Embalming Jacob – A Lesson to Diaspora Communities

The book of Genesis ends with death in Egypt. First Jacob dies, then Joseph. Following the Egyptian custom, they were both embalmed. The Torah makes no mention of how the embalming was carried out, which parts of the body were removed or which embalming fluids were used. Indeed it gives no detail at all, other than the fact that they were each embalmed.

This is a little surprising. Embalming was not a Hebrew custom; no other corpse in the Bible is subjected to the process. There is little doubt that the only reason they were embalmed was because they lived in Egypt, yet the whole subject is dealt with very casually: ‘Then Joseph ordered his servants, the doctors, to embalm his father, and the physicians embalmed Israel’ (50,2).

Once embalmed, Jacob’s body was carried in a formal and public procession to the burial site that he had earmarked for himself, to the family tomb in Hebron. To get there they had to pass through Canaanite lands. The procession and the mourning rituals were so alien to the local Canaanites that they called them ‘a great Egyptian lamentation.’ Not, we might note, a ‘Hebrew lamentation’. The Hebrews had lived among the Canaanites for several generations and their customs would have been familiar to them. The Canaanites could see this was no Hebrew rite. The funeral, like the embalming, was Egyptian in character.

The question is, why would this Hebrew family, the bearers of a unique and exclusive religious tradition, who already had their own burial place and funerary customs, bury their patriarch according to Egyptian tradition, rather than their own?

The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 100,) suggests that Joseph was punished for embalming his father. His allotted lifespan was shortened. But this doesn’t seem right. At the end of the previous chapter the Torah states that Jacob died after he had finished commanding his sons.  Later it says (50,12) that his sons did as they had been commanded. One of the commands was to bury him in Hebron. Presumably another was to embalm him. The embalming may have been Jacob’s wish, not Joseph’s.

Jacob knew a bit about diaspora life. He had left his family home as a young man and lived for years in exile, in Aram Naharayim with Laban. He came home again and then for a second time uprooted himself, this time to go to Egypt. When he lived in Aram Naharayim he found that his family had adopted some of the local customs. When they prepared to Leave Laban’s home Rachel could not depart without her father’s teraphim. (According to the first book of Samuel (19,13) these were life-sized idolatrous icons). Later Jacob told his household to get rid of the foreign gods they were hanging on to. Jacob knew that it is quite natural for foreigners to adopt local customs. He also knew that to be accepted, to be a part of the community in which they live, they’d have to do things they wouldn’t necessarily do if they had still been in their own society.

If Jacob commanded his sons to embalm him it was because he saw how important it was for the family to fir into Egyptian society. The Egyptians were known to be wary and suspicious of foreigners. When the brothers first came to Egypt to buy corn, Joseph had invited them to a meal but sat them separately. When Jacob arrived to live in Egypt, Joseph housed them in Goshen, away from the main population centre. It seems that the Egyptians did not like immigrants; a fact that became all too obvious after the death of Joseph when the Hebrews were enslaved.

Jacob knew that living in the diaspora involves taking on local customs, fitting in to local society. But although he had to acculturate, he wasn’t prepared to fully assimilate; when he died he made sure he was taken back to be buried among his ancestors.

Living successfully in the diaspora is a delicate thing. It requires compromises towards the society in which we live. It also requires loyalty to the culture which gives us our identity. It is not an easy balancing act. By embalming their father, Joseph and his brothers became the first biblical characters to set an example to diaspora communities. They wouldn’t be the last.

© 2020 Harry Freedman Books