Sarah dies and Avraham must look for a place to bury her. He has his eyes on the Cave of Machpela located in modern-day Hebron. Avraham enters negotiations with the owner of the cave, a fellow by the name of Ephron the son of Tzochar. Ephron and Avraham argue back and forth, each trying to outdo the other in his willingness to “go the extra mile”. Ephron will not take one penny while Avraham will pay nothing less than the full price. Eventually they come to a compromise. Avraham purchases the plot and buries Sarah.

The conversation between Avraham and Ephron is cumbersome and the commentators try to explain why. The best known explanation, found in the Talmud in Tractate Bava Metzia [87a], teaches that Ephron is an archetype for a person who says much but does little. Even though he outwardly seemed to possess considerable business ethics, he had never intended on getting anything less than the full price for his land.

Many years ago I heard a shiur that dissected Pharaoh’s plot to murder the Jewish baby boys as well as the attempts of the Jewish midwives to save them. In this particular episode the Torah uses two terms to describe Pharaoh: He is called both “Pharaoh” and “The King of Egypt”. These two terms are used interchangeably. The hypothesis of the shiur was that “Pharaoh” and the “King of Egypt” are not one and the same. Rather, these are two different people with two different titles, similar to the President and the Prime Minister. While no proof was given for the hypothesis, the resulting explanation revealed a fascinating story of political intrigue. The shiur concluded with a warning that while it might be entirely incorrect, intellectual honesty demands that the hypothesis it proposed not be completely discounted.

With this in mind, let’s revisit the exchange between Avraham and Ephron. The Torah uses two terms to describe the people with which Avraham is doing business: They are called both “Bnei Heth” – “Sons of Heth” – and “Am Ha’Aretz” – “People of the Land”. The two terms are used interchangeably. While the meaning of the “Children of Heth” is clear, the “People of the Land” is more enigmatic. This term is used only a handful of times in the Torah and is usually referring to the Jewish People[1]. In one of these instances [Vayikra 4:27] the Ibn Ezra explains that the term “People of the Land” refers to the entire Am Yisrael: Kohanim, Levites, and ordinary people. But no matter how the term is explained, it is difficult to understand why it is used so often in Avraham’s negotiations with the Hittites. I would like to propose a hypothesis along the lines of the Pharaoh / King of Egypt hypothesis, but first we must do some quick math:

  • Avraham was born in the year 1948[2].
  • Sarah died at the age of 127.
  • Avraham was ten years older than Sarah[3].

It can easily be calculated that Sarah died when Avraham was 137 years old, in the year 2085, or 1675 BCE. This particular time-frame was a critical one in the history of the Hittites. The Hittite people originated from Anatolia in Southern modern-day Turkey. Sometime around 1700 BCE the Hittite Empire began to expand southwards into modern-day Lebanon and Israel. According to the on-line Ancient History Encyclopedia[4] the Hittites “expanded their territories into an empire which rivalled, and threatened, the established nation of Egypt.” At this period of time the Egyptians were at the height of the Middle Kingdom. They had attained military and political security as well as vast agricultural and mineral wealth. According to the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt “The military reconquered territory in Nubia that was rich in quarries and gold mines, while laborers built a defensive structure in the Eastern Delta, called the ‘Walls-of-the-Ruler’, to defend against foreign attack”. While the Egyptians did not physically control modern-day Israel, their influence was substantial. The geopolitical climate was ripe for conflict between the Egyptians and the advancing Hittites. And this is precisely what happens if we translate “Bnei Heth” – “Sons of Heth” – as the Hittites, and “Am Ha’Aretz” – “People of the Land” – as the Egyptians, or, even better, the local Semites who lived under Egyptian influence.

Avraham’s first move [Bereishit 23:3] is to approach the “Sons of Heth” – the Hittites. He calls himself [Bereishit 23:4] “a stranger and an inhabitant”. To you I am a stranger, but here I am an esteemed citizen. I am wealthy and influential. I have been the personal guest of the Pharaoh and the King of Gerar. He asks for a burial plot. The Hittites answer him in the affirmative [Bereishit 23:6]: “You are a Prince of G-d in our midst…None of us will withhold his grave from you to bury your dead”. We know who you are and we want you on our side. Avraham bows [Bereishit 23:7] “to the People of the Land, [and] to the Sons of Heth” He keeps both Superpowers in the picture for reasons that will soon become clear. Avraham asks to be introduced to Ephron. The Torah stresses that the both Cave of Machpela and the field belong to Ephron, making it clear that Ephron is a native Israeli, and should thus owe his allegiance to the Egyptians. But the Torah then informs us that [Bereishit 23:10] “Ephron was sitting in the midst of the sons of Heth, and Ephron the Hittite answered Avraham in the ears of the sons of Heth and all those who had come into the gate of his city”. Ephron wants to impress the Hittite invaders and to curry their favour. He introduces himself as “Ephron the Hittite”, and he is sure to speak loud enough so that all the newcomers – all those “who had [just] come into the gate of his city” – could hear him. Ephron tells Avraham that anything he wants is his [Bereishit 23:11]: “Before the sons of my people I have given it to you”. Do you Hittites see how magnanimous I am? Do you see the people I do business with? I could be a very useful ally to you. Avraham’s responds to Ephron’s politics with some political manoeuvring of his own, shifting the focus from the Hittites to the Egyptians [Bereishit 23:12-13]: “Avraham bowed before the People of the Land. He spoke to Ephron in the ears of the People of the Land, saying, ‘If you would only listen to me. I am giving the money for the field; take it from me and I will bury my dead there’”. Do you Egyptians see how easily Ephron shifts his allegiance? All my wealth, all my power, and all my influence come from Egypt[5]. And yet Ephron wants to leverage this power to become an ally with the Hittites. Are you going to let this happen? Ephron hears Avraham loud and clear, replying [Bereishit 23:15] “A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is it between me and you? Bury your dead”. This is not between the Hittites and the Egyptians; this is just between me and you. Let’s close the deal. Avraham and Ephron shake hands and Avraham pays Ephron [Bereishit 23:16] “the silver that [Ephron] had spoken in the ears of the Sons of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, accepted by all merchants”. The reason that Avraham would not allow Ephron to play politics at his expense is because he could not play favourites. He knew that the Cave of Machpela was more than a grave: it was destined to become an icon, both the cradle and the future of his people. He needed all world powers to recognize his eternal rights to the Cave of Machpela.

Some things never change.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Nechemiah Uriel ben Tzipora Hadara

[1] The term “Am Ha’Aretz” is used very frequently in the Talmud and means “a boorish person”.

[2] All years here are Jewish Years unless stated otherwise. To calculate the Common Year from the Jewish Year, simply subtract 3760.

[3] See Bereishit [17:17].


[5] When Pharaoh kidnaps Sarah, whom he believes to be Avraham’s sister, he showers Avraham with wealth [Bereishit 12:16] “Pharaoh benefited Avram for her sake, and he had flocks and cattle, donkeys, servants and camels”.