Literary Devices – Bereshit 23

Structure of Chapter 23

Chapter 23 splits into an introduction (verses 1-2) which announces Sarah's death, a main body (3-16) which details Avraham's negotiations and purchase of a burial plot, and a conclusion (17-20) which describes Avraham's assumption of ownership. The main body further subdivides into accounts of Avraham's preliminary negotiations with each of the Hittites (3-9) and Efron (10-13) and the final stage of the bargaining and purchase (14-16).

Parallels & Contrasts

An examination of the parallels between the various sections of the chapter highlights several points:

Dual Negotiations

Avraham's initial negotiations with each of the Hittites and Efron follow a similar conversational pattern, with many linguistic parallels. Both contain an identification of the negotiating parties, a Hittite response including a respectful address and offer of free burial, and Avraham's bowing and counteroffer of payment.
  • Repeat – The parallel structure of the two sets of negotiations highlights a troubling issue in the story. Why were negotiations with both parties necessary at all? If Avraham was looking to buy a plot from Efron, why not speak to him directly? What role did the preliminary discussion with the Hittites play?1
  • Status – The use of the same root, "ישב", to describe both Avraham and Efron's status, serves to highlight what is actually a contrast between the two men. While Avraham is a foreigner, with no legal standing, Efron is a full citizen. The fact that Avraham is no more than a "תוֹשָׁב" with no land to call his own is what makes the whole story necessary.

Price and Payment

The final stage of Avraham's discussion with Efron contains an inner parallelism, with Efron's demand and Avraham's consent mirroring each other. Efron says "listen" and "Avraham listens". Efron asks for "400 shekalim", and the text repeats that Avraham paid "400 shekalim". Though there had been much back and forth before the setting of the price, this seemingly unnecessary repetition emphasizes how, here, there is none. It also raises the question of, if there was no price haggling, what then was everyone arguing about beforehand?2

Taking Possession

Verses 17-18 and 19-20 repeat almost verbatim the establishment of the sale. Why is this necessary? It is possible that while verses 17-18 conclude the sale itself, verses 19-20 serve as a summation of the chapter as a whole. Alternatively, see RashbamBereshit 23:18-20About R. Shemuel b. Meir3 who suggests that establishing ownership was a two step process. First, Avraham took possession of the land upon his payment to Efron, but only with the burial of Sarah did his acquisition ("מִקְנָה"), become a more permanent burial grounds ("אֲחֻזַּת קָבֶר").

Inclusio

The opening and closing verses of the chapter are natural bookends for the unit, with mention of Sarah's death and burial. A more unexpected parallel, though, is the double mention of the location of the episode, הִוא חֶבְרוֹן בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן. One wonders not just at the repetition, but at the superfluous "in the land of Canaan". Perhaps the inclusio hints that one of the purposes of the whole story is to demonstrate the realization of Hashem's promise of the Land of Israel to Avraham.4

Keywords

קבר and מות

Since Sarah's death and burial are the main subjects of the chapter, it is not surprising that these two roots appear multiple times. קבר in its various forms repeats 13 times,5 while the root מות occurs 9 times.

נתן

The story revolves around a transaction, but it is the root נתן rather than "מכר" or "קנה" which repeats in the chapter, appearing 7 times in total.6 This points to one of the tensions in the story, the argument between the Hittites and Avraham regarding whether the burial plot was to be given as a gift or paid for in money. Perhaps out of politeness and a desire not to outright contradict the other side, both parties use the more ambiguous verb, "נתן", which can uphold both meanings. The Hoil MosheBereshit 23:4About R. Moshe Yitzchak Ashkenazi goes further and suggests that, according to Hittite law, sale to non-citizens was prohibited, and thus a legal fiction needed to be employed. Efron offered the land gratis, while Avraham gave him a monetary gift in turn.

Listen to Me!

The root שמע appears six times in the story, once in each response of the various characters.7 The first five represent a polite refusal of the request or offer proffered by the other side, while the final occurrence marks Avraham's acquiescence to Efron's price. The word thus serves to track the back and forth of the negotiations.

Eyes and Ears

Variations of the phrase "בְּאׇזְנֵי/לְעֵינֵי בְנֵי חֵת" occur 5 times in the second half of the story.8 Though one might have expected that the other Hittites would disappear from the narrative after Avraham meets Efron, this refrain highlights that they remained an integral part of the process until the end. Why, though, could Efron not have conducted a private sale with Avraham?

Character Titles

Chapter 23 refers to each of Sarah, Efron, and the Hittites by various names. In some instances, these variations reflect a fundamental difference of meaning, while in others they serve a literary function.

Sarah

Sarah is referred to in three ways in the chapter:

  • שָׂרָה (Sarah) – This is the term used when announcing Sarah's death in the opening of the story (verses 1-2). It is the default and expected appellation.
  • מֵתִי/ מֵתֶךָ (my or your deceased) – Throughout the negotiations (verses 3-15), Sarah is never referred to by name because her personal identity is irrelevant to the transaction. Only her role as "the deceased" is important.
  • שָׂרָה אִשְׁתּוֹ (Sarah, his wife) – Upon her burial, Sarah is referred to as Avraham's wife, perhaps to connect the two in the moment of their separation.

Efron

Efron is also referred to in three ways in the chapter:

The Hittites

It is not clear if the various terms given to the Hittites refer to the same group of people or to various subsets.

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