“Lord, He Stinkest”: Jewish Burial Practices, Mourning Customs and Rabbinic Theology on John 11.

As the Easter season approaches, Christians contemplate the two greatest events in human history: the death of the Lord Jesus in order to pay for our sins, as well as His victorious resurrection from the grave.

The resurrection of the Lord Jesus was a watershed event in the history of the world. It was proof of His deity (Acts 2:32, 36; Rom. 1:4). It was proof that the payment for sin was complete and accepted by God (Rom. 4:25; 10:9; John 11:25). Finally, it was proof that the Word of God is true. It is the basis of the Christian message (Rom. 1:4; 3:24,25; 5:9,10), the fulfillment of Bible prophecy (Ps. 16:10, cf. Acts 2:22-32; 13:35-39), and the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-4).

A careful examination of the Scriptures reveals that the entire Trinity was involved in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: the Father (Ps. 16:10; Acts 2:24,27,30,31; 13:30; Rom. 6:4; Eph. 1:19,20), the Son (John 2:19-22; 10:17,18), and the Holy Spirit (Rom. 1:4; 8:11; 1 Pet. 3:18).

John the Baptizer sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus if He really was the coming Messiah (Matt. 11:2,3). The Lord Jesus responds by saying, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see. The blind receive their sight and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me” (11:4-6).

At this point in Jesus’ public ministry, there are two recorded accounts of individuals being raised from the dead. The first is Jairus’ daughter (Matt. 9:23-26 // Mark 5:35-43 // Luke 8:49-56) and the second is the son of the widow woman from Naim (Luke 7:11-16). Both miracles took place in Galilee: the first in Capernaum and the second in Naim. How many unrecorded resurrections there were, we do not know. When Jesus sent out His twelve disciples to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” He gave them power to raise people from the dead (Matt. 10:8).

In the first half of his gospel, the Apostle John records seven miracles, or signs, to demonstrate that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that believing on Him, one could have eternal life (John 20:30, 31). The culminating miracle was the resurrection of His friend Lazarus from the dead (John 11).

When John wrote the gospel that bears his name, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, his mind went back more than 60 years to this monumental event that he had personally witnessed. He records five Jewish burial practices, mourning customs, or a point of rabbinic theology. A Jewish person reading this gospel at the end of the First century AD would catch the significance to these practices and customs right away.

The Lord Jesus deliberately did not rush to the aid of his dying friend because He wanted to show His disciples and the world, that He was Lord of Life and had power over death. He came to Bethany, on the backside of the Mount of Olives, on the fourth day after Lazarus died. As He approached the village, Martha, the sister of the deceased, went out to meet Jesus. Her sister, Mary, the text says, “was sitting in the house” (11:20).

When a Jewish person died, the body was prepared for burial and it was placed in the grave soon after death. It was the custom to bury within 24 hours. After, the family would sit in their house and mourn, receiving the condolences of friends and neighbors for one week, this was called
shiva. Mary and Martha were practicing this custom.

The second custom hinted at in this passage was visiting the tomb. Martha returned to the village and told her sister that Jesus wanted to see her. He arose from her house and went to see Jesus. The mourners in the house thought she was going to visit the tomb of her brother and weep (11:31).
Tractate Semahot (“Mourning”) says: “One may go out to the cemetery for three days to inspect the dead for a sign of life, without fear that this smacks of heathen practice. For it happened that a man was inspected after three days, and he went on to live twenty-five years; still another went on to have five children and died later” (8:1).

The tomb of Lazarus was outside the village of Bethany. Jesus approaches it and commands the people to take away the stone (11:39). John recalled this event and described the tomb as a cave with a stone placed against it (11:38). It was a typical Jewish burial practice to have a tomb hewn out of bedrock. In fact, archaeologists have found hundreds of Jewish rock-hewn burial caves around Jerusalem, many of them on the Mount of Olives. When the Franciscans excavated Bethany in the 1950’s they found several Jewish rock-hewn burials outside the village. It was the practice to place a stone, either round or square, in front of the entrance to the tomb. This stone was called a

Rabbinic theology will help illustrate the fourth point. When Jesus commanded the people to remove the stone, Martha protested (I like the KJV rendering), “Lord he stinkest!” She points out that her brother had been dead four days and his body was beginning to rot (11:39). According to Rabbinic theology, the body began to decompose after the third day in order to expiate, or be punished for, the sins of the dead person. Jesus is about to demonstrate what He told the people in Jerusalem two years prior to this occasion. “Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of the condemnation” (5:25-29 NKJV).

After the stone was removed, Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth” (11:43). The great evangelist of the 19th century, D. L. Moody said, “Jesus had to call Lazarus by name because if he did not, everybody in the grave would have come forth!”

Verse 44 describes the final burial practice. Lazarus is bound hand and foot with grave clothes and his face was wrapped with a cloth. The Jewish burial practice was to wash the body, anoint it with perfumes, then bind the hands and feet, as well as the jaw, in order to prevent the extremities from flying all over the place when rigor mortis sets in.

The resurrection of Lazarus was a powerful testimony to the deity of the Lord Jesus and His ability to give eternal life to any and all who would put their trust in Him. In fact, John records that “many of the Jews who had come to Mary, and had seen the things Jesus did, believed in Him” (11:45), thus fulfilling the purpose of John’s gospel (20:30, 31). Have you trusted Him as your Savior?