud may refer to later times, they should give us pause about accepting the common claim that Jews never used coffins.

To sum up, Joseph and very likely Jacob were buried in coffins. There is archaeological evidence that Herod the Great was buried in a sarcophagus after being transported from Jericho on a golden bier. Elites around Israel used coffins. There is no unambiguous evidence concerning the kings of Israel. It is not clear why Asa’s committal receives special attention. The assumption that Jews never used coffins may be an oversimplification. The Greek word used for the youth of Nain’s resting place is the same word used for Joseph’s coffin.

The main lesson to be learned here is one which we repeat so often at the conclusion of these FAQs that we sound like a broken record: “Things that at first glance seem very simple turn out to be more complicated than anyone imagined.” As long as we are on the subject of the complexity of language, how many of you remember from personal experience what it means to “sound like a broken record”?