“At Home In Death”: --An Archaeological Exposition of Psalm 49:11

Death is a subject that intrigues and frightens. Death is discussed, debated, covered-up and ignored. I remember visiting the Egyptian wing of the Brooklyn Museum several years ago. In one of the far back rooms a mummy was on display. While I was looking at other objects in the room, a group of senior citizens entered. The elderly guide never talked about, nor did the people in the group look at, the mummy. They were deathly afraid of that object (no pun intended). After they left, a group of elementary school children came in on a class outing. What was the first, and only, thing they wanted to look at? You guessed it, the mummy. The mummy intrigued them.

The psalmist, one of the sons of Korah, writing at the end of the 8th century BC, describes the thoughts of wealthy fools who put their trust in material possession for their redemption. He wrote, “Their inner thought is that their house will continue forever, and their dwelling place to all generations; they call their land after their own name” (49:11).

This article will examine the background to this statement by the psalmist. The common interpretation will be discussed, but then archaeological material will be brought to bear to shed light on this passage. It is my contention that the architectural patterns of the burial caves of the Iron Age (Judean Monarchy) reflect the architectural patterns of the typical Iron Age “Four-Room House”. Iron Age burial caves from Jerusalem, mainly St. Etienne and Ketef Hinnom will be examined to demonstrate this proposition.

The Common Interpretation

In the psalmist’s statement, “Their inner thought is that their houses will continue forever”, what is the “house” referring to? Most commentators assume that “house” is the “dynasty” of the wealthy person. One commentator puts it this way: “If they do face the fact that they must die, they console themselves with the thought that the dynasties they have built will last forever” (Phillips 1986:74). This is done on the basis of the double meaning for the word “house” given in the Davidic covenant, II Samuel 7:16 (Goulder 1982:189). “And your house (dynasty) and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever.” Based on the word use, the dynastic interpretation is possible. However, the context suggests a more literal meaning. In the Hebrew parallelism of the poetic structure, “house” would be synonymous to “dwelling places” in the second half of the verse. Also, King Solomon, writing during the Iron Age, calls burial caves “eternal homes.” “For man goes to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets” (Eccl. 12:5).

Another Proposal

During the summer of 1979, I worked as an area supervisor on the Ketef Hinnom excavation, just below the St. Andrews Scottish Presbyterian Church in Jerusalem. One of my responsibilities was the supervision of the excavation of Cave 25. It contained the first intact repository of the Iron Age ever found in the archaeology of Jerusalem (Barkay 1986). The most important discoveries in this repository were two silver amulets with the oldest Biblical texts discovered to date (Barkay 1992; Coogan 1995:45).

After the excavation I had time to reflect on the burial practices of the Judean monarchy and its implication for understanding the Biblical text. Several years later, with the kind permission of the excavator, Dr. Gabriel Barkay, I published a summary of the excavation (Franz 1986). In that article, I suggested one of the implications of the excavations of the Iron Age burial caves at Ketef Hinnom was that it reflects the theology of the afterlife. I observed that the pattern of the burial caves was similar to the “four room house” of the Iron Age. “The psalmist indicated that the desire of materialistic people was their, ‘… inner thought is that their houses will continue forever, and their dwelling places to all generation’ (Ps. 49:11). However, they knew that their houses, made of stone and mudbricks, would eventually collapse. Their desire would be achieved by hewning a burial cave out of solid rock patterned after the floor plan of their earthly house” (Franz 1986:16). I would like to expand on these thoughts in this article.

Parallels Between the Iron Age Burials and the “Four Room House”

The first obvious parallel is the pattern of the burial caves and the Iron Age “four room house.” The typical Iron Age burial cave consists of an entrance with a central depression in front of it and three benches forming a “U” (horseshoe) shape around the central depression. In describing the Israelite four-room house, Y. Shiloh states, “The principle feature of the four-room house and its subtypes is a back room the width of the building, with three long rooms stemming forward from it. The time span of this plan is from the end of the eleventh century BC down to the destruction of Judah” (1970:180, see also Shiloh 1987). Some have discerned this pattern in Egypt during the time of the Israelite sojourn in Goshen (Wood 1997:55,56). The benches in the burial cave would correspond to the two long rooms on the side and the broad room in the back of the house. The central depression would correspond to the open-air courtyard in the middle of the house.

Another parallel is the sunken panel. This can be clearly seen in the Cave Complex 1 of the St. Etienne Burial Caves. The surveyors of this cave, Gabriel Barkay and Amos Kloner, describe their findings. “A careful examination of the walls of the entrance chamber reveals that they are decorated with shallow sunken panels, rectangular in shape, that were hewn into the rock faces of the walls. These rectangular panels are probably stone copies of wooden panels that typically covered the walls of Judean palaces during the Israelite period. Until this discovery, archaeologists had not seen any Israelite or Judean palaces (or other building) of this period with a preserved superstructure of walls. At best, they had found only wall stubs. The walls of the St. Etienne burial cave can therefore teach us a great deal about how palace walls were decorated in Iron Age II. Such decoration was probably used on the walls of Solomon’s Temple. In I Kings 6:9, we read that after Solomon finished building the Temple, he covered the walls with ‘beams and planks of cedar’. … The Hebrew word translated as ‘beam’ is gebim; for ‘planks’ the word is sderot. Gebim probably refers to the sunken panels, and sderot to the raised strips between the panels.” Their description goes on to say that the “wall decoration continued to be used to the end of the Divided Monarchy (586 BC). Jeremiah prophesies against Jehoikim, King of Judah: ‘Ha! He who builds his house with unfairness and his upper chambers with injustice, who makes his fellowman work without pay and does not give him his wages, who thinks: I will build me a vast palace with spacious upper chambers, provided with windows, paneled in cedar, painted with vermilion! Do you think you are more a king because you compete in cedars?’ (Jer. 22:13-15)” (Barkay and Kloner 1986:27). Haggai, a post-exilic prophet, also rebukes the people of Jerusalem for misdirecting their priorities. They were dwelling in paneled houses and the House of the LORD was still not rebuilt (1:4).

The cornice is a third architectural feature that is common to some of the burial caves in Jerusalem. They decorated the top of the walls where the ceiling meets the walls. Hewn out of rock, this probably reflects the support beams in the house.

A fourth parallel is the parapets that surround the edge of each bench in some of the Iron Age tombs. “Each burial bench has a low parapet about two inches high around its outer edge, carved from rock, presumably to prevent the body and burial gifts from rolling off the bench” (Barkay and Kloner 1986:29). The parapet served a practical function in the burial caves just as they did on a house. Deut. 22:8 states, “When you build a new house, then you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring bloodguiltiness on your house if anyone falls from it.” The parapets on the bench serve as a reminder of their function in the house.

A fifth architectural feature common to both the house and the burial cave is the threshold as illustrated by Cave Complex 1 at St. Etienne. Barkay and Kloner describe this threshold, “In this rock-hewn step there are carved two three-quarter-circle sockets; these sockets originally held the hinges of a double door that controlled access to the burial cave. Steps like this one, with similar sockets, are known from various Iron Age II (eighth to seventh century BC) structures. They are usually found at palace throne room entrance – for example, at Arsalan-Tash, at Zincirli (ancient Samal) and Tel Halaf in northern Syria; at Nimrud (Biblical Calah) (Gen. 10:11,12), and Ninevah in Assyria, and at Megiddo and Gezer in Israel” (1986:27). The door served a functional use in the burial cave, just as doors do in a house.

The final architectural feature is the headrest. As Barkay has observed, “[The] Iron Age burial benches with their headrests in the Jerusalemite and Judean burial caves were rock-cut copies of beds commonly used in ancient Israelite houses” (1988:50). The living would sleep on beds with pillows. Similarly, when the dead “sleep in death”, they were laid out on the stone bench with their head in the headrest. However, I’m sure the dead were not overly concerned with the hardness of the "pillow"!

An Intriguing Possibility

During the excavation of Cave 25 at Ketef Hinnom, the director, Goby Barkay said, “Gordon, I want you to find me an inscription in this cave!” I laughed at his request because he had taught me in his Archaeology of Jerusalem class that inscriptions, in situ, are very rare in the archaeology of Iron Age Jerusalem. I half jokingly said I would find him one on the last day of the dig. Ironically, toward the end of the dig, we discovered a private seal with a family name on it in the repository. Goby, with “play-doe” from his son, made an impression of the seal. On it was the family name “Palta” (peh-lamed-tet-he). Apparently the Palta family was buried in this cave (Barkay 1986: 29,34).

The following year at the City of David excavation a lintel from the “Ahiel” house was discovered in Area G. This lintel had the name “Palta” on it as well (Shiloh 1984:18). Did the family have a house in the City of David and a burial cave on the escarpment overlooking the Hinnom Valley? We will never know for sure, but it is an intriguing possibility.

Perhaps this is also what the psalmist had in mind when he said, “And their beauty shall be consumed in the grave, far from their dwelling” (49:14). The family burials were outside and away from the city.

The Conclusion of the Matter

The wealthy materialistic person at the end of the 8th century BC knew that their earthly dwelling place would one-day collapse because it was made of stone, mudbrick, wooden beams and a dried mud roof with grass on top. This person desired to “live eternally” in his earthly body (Ps. 49:9), yet reality told him otherwise. Desiring a more permanent dwelling, knowing that one-day death would be the end results, a burial cave was hewn out of the rocky escarpment outside the city and was patterned after his earthly house. He wanted to feel “at home in death!”

By contrast, the psalmist puts materialism in it’s proper perspective when he concludes the psalm by saying, “But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave (Sheol), for He shall receive me. Selah. Do not be afraid when one becomes rich, when the glory of his house is increased; for when he dies he shall carry nothing away; his glory shall not descend after him. Though while he lives he blesses himself (for men will praise you when you do well for yourself), he shall go to the generation of his fathers; they shall never see light. Man who is in honor, yet does not understand, is like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 49:15-20).


Barkay, G.
1986 Ketef Hinnom, A Treasure Facing Jerusalem’s Walls. Jerusalem: The Israel Museum.

______1988 Burial Headrests As a Return to the Womb – A Reevaluation. Biblical Archaeology Review 14/2: 48-50.

______1992 The Priestly Benediction on Silver Plaques from Ketef Hinnom in Jerusalem. Tel Aviv 19/2: 139-192.

Barkay, G. and Kloner, A.
1986 Jerusalem Tombs from the Days of the First Temple. Biblical Archaeology Review 12/2: 22-39.

Coogan, M.
1995 10 Great Finds. Biblical Archaeology Review 21/3: 36-47.

Franz, G.
1986 The Excavations at St. Andrews Church in Jerusalem. Near East Archaeology Society Bulletin 27: 5-24.

Goulder, M.
1982 The Psalms of the Sons of Korah. Sheffield: JSOT, Supplement Series 20.

Phillips, J.
1986 Exploring the Psalms. Psalm 42-72. Vol. 2. Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers.

Shiloh, Y.
1970 The Four-Room House – Its Situation and Function in the Israelite City. Israel Exploration Society 20/3-4: 180-190.

______1982 Excavations at the City of David I: 1978-1982. Qedem 19. Jerusalem: Hebrew University.

______1986 The Casemate Wall, the Four Room House, and Early Planning in the Israelite City. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 268:3-15.

Wood, B.
1997 Bible Personage in Archaeology. The Sons of Jacob. Bible and Spade 10/2-3:53-65.