Ancient Tales - Reflections on Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
by Dr. John Holbert on Wednesday, July 5, 2023
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
After the truly harrowing story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac (Gen.22), a story that the rabbis spend a huge amount of time parsing and reckoning with, and a story that early Christians found important for their understanding of the reasons for and the purposes of the death of Jesus on the cross, the tales of Genesis take a decidedly happier turn. In addition, Gen. 23, and 24 give the reader some fascinating insights into the cultural behaviors of these worthies, insights that often sound surprisingly modern in tone.
I cannot in silence pass over the delightful story of Abraham’s bargaining with Ephron the Hittite for a burial place for his dead wife, Sarah, for it is all too reminiscent of some modern bargaining that I have tried and failed to do in the current Middle East. This tale seldom finds its way into the lectionary, but it is definitely worth a brief look. Sarah lives to the ripe age of 127, and then dies in a city called “Kiriath-arba, that is Hebron, in the land of Canaan” (Gen.23:2). Kiriath-arba means “city of four,” which may refer to a group of ancient cities near what we now know as Hebron, a city equidistant between Jerusalem and Beer-sheba on a 3500-foot promontory. It is here called “the land of Canaan,” hence not yet a part of what later will be Judah. I have visited modern Hebron several times, and it is now a place of extreme tension, a Palestinian city yet patrolled by anxious Israeli military police. In the city one finds a mosque that was the scene of a massacre of Muslims by an enraged Israeli, motivated by the strict Jewish purity notions of an infamous American Jewish Hasidic rabbi. After that terrible assault, the mosque was divided into a mosque and synagogue with both sides of the building festooned with metal detectors and armed guards. I have never forgotten the tension I felt when I visited the place, viewing both mosque and synagogue, watched carefully by Uzi-laden Israeli police.
In Abraham’s day, according to Gen.23, many Hittites were to be found in Hebron. Hittites came from the Anatolian (modern Turkey) highlands and were a great empire in the middle of the second millennium BCE. After the empire fragmented, some Hittites migrated southward into what became Israel. Perhaps the most famous biblical Hittite was Uriah, a general in David’s army and husband of the infamous Bathsheba. His arranged murder was merely one of the evils perpetrated by the wily David in order to satisfy his unhealthy desires for the comely Bathsheba. But several centuries before David, Hittites were living in the land of Canaan, in the southern deserts of what was to be Judah.
Abraham looks for a place to bury his wife and naturally heads toward Mamre, one of the places he had encountered YHWH in the land of promise (Gen. 18). Abraham, seemingly carrying the body of the deceased Sarah, comes to the clan of the Hittites and begins the negotiations for a place of burial. “I am an immigrant dweller among you; give me property for a burial place, so that I may bury my dead out of my sight” (Gen.23:4). The Hittites respond with magnanimity to this request: “Hear us, my lord; you are a godly prince (literally a “prince of Elohim”) among us; bury your dead in the best of our burial places. None of us will deny you any place for your burial” (Gen.23:6). Abraham then entreats those listening to ask Ephron “to give me the cave of Machpelah, which he owns, for the full price, let him give it to me” (Gen.23:8-9). “No” replies Ephron. “I give you the field and the cave in it; in the presence of my people I give it to you” (Gen.23:11). This indeed sounds generous, but it is hardly what Ephron means. “I will give the price of the field; accept it from me so that I may bury my dead, replies Abraham” (Gen.23:13). Now Ephron answers, “My lord, listen to me, a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver—what is that between you and me? Bury your dead” (Gen.23:15). Ephron never intended to give his land for free, but one simply does not put a public price tag on a choice piece of property; one must negotiate, one must bargain. It is how it is done, both then and now. I am the poorest of hagglers in these situations; if I had been Abraham confronting Ephron, I probably would have paid 800 shekels for the land!
That lovely tale is followed by another in Gen.24. In a very long account, Abraham now sends a servant to secure a wife from among his relatives in Haran, since he has no interest in finding a wife for his beloved Isaac among the local Canaanite girls. The servant goes east, back to the home country, and through a delightful series of discoveries at a famous well, he finds Rebekah, the sort of girl who both offers the servant water from the well and also is ready and willing to water his camels in the bargain. The servant more than completes his appointed task, for as Rebekah rides back to meet her proposed husband in the deserts of the Negev, she sees Isaac from a distance, and upon discovering who he is, she immediately veils her face and is brought into Sarah’s old tent and marries Isaac forthwith. But lest we think that Rebekah is merely a dutiful wife, she will play significant roles in the ongoing tale of Jacob, her son, even lying beautifully to her father to spare her husband from the wrath of the father-in-law (Gen.31:33-35).
These two colorful stories are prisms into the customs and mores of these ancient people. While continuing the ongoing tales of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel, the narrators at the same time give us important facets of their customs and ways of living, all of which add much to the richness and significance of the biblical accounts.