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Abraham’s Purchase of Ephron’s Land
in Anthropological Perspective

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image of Biblical Interpretation

Despite considerable and illuminating work on the ancient Near Eastern legal background of the story of Abraham’s purchase of Ephron’s land in Genesis 23, several narrative peculiarities have not been satisfactorily explained. The theme of Sarah’s burial receives a curiously uneven treatment in the chapter. It is mentioned seven times by the characters during their discussions about the land, but the narrator almost completely glosses the act of burial itself. Does this jarring repetition, so integral to the negotiations, serve some legal purpose? Although exchange of consideration—400 shekels of silver—takes place between Ephron and Abraham only, Abraham is said to have acquired the land from Ephron and from the Bnei Heth. How are the rights of the Bnei Heth in the transferred land best understood? The characters pay great attention to status and its accompanying formalities. Is their performance mere politeness, or does status have some inherent connection to the validity of the transaction? I sketch here a generalized model for land tenure put forward by anthropologist Max Gluckman. Citing several ancient Near Eastern land transfer texts, I show how Gluckman’s model clarifies the system of land rights assumed by Genesis 23 and sheds light on these three puzzling features of the narrative.

Affiliations: 1: Princeton Theological Seminary, USA


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