14. The Death of Sarah and Abraham

You could make an argument that today’s episode is one of the most important stories in all of the Torah, because it tells how the Jewish People obtained our first permanent settlement in the Promised Land. It is a place so deeply associated with our earliest traditions, stories, and personalities, that it explains a great deal as to why Jews are so connected to the land of Israel.

 

THE PLOT

Sarah dies at the age of 127 and, pleading that he is still a stranger in the land, Abraham asks the local Canaanites if he can purchase a cave in which to bury her. Ephron the landowner, recognizing Abraham’s standing in the community as a respected figure, offers to give Abraham both the cave and its surrounding land for free. Abraham insists, instead, on paying full price for both, which comes to 400 shekels. Her tomb is known as the Cave of Machpelah and is located in what is today the city of Hebron in the West Bank.

Abraham takes another wife, Keturah, and fathers six more children with her. He gives his entire inheritance, however, to Isaac, his only son by Sarah and the one destined to father the great nation. Finally, in Chapter 25 of Genesis, Abraham dies at the age of 175. He is buried next to Sarah by his sons Isaac and Ishmael, and the Torah says that he died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years, and was gathered to his people.

 

MAIN CHARACTERS

Abraham: the first Jew, and perpetual stranger, lives out the rest of his life in Canaan, purchasing a burial cave for Sarah and dying himself at the age of 175.

Sarah: dies at the age of 127. Her burial cave becomes the first plot of land owned by the Jewish People in the Promised Land, establishing their presence until the present day.

 

KEY THEMES

  • The duality, or ambiguity, of Abraham’s relationship with the land of Canaan. He is both a stranger and living in the land promised him by God. The idea that we are resident aliens is a powerful part of the Jewish narrative. To both belong to a place, and to feel apart, seems like the quintessential Jewish historical experience. The purchase of the Cave of Machpelah marks the beginnings of our firm roots in the land of Israel. Here was the indisputable proof that our ancestor Abraham definitively owned the land, and paid full price for it, on the condition that it be forever in his family’s possession.
  • The primacy of Sarah’s role in the origins of the Jewish People is physically demonstrated in this story. She doesn’t get buried in Abraham’s tomb, HE gets buried in hers. That fact that it is Sarah’s tomb that first anchors the Jewish people permanently in Israel suggests the high esteem in which our ancestors held her. The Torah records her as someone who has a complete story all her own.
  • This story is why there is no simple answer to the question that always comes up on Birthright: why doesn’t Israel simply leave the West Bank territory to the Palestinians? The Cave of Machpelah is the resting place for the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs, and is thus an essential part of Jewish history, culture, and faith. Yet Hebron is an overwhelmingly Palestinian city in the West Bank. Today the complex containing the cave is governed by the Muslim authorities, not Jewish ones, and a byzantine set of rules and customs mandates which religion gets to pray where, when, and under what conditions. Jewish prayer is very restricted, but on the other hand the Israeli army controls all the security in and around the site. How can these two people share such a sacred site in contested land?

 

FUN FACTS

The Cave of Machpelah (also called the Tomb of the Patriarchs) is the second most holy site for the Jewish People (and the oldest Jewish site in the world), and contains the tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah — all the patriarchs and matriarchs except for Rachel. The present tomb structure aboveground was built by King Herod, the same ruler who built the Temple Mount and the Western Wall complex.

  • Sarah is the only woman whose age at death (127) is recorded in the Torah.
  • A shekel is a bit less than half an ounce of silver, about 12 grams, and was the primary medium for business transactions in this era. Coins wouldn’t be invented for several hundred years.

 

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© Jason Harris 2017