B'resheet/Genesis 23:4 "I am a stranger and a resident among you; ..."
This text starts with a contradiction. These are Abraham's words to the sons of Het in Hevron as he starts the negotiations to acquire the Machpelah cave in order to bury Sarah. The first word, , comes from the root - to sojourn or dwell temporarily - and has the meaning of a sojourner, a stranger or a foreigner. The second word, , comes from the root - to remain, stay, abide; to dwell or inhabit - and has the meaning of a settler, one who has arrived to stay, or a resident. How can Abraham be both a foreigner and a resident at the same time? While Rashi tries to reconcile the two positions as they are: "I am an alien from another land but I have settled among you", Richard Elliott Friedman suggests that "with the hendiadys1 of 'an alien and a sojourner', Abraham emphasises to the Hittites that he recognises that he is an outsider in their territory. Even though G-d has told him that the land of the Hittites will one day belong to his descendants, Abraham deals with them respectfully and courteously."Rashi follows that up by adding that Abraham is asking the Hittites which they would like him to be: "If you wish I will be an alien, but if not I will be a resident and take it by rights, for the Holy One, blessed be He, has said to me, 'To your offspring I will give this land.'"
TheRamban points out that in the Ancient Near East, there were separate burial plots for each family and then one more for any or all the non-residents. Sarna agrees that "a resident alien was unable to purchase real estate". This means that in completing such a purchase, Abraham's status would change from stranger to resident. Although Abraham is driven by the immediate need to purchase a secure burial site for Sarah, his request is rightly seen by the local residents as a larger matter; as a resident he has ties to the land and has certain entitlements and rights within society. Effectively, the Ramban paraphrases Abraham's request: "I want to be a dweller with security in the land, so give me a burying-place for an everlasting possession just as one of you." The Sforno borrows a verse to comment, "Since I am a stranger I have no gravesite here, as it is written 'And whom do you have here, that you have hewn a tomb for yourself here' (Isaiah 22:16, NASB). The reason I wish to purchase one is because I reside among you and my intention is to establish myself here in your midst." It didn't matter how much money or portable wealth Abraham had, that just made him rich; without a land holding he remained simply a rich foreigner, who pays the taxes and passes through.
There are a number of significant differences between an owner and a tenant. The tenant can simply give notice and move on, while the owner has to find a buyer before he can sell and takes the financial risk (or gain) on the market price. The tenant may be responsible for some interior decoration and looking after the property on a daily basis; the owner is responsible for upkeep, maintenance and all external or structural repairs. Even in a cemetery there are upkeep and maintenance issues such as cutting the grass around the burial plot, looking after flowers and a headstone. Buying property makes Abraham responsible for the land that he owns; he may have secured exclusive access to a burial site - when he is there to enforce it - but at the same time it is an anchor that limits his mobility and freedom. One of the commentators shrewdly asks, "Who possesses who?" Does Abraham now possess the field and the cave, or do they possess him?
Abraham had to make a choice: was the need for his own exclusive burial place for Sarah sufficiently important to warrant both the direct expense - and, it should be noted in passing, the price in question was exorbitant - and the ongoing issues of ownership that he was not only taking on for the rest of his life, but also bequeathing - whether they wanted them or not - to his descendants. At the immediate point of decision, the other issues of status and rights as a land-owner in society were probably secondary; Abraham was rightly concerned to show appropriate respect for the wife of his youth: they had probably been married for over 100 years! Care of the deceased remains a critically important part of Judaism to this day: burial within 24 hours of decease, not leaving the body unattended, ritual washing and cleansing, before a simple burial or interment, making sure that the grave is filled up before leaving.
We, on the other hand, make similar though smaller decisions every day without thinking of the consequences of our actions. Yeshua laid out the status issues for His disciples: "And I am no more in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world ... They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world" (John 17:11,16, NASB). There is a constant stream of choices to be made as we seek that balance between being "in" the world but not "of" the world. Do we buy a house, thus incurring that tie to a fixed place and maintenance costs and possibly the financial obligations of a mortgage2, but hope by so doing to accrue profit because the property's value will rise in the long term, providing capital to live on in our old age and something to leave for our children? Or do we rent accommodation, putting our money into someone else's pocket and never building up any equity, but remaining flexible in our movements and free of maintenance issues? Do we purchase life insurance to protect our family against untimely death, knowing that we are essentially betting the insurance company that we'll die before they think we will? Do we invest in a pension scheme to provide us with an income in retirement, even though we may never get there? These are all fairly large choices for most families and must be taken on an individual basis; none are essentially wrong in and of themselves, but the attitudes we have that inform the decisions may be more of an issue.
The smaller minute by minute decisions betray our thoughts and values. Are we driven by a need to own "stuff"? Must we have the latest mobile 'phone technology, taking each upgrade option as soon as it becomes available, so remaining locked into the longer contracts at higher rates, or will we stick with our old handset for another year or two, thus saving something on the monthly payments or the call charges, or if perhaps if the contract price isn't negotiable, taking a cash sum instead of the upgrade to give to charity or pay the fees for a month or two? Do we just have to have that shirt or dress that we saw someone else wearing, or do we already have a large enough wardrobe of perfectly comfortable and decent clothes? Will you take out a satellite television contract, even though you hardly have the time to watch the terrestrial channels, or will you spend the same amount of money (often less) sponsoring a child in a third-world country to provide them with food, clothing and a basic education?
Abraham's position was very clear: he needed a secure burial place for Sarah where her remains could rest undisturbed by the pressures of other strangers also needing burial places; he needed it in a hurry and he had the portable wealth to pay for the acquisition without taking on any debt. Nevertheless, he was open about his position: "I am a stranger and a resident among you". His heart and his motives were on his sleeve; he was not just looking for a real estate investment that also gave him status in society. Are our spending motives so clear and transparent? All too often they are - the world sees us coming and is happy to take our money, fund our debt and fob us off with cheap and tawdry possessions that have no lasting value and are designed to be obsolete or broken within the year. A Vineyard pastor in Birmingham, Alabama, caught many people on the hop with an observation he made in a sermon in the mid-90s: everything you buy now will end up in a garage or yard sale in a few years' time.
1. - A figure of speech in which two words connected by a conjuction are used to express a single notion that would normally be expressed by an adjective and a noun, such as grace and favour instead of gracious favour.
2. - Some argue that a domestic house mortgage is taking on debt and forbidden by (amongst others) the text "Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another" (Romans 13:8, NASB). Others argue that provided the value of the mortgage never exceeds the value of the property (including settlement costs), then the value of the asset is greater than the borrowing and can be sold at any time to repay the loan, so one is not actually in debt.
Further Study: Psalm 39:12; Psalm 119:19; Romans 12:5
Application: How do you spend your money? Is every decision carefully taken on the basis of need and value for money before the L-rd, or are you a bit of a sucker for impulse purchases that you often regret? Perhaps it's time to take the L-rd shopping with you and to overhaul your priorities to both save money and invest in His kingdom!
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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