Whatever Did Yeshua Mean When He Said: ‘Let The Dead Bury Their Dead”?

Consider, if you will, the following contrasts between Our Lord Yeshua’s seemingly harsh expectations of His disciples and the compassion shown by the great prophet Elijah toward one of his own disciples. Contemplate firstly the incident involving Our Lord Yeshua:

“Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to him, Lord, I will follow you wherever you go. And Yeshua said to him, Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but this human being has nowhere to lay his head. Then he said to another, Become my disciple. But he said, Lord, let me first go and bury my father. Yeshua said to him, Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God” (Lk 9.57-60 cf Mt 8.18-22).

Now reflect on the merciful attitude of Elijah, under similar circumstances which we have already regarded: “So he [Elijah] departed from there, and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he was with the twelfth. Then Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle on him. And he [Elisha] left the oxen and ran after Elijah, and said, Please [first] let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you. And he [Elijah] said to him, Go back again. For what have I done to you? So Elisha turned back from him, and took a yoke of oxen and slaughtered them and boiled their flesh, using the oxen’s equipment, and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and followed Elijah and served him” (1 Kgs 19-21 NKJV).

Here we have a seeming inconsistency between the expectations of the prophet Elijah and Yeshua in their respective ministries. We are confronted by one of the “hard sayings” of Yeshua, along with a sharp rebuke, on the one hand — in an incident in which he encourages a talmid (disciple) to break the 5th commandment of God concerning social and moral expectations of honour toward a father — and, on the other, a compassionate display of one of the greatest prophets of God toward one of his own talmidim (students) in which he encourages the disciple to esteem his parents. One cannot but ask the obvious question: was Elijah MORE just and understanding than the Messiah?

Again, could the Lord Yeshua merely be talking of the SPIRITUALLY dead burying the PHYSICALLY dead as has so often been put forth in sermons and in “Bible helps” to Scripture? This view is called “the majority interpretation” — the “MI.”

In an attempt to properly restore Jewish thoughtform to the biblical revelation, Byron McCane of Duke University writes of three problems involved in the majority interpretation of this section of Scripture: “First,” he says, “it does not give an adequate explanation of the disciples’ request, ‘Let me FIRST go and bury my father.’ The MI [majority interpretation] sees the request as a CONFLICT OF LOYALTIES between the disciples RESPONSIBILITIES to his dead father and his commitment to follow Jesus. This minimises the importance of the adverb ‘first.’ In each case, the disciple was requesting time to fulfill his family obligation regarding the burial of his father. Once this obligation was discharged, the disciple would be free to return and follow Christ. Thus the MI [majority interpretation] DOES NOT EXPLAIN the disciples’ request for time” (Byron McCane, Let the Dead Bury Their Own Dead).

Further, according to McCane, “[T]hose who follow the MI generally omit the words ‘their own dead,’ because they want to distinguish between two meanings of the word ‘dead.’ ‘Let the SPIRITUALLY dead bury the PHYSICALLY dead.’ However, the text says, ‘their OWN dead,’ indicating that the occurrence of ‘dead’ is connected in a reflexive possessive relation. There is no need to spiritualise the text regarding the dead; both are physically dead!”

McCane’s third point argues that the “MI” goes plainly against our modern understanding of the first-century Jewish burial customs — a valid contention indeed!

The answer is so simple it is astonishing. Our Lord was not in any way encouraging His talmid to desert family loyalties (at least not on this occasion). The truth is that Jewish burial customs of the first century catered to two burials. When a person died and had been buried the family would immediately separate themselves from the rest of the community and go into a period of seven days intense mourning — a period known as shi’vah. But the family continued to mourn until decomposition had taken place, which could be up to a year (Archaeology and Biblical Research, Spring 1992, 55). The Jerusalem Talmud informs us “When the flesh had wasted away, the bones were collected and placed in chests [ossuaries]. On that day [the son] mourned, but the following day he was glad, because his forebears rested from judgment” (Moed Qatan 1.5).

This occurrence was known as “the SECOND burial.” When “[t]heir fathers had died, [and] been placed in the family burial cave…the sons [of the deceased] sat shi’vah and most likely also shloshim [30 day span of mourning less intense than the original 7 day mourning period and following directly on its heels]. They then requested anywhere from a few weeks up to 11 months to finish the ritual of ossilegium before they returned [to employment pursuits]” (ABR, op.cit.).

When Our Lord Yeshua said “Let the dead bury their own dead” there can be no doubt that he was referring to the TWO DIFFERENT KINDS OF DEAD IN THE TOMBS — those freshly laid to rest, and those whose bodies had already decomposed and which were ready for REBURIAL.

“The concept of gathering the bones of one’s ancestors is deeply embedded in the Hebrew Scriptures and reflected in Iron Age burial practices (Gen 49:29; Judges 2:10; 16:31; 1 Kings 11:21,43, etc.). However, by New Testament times, the concept had taken on a new meaning. According to the Rabbinic sources, the decomposition of the flesh atoned for the sins of the dead person (a kind of purgatory) and the final stage of this process was gathering the bones and placing them in an ossuary (Meyers 1971:80-85). Jesus confronted this contrary theology. Only faith in Messiah’s redemptive work on the cross can atone for sin, not rotting flesh… Jesus may have rebuked [the disciple] rather harshly because [he was] following the corrupt Jewish practice of secondary burial” (ibid., 56,57).

Without a knowledge of Jewish thoughtform, the essence of what Mashiach was saying and doing in His ministry would be largely lost. In this episode the Rabbi was both instructing and correcting his disciples into a proper appreciation of the true values of life. Because the majority of Christians have rejected Jewish thoughtform, they have largely missed the Messiah’s intention. This incident plainly shows us that such is absolutely the case.