Sunday, August 28, 2005

Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone . . .

Reading in 1 Samuel, I came across a reference to an interesting funerary custom which I had not noticed before.

After he was defeated at the battle of Gilboa by the Philistines, Saul 's body was mistreated by the victors:

They cut off his head, and stripped off his armor, and sent into the land of the Philistines round about, to publish it in the house of their idols, and among the people. And they put his armor in the house of Ashtaroth; and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-Shan.

Beth-Shan was the Philistine's main fortress in the valley of Jezreel, one of the lowland cities which the Philistines dominated, while the Israelites held the hills.

And when the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead heard of that which the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men arose and went all night and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and came to Jabesh and burnt them there. And they took their bones and buried them under a tree at Jabesh and fasted seven days. [1 Sam. 31:9-11; emphasis added]

Jabesh Gilead was a city in Trans-Jordan with a long connection to Saul's tribe of Benjamin (cf. Judges 21:8-12), and which Saul had long ago rescued from Ammonite siege (1 Samuel 11). It was very fitting that they loved him above all other cities in Israel.

Now as any resident of the Lutheran blogosphere will know, there has been a bit of a to-do about cremation (see posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, all with long comment strings). But what interests me is that the bones were not burned, only the flesh. Or to put it differently, the aim of the burning was not to destroy the body utterly, but to remove the flesh. I find this interesting because it relates to a widespread belief in Eurasia about the origins of bones and flesh.

This belief, which is a really brilliant piece of observation and deduction, despite being wrong was based on the following observations:

1) The male seed is white
2) Bones are white
3) Menstruation produces blood
4) Except when a woman's period results in pregnancy

Put these facts together and you get the obvious conclusion:

In conception, the male seed merges with menstrual blood in the womb to produce a baby. The bones come from the father and the blood/flesh from the mother. If a male seed is not available, the blood that would have produced a baby is shed in menstruation.

Like I said, wrong, but brilliant given the information available.

The other side of this is what happens in death. The flesh rots first, falling off, and leaving only the bones. Given the theory, this means, the maternal side of one's body falls off first, leaving only one's paternal side. This interacts with the patrilineal descent system of most Eurasian peoples to produce a system of secondary burial. How so? Most Eurasian peoples have a legacy of viewing the dead as not really gone. The living's relationship with the dead person continues through cultic actions directed at the body. But, the facts of nature mean that that relationship continues only with the bones, that is the relatives in the male line. Only those with the same "bone" (which in Mongolian as yasu is also the root for words of lineage, clan, or ethnic group) can reverence/worship the dead bones. But by the same token, the dead body is best worshipped only after the bones fall off. Death and mourning separates the departed loved one. But only after the flesh has been cleaned off (by time, by fire, by exposure) can the bones be collected and the dead man be treated as a purely patrilineal ancestor (paternal bones, and no maternal flesh). This collection of the bones is called secondary burial.

The Israelite family was seen as father, mother, their sons, daughters-in-law, unmarried daughters, and slaves (e.g. Lev. 21:1-3). The mother became a full member of the patrilineage into which she married when she gave birth to a son; in other words, a woman belonged to the family fundamentally as the mother of a patrilineage member, not as the wife of the patrilineage member; this is particularly clear in Lev. 22:10-13. This patrilineage was a continuing corporation holding land that ideally was initially shared out to the family's ancestor in the sharing of the land after the conquest of Canaan (Lev. 25, Nu. 36, esp. vv. 7-9; 1 Kings 21, etc.). In the land of Israel during the Middle-Late Bronze Ages and the Iron Age, burial of family members was usually in a communal cave on the ancestral property (the classic case is the cave of Machpelah in Gen. 23). The body would be placed there after death, then after a period of time, the bones would be collected and placed in a niche in the cave. It was this process of "gathering [the deceased] to his people" that constituted full treatment of the dead, not just one-time burial. This is what Jeremiah meant when he declaimed

And those pierced by the LORD on that day shall extend from one end of the earth to the other. They shall not be lamented, or gathered, or buried; they shall be dung on the surface of the ground.

"Lamented" is the initial burial process, while "gathered or buried" refers to this secondary burial. Going back to the case of Saul, the men of Jabesh Gilead probably were worried about some Philistine effort to desecrate his remains and wished to get him into the "fully buried" state as rapidly as possible, and so burned off the flesh. Similar forms of secondary reburial of the bones alone are widespread, being found in China, Mongolia, and elsewhere. Northern Eurasian hunting peoples return the bones of honored game, especially the bear, to the forest; the bones serve as the essential (patrilineal) part of the animal and returning them to forest keeps the animal's "bone/patrilineage" from being cut off (you can see this reflected in chapter 47 of the great Finnish epic Kalevala, on the bear hunt).

By contrast in the Late Bronze Age (probably the period of the early Judges) , the lowland peoples of Palestine abandoned the communal cave graves and adopted individual pit burials, often with anthropomorphic coffins and indications of embalming. Archeologists belief that this shows the influence of Egyptian ideas of personal bodily immortality beyond the grave, replacing the idea of the ancestors being transformed into patrilineal, communal ancestors. The quality of grave gifts indicates that the plains dwellers were also considerably richer than the upland proto-Israelites under their judges. (This data from Amnon Ben Tor's Archeology of Ancient Israel)

What's the significance of this? Writers in "Biblical politics" contrast the Israelites as a poor, communal society with the wealthy individualists of the Philistine/Canaanite plains. Only relatively late in the monarchy did the Israelites move toward individual tombs as monuments to their owner: Isaiah excoriates one such pioneer in conspicuous defunction, Shebna, in Is. 22:14-16. One may wonder whether it is really appropriate to abstract vague "communal" values from the specific type of community, a collective-property owning patriclan. Is the message that Christians should fight for reorganizing our lives on the basis of communal, egalitarian values? Or for reorganizing our lives on the basis of property-holding patriclans with communal graves? (If you think the first is a dog, try selling the second as the cure for America's ills!)

But one also has to recognize that the bone and flesh dichotomy, despite its long reign from prehistory, is now defunct. Modern genetics teaches us that the only thing we get solely from our mothers is a measly 20-30 genes on our mitochondria, and the variable X chronosome set, and the only thing solely from our fathers is our Y chromosomes, including not much more genes than the mitochondrial set. And thus no significant part of our bodies is simply transmitted from father to son (or mother to daughter). It's all scrambled anew, making each of us unique (and even twins end up having different personalities and interests.) So, although sociological data is confirming the crucial role of fathers in passing on culture/religion, thus confirming the utility of a moderate patrilineal bias, the is of modern genetics argues strongly for the ought of linking families not into rigid patrilineages travelling unchanged through time (the old Eurasian model), but in nuclear or stem families linked by a cognatic web of affiliations to both husband's and wife's family, and in which identity and family roles are passed on to either son and daughter-in-law or to daughter and son-in-law. Such families existed in Japan and Korea, before the Confucianists got hold of them and transformed Korea, at least, into a rigidly patrilineal, patrilocal society (the story of this most amazing piece of social engineering in all time is here.) Fortunately the Japanese resisted this excessively rigid Confucianization. And in Europe, German and Slavic clans broke down in the Middle Ages, leaving this basically cognatic system, with a slight patrilineal bias, in place by the time of the colonization of America.

Thus ironically the old phrase in the beginning of Genesis: "a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and they will become one flesh" makes more sense in a neolocal cognatic family than in Israel's patrilineal, patrilineal families.

Terms: neolocal "new place": new couple takes residence in a separate house.
patrilocal "father place": new couple takes residence in the groom's father's house.
cognatic: descent/inheritance reckonable in either line according to circumstances.
patrilineal: descent/inheritance reckoned strictly in the father's line.