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“When Esau was forty years old he married Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite; and they brought grief to Isaac and Rebekah.” Gen. 26:34-35
We note that Esau was forty years old when he decided to marry, the same age as Isaac was when he married Rebekah. (Gen. 25:20). There are many instances in the scriptures of polygamy (multiple spouses) however we do not see any scriptures that indicate God condones it.
In Genesis 24:3, Abraham was adamant when speaking with his senior servant that the wife to be found for Isaac was not to be from among the Canaanites (of which the Hittites were part). This ideal of Abraham’s is likely at least in part why Esau’s choices brought grief to Isaac and Rebekah (Gen. 26:35).
The Hittites were derived from Heth, who was referenced in Gen. 10:15:
“Canaan became the father of Sidon, his firstborn, and Heth”
Canaan was the son of Ham, and he was the one cursed by Noah after the incident in the tent after the flood. Later, Abraham buys the Cave of Machpelah and the adjacent field from the sons of Heth to bury Sarah (Gen. 23).
“Now Ephron was sitting among the sons of Heth; and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the sons of Heth; even of all who went in at the gate of his city, saying, “No, my lord, hear me; I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the presence of the sons of my people I give it to you; bury your dead.” And Abraham bowed before the people of the land.” Gen. 23:10-12
The men were gathered at the gate of the city to speak with Abraham as it was the place of official business. Ephron, who owns the cave of Machpelah which Abraham desires to buy, is present as well.
On the surface it sounds like Ephron is a great guy, but we will soon find out that is not the case. Abraham has already made a declaration that he will pay the full value of the property to Ephron if Ephron is willing to sell to him. Ephron takes this opportunity to grandstand; he tells Abraham in front of everyone “I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it.”
In case you didn’t catch that, Rambam points out that Ephron just changed the deal. He apparently is not interested in parting with just the cave. If Abraham wants the cave, he needs to buy the whole field with it.
“So Abraham rose and bowed to the people of the land, the sons of Heth. And he spoke with them, saying, “If it is your wish for me to bury my dead out of my sight, hear me, and approach Ephron the son of Zohar for me, that he may give me the cave of Machpelah which he owns, which is at the end of his field; for the full price let him give it to me in your presence for a burial site.”” Gen. 23:7-9
Abraham bows to the sons of Heth as a sign of thankfulness and humility; due to his status as a resident alien, they did not have to sell property to him. Abraham is meeting them at the gate of the city (v. 10) as this is essentially a business deal. Since Abraham is a sojourner, there would likely have to be agreement among some of the prominent men of the city in order to sell land to Abraham.
As they have already made it clear they have no problem doing business with Abraham (v. 6), he entreats them to speak with Ephron, who owns the property he wishes to purchase. Abraham explains that he specifically desires the cave of Machpelah for a burial site. Macphpelah may mean ‘double‘, which would be fitting since ultimately several couples are laid to rest there (Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah).
In verse 9 Abraham makes it plain that he is not asking for the property for free – although he uses the word ‘give’ as he did in previous verses, it is now in conjunction with paying the full price for it.
“…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!