Light from the Sidra

Chayei Sarah ('Life of Sarah')

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

Whose Promised Land?

My colleague arrived back at the office this morning after a holiday in Morocco and immediately started regaling us with stories of her bartering skills and the bargains she acquired for herself and others while there. Ha! I have another friend who is so proud of the living room 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. Dream on! Sure, he can boast but one thing is for sure, the seller always gets the best deal; you will never beat the store keepers in the souks. 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! Gimme a chance to rip you off before you go back to England!’

In Genesis 23 Sarah dies and Abraham wants to bury her in the land God promised him. He chooses the cave of Machpelah which at that time belonged 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 price Ephron is asking.

Perhaps Abram’s willingness to pay over the odds was based on the same consideration that made him reject the gifts of the king of Sodom in chapter 14; he didn’t want to give Ephron the Hittite reason to boast that he had made Abraham 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 Abraham’s faith in the promise of God. Although the plot of land was Abraham’s only possession in the land, the fact that he purchased a burial place in a strictly legal form as an hereditary possession in the land was a proof of his faith that the promises of God would be fulfilled. 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 Mamluks – Turkish slaves who ruled in Egypt from 1250 to 1517 – conquered Hebron in the 8th century, they declared the structure to be a mosque and refused all Jews entry to one of their second holiest shrine. During the 1967 Six Day War, when Hebron was liberated, Shlomo Goren the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defence Forces 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 the 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 YHWH 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.

Behind the scenes of all this seemingly mundane concern with land and marriage God was working out his purpose not only for Abraham and his descendants but also for the whole world. Abraham believed YHWH’s promise regarding the land and acted in accordance with his faith and in chapter 24 demonstrated that he took God’s promise of ‘seed’ seriously and acted accordingly. Faith and action go together.

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.

If that statement appears far-fetched it is helpful to remember the San Remo resolution of 1920. Arguments over the legitimacy (or illegitimacy) of Jewish claims to ‘Palestine’ and Jerusalem tend to focus on the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which carried no weight under international law. The decisive factor in determining who the land belongs to (apart from the Bible) is the recognition by the First World War victors that the Jewish people had a historic connection to the region then known as Palestine. In San Remo the following year representatives of the Great Powers ruled not only that the Jews had a right to settlement in Palestine but also that the nations had an obligation to help them settle.’

On 24 July 1922, fifty-one members of the League of Nations ratified the San Remo resolution regarding the Jewish ‘reconstitution’ of their ancient national homeland. And, in case anyone should imagine the Arabs received a raw deal from San Remo, they in fact got the lion’s share of a carved up Middle East, including Jordan (an area that constituted more than three-quarters of the land originally allocated to the Jews), Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Arabia.

If YHWH, the covenant-keeping God, is 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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