What Did Feeding the Dead Mean? Two Case Studies from Iron Age Tombs at Beth-Shemesh

Main Article Content

Matthew Suriano http://orcid.org/0000-0001-7459-5682


Feeding the dead was an accepted cultural practice in the world of biblical writers. It is circumscribed by cultic considerations in passages such as Deut 26:14, but there are no texts that prohibit the placing of food inside tombs. Thus, the biblical writers tacitly acknowledged the practice, though feeding the dead is never explicitly prescribed in the Hebrew Bible. Conversely, mortuary remains from Judah indicate that it was common during the Iron Age II–III, continuing into the Second Temple Period. Yet the evidence is incomplete. There are few inscriptional or iconographic sources that shed light on the association of food and the dead. The purpose of this paper is to reframe feeding the dead and reexamine it through the study of ritual. The practice involved placing food inside a space –the tomb– ritualized through binary oppositions such as living/dead and pure/impure. The latter dichotomy is instructive because biblical allusions to the practice are often found in the image of food made impure due to contact with the dead (see Hos 9:4). The impure food in these literary scenarios is an outcome of ritualization. Two Iron Age tombs from Beth-Shemesh will serve as case examples for how we might explore feeding the dead using the binary oppositions that are evoked in biblical concepts of ritual impurity, particularly those concerned with the treatment of the corpse. These archaeological case studies will, in turn, suggest new ways of looking at what feeding the dead meant in the Hebrew Bible.

Article Details

Research Articles