This study of death and burial in Israel begins with the burials of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. By the late ninth century B.C.E., the nation-states of Israel and Judah were internationally recognized entities with defined heartlands and border regions. Attested burial types of this period illustrate the range of forms of interment employed by “ancient Israelites,” the residents of Israel and Judah. This description of burial in “ancient Israel,” as distinguished from “biblical Israel,” is defined by archaeological remains including iconographic and epigraphic evidence from the central highlands of the southern Levant. “Biblical Israel,” on the other hand, refers to the literary construct of the biblical texts; and its study, accessible only through the biblical texts, yields a different account. Harmonizing the evidence means interpreting Iron-Age burials through later literary lenses, resulting in a reconstruction of history consistent with the agendas of the later biblical writers. Isolating the data sets produces a more nuanced understanding of the role played by burials in the Iron Age and the notion of ancestry and its promotion in later periods to validate land claims.

Death and Burial in Ancient Israel.

At the outset, it is worth noting that the number of recovered bodies falls far short of the estimated populations. This disparity raises the question as to whether or not identified burials are truly representative of ancient burial practices. Still, among the published interments, the predominant cave, chamber, and more elaborate bench tombs represent the norm—the physical form designed to inculcate and perpetuate cultural and religious values. These tomb types typically occur in rock outcrops, ideally with caves or fissures to facilitate fashioning the chamber (and benches). Identified tombs cluster on the slopes below or outside a settlement, in rock cliffs facing a settlement, or in isolated highland cemeteries. Further, poorly attested types, namely, pit and cist graves and jar burials, occur in such small numbers that they may be regarded as nonnormative. Such burials are neither found broadly across Israel nor presented as the norm in the Bible.

Cave, chamber, and bench tombs.

During Iron IIA–B, the populations of both highland Israel and Judah employed cave and chamber tombs for multiple burials, continuing the predominant form of Late Bronze–Age highland burial. A cave or fissure hewn into one or more square or rectangular rooms constituted a chamber tomb. In undisturbed Iron-Age examples, comparable to their Bronze-Age predecessors, individuals were placed on their backs, near the center of the cave, surrounded by funerary offerings. To accommodate additional individuals, the bones and objects of previous interments were moved to the periphery. Primary inhumation with subsequent deposition within the tomb is clearly attested; secondary burial was also possible. Burial goods typically included locally made terra-cotta bowls, lamps, jars, jugs, and juglets accompanied by other pottery vessels, household items, and personal possessions. For example, at the Gibeon/al-Jib cemetery, a cave measuring 27.2 by 24 ft (8.3 by 7.3 m) contained the bones of males and females accompanied by 500 locally made Iron-Age pots. Lachish Tomb 219, cut in the mid-late ninth century B.C.E., consisted of a narrow sloping passage that led through a square, rock-cut doorway into three chambers, each entered through a square doorway. Lamps, jars, a juglet, and a miniature pot plus a bone pin, beads, a faience playing piece, and a stone weight accompanied the burials, which unfortunately were not recorded.

Bench tombs, also a highland style of burial, resemble chamber tombs but with benches lining the walls of the burial room(s) for the reposing corpses. Constructed or carved benches, which appeared in earlier fourteenth- to twelfth-century B.C.E. tombs located along the coast and through the Shephelah, represent yet another feature of Bronze-Age burial adopted by highland Israelites. To accommodate additional bodies, select bones and goods were removed from the bench to a repository or pit within the burial chamber, thereby keeping together the presumed generations of family members. Without scientific testing of bones, only an obvious genetic abnormality, such as clubfoot, might enable excavators to establish family relations. Thus far, kinship remains a presumption based on texts and scientific testing of Middle Bronze–Age tomb occupants. As in chamber tombs, a dromos (passageway) led to a door that opened into one or more quadrilateral chambers. Benches, rock-hewn or constructed of stone, lined the side and back walls of the chamber(s). Numbers of occupants varied considerably, but highland tombs used for up to approximately 100 years held from 2 to 100 bodies. Grave goods resembled cave and chamber tomb provisions: lamps; vessels for preparing, serving, and storing food and liquid; household items; and personal possessions. While perhaps not a precursor of the “four-room house,” the bench tomb does evoke a residence for eternity, furnished with beds, crockery, household tools, and personal possessions.

Iron-II burials, in general, demonstrated increasing wealth and individuation. Beginning in the tenth or ninth century B.C.E., a small number of tombs grew in size and elaboration. The most elaborate examples replicated residences with decorative architectural features. Ninth-century additions of antechambers and supplemental rooms for burial as well as wine decanters likely mirrored the increasingly elaborate homes and lifestyle of the rich. An exemplary tomb from St. Étienne in Jerusalem mimics a residence with a central chamber replete with faux cornices, doorframes, and paneling carved into the rock. The tomb accommodated the deceased in multiple burial chambers radiating out from the central room, each equipped with benches for multiple burials and a repository pit. Comforts provided for the dead included lamp niches, parapets along the exposed edge of the bench, and headrests shaped like the Hathor hairdo. Increasing wealth and perhaps a more widely diffused bureaucratic apparatus may explain the spread of elaborate tombs through Jerusalem and to Gibeon to the north and Tell el-Judeidah to the south.

While multiple burials constituted the norm, individualized burial was adopted by a small number of the rich and elite. From Silwan burials of the ninth to eighth century B.C.E., the practice spread to Gibeon and through Jerusalem. These distinctive and exclusive tombs accommodated a single individual (sometimes with a significant other) in a stone sarcophagus with no repository for additional bodies. A Silwan tomb housed a royal steward, as identified in an inscription on the tomb facade. This burial evokes Isaiah’s pronouncement against court officials such as Shebna the royal steward who prepared a tomb for himself in the cliffs of Jerusalem (Isa 22:15–16). Individuation is also evident in inscriptions naming the occupants. The Silwan royal steward inscription named “[ ]yahu and his amah [servant, slave-wife].” Inscriptions in the Khirbet el-Qom tombs dating to the second half of the eighth or first half of the seventh century identified the occupants as “Uriyahu/Uriah the rich” and “Ephai son of Nethaniah” or, alternatively, as the siblings Ophai and Ophah, son and daughter, respectively, of Netanyahu. Uriah’s inscription also invokes divine blessing, “Blessed was Uriah by YHWH, and from his enemies by his [Yahweh’s] Asherah he has delivered him.” This single reference to a deity or deities in a tomb inscription expresses Uriah’s hopes for continuing divine favor. Though very few in number, these tombs displayed and modeled the aspirations of a select elite, a societal hierarchy likely based on wealth, status, and a rising individualism at the expense of the lineage.

Burial practices from the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C.E. to the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. displayed little change. Cave and chamber tombs persisted throughout the central highlands, in both the north and the south. Bench tombs, confined to the south, outnumbered the simpler cave and chamber tombs. Their use had spread from the coast and Shephelah up into the highlands and into Transjordan, from west to east and from the Jerusalem area south. Cave tomb burial persisted in dwindling numbers, alongside bench tombs, in Shephelah and Jerusalem-area cemeteries (Gibeon, Jerusalem, Tell Judeidah, Lachish, Khirbet el-Qom). Assyrian bathtub-shaped, ceramic coffins first appeared with the increased Assyrian presence and hegemony. Measuring about 3.3 ft (1 m) long, these miniature coffins were utilized at northern sites and the capital cities of Jerusalem and Amman.

In the Neo-Babylonian (586–539 B.C.E.) and Persian (539–332 B.C.E.) periods, the few rock-cut bench tombs were concentrated in the Jerusalem and Amman vicinities as well as in the highlands just north of Jerusalem. These Persian-period examples demonstrate continuity with their Iron-Age predecessors in the reuse of Iron-Age tombs, adoption of the Iron-Age bench-tomb plan, use of pottery types common at the end of the Iron Age, and location in late Iron-Age cemeteries. Other Persian-period burial types reflect foreign presence or influence. Pit and cist graves followed Persian custom, while shaft or built tombs employed along the coast and through the Shephelah conformed to Phoenician practice.

While the multiple individuals buried in Iron-Age cave, chamber, bench, and arcosolia tombs are presumed to be family members, there is no genetic verification. Studies on the DNA of adults from a Middle Bronze–Age tomb at Ashkelon demonstrate family affinities but not the generations of a single family buried together invoked by the biblical tomb of the patriarchs at Machpelah (Gen 49:29–31). Ashkelon Tomb 5, in use for five or six generations based on burial goods, contained at least 62 individuals, of whom 22 yielded DNA for testing. Ten males represented three different patrilineages, each buried in a separate niche or repository, “whereas the [12] females, from five different matrilineages, showed no such locational affinity.…Marriage was virilocal” (Stager, 2008, p. 1580). A minimum of three different patrilines buried their dead together in this single tomb, each in a designated location within the tomb; this was not a single, extended family tomb.

Numbers of recovered bodies suggest brief spans of use; however, the data set is woefully incomplete. The disturbed state of most tombs precludes determining with the desired precision either the period of use or the number of interred individuals. Publications of only 15 Iron-Age cave, chamber, bench, and arcosolia tombs in Israel and Judah stipulate the total number of individuals interred. Five of 15 tombs housed 25 to 100 individuals (25, 37, 43, 54, and 100 bodies). The remaining 10 of 15 held only 2 to 10 people including children. These 15 tombs demonstrate that not all tombs, perhaps not even the majority, housed numerous generations; but such a small sample renders any conclusions highly tentative.

Tomb plans reinforce the notion that tombs accommodated nuclear families or a limited number of generations as opposed to extended families over numerous generations. Whereas a small number of tombs possessed multiple chambers, such as the St. Étienne tomb with 21 designated burial spaces, most tombs consisted of a single chamber with benches for two or three bodies (not counting children buried with an adult). Multiple bodies might lie together on a bench, as more than one person might have slept in a single bed; but based on tombs with preserved headrests, each bench ideally accommodated a single individual. Single chamber tombs designed for two to three bodies at a time predominate in all centuries; they constitute the norm throughout the Iron Age and visually perpetuate the prominence and cultural memory of the nuclear family.

Other burial types.

The remaining burial types, simple and cist graves, jar burials, and cremation burials, are very rare, often at peripheral Israelite or Judahite sites or at cosmopolitan or military sites where foreigners may have resided. Simple graves, the primary burial of a body in a pit dug in the ground, were employed at coastal and lowland sites but not in the Israelite highlands. Given this general absence of simple burials from the highlands, the tenth- to eighth-century examples from the Shephelah site of Lachish, a border fortress likely home to Israelite and allied troops, may be attributed to non-Israelites resident at the site or to Israelites who adopted a foreign burial type. In any case, the Lachish pit and cist graves are anomalous.

Cist graves, a more elaborate form of pit burial, generally followed their simpler counterparts in distribution, form of inhumation, and grave goods. For cist graves, stones or mud bricks lined the sides of a rectangular space measuring roughly 6.6 ft (2 m) long by 3.3 ft (1 m) wide. Comparable to pit graves, cist graves housed primary inhumations, typically one to three individuals including a child or infant among multiple interments. When the two burial types occurred together, the cist graves contained aesthetically finer and more precious items than proximate pit graves. Only inhabitants of Tel Qedesh in the Jezreel Valley and Tell Ritma in the northern Negev, sites on the periphery of highland Israel, buried their dead in cist graves.

Jar and cremation burials were rare. Jar burials, a northern practice employed for infants and small children, were unearthed along the coast, at Dothan and Megiddo in Israel and in Transjordan. Cremated remains accompanied by Cypro–Phoenician vessels and found along the coast from Khaldé in modern Lebanon to Tell er-Ruqeish are attributed to Phoenicians or Phoenician influence.

Biblical Israel and Burial.

Archaeology and the Bible provide distinctive data sets regarding death and burial. As summarized by T. J. Lewis (2002), archaeology provides the physical remains: deceased individuals, grave goods, the tomb or cave, and patterned remains attesting to culturally promulgated practices. Texts record religious beliefs regarding death and the dead, with attendant burial customs. Lewis rightfully advocates the study of both archaeology and the Bible for a more complete picture, but this approach typically leads to a reconstruction that reconciles or harmonizes the two. Therein arise the contentious issues. These sources must be evaluated independently to identify and explain differences between the two.

An insurmountable problem for advocates of identifying early biblical Israel in archaeological remains is the lack of physical markers definitely attributable to this religious group. According to the Bible, indigenous peoples remained in Israel’s midst, but a distinctive material culture to distinguish an Israelite from a non-Israelite burial is lacking. With the creation of the nation-states of Judah and Israel, biblical “Israelite” denotes both a religious and a national identity. However, the biblical correspondence between the two throughout Israel’s territory may be more aspiration than reality.

Burials of earliest Israel.

Burials allegedly exemplify features that distinguished earliest biblical Israel from her neighbors. Proponents of this view argue that Iron-I Israelites settling in the highlands introduced a new form of burial in rejection of indigenous practices and to convey a religiously inspired egalitarian ideal. Narrowing the discussion to burials in the central highlands, the heartland of biblical Israelite settlement, the few Iron-Age tombs—all cave, shaft, chamber, and bench tombs—continue Bronze-Age practices in every respect: in location, form of the tomb, treatment of the body, and burial goods. Since it is impossible to tell whether these burials are Canaanite or Israelite, reconstructions designating cave tombs as “Canaanite” and bench tombs as “Israelite” impose an ideological interpretation on the burials by labeling them as “non-Israelite” or “Israelite,” respectively, denying the cultural continuity between the Israelites and their predecessors and obfuscating Israel’s gradual cultural and religious identity formation.

Burials and the veneration of the dead.

In addition to physical burial, beliefs regarding the dead and their powers demonstrate continuity with Israel’s predecessors, notably from Ugarit. Both textual and archaeological evidence attests to continued veneration of the dead, which combined a belief in divinized dead with actions to elicit information or favors. Testimony to an Israelite cult of the dead is “widespread and diverse, if rather thin,” with the paucity of references perhaps a result of later excision by Yahwistic proponents (Hays, 2011, p. 174). Divine status for the dead, royalty and nonroyalty alike, is evident in their veneration and designation as עělōhîm (“divinities”) (e.g., 1 Sam 28:13, Isa 8:19) and qědôšîm (“holy ones”) (Ps 16:3) with their consequent receipt of offerings and tithes (Ps 16:3–4, Deut 26:14, Isa 57:7). Their presumed ability to help the living warranted attending to the dead. For example, the deceased Samuel and “ghosts and familiar spirits” of Isaiah foretold the future (1 Sam 28:15–19, Isa 8:19–20). Elisha’s bones revived a dead man (2 Kgs 13:21, a reprise of 2 Kgs 4:31–35). Necromancers, dōrēš עel-hammētîm, and those associated with the עôb and yidděאōnî (“ghosts” and “familiar spirits”) likely contacted the dead for information or intercessory services (Lev 19:31, 20:6; Deut 18:10–11; 1 Sam 28:8; 2 Kgs 21:6). Additionally, těrāpîm, objects of human form also referred to as עělōhîm (Gen 31:30, 31:34; 1 Sam 19:13), have been argued to represent dead ancestors with divinatory powers (Ezek 21:21, Zech 10:2). With the exception of David severing the hands and feet of Ishbaal’s already dead murderers (2 Sam 4:12), no biblical passages imply that the dead harmed or sought vengeance against the living.

Based on literary and archaeological evidence, a renewed attention to the dead in eighth- to seventh-century B.C.E. Egypt and the Neo-Assyrian Empire may have prompted a similar revival in Israel. The incompatibility of the revitalized dead with an exclusive Yahwistic mandate and the dead’s usurpation of priestly and prophetic prerogatives prompted opposition in some Israelite circles beginning by the middle of the eighth century B.C.E. According to this view, true prophets need not resort to consulting the dead; God admonishes Isaiah to ignore people who suggest he “inquire of the ghosts and familiar spirits that chirp and moan: for a people may inquire of its divine beings—of the dead on behalf of the living—for instruction and message” (Isa 8:19–20 JPS Hebrew-English TANAKH). Priestly circles discouraged interaction with the dead by mandating lengthy, multistep procedures to restore ritual purity following contact with a corpse (e.g., Num 19:11–22, 31:19). Varied perspectives collected in the Bible preclude speaking of a unified Israelite practice or belief regarding the status of the dead. However, the dead may have been increasingly perceived as competition and accordingly marginalized as Israelite-Yahwistic authorities consolidated religious, political, and economic control in the late eighth to seventh centuries B.C.E. Both the alleged religious reforms of the early and later seventh-century B.C.E. kings Hezekiah (r. ca. 715–686 B.C.E.) and Josiah (r. ca. 640–609 B.C.E.) (2 Kgs 18:3–4, 23:1–24) and Sennacherib’s (r. 704–681 B.C.E.) devastating campaign of 701 B.C.E., which spared Jerusalem, promoted centralization in the capital.

Despite such opposition, veneration of the dead continued into the postexilic period (Isa 57:7–9, 65:3–4). While not among the religious practices that later became “normative,” mortuary practices and beliefs about the dead should not be relegated to “popular religion” or fringe groups; all indications are that kings and subjects alike maintained relations with the dead (e.g., Ezek 43:7–9). Based on archaeological evidence, provisioning the dead continued through the Iron Age and into the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods. Basic burial supplies remained unchanged: vessels for preparing, serving, and storing food and drink; household items; and personal possessions.

Burials and patrimonial land claims.

Burials also play a role in biblical land claims and territorial inheritance. According to contemporary reconstructions, from the time of the patriarchs, ancestral family tombs legitimated patrimonial claims. This conceptualization presupposes three conditions: (1) families maintained multigenerational, ancestral tombs; (2) an explicit link existed between the tomb and patrimonial land; and (3) from the early preexilic period, Israelite ancestry validated claim to purchased and divinely allocated land. Physical remains contradict the first two presuppositions. Based on this disparity, a reevaluation of biblical evidence challenges the third condition as well. Rather than perpetuating links to distant ancestors and thereby staking claim to patrimonial land, Iron-II tombs generally accommodated not more than three generations and in plan conveyed the importance of immediate family. A reconstruction that regards Israelite tombs as physical manifestations of patrimonial land claims rests on a later literary construct that biblical authors retrojected into early Israelite history. Contemporary reconstructions, swayed by the persuasive rhetoric of biblical authors, assume the construct was operative in the Iron Age.

Burials as ancestral tombs.

We begin with the contemporary notion of ancestral tombs, of countless generations buried together on patrimonial land. The Bible considers “family” up to three or four generations, with the same term, עābôt, representing both “fathers” and “ancestors.” Three to four generations as extended family is well attested in the Bible. God “visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (i.e., on those living within one’s lifetime) (Exod 34:6–7, see also Num 14:18, Deut 5:9 JPS Hebrew-English TANAKH). Individuals who merit a full life know their great-grandchildren, such as Joseph who cradles the newborn son of Machir, son of Manasseh (Gen 50:23). To calculate numbers of generations buried together, a nuclear family will consist of three individuals interred together (a minimum number including husband, wives, unmarried or widowed daughters, and deceased children) and a generation spans 40 years (using the biblical reckoning). According to this reckoning, the significant percentage of tombs housing only 2 to 10 bodies likely represent a single generation or not more than three or four generations. This calculation conforms to the archetypal cave of Machpelah, which holds only three generations of patriarchs and their wives (Gen 49:29–32).

The importance of burial with family required transporting the bodies of Joseph, Samson, Asahel, and Kings Ahaziah (r. ca. 841 B.C.E.) and Josiah from their place of death back to the family tomb (Gen 50:24–25; Judg 16:31; 2 Sam 2:32; 2 Kgs 9:27–28, 23:29–30). Further evidence of the significance of familiar burial is provided by the idioms “in his father’s tomb,” “to lie with his fathers/ancestors,” and “to be gathered to one’s ancestors/kin,” which situate death and burial within the context of kin. Family burial is not contested; rather, the biblical import of ancestral burial tied to inheritance is challenged as an early Israelite, preexilic notion.

From the patriarchal and Exodus generations, Abraham, Aaron, and the Exodus population were “gathered to their kin,” or “gathered to their fathers,” even though none of these people had established ancestral tombs at the site of their death and burial (Gen 25:8, Num 20:24, Judg 2:10). The idioms “to lie with one’s fathers/ancestors” and “to be gathered to one’s kin” may be relatively late adoptions by Israel. They are not attested in widespread use among Israel’s predecessors or early neighbors. Extrabiblical attestations of *škb, “to lie,” referring to death, first appear in mid-ninth-century B.C.E. and later Tell Dan and Deir Alla inscriptions in Aramaic, followed by a possible late eighth-century B.C.E. Khirbet el-Qom tomb inscription in Hebrew and sixth- to fourth-century B.C.E. inscriptions in Phoenician. In the Bible, variants of the expression “to lie with one’s fathers/ancestors” attain wide usage only in the Deuteronomic history and Chronicles, where the phrase refers to kings from David (r. ca. 1000–962 B.C.E.) to Jehoiakim (r. ca. 609–598 B.C.E.) (e.g., 1 Kgs 1:21, 16:6, 22:50; 2 Kgs 8:24, 21:18; 2 Chr 9:31, 32:33). The root *אsp denotes death in the Ugaritic Kirta myth but is not utilized in extrabiblical idioms referring to death. In contrast to the Deuteronomic historian’s and the Chronicler’s preference for the expression “to lie with one’s fathers,” the Priestly source utilizes “gathered to his kin” in reference to the patriarchs Ishmael, Moses, and Aaron (e.g., Gen 25:8, 25:17, 35:29; Num 20:24, see also Num 27:13). The use of these distinctive Hebrew idioms employing *škb and *אsp by the Deuteronomic historian, the Chronicler, and the Priestly source, respectively, may indicate a late preexilic or exilic date for the theological emphasis and literary promulgation of the conceptualization of ancestral burial. Whether referring to death, burial, or legitimate succession, these idioms evoke interment with generations of ancestors in contrast to the reality of the Iron-II tombs.

Burials as patrimonial boundary markers and the evolution of land claims.

The second and third presuppositions are discussed in tandem. The location of tombs calls into question their role as patrimonial markers. Tombs cluster in cemeteries; they are not scattered across the countryside on family or clan plots. Most often in the Iron Age II (identified) burials concentrate in proximity to a settlement on the tell slopes or facing rock outcrops across a wadi or valley, in other words, in one’s hometown (the description used in Judges). Perhaps dispersed tombs or other burial forms existed as the vast majority of the proposed population of the Iron-Age central highlands remains undiscovered. However, the fact that isolated burials are rarely encountered during the extensive construction throughout the country or in comprehensive archaeological surveys argues against the possibility.

Biblical descriptions that specify the location of a tomb generally situate it on purchased property (patriarchs in the cave of Machpelah, Jacob’s acquisition in Shechem), in one’s hometown for judges, or in the capital city for kings and government officials. Only two burials mark a boundary, and only the last five verses of Joshua explicitly associate burial with inheritance. Abraham buried Rachel where she died, along the road on the border of Benjamin (1 Sam 10:2; but see Gen 35:19, 48:7); and the book of Joshua concludes with Joshua’s burial on the boundary of his patrimony (Josh 24:30, repeated with slight variation in Judg 2:9). The concluding verses of Joshua note the burials of Joseph on land purchased by his father Jacob from the Shechemites (Josh 24:32) and of Eleazar son of Aaron on his son’s allotted land in Ephraim (Josh 24:33). Israelite conquest of the land, according to the Deuteronomic historian, ends with burials staking two types of land claims. Joseph’s burial links possession back to the settlement of the patriarchs (his father), and Joshua and Eleazar’s tombs lay claim to territory not conquered by the Joshua campaigns, Ephraim and southern Manasseh. Accordingly, not until the exilic period did the Deuteronomic historian promote ancestral burial as a means to claim land. While this group legitimated the dead as validating patrimonial claims, others were delegitimizing the dead and transferring the title to Yahweh. Patrimonial claims are surely an ancient practice, but the notion of the tomb as an embodiment of an ancestral claim to territory granted by God to Abraham and his descendants is a later religious and ideological construct that gained importance in the exilic period.

All the other individuals of the conquest and settlement generations received burial either in their hometown with no reference to family (Judg 10:2, 10:5, 12:7, 12:15; 1 Sam 25:1, 28:3) or “in their father’s tomb” where they lived (Judg 8:32, 16:31; 2 Sam 2:32). Both expressions tie burial to residence, either with family or perhaps initiating a new tomb.

Tombs of kings and select court officials depart from the usual practice of burial with family in one’s hometown. Perhaps a cult of the divinized dead kings (Queens Jezebel and Athaliah were denied sanctioned burial), based in the capital city, determined the location of interment. Kings of both the north and the south who died natural deaths received burial in their capital city (Jerusalem, Tirzah, and Samaria) rather than in their hometown, family tomb in the case of the nondynastic northern kings. Davidic kings through Ahaz (r. 735–715 B.C.E.) were buried together in the City of David. Kings Manasseh (r. ca. 697–642 B.C.E.), Amon (r. ca. 642–640 B.C.E.), and Josiah were buried elsewhere (2 Kgs 21:18, 21:26, 23:30) with no details provided for subsequent kings.


Iron-Age highland burials in cave and bench tombs span the period from the emergence of the Israelite polity through its demise under the Babylonians. Both archaeological remains and biblical texts demonstrate Israel’s gradual differentiation from its neighbors that began with shared burial practices and beliefs regarding the divine dead. If tomb occupants were related by blood or marriage, their small numbers represent from one to up to three or four generations but not the many generations implied by the idioms invoking burial with one’s ancestors or kin. Neither the numbers of individuals interred nor tomb placement associated burials with ancestral, patrimonial land. Excavated tombs suggest that location was apparently linked to residence, and burial was frequently with not more than three generations of immediate family members (based on biblical texts).

By the eighth to seventh century B.C.E., biblical accounts portray some prophetic, priestly, and royal elements as censuring the dead in an effort to eliminate sources of divine knowledge other than Yahweh and redirecting all sacrifices and tithes exclusively to Yahweh in the Jerusalem temple. However, despite priestly and prophetic efforts, veneration of the dead persisted as evidenced in both physical remains and texts. By the exilic period, select Deuteronomic texts elevated the role of the tomb in an emphasis on ancestral descent from the time of the patriarchs and Israel’s covenant with God in order to foster familial claims to purchased or divinely allotted land. However, the physical tombs of the Iron Age neither housed the conjured generations residing together nor lay claim to patrimonial holdings through their placement in plots across the land. Many tombs held not more than three generations, and most tombs were likely situated near the place of residence. Contemporary reconstructions of Iron-Age Israelite tombs staking land claims have succumbed to the Deuteronomic historian’s revisionism. Considering the physical and textual evidence independently, rather than harmonizing the two, clarifies both the nature of Iron-Age burial and developments in Israelite thought regarding the dead, tombs, and landownership.



  • Bloch-Smith, Elizabeth. Judahite Burial Practices and Beliefs about the Dead. JSOT/ASOR Monograph Series 7. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 123. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic, 1992. A catalog and discussion of Iron-Age burials arranged by types and interpreted in conjunction with biblical references.
  • Bloch-Smith, Elizabeth. “Resurrecting the Iron I Dead.” Israel Exploration Journal 54, no. 1 (2004): 77–91. Counters Kletter (2002) and Faust (2004) in a debate over whether Iron-I Israelite burials were innovative or continued indigenous practices.
  • Brichto, Hanan. “Kin, Cult, Land, and Afterlife—A Biblical Complex.” Hebrew Union College Annual 44 (1973): 1–54. Proposes the interrelation of ancestors, the cult of the dead, and the validation of land claims by the ancestral tomb.
  • Dajani, Awani. “An Iron Age Tomb at al-Jib.” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 2 (1953): 66–74. The archaeological report of an illustrative cave tomb.
  • Dobbs-Allsopp, F. W., J. J. M. Roberts, C. L. Seow, et al. Hebrew Inscriptions: Texts from the Biblical Period of the Monarchy with Concordance. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005. A convenient compendium of biblical-period texts with transliterations, translations, notes, and a concordance.
  • Faust, Avraham. “Mortuary Practices, Society and Ideology: The Lack of Highland Iron Age I Burials in Context.” Israel Exploration Journal 54 (2004): 174–190. Elaborates on the work of Kletter (2002), counters Bloch-Smith (2004), and offers an ideological explanation for a proposed new style of burial adopted by early Israelites.
  • Gonen, Rivka. Burial Patterns and Cultural Diversity in Late Bronze Age Canaan. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1992. The most comprehensive publication of burials from Late Bronze–Age Canaan.
  • Halpern, Baruch. “Jerusalem and the Lineages in the Seventh Century B.C.E.: Kinship and the Rise of Individual Moral Liability.” In Law and Ideology in Monarchic Israel, edited by Baruch Halpern and Deborah Hobson, pp. 11–107. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 124. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic, 1991.
  • Hays, Christopher. Death in the Iron Age II and in First Isaiah. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2011. An argument for Egyptian influence on First Isaiah’s presentation of death and the dead with an overview of death and the dead in Iron-II Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Syro-Palestine.
  • Kletter, Raz. “People without Burials? The Lack of Iron I Burials in the Central Highlands of Palestine.” Israel Exploration Journal 52 (2002): 28–48. An argument for early Israel’s emergence with distinctive burial customs, contested by Bloch-Smith (2004).
  • Lewis, Theodore. “How Far Can Texts Take Us? Evaluating Textual Sources for Reconstructing Ancient Israelite Beliefs about the Dead.” In Sacred Time, Sacred Place: Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, edited by Barry M. Gittlen, pp. 169–217. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2002.
  • Pardee, Dennis. “Marziḣu, Kispu, and the Ugaritic Funerary Cult: A Minimalist’s View.” In Ugarit, Religion and Culture: Proceedings of the International Colloquium on Ugarit, Religion and Culture, Edinburgh, July 1994, edited by N. Wyatt, W. G. E. Watson, and J. B. Lloyd, pp. 273–286. Münster, Germany: Ugarit-Verlag, 1996.
  • Stager, Lawrence. “Tel Ashkelon.” In The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, edited by Ephraim Stern, vol. 5, pp. 1578–1586. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society; Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2008. Encyclopedia entry includes DNA analysis of bones from Middle Bronze–Age tombs.
  • Stavrakopoulou, Francesca. Land of Our Fathers: The Roles of Ancestor Veneration in Biblical Land Claims. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 473. London: T&T Clark, 2010. An argument for the gradual disenfranchisement of the dead and transference of land claims from the ancestors to Yahweh.
  • Stern, Ephraim. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible. Vol. 2: The Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian Periods 732–332 b.c.e. New York: Doubleday, 2001. A user-friendly summary of archaeological evidence from 732–332 B.C.E.
  • Tufnell, Olga. Lachish III: The Iron Age. London: Oxford University Press, 1953. The excavation’s final publication of Iron-Age levels at the site of Lachish.
  • Ussishkin, David. The Village of Silwan: The Necropolis from the Period of the Judean Kingdom. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1993. The primary archaeological publication of the Silwan-Village tombs.
  • Van der Toorn, Karel. “The Nature of the Biblical Teraphim in the Light of the Cuneiform Evidence.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52 (1990): 203–222. Both cuneiform and biblical texts present teraphim as ancestor figurines; cuneiform evidence attests to divinatory functions.

Elizabeth Bloch-Smith