Cheyei Sarah: Triumphalism and the Promises of God

Cheyei Sarah: Triumphalism and the Promises of God

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

Parsha Commentary, Vayera: The Sterilization of Duty

Parsha Commentary, Vayera: The Sterilization of Duty

This week’s parsha, Vayera, presents us with a visceral, engaging, and horrifying story. Abraham, the hero of these early Torah portions, is asked by God to do the unthinkable.

In this parsha, Abraham dramatically intercedes for Sodom and Gomorrah. He receives fulfillment of promise, and the birth of his son, Isaac. But now, near the end of the portion, we read this:

“God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.”  So Abraham rose early in the morning….” (Gen.22:1-3, emphasis added)

What’s remarkable about Abraham’s reaction to God’s inhumane request is that there is no reaction at all. He simply obeys, seemingly without question.

There are times as we read the Bible, that we are betrayed by our familiarity with the story. We know how this story ends, you see. We know not only that Isaac is ultimately spared, but we also know, as followers of Messiah, that this entire episode carries with it the theological freight of picturing for us the ultimate offering of God’s Son.

But for over 1,500 years, the Christ story lay dormant in the future and was not visible to the interpreters of the Bible. And the events in the story, at this point, demand a reaction.

A strong one. Continue reading

Purchasing Buried Treasure, Part Two

Purchasing Buried Treasure, Part Two

Again, the kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a treasure that a man found stashed in a field. He stashed it again, then joyfully went and sold everything he had and bought that field.” (Matt.13:44, Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels)

In part one of this series, we saw that there is more than meets the eye to the parables of Jesus, when we consider them from a Jewish mindset.

We discovered a ruling in the Mishnah which states that an oath by itself is not sufficient in most cases to establish ownership. How did this idea apply to our passage? In the case of the hypothetical man in Christ’s parable, he left the treasure where it lie until he had legally purchased the field in which he found it.  The implication we drew from this on a personal level in regards to the kingdom of God, is that merely “seeing” (read: confessing) does not constitute legal ownership of the treasure (or kingdom).

This line of reasoning opens a theological “can of worms”, as it were, since the aspect of legal precedent (an element of the parable which the Master’s audience would have understood) introduces the concept that there is apparently more to attaining our place in the World to Come than merely receiving a free gift.  As the sages of the Talmud would say; “This is a difficulty!”  How do we resolve it?  Well, the first step we must take is backwards.  We must step back from a reductionist understanding of the kingdom of God and of redemption, and think beyond the scope of personal salvation.
Continue reading