I received a question from a student pertaining to burial practices in light of a strange Elisha tale inserted into 2 Kings 13. I thought perhaps my response might help others to reflect on the cultural and historical differences pertinent to such practices that come to bear on our reading of such ancient texts. [Disclaimer: In no way am I an expert on such matters, though I have read numerous articles and chapters pertaining to ancient Near Eastern funerary rites and practices, and I must admit that there was not a monolithic system for such rites and practices].
Elisha died and was buried. Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.2 Kings 13.20-21 (NIV)
“Did Elisha have an open grave or what- how could this other man just be thrown in there at the first sign of trouble? If Elisha was buried, even if it was a fresh grave with loose dirt, it seems like it should take a while to unbury him enough for another body to keep his corpse company.”
Regarding burials, a cave (tomb) would often be used by those of high reputation and/or wealth that would have body sized cubby holes throughout. It would often include a table/bed/bench in the main opening and/or along the walls (or more likely several such tables/beds/benches) of sorts made of stone where the most recent body in that tomb would be placed until such a time as they had decayed sufficiently down to bones. At which point they might be moved to an ossuary box which was a bone box just big enough for the femur and all else to be deposited into it (as an aside, this practice with the use of ossuaries may have only arisen likely later than this period and belonged as a practice of the wealthy in the second Temple period). Such boxes were made of stone themselves.
Further, tombs were regularly open access (even as something covered the entry to keep wild animals out). They would not be sealed, but only generally closed up with ease of opening for people to add relations to the family tomb.
If (as seems less likely to me from this short tale) Elisha was buried in a shallow grave as it seems the poor and common folks were, then perhaps his grave was so fresh and shallow that the friends just dug up the bit of loose dirt that happened to be over Elisha, tossed their friend in the hole and ran (?). Though my reading prefers to entombment idea over a shallow grave.
The following is my proposed reconstruction of the incident: These friends/relatives of the dead man were wanting to preserve this man’s body in some fashion just as the Moabites were spotted in the area so they quickly toss his body upon one of the table/beds in the tomb of Elisha and then run. It may be they were performing a burial procession with the body (as was a practice of the time and in some cases in our own contexts) to his intended tomb just as the raiders appeared and they quickly opened the nearest tomb to toss in the body (with the intention of returning to properly finish the rites). Or perhaps they were intending to place it upon one of the other tables/beds within a tomb and felt there was insufficient time so they tossed the body upon (or sufficiently near) what ended up being Elisha’s body. The interrupted funeral ends with a second undoing of his funeral by him being resurrected. What seemed a story to end in ignominy becomes a testimony of the resurrection power of the God of Israel still at work through one of his prophets.
Does this help explain what is happening? This incident is due to funerary rites and practices being considerably different than anything we do in our modern western contexts with burial by digging dirt and putting bodies in coffins to lower into the ground.