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Embalm, Embalming

EMBALM, EMBALMING (חָנַט֮, H2846, to spice, make spicy, embalm). The treatment of a corpse with various substances to preserve it from decay. The Egyptians invented embalming. They believed that the state of the soul in the after life was directly dependent upon the preservation of the body. The Hebrews, however, did not practice the art of embalming. Laws concerning the touching of dead bodies prevented the Hebrews from being innovators in medicine and human anatomy (cf. Num 5:1-4; 19:11-22). These laws, in part, reflect Heb. repugnance of Egyp. religion.

The only clear examples of embalming in the Bible are those of Jacob (Gen 50:2, 3) and Joseph (50:26). These are exceptional cases primarily due to the prestige of the persons and the necessity of preservation of the bodies until burial in their homeland of Canaan. After Jacob was embalmed he was carried by his sons to the patriarchal burial area E of Mamre, the cave of Machpelah (50:13, 14). Joseph’s interment at Shechem (Josh 24:32), however, was delayed several centuries until after the Exodus (Exod 13:19). Joseph’s age at death, 110 years (Gen 50:26), was viewed by Egyptians as the ideal span of life for a man.

In Song of Solomon 2:13, ḥānaṭ also occurs. The expression has reference to the ripening of figs, “The fig tree puts forth (lit. ‘spices’) its figs.” Though spices are used elsewhere in the Bible, prob. for ceremonial reasons and to counteract the stench of decaying flesh (cf. 2 Chron 16:14; Mark 14:8; 16:1; John 11:39; 19:39, 40), these instances are not to be equated with the art of embalming.

For the method of embalmment, one is particularly dependent upon two Gr. historians, Diodorus Siculus (I, 91) and Herodotus (II, 86-89). Genesis indicates forty days were required for the physicians to embalm Jacob (Gen 50:2, 3), whereas seventy days seems to have been the usual length of time.

According to Herodotus, the embalmers offered three methods which differed in elaboration and cost. In the cheapest method, the intestines were cleared out with a purgative and then the body was placed in natron for seventy days. In the second type, the body was soaked in natron after cedar oil was injected at the anus, thus dissolving the stomach and intestines. The first-class method of mummification called for the removal of the brain and all internal organs except the heart. The abdominal cavity was then washed out and filled with spices. Next, the body was soaked in natron for seventy days. It was then washed and wrapped from head to foot with bandages of linen cloth smeared with gum. Finally, relatives took the corpse, placed it in a wooden coffin of human shape, and left it upright against the wall of the burial chamber.

Bibliography R. Hutchins (ed.), Great Books of the Western World, VI, “The History of Herodotus” (1952), 65, 66; P. Montet, Everyday Life in Egypt (1958), 300-330; J. Vergote, Joseph en Egypte (1959); L. Cottrell, Life Under the Pharaohs (1960), 221-236; B. Mertz, Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs (1964), 64-113.