I See Dead People...Alive
Part 1
Vayechi "and lived..."
Genesis 47:28-50:26

Grave Bench of the Cohanim, Ketef Hinnom, Jerusalem

I was in Jerusalem week before last, and we met with a rabbi to make arrangements for him to teach Biblical Hebrew to my online Torah classes. We sat on a bench along Emek Refaiim, a busy street in the neighborhood where I usually rent an apartment.  Before we got down to business, the rabbi insisted on telling us about a class he was taking in Biblical history (notice that good teachers keep learning) and the site of one of the most interesting class study topics was a graveyard that illustrated ancient burial methods.  It explained visually two Biblical phrases: "lie down with my fathers" and "gathered to his fathers."

The ancient gravesite was found full of hewn-rock grave benches, and it was used by the Cohanim from the First Temple period until the destruction of the Second Temple.  Wow!  Archaeologists were able to collect the DNA from the bones of the priests going all the way back to the First Temple.  Wow! Wow!  The gravesite was only a couple of blocks from where we were sitting. Wow! Wow!  Wow!

For the last few years I had been using the route through the Menachem Begin Center as a walking shortcut to reach the Zion Gate, and I'd never noticed the modest little gate with the tiny little sign that was the entrance to the graveyard behind the Begin Center.  I'd practically been walking over the graves without realizing it.  It's sandwiched between the Begin Center and a Scottish Church, so you really have to be looking for it, but once you find it...and we did thanks to Rabbi Shlomo's directions...what a picture!

Once you see what I saw, you'll NEVER FORGET that death is life.  A picture is worth a thousand words.  

Here is a description of the location within the territory of Judah where it abuts Benjamin's:

Then the border went up the valley of Ben-hinnom to the slope of the Jebusite on the south (that is, Jerusalem); and the border went up to the top of the mountain which is before the valley of Hinnom to the west, which is at the end of the valley [ Emek } of Rephaim toward the north. (Joshua 15:8)

Because the valley of Ben-hinnom* came to be known as Gei-Hinnom (Gehenna) where children were sacrificed to Molech, most Bible students focus on the dark history of that valley, but the valley of Emek Refaiim is on one side of it, and Mount Zion is on the other side.  Places in Israel are very close together, not huge distances apart as we imagine when we are children. 

For instance, when Jacob mentions burying Rachel on the road to Bethlehem, they were only a one-and-and-half-hour walk from where she was buried to Bethlehem, and only an eight-hour walk to Hebron where she should have been buried with the other matriarchs.  Instead, Jacob buries her along the roadway where she will witness her children's deportation to Babylon so that she can weep and intercede for them, and then she will witness their return to Jerusalem 70 years later.  

If you have a chance to visit the location of Rachel's Tomb just outside of Jerusalem, it would be a kindness stop in and to let her know you'll be back:

The children of whom you were bereaved  will yet say in your ears, 'The place is too cramped for me; make room for me that I may live here.'  "Then you will say in your heart, ' Who has begotten these  for me, Since I have been bereaved of my children and am barren, an exile and a wanderer? And  who has reared these ?  

Behold, I was left alone; From where did these come?'"  Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I will lift up My hand to the nations and set up My standard to the peoples; and they will bring your sons in their bosom, and your daughters will be carried on their shoulders. (Is 49:20-22) 

The significance of Emek Refaiim is that it is associated with the giants that inhabited Israel.  Caleb conquered giants to re-take Hebron, the burial place to which Jacob, now Israel, must gather in Vayechi, for it was known as the entrance back to the Lower Garden.  Being buried there was the patriarchs' and matriarchs' sign of faith in the resurrection of the dead.  Their very bones in Hebron give hope to their descendants still, but not just physical descendants.  It is the hope and heritage of all who have recognized Yeshua as the first fruits of resurrection to the nations.

Using Emek Refaiim as a burial place of the Cohanim was a loud proclamation of belief in the resurrection, for across the Hinnom valley, the Mount of Olives and the Temple Mount are clearly seen.  They are not far!  The giants who want to prevent Israel's return to Zion will be defeated just like Caleb defeated them at Hebron.  Though our bones be gathered to the fathers', we will arise and be healed!  Refaiim is not just a name of the giants, but its root rafa means:  

to mend (by stitching), i.e. (figuratively) to cure:-cure, (cause to) heal, physician, repair,  thoroughly, make whole

This is what the Father does.  He takes death and destroys it and its strongholds.  He surrounds death and swallows it up with the victory of life. He makes dry bones live!  Just look at some of the uses of rafa in Scripture:

to heal, make healthful
  1. to heal
    1. of God
    2. healer, physician (of men)
    3. of hurts of nations involving restored favour 
    4. of individual distresses 
  2. to be healed
    1. literal (of persons)
    2. of water, pottery
The ancient burial practice was to lay out the patriarch of the family on a hewn bench with a concave head space to hold the skull straight.  After a year, the family returned and collected the bones, placing them in an adjacent collection space.  In the photo above, you can see both the bench and collection box beneath it (Baruch HaShem that it had rained so that you can see the outline of the bench clearly).  This place is called Ketef Hinnom, or Shoulder of Hinnom.  It overlooks Gei-Hinnom and comes level with the Zion Gate.

Additional family members were placed on benches and the process repeated as they died.**  In this way, the descendants both "lay down" with their fathers on the burial bench and were "gathered" to their father in the collection box.  Over 1,000 items, such as expensive jewelry and pottery, were found buried with the priestly families at Ketef Hinnom.  Rabbi Shlomo said that these burial artifacts were only the same as the elaborate Egyptians' burial items in one way: a belief in the afterlife.  

The Israelites did not believe they would actually need those items in the afterlife.  The items were a symbol of their belief that there was life after death, a resurrection proclaimed in every single Torah portion given to Moses.  Now, here's the part you'll never forget.  The family grave in the photo above was arranged in a particular layout.  The title of the Torah portion is Vayechi, "and Jacob lived..."

Jacob livedvayechi.  I srael lived even in the exile of Egypt.  Israel lives Am Yisrael chai . Israel will live at the resurrection of the dead.  It is no accident that the first two prayers of the Amidah daily prayer recall the patriarchs buried at Hebron and the Resurrection of the Dead, calling Adonai " Mechayei HaMetim, " or Resurrection of the Dead.  If you don't read Hebrew, then just carefully study the shape of the letter chet in the graphic above.  It symbolizes life.  Now look at the shape formed by the family grave benches below, which has space for seven bodies at one time:

In Part 2, we'll examine why Israel's spirit was "revived" at the sight of the wagons from Egypt.

Shabbat shalom!

*Hinnom means "lamentation"
**In Second Temple times, "one-year" burials could be placed in small bone boxes, or ossuaries made carved of stone.  These only had to be large enough to hold an individual's longest bone, the femur, and the rest could be stacked.