the first negotiation
The negotiation conducted by Abraham for the Cave of Machpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, is the first negotiation over territory in the Bible. As an example of Middle Eastern negotiations it is remarkable in two ways.
The first remarkable aspect of the negotiation is that it takes place at all. God has already promised Abraham: “To thy seed have I given this land.” Even the Hittites, from whom Abraham is looking to purchase the plot as a burial place for his wife Sarah, seem to recognize that Abraham has special rights in this place: “You are a mighty prince among us”, they say. “You may bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places.”
But Abraham is looking for no favours, and insists on striking a commercial deal. And here is the second remarkable aspect of the account: Ephron, the landowner, after offering the plot for free, now makes a high opening demand of 400 shekels of silver. Anyone schooled in Middle Eastern bargaining would expect Abraham to come back with a low counter-offer. But Abraham doesn’t even question the price, and agrees to pay the full amount.
In refusing to accept preferential treatment, and agreeing to pay the full price for the land, Abraham sets a precedent that is followed on two other occasions in the Bible.
- When a plague that was threatening the Israelites is stopped, King David is commanded by God to build an altar at the place where the plague ceased. But the field belongs to Ornan the Jebusite. Ornan, like Ephron the Hittite in the story with Abraham, offers the field for free. David’s response: “No, but I will surely buy it for the full price since I will not take that which is yours for the Lord, nor offer burnt offerings without payment” (Chronicles I, 21-24).David pays 600 gold shekels for the field, where the Temple will eventually be built.
- And the book of Joshua ends on a surprising note, when it describes the burial of the bones of Joseph in the town of Shechem. Notwithstanding the battles and conquests that fill the book, this place, the Bible notes “was land bought by Jacob from the sons of Hamor, father of Shechem, for one hundred kesitas.” (Joshua 24:32).
It is striking, and not a little troubling, that the very three places which are the subjects of these negotiations – the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and the Tomb of Joseph in Shechem – have till this day been the subject of such bitter dispute and violence.
But even as the tensions over these areas continue, the three Biblical accounts can perhaps give us an insight into the nature of the bond between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. For each of these accounts describes not only a transaction, but also the importance of the land to each of the purchasers:
- For Abraham, the land was important for him, in order to have a permanent resting place, for his wife, himself, and his children after him.
- For Jacob, it was important to have a place to fulfil his promise to bring Joseph’s bones back home from exile in Egypt.
- And for David, it was important to have a place to establish an altar, where the Temple would eventually be built.
These three dimensions of connection to the land have resonated for the Jewish people throughout its history. The land of Israel is many things for us: As with Abraham, it is a place where after years of wandering we can build a permanent home; as with Jacob, it is a place for the ingathering of our exiles; and as with David it is place to establish a spiritual center for the Jewish world.
In others’ words
“The land of Israel is precious to me, precious to us, the Jewish people, more than anything. Relinquishing any part of our forefathers’ legacy is heartbreaking, as difficult as the parting of the Red Sea. Every inch of land, every hill and valley, every stream and rock, is saturated with Jewish history, replete with memories… “The Land of Israel is the open Bible, the written testimony, the identity and right of the Jewish people. Under its skies, the prophets of Israel expressed their claims for social justice, and their eternal vision for alliances between peoples, in a world which would know no more war. Its cities, villages, vistas, ridges, deserts and plains preserve as loyal witnesses its ancient Hebrew names.… I say these things to you because they are the essence of my Jewish consciousness, and of my belief in the eternal and unimpeachable right of the people of Israel to the Land of Israel. However, I say this here also to emphasize the immensity of the pain I feel deep in my heart at the recognition that we have to make concessions for the sake of peace between us and our Palestinian neighbors.”
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Address to the United Nations, September 2005
On a lighter note
Morrie and Sadie both pass away and go to heaven. There they find that the food is delicious, the wine excellent and the music magnificent. But Morrie is not happy. He turns to Sadie and complains: “If it wasn’t for you and your damned health food, we could have been here years ago!”