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B'resheet/Genesis 23:6 "Hear us, my lord: You are a prince of G-d in our midst ... bury your dead"
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Sarah has died. Avraham has come to mourn for her and to see to her burial. He knows that he must have firm legal possession with full inheritable title for a burial place, otherwise there is no guarantee of the integrity of the burial space which may simply be re-used when the next person in the community dies. He approaches the Hittites - not connected to the famous second millenia BCE Hittite empire of Asia Minor - and bows before them to open negotiations. Describing himself as "a resident alien among you (B'resheet 23:4, JPS) he asks, "sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial (ibid.). Our text above is the first response in several rounds of negotiation that culminate in "the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field (23:17, ESV) being deeded to Avraham as his possession in the presence and hearing of all the people. The ancient commentators relate: "Rabbi Judan ben Rabbi Simon said: This is one of the three places regarding which the nations of the world cannot taunt Israel and say, 'You have stolen them.' They are: The cave of Machpelah, the [site of the] Temple, and the tomb of Joseph" (B'resheet Rabbah 79:7).
Nahum Sarna comments that the word - the ms imperative of the root , to hear or listen, with a 1cp suffix 'us', so here "hear us" or perhaps "listen to us" - employed six times in this narrative block in one form or another, is characteristic of the language of court proceedings.Targum Onkelos replaces it with the Aramaic verb , to accept or receive, and adds the following word "from us." Sarna also adds that the title , my lord, and , prince of G-d, show that "Avraham may be an alien, but the Hittites treat him with reverential respect. The title they give him is honourific and probably has no religious connotation."
There is a significant variation between the classical Jewish commentators and modern scholars of both Jewish and Christian flavours. The traditional Jewish position might be typified by theRamban who suggests that the Hittite response to Avraham (our text) means: "You are not regarded by us as a stranger or a sojourner. Rather, you are a king. G-d has made you king over us, and we and our land are subservient to you. Take any burial ground you desire and bury your dead there. It shall be for you a possession of a burial-place forever since no one of us shall withhold it from you." This steps well beyond the words recorded in the biblical text, but Rabbi Hirsch goes even further: "Although an alien, by his G-d-directed and godly activities amongst them for so many years he had gained such a high reputation in their midst, that, in truth he need not buy a piece of land to find a permanent grave for his wife. Let him pick out the very best grave in the land. Everyone would consider it such an honour to know that a Sarah, the wife of Avraham, was lying buried in his property, that not only would he not refuse to allow Sarah to be buried there, but that this grave would also remain untouched for all time ... there is not one of us who would not long to have you bury your Sarah in his graveyard." These ideas suggest that the Hittites are warm and sympathetic, that they recognise Avraham's unique position as G-d's ambassador and rightful owner of the land that they now hold; this raises Avraham to almost impossible heights.
The Midrash HaGadol suggests this isHaShem's reward for Avraham's conduct: "Come and see the humility of Avraham our father! The Holy One, blessed be He, promised to give him and his seed the land forever. Yet now he could only find a burial ground by paying a high price, and yet he did not question the Holy One and he did not complain. Moreover, he addressed the inhabitants of the land with humility, as it is said, 'I am a stranger and a sojourner with you.' Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to him: You humiliated yourself; on your life I shall make you a lord and a prince over them."
Contemporary and Christian commentators take a different position, suggesting that this is all diplomatic fluff designed to prevent Avraham acquiring permanent ownership of any land. Like most of the ancient world, rights were attached to land ownership and those who had no land had - in effect - no rights. Gordon Wenham writes, "You are no mere immigrant; you are a mighty prince among us. It should be noted that they speak of Avraham as a prince, while he described himself as an immigrant and they change Avraham's 'with you' into 'among us.' Their preposition suggests that Avraham is almost one of them. Despite the warmth of their reply, the Hittites, by omitting any mention of a plot of land, probably indicate their reluctance to transfer land to Avraham, for then he would no longer be a landless sojourner."1 James McKeown affirms this: "The Hittites insist that Avraham does not need to own property in order to bury his dead, since they will make their choicest sepulchres available to him. This seems a very generous offer, but it is probably an attempt to prevent Avaham from owning property. Perhaps the Hittites are concerned that if Avraham becomes a land-owner he will be a threat to them."2 Gerhard von Rad explains that "Avraham is not a full citizen, but a stranger within the city and its environs and of course not propertied. His situation would be significantly changed if he were to possess a piece of ground, even though quite small. Probably the consent of the entire population was necessary."3
This is a question of legal and social status, Bruce Waltke comments: "As a resident alien, he is not ordinarily entitled to purchase land ... The Hittites recognise G-d's blessing and protection on this alien. It is the landless one who bears all the promises and lives in hope."4 Walter Brueggemann echoes Waltke, adding, "It is the landless sojourner who is G-d's prince,"5 but that doesn't actually get Avraham anywhere with acquiring the land he knows that he needs. The Hittites are long on words, but as Leon Cass bluntly sums up, "Though they grant Avraham burial privileges, the Hittites deny him possession; the burial places will remain theirs."6 Despite the diplomatic language, the answer is 'no'.
Yeshua encountered the same resistance from the religious leaders in His time. The scribes and chief priests sent spies - men in disguise, pretending to be innocent - to ask Him, "Teacher, we know that You speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of G-d. Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not? (Luke 20:21-22, ESV). They offer flattery, then try to catch Him out in public. Their masters pretend to defer, but reject Yeshua's authority and mission, as they showed more directly when they challenged Him with, "By what authority are You doing these things, or who gave You this authority to do them? (Mark 11:28, ESV). In essence, they are saying the same thing as the Hittites: "You are not one of us, one of the religious landed gentry; we refuse to let you join our circle. We will not endorse your ministry." When faced with an obvious miracle - the healing of the man born blind, they question first the man, then his parents, then the man again in order to find a way to deny Yeshua's identity. The once-blind man challenges the authorities, saying, "We know that G-d does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of G-d and does his will, G-d listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from G-d, he could do nothing (John 9:31-33, ESV). The leaders respond by resorting to an irrational ad hominem attack - "You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us? (v. 34, ESV) - and throwing him out. Despite their previous conciliatory language talking of shabbat and giving glory to G-d, their answer too is 'no'.
How many times do we encounter the same situation today? Tolerance is the name of the public game, until people discover that we are believers in Yeshua, then they reject our identity, our actions, our message and our life. We should not be surprised. Peter and John were hauled in front of the Temple authorities after the healing of the lame man at the Gate Beautiful; "And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, 'By what power or by what name did you do this?'" (Acts 4:7, ESV). Unable to deny the miracle, they try to hush it up by closing the mouths of the witnesses: "What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name" (vv. 16-17, ESV). Peter and John quite rightly refuse to cooperate and hold a prayer meeting of the believers during which the house where they met shook as they prayed: "And now, L-rd, look upon their threats and grant to Your servants to continue to speak Your word with all boldness, while You stretch out Your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of Your holy servant Yeshua'" (vv. 29-30, ESV). We should do and expect no less.
1. - Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16-50, Word Biblical Commentary, Thomas Nelson, 1994, page 127.
2. - James McKeown, Genesis, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary, Eerdmans, 2008, page 120.
3. - Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, SCM Press, 1972, page 247.
4. - Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis - A Commentary, Zondervan, 2001, page 315,318.
5. - Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, John Knox Press, 1982, page 196.
6. - Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom, University of Chicago Press, 2003, page 364.
Further Study: John 1:19-28; 1 John 3:1-2
Application: Are you flattered into silence and then have your identity, values and message rejected? It's time to toughen up, refuse the flattery and insist on being who you know you are in Yeshua!
© Jonathan Allen, 2017
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