Light from the Sidra

Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1-25:18. Haftarah 1 Kings 1:1-31

I have a friend who is very proud of a carpet he bought from an Arab shopkeeper in the old city of Jerusalem. He told me with great relish how he spent thirty minutes haggling over the price of it, until the shop keeper let him have it at a rock-bottom price. Sure, he can boast but one thing is for sure, the seller got the best deal; you will never beat the store keepers in the souks. I remember walking through the old city some years ago, and as I walked away from one of the shops, the guy who owned it called, “Hey, come back! Give me a chance to rip you off before you go back to England!”.

Sarah dies and Abram wants to bury her in the land God promised him. He chooses the cave of Machpelah, which belongs to Ephron the Hittite. Ephron tells Abraham that the field is worth four hundred shekels but he will give it to him as a gift. No doubt the price was inflated and Ephron expected Abraham to haggle over it but instead (to Ephron’s delight, or maybe disappointment) the patriarch simply agrees to pay the full price Ephron is asking.

Perhaps Abraham’s decision to pay over the odds was based on the same consideration that caused him to reject the gifts of the king of Sodom in chapter 14; he didn’t want to give Ephron the Hittite the least reason to boast that he had made him rich. Neither Ephron nor any other Hittite would ever be able to say Abraham had acquired the land for less than it was worth.

Buying the field for the full asking price was a statement of his faith in the promise of God. Although the field of Ephron was Abraham’s sole possession in the land, the fact that he had purchased a burial place in a strictly legal form as an hereditary possession in the land was a proof of his faith in the promises of God and their eventual fulfilment. The cave of Machpelah is recognised today as the “Tomb of the Patriarchs”, and is the burial site not only of Abraham and Sarah but also of Isaac and Rebecca, and of Jacob and Leah.  

Two thousand years ago King Herod erected a massive shrine over the cave of Machpelah to provide a place for prayer at the graves of the Patriarchs, and every year more than a quarter of a million Jews visit the site. When the Mamelukes conquered Hebron in the 8th century, they declared the structure a mosque and forbade entry to Jews. When Hebron was liberated during the 1967 Six Day War, the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defence Forces, Shlomo Goren became the first Jew in 700 years to enter the shrine. Nevertheless, the Muslim Waqf still refuses to accord Jews their full prayer rights at their second holiest site.

Abraham’s second act of faith in this Torah portion is his provision of a wife for Isaac. His wife must not be a Canaanite because Yahweh had revealed to Abraham when he entered into the covenant with him in chapter 15 that the tribes of Canaan were doomed to destruction. Isaac’s wife, the mother of the Hebrew nation was to be a Semite, a member of Abraham’s family, and she must be willing to come and live in the land with Isaac.  

In Genesis, Abraham believed Yahweh’s promise regarding the land and acted in accordance with his faith. In chapter 24, he demonstrates that he takes seriously the promise of “seed” and acts accordingly. Faith and action go together. And in all this, God is working out his purpose not only for Abraham and his descendants but also for the whole world.

The portion is book-ended by the deaths of Sarah in chapter 23 and Abraham in 24, and at the end we see that God had kept the promise of Genesis 17:20 to make Ishmael a father of “twelve princes” (count the number of sons in 25:13fff) and turn him into “a great nation”. To this day, God continues to bless Ishmael with vast areas of land and oil wealth, yet Ishmael would deny Isaac his rightful inheritance in the land promised to him and his seed. Nevertheless, if Yahweh, the covenant-keeping God, was faithful to Ishmael, how much more will he keep his promises to the son of promise, Isaac, and through his seed bless all the families of the earth, including those of Ishmael.

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