The Cave of Machpelah

Notes on the end of Genesis 22 and Genesis 23: Abraham buys a burying-place.

I serve as the note-taker for the Jacob Hishleifer- Arthur Rosett UCLA Faculty Tanakh Study group, and from time to time I have posted some of the notes here. Last week we finished off Chapter 22 (Rebacca’s ancestry) and discussed Chapter 23 (the Cave of Machpelah).

Someone used to simplifying his reading of Genesis by skipping the “begats” (I, for one) could easily miss the point of the end of Ch. 22, starting with Verse 20. Abraham is told that his brother Nahor (not heard from for many chapters) and his wife Milcah have been blessed with issue: Uz and his brother Buz (invaluable for comedy routines but of little other interest) and also SoAndSo, SuchAndSuch, ThisOne, ThatOne, TheOtherOne, and WhoCares. Not only that, his concubine Remuah has also produced four forgettable offspring. One’s immediate reaction is to look in a dictionary of Hebrew idiom for a phrase meaning “Too Much Information.”


But those more attentive will notice that Milcah’s eighth son is Bethuel, and that “Bethuel begot Rebecca.” That seems to be the point of the whole passage. Why it occurs here, rather than in what would seem to be its proper place, just before the Courtship of Isaac in Chapter 24, we couldn’t figure out. Rashi links it to the fact that Isaac has survived, making the question of a mate for him suddenly relevant; we failed to come up with anything better. Why Remuah and her progeny get ink remained obscure, unless that passage was the title-deed of some important family at the time of the redaction.

The Nahor passage comes between the Binding and the Death of Sarah that begins Chapter 23. Perhaps the interpolation was meant to prevent the midrash that developed anyway, citing the fact that Sarah’s death follows the Binding as evidence that her death was caused by the Binding.

The first verse of Chapter 23 reads:

And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.

This struck some of us as wordy, repetitious, duplicative, and pleonastic. Also padded, verbose, and redundant. Others noted that it failed to follow Strunk’s injunction to “omit needless words.” It sounds as if the redactors were being paid by the line. Yes, it turns out, it’s possible to say simply “one hundred twenty-seven” in Hebrew.

There is midrash to the effect that this formulation is meant to convey that Sarah was as beautiful at 100 as she had been at 20, and as innocent at 20 as she had been at 7. To which we said: “Whatever.”

As noted before, Abraham and Sarah are not recorded as exchanging words after the Binding. Whether this is meant to indicate estrangement, or is merely the product of the writers’ usual minimalism, we could not agree. But the text also provides positive evidence of estrangment: at her death, Sarah is living in Hebron; Abraham is in Beer-Sheba, and has to come to mourn for her.

While Abraham is said to love Isaac, and Isaac to love Rebacca, Abraham is never said to love Sarah. Their mutual silence after the Binding is not extraordinary; the only words he is recorded as speaking to her are orders to prepare food for the three guests and two requests that she pass himself off as his sister, and she is not recorded as speaking any words to him, ever.

After Sarah’s death, Abraham asks the people around Hebron, the Sons of Heth (בְּנֵי-חֵת, b’nai chait) for a burying-place. (A place to “bury my dead out of my sight” [or, literally, “not in my face”]. Does this mean that he doesn’t want the gravesite where he will see it every day?)

Abraham uses the verb תְּנוּ (t’nu) which means “give” (the same root as נָתָן ‎natan, “gift”). He describes himself as a גֵּר (ger), a “stranger” or “alien,” and a sojourner. But he also offers to pay. Perhaps t’nu is better translated here as “grant;” even the sale of realty to a stranger might have required a special dispensation. (And when he says he’s a sojourner, does that mean that he has now moved from Beer-Sheba to Hebron? The text doesn’t say, and no location is given for the origin of Eliazer’s mission to find a bride for Isaac, nor for Abraham’s residence at the time of his death.)

The locals clearly regard Abraham as a celebrity; they call him a “Prince of God,” and urge him to take his pick of burial sites. He specifies a cave owned by Ephron and asks the Sons of Heth to ask Ephron, on his behalf, for the land, specifying that he will pay “full price.” (He clearly hadn’t seen the clip of Annie Hall where the very WASPy Annie says that in her family the unforgiveable sin was showing emotion, and the very Jewish Woody Allen character replies that in his family the unforgiveable sin was paying retail.)

Why does Abraham ask indirectly? Perhaps because Ephron was too important to approach directly. He is described as

sitting in the midst of the children of Heth even of all that went in at the gate of his city

His city,” as if he were its owner or ruler. He is designated as עֶפְרוֹן הַחִתִּי Ephron Ha-Hitti, “Ephron The Hittite,” perhaps suggesting chieftainship. (In I Samuel, Goliath refers to himself as “The Philistine,” and of course in a later Scriptural work we have Jabba The Hutt; similarly, in Scots usage “The MacGregor” designates the chief of Clan MacGregor.)

Ephron refuses the offered price, saying, “Take it; I give it to you.” Abraham insists on paying. Ephron refuses again. “My lord, what is a piece of land worth four hundred shekels between you and me?” Abraham, who is said to “hearken unto Ephron,” pays down the cash. That suggests that this is bargaining ritual; by placing a value on the land, Ephron is naming his price without rudely asking for it. (There is evidence elsewhere in the Tanakh that the price is exorbitant; Mitchell cites Westermann as noting that Jeremiah pays 17 shekels for a field [Jer. 32:7] and Omni pays only 6000 shekels for all of Samaria [I Kings 16:24].)

The narrative purpose of the purchase, and the legalistic detail with which it is formalized, seems to be to establish Abraham’s claim to the land by purchase as well as by divine decree, as justification for later conquest. That doesn’t make much sense logically, as the field is small and the entire context assumes that Abraham acknowledges that the Childen of Heth have the right to the land as a whole. But that hasn’t stopped some contemporary polemicists (including Abe Rosenthal when he was Managing Editor of the New York Times) from citing the purchase of the cave as a reason why Israel should not withdraw from the West Bank.

All the translators make the Children of Heth the Hittites. There was such a people in the Canaan of the early Iron Age; they originated in Anatolia and spoke an Indo-European rather than a Semitic language. But they are as anachronistic in Abraham’s period as are the Philistines mentioned in Chapter 21. Moreover, Gen. 10:15 makes Heth the second son of Canaan, and Deut. 7 and 20 list הַחִתִּי ha-Hitti among the seven Canaanite nations to be ethnically cleansed from the Promised Land.

Is it possible that the translators knew about the historical Hittites (who called themselves Hatti), saw Hitti, and jumped to a wrong conclusion? That explanation can’t be ruled out by any facts we had access to.

But perhaps the least hypothesis to cover the data – given the choice between anachronism and a very striking coincidence of names – is that the Iron Age storyteller, writing of Bronze Age events, knew of contemporary Hittites among the residents of Canaan, and assumed that they had been present during the Bronze Age, while also changing their ethnicity. There is, after all, no evidence that philology was a well-developed science among the Israelites.

P.s. It seems that our discussion of the Binding of Isaac omitted the discussion of perhaps the greatest midrash on that passage, by Der Farblondzshet Rebbe, R. Allen Stewart Konigsberg (called in the Reform tradition Woody Allen):

And Abraham awoke in the middle of the night and said to his only son, Isaac, “I have had a dream where the voice of the Lord sayeth that I must sacrifice my only son, so put your pants on.”

And Isaac trembled and said, “So what did you say? I mean when He brought this whole thing up?”

“What am I going to say?” Abraham said. “I’m standing there at two A.M. I’m in my underwear with the Creator of the Universe. Should I argue?”

“Well, did he say why he wants me sacrificed?” Isaac asked his father.

But Abraham said, “The faithful do not question. Now let’s go because I have a heavy day tomorrow.”

And Sarah who heard Abraham’s plan grew vexed and said, “How doth thou know it was the Lord and not, say, thy friend who loveth practical jokes, for the Lord hateth practical jokes and whosoever shall pull one shall be delivered into the hands of his enemies whether they pay the delivery charge or not.”

And Abraham answered, “Because I know it was the Lord. It was a deep, resonant voice, well modulated, and nobody in the desert can get a rumble in it like that.”

And Sarah said, “And thou art willing to carry out this senseless act?” But Abraham told her, “Frankly yes, for to question the Lord’s word is one of the worst things a person can do, particularly with the economy in the state it’s in.”

And so he took Isaac to a certain place and prepared to sacrifice him but at the last minute the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand and said, “How could thou doest such a thing?”

And Abraham said, “But thou said —”

“Never mind what I said,” the Lord spake. “Doth thou listen to every crazy idea that comes thy way?” And Abraham grew ashamed. “Er – not really … no.”

“I jokingly suggest thou sacrifice Isaac and thou immediately runs out to do it.”

And Abraham fell to his knees, “See, I never know when you’re kidding.”

And the Lord thundered, “No sense of humor. I can’t believe it.”

“But doth this not prove I love thee, that I was willing to donate mine only son on thy whim?”

And the Lord said, “It proves that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice.”

And with that, the Lord bid Abraham get some rest and check with him tomorrow.

– [From “The Scrolls,” in Without Feathers]

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

9 thoughts on “The Cave of Machpelah”

  1. “But that hasn’t stopped some contemporary polemicists …. from citing the purchase of the cave as a reason why Israel should not withdraw from the West Bank.”

    You can also read it as showing the proper way to acquire land for settlement: by a fair arms-length purchase from an informed vendor, with the consent of the local community and government – none of which applies to the current West Bank settlers.
    On the sacrifice of Isaac, this. Text here.

  2. I know you’ve explained that many of these sets of notes from your Tanakh study group are too full of inside references to be very good RBC fodder, but I certainly always love the ones that do make it here.

    Thanks again, Mark.

  3. What Blake said.

    I don’t know any Hebrew beyond aleph, and I only know that because it came up in a Foundation of Mathematics course I took in another century. So, I don’t know if Hebrew has an idiom for “Too Much Information”, but I’d bet at least a couple of shekels that Yiddish does.

  4. James:

    Don’t the settlers maintain that

    1) their Abraham, ancestor bought the land in the way you suggest, centuries ago;
    2) that Isaac, his heir (note, not Ishmael) inherited the land, which subsequently passed, one after the other, to future heirs;
    2) that a later ancestor was forcibly and wrongly deprived of the land;
    3) that all subsequent titles from then until recently were therefore tainted;
    4) and that, as a result, they are just reclaiming/retaking what is rightfully theirs, as part of the Jewish people?

    Not supporting this argument, just suggesting that yours, about the appropriate way to conduct a purchase, is not one with which the settlers would necessarily disagree.

  5. The Hatti would actually have been in the right timeframe (c. 2000 BCE) for Abraham, though Hebron would have been way outside their known domains. They were not the same things as the Hittites, who came later and conquered and absorbed them and their culture (the same phenomenon as with Sumer and the Akkadians). Like the Sumerians, the Hatti were not Indo-European either; their language was supposedly related to Circassian or something.

    And yes, this is an awesome series. More often, please.

  6. I, too, enjoy the occasional report from your “What the hell is THAT supposed to signify?” sessions.

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