Genesis (Part 94)

Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

Genesis: 23:5-20

The Hittites answered Abraham, “Hear us, my lord; you are a prince of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will withhold from you his tomb to hinder you from burying your dead.” Abraham rose and bowed to the Hittites, the people of the land. And he said to them, “If you are willing that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me and entreat for me Ephron the son of Zohar, that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he owns; it is at the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me in your presence as property for a burying place.”

10 Now Ephron was sitting among the Hittites, and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, of all who went in at the gate of his city, 11 “No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the sight of the sons of my people I give it to you. Bury your dead.” 12 Then Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. 13 And he said to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, “But if you will, hear me: I give the price of the field. Accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there.” 14 Ephron answered Abraham, 15 “My lord, listen to me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels[c] of silver, what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.” 16 Abraham listened to 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.

17 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, was made over 18 to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, before all who went in at the gate of his city. 19 After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. 20 The field and the cave that is in it were made over to Abraham as property for a burying place by the Hittites.

_____________________________

Abraham negotiates with the Hittites to buy a burial cave for Sarah and eventually for himself also.

Concerning the Hittites, the more literal translation is “the children of Heth.”

bēn = בֵּן bên, bane; from H1129; a son (as a builder of the family name), in the widest sense (of literal and figurative relationship, including grandson, subject, nation, quality or condition, etc., (like father or brother), etc.):—afflicted, age, (Ahoh-) (Ammon-) (Hachmon-) (Lev-) ite, (anoint-) ed one, appointed to, (+) arrow, (Assyr-) (Babylon-) (Egypt-) (Grec-) ian, one born, bough, branch, breed, + (young) bullock, + (young) calf, × came up in, child, colt, × common, × corn, daughter, × of first, firstborn, foal, + very fruitful, + postage, × in, + kid, + lamb, (+) man, meet, + mighty, + nephew, old, (+) people, rebel, + robber, × servant born, × soldier, son, + spark, steward, + stranger, × surely, them of, + tumultuous one, valiant(-est), whelp, worthy, young (one), youth.

Ḥēṯ = חֵת Chêth, khayth; from H2865; terror; Cheth, an aboriginal Canaanite:—Heth.;

The verse then is identifying the “Hittites” with the Heth from Genesis 10:15.

And Canaan begat Sidon his firstborn, and Heth,

As discussed in the previous post, the Hittites of the Bible are considered distinct from the Hittites from history – though there is a lot of scholarship that links the two.

Let’s examine the verses. From The Pulpit Commentaries:

And the children of Heth answered. Abraham, saying unto him, Hear us, my lord. My lord (Adoni) = sir, monsieur, or mein herr. One acts as the spokesman of all; the number changing from plural to singular. The LXX; reading לֹא instead of לוֹ, after the Samaritan Codex, render μὴ κύριε, Not so, my lord; but hear us. Thou art a mighty prince among us. Literally, a prince of Elohim; not of Jehovah, since the speakers were heathen whose ideas of Deity did not transcend those expressed in the term Elohim. According to a familiar Hebrew idiom, the phrase might be legitimately translated as in the A.V.—cf. “mountains of God,” i.e. great mountains, Psalms 36:6; “cedars of God,” i.e. goodly cedars, Psalms 80:10 (Calvin, Kimchi, Rosenmüller, ‘Speaker’s Commentary’); but, as employed by the Hittite chieftains, it probably expressed that they regarded him as a prince or phylarch, not to whom God had given an elevated aspect (Lange), but either whom God had appointed (Gesenius), or whom God manifestly favored (Kalisch, Murphy). This estimate of Abraham strikingly contrasts with that which the patriarch had formed (Psalms 80:4) of himself. In the choice of our sepulchers bury thy dead; none of us will withhold from thee his sepulcher, but that thou mayest bury thy dead. This remarkable offer on the part of the Hittites Thomson regards as having been merely compliment, which Abraham was too experienced an Oriental not to understand. But, even if dictated by true kindness and generosity, the proposal was one to which for many reasons—faith in God, love for the dead, and respect for himself being among the strongest—the patriarch could not accede. With perfect courtesy, therefore, though likewise with respectful firmness, he declines their offer.

The commentary note above gives a lot of background to the term “prince of God” which is applied to Abraham by the children of Heth.

mighty = אֱלֹהִים ʼĕlôhîym, el-o-heem’; plural of H433; gods in the ordinary sense; but specifically used (in the plural thus, especially with the article) of the supreme God; occasionally applied by way of deference to magistrates; and sometimes as a superlative:—angels, × exceeding, God (gods) (-dess, -ly), × (very) great, judges, × mighty.

prince = נָשִׂיא nâsîyʼ, naw-see’; or נָשִׂא nâsiʼ; from H5375; properly, an exalted one, i.e. a king or sheik; also a rising mist:—captain, chief, cloud, governor, prince, ruler, vapour.

As you see from the underlying language, the focus on the translation in the Commentary above is warranted. “Mighty” comes from a word we have focused on repeatedly in this text – Elohim. Usually when we see “Elohim” in the text, it is translated as “God.” Here, though, it is translated as “mighty.”

A lot of the rest of the chapter focuses on the customs of courtesy from both sides in the buying and selling process.

Ellicott’s Bible Commentary mentions this in its note for verse 6 and we see it going forward also.

In the choice of our sepulchres.—The interview between Abraham and the Hittites is marked by the utmost courtesy on both sides, but it is a mistake to suppose that this acceptance of the patriarch’s proposal contained the idea that he might select a sepulchre without paying for it. The payment, in true Oriental fashion, is kept in the background, but is pre-supposed on both sides. After the acceptance of his proposal, it was Abraham’s turn to name the burying-place he wished, and the owner next consents, but while treating the purchase-money as a matter of small importance, he nevertheless asks a very high price, to which Abraham at once consents.

The Pulpit Commentaries goes into some detail over the process occurring here in verses 7 through 9.

Genesis 23:7

And Abraham stood up (the customary posture among Orientals in buying and selling being that of sitting), and bowed himself to the people of the land, even to the children of Hath—an act of respect quite accordant with modern Oriental manners.

Genesis 23:8Genesis 23:9

And he communed with them, saying, If it be year mind—literally, if it be with your souls, the word nephesh being used in this sense in Psalms 27:12Psalms 41:3Psalms 105:22that I should bury my dead out of my might; hear me, and entreat for me to Ephron the son of Zohar. The ruler of the city (Keil); but this is doubtful (Lange). “There is scarcely anything in the habits of Orientals more annoying to us Occidentals than this universal custom of employing mediators to pass between you and-those with whom you wish to do business. Nothing can be done without them. A merchant cannot sell a piece of print, nor a farmer a yoke of oxen, nor any one rent a house, buy a horse, or get a wife, without a succession of go-betweens. Of course Abraham knew that this matter of the field could not be brought about without the intervention of the neighbors of Ephron, and therefore he applies to them first”. That he may give me the cave of Machpelah,—Machpelah is regarded as a proper noun (Gesenius, Keil, Kalisch, Rosenmüller), as in Genesis 49:30, though by others it is considered as an appellative, signifying that the cave was double (LXX; Vulgate), either as consisting of a cave within a cave (Hamerus), or of one cave exterior and another interior (Abort Ezra), or as having room for two bodies (Calvin), or as possessing two entrances (Jewish interpreters). It is probable the cave received its name from its peculiar form,—which he hath (Ephron’s ownership of the cave is expressly recognized, and its situation is next described), which is in the end of his field—“so that the cession of it will not injure his property” (Wordsworth). At the same time Abraham makes it clear that an honest purchase is what he contemplates. For as much money as it is worth—literally, for full silver (1 Chronicles 21:22). Cf. siller (Scotch) for money. This is the first mention of the use of the precious metals as a medium of exchange, though they must have been so employed at a very early period (vide Genesis 13:2)—he shall give it me for a possession of a burying-place amongst you. The early Chaldaeans were accustomed to bury their dead in strongly-constructed brick vaults. Those found at Mughheir are seven feet long, three feet seven inches broad, and five feet high, are composed of sun-dried bricks embedded in mud, and exhibit a remarkable form and construction of arch, resembling that occur ring in Egyptian buildings and Scythian tombs, in which the successive layers of brick are made to overlap until they come so close that the aperture may be covered by a single brick. In the absence of such artificial receptacles for the dead, the nearest substitute the patriarch could obtain was one of those natural grottoes which the limestone hills of Canaan so readily afforded.

We have some new words to study in these verses.

Ephron = עֶפְרוֹן ʻEphrôwn, ef-rone’; from the same as H6081; fawn-like; Ephron, the name of a Canaanite and of two places in Palestine:—Ephron, Ephrain (from the margin).; עֵפֶר ʻÊpher, ay’-fer; probably a variation of H6082; gazelle; Epher, the name of an Arabian and of two Israelites:—Epher.

Zohar = צֹחַר Tsôchar, tso’-khar; from the same as H6713; whiteness; Tsochar, the name of a Hittite and of an Israelite:—Zohar. Compare H3328.; צַחַר tsachar, tsakh’-ar; from an unused root meaning to dazzle; sheen, i.e. whiteness:—white.

Machpelah = מַכְפֵּלָה Makpêlâh, mak-pay-law’; from H3717; a fold; Makpelah, a place in Palestine:—Machpelah.; כָּפַל kâphal, kaw-fal’; a primitive root; to fold together; figuratively, to repeat:—double.

Ellicott’s Bible Commentary speculates about the meaning of Machpelah.

(9) The cave of Machpelah.—That is, the double cave, consisting probably of an outer and an inner compartment. As the land around is also called “the field of Machpelah” (Genesis 49:30Genesis 1:13), some imagine that it was the valley that was double; but more probably it took its name from the cavern. For a description of the Haram, within which the bones of Abraham and Sarah probably still lie, see Palmer, Desert of the Exodus, p. 397; Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, p. 101; and also the Appendix to his Sermons in the East.

In verse 10, Ephron speaks up and the bargaining for the cave of Machpelah begins in earnest. Abraham asks the gathered crowd to intercede with Ephron and Ephron, who is present, speaks up among them. From Ellicott:

(10) And Ephron dwelt among . . . —Again a mistranslation. The Heb. is, Ephron was sitting in the midst of the Hittites. At these assemblies held at the gate of the city every free-born citizen had a right to be present, and matters were settled by common consent. As Ephron was the owner of the cave, his approval was necessary, and this Abraham treats as a favour, and requests that Ephron’s fellow-citizens will intercede in his behalf.

In verse 11, Ephron says that he gives the field to Abraham. The subtext according to the notes is that this statement was not intended to be taken literally but is instead part of a customary curtesy during the bargaining. From The Pulpit Commetnaries:

Nay, my lord, hear me: the field give I thee, and the cave that is therein, I give it thee—an Oriental mode of expressing willingness to sell. Ephron would make a present of cave and field to the patriarch,—”and just so have I had a hundred houses, and fields, and horses given to me”,—the design being either to obtain a valuable compensation in return, or to preclude any abatement in the price (Keil), though possibly the offer to sell the entire field when he might have secured a good price for the cave alone was an indication of Ephron’s good intention (Lange). At least it seems questionable to conclude that Ephron’s generous phrases, which have now become formal and hollow courtesies indeed, meant no more in that simpler age when the ceremonies of intercourse were newer, and more truly reflected its spirit. In the presence of the ions of my people give I it thee (literally, have I given, the transaction being viewed as finished): bury thy dead.

In verse 11, take note that Ephron repeats the phrase “I give thee” three times.

11 “No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the sight of the sons of my people I give it to you. Bury your dead.” 

This has the form and feel of ceremony. From Ellicott on the same verse:

(11) The field give I thee.—Only the cave had been mentioned, but for its quiet possession the land around was necessary. In the thrice repeated “give I it thee,” there is the same courtly idea as in Genesis 23:6, that they were not buying and selling, but making mutual presents.

The Pulpit Commentaries describes the interaction then from verses 12 through 15:

Genesis 23:12Genesis 23:13

And Abraham bowed down himself before the people of the land. To express his sense of their kindness, and appreciation of Ephron’s offer in particular; aider which he courteously but firmly urged forward the contemplated purchase. And he spake unto Ephron in the audience of the people of the land, saying, But if thou wilt give it, I pray thee, hear me. Literally, if thou, I would that thou wouldst hear me, the two particles אִם and לוּ being conjoined to express the intensity of the speaker’s desire. I will give thee money for the field. Literally, money of the field, i.e. the value of the field in money. This seems to indicate that Abraham at least imagined Ephron’s offer of the field and cave as a gift to be not wholly formal. Had he regarded Ephron as all the while desirous of a sale, he would not have employed the language of entreaty. Take it of me, and I will bury my dead there.

Genesis 23:14Genesis 23:15

And Ephron answered Abraham, saying unto him, My lord, hearken unto me: the land is worth four hundred shekels of silver. The word “shekel,” from shakal, to weigh, here used for the first time, was not a stamped coin, but a piece of metal of definite weight, according to Exodus 30:13, equal to twenty gerahs, or beans, from garar, to roll. Coined money was unknown to the Hebrews until after the captivity. In the time of the Maccabees (1 Macc. 15:6) silver coins were struck bearing the inscription שקל ישראל. According to Josephus (Ant; iii. 8, 2) the shekel in use in his day was equal to four Athenian drachmae; and if, as is believed, these were one-fifth larger than the old shekels coined by Simon Maccabeus, the weight of the latter would be equal to three and one-third drachms, or two hundred grains, reckoning sixty grains to a drachm. It is impossible to ascertain the weight of the shekel current with the merchant in the time of Abraham; but reckoning it at a little less than 2s. 6d. sterling, the price of Ephron’s field must have been somewhat under £50; a very consider able sum of money, which the Hittite merchant begins to depreciate by representing as a trifle, saying, What is that betwixt me and thee?—words which are still heard in the East on similar occasions—bury therefore thy dead.

What is that between = בֵּין bêyn, bane; (sometimes in the plural masculine or feminine); properly, the constructive form of an otherwise unused noun from H995; a distinction; but used only as a preposition, between (repeated before each noun, often with other particles); also as a conjunction, either…or:—among, asunder, at, between (-twixt…and), + from (the widest), × in, out of, whether (it be…or), within.

With Ephron having named an actual value, Abraham proceeds to weigh out the stated value in verse 16. From Ellicott:

(16) Abraham weighed . . . current money with the merchant.—Shekel literally means weight, and money was not coined until long afterwards. In the last clause, by inserting money our version antedates facts. According to the Hebrew, it was the silver that was current with the merchants. The metal was probably made into small bars, marked by the refiner to indicate their quality: and Abraham weighed out to Ephron about 200 ounces of silver in bars of the quality usual in trade.

Starting in verse 17, the verses record that Abraham takes possession of the cave. Again from Ellicott:

(17) Before Mamre.—That is, opposite to it. The Haram wherein the bodies of Abraham and Sarah lie, is situated on the eastern side of the valley, so that Abraham’s oak-grove must have been on its western slope. The old Christian tradition, which places it at Ramet-el-Chalil, does not agree with this description, and is, moreover, too far away. The remains pointed out there as those of Abraham’s house, are the ruins of a heathen temple. But it is useless to look for any remains of the abode of a nomad dwelling in tents, especially after the site has been occupied by a great city. Moreover, Hebron itself has changed its position. For Benjamin of Tudela, who visited it nearly seven centuries ago, says that the old Hebron was on the heights, but had been abandoned, and that the new city lay in the valley.

The field, and the cave . . . —It is interesting to compare this document, so legally exact and full, with the numerous tablets of terra-cotta now in our museums, and which record with equal exactness the daily business transactions of the people of Ur-Chasdim, whence Abraham had migrated.

The note above reminds us of Abraham’s original home city: Ur-Chasdim. We do not really know *where* specifically that city is located through there is speculation that it was either in Sumer or in modern day Turkey.

The text tells us that after the negotiation was concluded, he buries Sarah. From The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 23:19

And after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife—with what funeral rites can only be conjectured. Monumental evidence attests that the practice of embalming the dead existed in Egypt in the reign of Amunophth I., though probably originating, earlier.; and an examination of the Mugheir vaults for burying the dead shows that among the early Chaldaeans it was customary to place the corpse upon a matting of reed spread upon a brick floor, the head being pillowed on a single sun-dried brick, and the body turned on its left side, the right arm falling towards the left, and the fingers resting on the edge of a copper bowl, usually placed on the palm of the left hand—in the cave of the field of Machpelah before: Mamre. In which also in succession his own remains and those of Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah were deposited, Rachel alone of the great patriarchal family being absent. This last resting-place of Abraham and his sons, as of Sarah and her daughters, has been identified with Ramet-el-Kalil, an hour’s journey to the north of Hebron (which is too distant), where the foundations of an ancient heathen temple are still pointed out as Abraham’s house; but is more probably to be sought for in the Mohammedan mosque Haram, built of colossal blocks, and situated on the mountain slope of Hebron towards the east (Robinson, Thomson, Stanley, Tristram), which, after having been for 600 years hermetically sealed against Europeans,—only three during that period having gained access to it in disguise,—was visited in 1862 by the Prince of Wales and party. The same is Hebron in the land of Canaan (vide Genesis 23:2).

We do not know what the funeral rites looked like nor are we certain as modern readers where the location of this cave is currently located. The note above speculates that the likely location is a modern day mosque.

Wikipedia has a lengthy and informative article on The Cave of the Patriarchs that is worth reading for a baseline of background and subsequent history on this location. Below is a portion of the history of the location since Israel took possession of Hebron:

Following the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in the Six-Day War, Hebron came under Jewish control for the first time in 2,000 years and the 700-year-long restriction limiting Jews to the seventh step outside was lifted.[43]

According to the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, Major general Rabbi Shlomo Goren‘s autobiography on 8 June 1967, during the Six-day war, he made his way from Gush Etzion to Hebron. In Hebron he realized that the Arabs had surrendered and quickly made his way to the Cave of the Patriarchs. He shot at the doors of the mosque with his Uzi submachine gun. But when that was ineffective in prying the doors open, he attached chains to his Jeep and the doors, proceeding to pull them down. He entered the mosque and began to pray, becoming the first Jew to enter the compound for about 700 years. While praying, a messenger from the Mufti of Hebron delivered a surrender note to him, whereby the rabbi replied “This place, Ma’arat HaMachpela, is a place of prayer and peace. Surrender elsewhere.”[44]

The first Jew to enter the underground caves was Michal Arbel, the 13-year-old daughter of Yehuda Arbel, chief of Shin Bet operations in the West Bank, because she was slender enough to be lowered into the narrow, 28 centimetres (11 in) wide hole on 9 October 1968, to gain access to the tomb site, after which she took photographs.[45]

Israeli settlers reestablished a small synagogue under the mosque. The first Jewish wedding ceremony to take place in it was on 7 August 1968.[46] The stone stairway leading to the mosque was also destroyed in order to erase the humiliating “seventh step”.[1]

In 1968, a special arrangement was made to accommodate Jewish services on the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement. This led to a hand-grenade being thrown on the stairway leading to the tomb on 9 October; 47 Israelis were injured, 8 seriously.[47][48] On 4 November, a large explosion went off near the gate to the compound and 6 people, Jews and Arabs, were wounded.[48] On Yom Kippur eve, 3 October 1976, an Arab mob destroyed several Torah scrolls and prayer books at the tomb.[49] In May 1980, an attack on Jewish worshippers returning from prayers at the tomb left 6 dead and 17 wounded.[50]

In 1981, a group of Jewish settlers from the Hebron community lead by Noam Arnon broke into the caves and took photos of the burial chambers.[51]

Tensions would later increase as the Israeli government signed the Oslo Accords in September 1993, which gave limited autonomy to the PLO in the West Bank city of Jericho and the Gaza Strip. The city of Hebron and the rest of the major Palestinian population centers in the West Bank were not included in the initial agreement.[52] The Cave of the Patriarchs massacre committed by Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli-American settler in February 1994, left 29 Palestinian Muslims dead and scores injured. The resulting riots resulted in a further 35 deaths.Jewish bride praying at the site before her wedding, 2010

The increased sensitivity of the site meant that in 1996 the Wye River Accords, part of the Arab-Israeli peace process, included a temporary status agreement for the site restricting access for both Jews and Muslims. As part of this agreement, the waqf (Islamic charitable trust) controls 81% of the building. This includes the whole of the southeastern section, which lies above the only known entrance to the caves and possibly over the entirety of the caves themselves. As a consequence, Jews are not permitted to visit the Cenotaphs of Isaac or Rebecca, which lie entirely within the southeastern section, except for 10 days a year that hold special significance in Judaism. One of these days is the Shabbat Chayei Sarah, when the Torah portion concerning the death of Sarah and the purchase by Abraham of the land in which the caves are situated, is read.

Thousands of years later, what we are reading about here in the text of Genesis remains a deep source of tension. Hebron has been in the news recently as a location for much of the recurrence of fighting between the Israeli government and Palestinians.

__________________________

Verse 20 brings to the fore some apparent confusion from early Christian Stephen as recorded in the Book of Acts.

Acts 7:14-16: 14 And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. 15 And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, 16 and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.

From Ellicott’s Commentary on Acts Chapter 7:

(16) And were carried over into Sychem.—The words appear to include Jacob, who was buried not at Sychem, but Machpelah (Genesis 1:13). If we limit the verb to the patriarchs, which is in itself a tenable limitation, we are met by the fresh difficulty that the Old Testament contains no record of the burial of any of the Twelve Patriarchs, with the exception of Joseph, whose bones were laid, on the occupation of Canaan, in Shechem (Joshua 24:32); and Josephus states (Ant. iv. 8, § 2) that they were buried at Hebron. This, however, only represents, at the best, a local tradition. In the time of Jerome (Ep. 86) the tombs of the Twelve Patriarchs were shown at Shechem, and this in its turn witnesses to a Samaritan tradition which continues to the present day (Palestine Exploration Report, Dec., 1877), and which Stephen, it may be, followed in preference to that of Judæa. Looking to the probabilities of the case, it was likely that the example set by Joseph would be followed by the other tribes, and that as Shechem was far more prominent than Hebron, as the centre of the civil and religious life of Israel in the time of Joshua, that should have been chosen as the burial-place of his brethren rather than Machpelah. Looking, again, to the fact that one of Stephen’s companions, immediately after his death, goes to Samaria as a preacher, and that there are good grounds for believing that both had been previously connected with it (see Note on Acts 6:5), we may probably trace to this influence his adoption of the Samaritan version of the history. The hated Sychar (Sir. 1:26; see Note on John 4:5) had, from Stephen’s point of view, a claim on the reverence of all true Israelites, and his assertion of that claim may well have been one of the causes of the bitterness with which his hearers listened to him.

That Abraham bought for a sum of money.—Here we seem to come across a direct contradiction to the narrative of Genesis. The only recorded transaction in which Abraham appears as a buyer, was his purchase of the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite (Genesis 23:16). The only recorded transaction in which the sons of Emmor, or Hamor, appear as sellers, was in Jacob’s purchase of the field at Shechem (Genesis 33:19

The note is actually quite a bit longer than the portion included above. If you are interested in reading more, you can follow the link.

Why does the potential for a mistake by Stephen actually matter? If there is a mistake on a plain point in the scripture, then the argument for inerrancy or inspiration falls into question.

The Pulpit Commentaries explains the contradiction as follows:

The Just of these hypotheses would not indeed be fatal to the Inspiration of the record; but the claims of either Luke or Stephen to be authoritative teachers on the subject of religion would be somewhat hard to maintain if it once were admitted that they had blundered on a plain point in their own national history. And yet it is doubtful if any of the proposed solutions of the problem is perfectly satisfactory; such as

(1) that the two purchases of Abraham and Jacob are here intentionally, for the sake of brevity, compressed into one account (Bengel, Pererius, Willet, Hughes); or

(2) that Abraham bought two graves, one at Hebron of Ephron the Hittite, as recorded by Moses, and another at Shechem of the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem (Words. worth); or

(3) that the words “which Abraham bought for a sum of money” should be regarded as a parenthesis, and the sentence read as intimating that Jacob and the fathers were carried over into Shechem, and (afterwards) by the sons of Hamor the lather of Shechem interred in Abraham’s sepulcher at Hebron (Cajetan). Obvious difficulties attach to each of them; but the facts shine out clear enough in spite of the encompassing obscurity, viz; that Abraham bought a tomb at Hebron, in which first the dust of Sarah was deposited, and to which afterwards the bodies of himself, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah were consigned, while Joseph and the twelve patriarchs, who all died in Egypt, were brought over to the promised land and buried in Jacob’s field at Shechem.

Many volumes of text have been written to explain the contradiction. J.W. Garvey’s 1881 text, Lands of the Bible, provides the argument that the apparent contradiction in the Book of Acts is an issue of improper translation.

I will borrow from John Simpson who uses the book to address the question at Quora.

As the two clauses stand in our version, “he died, himself, and our fathers; and they were carried over into Shecham,” there can be no doubt that “himself ” and “fathers” are common subjects of one verb “died,” and that the pronoun “they” before “were carried” refers to both alike. But it is not so in the original. The construction is different. The verb rendered died is in the singular number, eteleutasen, and it agrees only with autos, himself. The plural substantive “fathers” is not the subject of that verb, but of the plural eteleutasan understood. The construction having been changed with the introduction of the plural subject, it follows that the plural verb metetéthasan, “were carried,” belongs to fathers, and not to Jacob. The two clauses, properly punctuated, and with the ellipsis supplied, read thus: “and he died; and our fathers died, and were carried over into Shechem.” With this rendering and punctuation, which are certainly admissible, the contradiction totally disappears; and if the passage had been thus rendered at first into English, a contradiction would not have been thought of (1892, p. 121, emp. added, italics in orig.).

McGarvey’s point was this. If Jacob was buried at Machpelah in Hebron (and of that there is no doubt, since Genesis 49:29-30 so states), then Stephen must have been saying that it was the fathers alone who were buried in Shechem, not Jacob. This is quite possible. We know that at least one of the fathers—Joseph—was buried in Shechem (Joshua 24:32). And while the Old Testament does not record the burial places for many of the other patriarchs, we can glean some information from secular history on the subject. In his discussion on Acts 7, the well-known commentator Albert Barnes mentioned that some Jewish historians (e.g., Kuinoel) held to the view that the fathers were buried at Shechem (1949, p. 124). In addition, Jerome, a fourth-century writer from Palestine, stated: “The twelve patriarchs were buried not in Arbes [Hebron—AB/KB], but in Shechem” (as quoted in Barnes, p. 124).

A translation issue actually makes sense given the context of the Book of Acts. If Stephen (in a room full of people who would know the history) made a glaring mistake in his speech, it would have been noticed by his audience and pointed out. The record does not indicate that this happened. In addition, a glaring mistake would likely have been noticed (and possibly even corrected) in the original language renderings of this text when the mistake would have been more noticeable to the early Christian converts from Judaism. Since there appears to have been no original language issue with what Stephen said on this point, then it is likely that the contradiction arises from translation scholarship.

It is my experience that a study of the Bible (Old and New Testament alike) are done with great difficultly unless the original language is not also considered. I have been surprised in my own studies how often that teaching on points of controversy – without reference to the original language – occurs. You should be suspicious then if someone is teaching you any mysteries from within the text without making frequent reference back to the underlying original text.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s