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“But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of flowing water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with the herdsmen of Isaac, saying, “The water is ours!” So he named the well Esek, because they contended with him. Then they dug another well, and they quarreled over it too, so he named it Sitnah. He moved away from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he named it Rehoboth, for he said, “At last the LORD has made room for us, and we will be fruitful in the land.”” Gen. 26:19-22
This is one of many narrative portions of scripture that if we merely read at face value, we only glean historical, seemingly anecdotal information about the life is Isaac. We must always ask ourselves what lesson we can learn from the text and how we can apply it to our own lives.
Consider how frustrated Isaac likely already was at the fact that the Philistines stopped up his father’s wells. Abimelech asked him to leave Gerar proper, and now while trying to make his own space, he and his servants go through all the effort to dig a well, only to have the Philistines commandeer it. And then it happens a second time!
The land of Canaan was given to Abraham and Isaac by God, and yet Isaac can’t seem to claim any of it for himself. Likewise it was probably frustrating for Abraham that, although the land was his in the eyes of God, he had to buy a cave to bury Sarah, including a field he didn’t want, for an exorbitant price!
What we must glean from this part of scripture is that at times, life will seem unfair; we will be wronged on occasion, and often our efforts will seem to be in vain. Isaac shows us great character through the ordeal however, most notably his being slow to anger, and his perseverance.
We should take note that many of the hurdles Isaac faces in this story are extremely similar to those of Abraham, up to and including issues over wells with Abimelech. God may at times bring us through similar ordeals to see if we handle them differently and with better character than our fathers, or than we ourselves have in the past.
This is what the story of Isaac is about; Improving our reactions to life’s challenges. This becomes clear when, after all this strife with the Philistines in Gerar, Abimelech eventually comes to make a covenant with Isaac. It is true this was done with Abraham as well, however what is important to note is the tone of each of these covenants:
Abraham hears Abimelech out, then decides to complain about the issues with the wells, stubbornly insists that Abimelech recognize that the wells were his, then they part ways. (Gen. 21:22-32). It is as if he agrees to peace, but he is not really at peace about it.
Contrast this with Isaac, who had even more trouble over the wells, and in addition probably felt his father’s reputation slighted over stopping the old wells up (v. 15). When Abimelech and his entourage show up to make a peace covenant with Isaac, there is a distinct feeling of goodwill that was lacking from the covenant with Abraham. Not only does Isaac not complain about his treatment – he makes them a feast (a custom Abraham decided to skip) and we are told in v. 31 that Abimelech left “in peace”, something also missing from the covenant with Abraham.
This story teaches us about spiritual maturity, personal growth and improvement in our relationships. The blessing from this? Consider v. 32:
“Now it came about on the same day, that Isaac’s servants came in and told him about the well which they had dug, and said to him, “We have found water.”
“So Ephron’s field, which was in Machpelah, which faced Mamre, the field and cave which was in it, and all the trees which were in the field, that were within all the confines of its border, were deeded over to Abraham for a possession in the presence of the sons of Heth, before all who went in at the gate of his city. After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field at Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. So the field and the cave that is in it, were deeded over to Abraham for a burial site by the sons of Heth.” Gen. 23:17-20
The final verses of Genesis 23 serve to confirm the legality of this real estate transaction, yet there is more significance than this. Abraham is beginning to see the second part of his grand promises from God coming to pass, albeit in a small way; he first saw the birth of Isaac to count toward his descendants, and now he acquires a piece, no matter how small, of the land God promised him.
Although Abraham knows this promise concerning the land in his heart, he can only hold to the promise that one day it will in fact be fulfilled, at a time beyond his own death. This brings to mind Jesus’ teaching that ‘the meek will inherit the earth’ and the New Testament concept that as followers of Christ, there is a wonderful promise waiting for us – being in the presence of God in the world to come, which most would refer to as heaven – but this cannot happen until our life here on earth ends. This is our irony as followers of Christ as well, that we know what is in store for us, but to those who do not know God, they say “show me the proof!” Here, Abraham has no proof that all the land is his, he only has the promise.
The Oxford Jewish Study Bible points out the theme of the next few chapters as Abraham getting his affairs in order. Here we see him secure the family burial ground, next he plans finding a wife for Isaac (Gen. 24), and lastly deals with his estate (Gen. 25).
“He spoke to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, saying, “If you will only please listen to me; I will give the price of the field, accept it from me that I may bury my dead there.” Then Ephron answered Abraham, saying to him, “My lord, listen to me; a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between me and you? So bury your dead.” Abraham listened to Ephron; and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver which he had named in the hearing of the sons of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, commercial standard.”
As Ephron just changed the deal (initially Abraham asked for the cave; Ephron slyly counter-offered with the cave together with the field as a package deal), Abraham accepts the terms of his offer and reiterates that he is willing to pay full price to acquire the property – there is no need grandstanding and pretending to offer it at no cost. Abraham has already had trouble with having his property taken from him (see Gen. 21:25) and at this point simply wishes to acquire the property in a real legal sense, deed and all.
However because of Abraham’s precarious standing (he is a resident alien with no real right to buy property), coupled with the fact that he is known to be wealthy, and is in need of a burial site fairly quickly, he has no bargaining power – and Ephron knows this. According to Rashi, four hundred shekels of silver would have been enough to buy a large estate, most likely a great deal more than the field and cave are worth.
For one, the type of silver mentioned was ‘commercial standard’, which meant it was to be weighed out (coins were not yet invented). The Talmud informs us that each commercial shekel of Abraham’s may have been worth as much as 2,500 regular pieces of silver (Bava Metzia 87a).
Second, consider that Jeremiah bought a field for just 17 shekels (Jer. 32:9) so this may give us some perspective.
“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!
Then Abraham rose from before his dead, and spoke to the sons of Heth, saying, “I am a stranger and a sojourner among you; give me a burial site among you that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” Gen. 23:3-4
Abraham is about 137 years old now, and he left his homeland when he was 75 years old. This means he has lived in various areas of Canaan for approximately 62 years at this point; he has even had children here and watched them grow. But God gave this land to him and his descendants – so why does Abraham still refer to himself as a stranger and sojourner when speaking to the Sons of Heth?
The truth is that even the Sons of Heth (the Hittites), and everyone else on earth are strangers and sojourners as well; they just do not understand that “The earth is the LORD’S, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it.” (Psalm 24:1).
We are all but tenants on God’s earth (Lev 25:23).
Abraham, on the other hand, acknowledges that all belongs to God (see Gen. 14:17-24). God asked Abraham to leave his father’s house, and he has had a nomadic lifestyle for many years since. And as with many such things, this prefigures the lives of the Israelites, as God even refers to them as strangers and sojourners;
According to R’ Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, this dual role (of both resident and alien) applied to the Jews because they must exist in this world, but their allegiance is to God and His goals set forth by the Torah.
Further this applies to followers of Christ – we are called to be in the world, but not of the world (John 17) and not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). If we openly accept the ways of this world, we falsely feel we are at home in it.
“Sarah died in Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her. Then Abraham rose from before his dead, and spoke to the sons of Heth, saying…“ Gen. 23:2-3
Joshua 14:15 tells us that Hebron was formerly named Kiriath-arba, and that Arba was the greatest man among the Anakim. The name therefore probably means “City of Arba”, though some commentators believe it means “City of Four”.
Abraham came to the Sons of Heth to entreat them to sell him a burial plot for Sarah. Heth was the great grandson of Noah (Noah, Ham, Canaan, Heth). The Sons of Heth were also known as the Hittites. Other Hittites are mentioned throughout scripture, including Uriah the Hittite whom King David sent to the front lines to ensure his death; additionally Esau married two Hittite women.
Ultimately, the Hittites were one of the inhabitants of the Promised Land to be defeated by the Israelites. We must remember that all people came from Adam and Eve (and for that matter, Noah and his wife, since the flood) and dispersed to live in different lands, and that scripture closely follows the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob because they were the individuals that chose to follow God. The lives of other peoples are happening in the distance, and their stories will cross paths many times with the descendants of Abraham.
“Now Sarah lived one hundred and twenty-seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.” Gen. 23:1
Jews typically do not read in chapters, but rather they read Parshas, which are larger portions of the text. Parsha Chayei Sarah is the fifth parsha of Genesis, which means “The Life of Sarah”. We may find “The Life of Sarah” an odd title considering that her death is announced in verse 1 and the rest of the chapter is comprised of Abraham acquiring her burial place. However this is no mistake; A midrash tells us that we are told of her death in connection with her life because her years were filled with life. When you re-read verse 1 you will note the repetition – “Sarah lived… these were the years of the life of Sarah.”
Sarah has the distinction of being the only woman in the bible whose age is given upon death. Some translations read Sarah’s age as one hundred years, twenty years and seven years. There is no obvious significance to this breakdown – we know Isaac was born when Sarah was 90 or 91 for example, not 100. Some Jewish commentators note that 120 years would be the ideal age (based upon Moses’ life), and the additional seven years could be because the number 7 represents completion, perfection, God, etc.
Though the reason Sarah died is not listed in scripture, a midrash tells us that Sarah died because Abraham returned from Moriah without Isaac, and she believed he had been sacrificed. We cannot rule out this possibility, nor can we prove it. It does appear that Isaac did not return with Abraham however (see my previous post: We Will Worship and Return to You)