The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Parashat Hayye Sarah--5758 (1997)
Abraham's Dealings with the Sons of Heth
Prof. Ze'ev Safrai
Land of Israel Studies
The story of the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah which opens our parashah raises certain difficulties. An entire chapter is devoted to the commercial "give-and-take" between Abraham and the sons of Heth, with much repetition and long-windedness-- no less than three rounds of negotiations are recorded in the text. By the same token, this is clearly a significant story which demands close scrutiny into the intentions of Scripture.
According to the Sages the cave of Machpelah is one of three places purchased by our ancestors so that the gentiles could not claim we had stolen them. It is not crystal-clear that this argument convinces the gentiles, and perhaps we need to re-convince ourselves of our claim to the land via this story. A careful explanation of the story will deal with the problems we raised above and will contribute to the history of the settlement of the Land of Israel.
First, we must clarify some terminology: Biblical law distinguishes between two types of land: sdeh ahuzah -- a "field of possession," and sdeh mikneh -- a field which has been purchased. The laws of the jubilee year (shmitta) and the laws of assessment (arachin) depend on this distinction. The laws of the jubilee year state that a sdeh ahuzah, a field possessed in perpetuity, returns to its owners in the jubilee year. "According to the number of years after the jubilee thou shalt buy (tikneh) of thy neighbour... According to the multitude of the years thou shalt increase the price (miknato) thereof... (Lev. 25:15-16). In contrast, "In this year of jubilee ye shall return every man unto his possession" (ahuzato) (v. 13). Thus, sdeh ahuzah is that which a person possessed for many generations. Such a field may be sold for a specified period of time, during which it is called a purchased field, sdeh mikneh.
This distinction also appears in the laws concerning assessment: "If a man shall sanctify unto the Lord part of the field of his possession (ahuzato)..." (Lev. 27:16), "and if he sanctify unto the Lord a field which he hath bought (miknato), which is not of the field of his possession (ahuzato)..." (v. 22). The prophet Ezekiel also uses the same terminology (Ezek. 46:16-17).
Now let us look at the negotiations between Abraham and the sons of Heth: Sarah has died, and Abraham seeks to bury her. He turns to the elders of Hebron, requesting them, "Give me a possession of a burying-place-- ahuzat-kever" (Gen. 23:4). Though the immediate reason is that he needs to bury Sarah, he uses the opportunity to request a possession, a field that would henceforth become his inheritance for all generations.
The sons of Heth are willing to enable Abraham to bury his dearly departed as an act of charity, without giving him rights to the land: "In the choice of our sepulchers bury thy dead [note the use of the singular]; none of us shall withhold from thee his sepulcher, but that thou mayest bury thy dead" (v. 6). The sepulcher would still belong to its owner. It would be as if Abraham were part of the owner's family or affiliated to the family, but he would have no future rights to the land. The next time he had to bury someone, negotiations would begin all over again. A polite way of refusing, but a refusal all the same. At best the sons of Heth are offering Abraham the status of affiliate with an established family, or of a subject without rights to the land.
Abraham does not give up and pretends not to have understood. He requests to buy a specific plot, the field of Ephron, saying, "for the full price let him give it to me in the midst of you for a possession of a burying-place" (v. 9). In his second request, Abraham tries to use his money to persuade the sons of Heth. Ephron, however, reiterates the stand previously taken. He is willing to have Sarah buried in his sepulcher. He is even willing to go somewhat further: "The field give I thee, and the cave that is therein, I give it thee, ... give I it thee..." (v. 11). Thus Ephron offers a gift, something whose status is far inferior to that of a purchased field (sdeh mikneh).
Abraham must make a partial concession. He no longer asks for the field as a possession, but is willing to settle for a purchased field. He offers a (rather high) price and buys the field. What is the legal status of the Cave of Machpelah? Scripture states explicitly, "So the field of Ephron became purchased (lemikneh) by Abraham as witnessed by the sons of Heth" (vv. 17-18). Thus the negotiations conclude with a compromise. Abraham does not receive the field as a possession, but does obtain rights to the field through purchase.
Now we understand why Abraham addressed the tribal elders, and not Ephron directly. The right of possession over a field is not a matter of private purchase and requires the consent of the entire tribe. Moreover, Sarah's death was not sudden. She was, after all, 127 years old, and Abraham was no youngster himself. Why had he not seen to a burial place for himself ahead of time? In that era much of the highlands was unclaimed territory, and not far from Hebron lay expanses of desert; so Abraham could easily have found himself a rocky field with no owner. It appears, however, that he had been awaiting the opportunity to purchase a plot and obtain the status of landowner.
In so doing he took a great risk. What would have happened if the sons of Heth had flatly refused? The negotiations concluded without Abraham achieving all he wished. He had sacrificed that which was dearest to him of all, yet even Sarah's death did not afford him the opportunity to acquire a field as an inherited possession but only as purchased land.
History, however, is long, and failure may be temporary. The Torah states in summary that the "field and the cave that is therein were made sure unto Abraham for a possession of a burying-place (la-ahuzat kever) by the children of Heth" (v. 20). Ostensibly this contradicts the earlier statement that the field was only purchased by Abraham (vv. 17-18). This point, however, can be clarified by viewing verse 20 as a summary of the transactions from a later, historical perspective. For all their endeavors, the sons of Heth did not succeed; ultimately the Jews established an iron-clad claim to the field and the cave -- a possession in perpetuity in every respect.
Clearly the sons of Heth were not familiar with the laws of the jubilee year. Nevertheless, the distinction between ownership by heredity verses ownership by purchase was apparently commonplace in Canaan. The Halakhah, in the laws of the jubilee year, gave this distinction legal significance in Jewish practice. To put it differently, Canaanite practice recognized fields held in possession, i.e., fields owned by one's ancestors, and purchased fields, meaning fields whose ownership only recently passed from hand to hand. The laws of the jubilee year in the Bible used terms reflecting accepted social and legal practice, but gave the concepts new and elevated content. According to Biblical law, a field possessed by one person can never become another person's hereditary possession, and a purchased field can never become a field owned in perpetuity. In Canaanite law, however, it appears that on rare occasions such transfer was indeed possible. Thus Abraham took advantage of a legal and social loophole to acquire the Cave of Machpelah in perpetuity.
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