How was Jacob embalmed?
Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel
Genesis 50:3: they spent forty days in doing this, for that is the time required for embalming. And the Egyptians wept for him seventy days.
- This figure does not quite correspond either to Herodotus or to the Roman historian Diodorus (Histories 1:91) Herodotus wrote that the period of embalming took 30 days, while according to the Diodorus, it took 70 days. Perhaps in the case of Jacob, 40 days were all that was necessary for embalming. The 70 days of mourning may have also included the 40 days of embalming while the thirty additional days were necessary to complete the period of mourning before the journey to Canaan began.
The famous Greek historian Herodotus (II, 86) mentions three methods of embalming. The first, and most expensive, necessitated extracting the brains by means of an iron hook. The emptied skull was subsequently filled with spices. Next, an incision was made with a sharp “Ethiopic stone” which is believed to be obsidian — a glassy black volcanic rock that can be flaked to a razor’s edge.
Obsidian can be sharper and thinner than any surgeon’s scalpel. The first organs to be removed are the upper intestinal tract, and the pancreas. Then comes the spleen, kidneys, bladder, and more of the digestive tract; then comes the colon, stomach and spleen. After the liver comes out the lungs. Only the heart is left in the rib cage.
All the emptied parts of the body were then cleansed and also filled with spices. Afterwards the body was packed in dry natron for a period of seventy days.
The last stage of embalming by this method consisted of washing the body and wrapping it tightly in cloths soaked in resins. In this state the embalmed body was delivered to the relatives, who would put it in a wooden coffin made in the shape of a human body; this was then placed in an upright position in the burial chamber. The second method, a cheaper one, consisted of dissolving the intestines by infusing cedar oil through the anus.
As with the previous method, the body was packed in dry natron and after seventy days the oil, together with the dissolved intestines, would emerge, so that all that remained of the body were the bones and the skin. The third and cheapest method of embalming involved cleansing the body by means of an enema before packing it in natron for seventy days. The embalmed body was then ready for burial. The secrets of the art of embalming were forgotten early in the Roman period.
It is interesting to note that nowadays, Jewish law rules that embalming is forbidden unless the body is being transported over state lines, in which case it is permitted.