On the threshold of Life: Death in Genesis.

Are the tombs portals to the New Creation?
What is our fate as human beings? Are we really all that different to the animals? Whether our years are many or few, and despite whatever efforts we may make in our lives while we have this inestimable gift, we cannot finally escape the certainty of death. It seems the prime fact of our existence, and the small mark we make in the world is likely to crumble into wind-blown sand all too soon after our departure. So I ask: does the message of Genesis substantially alter any of that narrative? I suggest here that it does. There are aspects of the nature of God’s cosmos that God created as covenantal expressions subtly hidden and interwoven into the biblical narrative that close reading can reveal. Even in Genesis, at the beginning of the Biblical revelation, the death of mortal humans is contextualised by the broader creative partnership of Creator God with God’s creatures and cosmos.

The God who self-reveals as the Creator of Life in Genesis 1 is also the One who announces death. But this revelation is given in the prior context of the gift of Life and a mode of living that could, in principle, surpass death even before such an ending is contemplated. At the first God makes the plants and creatures, within an ecological cycle of growth and consumption,

Gen 130 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.”

But with the formation of ha’adam by God’s intimate hand working in the red earth in Genesis 2, we are at once alerted to an eternal context for our existence that is marked by the presence of the Two Trees in the Garden. First, the tree that somehow symbolises wisdom even before it is eaten (perhaps, especially if it is not eaten), and the second tree that signifies a greater Life that might be ours, which offers an eternally retreating horizon. Even Life everlasting. Only once we are shown these mysterious and wonderful signposts are we told that mankind is dust, and to dust thou shall return. (Gen 2:19) And as we all indeed fall again to dust, behind the shadow of our memorials remain the longer shadows of these Two Trees, especially the second.

This insight is reinforced in the lineage of the patriarchs. The covenant God of Creation is firstly the God of Abraham, and then of his son Isaac, and then the God of Jacob, father of Judah, Joseph and all the progenitors of the twelve Tribes. I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, declaimed the faithful Jews in Jesus’ time, and Jesus himself preached this Name. I AM the God of the Living, not the dead, says the Messiah to the Sadducees, who had somehow fallen for a spiritual conspiracy theory that their God Yahweh wasn’t really the God of Life at all, but only the God of a paltry sort of human life that constrains meaning to this physical existence, the life of man as a mere creature, not much different to that of the animals and the rest of material biology. But Genesis holds out a greater hope and prospect, and we are foolish to give it up. St Paul bluntly said as much.

Genesis does not shy away from the mortality of even a large number of its minor characters. Certainly the genealogies are as much a record of their passing from this life as they are of birth and giving birth. A few are memorialised in more detail in the scripture, and some are given physical memorials.

The most prominent of these is surely the account in Genesis 23 where the story is all about Abraham’s purchase of land east of Mamre from the Hittites, including the Cave of Machpelah, in order to bury his wife Sarah. It is hard to know how to tell the background narrative in a way that does justice theologically to what we are made joint witnesses of in Genesis 22. Perhaps like this: Abraham was summonsed by God to go to a distant mountain to offer a sacrifice. He takes his son with him, who turns out to be the sacrifice. OR Abraham is told to sacrifice his son, who is naively taken along. OR Isaac is the willing partner to his father’s journey of worship, carrying his own sacrificial fuel. OR Abraham proves yet again that he does not consider is wife to be an equal partner in the promises of God because it seems that Sarah is not informed or consulted about this crazy and murderous plan. OR… you can fill in this blank with some other hypothesis.

Perhaps our misgivings and dread in rehearsing the akedah story of Gen 22 [the ‘binding of Isaac’] are assuaged as we come to realise that God really has no intention of requiring Isaac’s life, though we do not find this out until the deadly knife is lifted high by his own father, ready to be plunged down in the fatal stroke. The very thought of child sacrifice never crossed my mind, says God, elsewhere. You might say this doesn’t really solve the puzzle, because it really did sound like it. Instead, and all the while the boy and his dotting father are making their ascent, a ram is being led up the other side of the mountain to get caught so conveniently in the brambles- now we see what God really has in mind once Abraham’s willing and obedient intentions have been established. Is credulity stretched in these questions, in searching for a sound version of the story? It seems the test of faith is here for us who read as much as it was for Abraham in the doing of the deed.

There are good answers to this mystery in the New Testament, but that is too far off for poor Isaac’s mother Sarah. We don’t know whether she finds out about this outing for a father-and-son worship weekend to the mountain, when they finally return. All the next chapter tells us is that she has died. Mothers will probably speculate that it was the shock that did for her.

They might continue to imagine what Sarah might have to say to God about all this in the afterlife- would she be even more angry with God than with her husband? But such an approach would be completely anachronistic. The worldview of Genesis does not allow this possibility. The death of an individual in the Pentateuch is a boundary of finality beyond which there is no admission of personality. Dead is dead, and God is keeping His counsel. All that remains is for dignity in burial and the ongoing respect of their descendants when ancestors are recalled. Genesis 23 is not about Sarah at all. There is no eulogy or remembrance of the wife and mother, but rather a lengthy account, with repetition for emphasis, of the business dealings that take place to secure the burial plot which will become the memorial place for all the patriarchs and some of their wives in the following generations. It turns out this is the only plot of land that Abraham actually takes legal possession of, following God’s initial call and promise in Genesis 12.

You can read the whole account here. [Text of Genesis 23 English Standard Version]

We are given no details of the ceremony, or what might have been said about Sarah my husband or son. We are simply told of fields, of trees, and a cave in the ground. We are told that the site is near Mamre, which is where Three Visitors once came to Abraham and Sarah (click the link for my article about that prophetic encounter). And it is made very clear indeed that though Abraham was offered all this for free, he insisted on paying for it, and paid in full.

Vincent van Gogh depicted the scene this way:

Vincent van Gogh 18 1931 The Cave of Machpelah 1877

If it ever did, it hasn’t looked anything like that for many centuries. Trekking to Hebron today will reveal this scene:

Cave of the Patriarchs, Hebron.

Whether genuine or not, the caves that were identified as the ones in question have been considerably modified and buried under further generations of architectural improvements, by both Jews and Muslims, as they both claim great significance for those remembered here.

Caves of Machpelah

This is no different to the experience of modern pilgrims to Jerusalem, nurturing hopes of walking around in the footsteps of Jesus and his disciples. But even the flagstones of the Via Delorosa are several feet above the first century ground level, while every site of significance in the account of Holy Week has been thoroughly concealed under the biggest ecclesiastical edifice that could be afforded, flanked by receptacles for issuing holy water and receiving entrance fees.

I ought not complain too loudly about Jewish memorials in Hebron, for that is at least consistent with what Jesus told the Sadducees: that the living should remember Sarah and Abraham and all the rest, for the God of the Living is the God of resurrection. But my point is this: at the time in Genesis, the cave of Machpelah was a graveyard, for the dead, and this does not appear, on the face of it, to be a place of hope.

It is very difficult to find sites in Israel that might conjure up for the modern viewer a sense of what it was like back then, in Bible times. Perhaps impossible. But not so far distant from Hebron and Jerusalem and all are many relatively undisturbed remnants of some of the neighbouring civilisations, and those of the Nabateans are notable in this regard. Where thousands did manage to forge a civilisation and a sustainable community with sufficient supplies of water and food for at least a few centuries has then been preserved by desert sand and abandonment until much more recent times. You have likely heard of the carved city of Petra in Jordan, developed in the decades and century following the time of Christ, though the full extent of the Nabatean kingdom is less well known.

‘Petra’ is the Greek name for the Nabatean capital. It was originally known to its inhabitants as Raqmu or Raqēmō.
As the links above give more detail about, the significance of Petra is as the crossing point between international trade routes, so materials for survival and investment arrive in this desert place from afar.

Further south from Petra on the Incense Road to Medina and modern Saudi Arabia are the remains of the Nabatean city of Hegra (Meda’in Saleh) near Dedan (modern Al Ula) which the Saudis are now developing as a major new tourist centre also welcoming Western tourists. Famously, there are some one thousand burial chambers at the capital of Petra, some spoilt by later Roman modifications, while there are a number of other types of buildings still in evidence.

There was no such vandalism in evidence at Hegra, where there are one hundred and thirty one tombs carved into the prominent sandstone formations, left pretty much as they were abandoned in the second century AD. New archaeological excavations of the area are at very early stages and significant finds are being made, perhaps a consequential benefit of the exclusion of westerners from all regions near the holy Muslim sites in Saudi Arabia for most of the last century.

Aerial view of the carved sandstone landscapes of Hegra. Note the unfinished tomb, bottom right.

Unlike at Petra, the majority of the visible remains are all tombs, though some have been incorrectly described as ‘castles‘. The largest of the tombs are catalogued here. The only alterations made over two millennia are the damage caused by weather, earthquakes and the brief attentions of graverobbers. The desire to bring travellers from afar to this area of Arabia was recently renewed with the increasing numbers of Muslims desiring to complete the Hajj, so from 1900 the Ottomans built a steam railway down the western side of Arabia from Palestine, stocked with German engines and rolling stock, but it too fell into disuse. Now, just like Hegra itself, the southern reaches of the Hejaz railway has become a graveyard- for trains. Passengers would have seen the Hegra tombs from their carriage windows, and you can see the railway station at Hegra marked at the top of the aerial map shown above.

Overturned train at the turnaround siding, Haddiya station, the next stop south of Hegra towards Medina. Other photos from 1989 show this very train in its proper position on the rails, so this ‘accident’ is recent. You can tour the site virtually here If you are like me, and love trains, then there are more details in an appendix to this article after the references.

But since the tombs at Hegra are carved into the rock faces, they are very much still standing, and withstanding the ravages of time. Many seem as fresh today as they surely did the day they were finished.

Nabataean Tomb, Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia. Tomasz Trześniowski CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It is immediately striking that such impressive monuments should be found in such dry and inhospitable conditions. Around the tombs are some visible remains of extensive aqueducts and channels that once brought precious water from nearby sources, now long exhausted and broken. Wells on the west of the city reached down some 20m to the water table below.

Nabataean irrigation system at Jebel Ithlib, Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia CC BY NC SA 2.0

Scientific skills are being deployed by archaeologists to discover and understand more of the way of life of the Nabateans. The preserved remains of seeds and cooking fires shows the various plants that were on the menu over a couple of centuries of occupation, and the late adoption of cotton as a profitable crop that doubtless generated much of the surplus cash to pay a multitude of stonemasons. {link to ‘Agrarian legacies and innovations in the Nabataean territory’ 2015 by Charlène Bouchaud. Open access paper.}

Nabataean Tombs, Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia 17 3 2015 Tomasz Trześniowski CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But isn’t it extraordinary that so much effort was put into the carving out of these monumental structures, simply for the internment of the mortal remains of the deceased? Archaeologists note the significance of burial and accompanying grave goods as signs of the presence of human society and civilisation- here is the fuzzy boundary between animal biology and anthropology. But isn’t this an extraordinary investment of time and treasure!? Further lessons jump off the cliffs at the modern viewer, in a present far removed from those who carved them. There is a very limited palate of designs deployed with such effort and energy. A single doorway leads into the dark, flanked by a flattened panel of stone either side, windowless, usually with symmetrical pillars in relief, one or two profiles above, and a pair of staircases, facing one another. The hold of tradition over this creativity is highly evident; there are variations which perhaps reflect the technical assessment of what the stone would bear in specific instances, as well as the design urges of client and/or creator, but nevertheless there is considerable uniformity. Whatever messages about passing on, about death as seen with hindsight by its temporary survivors, what cause for hope might be symbolised in these constructions is highly stylised and constrained to very fixed traditional conceptions that do not change. It seems it is very much about what is beheld from outside that is significant, for the interior architecture is technical, functional and showing none of the aesthetic sensibilities on display in the facades. Crude chambers are hacked out within the mountains, unsmoothed surfaces left without decoration as far as we can see today, while individual niches and shelves are chopped out of the walls in a piecemeal fashion, with little attention to regularity in design. This is the behind the scenes view equivalent to our modern crematorium operator. The curtains are closed, and we don’t pay attention to what happens next.

Perhaps as many as a third of the tomb fronts are left incomplete, which betrays the way that the family budgets were often stretched in their construction. The masons began their work from above, standing on the stone that they chopped away as they crafted their way down the rock face. But if the cash was exhausted, they would be instructed to forego completion and simply cut the doorway as a rectangle into the rock at the correct position. Maybe later generations of the family would complete the job- clearly many did not. Their cultural habits did not change even as the financial pain became commonplace. Somehow these uniform facades spoke to the community of a strongly held complex of beliefs that death was not the final reality. These became embedded in this tradition for tomb facades which maintained the attention of the living community onto the generations past. Not everyone attempted to afford this outlay; the archaeology has discovered simple rectangular pits carved into stone plateaus in the same area in which the dead bodies of the less well off were placed to be picked clean by the raptors and corvids before gathering up the bones for a simpler interment of some kind- some two thousand simpler burials have been identified. Yet it is still reasonable to suggest that the more elaborate tomb architecture alluded to beliefs that the community held in common.

Qasr al-Farid, or “The Lonely Castle”

Even this most spectacular and massive tomb- a truly monumental structure- remained unfinished, yet after so much expense had been lavished on it. The final sections of stone that ought to have been cleared from the base remain to spoil the visual impact of the Al Farid tomb, though we do thus gain insights into the means of craftsmanship from these remnants. We may also conclude that the masons were clever enough to avoid contracts that only offered cash on completion of works, whoever they were working for!

I have not discovered any record of other clues from Nabatean culture that would help us to interpret the symbolism of these facades, and I might refer you to students of ‘Dr Death’, a.k.a. The Reverend Professor Douglas Davies of the University of Durham, Director of the Centre for Death and Life Studies from 2007. The details, should they be known, or become known, would be significant, but not detracting from my present purpose. I submit that the language of architecture is sufficiently universal that some simple speculations can navigate us safely to my conclusion. In evaluating the meaning of these tombs, the focus is on the outside, not the inside. This is a book we are to judge by its cover. Burials are safely done at a distance from the centres of dwelling for hygiene, and rocky places give a sense of permanence and security- a natural memorial. If there are caves, then well and good, but the sandstone of Jordan and Arabia provides an easy substrate for making your own caves aplenty. For those in Petra and Hegra, there is a further opportunity. The sandstone outcrops are themselves a statement of permanence and longevity, and a ready canvas for artistic adornment. The mason is not impeded by the need to reattach his stones or bricks together- just carve it straight in where you are commissioned! Modifying existing rocks means your work is less likely to be disturbed by the earthquakes that are common at this meeting of multiple tectonic plates.

As I say, there is a simple palette of design ingredients deployed in these tomb frontages, irrespective of which particular religious or cult narratives may have pertained at the time. World pictures typically include supporting pillars, so we find those. A doorway with architraves and lintels indicates welcome homeliness, a key moment in a journey, or arriving at a desired destination. The regular forms and smooth surfaces bring order and control to nature, asserting our influence, even dominance, perhaps somewhat beyond what is warranted given our mortality- and yet we believe that we are meant to hope for more. We feel that we can come to belong in this cosmos, and to play our part, and so we should not have to leave in a hurry, having only just arrived: we should be able to stay in it. The scale of the tombs is massive, often much larger than any dwelling people actually lived in- a claim to our significance in the world and in its history. At Hegra, this is spectacularly so: the monument can become as large as the geology. The classical allusions and ornamental borrowings say that it is not just for the fabled gods that there should be memorials, but for all us folk too. Common folk are also uncommon, special, warranting attention, and aspiring to a destiny that outlives them, and calls them back from beyond the grave. Back to life.

Above all this, and the first thing that the masons would actually have started to carve, evident in any memorial that was started, even if not completed, is the inverse of a pitched roof, with steps leading upwards to the left and right. Now I freely admit that I have no idea if I am interpreting this correctly. For experts at Petra this design is now described as a key part of the Hegra style, which is to say, it is rather unique as an expression of Nabatean culture, and so we all may be indulging a fantasy to see two flights of stairs leading to the heavens. Might they go to different places? Or a common destination, yet maintaining a sense of symmetry which is yet distinct from the here-and-now functionality of a roof? So I can’t prove what I am asserting: as the community look across from their dwellings and the activities of their daily lives, they see the memorial to their ancestors, the house of their dead, and their eyes are drawn upward by pillars and steps to the sky above by day, and the starry heavens by night. In the cultural language of Hegra’s burial tombs, the passing of the living to the dead, of mortals to the ever-remembered afterlife, of quick flesh to dry bones, of day and night, the very earth, sky and heavens are all brought together in one cosmic meeting. Just like the commercial centres themselves, the tombs can be seen to lie at the junction of so many meetings and thoroughfares, and in this doubtless is the substance of human hope.

I am happy to hold these speculations in an open hand, and I daresay you will concede I am not claiming much that is controversial. What is important are the comparisons and contrasts between this general narrative and what we see in the Genesis accounts. The plot that Abraham secures for his wife is generously proportioned, a significant footprint in the land, yet secured through a simple business deal, recognised as a valid and full transfer of property from the Hittites to the Patriarch of God. Other than paying up what he considers the proper and full price, Abraham does not invest any particular efforts in lavishing further attention on his dead. Later references simply make clear whether or not the key figures of future generations are or are not brought to the same spot. The site is accorded no further significance other than being recognised as the collective place of dignified burial. No other symbolism is accorded to the site in the texts. It is sometimes referred to as the plot bought from Ephron the Hittite seller (Gen 50:13)- a detail we might think would be glossed over in subsequent references, if it was considered to now be exclusively Abraham’s property. But the fact that it was purchased and transferred to the first patriarch in this way is itself headlined in later remembrance.

All three primary patriarchs are said to be ‘gathered to his people’ when they died. (Abraham Gen 25:8 , Isaac Gen 35:29 and Jacob Gen 49:33) but not Joseph. Genesis 50 concludes in this way:

24 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will take care of you. He will lead you out of this land to the land he promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” 25 Then Joseph had the sons of Israel make a promise. He said, “Promise me that you will carry my bones with you out of Egypt.”

26 Joseph died when he was one hundred ten years old. Doctors prepared his body for burial, and then they put him in a coffin in Egypt.

Genesis 50: 24-26 ESV

We can see the inspiration for illustrations like that above in the 1890 Holman Bible, but this is another anachronism, as the imagery evokes expressions from what must surely have been much later Egyptian culture. The Genesis text helpfully precludes such confusing mixing of cultures. In verse 25, Joseph makes clear that his remains will simply be ‘bones’. What follows is a functional and technical description. ‘Doctors’ are persons characterised by their humanistic function, whether the Egyptians might have ascribed them priestly functions or not (and what we now know about ancient Egypt suggests that they did). This processing for burial is a physicalist, we might say, sanitary affair, rather than a religious one. And the final words quite literally consign the human remains of this extraordinary man, the co-saviour of Egypt under God’s sovereign blessing, the reconciler of the divided sons of Jacob, into a box, and slam it shut.

These mortal remains are buried, without fanfare, as far as Genesis is concerned. The man Joseph is no more, in the terms of the text, just as for the three generations before him.

A similar functional perspective is suggested by the picture below, imagining the scene in Israel when modern day soldiers on expedition arrive at the simple grave to which Joseph’s bones have indeed been carried and consigned to their final resting place in Shechem (Josh 24:32). Now in the land of Promise, Joseph’s mortal remains can at last be said to have been ‘gathered to his people’, though curiously not at the family cave tomb in Hebron.

Site of the tomb of Joseph at Nablus. Coloured lithograph by Louis Haghe after David Roberts, 1842.

And yet…

…we read between the lines. The covenant God whose name is YHWH promised to Abram that his name would be made great, given permanent significance, and that through his name the nations would be blessed, just as all are blessed who know the name of Yahweh. The texts draw our attention away from any features of death and burial other than the practical details, and yet maintain our attention that in God, the God who is the God of the Living and yet also still the God of the (passed) patriarchs, death is, somehow, not so final. In the nexus of life and death that is held in the words, deeds and promises of God with and to God’s people, there is the strong and certain intimation of hope beyond the grave. Through burial at Machpelah, and in Joseph’s coffin in Egypt, the decay back into dust that God spoke of in Genesis 3:19 is arrested. Humankind may be kept from the Tree of Life in Gen 3:24, yet God keeps the Tree.

These tombs are portals to the New Creation. The grave shelves in Hegra and Petra now lie empty, the dark tomb doorways completely open to all students of the past- archaeologists and tourists alike. In Genesis, the opening volume of the Biblical Story in search of an Ending, the doors to the future remain shut, though only ‘on the latch.’

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:19-21 ESV

(c) Stephen Thompson 2022


APPENDIX on the Hejaz railway.

LEFT: “This scarce map charts the route of the Hejaz Railway in red down the Western side of the Arabian Peninsula, featuring the Sinai Peninsula, the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.” RIGHT: Enlargement of the southern end of the Hejaz railway route in English.

“This map was produced following the loan of 100,000 lira from the Ziraat Bankasi to the Ottoman Empire in 1900, which propelled the ambitious project into action. The enormous financial undertaking led to Abdulhamid II enlisting all Muslims around the world to contribute toward the project, which had monumental religious, as well as military, significance. Medallions were presented to donors (see Lot 89 shown below), and no foreign investment was accepted, making the railway symbolic of Muslim identity.” “The railway was bereft with problems from the outset, with construction conditions being extremely harsh. During World War I, it became the target of both Arab rebels and T.E. Lawrence, which led to the ultimate collapse of the project.” Sotheby’s auction website. The map shown sold for twice its £3000 estimate in 2021.

A Hejaz railway locomotive is shown on the medal.

Lawrence of Arabia’s lost hero scientist By Sean Coughlan BBC News education correspondentPublished4 December 2012 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-20594835

Published by Stephen Thompson

Thinking inside the box is to be recommended for many reasons. I am creating this blog in May 2020 as we are encouraged to stay inside our boxes as far as possible, though we are allowed out- encouraged out, indeed- for exercise. By blogging, our thinking can also be allowed out for public exercise. Right now we need new thinking, new exercising of our mental faculties, and collective application of our thinking to the big idea of a healthy collective future. I am trialling my thinking in constructive theology, science and leadership in the light of my experience as a science teacher, theological student and as a representative of the Christian community in the county of Kent, in the UK. I welcome your partnership!

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