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:
- 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
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.
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 Moshe 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?
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 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 is also referred to in three ways in the chapter:
- עֶפְרוֹן בֶּן צֹחַר (Efron b. Zochar) – Efron is first mentioned, not by the narrator, but by Avraham (verse 8). It is possible that his full name is used because Avraham needed to identify and distinguish him from other Efrons of the community.
- עֶפְרוֹן הַחִתִּי (Efron the Hittite) – When the narrator first introduces Efron in verse 10, he fills in his ethnicity to let the reader know that Efron is not an outsider, but also a member of the Hittite nation, with full legal standing.
- עֶפְרוֹן (Efron) – In the rest of the negotiations (verses 13, 14, 16, and 17), no special title is needed.
It is not clear if the various terms given to the Hittites refer to the same group of people or to various subsets.
- בְּנֵי חֵת (lit. the sons of Chet) – This appears to be the default term used in the majority of verses (3, 5, 7, 10, 16, 17 and 20).9
- עַם הָאָרֶץ (lit. the nation of the land) – See verses 7, 12 and 13. This term has been understood to refer either to the masses,10 or to the heads of the town11. Either way it might refer to a different group (either larger or smaller) than "בְּנֵי חֵת". If the men were the city's leaders, then Avraham's singling them out (in verses 7 and 12) to bow in front of them is understandable. Similarly, he might makes his monetary offer (verse 13) specifically within their earshot to ensure that the transaction is witnessed by the elders.
- כֹל בָּאֵי שַׁעַר עִירוֹ (all those who come through the city's gates) – See verses 10 and 18. This term is also ambiguous. According to Radak, it refers to all the inhabitants of the city (and might be more expansive than the phrase "בְנֵי חֵת"). It is not clear, though, how this can account for their mention in these verses specifically.
- בְּנֵי עַמִּי (the members of my nation) – This term appears only verse 11, when Efron begins his negotiations with Avraham. He refers to the inhabitants in first rather than third person, because he is one of them.