This Torah portion is titled, “Chaiyei Sarah” which translates to, “The Life of Sarah” rather than, “The Death of Sarah”. God is the God of the living.
The events of the Akeidah now concluded, Avraham returns to find that his beloved wife Sarah has passed away. Imagine the turmoil and anguish he must have suffered. The joy of receiving his son back from the dead, metaphorically speaking, is now met with the continuing reality, if temporary, of sin’s conclusion. The death of Sarah illuminates the truth that the promised resurrection is now (Yitzchak) and yet future (Yeshua).
The Targum Yonatan explains that Satan had told Sarah that Avraham had slaughtered Isaac and upon hearing this she cried out in grief and died. This would explain why Avraham and Isaac were not present at her death: “Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and bewail her” (Genesis 23:2.) The Rabbis suggest that this is the reason that the account of Sarah’s death follows directly after Ha-Akeidah (The Binding of Isaac). The sages remind us however, that Sarah’s appointed time had come regardless of Satan’s role in her demise, and that her last breathe came with the knowledge that she had raised a son who was willing to give up even his life in the service of HaShem.
We should also note that this Torah portion is titled, “Chaiyei Sarah” which translates to, “The Life of Sarah” rather than, “The Death of Sarah”. God is the God of the living.
“But concerning the dead being raised, haven’t you read in the book of Moses about the burning bush? How God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He’s not the God of the dead, but of the living.” –Mark 12:26-27
Gen 23:1 And the life of Sarah (Princess/Queen/Matriarch) was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.
The years of Sarah’s life are intentionally divided by the author of the Torah and His scribe. In Hebrew the text reads, “Vayi-h’yu chayeiy Sarah meiah (100) shanah (years) v’esriym (20) shanah (years) v’sheva (seven) shanah (years)...”
Rashi suggests that the division of years reflects the progression of Sarah’s spiritual innocence and natural beauty.
In both Hebrew thought and literature the number 100 reflects the tenfold completion of the number 10, signifying a fulfilled promise or purpose. The number 20, being twice the completion of 10, may convey the birth and resurrection of Yitzchak, or the first and second fulfilments of the ram’s sacrifice, and the number 7, known by even the Torah novice as a number reflecting the present and perfect manifest k’vod (glory) of God (Shekhinah), conveys a sense of the perfected purpose of God and His constant presence in Sarah’s life to this point in her story, with the promise of eternal life in the presence of HaShem in the Olam Haba (World to come).
By all accounts, this is the passing on of Israel’s first Queen, and prior to this we have already received news of Israel’s second Queen, Rivkah (Rebecca), the one in whom the purposes of God are tightly bound.
Gen 23:2 And Sarah died in Kiriat-arba (City of four) - the same is Chevron (Company, Shared, Magician) - in the land of C’naan (lowland); and Avraham (Father of many nations) came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.
"And Avraham came from the mount of worship (Moriah), and found that she (Sarah) was dead, and he sat down to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.'' –Targum Yonatan
Hebron is situated in the hill country of Judah approximately 32 km south of Jerusalem. The Torah records it as the burial place of each of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel (Genesis 23:19; 35:27; 49:29-32; 50:13).
In laying their bones to rest at Hebron, the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel left a testimony of their faith in what God had promised would come. So too Joseph had instructed the sons of Israel with the prophetic words:
“And Joseph said to his brothers: 'I die; but God will surely remember you, and bring you up out of this land unto the land which He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.' And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying: 'God will surely remember you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.'” –Genesis 50:24-25 TLV
“And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him; for he had demanded an oath from the children of Israel, saying: 'God will surely remember you; and you shall carry up my bones away from here with you.'” –Exodus 13:19 TLV
Hebron was also the first seat of David’s kingdom (2 Samuel 2:1-4; 5:1-5).
Sarah died in a city named for a hero (Arba) of the Anakim (Long necked, giants) much later in Israel’s history (Joshua 14:15). It is also considered by Rashi to be a prophetic name in honour of the four (arba) great couples who were buried there: Adam and Eve (Pirke Eliezer, c. 20. & 36), Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah.
Gen 23:3 And Avraham rose up from before his dead, and spoke unto the children of Chet (Terror), saying:
We know from the latter verses that this was taking place at the city gate where business and legal matters were determined in the ancient eastern culture of Avraham’s time.
Sadly, today, Avraham’s children continue to rise up from before our dead in order to speak to the children of terror. Though the Historical Biblical record clearly testifies to Israel’s legal ownership of Sarah’s tomb and the surrounding land, Hebron remains in the hands (Palestinian Authority controlled land in the southern West Bank) of Israel’s enemies.
Chet was the son of C’naan, meaning lowland (Genesis 10:15). Thus we read, “The children of Terror from the lowland.”
Gen 23:4 'I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a burying-place with you, that I may bury my dead from before my face.'
In modern terms we would equate Avraham’s words with a resident immigrant, one who has come from another land but has made his new home among us.
Avraham shows tremendous humility in pleading for a tomb for his wife. After all, the land he is asking for has already been promised to him by God.
The Midrash illuminates further both the promise of God and the humility of His servant Avraham:
“You humiliated yourself before them; by your life, I shall make you a lord and prince over them” -Midrash Ha-Gadol
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik notes that Avraham expresses the two roles a Jew must play. On one hand, a resident and advocate for his country, who prays for the wellbeing of the nation where he lives (Jeremiah 29:7). While on the other hand, a Jew in this world is always an alien, his allegiance is to God and his goal is set out in the Torah [The goal of the Torah being Messiah (Romans 10:4)]. Rav Yosef concludes that a Jew must always be ready to be a lonely alien, resisting the culture that surrounds him and maintaining his unique identity and responsibility.
The book of Leviticus describes the people of Israel as resident aliens living on land owned by God (Leviticus 25:23). These same words are also used to convey the transience of human life and the unworthiness of humanity in the face of God’s holiness and provision (2 Chronicles 29:15).
Gen 23:5 And the children of Chet answered Avraham, saying to him: Gen 23:6 'Hear us, my lord (Adoni): you are a mighty prince among us; choose from our tombs, bury your dead; none of us shall withhold from you his tomb, so that you may bury your dead.'
The answer given by the children of Chet is blatant flattery. In fact, the subsequent bartering and the exorbitant asking price shows how little respect they had for Avraham, whom they saw as an immigrant usurper rather than an assimilated member of their society. The social and legal structure of the time saw this first verbal interaction as the initiation of a bargaining protocol. The niceties are simply that, cultural etiquette rather than genuine sentiment.
Gen 23:7 And Avraham rose up, and bowed down to the people of the land, even to the children of Chet. Gen 23:8 And he spoke with them, saying: 'If it be your mind that I should bury my dead from before my face, hear me, and petition Ephron (Calf-like, dust man, stag diving) the son of Zochar (Tawny, reddish grey, whiteness, sheen) on my behalf,
Avraham bows down out of respect and in humility. Though Ephron was present (v.10), Avraham follows the local custom and seeks out the approval of the elders of the city gate in order to broker a negotiation with Ephron.
The phrase, “bury my dead from before my face” infers that Avraham is aware that his wife Sarah, while no longer before his face, is none the less in the presence of HaShem and before His face. That Avraham and Sarah believed in the Olam Haba (World to come) is affirmed by the Jewish writer of the book of Hebrews:
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place he was to receive as an inheritance. He went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he migrated to the land of promise as if it were foreign, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob—fellow heirs of the same promise. 10 For he was waiting for the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive when she was barren and past the age, since she considered the One who had made the promise to be faithful. 12 So from one—and him as good as dead—were fathered offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and as uncountable as the sand on the seashore. 13 These all died in faith without receiving the things promised—but they saw them and welcomed them from afar, and they confessed that they were strangers and sojourners on the earth. 14 For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If indeed they had been thinking about where they had come from, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they yearn for a better land—that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.” –Hebrews 11:8-16 TLV
Gen 23:9 that he may give me the cave of Machpeilah (Double, folding), which he has, which is within the end of his field; for the full price let him give it to me in the midst of you for a possession of a burying-place.'
The name Machpeilah (Double) infers that there may have been two caves in the location or that the place would one day be home to the bodies of both Sarah and Avraham.
The petition for gifting the cave is qualified by the offer to pay a fair price, thus, “give” should be understood as the literal act of giving something over, rather than as a present, or gift that is given entirely at the expense of the giver.
The phrase, “let him give it to me in the midst of you as a possession” seeks to establish a rhythm of testimony that sees this transaction firmly attested to by witnesses as a form of security for the future generations of Avraham’s family line.
Gen 23:10 Now Ephron (Calf-like, dust man, stag diving) was sitting in the midst of the children of Chet (Terror); and Ephron the Cheeti (Descendant of terror) answered Avraham (Father of many nations) in the hearing of the children of Chet (Terror), even of all that went in at the gate of his city, saying: Gen 23:11 'No, my lord (Adoni), hear me: I give you the field, and the cave that is within it, I give it to you; in the presence of the sons of my people I give it to you; bury your dead.'
Ephron’s use of the epilate, “My lord” is equally as disingenuous as the general response of his clansmen. Again, he is either offering to give over the field with a price in mind, or he intends to gift it without a legal transaction taking place so that Avraham would become his tenant and the land would remain in Ephron’s family following Avraham’s death. This is not a genuine offer.
Ephron, realizing Avraham is intent on purchasing the cave and fields, calls on the witness of his clansmen in order to seek compensation for the cave and adds the field in order to glean a greater price. Anyone who has experienced the Jerusalem, Carmel or the Old Jaffa markets will have come across similar types of bartering protocol, a culture of wheeling and dealing. Ironically, the proclaiming of this deal before the witnesses at the city gate strengthens Avraham’s descendants’ legal claim to the cave and its surrounding land.
We should keep in mind that Avraham is negotiating for his wife’s burial place, he is recently bereaved and is surely in great turmoil and under weighty emotional stress due to the loss of his life-long partner and friend.
Anyone who would take advantage of a man during a time of grief is the very personification of unrighteousness.
Gen 23:12 And Avraham bowed down before the people of the land. Gen 23:13 And he spoke to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, saying: 'But if you will, I plead with you, hear me: I will give the price of the field; take it from me, and I will bury my dead there.'
Yet again the phrase, “in the hearing of the people of the land” reinforces the legal status of the land and those who possess it. Avraham continues as he has intended from the beginning, offering a fair price for the field, which also contains the caves.
Gen 23:14 And Ephron answered Avraham, saying unto him: Gen 23:15 'My lord (Adoni), listen unto me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between me and you? Therefore, bury your dead.'
This is where the true character of Ephron is exposed. He offers a price that is at least 20 times the value of the land according to the standard shekel. Rashi notes that it was a price great enough to purchase a huge estate. There is no question that Ephron is using the urgency of Avraham’s situation against him, and that he is taking advantage of a grieving man and his retinue. By way of qualification, Jeremiah the prophet redeems an entire ancestral land plot several times greater than this one for 17 shekels (Jeremiah 32:9), and on Mt Moriah, David purchases the threshing floor and oxen for 50 shekels (2 Samuel 24:24).
Those who wish to contest this conclusion site the 600 shekels David paid for the entire Temple mount (1 Chronicles 21:25). However, the Temple mount is not comparable to the plot at Hebron, either in area or in significance. They also note that Omri paid 6000 shekels for the virgin hill of Samaria (1 Kings 16:24) but fail to take into account the context of this act and the evil intent and money flaunting of the wicked king Omri. Even if one were to concede the point of these two higher costings, it becomes redundant when the identification of the common trade currency (referred to in the next verse as, “current money”) is made.
Gen 23:16 And Abvraham listened to Ephron; and Avraham weighed to Ephron the silver, which he had named in the hearing of the children of Chet, four hundred shekels of silver, current money with the merchant.
Avraham agreed to the amount, not out of desperation but with the knowledge that he was setting a legal precedent for his progeny. Though the price was exorbitant, Avraham considered this a physical representation of the greater future benefits that God had promised to his offspring.
The Hebrew, “oveir lasocheir” translated as, “current money” is a description of a larger trading silver shekel that became known later in history as a centenaria. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 87a) explains, each shekel used to pay for the plot was worth 2,500 standard shekels (Rashi). Thus, in the end, Avraham paid a total of one million standard shekels for the plot and caves. Further to my notes on the previous verse, this means that in reality the full price paid for Hebron is a least 166 times the amount of the highest price paid for land by a Jewish leader (of a different size and for different reasons) in the Torah (Omri). To put it into today’s terms, “Ephron ripped Avraham off in a big way!”
This transaction serves to illuminate the character of the Father of Trust (Avraham), while bringing into the light the true character of the Dust Man, a Child of Terror (Ephron of Chet). The former is a son of the heavens (God, life eternal), while the latter remains a son of the dust (death).
Gen 23:17 So the field of Ephron, which was in Machpeilah, which was before Mamre (Strength), the field, and the cave which was within it, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all the border thereof round about, were secured (yakam: rose, elevated) Gen 23:18 unto Avraham for a possession in the presence of the children of Chet, before all that went in at the gate of his city.
Finally the land and its caves are secured legally before Ephron, the people of Chet and the elders of the gate and are recognized as belonging to Avraham and his offspring for a possession. No longer is it land upon which Avraham sojourns, it is now his lawful homeland. This historical record which is over 4000 years old is irrefutable proof of Israel’s ancestral claim to the caves and surrounding land in the city of Hebron.
This location is one of modern Judaism’s four holiest sites and is currently part of the Palestinian authority controlled land of the southern West Bank. The 400 Jewish settlers who live there have need of the constant protection of up to 3,000 IDF (Israeli Defence Force) soldiers and this holy place has two separate worship areas, one for Jews and one for Muslims, kept separated by a bullet proof glass wall. Access for the average Jew is difficult at best and at worst, life threatening. The irony of calling the Jews who live in Hebron “settlers” is not lost on this writer.
The Midrash states that the caves and surrounding land in Hebron are one of the three places that Scripture identifies as being testimony of the Jews’ irrefutable right to the possession of the land of Israel. The Midrash goes on to say that the cave of Machpeilah, the site of the Temple and the tomb of Joseph were all purchased without counter offers being made and with legal currency.
The phrase, “were confirmed/secured” uses the Hebrew, “yakam” literally, “rose”. Thus the Midrash interprets it to mean that through Avraham’s purchasing of the land it became elevated because it passed from the hands of the commoner Ephron into the hands of the king Avraham.
Gen 23:19 And after this, Avraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpeilah before Mamre - the same is Chevron - in the land of C’naan. Gen 23:20 And the field, and the cave that is within, were made secure (yakam: rose, elevated) unto Avraham for a possession as a burying-place by the children of Chet.
© Yaakov Brown 2016
Spiritual leader of Beth Melekh Community, Auckland, Aotearoa, N.Z.