At the opening of this parsha, we see the following somber scene:
“Then Abraham rose from before his dead, and spoke to the sons of Heth, saying, ‘I am a stranger and a sojourner among you; give me a burial site among you that I may bury my dead out of my sight.’ The sons of Heth answered Abraham, saying to him, ‘Hear us, my lord, you are a prince of God among us; bury your dead in the choicest of our graves; none of us will refuse you his grave for burying his dead.’…And he spoke with them, saying, ‘If it is your wish for me to bury my dead out of my sight, hear me, and approach Ephron the son of Zohar for me, that he may give me the cave of Machpelah which he owns, which is at the end of his field; for the full price let him give it to me in your presence for a burial site.’ (Gen.23:3-9)
In itself, the scene is unremarkable. Abraham has lost his wife, and seeks to find a suitable location for her final rest. He has discovered a cave at the end of a field, and asks the residents to find the owner of the property so that he can negotiate the purchase of the cave for both the burial of his wife and, ultimately, himself and his descendants. Burial arrangements. These things are necessary, though in the grand scheme, routine. But, there is a catch.
The Torah has enshrouded this story into the folds of a greater narrative: One that has divinely promised both this cave, the field in which it is found, and in fact all of the surrounding territories to Abraham and his descendants, as an eternal possession.
This promise forms the very foundation of all future claims upon this controversial plot of ground, and all affirmations of divine promise to all the people of God, including the Christian Church, which claims (with Paul’s allegory in hand) an equal share in this same promise. This is deceptive, however, since traditionally the Church desires only the claim of identification in relation to spiritual destiny, and typically ignores the aspect of the covenant that pertains to the land. This, as we will see, is very unfortunate, since the management of shared resources is an important aspect of Torah.
Who is Ephron? And how does his opinion rate our consideration in this matter? Doesn’t he realize that he’s on sacred ground?
There are two promises God gives Abraham that would directly impact this story.
“The LORD appeared to Abraham and said, ‘To your descendants I will give this land.'” (Gen.12:7)
“The LORD said to Abraham, after Lot had separated from him, ‘Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever.” (Gen.13:14-15)
God obviously has far more authority than Ephron or the sons of Heth. How, then, does Abraham conceive that he must negotiate with them, for a place to bury Sarah?
The key is found in the fourth verse of our cited passage:
“I am a stranger and a sojourner among you…”
This statement is problematic. According to Rashi, Abraham cannot be both “an alien and a resident” at the same time, since an alien “does not reside in his current location.” He explains that Abraham was formerly of a foreign land, but that his self-description as a ger toshav means that he has taken up residence in Canaan. Continue reading