We’ve already seen that Abraham testified that he did not consider himself to be as those with whom he dwelt. In other words he was not a citizen of the land of Canaan, but a pilgrim dwelling in their land. Moreover, by seeking to purchase a piece of that land for a burial plot, he showed he no longer considered either Ur or Haran his home. Rather he looked for a land he did not yet possess. Knowing this, what can we say about the details of this purchase of Sarah’s burial plot, which turns out to be the first business transaction recorded in the Bible? It may be interesting to see how such mundane matters can be turned into one’s testimony of faith.
Abraham confessed he was but a pilgrim in Canaan (Genesis 23:3-4) and sought permission to bury Sarah in the land. The leaders of Heth (Canaanites) not only perceived Abraham as a prince of God, but offered him a burial place among their own family tombs, which itself may imply a desire on their part for Abraham to mix with them and become one people. Abraham thanked them for their generosity, but made it clear that he wished to purchase a piece of land as a burial place for Sarah, his wife. When everyone retired to the city gates, Abraham asked Ephron, the Hittite, to sell the cave of Machpelah, which was situated on his land, and set a price for it (Genesis 23:9). The customary courtesies were followed, but in the end Ephron is exposed as a dishonorable man, while Abraham remains the honorable prince of God (Genesis 23:6).
Ephron added a rider to Abraham’s original request for the cave, saying he offered the adjoining field as a gift. A cursory read of the text makes out like Ephron was a very generous man, but this is not really so. The ancient Oriental courtesies in business transactions were formalities. While Ephron’s offer of the land was indeed sincere, only a dishonorable person would have accepted the original offer of a gift (cp. Genesis 13:9-10). Rather, we need to understand that Ephron as a shrewd businessman, not above taking advantage of Abraham’s current situation of a need for an immediate burial place for his wife.
By adding the field to Abraham’s request, Ephron denied Abraham his original request of purchasing only the cave. Abraham confessed he was but a pilgrim in the land (Genesis 23:4), but by purchasing the field before the cave in which he wished to bury Sarah, Abraham became a landowner with all the social and pecuniary obligations that entailed. According to ancient Hittite law Abraham’s original request would not have obligated him to the people of Canaan any further, but Ephron saw to it that Abraham, whom he confessed to be a respected prince of God, became obligated to the leaders of the land of Canaan. Notice:
46: If in a village anyone hold fields under socage as inheritance – if the fields have all been given to him, he shall render the services; if the fields have been given to him only to a small part, he shall not render the services, they shall render them from his father’s house. If he usurps the fields of the estate-leaver or the people of the village give a field (to him), he shall render the services.
47: If anyone holds fields as a gift from the king he shall not render the services. The king will take a loaf from (his) table and give it to him. – If anyone buys all the fields of a craftsman, he shall render the services. If he buys all the fields of a craftsman, he shall render the services. If he buys a great (part of) the fields he shall not render the services. If he usurps the fields or the people of the village give them (to him), he shall render the services. [quoted from “The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50”; byVictor P. Hamilton; page 130. (emphasis mine)]
Notice that even if the field and cave were a gift, Abraham would have become obligated to pay taxes. The purchase of the field with the cave also obligated Abraham to the leaders of Canaan for taxing purposes. So, in reality, how much respect did Eprhon offer Abraham? It seems all his Oriental courtesies were mere formality, and none of it was genuine. Abraham purchased the field and the cave for Ephron’s asking price (Genesis 23:14-16), because what honorable man would try to negotiate downward what was originally offered as a gift (Genesis 23:10-11)?
Yet, some may point out that Ephron offered the land as a gift three times; he must have been sincere. If he truly meant his offer to be a generous gift, why did he place 400 shekels of silver as its fair value? Centuries later when Jeremiah made a similar purchase of his cousin’s field, he paid only 17 shekels of silver (Jeremiah 32:7-9)! In the end I must conclude that, not only did Abraham pay an exorbitant purchase price for the field, he is singled out in history as the only person on record who was obligated to pay taxes upon his family gravesite! Certainly, more than anything else that can be said of Abraham, truly he was but a pilgrim and a sojourner in the land that was promised to him. Although he was seen by the leaders of Canaan as a prince of God, he was not treated with the respect such a title would seem to demand. So, by submitting himself to the exorbitant fees levied upon him for not mixing with the Canaanites, Abraham held to the promise of God that he would inherit and not even death itself would prevent that from occurring.