“…give me a burial site among you that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” The sons of Heth answered Abraham, saying to him, “Hear us, my lord, you are a mighty prince among us; bury your dead in the choicest of our graves; none of us will refuse you his grave for burying your dead.”” Gen. 23:4b-6
Genesis 23 is, by and large, a legally recorded real-estate transaction. As such it is easy to gloss over the details, or even dismiss the chapter as merely “the chapter where Abraham bought Sarah’s gravesite.” What we will miss if we do so is the fascinating interplay and nuanced conversation that it contains, which we see throughout most of the chapter.
In this passage for instance, if you are only reading at surface-level, it appears that Abraham is essentially asking for someone to give him a burial site for free. This appears backed up by the way the Sons of Heth respond to him: that anyone in town would be willing to give, seemingly free of charge, a burial site to Abraham simply based on his stellar reputation.
Here’s the thing though: Abraham is extremely wealthy. It was Abraham who said to the King of Sodom “…I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’” We must also remember that Abraham had problems in Gerar when the king’s servants seized a well that Abraham had dug, which he later ended up paying king Abimilech for (see Gen. 21:25-31). Surely Abraham was a wise man, and was not to take any chances in a business deal. For something as important as his wife’s final resting place he would ensure there were no issues with the transaction. Accepting free property from the Hittites was not his agenda here.
Abraham’s choice of language (i.e., “give me a burial site”) was probably for two reasons. For one, it was Abraham’s way of humbly asking to be able to buy property among the Hittites; his status as a resident alien was not in his favor for acquiring real property. Second, it was the opening bargaining chip.
Robert Alter, in his commentary, points out the terms thrown around during the exchange with the sons of Heth, such as ‘give’ or ‘grant’ used by Abraham. He avoids asking for the land to be ‘sold’ to him (since in a sense he already owns it) but does state he wishes to ‘acquire’ the property in a real, legal sense.
It is no surprise the Sons of Heth respond so enthusiastically! They are aware of Abraham’s wealth. The Sons of Heth instantly flatter him – calling him “a mighty prince among us”. In the Hebrew, the term Elohim is actually used – implying that Abraham is ‘like a god’ to them. So what the Sons of Heth have on their hands is an extremely wealthy person who wishes to buy property from them but has no legal status to do so. Of course none of them would refuse the opportunity to do business with Abraham! They have the advantage in the bargaining!