From the Book of Genesis:
Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. He said to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, “If you only will listen to me! I will give the price of the field; accept it from me, so that I may bury my dead there.” Ephron answered Abraham, “My lord, listen to me; a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver — what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.” Abraham agreed with Ephron; and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants. So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field, throughout its whole area, passed to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, in the presence of all who went in at the gate of his city.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Genesis 23:12-18 (NRSV) – February 6, 2014.)
I seem to recall from studying Genesis each time I have had to preach on it that this purchase of the cave at Machpelah has been a subject of much rabbinic speculation over the centuries. Why, the rabbis seem to wonder, is Abraham willing to pay what is clearly an exorbitant price for the cave and the field (a field he doesn’t even actually want)?
“Four hundred” is sort of Old Testament code for “a whole bunch,” and when it comes to this particular episode it means something like 10 pounds of silver for this tiny piece of real estate. (On today’s market — I looked it up this morning — silver is going for $20 per ounce; so this purchase price would be about $3,200. That doesn’t seem terribly high, but clearly it was “back then,” whenever “then” was.) An interesting note is the relationship of the price to the location where the deal is struck, Kiriath Arba. The name means “the City of Four,” so the number 400 would be significant to the residents and the Hittites — 100 times the “number” of their city, 100 times the value? In any event, Abraham is willing to pay a whole lot of money for a burial plot.
My favorite of the rabbinic flights of fancy is the kabbalistic notion that the cave was known to Abraham to be the burial place of Adam. As the story goes, after God tossed Adam and Eve out of Eden, God carved out a cave that he would use to bury the first man and, after him, the patriarchs of God’s Chosen People. Sure enough, when Adam died, God buried him there as planned; God lit an eternal candle whose light would be visible only to certain humans and the presence of Adam’s body gave the cave the scent of Eden which, like the light, could be detected only by that select group.
Eons later, when Abraham was visited by three men (who turned out to be angels of God) at the oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18) he served them a roasted calf. The story goes that he had to chase the calf, which ran into this very cave where Abraham saw the light of the candle and perceived the scent of Eden. He also heard a voice saying, “Adam is buried here, and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob should be prepared for this place as well.” So, that day he became determined to eventually take possession of the cave and Sarah’s death ended up being the opportunity to do so. (One of the rabbis who tells this story asserts that he did not do so earlier so as to avoid arousing suspicion.)
There are other (mostly less outlandish) rabbinic speculations, but none of them strike me as anymore likely than the most obvious. Abraham is grief-stricken. He has lost his life partner, his wife of several decades, the mother of his son and heir. He simply is not thinking straight. He seems to be, but he’s just going through the motions. He doesn’t even try to bargain with Ephron! This is Abraham, for pity’s sake, a man who has bargained with God, and he doesn’t haggle one bit over the excessive price of the cave.
I’ve seen it time and time again, particularly with the death of a spouse or a child. The survivors, left to figure things out, to go on alone, to honor their departed loved one, spare no expense on the funeral. An entire industry has grown up and become profitable — highly profitable — catering to (preying on?) the grief of the American people.
Don’t get me wrong, I respect most of the funeral directors with whom I have worked. They are good people trying to be of help at a difficult time. But, let’s be honest, the costs associated with burial today can be outrageous — they put Abraham’s paltry ten pounds of silver to shame. You might get a casket for that value, but then there’s the plot, the embalming, the hearse and limousine rental, the flowers, and on and on and on . . . . Funerals are costly — and when someone is numb with grief, they can be even more so!
That’s why I’ve made pre-arrangements and planned my own funeral, and why I counsel parishioners and friends to do the same. Abraham would have been much better off if he and Sarah had purchased Ephron’s cave ahead of time. (Although that would have meant that we wouldn’t have some really fantastic and outlandish rabbinic tall tales to enjoy.)
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.