After Jacob died, Joseph ordered his physicians to embalm his father. This is shocking to many as embalming is forbidden by Jewish law, and the only other mention of embalming in the Bible was performed on Joseph just a few years later (Genesis 50:26). Though Jacob’s body was carried to Hebron immediately after the embalming was complete, Joseph’s body remained in Egypt for several centuries until the Children of Israel carried his bones to the Holy Land during the Exodus.
Embalming is the artificial treatment of a corpse to prevent or delay its putrefaction. Embalming in the form of mummifying the dead is, in fact, an Egyptian practice. It is believed that the Egyptians dried out corpses with solar heat in the hot desert sands, or, as in one of the chambers found at Thebes, in rooms which were artificially heated.
The Greek historian Herodotus described the Egyptian embalming process as using an iron hook to draw out the brain through the nostrils and then injecting caustic chemicals to destroy what remains. The abdominal organs were removed through a cut made along the flank. The organs were washed and soaked in palm wine and infusions of spices. The organs were then stored in canopic jars made of limestone or pottery. The heart, which Egyptians believed was the seat of intelligence, was removed, wrapped in linen, and replaced into the chest cavity. The cavity was filled with myrrh, cassia, and other spices before being sewn up; the body was then washed and wrapped from head to foot in fine linen and steeped in natron (salt-petre). Unlike the Bible, Herodotus describes the process as requiring 70 which is coincidentally the period of time the Bible describes as the mourning period for Jacob. The Bible describes the process as taking 40 days.
Some Biblical commentaries suggest that the embalming of Jacob was not this gory process but was simply the injection of preservative chemicals into his body.
The embalming in the case of Jacob was to maintain the body in a respectable state for the period of three months from his passing in Egypt to his burial in Canaan; seventy days of mourning in Egypt (50:3) followed by the trek to Canaan (50:9) plus seven additional days of mourning in Canaan (50:10).
Jewish law prohibits embalming a person even when embalming is specifically requested. Embalming is, in fact, a disservice to the deceased since the soul cannot leave the body and the deceased cannot rest in peace until the body disintegrates. The longer it takes the body to decompose, the longer it will take for the soul to depart this world and ascend to heaven (Talmud Brachot 18b). This, however, is only true of the average person who has sinned, and does not apply to righteous people like Jacob and Joseph who did not sin. The souls of the righteous ascend to Heaven even if their bodies remain preserved and do not decay.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 47b) states that the decomposition of the body is a form of atonement, something Jacob did not need. Therefore, his body would not have decayed even without being embalmed. Thus, by embalming his father, Joseph showed a lack of appreciation of his father’s greatness by suggesting that he did, in fact, need to be embalmed in order to preserve his body. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 100) suggests that Joseph was punished for embalming his father and his allotted lifespan was shortened.
The biblical commentator known as the Ohr HaChaim suggested that Joseph actually did know that his righteous father would not decay. But he feared that had the Egyptians witnessed this, they would have deified Jacob and worshiped his body, also possibly not allowing him to take the body out of the country. To avoid this, Joseph purposely had him embalmed – so that the Egyptians would attribute his preservation to natural causes.