9

Have heard some commentary on this, but nothing detailed.

Why did the author of Genesis spend so much time on Abraham's purchase of Ephron's field? Maybe more to the point, why was the story important enough to warrant the space given to it?

Also, I have heard a couple of times that Ephron was rather ripping poor Abraham off. Is this true? If so, how do we know this? From some subtlety in the story or idiom in the language? From some archeological knowledge of land prices of the day? Thanks. References would be appreciated.

Although my question relates to the whole chapter, here, by request, is the part that deals with the actual negotiation between Abraham and Ephron (NKJV):

... and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the presence of the sons of Heth, all who entered at the gate of his city, saying, 11 “No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field and the cave that is in it; I give it to you in the presence of the sons of my people. I give it to you. Bury your dead!”

12 Then Abraham bowed himself down before the people of the land;13 and he spoke to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, saying, “If you will give it, please hear me. I will give you money for the field; take it from me and I will bury my dead there.”

14 And Ephron answered Abraham, saying to him, 15 “My lord, listen to me; the land is worth four hundred shekels of silver. What is that between you and me? So bury your dead.” 16 And Abraham listened to Ephron; and Abraham weighed out the silver for Ephron which he had named in the hearing of the sons of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, currency of the merchants.

17 So the field of Ephron which was in Machpelah, which was before Mamre, the field and the cave which was in it, and all the trees that were in the field, which were within all the surrounding borders, were deeded 18 to Abraham ...

9

I can see, at the moment, a couple of reasons why the passage is important:

  1. In Genesis 14 Chedorlaomer attacked the kings of the plain and took away Lot together with all the people and possessions of the land. Abraham set out on a rescue mission, defeated Chedorlaomer, and returned everything that was taken. The king of Sodom wanted to reward Abraham by giving him all of the goods that he brought back, but Abraham replied:

    22 ... I have lifted up mine hand unto the LORD, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth, 23 That I will not take from a thread even to a shoelatchet, and that I will not take any thing that is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich:
    -- Genesis 14:22-23 (KJV)

    It is fitting at the conclusion of Abraham's part in the LORD's narrative that some space be given to testimony confirming that the LORD achieved for Abraham the expectation of his faith. In a around fifty years (according to the time-line at BibleHub) the LORD had firmly established Abraham in the land of Canaan, and prospered him so much that the man from whom he wanted to buy a property, addresses him as "a mighty prince among us" (Genesis 23:6). The people of the land knew the blessing of the LORD by Abraham's presence among them, and they esteemed him highly because of it.

  2. The passage identifies the origin of the burial place of Sarah (Genesis 23:19), Abraham (Genesis 25:9), Isaac, Rebekah, Leah (Genesis 49:31), and Jacob (Genesis 50:13). The site has remained a significant landmark throughout history (Cave of the Patriarchs), which, unarguably, stands as one of the principle proofs of the historicity of the Biblical narrative.

Additional Comment

In relation to the suggestion that a rip-off had been perpetrated: Abraham would seem to have written Ephron a blank cheque (as it were): "I will give thee money ... take it from me" (Genesis 23:13).

God had caused Abraham's cup to overflow in the land, and it fits with my understanding of the man's character that he would have been happy to do the same for Ephron, particularly given the nature of the purchase.

  • Thanks for a thoughtful answer. After all my years of reading the Bible, it is only recently that I came to realize the importance of seeing how narratives in one part reflect on a narrative in another. And this seems particularly true in Genesis. – bob.sacamento Jan 12 '17 at 16:01
  • Did you spell your name backwards @enegue or is that your name? I think it’s awfully interesting what ephron’s name means. Thank you for the response +1 – Autodidact Jan 25 at 17:36
3

The purpose, extent and interpretation of this passage have long been debated among scholars. Although the consensus is that Genesis chapter 23 belongs to the Priestly Source, a minority believes this not to be the case, with E. A. Speiser actually attributing it the the Yahwist. One of the problems for easy identification as Priestly material is that it is unlike most P material, having "narrative graphicness and humorous freshness"1. Nevertheless, most scholars believe the passage was written by the Priestly Source ('P') during the Babylonian Exile, and that may be a key to the length and focus of the passage.

Jason M. H. Gaines2 believes that because verses 23:2, 19 "produce a short, self-contained death and burial notice for Sarah", verses 18 and 20 are an elaboration. This could be at least a minor explanation for the length and focus of the pericope.

Turning to the bigger picture, Jason S. Bray3 says that various scholars have assumed that the length and importance of the passage point to important political or religious reasons:

Some have seen connections with the land and the promise to Abraham (Irenaeus, and latterly von Rad), and others links with the fate of the Exiles in Babylon (Westermann). Still others have viewed it as being connected with the cult: Gunkel regards it as the opposite of a hieros logos,’ but Sarna, to my mind rather incredibly, views it as the actual hieros logos of the shrine at Hebron.

Bray believes that the passage is intended as a paradigm for interment, pointing out that the chapter is the first biblical account of a burial. He says:

This view finds support in the rest of Genesis, where every burial (except that of Rachel in 35.19-20) is referred back specifically to this first account. It would appear that, in doing so, the writer is trying to reiterate an emphasis that he has already made.

Whether or not Bray's thesis that P was trying to oppose the worship of the dead is correct, I believe he has at least made a good case for Genesis chapter 23 being intended as a paradigm for interment. A key point of the passage is that Abraham was buying a field that held the cave in which Sarah was to be buried, and we know that in the time of Jesus, Jews were being buried in caves, as Jesus was. Emphasis is achieved from the relative length of the passage and Abraham's insistence on paying a fair price for a good burial site.


1 Von Rad, cited by Jason M. H. Gaines The Poetic Priestly Source, page 339
2 ibid, page 340
3 'Genesis 23—A Priestly Paradigm For Burial', pages 69-70

  • Wow! You did your homework! Thanks for the many thoughts and sources. – bob.sacamento Jan 11 '17 at 15:43
2

From a Rabbinic perspective Chapter 23 is loaded with new and important value concepts. In Perkai Avoth, we learn that escorting the dead and participating in the burial process is the highest level of respect and the most significant Mitzvah, commandment. Abraham not only buries Sarah, he eulogizes her as well. Abraham express feelings of sadness and pain. Ramban, Nachmanides, in his introduction to the Book of Genesis, teaches us that the deeds of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are portents, teachings for us, their children, for all generations. Rabbinic commentators hang on every word, every letter, and every dot of Torah to glean values and life lessons. Chapter 23 is no exception for it is loaded with ways we ought to live our lives. Additionally, Abraham's purchase of the double cave was his way of solidifying the promise made to him by God that this land is promised to him and all generations that come after. In Midrash Rabbah to Chapter 23, we learn that after the attempted sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham ran after the Ram caught in the thicket which led him to this very cave where he found the burial place of Adam and Eve. Realizing the historical and spiritual value of the Cave directed Abraham after Sarah's death to pick it and purchase it as a shrine for generations to come.

  • Thank you very much. Never got the Rabbinic perspective on this story. And one would assume that such a perspective is essential to understanding it! Thanks again. – bob.sacamento Jan 17 '17 at 21:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.