Abraham’s beloved wife Sarah died in Kiriath-arba (Hebron) at the age of 127. The original designation Kiriath-arba, meaning “city of Arba,” appears to preserve the name of its Anakim founder, Arba. (Joshua 14:15) Lying at an elevation of about 3,000 feet (c. 900 meters) above sea level, Kiriath-arba or Hebron is situated approximately 19 miles (c. 30 kilometers) south of Jerusalem. The people of the native population in the region were called “sons of Heth.” This expression is commonly rendered “Hittites” in modern translations. Based on Genesis 10:15, the “sons of Heth” were the descendants of Heth the son of Canaan, the son of Noah’s son Ham. (23:1, 2)
After mourning Sarah’s death, Abraham approached the “sons of Heth” (probably elders in the community) to request a burial site for her. As an alien resident in the region, he did not own any property and was dependent on the land owners to grant his request. They recognized Abraham as a “prince of God” or a mighty prince, probably on the basis of his large household, including many servants, and sizable flocks and herds. The land owners offered him the opportunity to select a choice burial site, assuring him that none among them would withhold from him any place of his choosing. (23:2-6)
Respectfully, Abraham bowed to the “people of the land,” the “sons of Heth” to whom he had made his request. Apparently Abraham did not desire to be given a site within a land owner’s property but wanted actual ownership of the burial site. Therefore, he asked the men to entreat Ephron the son of Zohar to make available the “cave of Machpelah,” which was located at the end of his field. Abraham wanted the men to witness the purchase of the cave for its full price. (23:7-9)
It so happened that Ephron was sitting among the “sons of Heth,” and he spoke up in the hearing of all of them, including all the people who passed through the city gate. For a burial place, Ephron offered to give Abraham the field that included the cave. Again Abraham bowed down before the “people of the land” and, in their hearing, directed his words to Ephron. Abraham made it clear to Ephron that he wanted ownership of the burial site, telling him that he would give him the price of the field. Ephron then set the purchase price at 400 silver shekels (didrachmas [LXX]), adding, “What is that between me and you?” The question has been variously interpreted in modern translations. “Why should we haggle over such a small amount?” (CEV) “I won’t argue with you over the price.” (NCV) “What is that between friends?” (NLT) (23:10-15)
The purchase price does appear to have been extremely high, and it is not evident from the context that Ephron had ruled out the option for negotiation. There is a possibility that the entire property was quite large, justifying a payment of 400 silver shekels. Whatever the situation may have been, Abraham agreed to Ephron’s terms, weighed out the 400 silver shekels according to the then-existing standard weight. For the purchase price, Abraham obtained the field in Machpelah in the vicinity of “Mamre, that is, Hebron.” The purchase included the cave and all the trees on the land, and the link of Mamre to Hebron could indicate that Mamre was in the region of Hebron. After obtaining full possession of the site in the presence of the people who witnessed the legal transaction, Abraham buried his wife in the cave. The name Machpelah is drawn from a root that means “double,” suggesting that there may have been a double entrance to the cave or that there were two recesses within the cave. In the Septuagint, the “cave of Machpelah” (23:9) is called “double cave.” (23:16-20)
In the Septuagint, the 400 silver shekels (23:16) are referred to as 400 “didrachmas.” In the first century CE, the Jews paid an annual temple tax of a didrachma or two drachmas. (Matthew 17:24) The Romans officially evaluated the silver drachma as three fourths of a denarius. On the basis of ancient shekel weights, a silver didrachma was worth considerably less than a silver shekel.
Two clay tablets with text in cuneiform script found at Hattusa (Bogazkoy), in modern-day Turkey, contain Hittite laws. If laws of this nature existed among the “sons of Heth” in the time of Abraham, they may provide some background for understanding why Abraham only wanted to buy the cave and not the entire property, whereas Ephron appears to have insisted on the sale of the field with the cave and all the trees on the land. The owner of the smaller part of a property was not responsible for rendering certain services, but the owner of the larger section would continue to be responsible for providing the required services. In the third edition of Ancient Near Eastern Texts (page 191), the following provisions are included in paragraphs 46 and 47: “If in a village anyone holds fields under socage as inheritance — if the fields have all been given to him, he shall render the services; if the fields have been given to him only to a small part, he shall not render the services, they shall render them from his father’s house ... If anyone buys all the fields of a craftsman, he shall render the services. If he buys a great (part of) the fields, he shall not render the services.”
According to paragraph 183 of the Hittite laws, the price for an acre of land was set at three silver shekels. On this basis, Ephron’s asking price for the field was exorbitant, unless it consisted of many acres of land.