A Bad Bargain?

What is the 23rd of Genesis about? A death occurs and Abraham needs a grave, and the chapter centers on the elaborate procedure he has to go through, the exorbitant price and polite lies and negotiations for him to get a tomb. Why? So we feel sorry for him because he has it so hard? Hardly.

In the 24th we have the search for a wife for Isaac, among Abraham’s people, not Canaanites. In the 25th we have the death of Abraham and the dismissal of all his offspring so that Isaac is left alone. And there we can see the theme of remaining a stranger in the land, and how Isaac carries on that pilgrimage.

Could it be that what’s going on in the 23rd has to do with this? When he asks for a place, the Hittites say to Abraham: use any one of our graves, old fellow, mix it up with us. With elaborate politeness Abraham is loth.

I’m a stranger here, he says. No you’re not, they reply, you’re like a chief and very welcome. And I think that first part of the conversation is them saying to him: why don’t you join our club?

And Abraham refuses. He pays, as a result, the exorbitant price of the field (he didn’t need or want a whole field) in order to have a separate cave, in order to bury all the patriarchs in, in order to remain separate from this mixture in death that would have spelled a mixture of life, a mixture in the manners and customs of the Hittites. And he refuses to settle down among them.

The manners and customs of God’s people are to be other manners and customs because the religion of God’s people is another religion and these two things go together. What guides this exclusivity is not some superstition of racial superiority, but manners and customs. Rebecka understood it, see what she says about Esau’s women and the excuse to send Jacob away. And see the increasing catastrophe of Jacob’s sons in the land until at last the famine drives them Egyptward–to a land, incidentally, where they’ll be separate and in a sense ‘unclean’ because they’re cattlemen and shepherds. Eventually their failure to integrate with Egyptian life and culture will work against them for God’s purposes to make them cry out in bondage after 400 years of cohabitation.

Interesting that the last generation to sojourn in the land, in Genesis, is the generation that seriously begins the intermarriage and whose manners and customs seriously begin to resemble those of the land. The famine at last drove them out, and for good, and for the good of their manners and customs, the preservation of their identity, and the survival of their religion.

And Abraham hearkeneth unto Ephron, and Abraham weigheth to Ephron the silver which he hath spoken of in the ears of the sons of Heth, four hundred silver shekels, passing with the merchant.

I think it was, for Abraham, a good bargain.


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