Abraham Negotiates to Buy the Cave of the Machpelah in the Promised Land
After crying and mourning for Sarah (Genesis 23:1–2), Abraham approaches the local people of Kiryat-arba to negotiate for a burial plot. The locals are called Hittites or “Sons of Heth” (vv. 3, 5, 7, 10, 16, 18, and 20) and are designated עַם הָאָרֶץ “people of the land” (vv. 7, 12–13), namely land-owning males. The repeated references to locals with whom Abraham negotiates prompted Genesis Rabbah (§58) to comment:
אמר ר' לעזר כמה דיות משתפכות כמה קולמוסין משתברין כדי לכתוב בני חת, עשרה פעמים כתוב בני חת כנגד עשרת הדיברות, ללמדך שכל מי שהוא מברר מקחו שלצדיק כאילו קיים עשרת הדיברות,
R. Lazar said, “How much ink has been spilled and how many quills broken in order to write ‘the sons of Heth’—ten times it is written, corresponding to the Ten Commandments, to teach that anyone who makes certain of his purchase like this righteous one, has fulfilled the Ten Commandments.”
This midrashic interpretation highlights the unusual nature of the chapter, with its lengthy description of Abraham’s purchase. The negotiations go through three rounds, teaching us aspects of the narrator’s worldview, and more specifically how deals were conducted in his time-period.
Round One: The Initial Request
Abraham begins by announcing himself as a non-native local inhabitant (גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב) and explains that he wants a burial spot:
בראשׁית כג:ד גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי עִמָּכֶם תְּנוּ לִי אֲחֻזַּת־קֶבֶר עִמָּכֶם וְאֶקְבְּרָה מֵתִי מִלְּפָנָי.
Gen 23:4 I am a resident alien among you; give me a burial site among you, so that I might bury my dead from before my face.
Abraham’s phrasing, that he needs to bury his dead מִלְּפָנָי “from before my face/sight,” is repeated in v. 8. This unusual phrasing, which the Hittites and Ephron do not use themselves, masks the author’s hidden polemic against a long-standing tradition of ancestor worship or veneration, including consulting with the dead, and use of the dead as intermediaries, all practices condemned in many biblical passages.
After they were interred, some dead ancestors, usually males, were honored and petitioned in the household cult and represented physically by small objects referred to collectively as teraphim. In some biblical texts, these objects are characterized as אֱלֹהִים “gods” or “spiritual entities,” in addition to אִטִּים/אֹבוֹת “spirits/ghosts,” and קְדוֹשִׁים “holy ones.” Their job was to watch over the family and its land, protecting their rights and bestowing fertility and good harvests.
The writer of Genesis 23 challenges this belief by having Abraham use the seemingly innocuous phrase “from before my sight/eyes” to model his rejection of making a teraph-image for Sarah and entreating her as a divinized or spiritualized ancestor. The phraseמֵתִי “my dead”—and מֵתֶךָ “your dead” (v. 6)—likewise implies the non-divine status of humans who have passed away, and simply no longer exist.
Because this is the first biblical account of a burial, as Jason Bray explains, it serves as a paradigm for interment, and offers a polemic against ancestor worship, to counter ideas about death unacceptable to the writer. In fact, the 7-fold reference to the burial of Sarah in this story may be aimed at counteracting any interpretation that would impute some kind of lingering presence of the matriarch, which might, in the words of Meir Sternberg, “encourage a worship of the dead.”
“Give” or “Sell”?
Abraham states explicitly that he is seeking an ’aḥuzzâ, i.e., a permanent right to the land; he is not asking merely to use one of their plots. Nevertheless, instead of the unambiguous verb for sell, from the root מ.כ.ר, Abraham uses the root נ.ת.נ, which typically means “to give,” but can also carry the connotation “to sell” by “giving over” or transferring the rights to something. The choice of this root likely reflects social conventions about politeness.
The Sons of Heth Acquiesce
Those gathered reply to Abraham politely that no one will prevent him from burying his dead in their tombs.
בראשׁית כג:ה וַיַּעֲנוּ בְנֵי חֵת אֶת אַבְרָהָם לֵאמֹר לוֹ. כג:ו שְׁמָעֵנוּ אֲדֹנִי נְשִׂיא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה בְּתוֹכֵנוּ בְּמִבְחַר קְבָרֵינוּ קְבֹר אֶת מֵתֶךָ אִישׁ מִמֶּנּוּ אֶת־קִבְרוֹ לֹא יִכְלֶה מִמְּךָ מִקְּבֹר מֵתֶךָ.
Gen 23:5 And the sons of Heth replied to Abraham, saying to him, 23:6 “Hear us, my lord: you are the elect of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold his burial place from you for burying your dead.”
The Hittites, like Abraham, avoid the term מ.כ.ר “to sell,” and state that Abraham should feel free to bury his dead in whatever tomb he wants.
Gerhard von Rad and Meir Sternberg understand this reply to mean that the Hittite spokesperson is non-committal; they do not say yes or no but leave the matter hanging in the air. Others, such as John Skinner, and Jacob Rosenberg and Avi Weiss, conclude that the Hittites denied Abraham’s request, offering instead use of an existing local tomb.
These approaches assume that the Hittites wish to avoid the transfer of property rights to a non-native resident. Yet this idea is not in the text, and it appears to derive from attitudes about the attitude of Israelites to their own land elsewhere in the Bible. We do not know, however, that the Hittites of Kiryat-arba would have had this same aversion to selling land permanently to an outsider, or, more to the point, that the narrator would have thought that they would.
Instead, their response likely reflects social convention of politeness. Abraham has made it clear that he wants a permanent holding, and their reaction does not seem designed to dissuade him.
Round Two: Ephron and His Field
Clearly, Abraham does not take their response amiss, and returns their civility by bowing to them:
בראשׁית כג:ז וַיָּקָם אַבְרָהָם וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ לְעַם הָאָרֶץ לִבְנֵי חֵת.
Gen 23:7 Thereupon Abraham bowed low to the people of the land, the sons of Heth.
The back-and-forth between Abraham and Hittites follows formal language and conventions used in negotiations between non-related individuals or groups in the ancient southern Levant. Certainly, calling the other “my lord” (v. 6) is expected language of deference, as is the Hittite’s describing Abraham as a godly chief or prince (v. 6). Abrahams’ bowing before the Hittites is, likewise, a gesture of deference.
Picking up on the point of agreement, Abraham names a specific plot as his preferred burial site, indicating that he will pay its full value for it to be “given” (נ.ת.נ) to him:
בראשׁית כג:ח וַיְדַבֵּר אִתָּם לֵאמֹר אִם יֵשׁ אֶת נַפְשְׁכֶם לִקְבֹּר אֶת מֵתִי מִלְּפָנַי שְׁמָעוּנִי וּפִגְעוּ לִי בְּעֶפְרוֹן בֶּן צֹחַר. כג:ט וְיִתֶּן לִי אֶת מְעָרַת הַמַּכְפֵּלָה אֲשֶׁר לוֹ אֲשֶׁר בִּקְצֵה שָׂדֵהוּ בְּכֶסֶף מָלֵא יִתְּנֶנָּה לִי בְּתוֹכְכֶם לַאֲחֻזַּת קָבֶר.
Gen 23:8 He said to them, “If it is your wish that I remove my dead for burial, you must agree to intercede for me with Ephron son of Zohar. 23:9 Let him give me the cave of the machpelah that he owns, which is at the edge of his field. Let him give it to me at the full price, for a burial site in your midst.”
The text does not tell us why Abraham chose this field and its cave in particular, but it does supply a name for the plot Abraham wants.
The noun machpelah is frequently rendered as a proper name in translations, but as it is always preceded by the definite article “the” (ha-), it is a common name. The root כפל means folding or doubling over; the mem-preformative noun would then logically designate “that which is folded.”
It appears to designate a natural feature in the landscape used by the locals. Thus, the ancient translators of the Greek and Latin versions, some rabbis, and many medieval Jewish exegetes considered the machpelah to indicate that the cave had two chambers side-by-side or an upper and a lower chamber. But these translators and scholars, applying the term only to the cave, were not employing all the clues present in the text to understand its import.
The term “the machpelah” appears six times in Genesis—and nowhere else in the Bible—sometimes qualifying the cave and other times qualifying the field:
- מְעָרַת הַמַּכְפֵּלָה אֲשֶׁר לוֹ אֲשֶׁר בִּקְצֵה שָׂדֵהוּ “the cave of the machpelah that he owns, which is at the edge of his field” (23:9);
- שְׂדֵה עֶפְרוֹן אֲשֶׁר בַּמַּכְפֵּלָה... הַשָּׂדֶה וְהַמְּעָרָה אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ “the field of Ephron that is in the machpelah… the field and the cave that is within it” (23:17);
- מְעָרַת שְׂדֵה הַמַּכְפֵּלָה “the cave of the field of the machpelah” (23:19);
- אֶל מְעָרַת הַמַּכְפֵּלָה אֶל שְׂדֵה עֶפְרֹן “in the cave of the machpelah, in the field of Ephron” (25:9);
- בַּמְּעָרָה אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׂדֵה הַמַּכְפֵּלָה “in the cave that is in the field of the machpelah” (49:30);
- בִּמְעָרַת שְׂדֵה הַמַּכְפֵּלָה “in the cave of the field of the machpelah” (50:13).
The machpelah is thus not coterminous with either the field or the cave. Most likely, it refers to a large area of which the field, and the cave within it, are only a part.
Having identified the field that he wants, Abraham doesn’t even need the intercession of the locals, because Ephron, who is sitting amongst those addressed, hears what he says:
בראשׁית כג:י וְעֶפְרוֹן יֹשֵׁב בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי חֵת וַיַּעַן עֶפְרוֹן הַחִתִּי אֶת אַבְרָהָם בְּאָזְנֵי בְנֵי חֵת לְכֹל בָּאֵי שַׁעַר עִירוֹ לֵאמֹר.
Gen 23:10 Ephron was present among the sons of Heth; so Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the sons of Heth, all who entered the gate of his town, saying,
Ephron hears the request because he is sitting at the city gate, the location in a walled settlement where business was transacted and where lower ranking officials would sit (e.g. Esther 2:19). The normal coming and going made it easy to find witnesses for conducting legal affairs (see e.g. Ruth 4:1–6). Thus, Ephron himself responds:
בראשית כג:יא לֹא אֲדֹנִי שְׁמָעֵנִי הַשָּׂדֶה נָתַתִּי לָךְ וְהַמְּעָרָה אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ לְךָ נְתַתִּיהָ לְעֵינֵי בְנֵי עַמִּי נְתַתִּיהָ לָּךְ קְבֹר מֵתֶךָ.
Gen 23:11 “No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field and I give you the cave that is in it; I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead.”
Abraham asks only for the cave “at the edge of Ephron’s field,” but Ephron leads with the field. While Meir Sternberg believes that Ephron is trying to push Abraham into buying more than he intended, the text can also be understood to mean that Ephron picks up on Abraham’s true interest, which is purchasing the field as well as the cave.
“No, My Lord”—Is Ephron Refusing Something
Ephron begins his response to Abraham with the negative particle לֹא “no,” and some scholars argue that this means Ephron said no to a sale, merely offering to let Abraham bury Sarah on his land as a courtesy. This reading is a stretch, however, since Ephron seems to mean he will give Abraham ownership of the field and the cave.
Other scholars suggest that, in contrast to Abraham’s request, Ephron is offering not to sell Abraham the land but to give it to him as a gift. If so, as Gene Tucker argues, this would not have been a real offer but rather a natural part of the negotiations, which were characterized by elaborate hospitality and exaggerated politeness.
While this is a possible reading, I suggest that the opening לֹא “no” is a scribal error for לוּ “if only,” used in v. 13, when Abraham responds to Ephron, לוּ שְׁמָעֵנִי “if you would listen to me.”
In fact, the scribes made a similar error in two further verses (vv. 5–6, 14–15), in which the subjunctive particle lû “if only” was understood as the dative clause lo “to him.” It was then connected to לֵאמֹר to make the awkward phrase לֵאמֹר לוֹ שְׁמָעֵנוּ אֲדֹנִי “saying to him: ‘hear us my master.’” Normally, לֵאמֹר introduces a direct quote; nowhere else in the Bible is it followed by a prepositional phrase. It seems likely, therefore, that in both instances, the phrase originally read לֵאמֹר לוּ שְׁמָעֵנוּ אֲדֹנִי “saying: “if only my master would hear us.”
If this is correct, then Ephron never actually said “no” to Abraham, but just used what turns out to be standard language in negotiations, לוּ אֲדֹנִי שְׁמָעֵנִי, “if only my master would hear me.”
Round Three: The Silver
Abraham bows once again in deference before “the people of the land” (v. 12) and says in their hearing that he has “given” or proffered the equivalent value of the field in silver (whatever it will be); “take it from me so that I may bury my dead” (v. 13).
בראשׁית כג:יב וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ אַבְרָהָם לִפְנֵי עַם הָאָרֶץ. כג:יג וַיְדַבֵּר אֶל עֶפְרוֹן בְּאָזְנֵי עַם הָאָרֶץ לֵאמֹר אַךְ אִם אַתָּה לוּ שְׁמָעֵנִי נָתַתִּי כֶּסֶף הַשָּׂדֶה קַח מִמֶּנִּי וְאֶקְבְּרָה אֶת מֵתִי שָׁמָּה.
Gen 23:12 Then Abraham bowed low before the people of the land, 23:13 and spoke to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, saying, “If only you would hear me out! Let me pay the price of the land; take it from me, so that I may bury my dead there.”
If Ephron is ambiguous about whether he is offering the field as a gift or a purchase, Abraham’s response now is unambiguous, emphasizing yet again that he is going to pay for it. Why is this point so important to the narrator?
Land Must be Bought
Nathan MacDonald suggests that acceptance of a gift (rather than engaging in a legal purchase) establishes a situation of obligation and future reciprocity, and Abraham does not want to become entangled with the autochthonous inhabitants of the land in that way. In this view, Abraham serves as a model of correct behavior for his descendants in the Persian period, who also should maintain their separation from the non-Israelite inhabitants surrounding them.
In contrast, Mark Brett proposes that while the tomb in the machpelah is reserved for the Israelites exclusively, the story, which tells how the natives allowed Abraham to purchase land among them, is supposed to model how the Israelites, after they become the guardians of the land, should allow non-Israelites to gain rights to the land and live among them. In this view, the text carries the message that natives and strangers can live together, harmoniously, without destroying the integrity of the cult of YHWH.
When Abraham responds that he plans to pay for the plot, he again simply offers “the price”—previously he used the phrase “full price”—without first asking what it is. Apparently, this too was social convention: It was impolite to ask about a specific purchase price as the first item of business (as it still is in some cultures).
This leads to Ephron naming the value of the land as 400 shekels of silver:
בראשׁית כג:יד וַיַּעַן עֶפְרוֹן אֶת אַבְרָהָם לֵאמֹר לוֹ. כג:טו אֲדֹנִי שְׁמָעֵנִי אֶרֶץ אַרְבַּע מֵאֹת שֶׁקֶל כֶּסֶף בֵּינִי וּבֵינְךָ מַה הִוא וְאֶת מֵתְךָ קְבֹר.
Gen 23:14 And Ephron replied to Abraham, saying to him, 23:15 “My lord, do hear me! A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver—what is it between you and me? Go and bury your dead.”
Ephron continues to employ conventions expected in a business negotiation in his comment, “What is it between you and me?” immediately after naming his opening figure. The expression seems designed to claim there is a rapport between the two so haggling is not necessary; the figure named is allegedly fair. Its use could indicate an expected counter-offer and possible additional rounds back and forth before a final figure is agreed, or it could indicate that Ephron was not open to haggling. As modern readers, we are not able to know its exact import any longer.
The price seems high in comparison to David’s 50 silver shekels for the threshing floor of Araunah, which becomes the site that houses the Jerusalem temple, and Jeremiah’s 17 silver shekels for his uncle’s field in Anathoth (Jer 32:1–23). Yet it is lower than Omri’s 6,000 silver shekels for the land on which he built Samaria (1 Kgs 16:24). No dimensions are given for any of these plots of land, so it is hard to judge how much price-gouging is involved, even though it is likely this is a high price, either because it is Ephron’s opening figure but not the expected final figure after haggling or because it is non-negotiable.
The price has symbolic value as it matches the number of years that Abram’s descendants will experience as sojourners (גרים) and slaves or servants (in Egypt) before returning to Canaan in the fourth generation with a great quantity of property (Gen 15:12–16). The figure should remind Abraham that the divine promise is still in effect, even if it will not be realized during his own lifetime.
Closing the Deal
Abraham does not hesitate:
בראשׁית כג:טז וַיִּשְׁמַע אַבְרָהָם אֶל עֶפְרוֹן וַיִּשְׁקֹל אַבְרָהָם לְעֶפְרֹן אֶת הַכֶּסֶף אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר בְּאָזְנֵי בְנֵי חֵת אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שֶׁקֶל כֶּסֶף עֹבֵר לַסֹּחֵר.
Gen 23:16 Abraham accepted Ephron’s terms. Abraham paid out to Ephron the money that he had named in the hearing of the sons of Heth—four hundred shekels of silver at the going merchants’ rate.
Abraham does not haggle over the price, either because that is not an option or because he wants to ensure the deal will not fall through. As was likely the norm in ancient times, no mention is made of a written contract; Ephron’s sale of his land rights to Abraham is narrated as an oral contract, with Hittite witnesses to both the agreed terms and Abraham’s payment in full, after which the rights were established for Abraham as an acquisition:
בראשׁית כג:יז וַיָּקָם שְׂדֵה עֶפְרוֹן אֲשֶׁר בַּמַּכְפֵּלָה אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵי מַמְרֵא הַשָּׂדֶה וְהַמְּעָרָה אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ וְכָל הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׂדֶה אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל גְּבֻלוֹ סָבִיב. כג:יח לְאַבְרָהָם לְמִקְנָה לְעֵינֵי בְנֵי חֵת בְּכֹל בָּאֵי שַׁעַר עִירוֹ.
Gen 23:17 So Ephron’s land in Machpelah, near Mamre—the field with its cave and all the trees anywhere within the confines of that field—passed 23:18 to Abraham as his possession, in the presence of the sons of Heth, of all who entered the gate of his town.
The specific mention of the trees on the property, which have not been part of the earlier negotiations, is consistent with a legal description of what rights convey to the new owner of the property; Ephron did not retain the rights to them and all rights associated with the property transferred to Abraham.
A Piece of the Land of Canaan
Abraham is typically depicted as living a lifestyle involving camping outside established towns and moving periodically. He thus might have been expected to bury Sarah where she died in a simply marked, single grave as was done subsequently in the case of Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah (Gen 35:8) and Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel (Gen 35:19). Instead, an entire chapter is dedicated to the purchase of an agricultural field with a cave that is to serve as a tomb.
One hint to the importance of this purchase is the use of the phrase “land of Canaan” (ארץ כנען) in 23:14; this is seventh overall in the Abraham narrative. The number seven symbolized fulfillment, completion or finishing for the ancient Torah scribes. Within ch. 23, this seventh appearance is paired with an earlier, sixth one in v. 2 to form an inclusio or envelope structure, a common literary device designed to emphasize the material between the repeated phrases.
The point seems to be that the field and cave are Abraham’s first acquired land rights in Canaan. This was already noted by the Genesis Rabbah (§79), who groups this story with that of two other biblical stories about purchases of land from Canaanite inhabitants:
אמר ר' יודן בר' סימון זה אחד מג' מקומות שאין אומות העולם יכולין לונות את ישראל ולומר להם גזולים הם בידיכם, אילו הן מערת המכפלה ובית המקדש וקבורתו שליוסף, מערת המכפלה וישקל אברהם לעפרון, בית המקדש ויתן דוד לארנן וגו', קבורתו של יוסף ויקן את חלקת השדה.
R. Yuden son of R. Simon said: “This is one of three places that the nations of the world cannot charge Israel and say to them ‘this is stolen [land] in your hands.’ They are: the cave of Machpelah, the Temple mount, and the burial plot of Joseph. The cave of Machpelah ‘Abraham paid Ephron’ (Genesis 23:16); the Temple mount ‘David gave Arnon’ (1 Chronicles 21:25), the burial plot of Joseph ‘And he bought the field’ (Genesis 33:19).”
Here the rabbis are picking up on an important theme in this chapter, which emphasizes the legal nature of this purchase. Thus, the long story of Abraham purchasing a burial plot for Sarah from the local Sons of Heth represents the first step towards fulfilling the divine promise.
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Prof. Diana V. Edelman is Professor (emerita) of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies in the University of Oslo's Department of Theology. She holds an M.A. in Religious Studies and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from the University of Chicago. Edelman is the author of The Origins of the ‘Second’ Temple: Persian Imperial Policies and the Rebuilding of Jerusalem (Equinox, 2005) and King Saul in the Historiography of Judah (JSOT, 1991), as well as co-author, editor, and co-editor of many more.
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