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Posts Tagged ‘burial’

quiet placeIn Genesis 23, almost the entire chapter is dedicated to the negotiations between Abraham and the local Hittites about a parcel of land and a cave in which to bury Sarah. And although my Bible [NIV] has labeled this chapter “the death of Sarah,” I think it should have been called Abraham’s necropolis.

Again Abraham bowed down before the people of the land and he said to Ephron in their hearing, “Listen to me, if you will. I will pay the price of the field. Accept it from me so I can bury my dead there.”Ephron answered Abraham, “Listen to me, my lord; the land is worth four hundred shekelsof silver, but what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.” [Genesis 23:12-15]

This negotiation, I understand, was rather standard for the day with the exception that it was between a foreigner (Abraham) and a local (Ephron) Hittite. No one believes that Ephron would have given the land to Abraham, that wasn’t how things were done. Instead, there was a lot of “saving face” and gestures of respect and false civilities.

In any case, Abraham would never allow himself to “owe” Ephron for the gift of land. After all, gifts of this kind usually carry strings attached. And perhaps Ephron thought Abraham’s sojourn in the land of Canaan was relatively temporary. We’ll never know. But for Abraham, this was the promised land of God and it was his belief that one day his descendants would indeed conquer the land. This parcel became the first parcel in that conquest. And in later years, not just Sarah, but Abraham himself along with Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, and even Jacob’s bones were carried there by his son, Joseph, many generations later. Only Rachel was buried elsewhere, not far, but immediately after dying of childbirth.

So, why devote an entire chapter to this negotiation? I think the land was important as “Abraham’s little green acre.” I think it symbolized Abraham’s faith in God’s promise, which drove Abraham all of his life. I believe he expected this land and cave to be come the great tomb of the patriarchs. This little piece of land was Abraham’s personal investment in the promise.

He wasn’t trying to “make” things happen (unlike Sarah who had tried to hurry things along by giving Hagar to Abraham to prime the pump for descendants). Abraham was simply putting a standard in the ground, and saying, “we begin here.” In the end, Abraham was still considered a nomad until the day of his death and he never saw the true occupation of the land by God’s people, but he is buried there. He took a foreign piece of land and transformed it.

Then there is a lesson for me. How often have I been overwhelmed by circumstances and unable to see how situations could change or be different? But I think I see a way here. I only have to claim one small piece of the situation. As my pastor suggested, I only have to do the one possible thing, that choice that is within my power or ability to do, and then God can do the rest. I lay down an anchor but God calms the sea.

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ancient tomb    The whole point of buying the field and the cave from Ephron was to avoid burying Sarah on or in foreign soil. Once purchased, the land became an oasis of Abrahamic land, a place and purchase that took him and his household out of “stranger” status (vs. 4). And although he might continue to lead a somewhat nomadic life, this place would root him to that area by the very same laws of the Canaanites. It was a serious transaction.

Genesis 23:12-13Again Abraham bowed down before the people of the landand he said to Ephron in their hearing, “Listen to me, if you will. I will pay the price of the field. Accept it from me so I can bury my dead there.”

Austrian Cemetery

Austrian Cemetery

I am sure other people in Abraham’s household had died in the thirty-plus years that had lived, worked, and traveled the Negev desert. But, when his own Sarah died, she was almost royalty to those who lived in that time period. Abraham was considered a “prince” because of his great wealth and tribe and herds. To stop and lay down his wife in that place was huge to his household as well as the Canaanites. What Abraham created here was the family burial ground. This would be sacred ground from that time forward and their direct descendants would be expected to be buried there.

german-cemetary

German Cemetary

In modern times, we have lost some of this respect for the burial ground. In Ancient Israel, burning of the body was forbidden (this form of burial was considered to be a punishment for idols and enemies. I am not saying we should not do this in our world, but I do think it’s interesting, this difference in cultural norms.

But in the United States, even those who are buried are not respected. While in many German and Eastern European cemeteries, it is the family joy and obligation to care for the family burial plot, to beautify it, to make it a place one would desire to go and spend time. They are like a series of mini-parks, each plotted area touched by the uniqueness of the family. The burial ground is part of the cycle of life and death. But not here.

New York cemetery

New York Cemetery

In our world, we have relegated the dead to sweeping greens where  paid workers run lawn mowers and weed whackers. In some cases, we we might see  long-lasting plastic flowers jammed into the ground or perhaps an artificial wreath. What is the point? Who is blessed by these? Neither the dead or the living.

Polish cemetery

Polish Cemetary

In my life, I have no burial grounds anywhere. My mother cremated my father and requested the same for herself. They now share an urn which I have in my possession and although it has a small shelf with pictures, I do not think about them much anymore. There are stories that erupt every now and again, but there is no sense of place for them. My husband has asked to be donated to science and then, as far as he is concerned, the body can be cremated and disposed of, like a family pet whose ashes were not saved. For him, it is the soul that continues and has no need for the corporeal flesh. He is probably right.

But I keep thinking about this idea of a selected place, different from today’s norEarthm, but more like ancient times, a place for family to extend itself in memory. Sometimes I think the Japanese and other orientals have it right, their nurture of the ancestors.

And yet, I know, Jesus left the tomb. He was not buried with his family. There was not talk of transferring the body after the Sabbath. Joseph of Arimathea embraced Jesus as family by giving him space in that tomb. Jesus left it and in essence, his departure also said that no single place could embody him. He was of the entire Earth.

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