PARASHAT CHAYEI SARAH
“Before the People of the Land”
Parashat Chayei Sarah opens with the death and burial of Sarah. Abraham comes to Hebron and addresses the following words to the Bnei Chet:
“A stranger and sojourner am I with you; give me a possession of a burial-place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” (4)
It is not permission to bury Sarah that he requests, but rather a burial plot – a piece of land that will be his, in which he can bury his dead.
And the Bnei Chet answered Abraham, saying to him, “Hear us, master: you are a mighty prince (literally, “a prince of YAH”) among us; bury your dead in the choicest of our sepulchers; no one among us will withhold from you his tomb, that you might bury your dead.” (5-6)
The Bnei Chet expresses great respect, as well as a willingness to allow Abraham to bury his dead wherever he wishes to. No one among them will refuse to relinquish his burial tomb or deny Abraham the ability to bury his dead. But they have no intention of giving him a burial estate. At this point, Abraham launches into protracted and delicate negotiations. He hears their refusal, but appeals again, this time to Efron the Hittite. He points to a certain burial-place – the Cave of Makhpela – seeking to purchase it for full price. Astonishingly, Efron immediately promises to give it to him as a gift, along with the adjacent field. Abraham expresses appreciation and esteem, but does not relinquish his wish to purchase a burial-place. Efron ultimately acquiesces, and the transaction is carried out. The text concludes the episode with the following ceremonial declaration:
And the field of Efron, which was in Makhpela, which was before Mamrei – the field, and the cave which was in it, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all the borders roundabout – were made over to Abraham for a possession in the presence of the Bnei Chet, before all who went in at the gate of his city. And after this, Abraham buried Sarah, his wife, in the cave of the field of Makhpela before Mamrei – which is Hebron – in the land of Canaan. (17-19)
Efron’s field, and the cave in its midst, are given over to Abraham in the presence of the Bnei Chet. Only after all of this transaction is completed is Sarah, Abraham’s wife, brought for burial.
This episode raises several questions:
1. Why is it so important to Abraham to purchase the field? Why is he not willing to bury Sarah in a plot belonging to the Bnei Chet?
2. Efron agrees and offers Abraham a field and cave as a gift. Why will Abraham not agree to accept them?
3. The Bnei Chet are willing to allow Abraham to bury in their own burial grounds, while Efron goes so far as volunteering to give the field and the cave as a gift. What is the meaning of this generosity?
4. YAH has already promised the land to Abraham. What is the meaning and the status of a transaction concerning a piece of land that has already been promised to him?
The negotiations between Abraham and the Bnei Chet follow a three-stage process. We will examine each stage with close attention in order to answer the above questions.
And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan. And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her. And Abraham stood up from before his dead and spoke to the Bnei Chet, saying, “A stranger and sojourner am I among you; give me a possession of a burial-place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” And the Bnei Chet answered Abraham, saying to him, “Hear us, master: you are a mighty prince among us; bury your dead in the choicest of our sepulchers; no one among us will withhold from you his tomb, that you might bury your dead.” And Abraham stood up and bowed himself to the people of the land, to the Bnei Chet. (23:2-7)
“A stranger and sojourner am I with you”, says Abraham to the Bnei Chet, defining his status as one who is not an ordinary, permanent citizen. At the same time, I am “with you” – there is contact and interaction between us. Abraham requests a burial place that will be his own, where he can bury Sarah. “And the Bnei Chet answered Abraham, saying to him” – an entire verse is devoted to the fact that they reply to him. This officious elaboration testifies to the important negotiations now commencing. Right now it is the Bnei Chet who present their position, afterwards Abraham will speak, and so on. “Hear us, master,” they tell him, as though inviting or asking him to give his attention to a position that is far removed from his world and his way of thinking. “You are a mighty prince (literally, “a prince of YAH”)” – a lord, an individual of tremendous stature and status. “Among us” – they view themselves as the environment that contains him; they are the platform, and he is in their midst. In contrast to his request, “with you,” connoting closeness, they focus on the hierarchy, viewing themselves as hosts and Abraham as the guest. “In the choicest of our sepulchers bury your dead” – we have tombs, and we will extend our permission for you to choose and bury wherever you wish. “None of us will withhold his tomb from you, that you may bury your dead” – our offer is binding on each and every one of us.
The perception conveyed by their words is: You are a man of YAH; you are not meant to be a regular player on the earthly court. The Bnei Chet treats Abraham as a sort of priest for whom “YAH is his portion.” As a priest, he has the right to bury his dead wherever he chooses.
This stage of the negotiations concludes with Abraham’s response: “Abraham stood up and bowed himself to the people of the land, to the Bnei Chet.” He shows his appreciation for their response. They have not agreed to his request, but on the other hand, their point of departure is their perception of him as a “mighty prince;” it is owing to his elevated status that he cannot inherit. His view of them as “the people of the land” amounts to recognition of their status as owners of the land. He therefore thanks them for their readiness to hear him out, since he does not take this for granted.
And he spoke with them, saying, “If it is your intention that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me, and entreat for me to Efron, son of Tzochar, that he may give me the cave of Makhpela, which he has, which is at the edge of his field; for the full price shall he give it to me for a possession of a burial place amongst you.” And Efron dwelled among the Bnei Chet. And Efron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Bnei Chet, of all who went in at the gate of his city, saying, “No, master, hear me: the field I have given to you, and the cave that is in it – to you have I given it, in the sight of the sons of my people I give it to you; bury your dead.” And Abraham bowed himself down before the people of the land. (8-12)
Now Abraham’s request is directed towards Efron the Hittite: “That he give me the cave of Makhpela, which he has, which is at the edge of his field…” Efron has a field, at the far end of which is the cave of Makhpela, and Abraham now translates his original wish into a request to receive it “for full price.” “In your midst, as a possession of a burial place” – Abraham accepts their position and now refers to himself as being “in their midst” rather than “with them.” “With you” implies an equal relationship, while “in your midst” acknowledges their status as “the people of the land,” as its owners. “And Efron dwelled amongst the Bnei Chet” – Efron is awarded his own voice, but he is also part of “the Bnei Chet,” sharing the same views. He responds, “No, master; hear me” – you don’t understand; listen to what I am telling you. “The field I have given to you, and the cave that is in it – to you have I given it….” Efron speaks of the transfer of the field and the cave in the past tense, as if to say, “This is already the reality; you may regard the matter as closed, as though they had already been given.” These words demonstrate the degree of his eagerness that Abraham accept the offer of the field and the cave as a gift. “In the sight of the sons of my people I give it to you; bury your dead” – the offer is made in the presence of my people, imbuing this gift with public validation.
What prompts Efron to such extraordinary magnanimity – offering Abraham the field and the cave as a gift, for free? It would seem that Efron, who dwells among the Bnei Chet, is a loyal adherent of their worldview. They hold Abraham in great esteem and find it difficult to view him as sharing the same plane as them-selves. We are the “people of the land;” Abraham is “a mighty prince.” They seek to maintain this chasm between them. Now, faced with Abraham’s insistence, their “escape route” is this gift. Unlike a sale, in which payment is given in return and the original owner is removed entirely from the picture, a gift maintains the status of the giver as one who gave it of his own good will. In addition, a gift entails a sort of unstated condition, an expectation of something in return. If this is not forthcoming, the possession of the gift by the recipient may be weakened. “And Abraham bowed himself down before the people of the land” – once again Abraham shows his appreciation for their agreement and their generosity. Once again he recognizes their ownership of the land, and from this point of departure he bows before them. Along with esteem over the past, this bowing also introduces the next step.
And he spoke to Efron in the hearing of the people of the land, saying, “But if you will give it, I pray you, hear me: I will give you (literally, “I have given you”) the price of the field; take it of me, and I will bury my dead there.” And Efron answered Abraham, saying to him, “Master, listen to me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver – what is that between me and you? Then bury your dead.” And Abraham listened to Efron, and he weighed for Efron the silver which he had named in the hearing of the Bnei Chet, for hundred shekels of silver, current money with the merchants.
Abraham is not prepared to accept the field and the cave as a gift; he insists on paying full price for them. Just as Efron speaks of the field and the cave in the past tense, as though they had already been given to Abraham, Abraham now speaks of the payment as though it had already been handed to Efron: “I have given you the price of the field; take it of me.” In fact, Efron demands an exorbitant price – four hundred shekels of silver, in prime currency, “current money with the merchants.” As noted, it is only after the field is transferred to Abraham and this “in the sight of the Bnei Chet, before all who went in at the gate of his city,” that Abraham finally undertakes the burial of Sarah.
Possession of a Burial Place for Abraham and Sarah
One of the questions we posed at the outset was why it is so important to Abraham that he purchase the field. On the simplest level, the issue here is a “possession of a burial place” – not a lone tomb for Sarah, but a burial site where, in the future, others will be buried, too. This seems to be the perception of the site in the minds of Yitzchak and Ishmael when they come to bury Abraham alongside Sarah:
And Abraham expired and died at a good old age, an old man, and full of years, and was gathered to his people. And his sons Yitzchak and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Makhpela, in the field of Efron, son of Tzochar the Hittite, which is before Mamrei – the field which Abraham had purchased from the sons of Chet; there was Abraham buried, and Sarah his wife. (Bereishit 25:8-10)
First, the text recalls the previous ownership of the field by Efron, its purchased by Abraham, and only after all this, the burial of both Sarah and Abraham there. The text indicates, as it were, the purchase that facilitated the burial of both of them there. Abraham could have accepted the offer of the Bnei Chet – “in the choicest of our sepulchers bury your dead” – but no one could guarantee that Abraham himself would later be able to be buried at Sarah’s side. Even if he were to be buried there, it would not be a single unit that contained both of them. His stubbornness may be understood as an expression of his wish to create a domain that would maintain the family bond between himself and Sarah, for all eternity.
The same perception arises from Yaakov’s instruction that his sons bury him with his forefathers:
And he charged them and said to them, “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Efron, the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field of Makhpela, which is before Mamrei, in the land of Cana’an, which Abraham bought with the field from Efron the Hittite for a possession of a burial place. There they buried Abraham and Sarah, his wife; there they buried Yitzchak and Rivka, his wife, and there I buried Leah. The purchase of the field and of the cave that is in it was from the Bnei Chet. (Bereishit 49:29-32)
Yaakov asks to be buried with his forefathers. He reviews the history of the cave, purchased by Abraham from “Efron the Hittite for a possession of a burial place.” This purchase is depicted as having facilitated the burial in the same place of Abraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, and Leah – with whom Yaakov now seeks to be reunited.
The Land of Cana’an
Another question that we posed at the outset concerned the significance of the purchase of a parcel of land which in fact has already been promised to Abraham. Now we have our answer: Abraham seeks to purchase the plot for full price, thereby expressing his view of the land as belonging to them, and not yet to himself. As part of this view, he treats the Bnei Chet as “the people of the land” – as those who belong to the land and those to whom the land belongs. As a first step, they offer him to bury in their choicest sepulchers, and he thanks them: “Abraham stood up and bowed himself to the people of the land, to the Bnei Chet.” He does not take it for granted that the “people of the land” will allow him to bury his dead in their tombs. He certainly does not take for granted the generous offer of Efron, to which he responds in a similar way: “Abraham bowed himself down before the people of the land.” This discernment hints at his general view of his own status in the land. “The land of Cana’an” is, literally, “the land belonging to Cana’an.” YAH’s promise to Abraham concerns the future, his progeny. Its context is a great historical process which Abraham has no intention of pressing and rushing.
We will now turn our attention to a midrash which reveals another layer of what is happening in this unit, below the surface.
We find a midrashic interpretation of our unit in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (chapter 35):
R. Yehuda says: Three forefathers each forged a covenant with the people of the land, and these are they: Abraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. Abraham forged a covenant with the people of the land… He told the children of Yevus that he wanted to purchase from them the cave of Makhpela, at a good price in gold, and with a writ of sale, for an eternal possession of a burial place. But were these Yevusim? Were they not Hittites? They were so called because of the city of Yevus. And the people would not agree. So Abraham began to bow and prostrate himself before them, as it is written, “And Abraham bowed himself before the people of the land.” They said, “We know that the Holy One, blessed be He, is going to give you and your descendants all of this land. Swear to us that Israel will not take possession of the city of Yevus unless it is by agreement.” After that, [Abraham] purchased [the cave of] Makhpela with payment in gold and with an eternally valid writ of sale as an eternal possession: “And Abraham listened to Efron…”
The midrash describes the situation in which Abraham seeks to purchase a burial place for Sarah, while the Yevusim refuse to sell it to him. Abraham pleads, and they accede – on condition that Abraham will commit himself, through a covenant and oath, that Am Yisrael will not take possession of the city of Yevus against the will of its inhabitants. And to this Abraham agrees.
The question we must ask ourselves here concerns the connection between the plain narrative of the text and the midrash. According to the midrash, the crux of the issue under negotiation by Abraham and the Bnei Chet is their demand that Abraham’s descendants not take possession of the city of Yevus without the consent of its inhabitants. What is the meaning of this condition? And how is this interpretation based on the text?
The midrash reveals the thinking that led to the condition: “We know that the Holy One, blessed be He, is going to give you and your descendants all of this land. Swear to us that Israel will not take possession of the city of Yevus unless it is by agreement.” The midrash depicts the Hittites as representatives of the Yevusim who dwell in Jerusalem and who fear for their future when Yevus becomes the capital of the kingdom of Israel. Their agreement to sell the field to Abraham is accompanied by the condition: “Swear to us, Abraham, that when your descendant builds his kingdom and comes to establish his capital in Yevus, he will do so with the acquiescence of the Yevusi and not by force.”
We might explain the connection between the textual account and the midrash as follows: The author of the midrash reads the verses in Sefer Bereshit and observes the Bnei Chet exerting themselves to prevent Abraham from purchasing a possession of a burial place. If he is going to end up owning the field, then they want the transfer to register as a gift, not a sale. The reason for their insistence in this regard, according to the plain text, is their view of Abraham as occupying a special, elevated status, as a “mighty prince.” This would seem to be the basis for the midrash, which then goes a step further. Supposing that Abraham is indeed superior and elevated, what prompts the Bnei Chet to go to such lengths to prevent him from inheriting in their midst? What prompts Efron to offer such a magnanimous gift, so as to undermine and weaken Abraham’s possession of the site? The midrash attributes a historical mission to the Bnei Chet, as representatives of the nations of the world, and more specifically and concretely, as the representatives or guardians of Yevus, which is destined to become the capital of David’s kingdom. As spokesmen of the nations, they are concerned; they know that the land has been promised to Abraham. At some point in the future, this promise will be realized, and they will find themselves out of the picture. Against the will and over the objections of the nations of the world, the Yevusim will be driven from Jerusalem, and the descendants of Abraham will realize their destiny – with no consultation or coordination with the nations of the world. Their way of dealing with this concern is to force Abraham to swear that Am Yisrael will inherit Yevus only with the acquiescence of its inhabitants.
Now, let us return to the verses in parashat Bereshit and consider them in their broader context. In our parashat, Abraham does manage to purchase a possession of a burial place, but this purchase has another dimension to it. Up until now, he has had no real grasp on the land. Now he takes his first step in realizing his inheritance of the land. In terms of the plain text, he exchanges his status of “mighty prince” for that of someone who has an inheritance in the land, along with Canaan and his children. From the perspective of the midrash, their cry is an expression of profound concern; they fear that the realization of Abraham’s vision may push them aside and doom their future. They therefore seek to stop Abraham early on – or, on a deeper level, to determine his attitude towards them.
Abraham is sensitive to their concern. He knows what he wants, but it is also important to him that they are agreeable. He is familiar with the position of the Bnei Chet, and he establishes a model of transfer from one owner to another, through agreement, willingly, and without anything remaining open to question. Efron is paid in full, and in accepting this payment he agrees to transfer the field to Abraham’s ownership, separating himself from it altogether, with no possibility of any future questioning, and in a ceremony that is conducted in the sight of the Bnei Chet.
Abraham’s sensitivity in this instance is a manifestation of an issue that lies at the heart of Tanakh, running beneath the surface but making itself felt over and over again: Is Am Yisrael’s possession of the land achieved by force or through the agreement of the nations of the world? Abraham’s response to the question is clear: The possession of the land must be through agreement. This mindset is set aside under the leadership of Yahshua, whose conquest of the land proceeds under the conceptual banner of “the sin of the Emori is complete.” Nevertheless, it characterizes the return of the exiles from Babylonia at the beginning of the Second Temple period, and ultimately the final redemption is also conditional upon the agreement of the nations of the world.
This need for cooperation embodies the profound fact that while the Divine promise concerning the land is indeed a national issue, in essence it is the story of humanity as a whole. The presence of willing agreement on the part of the nations serves to connect them to the story, as meaningful and significant players within it. How special it is to note that at the same place where YAH told Abraham, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land which I will show you,” He also told him, “and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.” These two elements are intertwined; Abraham is committed to both, as are his descendants, for all generations.