Genesis 23:1–20

231AndSarah’s life was 127 years; thus her age. 2 Sarah died in Kiriath-Arba or Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham began to lament and weep for Sarah. After Abraham rose from the presence of his dead, he spoke with the Hittites, “I am a resident alien among you. Grant me a burial-holding with you so that I can bury my dead.”
     And the Hittites responded to Abraham, “Hear us, my lord. You are one favored by God among us. Take your pick of our burial sites and bury your dead. No man among us would deny you his own burial plots for burying your dead.”
     Abraham rose, bowed to the local citizens—the Hittites, and spoke with them, “If it accords with your wish that I bury my dead near me, listen to me and entreat Ephron, son of Zohar, to give me title to his own cave of Machpelah that is at the far end of his field. In your presence, I will pay the full price for a title for a burial-holding.”
     10 Now Ephron was sitting among the Hittites, and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham publicly in the hearing of the Hittites and at the city’s gate, 11 “Not so, my lord. Listen, I grant you the field and the cave in it. I grant this in the presence of my kinfolk. Bury your dead!”
     12 Abraham bowed before the People of the Land 13 and spoke to Ephron publicly in the presence of the People of the Land, “If only you would hear me out. I will give you the price of the field. Take it from me and let me bury my dead there.”
     14 Ephron answered Abraham, 15 “My lord, hear me! A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between me and you? Go bury your dead!” 16 Abraham heard Ephron’s offer and weighed out to Ephron the silver he had spoken of publicly before the Hittites: four hundred silver shekels at the going merchant’s rate.
     17 Thus Ephron’s field at Machpelah near Mamre—the field and the cave in it, and every tree in the field— 18 passed to Abraham as his property, in full view of the Hittites and of everyone at the city’s gate. 19 Then Abraham buried Sarah, his wife, in the cave of the Machpelah field near Mamre, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan. 20 The field and the cave in it passed over to Abraham as a burial-holding from the Hittites.

First, a note honoring Sarah: She is the only woman whose life span is recorded in the bible. Sarah dies seven years beyond the latest standard of one hundred twenty. Both these numbers are symbolic of completeness.

Abraham has completed his proof-of-trust in YHWH. This trust has come at the expense of Sarah and Isaac.

After Isaac was released, Abraham returned from the Land of Seeing (Moriah) to the Well of Seven Promises (Beer-Sheba). That is the last known residence of his sojourn in a foreign land that was promised to him.

We then hear that Sarah died in Kiriath-Arba. For the moment, this can be understood as Hebron, some thirty miles away from Beer-Sheba. We have not heard of Abraham moving to Hebron, back to the Terebinths of Mamre.

There is also a tradition that Sarah never spoke to Abraham again after the pain of Abraham’s intention to sacrifice Isaac. This silence may put her at a remove from Abraham and account for the difference in location between Abraham’s return to Beer-Sheba and Sarah’s death at Kiriath-Arba. Though, this is difficult to imagine in that patriarchal society. Sarah would be at risk of again falling into the hands of a local Pharaoh or King.

Whether or not Abraham is nearby or at a distance, he mourns Sarah and uses this as an opportunity to finally move beyond being a resident alien in a promised land to being a holder of property.

There ensues an elaborate dance of bargaining with the Hittites, in general, and Ephron, in particular, regarding the purchase of a burial site for his dead, for Sarah. The Hittites could understand this as room for one, and possibly two. They would have no understanding that it is the vanguard of a nation, a people numberless as sand and stars—a nose of a camel under the edge of their tent.

When compared with other recorded sales in the bible, this is an extravagant price of four hundredweight of silver. It probably was the cause of a grand gloat by Ephron for his deal-making. If it is this difficult to get a piece of property for the dead, imagine the difficulty of getting a place for living strangers. Eventually, a different way than economic purchase will be used—military might. 

This cave for burial will become a seed, justifying conquest (to care for our ancestors: Sarah, Abraham, Rebekah, Isaac, Leah, and Jacob). A stop to raise an altar at the Terebinths of Mamre has become the purchase of a burial cave of Machpelah at Mamre. The multiple uses of one location is but one repetitive theme in Genesis.

The “Tomb of the Patriarchs” is currently under a mosque and is a bone of contention in a larger socio-political tension. This cycle of ownership can lead Readers to consider the cycles in their own lives.

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