By the time we reach adulthood, just about everyone knows what it feels like to lose a loved one. But many of us, myself included, have experienced the act of putting someone to rest only as a bystander. I’ve never had to arrange a burial myself, or select a casket, or any of the myriad of other unhappy details that must be dealt with at death. To do all that while still grieving yourself, to someone as intimate to you as your husband or wife, it’s just unimaginable to me. Abraham did that and more in Genesis 23.
This is the story of the second holiest place in Judaism, the Cave of the Patriarchs.
Read on for more.
Sarah was dead; she died in Hebron. Although they were still in Canaan, which had been promised by God to Abraham’s descendants, those weren’t the facts on the ground. Hebron was a Hittite city, a tribe descended from Noah’s grandson Heth. At this point in history, they weren’t unfriendly– quite the contrary! They may have been the first people in history to try to “hard sell” someone on something for free. Abraham’s situation was unique: he wanted to pay for land, but they just wanted to give it a way.
Why did Abraham insist on purchasing it? I’m not an expert on early Caananite real estate laws (is anyone?) and so can only speculate. Abraham is at heart a wanderer. He moved from Ur with his father and his wife, he’s been to Egypt and back, camped in Philistine territory for a while, and now is outside Heth. After a lifetime of transience, Abraham wanted permanence in death. He wanted a spot to call his own, in the land which would one day be “his”. To accomplish this, Abraham wanted to spend real coin.
This turns out to have been more difficult than expected. Ephron, the owner of the cave, as well as the rest of the assembled Hittites wanted nothing to do with Abraham’s money. Three times they insisted “bury thy dead” (verses 6, 11, and 15), and they practically pushed Abraham into taking the cave for free. He was a celebrity, a “mighty prince,” and they were happy to give it away.
After turning down “free” several times, the exasperated Hittites finally threw out a price: 400 shekels of silver. Was it a fair offer? Too high? Too low? Was it planned out as part of a negotiating ritual or just off the cuff? We’ll never know. Abraham accepted the offer at once. Only by taking the first offer could Abraham know that no one would say that he cheated the Hittites out of the land. The transaction out of the way, there was only one thing left to do:
And after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre: the same is Hebron in the land of Canaan. And the field, and the cave that is therein, were made sure unto Abraham for a possession of a burying place by the sons of Heth.
- Abraham was a “mighty price” among the Hittites– quite the title for a wanderer. This spirit evokes the “Warrior-King” Abraham which we saw most clearly in Genesis 14 and only sporadically thereafter. In contrast to the episode with Abimelech, this story clearly demonstrates that Abraham was well-known, even a celebrity. How unfair is it that even then famous people get lots of free stuff, when they can afford to pay for it? (Ever heard of those bags they give away at Oscars ceremonies?)
- How much is a shekel? A shekel is a unit of weight, so a “shekel” of silver is a certain weight of silver. It’s exactly the same idea as a British pound, once the value of a pound of silver. Sources online vary, but it seems that .4 ounces (11.3 grams) is a reasonable guess for a shekel in units we understand. At today’s prices, that’s around $10… but it’s unlikely that modern commodity prices are any indication of value in biblical times.
- The Hittites seem like such nice neighbors. Sad that God would eventually tell the Israelites to wipe them out. (Since they were still present in later books of the bible, at least we can know the genocide didn’t work or the Israelites refused to go through with it.)
Up next: More on Biblical currency.