Light from the Sidra

Chayei Sarah ('Life of Sarah'). 15 November 2014. 22 Cheshvan 5775

Torah: Genesis 23:1-25:8. Haftarah: 1 Kings. 1:1-31

The promise keeper

At the beginning of the week I bought my first car from a used-car showroom. My female colleagues (bless them) charged me strictly to haggle over the price. Fearing they would want a blow-by-blow of the negotiations when I returned to the office, I tried to get a reduction but all I managed to get out of the garage owner was an agreement to fix a couple of chips on the chassis and to MOT the vehicle. Sixty seconds after returning to the office I was undergoing a third-degree interrogation, the considered opinion of the ladies was that the garage owner had seen me coming and that he’d taken me for a metaphorical as well as an actual ride!

Ah well. I comfort myself with thought of how many times I’ve smiled when friends have boasted to me how they managed to get an Arab shop owner in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem to drop the price of a rug from 1,000 shekels to less than 500. Ha! If they only knew!

Genesis 23 begins with Abraham wishing to buy a cave in which to bury Sarah. Ephron the Hittite says Abraham can have the cave and the field as a gift. Abraham refuses the offer, saying he will pay the full price. Ephron offers the field for 400 shekels, a price some biblical scholars estimate to be about ten times what the property was worth. Abraham knows he is expected to haggle with Ephron until both of them reach a mutually satisfactory agreement. The haggling was to take place in public, providing an hour or so of entertainment for the gathered Hittite nobles. But Abraham simply hands over to Ephron the 400 shekels and buries his beloved wife. To the Hittites, Abraham must have looked like some kind of naïve natural-born fool, but the patriarch knew what he was doing.

Incidentally, not many people are aware that when the Jewish National Fund was established in the early twentieth century to help the fledgling Zionist movement to purchase land in what was then Palestine, Jews bought barren land from absentee Arab landlords for hugely inflated prices and began developing it, changing the land into the beautiful fertile country it is today.

But is that all this week’s Parasha is all about? Behind the account of Abraham apparently being taken for a ride, the Sidra portion is teaching us about the faithfulness of God. The buying of the cave of Machpelah in the land God promised Abraham and the acquiring of a bride for Isaac in a remarkable – if not miraculous – way remind us that God had not forgotten his covenant and promises to Abraham and his descendants.

In Genesis 12:1-3, HASHEM called Abraham to the land in which, in chapter 23, he is living. He promised to make of Abraham ‘a great nation,’ to bless him, to make his name great and to bless the nations in him. In chapter 15, the promise becomes more specific and is made certain through an unconditional covenant established with Abraham by HASHEM. In that chapter God promises Abraham offspring and a land in which they may live in perpetuity.

We discover in chapter 23 that, true to his word, God has begun to make Abraham’s name great. The Hittites hail him as ‘a Prince of God in our midst’ and Ephron addresses him as his lord.

Until Abraham bought the cave and field of Machpelah – now the site of the Cave of the Patriarchs – he owned not so much as a square inch of real estate in the land that was his by divine oath. When Sarah died he needed a place in which to bury her. The last time we saw Abraham behave proactively to bring about the fulfilment of HASHEM’s promises, the result was a disaster. Ishmael was born and the Middle East is suffering the consequences of Abraham’s lapse of trust to this day. The land is Abraham’s by divine right but the father of the Hebrew nation must live with the situation as it is and so he buys his first property in a land that will one day stretch from the Wadi of Egypt to the Euphrates river: a grave! He pays the full but exorbitant price so that no one can ever say he defrauded Ephron. The cave of Machpelah is where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph will be buried – in the land promised by God –as a testimony to the faithfulness of their God.

Before Abraham dies he becomes the father of six sons by his second wife Keturah so that by the time he dies he has his feet on the first rungs of God’s ladder of promise. He has a great name among the Hittites, he has eight sons – the foremost of whom is Isaac – and a good number of grandchildren, a piece of property in the land God promised him.

Sarah’s death was a reminder of the patriarch’s own mortality. He wasn’t getting any younger and those descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven were not going to spring from the ground. Abraham was forced by necessity to be proactive in bringing about the fulfilment of the promise.

When Abraham sent his servant to seek out a bride for his Isaac, he was not acting presumptuously as he did when he took Hagar as his concubine in order to move the promise of offspring along. Abraham could have taken a Canaanite woman for Isaac but the Canaanites were religiously and morally degenerate, and Abraham had been chosen to command his children and household ‘to keep the way of HASHEM, doing charity and justice’ (Genesis 18:19). He could not afford to take any chances and the servant, who as part of Abraham’s household was instructed ‘to keep the way of HASHEM,’ found Rebecca in answer to a prayer offered in faith to Abraham’s God.

In the account of the death of Sarah, the purchase of the field of Machpelah and the finding of a wife for Isaac, we are reminded that God keeps his promises. But the blessings made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendants had in view Abraham and his children being a blessing to the rest of the world. The great descendant of Abraham who would bless the nations was the Messiah but Abraham and his people as a whole are called to bless the nations.

If you are Jewish, there is a call on your life, as a descendant of Abraham, to be a blessing to the nations. It’s true that the Jewish people have blessed the rest of us in many ways by their contributions to the realms of science and medicine, to the arts and literature, and in finance. But the highest calling of the Jewish people is to be a light to the world. As a Jew, you ought to be making the knowledge of your God and his Messiah known to the nations. Instead, many Jews today are atheist or agnostic. Gentile Christians like me should not have to tell you about you about your own God and the Messiah. You should be telling is. Don’t simply pride yourself on being a light to the nations; be a light. Believe in your Messiah who came into the world 2,000 years ago and make him known to your own people first and then the Gentiles.

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