Parsha: Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1 – 25:18)
Lives Well Lived
Chayei Sarah (“The Life of Sarah”) Genesis 23:1 – 25:18
This week’s parasha, Genesis 23:1 to 25:18, is Chayei Sarah, meaning “The Life of Sarah” the title of which is a little ironic, since it records her death (at 127 years of age). After grieving for Sarah, Abraham approaches the sons of Heth in nearby Hebron to negotiate the purchase of a field and a cave in Machpelah, where he wishes to bury her.
The transaction is described in considerable detail and gives us a glimpse into Ancient Middle Eastern customs. After Abraham offers to purchase the land, Ephron, the son of Zohar says to him, “No, no, please, I give it to you!” In the Ancient Near East that was a conventional form of politeness. It was not meant literally, nor would Abraham have taken it literally. So when Ephron finally says, “A piece of land worth 400 shekels of silver, what is that between you and me?” he was “subtly” declaring his asking price. By the way, that was no pittance. A shekel of silver at that time corresponded to four days’ wages. So figure out how much you make in roughly four years and that was the amount he was asking. Abraham agreed to the price and purchased the land from Ephron, one of the sons of Heth, and buried Sarah.
It seems odd that Moses dedicates such a long narrative to a simple land transaction, especially given the vast scope of history covered in the 50 short chapters of Genesis. So what’s the big deal about this purchase? It is because when our people came out of Egypt and entered Eretz Canaan, when we came to the territory of the Hittites – the “sons of Heth” we had a legitimate claim to that land. Not only had God promised it to Abraham in perpetuity, but this parcel had been legally purchased at an agreed-upon price in the presence of many witnesses by Abraham, and it belonged to his descendants. It also establishes firmly the rightful Jewish claim, then and now, to the city of Hebron, despite the turmoil that has engulfed the city over the last century, and despite the opinion of the United Nations.
Hebron, formerly known as Kiryat Arba (“City of the Four”), has a considerable history! It is the second oldest continuously inhabited city on Earth. Excavations there revealed settlements dating to 3,400 BC! The name Hebron is from the Hebrew word chaver, meaning “friend” or “companion” and may have taken on that name because of Abraham, who was called “the friend of God” (see 2 Chronicles 20:7 and James 2:23). Not only Sarah, but Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Leah, Ruth, Jesse, and Abner (Saul’s great general), all are buried there! Hebron was where David was anointed and would reign as king for seven and a half years. It is considered the second holiest site in Judaism.
Hebron was under Jordanian jurisdiction from 1948 until 1967, and they forbade Jews from coming into the city. During those years the Islamic authorities systematically destroyed as much archeological evidence as they could of ancient Jewish presence in Hebron. They desecrated the Jewish cemeteries and even built animal pens over the ruins of an ancient synagogue there. In 1967, after the Six-Day War, some Jewish families moved back, but still represent a tiny minority, and there has been repeated violence against Jews living there. To this day Jewish people are only allowed 10 days out of the year in which to visit the tomb of Isaac (one of the few that hasn’t been desecrated). Hebron is part of the area commonly called the “West Bank” but it is, in fact, part of biblical Judea.
The central part of our parasha is chapter 24. Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac. Abraham resolutely refused to take a wife for Isaac from among the Canaanites, nor would he permit Isaac to be returned to Mesopotamia, the land of his origins. You see, this isn’t about ethnicity; it is about preserving the true faith. Both the Canaanites and the Chaldeans worshiped false deities. Isaac was not to be re-introduced into pagan society. Abraham instead sends his trusted servant, Eliezer, to find a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s relatives in Nahor, holding him to a most solemn oath concerning the matter. It was, after all, the most serious of missions. But it is one of the most delightful stories in all the Word of God.
The servant prays to the God of Heaven and Earth for guidance and success. God answers his prayer, and he meets Rebekah, Abraham’s grand-niece as she comes out to draw water. She kindly draws water for Eliezer at his request and, without his asking, generously offers to water his camels as well. It was the very sign Eliezer had asked of the Lord, but also was indicative of the excellent qualities Rebekah possessed. This was one discerning servant! He is invited to their home and food is set before him, but he won’t eat until he has stated his business. God further answers Abraham and Eliezer’s prayers: the family hears the proposal and is agreeable – as is Rebekah, who is willing to accompany him to a distant land, to be married to a man she had never laid eyes on.
This is a chapter that shows us great faith and obedience in action. There is also a serious lesson here: parents must not merely be passive observers where their children’s decisions about courtship or marriage are concerned. We need to communicate to our children that we expect them to marry fellow believers in Yeshua, and that we will be very much a part of the matching process. It may seem antiquated, but it has worked for generations, and the current epidemic of divorce doesn’t speak well of the alternative.
Chapter 25 tells briefly of Abraham’s subsequent marriage to Keturah (probably from ketoret, meaning incense), and lists the names of their offspring, some of whom would eventually become nations hostile to Israel, such as Midian. To these, Abraham gave gifts and then sent them away to settle eastward, because the rightful heir would be Isaac. This is crucial, as it focuses our attention more narrowly on a chosen line, through which Messiah Yeshua would eventually come.
Finally, we read of the death of Abraham at a ripe old age (175 years) and satisfied with life. Friendship with God truly brings fullness of life! Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father, an enigma to be sure, since it is the last time they or their descendants will come together in unity and shalom until Messiah Yeshua – the greatest descendant of Abraham, returns to planet Earth. The reconciliation between Israel and Egypt and Iraqis described in Isaiah chapter 19. It is my prayer that those days, and Yeshua’s glorious reign, may come speedily and soon!
One thought I’d like to leave you with from Chayei Sarah. Abraham had to purchase, at a premium, a piece of land that by all rights was his by decree. But you see, he understood it was not yet time to take possession of it; that would fall to his descendants. In the same way Messiah has promised that “the meek shall inherit the Earth.” But it is not yet that time. The Earth is presently in the clutches of the evil one. For now we mourn at the rampant violence and injustice that prevails in the world. But be encouraged by the promise of our inheritance: the One who made it is faithful.
Note: Each Torah portion is named from the first word or first few words of the portion of scripture. This portion is called Chayei Sarah. Other transliterations: Chaye Sarah or Hayye Sarah