A TALE OF ONE CITY
Dr. Ronald A. Brauner
Chayei Sarah: Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

We have learned that "the Torah speaks in the human idiom," and that one of the meanings of this ancient assertion of our sages is that the Torah wishes to enable its readers to relate to its content in familiar terms, drawn from daily life and common experience.
This week’s parsha provides another sterling example of the operation of the principle of "human idiom." After the death of the Matriarch Sarah, Abraham seeks to purchase a burial plot for her and, we presume, for other members of the family when the need would arise. Abraham approaches the inhabitants of Hebron in order to obtain a parcel of real estate. Surely, this entire episode could have been reported by the Torah in one or two simple statements, and yet, much to our surprise, the narrative continues for twenty verses! What are we to make of the fact that we are given more detail here than we find in many other instances in the Torah?
The key to the response to this question is to be found in the fact that the report given by the Torah is in full accord with and in detailed reflection of the prevailing legal conventions of those times for the transfer of real estate. Practically every single verse of the narrative relates to the way in which sales of immovable property were conducted in antiquity. Thousands of business documents from ancient Israel’s neighbors have been uncovered in the last 150 years. Thus, we have a rather fine and detailed picture of how business was conducted in the ancient Near East. As we examine the story of the burial of Sarah, we find over and over again terms and stipulations drawn from the world of real estate law.
Abraham announces to the town council his desire to acquire a burial plot and they, in turn, offer such a plot to Abraham as a gift, in recognition of the honored reputation he has earned for himself (23:6). Abraham however, desiring to complete a sale which would be in perfect accordance with commonly accepted legal practice, asks to see the owner of a particular tract to whom he will pay full price, in cash, for a burial site (23:9). What follows is a string of details meant to emphasize, beyond any question, the complete, legal, uncontestable, absolute and permanent transfer of the tract to Abraham: a public and witnessed announcement of the intention to acquire (v. 10); refusal to accept the property as a gift (v. 13); full payment of the asking price in internationally recognized funds (v. 16); definition of the property being conveyed (v.17); a public witnessing of the transaction as it is happening (v. 18); a reiteration of the identity of the subject property and taking possession of it (v. 19); and, finally, a summary of the transaction just completed (v. 20).
Why all the detail and why all the emphasis on the immaculate legality of the transaction? Because the burial of Sarah marks the very beginning of the actualization of God’s promise to Abraham: "I will give to you and your offspring after you the land of your sojourn, all the land of Canaan as a possession forever…" (17:8). Now Abraham and his progeny are property owners and their rights are rights in perpetuity. And it would not be many years before that very same Hebron, as it is still known today and where some Israelis still live, would become the first capital of Israel’s greatest king, David!

Dr. Brauner is Professor of Judaic Studies at Siegal College, Cleveland, OH