Genesis 23 – Dealing with Ephron the Hittite

Genesis 23 Bible with Equal Exchange Panama Extra Dark Chocolate

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Today’s PassageGenesis 23

More than once, a verse or passage in Genesis has done little more than remind me that we live in a vastly different culture than the people of the ancient Near East. And yes, we have just such a chapter today. Genesis 23 covers the death and burial of Sarah. Two verses are devoted to Abraham’s mourning over her, and fifteen verses–75% of the chapter, by verse–are devoted to the negotiation by which Abraham buys a burial plot. If you or I were recording this event, we would probably approach it somewhat differently.

And it’s not just that three-fourths of the text is a thrilling blow-by-blow of Abraham’s real estate deal. The very way in which Abraham and Ephron the Hittite reach their deal speaks to the foreignness of their culture. There are three full cycles of offer from Abraham and counter-offer from a Hittite (first the Hittites, and then Ephron the Hittite twice), and each counter-offer presents a burial plot as some form of gift. Why do the Hittites keep offering to give their land away, and why doesn’t Abraham take it?

The short, less satisfying answer is: because that’s how you do, in bronze-age Canaan. But you’re here for the long answer, right? To begin with, Abraham is looking to get a burial plot in Canaan because God promised the land to his descendants. Right now, he’s just a traveler in someone else’s territory, but if he gets a burial plot for Sarah, he’s also getting a burial plot for himself. He’s putting faith in God’s long game and making moves for a plan that will outlive even himself. And with that in mind, let’s do the blow-by-blow.

Abraham begins by asking for a burial site. The Hittites offer: “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” (6). The gift would appear to meet Abraham’s needs, and it’s respectfully and generously offered. The Hittites literally call him not simply a mighty prince, but a prince of God or of the gods (Heb. elohim). However, they offer to let Abraham use their graves. He gets a place to bury his wife, but nothing more; they retain ownership.

And that won’t do for Abraham. He tells them that he wants to make an offer on a specific burial site belonging to a Hittite named Ephron. He’s willing to pay for the site; he wants the right to stake his claim on it. Ephron, though, begins a formal public negotiation at the city gates, 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” (11). Again, it’s presented as a gift, but there’s two crucial peculiarities to it.

First, it puts Ephron in the driver’s seat if Abraham accepts. The greater man is the one who can afford to give away his land as a gift, and a party who has shown generosity to one in the past can reasonably expect generosity from one in the future. The gift isn’t a deal between equals, and the price of a gift could potentially be steep. And second, Ephron’s offer establishes that he’s looking to liquidate his burial cave and the field it’s in as a package deal.

So, Abraham insists on paying the standard price for the field. He will not be indebted, and he will pay for it fairly. But Ephron offers it as a gift a second time! This time around, though, he names his price: “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” (15). This is a shrewd move on Ephron’s part. It contains all the social benefits of generosity from the previous offer, and moreover, it all but sets the price in stone. If Abraham attempts to haggle, he comes off looking like a total goblin, because the plot and field were offered for free. Ephron can say, “Listen, if you really don’t want to part with your money, just take the field! It’s a gift from me to you, my friend.” And then he can cast a wide grin around at the witnesses, because he and they will know what’s up.

But Abraham has the cash, and he wants to own the tomb and the claim to land that comes with it. So he pays. And there you have it: this is the game as it is played in ancient Canaan. Shout-outs to Pastor Bob Deffinbaugh for his excellent commentary on the chapter, without which I would have been mostly lost. There’s tons more cultural-historical good stuff in there. Go read it!

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