Questions From Readers
● Is the embalming of Jacob to be viewed as setting a precedent for Christians to follow, or why was it done?
There is no evidence that Jacob’s being embalmed was to be a pattern for true worshipers. Rather, it seems that it was done out of confidence in God’s promise to give Abraham’s seed a land.
When Jacob died in Egypt his son Joseph had the body embalmed by Egyptian physicians. (Gen. 50:2, 3) Among the ancient Egyptians embalming was customary. They evidently did it because of their belief that the preserved body was necessary so the person’s soul could eventually be reunited with it. Of course, neither Jacob nor Joseph accepted the pagan teaching of the immortality of the soul. Both correctly understood that the dead within God’s provision go to Sheol, mankind’s common grave, from which God will resurrect them in time. (Gen. 37:35; 42:35; Heb. 11:21, 39, 40) Why, then, did Joseph have Jacob embalmed?
Jehovah God had covenanted with Abraham to give his seed or descendants the land of Canaan, the Promised Land. (Gen. 15:16-21) Even before that seed inherited the land Abraham and Isaac were buried there in a family burial cave. But when Jacob neared death he and his family were living in Egypt. Had he lost faith in God’s promise, concluding that the Hebrews would reside permanently in Egypt? Not at all. He made Joseph promise to bury him with his fathers in Canaan. Jacob thus manifested his confidence that God would give Abraham’s descendants that land.—Gen. 49:29-33.
To fulfill Jacob’s request, Joseph would have to take the body to the land of Canaan. But unless preventative steps were taken, the body would decompose before the long, hot trip was over. However, by drawing on the embalming skills readily available in Egypt, Joseph could preserve the body until his father was buried in the land that Jacob’s descendants would inherit.—Gen. 50:2, 3, 7-14.
About fifty-five years later Joseph himself asked that his bones be taken along when God eventually brought the Israelites out of Egypt. Thus Joseph showed that he too was convinced that God would fulfill His promise about giving Abraham’s seed a land. Accordingly, Joseph also was embalmed in Egypt, and during the exodus his remains were taken out of that land.—Gen. 50:25, 26; Josh. 24:32; Heb. 11:22.
While Hebrews in later generations considered the burial of a person to be an important act, there is no evidence that they embalmed their dead. (1 Ki. 2:31; 2 Ki. 13:21; Ps. 79:1-3; Jer. 16:4) Rather than employing Egyptian embalming techniques that involved treating the body for weeks,* the Hebrews buried their dead soon after death, even on the same day.—Deut. 21:23; Gen. 50:2, 3.
That is what occurred with Jesus. He was buried on the day he died. What was done to his body before burial? We read: “They took the body of Jesus and bound it up with bandages with the spices, just the way the Jews have the custom of preparing for burial.” (John 19:40) And though some disciples came to his tomb after the sabbath in order to apply externally some more spices to his body, there clearly was no attempt to embalm his body by a long treatment with preservatives as was done in Egypt. That the ‘customary preparing for burial’ used on Jesus was not a preserving type of embalming can be seen in the case of Lazarus. Though his body likely would have been dealt with in the normal way, his family expected that by the fourth day after death his body would already be decomposing and smelling.—John 11:39.
The early Christians seem to have generally followed the Jewish burial practices. That meant rapid burial without resorting to elaborate embalming procedures. (Acts 5:5-10; 9:37) So there is nothing to indicate that Jacob’s descendants or the first Christians looked on the embalming of Jacob or Joseph as setting a precedent for them.
In most parts of the earth today embalming is not part of the normal treatment of the dead. But it may be legally required in certain cases, such as if the body will not be buried for some days or if it will be transported a long distance. In the United States morticians normally embalm a body even if it is to be buried right away or will be cremated. However, where the law does not require that, the family of the deceased, in order to avoid needless expense or for other personal reasons, may have embalming omitted.
The embalming of Jacob and Joseph, then, need not be looked upon as a pattern that Christians must follow. But it is noteworthy that God did not include in his Word any disapproval over their being embalmed. So Christians need not feel that something unscriptural is being done if circumstances seem to require embalming.
Over a period of weeks the Egyptians would use special drugs and soak the body in natron (sodium carbonate) so that the corpse might resist decomposition for years, even centuries.