First Burial

The following is an excerpt from an article written by Prof. Dov Noy, M. Grunwald Chair of Folklore at the Hebrew University.

Prof. Dov Noy dedicates his article as follows: "From the hundreds of aetiological stories in the Aggadah, I selected the legend of the first burial, as a way to commemorate my late wife, Dr. Tamar, who passed away on August 13, 1997, and was buried at the Mountain of Rest in Jerusalem. As a prehistorian (curator of prehistory at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem) she studied, among other things, neolithic and ancient burial customs, with modern ethno-archaeology as her point of departure." May her memory be for a blessing.

First times, beginnings and origins of things, have always fascinated the human imagination. "Myths" are the beginning of science, an attempt to explain to the curious the beginnings and origins of natural phenomena. Explanations of first things are often provided even without asking the questions. Thus, for example, the third chapter of the Book of Genesis (the fall of man and his expulsion from Paradise) explains the origin of death, the strange looks of the serpent, the pregnancy of women.

In the fourth chapter of the Book of Genesis we have several firsts: the first sexual intercourse,[1] the first pregnancy,[2] the first birth,[3] and the first murder, fratricide,[4] which is related to the previous three. The Genesis story devotes less than a sentence to the actual murder of Abel by Cain (both the first case of fratricide and the first case of a crime committed by a human being against his fellow man). Many details are missing: The motivation for the deed; how the fight proceeded; why Cain won the encounter; whether weapons were used; whether Abel was aware of his brother's intentions; how Cain knew the most vulnerable spot in the human body.

The questions, while left unanswered in the biblical account, are answered in the post-biblical midrashim, and are probably based on ancient oral traditions.[5] Regarding the nature of the dispute between the brothers, for example, four sages offer different narrative[6] outlining the reasons for the quarrel: division of property, the site on which the Temple would be built (Cain or Abel's territory), competition over a woman (sister, mother).

Another midrash concerns the fate of Abel's body and its disposal. The Bible does not mention what happened to it. From the admonition and curse which God directed at Cain[7] ("The voice of thy brother's blood cries unto me from the ground"), we cannot infer whether the corpse was buried in the earth or left unattended. The creative folk-imagination in the Aggadic literature expands the Biblical story in several directions.

We will focus here on that version which has been extant in oral tradition to this day. In doing so, we will learn how the mythologization in our oral tradition comes, not only to answer questions left unanswered in the biblical narrative, but also to legitimize existing customs which are being questioned or challenged.

According to the oral tradition which prevailed over alternative narratives, Cain did not expect Abel's death (as never before had an experience of this kind existed) and, shocked by the silent body, fled from the site of the crime. Abel's parents, Adam and Eve, looked for their missing son, and their search ended upon the discovery of his body. Here, too, we are left with several questions: Why did Abel's body not deteriorate in the hot, sunny Garden of Eden, and why was it not devoured by the beasts of the field? What was the reaction of the parents upon confronting the body of their son? How did they dispose of the body?

Answers to these three questions are supplied in four literary Midrashic versions:[8]

1. The dog which had guarded Abel's flocks during his lifetime stood guard over his dead master's body, so that no bird or beasts could harm it. Another legend tells of birds, flying over Abel's body and shadowing it, thus preventing its deterioration in the sun.

2. Adam and Eve mourned their son; they sat over the corpse which was probably on the ground and wept.

3. The mourning parents observed a raven disposing of a dead bird of its own kind by burying it in the ground. Following the example of the raven. Adam (Eve is not mentioned) buried Abel's body in the ground. Burial is introduced here as a male duty and until this very day burial is traditionally the duty of a son, father and brother.

The three parts of our burial legend not only fill in the narrative gaps, but also explain the origin of three extant Jewish customs (following the order of the legend):

1. Why some time should pass between the death of a person and the disposal of his body;
2. Why, during the period following death and preceding burial, the corpse should be placed on the floor (not on a bed or table), and the mourners sit beside it and mourn (weep); and
3. Why the body should be buried in the earth.

It is interesting that Jewish customs which have been mythologized are generally customs which were attacked and disputed in some Jewish quarters or by some Jewish sects, as the authority for their practice was not explicitly stated in the Bible. By expanding the Biblical story, ancient origins are attributed to a particular custom, giving it sufficient prestige to withstand the opposition of "fundamentalist" and "scriptural" sects.

Elaborating here on the Jewish custom of laying the dead body on the floor shortly after death, we may assume that some Jewish sectarians of the first centuries opposed the Jewish custom as a pagan survival or a Christian penetration. The Jewish myth, then, not only confirms the pre-pagan and pre-Christian antiquity of the custom, but also sanctions its use by ascertaining its divine origin. It is not coincidental that the single narrative which prevailed in oral tradition regarding the fate of Abel's body was the one interrelated with existing customs.

1. Gen. 4:1 [back]
2. Ibid. [back]
3. Ibid. [back]
4. Ibid., 4:8 [back]
5. Cf. Louis Ginsberg, The Legends of the Jews, vol. 1, pp. 107 ff, and the respective footnote in vol. 5. [back]
6. Midrash Breishit (Genesis) Raba 22:8 [back]
7. Gen. 4:10-11 [back]
8. The main text is preserved in the narrative Midrash Pirkei (Chapters of) Rabbi Eliezer, ch. XXI, whence it was probably taken over by two medieval Midrashic compilations (Yalkut Shimeoni and Midrash Haggadol). Cf. Dov Noy, "The Story of Abel's Burial: The Interrelationship of Myth and Custom," in Folklivsgransking, vol. 21 (Festschrift Olaf Bo), Oslo 1978, pp. 129-140. [back] 
Prof. Dov Noy, M. Grunwald Chair of Folklore at the Hebrew University, has published and edited over 60 books and collections of annotated folktales, most of them in Hebrew. Among his English publications are: Folktales of Israel (Chicago Univ. Press 1963) and Folktales of Morocco (Herzl Press, NY 1965). Prof. Noy is presently working with Professor Dan Ben-Amos on The Folktales of the Jews, to be published in 6 volumes by the Jewish Publication Society (which, it is interesting to note, published Louis Ginsberg's The Legends of the Jews some 90 years ago).




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