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The burial of Sarah

 

Why is the passage about the burial of Sarah written in such a detailed and repetitive way? It is argued that it has much to do with the Covenant of Circumcision and God's promise to Abraham and his offspring of a "possession" in the land of Canaan.

 

Most people who read the Torah as a religious text look for meaning from its pages.  In general, two methods of interpretation have been used by the Jewish people.  One is Rabbinic exegesis, called “drash” in Hebrew, and the other is based on the literal meaning of the text, and this is called “p’shat”.  

 Drash penetrates the words of the Torah to find deeper levels of understanding and guidance to ethical behavior and its interpretations may be only loosely bound to the text.  These commentaries are recorded in the Talmud and midrashic books written in the first few centuries of the Common Era.  The most important classic Jewish commentator who extensively utilized drash was R’ Shlomo Yitzchaki, usually known by his acronym Rashi, who lived between 1040 to 1105 CE.  He had written a commentary on most of the Talmud, as well as Midrash Rabba, and he was able to cull the immense wealth of Rabbinic interpretation for his Torah commentary.  In general, Rashi favored the least imaginative midrashim (plural of midrash) and those closest to the literal meaning of the text.  

 

Despite his extensive use of drash, Rashi frequently provided explanations based on p’shat, and he often included both drash and p’shat in a textual commentary, even when they were mutually exclusive.  Rashi also had no objection when his grandson, the Rashbam, wrote a Torah commentary following exclusively the plain meaning of the text, and he may well have encouraged him.  Torah interpretation using p’shat has become very popular today in the modern orthodox world and within the Israeli national religious movement.

 

The Jewish Sages in their midrashic explanations viewed Abraham’s life as a series of trials which he as able to overcome by means of his supreme faith in God’s providence. 1  It was suggested that Abraham overcame ten trials while living in Mesopotamia and Canaan.  Of these, the binding of Isaac constituted the apex of his love and fear of God.  Acquiring a burial plot for Sarah was never counted amongst these ten.  Nevertheless, the sentiment is expressed in the Talmud that buying a burial plot for Sarah was emotionally difficult for Abraham.  God had previously promised him the entire land of Canaan.  Nevertheless, he was still compelled to humble himself before the children of Chet to acquire for his wife a burial place, and despite this, he voiced no complaint to God.2  Rashi picks up on these midrashic ideas that Abraham’s negotiations for a burial spot were difficult, and that Ephron the seller in particular may have been somewhat devious.   

 

There is, however, another explanation as to why Abraham did not complain to God about his negotiations with the children of Chet – and this is because he had nothing to complain about.  Indeed, a literal understanding of this story indicates that far from being conniving, the children of Chet, including Ephron, went out of their way to accommodate Abraham.  As a result, the negotiations went extremely smoothly and may even have exceeded Abraham’s expectations. 

 In this chapter, both p’shat explanations and midrashic ones as brought down by Rashi will be explored and it will be shown that the p’shat method of interpreting this passage provides a meaningful understanding for our day and age, particularly as it relates to acquiring possession of the land of Israel.

Literacy in the Middle Bronze Age

 

A very relevant question for understanding this passage is whether Abraham was literate and whether he lived in a society that could read and write.

 

Assuming the Exodus from Egypt was in about 1450 BCE, it can be deduced from the ages of the forefathers provided in the Bible that Abraham lived in the Middle Bronze Age, which would be from about 1950 to 1800 BCE.3 

 

At this time in history the central mountain range of Canaan was only sparsely populated, although there were a few cities located at the intersections of the main highways.  It is of interest that Abraham made a point of visiting them all.  The inhabitants of these cities would have been engaged primarily in agriculture.  There was also a nomadic population in the mountain range whose livelihood was based on animal husbandry.  Abraham was one of these nomads.  From the narration of the Bible, there seems to have been an excellent relationship between these two groups.  The foundation for this may well have been economic, with the people in the towns producing grains and vegetables and the nomadic population providing animal products such as wool, milk and cheese and animals for food and sacrifices.

 

Literacy in the Middle Bronze Age would have been confined to the centers of civilization and the main cities of Egypt and Mesopotamia and it is unlikely that Abraham or the Canaanites with whom he lived could read or write.  Hieroglyphic writing on papyrus in Egypt and cuneiform writing on clay tablets in Mesopotamia had been in use for hundred of years, but these scripts were extremely complicated, and their use required years of training.4 

 

By the time the Israelites received the Ten Commandments and Torah the situation had changed and the Israelites were by then a literate society.  We know this because they received a contract written on stone from Mount Sinai and a Torah written on parchment.  This transmission would only have been meaningful if a good proportion of the population could read.5 

 

How were property contracts negotiated and drawn up by people who were illiterate?  The answer is undoubtedly that it was done exactly as described in chapter 23 of Genesis, which describes the negotiations between Abraham and the children of Chet for a burial sepulcher for Sarah.  

 

Some obvious features stand out from the back and fro:

  • Negotiations were done in a very public place in the presence of a substantial portion of the population of the city.  In this way, the validity of the sale would become part of the tradition of the city.  A convenient place for this was by the gates of the city, since this was a large area where important city affairs were carried out.  This is why the negotiations with Ephron are described in the Torah as being in the presence of “to all who come to the gate of his city: (Genesis 23:10).

 

  • Negotiations were conducted in a very clear way, since obfuscations and off the cuff remarks could not be allowed to enter into the proceedings.  This is no doubt why each step in the negotiations is preceded by the words “Hear us (עֵנוּמָשְׁ) (shema’eynu)” or “hear me” (שְׁמָעוּנִי) (shema’uni).  This would have been a formal and abbreviated way of saying – “I have something important to say with regard to this transaction, so please give me your attention.6

 

  • This is also why the text contains such legalese as “full price” (Genesis 23:9) and “negotiable currency” (Genesis 23:16), since no written contract was available to detail these aspects of the sale. 

 

Sarah has died at the age of 127 years and Abraham comes to Hebron to eulogize her and weep.  He also needs a burial place for Sarah and this is an appropriate time to acquire a family sepulcher for the family.  The common practice at that time was for individuals to be “buried” in a cave, the body allowed to decompose, and then after a time the bones were gathered together.

 

In actuality, there was no shortage of caves in Canaan and it would have been relatively easy for Abraham to find a suitable cave outside the centers of population.  However, this is not what he wanted.  He wanted a family sepulcher that would be “among” the children of Chet and close to Hebron.  This would explain Abraham’s opening words to the Hittites:

 

“And Abraham stood up from before his dead, and spoke to the children of Chet saying: “I am an alien and resident among you(עִמָּכֶם) (imachem); give me possession of a burying place (קֶבֶר אֲחֻזַּת) (achuzat kever) with you (עִמָּכֶם) (imachem) that I may bury my dead before me.” (Genesis 23:3-4)

 

Abraham has been a resident in Canaan for decades but is still regarded as a foreigner.7  Sforno suggests that his foreign status might have affected his legal right to be able to purchase Hittite land and this is why Abraham raises the issue of his status.8  However, there is no indication from the text that this was so and given the decentralization of the Canaanite city states and the way this sale proceeds, it seems unlikely.  More plausible is that  Abraham is emphasizing here his dependency and reliance on Hittite generosity rather than pointing out any impediment to a sale. 

 

Throughout the speeches of Abraham and the children of Chet the word “תְּנוּ” (tenu) is used.  This has the meaning of to “give”.  However, as in English, there is the potential for ambiguity with this verb.  It could mean, for example, to donate for free, or to loan, or even to sell.  Thus, its understanding in these negotiations will need to be clarified by the parties.  Because of its multiple meanings in this passage, a better translation would be “to make available” or “to grant” – or even “to sell”.9   In the translation provided here, the word is left as “to give” although its broad spectrum of meaning should be appreciated.

 

In their answer to Abraham, the children of Chet propose a splendid idea from which all parties would benefit:

“And the Hittites answered Abraham saying to him: “​Hear us (שְׁמָעֵנוּ) (shema’eynu) my lord; you are a prince of Elokim in our midst; in the choicest of our tombs bury your dead; none of us will withhold from you his tomb from you from burying your dead.” Then Abraham rose up and bowed down to the members of the council, to the children of Heth." (Genesis 23:5-7)

 

Abraham has requested that Sarah be buried in their midst.  The children of Chet are in favor of this.  In the years that Abraham has lived among them he has achieved a remarkable reputation.  He is not a lowly nomad but their “master” and “a prince of God”.  It would be a privilege for them to have a member of Abraham’s family in one of their tombs and all their burial caves are available to him to use.  No money need change hands and everyone will benefit. 

 

However, this is far from what Abraham wants – for reasons that will soon be clarified.  Nevertheless, these opening positions have established the mood for the negotiations, and Abraham has reason to believe he will be succeed in obtaining his modest request.  

Abraham now displays the required obsequiousness to the children of Chet.  Abraham is requesting a favor.  He has nothing to offer them in return other than that the wife of a “prince of God” be buried in their midst.  He gives a bow as in worship, even possibly bowing to the ground.10  

 

In his reply to them, Abraham is now very explicit about what he is seeking:

 

“He spoke to them, saying: If it is truly your will that I should bury my dead from before me; hear me, (שְׁמָעוּנִי) (shema’uni) and intercede for me with Ephron the son of Zohar that he may give me the Cave of Machpelah, which he has, at the edge of his field; let him give to me(veyiten li) (לִיוְיִתֶּן)for full price in your midst as a possession of a burying place.” (Genesis 23:8-9)

 

Abraham wants a specific cave, the cave of Machpelah, and is willing to pay its full value.  The assumption must be that he will have egress to the cave from the main thoroughfare since Ephron’s cave is on “the edge of the field”.   Abraham feels uncomfortable directly asking a prominent citizen such as Ephron for his cave but in this public setting he will use the good will he has with the children of Chet to persuade Ephron to make his cave available to him. 

 

However, Ephron is not prepared to provide the cave alone and he makes a new proposal: 

 

“Ephron was sitting among the children of Chet; and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, to all who come to the gate of his city, saying: “No, my lord, hear me (שְׁמָעֵנִי) (shema’eyni)! the field I have given to you (לָךְ נָתַתִּי) (natati lach), and the cave that is in it I have given to you (ךָלְנְתַתִּיהָ) (nasatiha lecho); in the presence of the sons of my people I have given it to you (ךָלְנְתַתִּיהָ) (nasatiha lach); bury your dead.” (Genesis 23:10-11)

 

What exactly is Ephron negating with his definitive “No!”?  Rashi suggests that Ephron is negating the notion that Abraham should pay at all for the cave.  He is now offering him everything for free – the cave plus the field in which the cave is situated.10 

 

However, from a literal understanding of the text there is reason to question Rashi’s understanding.   As mentioned, “to give” in this context could equally mean to provide or to offer.  Ephron would be taking a tremendous gamble offering his cave and field for free since Abraham could well accept the offer.  It is also difficult to see what Ephron gains from offering a free cave and field in this public setting – since he clearly does not mean it. 

 

Equally likely is that Ephron realizes that Abraham would like to buy both the cave and the field and he now makes precisely that offer.11  It could also be that Ephron feels that the value of the cave alone does not justify the bother of a sale, since its value would not be that great.  Therefore, officially and in a legally precise manner he suggests a new “contract” in front of the townspeople.  The addition of the field is a new proposal and this is the item mentioned first.  

 

As Ephron had assumed, Abraham is agreeable to this new condition:

 

And Abraham bowed down before the people of the land.  And he spoke to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, saying: Rather (ךְאַ) (ach), if (אִם)(im) only you would heed me! (שְׁמָעֵנִי לוּ) (lushema’eini), I have given (נָתַתִּי) (nosati) the money of the field, take from me, that I may bury my dead there.” (Genesis 23: 12-13)   

 

Abraham agrees to these new conditions.  The qualifying word “ach” (meaning “but” or “rather”) is not negation of Ephron’s gift but a revision of his own previous offer.  Previously he had offered to pay for the cave.  If the sale is to be the cave plus the field, he readily accepts this and will certainly pay for the field in addition.  He emphasizes his willingness to pay for both by means of a double “if” (“if” plus “only”).  

 

All that remains is to fix the price:

 

​“And Ephron answered Abraham, saying to him: My lord, listen to me (שְׁמָעֵנִי)(shemo’ayni); land worth four hundred shekels of silver.  Between you and me what is that?  And bury your dead.” (Genesis 23:14-15)

 

Between friendly and comfortably off individuals such as Abraham and Ephron what is 400 shekels – the going rate for such a lot – asks Ephron?  Abraham weighs out the money and finalizes the deal.  And the Torah concludes this passage (almost) with a summary of the “contract” and that with this purchase Abraham is able to go ahead and bury Sarah:

 

“And the field of Ephron which was in Machpelah, facing Mamre, the field and the cave within it and all the trees in the field that were in all the borders around were made over/established.  To Abraham as a purchase (לְמִקְנָה) in the presence of the children of Heth, before all who went in at the gate of his city.  And after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre, which is Hebron in the land of Canaan. (Genesis 23:17-19)

 

The text is very precise in its description of the lot because this public declaration constitutes the “deed” of sale.  The lot also includes trees that identify the borders of the property.  Only after the public sale is completed and it is truly his, does Abraham go ahead and bury Sarah. 

 

Why all this repetitive detail?

 

A critical question can be asked regarding this passage.  Why is it so detailed and wordy?  Why does the Torah have to tell us that the children of Chet offered Abraham the use of any of their caves on a shared basis?  Why is it important that Abraham requested only a cave but obtained a field in addition?  And why do we need to know how much Abraham paid for Ephron’s property and that he weighed out the silver?  

 

This entire passage could have been summarized in one sentence that contained all the essential facts – namely that Abraham requested from the children of Chet a burial place for Sarah his wife and that he purchased from Ephron the Hittite the field of Machpelah with its cave.  

 

Why then all this seemingly extraneous detail?

 

In actuality, the question is even broader than this.   

 

When Abraham himself is buried in the Cave of Machpelah, the description of his burial is again extremely wordy:12 

 

“And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite which faces Mamre. The field that Abraham had bought (קָנָה) (kana) from the children of Chet, there Abraham was buried and Sarah his wife.” (Genesis 25:9-10) 

 

But has not the Torah already told us just two chapters previously where the cave is, why Abraham bought it, from whom he acquired it, and that the cave was “purchased”?  Why then the repetition?

 

Moreover, when Jacob is close to dying and requests from his sons that they bury him in this same Cave of Machpelah, it is understandable that he would tell them where the cave is located and why he would wish to be buried there.  But why does he need to stress that both the cave and field were a “burial possession” and repeat twice that the field and the cave were purchased from Ephron from the children of Chet?

 

“… bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which faces Mamre in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought (קָנָה)(kana) with the field from Ephron the Hittite for a burial possession (אֲחֻזַּת-קֶבֶר) (achuzat kever).  There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife, there they buried Isaac and Rebecca his wife, and there I buried Leah.  A purchase (מִקְנֵה) (mikne) of the field and the cave within it from the sons of Chet.” (Genesis 49:29-32)

 

And when his sons do bury him, the Torah again elaborates on the purchase of the cave and the field:  

 

His sons did for him exactly as he had commanded them. And his sons carried him to the land of Canaan and they buried him in the cave of the Machpelah field, the field that Abraham had purchased (קָנָה) (kana) for a burial possession (אֲחֻזַּת-קֶבֶר) (achuzat kever) from Ephron the Hittite facing Mamre.” (Genesis 50:12-13)

 

Would it not have been enough for the Torah to say that Jacob’s sons did exactly as Jacob requested them and buried him in the cave of Machpelah?  Just mention of the word “Machpelah” seems to be reason for the Torah to elaborate on the fact that the cave and field were “purchased” as a “burial possession” from Ephron the Hittite in the land of Canaan, details that have already been well established.

 It is difficult to avoid the impression that these 18 verses describing the cave’s purchase, as well as these other passages about the burial of Abraham and Jacob are not just describing burials but that there is another important concept attached. 

 

If this is so, what is it?

The suggestions of Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra

 

Both Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra discuss this issue and provide a number of answers.13,14  The question Nachmanides is answering may not be quite the same question that we are asking – namely is there a single overriding idea that would explain the detail and repetitiveness of the Torah’s description of Sarah’s burial – and Nachmanides may be content with a number of partial answers.  Nevertheless, the three answers he provide are helpful for approaching this issue:

  • It is important that the Jewish people be aware of the location of the burial place of their forbears so they can provide it with appropriate honor.  Its location also needs to be known exactly since both the Hittites and Abraham lived in places other than Canaan.  For a time, Abraham lived in the land of the Philistines.  

  • This passage informs us of the esteem by which Abraham was regarded by the children of Chet.  They call him “my lord” and “a prince of God”.  This is a fulfillment of the prophecy made to Abraham that “I will make your name great and you shall be a blessing”. (Genesis 12:2) 

  • Abraham is being subjected to a trial.   Although promised all the land of Canaan he now has to go through the mental anguish of negotiating to buy a small piece of it.1,2 

 

Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, does provide a comprehensive interpretation.  He suggests that this passage informs us about the eminence of the land of Israel for the dead and living.  Also, God’s promise that the land would become Abraham’s inheritance is now being fulfilled.14

 

Nachmanides, however, rejects these two idea proposed by Ibn Ezra.13  Where else would Sarah be buried, asks Nachmanides?  She did, after all, die in Canaan.  Moreover, the promise to Abraham about “the land” relates to the “entire” land of Canaan and here Abraham purchased but a single cave and field.  This passage has nothing to do with the territorial promise given to Abraham, a promise that is destined to be fulfilled hundreds of years from now by his offspring.

 

Nevertheless, the ideas proposed by Nachmanides are themselves open to debate.  

 T

here can be no doubt that many Jews love to visit graves and will travel miles to pray at the site of their favored righteous person.  This is not necessarily the case, though, for Judaism.  Other than the Cave of Machpelah in which the three forefathers and their spouses are buried (and by Jewish tradition Adam and Eve) and the tomb of Joseph who was brought from Egypt to Shechem, the locations of the graves of our early Jewish leaders are unknown.  The site of the grave of Moses was deliberately suppressed.15  We do not know where Joshua was buried.  The graves of Rachel and Samuel are probably incorrectly identified.  Jewish priests are forbidden to contaminate themselves with the dead and even enter a graveyard.  Clearly, honoring the living has more importance in Judaism than revering the tombs of the dead.  While Nachmanides is undoubtedly correct in stating that the cave of Machpelah requires respect from all who visit it, it is by no means obvious that the Jewish people are “obliged” to go out of their way to visit Hebron.

 

Moreover, while the esteem in which Abraham is held certainly emanates from the Biblical text, it is mentioned in 2 sentences only – once when the children of Chet call Abraham “my master” and “a prince of God”, and again when Ephron calls Abraham “my master”.16 Hence, this notion of esteem can hardly be considered an overriding theme of this passage.  

 

So where do we go from here?

 

Perhaps we need to look again at the suggestion of Ibn Ezra that was rejected by Nachmanides regarding the inheritance of the land?

 

The land as an “inheritance”

 

God speaks to Abraham on seven occasions and grants him seven blessings.

 

The first blessing received while he was still in Mesopotamia makes no mention of the land.  However, in the second blessing bestowed when he had reached Shechem, God tells him succinctly and to the point: “To your offspring I will give this land.” (Genesis 12:7) 

 

The nature of God’s giving becomes much clearer in His fourth revelation to Abraham in the Covenant between the Pieces.  The scene is this.  Abraham has just defeated a coalition of kings that had previously attacked Sodom and kidnapped his nephew Lot.  Very likely, he is now concerned that he will be subject to a reprisal raid.  However, God assures him that he should “fear not” (Genesis 15:1) for He will be his shield.  

 

The conversation now turns onto the question as to who will inherit Abraham.  Abraham has assumed that it would be his servant Eliezer, since it was the Mesopotamian custom that a chief servant inherit the master in the absence of a closer heir.  However, God assures Abraham that Eliezer will not inherit him but only his own biological child.  Having established that Abraham will have an heir, the subject matter changes as to when his offspring will take possession of the land.  Abraham is told that he will “inherit” the land but it is his descendants who will establish themselves on the land 400 years from now.  This is firmed up in the Covenant of the Pieces when “a smokey furnace and a torch” (Genesis 15:17) pass between pieces of animals that Abraham had cut up.  In ancient times, a contract was established by walking between cut-up pieces of animals: 

 

“And He said to him: 'I am YKVK Who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this land to inherit it (לְרִשְׁתָּהּ) (lerishta)  ……………  On that day YKVK made a covenant with Abram saying: “To your descendants have I given this land, from the River of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River.” (Genesis 15:7-18)

 

The situation is now clear.  Abraham has been “given” this land as an “inheritance” but not as a possession.  His inheritance will only be realized when the time is ripe. An “inheritance” is by definition an exclusive gift and in the meantime no one else will have claims on it other than those to whom it currently belongs. 

 

With this understanding it is possible to understand God’s third blessing to Abraham.  Lot has elected to live in the Jordan Valley rather than on the mountain range with Abraham.  By moving to the Jordan Valley, which is where the wicked city of Sodom is located, Lot has in effect rejected the moral values of his uncle.  This is a crisis for Abraham since he was grooming his nephew to be his successor.  

 God appears again to Abraham to reassure him and then tells him to look around in all four directions: 

 

“For all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your seed forever ……….

Arise, walk through the land in its length and breadth; for to you will I give it.” (Genesis 13:15-17)

 

But what does this walking accomplish?  The Talmud considers and then rejects the notion that walking through a field is sufficient to establish ownership of land and suggests rather that Abraham walked through the land “so that it would be easy for his descendants to conquer.”17 In other words, Abraham’s walking had a directive function in pointing out to future generations the gift that God had given him.18  

 

In fulfilling this directive, Abraham may well have wandered throughout the country seeking pasture for his flocks.  Nevertheless, following this revelation, the Torah pointedly makes mention that he sacrificed in Hebron, visited Gerar by the Philistine border, and called out the name of God in Beersheba.19  These are not remote areas in the wilderness but the main cities of Canaan.  By these actions, Abraham is binding himself to the land and pointing out to future generations the extent of his inheritance and that they will have jurisdiction over this entire land.20 

 

This all supports the position of Nachmanides in his disagreement with Ibn Ezra.  The entire land of Canaan was promised as “an inheritance” to Abraham and his seed and this promise would be fulfilled in the time of Joshua.  This promise has nothing to do with Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah.   

 

It would seem that we have reached an impasse in our search for an overriding concept that would explain the format of this passage and the two other Cave of Machpelah-related burials mentioned in the Torah. 

 

The Covenant of Circumcision and “possession” of the land

 

There was, however, another covenant made with Abraham - the Covenant of Circumcision – and this cannot be ignored.  

 

There are significant differences between these two covenants.  The Covenant of Circumcision was made by the Elokim aspect of God, while the Covenant between the Pieces was made by YKVK.  The promised boundaries of the future Jewish state are also quite different.  In the Covenant between the Pieces, the Jewish people are promised from the River Nile to the Euphrates, whereas in the Covenant of Circumcision only the land of Canaan is gifted.

 

It has been discussed previously that there are two accounts winding their way through the Book of Genesis.  One account is about the relationship between humanity and the transcendent aspect of God, Elohim, the Creator of the world, whose chief concern is the general providence of mankind.  The second account is about YKVK, the immanent aspect of God, Who has a relationship with Adam and Eve in the second creation story, then with Noah, and subsequently with the three forefathers.  This relationship will finally extend to the tribe of Israel and YKVK will become the national God of the Jewish people.  The Covenant between the Pieces is made by the imminent aspect of God YKVK.

 

The dichotomy in these covenants reflects the dual nature of Judaism and the dual mission of Abraham.  On the one hand, Abraham is the forefather of the Jewish people and will teach his children to practice “righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:19) within the framework of the covenant made at Sinai.  However, this national mission cannot be separated from Judaism’s universal mission to bring ethical monotheism to the rest of the world.  This is why in the Covenant of Circumcision, Abraham’s name is changed from Avram, meaning a father of Aram, to Abraham, meaning a father of a multitude of nations, and Sarai’s name, formerly my princess, is changed to Sarah, now a princess to the entire world.

 

A major theme of the Covenant of Circumcision is its eternal nature:

 

“I will uphold My covenant between Me and you and your offspring after you, throughout their generations, as an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you and to your offspring after you.  And I will give to you and to your offspring after you, the land of your sojourns, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession (לַאֲחֻזַּת עוֹלָם) (le’achuzat olam) and I will be a God to them.” (Genesis 17:8)  

 

God promises to be an eternal God to an eternal people who will perform circumcision throughout eternity.  He also promises Abraham and his seed the entire land of Canaan.  In this Covenant, this is not “an inheritance” for the distant future, but a “possession” (achuza), something that can be physically taken, from the Hebrew verb le’echoz to grasp, and it will be taken in the here and now.  It will also be for all eternity – an “everlasting possession”.

 

However, even eternity needs to begin at some point.  By circumcising himself and his family, Abraham is signing onto an eternal covenant.  His circumcision marks time zero.  

 

Nevertheless, the promise to Abraham and his offspring of an “everlastingpossession” (achuzat olam)(אֲחֻזַּת עוֹלָם) in the land of Canaan remains unfulfilled at the time of Covenant of Circumcision.  This was remedied at the time of the burial of Sarah.  When Abraham bought with money his “burial possession” (אֲחֻזַּת-קֶבֶר) (achuzat kever) from the Canaanites, this acquisition represented the first installment of the “everlasting possession” (אֲחֻזַּת עוֹלָם) (achuzat olam) of the land of Canaan that was promised to Abraham and his descendants in the Covenant of Circumcision.

 

It can now be seen that the burial of Sarah functions on two levels.  On the one hand, Abraham had a practical need to find a family sepulcher for Sarah and for himself and for his descendants.  On the other, his acquisition was also the first installment of the “eternal possession” (achuzat olam) promised to him and his 

 

With this perspective it can be appreciated why the Torah provides such a detailed description of this sale, why Abraham refuses to accept the generous offer made by the children of Chet for a shared burial chamber, why Abraham insists on paying for the cave so as to avoid any future misunderstanding as to its ownership, and why his handing over of money needs to be witnessed by the Hittite people by the gates of their city so that this transfer of ownership is recognized by all.  This is also why the Torah repeats many of the details of this sale when mentioning the burial of Abraham even though they had all been mentioned two chapters previously, and this is why Jacob makes a point of emphasizing to his children that he is to be buried in a “burial possession” and that this burial possession was “acquired” from the children of 

 

The account of this sale has much relevance to the Children of Israel who are about to enter the land of Canaan.  Since God has made good on the first installment of His covenantal promise to Abraham, it stands to reason that the children of Israel can be assured that they too will receive the rest of their “possession” -  although it will be hundreds of years later before the entire land of Canaan will be in the hands of the Jewish people during the reign of King David.

 

It can now also be appreciated why it is appropriate that the first installment of this “everlasting possession” in the land of Canaan be a burial sepulcher.  There is an eternity about a burial chamber that does not exist for any other possession such as a field or building.  A field unused becomes overgrown with weeds and a house unused goes to ruin and squatters take up residence.  They would still belong to Abraham but the connection would be that much weaker.  However, a burial chamber is a functional burial chamber forever just by dint of what it contains. 

 

Does the text support this interpretation in any other way?  For one, the literary format.  Particularly in the book of Genesis, the Torah uses a number of literary formats to provide emphasis. There is what may be called a “crescendo format” in which a story builds up to its major point, which is found at or towards the end the story.  The Creation story in the first chapter of Genesis uses a “crescendo format”.  A chiasmic format has the structure A-B-C-C-B-A.  This signifies the influence of God in all aspects of the story from beginning to end, and the peak of the chiasmus also functions as a focal point of the story.  The Noah account is written in a chiastic format.  This passage describing the negotiations for a burial sepulcher uses what may be called a “bookend format” in which the end of the story mirrors an aspect of its beginning.

 

Hence, the sentence in which Abraham begins his negotiations reads as follows:

And Abraham stood up from before his dead, and spoke to the children of Heth saying: “I am an alien and a resident among you; give me possession of a burial possession (אֲחֻזַּת קֶבֶר) (achuzat kever) with you that I may bury my dead before me.” (Genesis 23:3-4)

 

While the very last sentence of this passage ends thus: 

 

“And the field, and the cave that is in it, were made over to Abraham for a burial possession (אֲחֻזַּת-קֶבֶר) (achuzat kever)by the Hittites.” (Genesis 23:20)

 

The beginning of the negotiation process stresses that Abraham is looking for a “burial possession” and the final sentence of this passage emphasizes that this is exactly what he obtained.  Acquisition of a burial “possession” was the major intent of this story.

 

Was Abraham overcharged?

 

It was mentioned in the beginning of this essay that the Sages of Israel viewed this story as demonstrating Abraham’s fortitude and acceptance of God’s providence for him, and this position was taken up by Rashi.1,2

 

An interesting question in this respect which brings into focus the role of drash and p’shatin explaining this passage is whether Abraham was overcharged for Ephron’s cave and field.

 

Even though it is not explicitly stated in the text, there is a Rabbinic tradition that this was the case.  Based on the Talmud and midrash, Rashi explains that the “negotiable currency” mentioned in this story relates to large shekels.21  This was a form of currency used in one particular location and was worth 100 regular shekels.  Therefore, in effect Ephron was asking for 40,000 shekels.   Rashi is here interpreting “negotiable currency” not as currency in general use but as currency accepted by everyone.

 However, on a literal p’shat level there is no need to take this approach, and not all  Jewish commentators agree that Abraham overpaid.22  

 

One can think of several reasons why Ephram would not overcharge Abraham.  The children of Chet have already publically announced that Abraham wa s a special person who deserves special consideration.  Why then would Ephron announce a price that was not only inflated but a blatant lie (“land worth four hundred shekels of silver” (Genesis 23:14))   More likely is that this was a fair price for this plot of land.  Rashi’s opinion also makes Ephron appears as a somewhat devious character which is inconsistent with the initial approach of the children of Chet. 

 

We do have some prices to compare.  At the time the Bible was written compensation to a father for loss of his daughter’s virginity from rape was 50 shekels.23  A person who wished to donate his own value to the sanctuary would also pay 50 shekels.24  The price of the amount of barley sowed on 75,000 cubits of land (somewhere between 170,000 to 300,000 square feet) was 80 shekels.25  Three generations from the time of Abraham, Joseph was sold as a slave to Ishmaelites for 20 shekels.26  From these prices, 400 shekels would seem to be not an unreasonable price for a good-size field of prime agricultural land.  

 

We have no idea of the size of Ephron’s field, although it was big enough to contain trees.  We do know, however, that it was in a prime location. 

 

The Cave of Machpelah is about 400 meter from Tel Rumeida, the site of an ancient pre-Canaanite and Canaanite city and likely the city of Hebron or Qiryat Arba mentioned in the Torah.  The field that Abraham bought was contiguous with the cave and therefore just outside Tel Rumeida and likely in the Valley of Hebron.  It was thus very conveniently located to the city and was probably very fertile agricultural land since it was in a valley and not on rocky slopes

 

If Abraham did not overpay for the field and cave but bought it at an acceptable price, then one can say that this entire sale went very smoothly for him.  

 

Specifically:  

  • Abraham is recognized as a “prince of G-d” and the children of Chet go out of their way to try and be helpful.

  • Abraham requests just the cave of Machpelah from Ephron since he does not feel comfortable requesting his field - but he is offered the field anyway.

  • Ephron could easily have requested an exorbitant sum of money – but he did not.

  • Ephron sells him valuable land, if not the most valuable land, in Hebron at cost price.

 

How did everything work out so well for him?  

 

The answer is almost certainly that God promised Abraham a “possession” in the land of Canaan and He is now working behinds the scenes to insure that he obtains it.

 

The marriage of Isaac and its connection to the burial of Sarah 

 

There is good reason to see a thematic connection between this burial passage and the next story in the Torah which is about the search by Abraham’s servant Eliezer for a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac.

 

A nation cannot be built up through a bachelor and this alone was good reason for Isaac to get married.  Abraham is strongly opposed to a marriage with the Canaanites and he looks to his family in Aram in Mesopotamia for a wife for his son.  He now appoints his servant Eliezer to bring a young lady from his home country to Canaan.  

 

Eliezer asks what should he do if the lady does not wish to come back with him to Canaan, and Abraham replies:

Beware lest you return my son to there [to Aram].  YHVH, God of the heavens, Who took me from the house of my father and from the land of my birth; and Who spoke concerning me, and Who swore to me saying: ‘To your offspring will I give this land’ He will send His angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman will not wish to follow you, you shall be absolved from this my oath, only do not return my son there.” (Genesis 24:6-8)

 

But why is Abraham so assured that “God’s angel” would accompany Eliezer?  No revelation is recorded in the Torah about such an angel. 

 

I would suggest that the previous account of the burial of Sarah provides the answer.  Abraham saw how this sale proceeded in a manner so favorable to him that even he could not have anticipated it, and he realized that God was working behind the scenes to fulfill His part of the covenant and provide a “possession” in the land of Canaan.  Since this was so, it followed that He would also help him in finding a wife for Isaac since this was the next step in building up a nation. 

 

It is fascinating to see how “God’s angel” was on top of the situation.  Eliezer designates a sign for finding the right girl - that she would offer water to him and to his camels, and Eliezer “had not yet finished speaking that suddenly Rebecca  ….… was coming out ….  and she hurried and she lowered her jug to her hand and gave him to drink. When she finished giving him drink, she said “I will draw even for your camels until they have finished drinking.  … The man was astonished at her…” (Genesis 24: 15-21)

 

Hence, it is not only the burial section of chapter 32 but the majority of this chapter that is about the providence of God in bringing the first steps of His covenant to fulfillment. 

 

Drash and p’shat in interpreting the burial of Sarah   

 

There was good reason for the Rabbis to view the life of Abraham as a series of trials to be overcome, since Abraham’s response to these trials was the response they wished to inculcate in the people that lived during their own times.

 

By the time the Talmud and midrashim were written, most Jews had left Israel and were living in the Jewish diaspora.  Emphasizing Abraham’s faith despite the difficulties he encountered would have been the most meaningful way of providing encouragement to the Jewish people at this time in history.  

 

However, at the time of the Giving of the Torah, which is when these stories were given over to the people, the assurance that God would provide help in conquering the land would have been the most encouraging message for them to receive.  It was after all the pessimism of the majority of the spies that led to a change in God’s plan and the Israelites wandering for forty years in the wilderness.  The first installment of their “possession” at the time of Abraham went extremely smoothly, and it will go equally smoothly when they arrive at the outskirts of the land of Canaan. 

 

Where do we stand today in this spectrum of drash and p’shat?  On the one hand, the establishment of the State of Israel has been fought with blood, sweat and tears.  On the other hand, one cannot but be amazed as to how this country has established  itself territorially in such short time despite overwhelming odds.

 

The final installment of the “everlasting possession” of the land of Canaan/Israel today is Judea and Samaria, and it would seem almost an impossibility that it be returned in its entirety to Jewish hands.  There are too many external diplomatic, demographic, and internal political problems to be overcome.

 

Yet a p’shat message of the burial of Sarah story is that God is supervising history to its finest detail.  

 

It is doubtful that the Israeli political establishment has a master plan for taking over Judea and Samaria.  It cannot because the country is so internally divided on this issue.  Yet despite this, a destiny is forcing history along in this direction, and it will happen eventually whether or not the Jewish people in its entirety will it.  This is because Judea and Samaria are part of the “eternal possession” of the Jewish people.

 

References:

 1. Ethics of the Fathers 5.3.  Maimonides in his commentary to this Mishna provides a list of all these trials.  Not all his list is based on events recorded in the Bible and some are based on midrashim: 1. God tells Abraham to leave his homeland to become a stranger in the land of Canaan; 2. Immediately after his arrival in the Promised Land, he encounters a famine;3. The Egyptians capture his beloved wife, Sarah, and bring her to Pharaoh; 4. Abraham faces incredible odds in the battle of the four and five kings.  5. He marries Hagar after not being able to have children with Sarah; 6. God tells him to circumcise himself at an advanced age; 7. The king of Gerar captures Sarah, intending to take her for himself; 8. God tells him to send Hagar away after having a child with her; 9. His son, Ishmael, becomes estranged;  10. God tells him to sacrifice his son Isaac upon an altar.   More lists can be found in Midrash Tehillim (chapters 18 and 95),  Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (26), and Avot d’Rabbi Natan (33). 

2.TB Sanhedrin 111a and TB Bava Basra 16a.

3. Understanding Time and Place, chapter 2, In Excavating the Bible. New Archaeological Evidence for the Historical Reliability of Scripture by Yitzhak Meitlis, p13. Eshel Books, Baltimore, Washington 2012.  This is regarded as a controversial book by many archeologists since it accepts literally the dating of the Bible and therefore assumes a dating of 14450 BCE for the Exodus and not the more commonly accepted period of the Iron Age, which would be some 200 years or so later.  If the Exodus were in the Iron Age then the date of the Patriarchs would need to be adjusted by 200 years.  Meitlis also points out that the cities mentioned in the Torah are the only cities that would have been in existence in the Middle Bronze Age – cities such as Shechem, Ai, Beth- El, Beersheba (although this may have been a location rather than a city) and Hebron, all of which were visited by Abraham during his travels through Canaan.  If the Torah had been written at a much later period, say during the Babylonian exile, it would have been very easy for an author to introduce a city not yet in existence.  Meitlis’ point is that the background provided for the patriarchal stories is historically accurate for the Middle Bronze Age.

 4.   How did the Israelites in Egypt develop the ability to read and write?  Letters in hieroglyphics represented words or sounds and its alphabet needed a lot of letters - about a thousand (Egyptian Hieroglyphs in Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian_hieroglyphs).   The breakthrough was the use of letters that represented consonants and thus the development of a consonantal language.  This writing script is called proto-Sinaitic, because examples of it have been found in the Sinai Peninsula. (see Proto-Sinaitic script in Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proto-Sinaitic_script)   The inventors of this script often took their letters from hieroglyphic symbols and sometimes used the first sound of the word as the sound for the letter.  For example, the word water in hieroglyphics is represented by an undulating line.  In Hebrew, the word for water is mayim.  Hence a mem sound also became an undulating line in proto-Sinaitic and the later paleo-Hebrew scripts, the latter being the earliest recognizable Jewish script.  Who developed the Proto-Sinaitic script?  It is generally thought that it developed somewhere between 1850 to 1550 BCE and that it formed the basis of subsequently developed scripts.  A commonly held view is that the Jews borrowed their script (paleo-Hebrew) from the Phoenicians, since the two scripts are very similar.  By the 10th century BCE, paleo-Hebrew was in general use in Israel.  A very reasonable hypothesis, however, is that it was the Israelite themselves who developed the proto-Sinaitic script.  They were working in Egypt and would have seen what an unwieldy script hieroglyphics was and how it could be easily adopted to a consonantal script.  This is why the Torah scroll consists only of consonants, why many of the names of letters have a Hebrew basis, with a letter M for example retaining its sound and undulating line from Hebrew to as far as Greek and English.  Jews have been an inventive people from the time of antiquity and brought more than religion to human progress.

5. There is an opinion in the Talmud that the Ten Commandments were written in the Assyrian script and that this was therefore the original writing of the Israelites.  This script was then lost until it was reintroduced by Ezra in about 500 BCE.  However, this is not a unanimous opinion in the Talmud (TB Megilla 3 and TB Shabbat 104).  There is also no archeological evidence to support it.  More likely, is that the Jews changed to an Assyrian script in the time of Ezra.  It is interesting that the Hebrew Assyrian script has a cuneiform stroke-like way of being written as would be anticipated given its Mesopotamian origins. 

6.The word “hear” probably has this meaning in the well-known expression of Jewish faith spoken by Moses: “Hear o’ Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4).

7.Ibn Ezra suggests the translation of transient foreigner or resident alien.  See also Rashi and Onkelos to Leviticus 25:47.

8.Sforno to Genesis 23:3.   

9.That the verb to give does not necessarily mean to give for free is apparent from Moses’ request to Sihon of Heshbon when the Israelites wish to pass through his territory and Moses requests that the “Food you shall sell me and you will give me water for money.”(Deuteronomy 2:28).  Moses is perhaps making the point that water taken from a spring is not usually sold but in this instance even this they will pay for.  Abraham also says in this burial passage:  “…. Let him give me          (לִיוְיִתֶּן) (veyiten li)for full price in your midst as a possession of a burying place.” (Genesis 23:8-9)  Nachmanides does raise the possibility that in this case the Cave could be considered a gift from the children of Chet even if Abraham paid full price, but more likely is his second suggestion that Hebrew uses the word “give” even in relation to sales (Nachmanides to Genesis 23:9).  Sforno suggests that “permit me to acquire” is a better translation.  Targum Yonatan renders it as “to sell”.  The Akeidas Yitzchak, on the other hand, suggests that politeness demanded that the cave be given as a gift but with a price attached to it.

10.Many commentators consider this to be a bowing of the head (Radak, Ibn Ezra, Targum Yonatan), but Rashi considers the verb “lehishtachave” to indicate complete prostration with hands and feet. (Rashi to Genesis 42:6, 43:26 and Leviticus 26:1). The Talmud also considers this word to have halachic implications– see Berachos 34b, Megilla 22b and Shavuos 16b. 

11. This is the opinion of Rashi to Genesis 23:11 and also Radak.  R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that Ephron was offering the cave for free but the field for money, but does not explain how he came to this conclusion.  Nachmanides to Genesis 23:9 implies that Ephron did not offer the cave and field for free.  His offer of the field could have been a sincere offer or possibly a duplicitous one.  If the latter, then it could have been an attempt to dissuade Abraham from buying the cave by attaching a condition that was a lot more costly than Abraham would have wanted.  This was far off the mark though.  There is a Jewish tradition that Adam and Eve were buried in this cave (Bereishis Rabba 58:8).  Ephron, of course, would have been unaware of this. 

12.“The field and the  cave therein, were upheld unto Abraham for a possession” by Rav Amnon Bazak in Torah Mietzion.  In New Readings in Tanach. Bereshit, Eds Rabbi Ezra Bick and Rabbi Yaakov Beasley, p209, Maggid Books, Yeshivat Har Etzion).  

13.See Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra to Genesis 23:19.  There is a Jewish tradition that Abraham underwent ten trials before and after arriving in Canaan that demonstrated his faith in God. (see note 1)  None of the lists of trials include this burial passage.  Nevertheless, the Talmud discusses that this did constitute a form of trial for Abraham: “I have not found anyone as loyal as Your servant Abraham to whom You said “Arise, wander through the land of Canaan through its length and breadth, for to you I will give it” (Genesis 13:17) and yet when [Abraham] wanted to bury Sarah and could not find a place to bury her he did not ponder Your ways.” (TB Bava Basra 16a)

14.  Ibn Ezra to Genesis 23:19.

15. Deuteronomy 34:5

16. Genesis 23:5 and Genesis 23:11.

17.TB Bava Basra 100a.

18. Nachamanides to Genesis 13:17 discusses whether this was a directive from God or God was giving Abraham permission to travel throughout the land with the implied promise of His protection.  If a directive, he suggests that Abraham was establishing possession by this walking, which contradicts the opinion of TB Bava Basra 100 and also contradicts Nachmanides own critique of the opinion of Ibn Ezra in his comments to Genesis 23:19.

19.See for example “And Abraham pitched tent and came and dwelled in the Oaks of Mamre which are in Hebron and he build there an altar to YKVK.” (Genesis 13:18), as well as: “Abraham journeyed from there to the region of the south and settled between Kadesh and Shur, and he sojourned in Gerar.” (Genesis 20:1), and also: “He planted an “eshel” in Beersheba, and there he called on the name of YKVK, G-d of the Universe.” (Genesis 21:33)   

20.R’ Joseph Solveichik explains that Abraham was continually performing acts that bound himself eternally to the land such as building sacrificial altars and digging a grave for his wife  (Chumash with commentary based on the teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Bereishis, p84, OU Press).   

21.Rashi to Genesis 23:16 based on BT Bava Metzia 87A ?B and midrash Bereishis Rabba 58:7.  Rashi explains that since there was one obscure place whose shekel was called a centenar and whose value was hundred times the regular shekel, the price of the cave plus field was in reality 40,000 shekels.  This would be an astronomic price.

22. Nachmanides to Genesis 23:15 cites Onkelos that this was the price that Ephron or his forbears paid for this field.  Nachmanides does also mention the Rabbinic tradition that Abraham overpaid.

23.Deuteronomy 23:28

24.Leviticus 27:3

25.Leviticus 27:16.  The Saperstein edition of The Torah: with Rashi’s Commentary Translated, Annotated, and Elucidated, Vayikra/Levitus explains that a kor is equal to 30 se’ah which has a volume of 4,320 eggs.  This would be equivalent to 75,000 square cubits.

26.Genesis 37:28

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