The Purchase of the Meorat HaMachpelah
Avraham’s negotiations and his subsequent purchase of the Meorat HaMachpela, teach us about ancient culture and behavior.
Avraham’s negotiations and his subsequent purchase of the Meorat HaMachpela are the topic of this lesson. Students study the text which teaches us about ancient culture and behavior.
The student will be able to:
1) Describe the rounds of negotiations.
2) Explain how B’nei Chet viewed Avraham.
3) Explain related commentaries (optional).
The student will be able to:
1) Identify recurring words and roots of words in the text.
2) Divide the chapter into the three parts based on the stages of Avraham’s negotiations.
The student will be able to:
1) Appreciate how negotiations/transactions were completed during biblical times.
Resources & Equipment needed
Computer with Internet connection, projector (optional), Chumashim, worksheets, source sheets (optional).
Trigger: Show this short clip from Life of Brian to the class. It is a parody of “haggling”, the form of market negotiations that is common in Middle-Eastern culture. In this scene, Brian Cohen, a Jewish Freedom Fighter, is on the run from Roman centurions who are hunting him down. He passes someone selling false beards and thinks it can be good disguise to help him make a quick get away. He is anxious to make a quick purchase but the merchant is eager to teach him how to haggle.
Ask the class: How do people generally buy things in Western culture? Are there times when negotiating is appropriate? Explain that in eastern cultures, negotiation is more prevalent. This was especially true in biblical times. Explain that you are going to study Avraham’s negotiations and his purchase of the Meorat HaMachpela.
Hand out the worksheets. Review the text (and optional source sheets) and the worksheets with the students.
Suggested Answer to Question 1: Section Summary 3-7 Avraham asks the B’nei Chet to buy some land to bury Sarah. The B’nei Chet offer Avraham any site that he chooses. 8-12 Avraham asks for to meet with Ephron so that he can buy the Meorat HaMachpela. Ephron offers the site. 13-19 Avraham insists on public payment for the site. Ephron agrees. The sale is made. Avraham becomes the owner of the Meorat HaMachpela. While they are working on the division, ask the students to see if there are any key words that recur in the chapter. They will probably note the words “ויקם אברהם”and .”וישתחו”They may also note words with the root “שמע” and “קבר”, which we will deal with later on. You may want students to highlight these words in their texts. The term “וישתחו”seems to indicate when a series of negotiations ends. Avraham’s bowing is clearly a cultural act signifying gratitude. The custom still exists in the eastern world and is the western equivalent of shaking hands. Bowing in this instance does not necessarily mean going down on hands and knees and touching the ground. The Ibn Ezra explains that it might merely be nodding one’s head forward whilst holding one’s hands together in front of one’s chest, in a similar manner to a Native Indian traditional greeting. The purpose of filling in the table is help students distinguish between each round of negotiations and to clarify the meaning of the dialogue. We will examine the discussions in depth in the following questions.
Suggested Answer to Question 2: The word appears in one form or another appears six times (23: 6, 8, 11, 13, 15, and 16). Generally, if the sentence “listen to me” appears over and over in the context of a discussion, it means that either one party is not listening to the other or that one party is misunderstanding the other. We will now examine each round of negotiation to find out what was being misunderstood.
Suggested Answer to Question 3: a) Avraham asks the B’nei Chet permission to buy an “אחזת קבר” so that he can bury for Sarah. Note that even though he uses the word “תנו”, it means “purchase”. A clear example of this can be seen Melachim I 21:2, when Achav wants to buy a vineyard from Navot (see source sheet). Furthermore, by using “אחזת קבר”, (see 9, 20) which means either a burial property or estate, Avraham makes it clear that he wants to be owner of the burial site. Note that the Ramban says by the word: “תנו” the B’nei Chet thought that Avraham wanted the land as a gift (see source sheet). b) The B’nei Chet call Avraham: “a prince of God”. It is very clear that they respect him consider him to be a holy man. c) They tell Avraham to bury Sarah wherever he wishes even if its “the choicest of burial sites…no one will withhold from you”. The B’nei Chet want to set Avraham straight. Although Avraham asks to buy land, they say, “Listen to us (“שמענו”), you can have whatever you want here to do your burial. There is no need for you to purchase land – all you need is a burial site.” In other words, because of their tremendous respect to him, they tell him he doesn’t need to purchase anything, he can bury his wife wherever he wants (see Rashbam and the Ramban in the appendix). Avraham has made progress, but has not got exactly what he wanted; therefore he shows gratitude by bowing down and proceeds to negotiate further. Note that the people that Avraham talk to are called the .”עם הארץ” In biblical parlance this term refers to the town council. The Rashbam explains that because he was an outsider (a term Avraham uses himself in verse 4), Avraham would need special permission from this group in order to buy land (see source sheet).
Suggested Answer to Question 4: a) Taking advantage of their offer that no one would withhold their estate from him, he asks them to arrange a meeting with Ephron Ben Tsochar. He states his intention of purchasing the Meorat HaMachpela from him as an אחוזת קבר and his willingness to pay the full price –”כסף מלא” (see Rashi in the source sheet). Note, the Ramban explains that because of Ephron’s importance, Avraham had to ask the city elders to make an appointment for him (see source sheet). b) Ephron happened to be there. Rashi says that for Avraham’s benefit, God had ensured that that day he was promoted to the council (see source sheet). He says to Avraham: “לא אדני שמעני”. He is prepared to give Avraham the land. Rashi states (see source sheet) that Ephron really had no intention of giving Avraham the cave for free, and that his offer was a way to begin negotiations. (Note: Even today, advertising often makes you feel you are getting a bargain, but when you add the hidden costs, the item can often be quite expensive). He points out that when Ephron asks for 400 silver shekels the Torah spells his name without the letter “ו” (i.e. “עפרן” and not (“עפרון”, thereby hinting criticism (see source sheet). Nevertheless, it is possible that Ephron respected Avraham as a religious man and therefore wanted to give Avraham a burial spot in his portion, or at least, because the whole negotiation was public, to pretend that he wanted to give him the land for nothing. Avraham is satisfied with his progress of the negotiations so he bows down in gratitude. However, he still wants to ensure that he is the actual owner of the field. Therefore he presses on, negotiating solely with Ephron, but in the presence of the Am Haaretz, at the city’s gate. You should point out that the city gate was the gathering place and the market place for the residents. All official business was conducted there.
Suggested Answer for Question 5: a) Avraham also says: “שמעני” – “Listen/understand me”, to Ephron. He says that he is grateful for Ephron’s generosity in offering the field for free, but that is not what Avraham actually desires. He wants to pay. b) Ephron answers again using: “שמעני”. He says: “understand that if you really want to pay, it is going to cost you 400 silver shekels. Note that some 600-800 years later, Yirmiyahu pays only 17 silver shekels for a field (Yirmiyahu 32:9) – see source sheet.
Suggested Answer for Question 6: a) “וישמע אברהם” – “Avraham listened/understood”, i.e. for the first time both parties are in total agreement. Avraham pays the full amount immediately. You may want to discuss the issue of Avraham weighing the money, that the word shekel comes from the word mishkal (or weight). In the ancient world, people would weigh their precious medals and use them as currency – in the same way the British currency, the Pound, was originally a pound of gold. The bearer of a pound note (bill) could then go to the Bank of England and withdraw a pound worth of gold. Vayikra 17:36 states the importance of having accurate scales: “Just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin, shall you have: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt”. Without accurate scales, the buyer or the seller would be shortchanged. b) The whole transaction takes place in the presence of the B’nei Chet and to all who passed through the city gates” (23:18). There could therefore be no squabbling or retracting on the purchase, it was well known that Avraham was the owner of Ephron’s field. The exact borders of the field are given in 23:17. In verse 19, the field is no longer called “the Field of Ephron”, but “the Field of the Machpelah” (See the Ramban in the appendix).
Suggested Answer for Question 7: This question is a “do you think” question, therefore any answers the students offer are valid as long as they explain their answers. Some possible answers: Because of his experiences, Avraham was sensitive to being a stranger on someone else’s land. He wanted to bury his wife Sarah on his own land. He did not want her on a stranger’s property. Avraham understood that land given to him for free could be taken away later (“you misunderstood me…”, “that was then, this is now…”). He wanted to pay for the land so it could not be taken away. B’nei Chet assumed that since Avraham was a holy man (“a Prince of God you are amongst us”), he would not be interested in the most material of possessions, i.e. land. Judaism does not condemn the possession of material goods and in the Tanakh the centrality of the Land of Israel is very much apparent.