“Respecting the Local Customs”
1 Kings 1:1-31
by Mark Huey
This week’s Torah portion, entitled Chayei Sarah or “Sarah’s life,” begins by mentioning the death of the Matriarch Sarah, and how Abraham mourned for her passing:
“Now Sarah lived one hundred and twenty-seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her” (Genesis 23:1-2).
Even though the title of our parashah is “Sarah’s life,” the bulk of the narrative is actually devoted to the events that follow her death. As the beloved wife of Abraham, often regarded to be among the principal matriarchs of the faithful followers of the One True God, she is held in high esteem throughout the Scriptures. The respect shown to Sarah has been given not only for her godly qualities, but also for her character traits. The author of Hebrews mentions Sarah as an important figure of faith, as she and Abraham were seeking a country and city that reached beyond this Earth:
“By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:11-16, NIV).
Examining Chayei Sarah, we find that we are at a period in time when the life of Sarah comes to a climax. As the wife of Abraham, Sarah had witnessed and participated in an extraordinary series of events with a man to whom God chose to guarantee special promises. He took his responsibility very seriously, and although his imperfections and lack of patience had resulted in a premature copulation with the handmaiden Hagar, resulting in the birth of Ishmael—at the ironic suggestion of Sarai—his true love and partner for life was undeniably the faithful Sarah. Now as she predeceases him, Abraham desires only the best available burial site (Heb. qever) in the land that he was promised by God.
At her death, Abraham and Sarah were residing in the environs of Hebron in Canaan, which was then dominated by the Hittites. Noah said that descendents of Canaan would be “slaves” or “servants” (Heb. evadim) to the descendents of Shem:
“When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him. So he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants he shall be to his brothers.’ He also said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant” (Genesis 9:24-27).
As a result of this word, some from the local Hittite population, including the elder servant Eliezer of Damascus, were certainly included among Abraham’s many servants. Whether the Hittites were literal “slaves” of Abraham and Sarah or not is important, because there is certainly an indication that they had an innate recognition that Abraham was a blessed man of the Creator God, to whom they needed to defer a great deal of respect. Read the following statements of honor that were bestowed upon Abraham by his neighbors at the time of Sarah’s death:
“‘I am a stranger and a sojourner among you; give me a burial site among you that I may bury my dead out of my sight.’ The sons of Heth answered Abraham, saying to him, ‘Hear us, my lord, you are a mighty prince among us; bury your dead in the choicest of our graves; none of us will refuse you his grave for burying your dead.’ So Abraham rose and bowed to the people of the land, the sons of Heth” (Genesis 23:4-7).
By referring to Abraham as “my lord” (Heb. adoni) and declaring that he was “the elect of God among us” (NJPS), it is apparent that the indigenous population understood that Abraham had a unique connection with the Almighty. You also might note that Abraham treated his neighbors with great respect, declaring that he was a sojourner, bowing before them and honoring the local inhabitants. This mutual respect pays great dividends as Abraham elicits his good will to secure a revered burial site for his beloved Sarah. There is no indication that Abraham was trying to “convert” his neighbors, except those who had become a part of his household, to join him in the worship of his God. Apparently, this “stranger” who crossed over the Jordan and became the first Hebrew (cf. Genesis 12:1-3), conducted his life in such an exemplary manner that he gained a degree of admiration from his neighbors. This is a worthy example to pass on to us as his spiritual descendants, who likewise worship his God, and who should be conducting their lives properly in whatever environment we happen to live.
Obviously, the natives were aware of the great wealth that Abraham had accumulated during his lifetime. But the status achieved through wealth did not affect his treatment of his hosts in their native land. Abraham was still humble and respectful enough to display sincere humility, by deferring to many of the local customs and accepting their norms for conducting affairs. The blessing of assets consisting of flocks and servants indicates that he had received great tangible favor from the Almighty. But what is most admirable—and certainly recognized by the Hittites—was his genuine respect for others no matter where they stood in society. This attitude is confirmed many times throughout his life, especially when we are given glimpses of his interactions with Eliezer.
In an interesting exchange of comments, the negotiations were such that Abraham utilized the favor of the local people to approach the owner:
“So Abraham rose and bowed to the people of the land, the sons of Heth. And he spoke with them, saying, ‘If it is your wish for me to bury my dead out of my sight, hear me, and approach Ephron the son of Zohar for me, that he may give me the cave of Machpelah which he owns, which is at the end of his field; for the full price let him give it to me in your presence for a burial site’” (Genesis 23:7-9).
We then see that when Ephron heard the initial open-ended offer, he tried to save face in deference to Abraham’s favor among the locals, by back-handedly stating that he would make the transfer of ownership as a gift to the “prince of God” (Heb. nesi Elohim; Genesis 23:6, ESV):
“Now Ephron was sitting among the sons of Heth; and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the sons of Heth; even of all who went in at the gate of his city, saying, ‘No, my lord, hear me; I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the presence of the sons of my people I give it to you; bury your dead.’ And Abraham bowed before the people of the land. He spoke to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, saying, ‘If you will only please listen to me; I will give the price of the field, accept it from me that I may bury my dead there.’ Then Ephron answered Abraham, saying to him, ‘My lord, listen to me; a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between me and you? So bury your dead’” (Genesis 23:10-15).
In a clever, but apparently customary way, Ephron with witnesses present was able to place a price on the property without directly asking for compensation. Even though the price was a ridiculously high sum, Ephron was able to appear magnanimous, while still establishing the amount. But Abraham, knowing the local customs, understood in his grief what was being communicated. Without hesitation, he weighed out the purchase price before witnesses and consummated the transaction:
“Abraham listened to Ephron; and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver which he had named in the hearing of the sons of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, commercial standard” (Genesis 23:16).
Four hundred shekels of silver may not sound like a tremendous amount of money given Abraham’s means, and so we should not be surprised to see how later Jewish interpreters attempted to exaggerate this a bit. The Talmud describes that these were large shekels that had the weight of 2,500 ordinary shekels (b.Bava Metzia 87a). According to this, the price that Abraham really paid for the burial cave of his wife was one million ordinary shekels of silver. This interjection does seem a bit extreme, but we cannot totally blame various Jewish Sages for wanting to emphasize “Abraham’s love for Sarah,” as the burial site of Abraham and Sarah is one of the three holiest sites in Judaism, along with the site of the Temple and Joseph’s tomb.
Even if four hundred shekels is all that was paid, this is a considerable sum of money for such a small plot of real estate that would only be used for one purpose. But Abraham had his priorities right, and we can conclude from the lack of negotiations and hesitation, that the Lord wanted this generous sale recorded for future generations to consider. Incidentally, He was also responsible for the prosperity that Abraham enjoyed in order to come up with the required sum!
As we consider the life, death, and final burial place of Abraham and Sarah this week, we have some serious things to consider concerning our own personal faith and how we interact with others. If we are relative outsiders in a community of people, will we show them respect and defer to some of their local customs? In Messiah Yeshua, we are told that one’s ethnicity or social background do not matter (Galatians 3:28). We have the important responsibility as members of the Body of Messiah to be generous to others, and if necessary, even show respect to “the pagans” we encounter just like Abraham did. Do we do this? Do we demonstrate the goodness of the God we serve through our attitudes—even if we may be shortchanged or even “shafted” sometimes?
The rewards for us demonstrating the good character of God in the world are not just being blessed by Him in our lives today. It especially includes our knowing that the ultimate blessing will come when His Kingdom is restored and the rule of Heaven comes to Earth, something that the Patriarchs eagerly anticipated:
“And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:15-16).
May the Heavenly City always be our focus as we seek to serve the Lord and testify of His goodness until the end of our strength and days!
 The Hebrew term qever and its related verb qavar, are to be differentiated from Sheol, which regards “a subterranean place, full of thick darkness (Job 10:21, 22), in which the shades of the dead are gathered together” (H.F.W. Gesenius: Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament, trans. Samuel Prideaux Tregelles [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979], 798), in which there is some degree of consciousness (cf. Isaiah 14:9ff).
 Heb. ger-v’toshav anokhi immakhem (Genesis 23:4).
 The word for “Hebrew” is Ivri. As B.J. Beitzel notes, “It is suggested that ‘ibrî derives from the root ‘br, ‘cross over, go beyond’” (“Hebrew (people),” in Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed. et. al., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4 vols. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988], 2:657).
BDB, 720 states that Ivri comes from the root word ever, meaning “one from beyond, from the other side,” “used to distinguish Isr[aelites] from foreigners,” or “from beyond the Jordan,” which has generally come to mean “one who has crossed over.”
 Nosson Scherman, ed., et al., The ArtScroll Chumash, Stone Edition, 5th ed. (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 2000), 109.