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.
An interesting Midrash reveals the historical and eschatological impact of this exchange:
“The people of Heth said to Abraham, “We know that in the future G‑d is going to give all these lands to you and your descendants. Strike a covenant with us that the Jewish people will only inherit the city of the Jebusites with the consent of the Jebusite people” [who were descendants of Heth]. Abraham struck the covenant with them and purchased the Cave of Machpelah.” (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezar)
Is such a compromise necessary? Couldn’t Abraham have claimed the right to the cave by merit of the promises made to him by God? The answer is no.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe offers the following explanation:
Ownership of land can occur on two different levels.
- National ownership, where a sovereign nation or government possesses the rights to an entire country or empire.
- Private ownership, where an individual possesses land for himself.
An individual may own a piece of land privately, but…the government possesses the right to evict the owner from his land if certain circumstances prevail….
Avraham assumed, quite rightly, that the time had not yet come for the national ownership of the Land of Israel by the Jewish people, which had only been promised to “his descendants.” Obviously, this did not preclude his private acquisition of a part of the land, so he tried to purchase the cave and field of Machpeilah from its current owners at the time, the people of Heth. Therefore, he said, “If you wish [to sell me a burial site] then I am an immigrant [and will purchase it from you].” Source: http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/760983/jewish/A-Lesson-From-Avraham-on-Property-Law.htm
The dilemma highlights a common interpretive problem with traditional Church theology. The dominant cultural position that Christianity has enjoyed since the days of the Roman Empire until today is reflected in the triumphalism which is common among church theologians through the centuries since Constantine, and has served to muddy our understanding of God’s promises to the Jewish people, and subsequently, the Christian’s role in relation to, and within, those promises.
Triumphalism is defined, loosely, by Wikipedia:
“Triumphalism is the attitude or belief that a particular doctrine, religion, culture, or social system is superior to and should triumph over all others. Triumphalism is not an articulated doctrine but rather a term that is used to characterize certain attitudes or belief systems by parties such as political commentators and historians.”
As it pertains to the Jewish people, the default position of Christian theologians has been to “replace” the Jewish people with the Christians, in regards to the promises He has made to their destiny and inheritance. More damaging, even, is the tendency among certain systematic theologies to allegorize the promises God has made to Israel concerning the land of Israel and the kingdom of God as “spiritualized” realities. The reason that this is so damaging is not easy to see at first.
Replacement theology and Triumphalism within the Church create a fictional scenario in which eschatology is devoid of complexity, and the concerns of other people are not considered.
The power and predominance that Christianity has enjoyed in comparison to the Jewish presence, over the last two thousand years, has predicated this position. However, Abraham has much to teach us in this parsha concerning not only Triumphalism, but in terms of what it actually means to establish a claim within the coming Kingdom of God.
First of all, though God had made clear promises to him regarding his descendants and concerning the land itself,
He had not yet acquired the promises. Further, he had no proof of ownership.
The promises were very real, but because others resided on the land of promise, it was necessary for Abraham to legally purchase the cave. Note that, according to rabbinic legend, Adam and Eve were already buried in the cave. Yet, in spite of this fact, the field was under the control of others. Therefore, Abraham sought to establish legal ownership according to common law.
Rather than assuming he had the right of redemption, he recognized that a legal purchase must be made to validate his rightful use and ownership of the cave, not just for the present time, but for future generations. This is also because, as we saw above, there is a distinction between a national promise and a personal one.
Additionally, there are levels of acquisition and possession, which allow for a gradient of claims in the presence of others who are either not part of the covenant or only associated with it by proxy. The full acquisition of the land happens, it would seem through biblical history, in stages (at best), and the conditions may change based on changing structures of control of the land over time. So, even in the presence of a promise from God, it is necessary for the recipients of God’s promises to legally acquire the promises through intentional effort towards acquisition. A personal acquisition must be made, and is often distinct from, a national claim to a similar promise.
In other words, the free gift of the promise must be purchased.
The Talmud speaks of this concept:
“Any possession that is not accompanied by a claim explaining how the possessor became the owner is not sufficient to establish the presumption of ownership…In a standard case where one has presumptive ownership, we say that even if the claimant proves that the field was once his, since the other is in possession of the land, perhaps the truth is as he says, that he purchased it from the previous owner. But now that he himself does not claim that he purchased it, will we claim this for him?…” (Talmud, Bava Batra, 28b, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
A presumption of ownership based on a promise does not constitute ownership when another is in physical possession of the land. It must be legally acquired and a bill of sale produced. Evidence that this discussion involved considerations of the New Covenant with Israel is given later in the discussion:
“Men shall buy fields for money, and subscribe the deeds, and seal them.” (Jer.32:44) This describes the writing of a bill of sale to serve as proof of ownership of the field, since he was unable to remain living there…to establish the presumption of ownership.” (Ibid)
What are we learning here?
Abraham, while Sarah is alive, is given promises by God of personal inheritance of land and also, in conjuction with this, a promise to his descendants, and ultimately, by proxy, to the rest of the nations of the world, conditional upon their treatment of Abraham’s descendants. They are interrelated, but distinct. Abraham, according to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, was conscious of the distinction between the fulfillment of national vs. personal promises, and also (perhaps more importantly) of the fact that a promise does not constitute a current reality. Others, who are not recipients of the promise, may legally contest such claims, and Abraham staves off competing claims against the promise of his inheritance by legally purchasing the cave of Machpelah. Even though the cave is just a small part of the overall inheritance promised him by God to his descendants, he realized that it was necessary and prudent to establish even this small foothold in the land, because the land matters as much as any other part of the promise of the covenant.
He does not view the partial acquisition of the covenant promises through purchase of land betrothed to him to be a violation of the covenant, but rather as an act of faith applied to the promise. He also recognizes that he has a role to play in the fulfillment of those promises.
We see a very similar scenario portrayed metaphorically by Yeshua:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matt.13:44)
Let’s be clear that this parable portrays a speculative scenario, in which certain details are not available to us. We must evaluate the teaching present with the scant facts we have. But this is the very nature of parabolic teaching. The man finds a treasure hidden in a field. He apparently doesn’t own the field legally, and knows this. Why is he thereby in the field to begin with? We don’t know, but perhaps he’s a ger toshav (resident alien)? Whether he is a stranger to promise, or a son of the covenant, he nonetheless considers it necessary to legally purchase the field in which the treasure lay, before attempting to stake a formal public claim to the treasure which lies within.
What the Master is teaching here, in the most basic sense, is the need to secure what one has found with God through legal means.
Though he has found a treasure which he has “stumbled upon” and gained “for free”, in order to make a legal claim to ownership, he must purchase the field in which the treasure sits.
The application, on a personal level, is obvious: We cannot claim to have obtained the “treasure” of the grace of God until we have “secured” it through obedience and faithfulness to the terms of the covenant.
But what about on a national level? Who has claim to the land in that case? Is there such a thing as national redemption? Or is it possible that the two aspects, while distinct, are also interrelated?
We see from both the biblical record of the Torah, as well as the Oral Law as revealed in the Talmud, that a presumption of ownership can be claimed without proof, but not substantiated. To make a legal claim, a legal bill of sale must be produced.
Though the Jewish people have been given promises by God of an inheritance full of grace, prosperity and security, they have, through most of the last two thousand years, been unable to substantiate proof of this claim, since others have occupied the physical land, and the Christian Church claimed the ownership of the spiritual aspects of the promise. Yet, in 1948, whether disputed or not, a foothold was established by the Jewish people on the land; a claim that the Church cannot make.
Like Abraham at the cave of Machpelah, Israel has established a legal foothold in the land of promise. Whether or not a full realization of the kingdom has accompanied this fact is truly not relevant. Nor is it relevant whether others, not present at the formation of the agreement between the parties, accept the terms of the agreement. A foretaste of national promises has been realized. But what about personal promise? This, too, has been partially realized, but, just like the negotiation between the children of Heth and Abraham, the position of the inhabitants is one of triumphalism. The locals fully realized that Abraham was “a prince of God”, yet found no compelling reason to honor him as such. He needed to prove his claim of ascendancy.
By purchasing what should have been rightfully his, Abraham not only secured a legally binding bill of sale, he also accomplished a hugely important task of Tikkun Olam: The recognition that God’s promises are not ethnocentric and only meant to bless himself and his own people.
Abraham was walking in the recognition of an easy to neglect aspect of the promise:
“…I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Gen.12:3)
One of Abraham’s greatest attributes is that he practices righteousness.
“For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice…” (Gen.18:19)
The attitude of triumphalism has no useful place in the hearts and minds of God’s people. We must believe in the full promises of God, and yet be willing to work incrementally towards their fulfillment.
The re-establishment of the state of Israel is a physical testimony to this story in the parsha before us. Christianity cannot claim the “high ground” in terms of God’s promises of blessing, since in a very real sense, the presence of Israel in the physical land of promise substantiates the ancient claims, even if only partially, much the same way that Abraham’s purchase of the cave substantiates the same. A partial fulfillment is not a failure, but a step of faith.
But it’s critical to remember that there are others who share the land. Some are strangers, some are trespassers. Either way, in order to pass from the realm of stranger to covenant-maker, we must be willing to stake our claim with collateral of our own, even if we’ve been given the land via “free gift”. Nothing, it turns out, is truly free, least of all the kingdom of God.
Our mother, Sarah, is proof, as she is buried by Abraham as a physical deposit of promise, much in the same fashion as Joseph is when his descendants carry his bones out of Egypt and into the of Canaan.
Though she is temporarily put “out of Abraham’s sight”, Sarah is never missing from his or our remembrance; an everlasting testimony of what’s to come, namely, a permanent residence as an inheritor and claimant of the bounty and blessings of God.
This illustrates that even a deposit upon a promise is a seal of its reality, even if only partially fulfilled. Paul speaks of this:
“And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of of the Sprit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverence we wait eagerly for it.” (Rom.8:23-25)
In an even more subtle manner, Abraham also teaches us the importance of recognizing that God does not mean only to bless us, but to bless others through us.
Yes, we have found ourselves having the chesed of God extended to us. But there are others, near us, are there not? They matter, also. Justice is not justice if it only is defined by getting what you think is yours. Others must be receiving justice also, or how can justice be secure for anyone?
The great challenge of our day is not to see that Israel receives justice before the nations, or that Christians receive the promises they claim as their own inheritance by virtue of being attached to Israel by proxy of the Messiah. Those desires are natural and obvious.
No, the challenge is to recognize that the land contains other claimants as well, and if they are willing to work in peace alongside God’s people, they will benefit by being blessed through them. In a sense, albeit indirectly, they have a share in the blessings which are meant to flow out of the children of promise to the nations. They are to be blessed through Abraham. So consideration must be given to their “rights” as well, or, as descendants of Abraham, we cannot claim to be walking in righteousness at all. This means, among other things, that we pay a full price for that which we have been given through promise.
Perhaps it is the example of Abraham in such ethical situations that inspires the entire concept of social justice to begin with. The ethic of recognizing the claims and concerns of those who could be regarded as unimportant players on the stage.
The true mark of godliness is how we deal with those to whom we own nothing, since we remember that we, too, are strangers and sojourners in the land of promise.