The Covenant between God and the Patriarch Abraham is an essential event in the history of the Jewish people. Recorded in the book of Genesis, God has Abraham set up an array of animals, he walks through them, and God proceeds to lay out His plan: Abraham’s children would be enslaved in a foreign land, but God would avenge them and redeem His people with great wealth. He also promised, not for the first time, or the last, “To your offspring I will assign this land…” (Genesis 15:18).
What an odd promise. We’ve accepted this story as our heritage until now, but if we think about it, how many of us have received or made promises relating to our great-great-great-grandchildren? Would we believe if we were told they would get something hundreds of years later? Of course, Abraham was chosen for his unwavering faith in God. And of course, we know it came true. But the idea is still amazing.
While it is commendable that he had such strong faith in the promise, it is also commendable that he did not set too much store in the promise, or misconstrue it to meet his own needs.
When looking for a burial plot for his beloved wife Sarah, Abraham came across a cave owned by Ephron the Hittite, and offered to purchase it from him. The Land was in Cana’an, the Promised Land. The Land that Abraham knew his descendents would inherit. Yet still, Abraham requested to purchase the land. Even further, when Ephron coyly refused, then jacked up the price exponentially just seconds later, Abraham paid the price with no negotiation. Abraham respected God’s will, understood the promise was not applicable to him personally, and executed the transaction with integrity.
In fact, his actions were so respectable, that they also bring to mind a commitment to justice, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Not only did God already demonstrate that he deemed Abraham so worthy that his descendents would inherit the Promised Land, but Abraham proved His choice even further with this transaction. The sale, in essence stamping a big red “PAID” stamp on the cave and the surrounding property, was recorded again in reference to Jacob’s burial: “the cave which is in the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre, in the Land of Canaan, the field that Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite for a burial site” (Gen. 49:30). In addition to Sara and Jacob, Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca and Leah were buried there as well.
The Torah takes care to point out how Jacob took note of the specifications of God’s promise as well, and purchased his own piece of land in Cana’an. “The parcel of land where he pitched his tent he purchased from the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for a hundred kesitahs. He set up an altar there, and called it El-elohe-yisrael [God of Israel]” (Gen. 33:19-20). Joseph’s bones are later buried in this plot: “The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem, in the piece of ground which Jacob had bought for a hundred kesitahs from the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, and which had become a heritage of the Josephites” (Josh. 24:32).
While God’s promise was certainly unique in content, and in time frame, the forefathers demonstrated their integrity and the very reason that they were entrusted with God’s sacred Land and Torah through their actions.