Genesis 23

The high divine-human drama of the previous chapter shifts here to more mundane relations – between individuals but also people groups – and is characterized by a politically astute negotiation that betrays once more Abraham’s exemplary ethics of generosity and personal restraint. It is also marked by the passing of beloved Sarah and thus signals the generational turn that will occupy the next few chapters of Genesis before moving again: Isaac to Jacob, Jacob to Joseph.

Twice we are told that the center of action lies in what became known as Hebron (verses two and nineteen), a town that is about midway between Beer-Sheba (where Abraham acquired a well and its land from Abimelech in 21.25-32) and Jerusalem, thus meaning that through the events of this narrative Abraham is expanding the land rights of his descendants, slowly but surely, in an arc running north from the Negev into the Hill Country. (The elevation of such, incidentally, explaining why one “goes up” to Jerusalem, regardless of point of approach.) With a parcel here and a parcel there something quite new is being built, and although Abraham is behaving merely out of practical need – it must be stressed that it seems unlikely the character in these stories would have had some grand scheme in mind, and hence although the tales are not historical they have an important lesson to teach about doing what one can irrespective of any ultimate outcomes one may or may not expect; even hope for – the unnoticed contextual forces of history’s flow are on the move. (This is not, by the way, necessarily claiming a telos – maybe there is one, maybe there is not – but it is an indication of how interlaced everything is in the web of causes, effects, and happenstances that makes up our universe.)

Sarah has passed away and Abraham needs a place to bury her. He goes to “the people of the land” (verse seven), those amongst whom he and his household have recently been living, and asks that they “intercede for me [him; i.e. Abraham] with Ephron son of Zohar” (verse eight); and of course as Abraham knew Ephron was right there with the others. This is the first instance of Abraham’s political craftiness: calling out the owner of the property he wanted to purchase by name in the hearing of many, rather than a direct one-to-one address. Abraham then asks that he – Ephron – sell him “the cave…at the edge of his land” (verse nine), and therefore not asking for too much; this is the second aspect of Abraham’s brilliance to be noticed. What commences?

Ephron naturally responds for himself from out of the crowd, and offers not only the cave but the entire field on which it stands as a gift: something that could not be accepted within the cultural mores of the time and place, as everyone would have recognized (verse eleven). Abraham offers to pay the full price (verse thirteen) – as again those present would have known must take place within the back and forth – and Ephron responds with an amount that must have been astronomical (verse fifteen). Perhaps the thinking (of the figures in the story, but also of the listeners to whom this account would have been told in its iterations) was that a more reasonable counteroffer would be forthcoming, instead the text tersely reports in verse sixteen that “Abraham accepted Ephron’s terms.” This is the third evidence of Abraham’s skill and ethical magnanimity. It is also a sign of incredible wealth (the resources to do so) and a lack of attachment to that wealth (the will to calmly and unconcernedly part with it). The deal is done (verse sixteen); the land, its cave, and all of its trees (thusly further investing in the future, it will be noted) become Abraham’s (verses seventeen through eighteen and twenty), and Sarah is laid to rest (verse nineteen). Abraham does what he needs to for his family, and is respectful and beyond fair with others. Teachers by example like this are few and far between; fictional or not, each is worth treasuring.

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