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In Genesis 23 (NIV), Abraham negotiates with the Hittites to purchase a burial plot for his wife, Sarah. He is particularly interested in the property of Ephron the Hittite with whom he negotiates:

Ephron the Hittite was sitting among his people and he replied to Abraham in the hearing of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of his city. "No, my lord," he said. "Listen to me; I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead."

Again Abraham bowed down before the people of the land and he said to Ephron in their hearing, "Listen to me, if you will. I will pay the price of the field. Accept it from me so I can bury my dead there."

What is going on in this passage? Is Ephron's offer that he "gives" the land to Abraham sincere? Or my Bible has footnotes suggesting "give" could maybe be "sell" instead. Or is it just a show of generosity? A tactic to get Abraham to name a price? Another question seems to think that Ephron overcharges for the lot. There seem to be a lot of possibilities here in understanding what's at stake.

If it is a genuine offer, why is Abraham persistent in wanting to pay for it?

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  1. Abraham wants to pay the full price because he wants to be a legal owner among them, a politically recognized entity, not an alien stranger borrowing space in their private graveyards. They politely deflect his direct request to buy property, showing their reticence to accept him as one of their own, in typical indirect Asian communication style. (I'm Korean, this is so typical.)
  2. Ephron doesn't want to really sell one little cave at the edge of his field, so he expands Abraham's request for one cave into the whole field- "I give you the field." This is now too big to accept as any gift, a whole field with trees in it and a cave is a significant plot. Abraham knows he is being set up by Ephron to pay more than he had expected for more than he initially wanted.
  3. Abraham accepts his enlarged terms, "I will give thee money for the field, take it of me." And Ephron is amendable and sets the price at the exorbitant price of 400 shekels. (That is half of a king's ransom, Abimelech paid 1000 shekels to cover Sarah's honor, Gen 20:16). Recognizing this is the cost for an alien to own land among them and he has no leverage, Abraham pays it.

This is the gist of Meir Sternberg's close reading of the story. https://www.sttonline.org/files/STT11_MSternberg_2_EN.pdf

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Abraham is a "righteous" (fair and honest) man

He insists on paying because of his honorable culture heritage that he was likely raised with and that he passes on to all future generations. This also helps to set the standard of "fairness" for the rest of the Bible.

Translating "give"

While the word could be translated "sell", the context clarifies that this is the kind of transaction intended to be free of charge; it should be translated "give [as a free gift]". Yes, studying the original languages works that way, as does context clarify one of many possible definitions in English.

It works the same in English. Consider: "I'll give it to you for $45."

Behind the "why"

An important question is about why the field was offered free of charge in the first place. That should have been a normal courtesy, given the circumstances of Abraham as a foreigner, not to mention that they wanted favor and good relations with Abraham.

When he begs to be allowed to pay so he can bury his wife, he basically means, "I won't accept it without paying, I have made up my mind, please don't argue with me, accept my money, that way I can get on with my wife's funeral, which is more important to me."

What "right[eous]ness" means

We could say that Abraham's desire to pay relates to "personal honor", but such personal honor must include having concern for the well being of others. Receiving a field for no money may be generous from the giver, but it is not "fair behavior" on Abraham's part because then the giver would be worse off without compensation. Abraham is demonstrating a value in the Bible, seen cover to cover, of "being fair" to others.

The Bible's concept of "righteousness" (AKA 'fairness') begins with the practical things

We could say that we do justice on Earth to reflect God's justice in Heaven, but that gets off the point here, that righteousness must include being fair in the practical matters.

This is a basic "fairness" or "righteousness", the practical kind, not a Church theology spiritually-emphasized version of "righteousness" that developed later in history. God demands "righteousness" with practical matters in many passages of Scripture and it applies on many levels...

Leviticus 19:35 (NASB95)

You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measurement of weight, or capacity.

Deuteronomy 25:13–16 (NASB95)

13“You shall not have in your bag differing weights, a large and a small.

14“You shall not have in your house differing measures, a large and a small.

15“You shall have a full and just weight; you shall have a full and just measure, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you.

16“For everyone who does these things, everyone who acts unjustly is an abomination to the Lord your God.

Proverbs 20:23 (NASB95) Similar to Proverbs 11:1

Differing weights are an abomination to the Lord,

And a false scale is not good.

We also see this theme of "paying a fair price" in terms of wages throughout the Bible, as an extended application of the same ethical and hoborable conduct. Consider...

Leviticus 19:13 (NASB95)

You shall not oppress your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of a hired man are not to remain with you all night until morning.

Deuteronomy 24:15 (NASB95)

You shall give him his wages on his day before the sun sets, for he is poor and sets his heart on it; so that he will not cry against you to the Lord and it become sin in you.

Matthew 10:10b (NASB95)

for the worker is worthy of his support.

1 Timothy 5:18 (NASB95)

For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.”

"[Spiritual] righteousness" was a concept that developed atop this practical framework. We first learn from the Bible that "believing God" is a kind of "equal fairness", using Abraham's good example as the first demonstration.

Genesis 15:6 (NASB95)

Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Insisting on paying for the field was merely a matter of expected conduct in Abraham's life, as his life helps set the tone for "fairness" in the Bible.

In fact, this passage can therefore be used to interpert other passages in the Bible that relate to justice, including all the examples given here and many more.


Note that this does not mean that Abraham is "perfect", but that he tries to practise a life of fair and equal standards.

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The notes in the NIV indicate the issue is how a translator chooses to understand the word נָתַן:

10 Ephron the Hittite was sitting among his people and he replied to Abraham in the hearing of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of his city. 11 “No, my lord,” he said. “Listen to me; I give [b] you the field, and I give [c] you the cave that is in it. I give [d] it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead.” (NIV)

Notes: [b] Genesis 23:11 Or sell; [c] Genesis 23:11 Or sell; [d] Genesis 23:11 Or sell

נָתַן is used 7 times in Genesis 23, most translations choose "sell" when Abraham speaks and "give" when Ephron replies. However, it is possible to render as "sell" throughout the passage:

Verse   Who speaks  NIV    NET
23:4    Abraham     sell   sell
23:9a   Abraham     sell   sell
23:9b   Abraham     sell   sell
23:11a  Ephron      give   sell
23:11b  Ephron      give   sell
23:11c  Ephron      give   sell
23:13   Abraham     sell   sell

Many commentators describe Ephron's actions as offering his field and cave as a form of polite negotiation, but it is possible he does not want to divide his property by selling only the cave:

4 “I am a foreign resident, a temporary settler, among you. Grant me ownership of a burial site among you so that I may bury my dead.” [NET2]

8 Then he said to them, “If you agree that I may bury my dead, then hear me out. Ask Ephron the son of Zohar 9 if he will sell me the cave of Machpelah that belongs to him; it is at the end of his field. Let him sell it to me publicly for the full price, so that I may own it as a burial site.”

10 (Now Ephron was sitting among the sons of Heth.) Ephron the Hittite replied to Abraham in the hearing of the sons of Heth—before all who entered the gate of his city— 11 “No, my lord! Hear me out. I sell you both the field and the cave that is in it. In the presence of my people I sell it to you. Bury your dead.”

Abraham's request is not to obtain Ephron's entire property: rather he seeks to buy only a burial site which he specifically says is the cave. His response to Ephron's counter offer is ambiguous:

13and said to Ephron in their hearing, “Hear me, if you will. I pay to you the price of the field. Take it from me so that I may bury my dead there.”

Did he agree to Ephron's offer of all the property or did he counter by agreeing to the price Ephron set but purchase only the cave? It is clear the Hittites took Abraham's response as acquiring Ephron's entire holdings, as both the field and the cave were deeded to Abraham (23:17-20).

There is an underlying legal issue at stake. The Hittite Code states:1

46: If in a village anyone holds fields under socage as inheritance - if the fields have all been given to him, he shall render the services; if the fields have been given to him only to a small part, he shall not render the services, they shall render them from his father's house...

47 (later version) ...if anyone buys all the fields of a craftsman, they shall ask the king, and he shall render those services which the king orders. If there remain fields in the hands of the man from whom he buys, he shall not render the services...

The exact nature of the "service" is unknown,2 but the negotiations "concerned the question of who would render the services due the king as a result of principal ownership of the land."3

Abraham wants only a burial site (and so avoid the legal obligation of the service) while Ephron wants to sell all of his property (and so be free of the obligation). The deed requires Abraham to be in service to the Hittite king, an obligation Abraham could refute on the basis he only purchased the cave as a burial site (regardless of the Hittite deed).

As Manfred R.Lehmann states:

We have thus found that Genesis 23 is permeated with the intimate knowledge of intricate subtleties of Hittite laws and customs, correctly corresponding to the time of Abraham and fitting in with the Hittite features of the Biblical account. With the final destruction of the Hittite capital of Hattusas about 1200 B.C.E., these laws must have fallen into utter oblivion. This is another instance in which a late dating must be firmly rejected. Our study again confirms the authenticity of the "background material" of the Old Testament, which makes it such an invaluable source for the study of all aspects of social, economic and legal aspects of the periods of history it depicts.4


Notes:
1. Manfred R. Lehmann, Abraham's Purchase of Machpelah and Hittite Law, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 129 (Feb. 1953), p. 16
2. Ibid., p. 17
3. Ibid., pp. 16-17
4. Ibid., p. 18

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Why is Abraham so adamant to pay for the land to bury Sarah? Genesis 23

If it is a genuine offer, why is Abraham persistent in wanting to pay for it?

Abraham paid four hundred silver shekels according to the legal procedures of the day ,that is at the gates of the city and in the presence of the sons of Heth and the others present. The property with defined boundaries and trees thereon was then deeded to Abraham,after this Abraham proceeded to bury Sarah.

By insisting on paying there was no possibility of the sale being challenged at a later date. Simply Abraham did not rely on a sale made on unclear promises, likewise we should also follow his example and conduct business ,by being specific in our contract when we have dealings with others.

Genesis 23:14-19 (NASB)

14 "Then Ephron answered Abraham, saying to him, 15 “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.” 16 Abraham listened to Ephron; and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver which he had named in the [a]hearing of the sons of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, [b]commercial standard."

Genesis 23:14-19 (NASB)

14 "Then Ephron answered Abraham, saying to him, 15 “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.” 16 Abraham listened to Ephron; and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver which he had named in the [a]hearing of the sons of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, [b]commercial standard."

17 "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 [c]within all the confines of its border, [d]were deeded over 18 to Abraham for a possession in the presence of the sons of Heth, before all who went in at the gate of his city. 19 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."

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