Abraham’s Story Ends

Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Southern View
Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where Abraham and Sarah are buried. Photo by Utilisateur:Djampa – User:Djampa – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7964820

It was very important that Isaac have a wife. That has been done. The next episode is written like an archive record according to my NRSV Study Bible (Genesis 25:1-18). This is an example of how the Bible was not written simply by divine dictation. The authors had written and oral sources they used and maybe edited as well. The archive gives Abraham’s marriage to Keturah, their descendants, his death and burial, and the descendants of Ishmael.

Another Wife, Whose Name Was Keturah

Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah.

(Gen 25:1-2 NRS)

Another wife, and he had six children with her. I assume this was after Sarah’s death, and after Isaac married Rebekah (Genesis 24:66-67). This would make him over one hundred forty years old. It took one hundred years for him to have one child with Sarah. Now he has six with his new wife in just a few years, relatively.

Not sure why he felt the need for it. He was too weak to travel in the previous chapter, but then he’s healthy enough to marry again and start bearing children to another woman? Again, the details of Abraham’s story are not always consistent. But if we allow that he had another revival of health, like the one that produced Isaac, what will become of these children?

Jokshan was the father of Sheba and Dedan. The sons of Dedan were Asshurim, Letushim, and Leummim. The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida, and Eldaah. All these were the children of Keturah.

(Gen 25:3-4 NRS)

The sons of Midian are the most significant of this group. Moses’s father-in-law, Jethro, was a Midianite. Despite that, they often tried to thwart the Israelites during their wandering in the Wilderness (Num 22:4; cf. Jdg 6:1).

Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, while he was still living, and he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country.

(Gen 25:5-6 NRS)

Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. We saw how stingy Sarah was about giving anything to Hagar and Ishmael, even food and water, when she sent them away. Abraham gave nothing to his other sons as far as inheritance. But he gave them gifts while he was still living. I think, without Sarah to oppose him, he was probably more generous with these gifts than he was with Hagar and Ishmael. But Sarah’s word, “The son(s) of the slave woman will not inherit with my son,” prevailed (21:10).

The sons of his concubines; why does it give the plural, concubines? Hagar was called both Abraham’s wife and his concubine. The same is happening with Keturah. Maybe that means both Hagar and Keturah. Did he give any gifts to Ishmael after Sarah died? As a writer, I would like to play with that possibility and imagine Ishmael’s reaction when he receives the gifts.

An Old Man Full of Years

This is the length of Abraham’s life, one hundred seventy-five years. Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people.

(Gen 25:7-8 NRS)

One hundred seventy-five years was believed to be an above average, but still normal, life span in the age of the patriarchs.

Abraham breathed his last …. There are a number of English expressions that come from the Bible (see v. 17; 49:33). I think this might be one of them.

…and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years. This is the fulfillment of the promise God made him in the covenant. “As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age” (Gen 15:15 NRS).

…and was gathered to his people, a biblical euphemism for death and burial. Cf. Gen 25:17; 35:29; 49:29, 33.

Isaac and Ishmael Buried Him

His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried, with his wife Sarah. 

(Gen 25:9-10 NRS)

Despite his troubled history with his father, Ishmael was there to bury him with Isaac. In the cave of Machpelah…the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites. See 23:16-18. He was buried there with his wife Sarah.

tomb of Abraham, northwestern view
Tomb of Abraham, photo by By A ntv – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12042233

There is a lot left out, particularly any tension between Isaac and Ishmael. Compare that with all the detail of how Abraham bought this cave as a family burial plot, or how Abraham’s servant vowed (TMI there), went to Haran, and brought back a wife for Isaac. Those conversations are recorded in detail. There is literally nothing of the conversation between these two half-brothers. The archivists who recorded this were not concerned with that. They were only concerned with the facts: How old Abraham was when he died, where he was buried, and who was there.

After the death of Abraham God blessed his son Isaac. And Isaac settled at Beer-lahai-roi.

(Gen 25:11 NRS)

Beer-lahai-roi, the place where the angel of the LORD saved Hagar when she was still pregnant with Ishmael (16:10-14), is where Isaac settled. Did Ishmael see this as one more thing his half-brother took from him?

The Twelve Princes of Ishmael

These are the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s slave-girl, bore to Abraham.

These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages and by their encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes.

(Gen 25:12-16 NRS)

This is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham

As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.

(Gen 17:20 NRS)

… and Hagar:

The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.”

(Gen 16:10 NRS)

Ishmael had twelve sons, who became twelve princes according to their tribes, like Jacob later. The descendants of Ishmael are called Ishmaelites and Hagrites (Psa 83:6; 1 Chr 5:19). The names are also recorded in Chronicles, along with each of their descendants (1 Chr 1:29-43).

The Handmaid and Her Son

Depending on the situation, Hagar is referred to as Abraham’s wife, concubine, or Sarah’s slave girl. It reminds me of how Offred was treated by the Waterfords in The Handmaid’s Tale. Fred sometimes wanted a relationship with Offred and at times engaged in activities outside the bounds of her role as a “concubine,” almost like he wanted her to be a second wife. Serena treated her at best like a concubine and at worst like a slave girl. The impression I get from the texts regarding Hagar is pretty much the same in her relations with Abraham and Sarah.

The Ishmaelites were known as nomads, but they also had villages and encampments, like the Dothraki in Game of Thrones. {Yeah, I’m a nerd. You got a problem with that?}

From Havilah to Shur

(This is the length of the life of Ishmael, one hundred thirty-seven years; he breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people.)

They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria; he settled down alongside of all his people.

(Gen 25:17-18 NRS)

Ishmael’s death is recorded in archival fashion similar to Abraham’s (cf. vv. 7-8). They settled from Havilah to Shur. Just prior to King David, this territory was settled by the Amalekites (1 Sam 15:7).

The land of Havilah has several possible locations, as this map indicates.

Map of ancient tribes includes various Havilah locations
Havilah shown in modern Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia.

Here, it appears to be the territory in present day Saudi Arabia and Yemen. It is mentioned as part of the Garden of Eden, where the river Pishon once flowed (Gen 2:11). A ancient source called Pseudo-Philo said this land exported jewels to the Amorites, who used them in making their idols.

Shur means “wall.” The location is given as opposite Egypt.

Map, likely location of Shur
They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria; (Gen 25:18 NRS)

In the direction of Assyria would indicate the northeastern border of Egypt, as Easton’s Bible Dictionary (1893) says.

Shur is “a part, probably, of the Arabian desert, on the north-eastern border of Egypt, giving its name to a wilderness extending from Egypt toward Philistia (Gen. 16:7; 20:1; 25:18; Ex. 15:22). The name was probably given to it from the wall which the Egyptians built to defend their frontier on the north-east from the desert tribes. This wall or line of fortifications extended from Pelusium to Heliopolis.”

-cited in Shur, Wikipedia

He Settled Down Opposite All His People

The Egyptians are his people, because his mother was Egyptian. The land of Shur borders Egypt to the northwest. Isaac and his descendants are his people, because they have the same father. The land of Havilah borders the Negeb desert, where Isaac settled. Is this location information only?

There is another possible definition of this sentence. It could read “He fell down in opposition to all his people,” according to my NRSV Study Bible note. This is reflected in some translations.

“He settled in defiance of all his relatives” (Gen 25:18 NAS).

“And they lived in hostility toward all the tribes related to them” (Gen 25:18 NIV).

Alongside of, or against His People?

Like the word “opposite” in English, the Hebrew phrase `al-penei can be benign, “alongside,” or “facing towards.” In that sense, it would only mean they share a border, like Georgia is opposite Alabama and South Carolina. Or it can carry the more malevolent sense of being “in opposition to” or “at odds with.” It is used twice in this verse, where the Ishmaelites settled “opposite” Egypt and “all his people.” Did they simply live alongside Egypt and Isaac (later part of Israel)? Or is this referring to the hostile relations they had at times with both Egypt and Israel?

My conclusion is this verse means the Ishmaelites shared a border with Egypt and Isaac’s land, which would later become part of the nation of Israel (See Translation Notes). However, there are other texts that indicate hostile relations between the Ishmaelites and their neighbors. Even the name Shur (meaning “wall”) refers to a border wall Egypt built for protection against raids from its neighbors, who could be the Ishmaelites, or alternatively, the Hyksos or the Amalekites (1 Sam 15:7). Kedar and Nebaioth (two tribes of Ishmael) sometimes were hostile to the nation of Israel (Isa 21:16-17; 60:7; Jer 49:28; cf. Gen 28:9; 36:3).

So perhaps the double meaning of `al-penei is intentional. During times in their history when relations were friendly or at least neutral, it would mean “alongside of.” During times when relations were antagonistic, it would mean “in hostility.”

The End

Abraham’s saga began with a genealogy (Gen 11:10-32) and now ends with a genealogy (25:12-18). “The emphasis here is on the secondary lines of Abraham’s—those displaced by Isaac” (HC Study Bible, 25:1-18 note). We have his children by Keturah and the descendants of Ishmael. This completes the character study of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Lot and his daughters, based on the Biblical material. There are other sources we could consult about them: Rabbinic commentaries, the Koran, archeology, and Ancient Near Eastern Texts (ANET). But the Biblical material has given us quite a bit. There are others I’m not naming, like Isaac and Rebekah, because their stories have not finished.

For Writers: Choosing a POV Character

If I were to make a work of fiction based on these stories, I would look for a Point of View (POV) character. Abraham would be difficult. Even though he’s the main character, and he was there for all of it (except his death and burial), it’s a bit daunting to try to get inside the head of someone who plays such a big role in the Bible. Sarah would be difficult for the same reason, and because after going through this story in detail, I have less sympathy for her overall. Notice, I didn’t say no sympathy. I said less sympathy. I would want to portray them both honestly, flaws and all, not excusing their bad behavior at times, but trying to make the reader sympathize with them in spite of that.

Most of my favorite biblical or historical fiction is not from the POV of one of the big names but rather from someone close to them. Eliezer of Damascus would be a good candidate in that vein. Or one of the unnamed slaves of Abraham or Sarah. Or one of the co-religionists, who followed Abraham and Sarah from Haran because they worshiped the same god. If I chose Hagar or Ishmael, I would have to make the story about them, with Abraham and Sarah as secondary characters, who could recede into the background after they were sent away. I would have a hard time making Hagar the POV character. She is much more fascinating than I realized. But I feel Margaret Atwood has already done a great job capturing all the complexities of her character in June/Offred. {Disclaimer: Atwood never claimed June was based on Hagar, but I say the similarities are undeniable.}


Who would you choose as a POV character? Would you choose more than one (that will make it more difficult to publish today, just so you know)? Personally, I know I couldn’t do Abraham’s whole story from Ishmael’s point of view (He was only with his father for about seventeen years). But he would make a great POV character at least for the time he was with Abraham and Sarah.

“Props” for Ishmael

I think Ishmael would make a fascinating character, because I haven’t seen a serious in-depth story done of him as biblical fiction, and because he is the unwanted stepchild in this story. A troubled childhood has so much potential for character development. It could not have been easy growing up knowing he was his father’s plan B. Plan C, actually, because before he was born, Abraham had made his servant, Eliezer of Damascus, his heir in lieu of a son of his own issue (Gen 15:2). As his stepmother, Sarah probably loved him until Isaac was born. What happens to Plan C when Plan A suddenly becomes reality? If he picked on Isaac a little, it was probably the frustration of losing Abraham and Sarah to their natural son.

Then he learned at an early age that masters have absolute power over their slaves when Sarah insisted casting them out into the Wilderness, along with his mother, and Abraham obeyed. He learned then he was going to have to be tough to survive in this world. There were only two people he could count on, his natural mother and himself. And one other, El-roi, “the God Who Sees.” And so he spent about seventy years of his living “alongside” his father and half-brother. And after all that, he showed up for his father’s funeral.

That rough childhood prepared him for life in the wilderness (Gen 21:20). All that happened to him, fair or not, made him into the man he became: a wild ass of a man, strong, fiercely independent, and able to survive harsh conditions. Those details alone are enough to create a fascinating character.

Conclusion

I will save any further conclusions for the next post. I thought I already knew these characters, but they have all surprised me again and again on this extended in-depth character study. I hope you got something out of it as well.  

Translation Notes

I include these notes for people who (like me) love dissecting the original languages. If that’s not your bag, I put the pertinent information in subheadings and bold text.

They Settled from Havilah to Shur

וַיִּשְׁכְּנ֙וּ מֵֽחֲוִילָ֜ה עַד־שׁ֗וּר (Gen 25:18 WTT)—vayyishkenu mechavilah `ad-shur.

They settled from Havilah to Shur.

Hol8596  שָׁכַן (shakan) Settle or dwell. {verb qal waw consec imperfect 3rd person masculine plural}

It looks like there is a puncta extraordinaria over “Shur.” In some cases, this can indicate a significant difference, as you saw if you read my post on Lot’s Daughters. However, none of the commentaries pointed it out here, so it’s probably not important. My guess is it only calls for a defective spelling (without the vav).

Opposite Egypt

עַל־פְּנֵ֣י מִצְרַ֔יִם (Gen 25:18 WTT)– `al-penei mitzrayim.

Opposite Egypt, or alongside Egypt.

`al-penei, lit. “against the face of.” Halladay’s lexicon says,

15. in the face of, in the sight of, before 2S 1518; in front of 1K 63; opposite to Gn 2319; against = to the disadvantage of Dt 2116.

(pg 294)

BDB says,

(d) of localities, in front of, mostly (but not always: v. GFM:Ju., p. 351) = east of, 1 K 6:3 the porch in front of, etc., v:3, 7:6, 8:8, 2 Ch 3:17, Ez 42:8; Gn 16:12 על־פני כל־אחיו ישׁכן (cf. 25:18 b), perh. (Di al.) with collateral idea of defiance;

The “collateral idea of defiance” is most significant. He could have been both alongside of his people and in defiance of them.

In the Direction of Assyria

בֹּאֲכָ֖ה אַשּׁ֑וּרָה (Gen 25:18 WTT)—bo’achah ’ashshurah.

Hol838  אַשּׁוּר  (‘ashur) a proper noun referring either to the city of Asshur or (most likely in this case) the territory of Assyria; “directional heh” at the end makes it “to Asshur” or “to Assyria.”

In the direction of Assyria, lit. “as you go to Assyria” (or “to Asshur”).

Hol975  בּוא (bo’) Go in, come, or arrive. {verb qal infinitive construct; suffix 2nd person masculine singular}  

BDB says,

e. † in phr. עַד־בּוֹאֲךָ עַזָּה Ju 6:4 cf. 11:33, 1 S 17:52, 2 S 5:25, 1 K 18:46 (עַד־בֹּאֲכָה) until thou comest to = as far as; so also בּוֹאֲךָ (בֹּאֲכָה) alone, = as far as, or in the direction of, Gn 10:19, 10:19, 10:30, 13:10, 25:18, 1 S 27:8 (all sq. ךָה loc.) 1 S 15:7; so לְבאֹ חֲמָת Nu 13:21, 34:8, Ez 48:1, cf. Ez 47:15 (in a different connexion לָבוֹא אפרתה Gn 35:16, 48:7);

He Settled Down alongside of All His People

עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־אֶחָ֖יו נָפָֽל׃ (Gen 25:18 WTT)—`al-penei kal-echav naphal.

…he settled down alongside of all his people.  (Gen 25:18 NRS)

`al-penei, see above.

kal-’echav, lit. “all his kindred.”

The wording is almost the same as 16:12, the only difference being the verb is shakan “to settle” rather than naphal “to fall.” There, the footnote reads:

The same phrase is used of the lands of Ishmael’s descendants in 25:18. It can be translated “in opposition to” (Deut 21:16; Job 1:11; 6:28; 21:31), but here more likely means that Ishmael’s settlement was near but not in the promised land.

-YouVersion, NABRE Gen 16:12 note

He “Fell” or He “Settled”?

Naphal, lit. “he fell (down or upon),” can carry the meaning of death (1 Sam 31:8; Deut 21:1; Jdg 3:25). In fact, it was translated that way in the King James Version, … he died in the presence of all his brethren. (Gen 25:18 KJV). John Calvin commented that was how most translations read it in his time.

The Geneva Study Bible reads that way, but adds the note, “He means that his lot fell to dwell alongside his brothers as the angel promised [Gen 16:12].” They stress he died there because it was his home.

The NRSV is consistent with most modern translations, where the verb is understood to mean “he settled (down),” or perhaps “he fell upon,” as in “he raided” or “he plundered,” rather than “he died.” Though it is a consensus, it appears to be a recent development.

Halladay’s lexicon says naphal can mean “fall,” in both literal and metaphorical senses. This can include “fall upon,” as in “make a raid” or “attack” (Jos 11:7; Job 1:15).

Hol5626  נָפַל  (naphal) “abs. make a raid Jb 115; … settle opposite Gn 2518.”

However, with `al-penei, it means “settle opposite.” BDB also believes naphal here means “settle Gn 25:18 (J).”

So while naphal can in certain contexts mean “raid” or “die,” these two Hebrew lexicons believe it carries the benign sense of settling in a place opposite all his people.

This could also apply to Genesis 16:12, which is perhaps best translated, … alongside all his kindred shall he encamp (Gen 16:12 NAB), rather than … and he shall live at odds with all his kin. (Gen 16:12 NRS). See https://www.bible.com/bible/463/GEN.16.nabre, note on v. 12.

References

Genesis, the Land of Havilah, and its Gold.” (A paper prepared for Christian businessman Graham Daniels, retrieved from Genesis Science Research).

Joshua J. Mark. “Hyksos.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. February 15, 2017.

Topical Bible: Havilah.” Biblehub.com

Topical Bible: Shur.” Biblehub.com

Verse by Verse Commentary: Genesis 25:18.” Studylight.org.

Where is the Land of Havilah in the Bible Located?” Answers.com.

Who Were the Amalekites?” Got Questions.

Wikipedia

Havilah

Shur

From Seinfeld, George explains "shiksappeal" to Elaine

Sarah Dies and Isaac Needs a Wife

In Genesis 23, Abraham moved away from Beer-sheba. While he was there, he passed off Sarah to king Abimelech as his sister, had a son with Sarah at an impossible age, sent Hagar and Ishmael away at Sarah’s insistence, made a covenant of friendship with Abimelech, and nearly sacrificed Isaac on Mount Moriah. Now, he has brought Sarah and his household to Kiriath-arba, also called Hebron.

Map of Hebron, a.k.a., Kiriath-arba, and surrounding area
Hebron, a.k.a., Kiriath-arba, located about 20 miles south of Jerusalem.

He and Sarah have some history there. After he and Lot separated, he settled there at the Oaks of Mamre nearby (Gen 13:18). They were living there when he had to rescue Lot from the kings of Goiim (Genesis 14:1-15).

Sarah lived one hundred twenty-seven years; this was the length of Sarah’s life. And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.

(Gen 23:1-2 NRS)

One hundred twenty-seven years, so Abraham is one hundred thirty-six, and Isaac is thirty-six.

Kiriath-arba, named for Arba, the greatest of the Anakim (Gen 14:15). The last time we saw Abraham and Sarah in this area, Abraham hosted three angels before they went to Sodom (Genesis 18). This was when Sarah heard the angel of the LORD promise she would have a son and name him Isaac. Abraham was ninety-nine, and Sarah was ninety. They had moved to Beer-sheba by the time Isaac was born (Gen 20:1; 21:1). So it’s been thirty-six or thirty-seven years since then.

Though they have not been here in a while, the place has some memories for them. Perhaps he came because he Sarah asked him to bury her here.

Find the Anachronism

Abraham rose up from beside his dead, and said to the Hittites, “I am a stranger and an alien residing among you; give me property among you for a burying place, so that I may bury my dead out of my sight.”

The Hittites answered Abraham, “Hear us, my lord; you are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold from you any burial ground for burying your dead.”

(Gen 23:3-6 NRS)

The Hittites, a bit of a misnomer. The Hittites, like the Philistines, did not show up here until several centuries later. The Hebrew is literally “sons of Heth,” meaning “pre-Israelite inhabitants of Palestine” (HC NRSV 23:3 note; see also 10:15). On the history of the Hittites in the region, see Eze 16:3, 45.

I am a stranger and an alien residing among you. Kindness to the stranger and alien was always important to Abraham and his sense of right and wrong. Even Lot, who seems to have been corrupted by living among the Sodomites, never forgot that. My HarperCollins NRSV study note says “Ownership of burial land is a crucial step in establishing legal residence” (23:1-20 note). We are starting to see the of fulfillment of God’s promise to give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants. Abraham has the well of Beer-sheba, and now the cave of Machpelah.

A Hero’s Welcome

Even though Abraham has not been there in decades, the sons of Heth have not forgotten him. They speak to him with the same respect he shows them. When Abraham rescued Lot from kidnappers, I wonder if some of their children were among the others he rescued. That seems the most likely explanation for calling him a mighty prince among us.

Bury my dead. He doesn’t say, “bury my wife.” The phrase suggests a legal formula.

Abraham rose and bowed to the Hittites, the people of the land. He said to them, “If you are willing that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me, and entreat for me Ephron son of Zohar, so that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he owns; it is at the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me in your presence as a possession for a burying place.”

Now Ephron was sitting among the Hittites; and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, of all who went in at the gate of his city, “No, my lord, hear me; I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it; in the presence of my people I give it to you; bury your dead.”

(Gen 23:7-11 NRS)

Even though Ephron seems to know him well, Abraham speaks almost as if he doesn’t recognize him. Entreat for me…, also suggests a legal formula or ritual.

Abraham wanted the cave of Machpelah to bury his dead. He knows Ephron son of Zohar owns this land. The names are Semitic, not Hittite. Cf. 26:34; 2 Sa 11:3.

All who went in at the gate of the city, where business transactions often took place. This is likely a formal description of the elders of the city, who judged or decided official matters. The way they speak, especially Abraham, sounds very formal, as if this were a familiar ceremony to the sons of Heth.

Abraham offers to buy it for the full price, because he needs a burying place. But instead, Ephron offers to give it to him. He’s being very generous.

Listen to Me! No, You Listen to Me!

Then Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. He said to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, “If you only will listen to me! I will give the price of the field; accept it from me, so that I may bury my dead there.”

Ephron answered Abraham, “My lord, listen to me; a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver—what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.”

(Gen 23:12-15 NRS)

Business in the Middle East almost always involves haggling. Usually the buyer tries to argue down the price, and the seller argues for more. But here Abraham wants to pay more, and Ephron is trying to give it away. Abraham wants to give the price of the field, so that I may bury my dead there. Ephron says he can bury his dead there. But he doesn’t want to take any money. “I give it to you,” he says. “Bury your dead.”

A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver…, Ephron must be fairly wealthy, because four hundred pieces of silver was nothing to sneeze at. It only took thirty pieces of silver for Judas to sell out Jesus.

What is that between you and me? This is something you say to someone who has been a friend for a long time. He’s saying, “Four hundred shekels of silver is nothing compared to our friendship. Just take it. It’s yours. Bury your dead.”

An Agreement Is Reached

Abraham agreed with Ephron; and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants.

(Gen 23:16 NRS)

Abraham agreed, lit. heard. Cf. vv. 6, 11, 13; Translation Notes. Ephron was willing to give him the land for free, but Abraham still insisted on paying. This reminds me of the time when King David wanted to secure the Ark of the Covenant on Mount Zion. A man named Araunah was keeping it on his threshing floor. David wanted to buy the land to build an altar to the LORD and make burnt offerings there, before taking the Ark to the place God had chosen. Araunah recognized how important this was not just to David but to the whole nation. He offered his threshing floor to David for free, like Ephron did for Abraham. But David said,

“No, but I will buy them from you for a price; I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing.”

(2Sa 24:24 NRS)

I think Abraham felt the same way. He had been married to Sarah for a hundred years, maybe a little more, and he did not want to bury her in a place that cost him nothing.

So 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, throughout its whole area, passed to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, in the presence of all who went in at the gate of his city.

After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in it passed from the Hittites into Abraham’s possession as a burying place.

(Gen 23:17-20 NRS)

 Abraham has secured a burying place for his wife and himself. He will later be buried in the same cave (Gen 25:9-10; 49:29-32). And he got more than just the cave. He got the trees in the field too. In the last post, I talked about Abraham planting a tree. Here, he and Sarah wanted to claim a burial plot with trees around them. I bet they appreciated trees more than most people today, considering they spent a lot of time in the desert. Trees gave beauty, shade, and sign of life in the land.

For Writers: Humanizing Your Heroes

This scene is great for humanizing Abraham. We see him grieving the death of his wife. He knows exactly where he wants to bury her. The text doesn’t say Sarah requested this, but it’s not hard to imagine she did. We see his friendly relations with the people of Kiriath-arba. Though Abraham is a stranger and an alien among the Sons of Heth, they regard him as “a mighty prince among us.”

The text says, “He rose up from beside his dead” (23:3). He is still keeping her corpse. I see no indication how long this is, but he goes straight from a vigil beside her corpse to the sons of Heth. He says he wants this place to bury Sarah “so that I may bury my dead out of my sight” (23:4). Do you feel the pain in that? I sure do.

His negotiation with Ephron is the opposite of normal bartering. The seller tries to give it away, but the buyer insists on paying fair market value. But it is exactly the kind of negotiation that would happen between friends. Ephron recognizes Abraham’s loss. He is in a position to offer a special kindness to his friend. “You need to bury your wife, so go ahead. Take the field. It’s yours. Don’t worry about payment. Between you and me, this is nothing.” But Abraham can’t bring himself to accept it. He cannot bury his wife in a plot of land that costs him nothing. It’s a very touching moment.

A mighty prince like Abraham of course becomes known for doing great things. I think their favor and friendship to Abraham goes back to the incident where Abraham rescued Lot from the kings of Goiim. Abraham was actually living among the Oaks of Mamre nearby when this happened. I believe some of these Sons of Heth were among those taken captive. That is why they called him “a mighty prince.” And it’s possible that among them, his legend has grown greater in his absence.

But heroes need some humanity for the audience to connect with them. This is the kind of scene and humanization that will help your readers connect with your characters.

Finding a Wife for Isaac

In the next chapter, Abraham finally gets around to finding a wife for Isaac. It is a long chapter, so I’m going to start it in this post.

Isaac was thirty-six when Sarah died. Abraham still has not found a wife for him. He seems to be dragging his feet, considering how important it is to continue the bloodline of Isaac. I used to think the death of Sarah lit a fire under him to get moving—well, of course, give him time to mourn first—but it would be another four years before Abraham decided it was time to get his son hitched, so he could have a grandson (Gen 25:20). With the lifespans for Abraham and his family typically being in the mid- to late- hundreds, maybe this was not so unusual. And God gave Isaac to him and Sarah when they were in their nineties, so maybe he did not think about it much.

Now, don’t roll your eyes at me. I’ve explained in earlier posts this writer’s audience had heard stories of impossibly long lifespans in the ancient world, and how he used his audience’s expectations in Abraham’s saga.

For some reason, he decides now is the time.

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years; and the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things.

(Gen 24:1 NRS)

Abraham was old, well advanced in years. This could be the reason. We are told later Isaac was forty, which would make Abraham one hundred forty (Gen 25:20). If he was close to dying, that would explain why he felt now was the time to find a wife for Isaac. He would want to be sure that was taken care of before he was dead and buried. But he went on to live to one hundred seventy-five (Gen 25:7). It doesn’t sound like he should be on his death bed yet.

Under His Thigh? Blessed Be.

Abraham calls in his most trusted servant and charges him with finding a wife for Isaac. He makes the servant swear in an unusual manner. This is another example of how different cultural practices can make us uncomfortable when we see them for the first time.

Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his house, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and earth,

(Gen 24:2-3a NRS)

Say what??? Put your hand under my thigh? That almost sounds like sexual harassment. But that is not what Abraham has in mind. My HarperCollins NRSV study note says “Near the organs of procreation, signifying the solemnity of the oath that follows.”

Okay. Apparently, this was a custom of the time, even though this is the only place in the Bible where two people make a vow in this manner. If I were the servant, though, I think I’d say, “Can’t I just split a sheep in half and vow to you while I walk through the blood?” (See Gen 15:9-21).

Abraham has some very specific ideas about the kind of woman he wants for Isaac, so here’s the vow.

“…that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but will go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac.”

(Gen 24:3b-4 NRS)

One requirement is he does not want Isaac to marry a Canaanite woman. The local girls aren’t right for his son. The servant has to go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac.” He does not want a shiksa for a daughter-in-law. I have a feeling, if Sarah were alive, she would say the same thing. Remember how George explained “shiksappeal” to Elaine in this scene from Seinfeld, the “Serenity Now” episode?

Seinfeld Meme, George tells Elaine, "You've got 'shiksappeal.' Jewish men love the idea of meeting a woman that's not like their mother."
No shiksa for Isaac.

His country could be in Ur of the Chaldees or Mesopotamia in general. But when he says he wants the servant to go to his kindred and get a wife for Isaac, that means going to Haran, where his brother Nahor still lived. The Hebrew word for kindred (moledeth) refers specifically to a blood relative, so he wants a woman from his brother’s family. Remember, Abraham was married to his half-sister, Sarah. The woman the servant would bring back would most likely be Isaac’s cousin. This kind of incestuous marriage would later be forbidden in the Law of Moses. But to Abraham and his family, marrying within the family appeared to be not only accepted but preferred.

Princess Leia: "I kissed my brother once." Cersei Lannister: "That's cute."
Cersei: That’s cute.

The servant said to him, “Perhaps the woman may not be willing to follow me to this land; must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?”

Abraham said to him, “See to it that you do not take my son back there. The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there.”

So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master and swore to him concerning this matter.

(Gen 24:5-9 NRS)

Abraham seems to have conflicting desires for his son. He does not want Isaac to take a wife among the people where he lives. However, he does not want Isaac going back to their country, where an acceptable wife could be found. So he sends his servant to go without Isaac and entrusts the choice to the LORD, the God of heaven.

He trusts God with this, because God was the one who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth and … swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ That explains why he does not want Isaac to go there himself. They were already in the land God promised them. There is no place in the kingdom of heaven for those who, after beginning to follow the LORD, turn back to where they were before.

[The LORD] will send his angel before you. The servant has been around his master long enough to know he is a prophet (Gen 20:7), so that should make him feel better about his prospects for success. However, the servant recognizes he could make the journey, find a woman suitable for Isaac, and she could still veto his choice. Abraham tells him if that happens, he is off the hook as far as this vow goes. Apparently, even in this patriarchal society, the woman did have some control over who she married. In that case, Abraham will have to come up with a plan B.

What will happen to the servant when he gets to Haran? Will he find a wife suitable for Isaac? Will she agree to leave her country and kindred and go back with the servant? Will she marry Isaac sight unseen and become part of the bloodline of the Messiah? Tune in next week and find out, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel. (Or, to state the obvious, you could read the rest of Genesis 24).

Further Study

-Location and references to Kiriath-arba (Hebron).

-Oaks of Mamre: “Do You Want a Long Life?” God as a Gardener (blog).

Wikipedia

The Hittites

Hittites of the Bible

Kiryat Arba

Translation Notes

Oak of Mamre (Quercus calliprinos), called a Palestinian Oak, the most common tree in the modern nation of Israel. Sometimes mistakenly translated “terebinth,” which is actually a different tree.

“In the Bible, oaks were associated with power, strength, or longevity in the sense of long life. The great oaks of Mamre symbolized Abraham’s long life. A Palestinian oak near Hebron, called Abraham’s Oak, is thought to be over 850 years old.”

-Carolyn Roth, “Do You Want a Long Life?

Kiryat Arba or Qiryat Arba (Hebrew: קִרְיַת־אַרְבַּע), lit. “Town of the Four.”

Arba in Hebrew is “four.” It is also the name of the father of Anak, founder of the Anakim. Anak, who was believed to have been a giant, had three sons, Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai, also believed to have been giants (Jos 15:13-14). If Arba here means “four,” then this could mean the town of the four giants. Or it could refer to the four patriarchs who are buried there: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Adam. Adam’s placement here does not come from the Bible but from a Rabbinic tradition called the Zohar.


“Abraham agreed with Ephron” (Gen 23:16 NRS). וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע (WTT). qal waw consecutive masculine singular. Halladay gives one possible translation as “heed,” which matches “agree with” in this translation.

8737  שָׁמַע  

1. hear: abs. Is 12; w. acc.: s.one speak Gn 276, voice 310, trumpet Je 419listen to s.one Ez 37; w. acc. of thing (content of message) Ps 1326; w. kî 2S 1126; w. indir. qn. Ju 711; w. dir. qn. w/o introduction Dt 92; — 2. listen to s.thg Am 523, abs. Gn 275; listen (& agree) 238; w. °el Is 463, … Pr 834; … gladly hear 2S 1936; — 3. heed (a request) Gn 1720; 306, … 1611; — 4. hear > obey Ex 247;… Gn 2218, … 287; abs. be obedient 2K 1411; — 5. hear = understand: obj. … Gn 117; … — 6. š¹ma± bên try, examine (as a judge) Dt 116; distinguish 2S 1417.

(Halladay, p. 377)