Abraham and Ephron’s Honorable Dance

There’s a fascinating book called Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, by Kenneth Bailey. The premise of the book is that the life and ministry of Jesus can be better understood when viewed through the lens of Middle Eastern culture, of which Jesus was a native. It’s a good read and I highly recommend it.

Having lived myself in the Middle East and Central Asia, I’ve found other parts of scripture are also unveiled as I’m able to see them informed by these cultures. Consider this interesting back-and-forth between Abraham and Ephron the Hittite in Genesis 23:

[7] Abraham rose and bowed to the Hittites, the people of the land. [8] 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, [9] 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 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. (Genesis 23:7–16 ESV)

Sarah has just died and Abraham seeks a place to bury her in the land where he and his household are nomadic sojourners. So Abraham and Ephron enter into a curious exchange over what to pay for the field and cave that Abraham desires.

In ancient Near Eastern culture, and to this day in that part of the world, generosity and honor are some of the highest virtues. Men seek above all to avoid the appearance of greed or stinginess. Rather, they seek to be hospitable, magnanimous, and honorable.

In this very public and potentially tense exchange between Abraham, the wealthy immigrant, and Ephron, the native (perhaps living in the twilight years of the Hittite empire), it is important that both sides uphold their own honor and the honor of the other party. Both sides need to save face, but they also need to get business done. Sarah has died and it is important to bury her quickly. Abraham needs to find out the price of the field and get permission to buy it. Ephron needs to demonstrate that he is acting honorably toward this sojourner and that he is not greedy for money. Here is how the dance commences:

  1. Abraham announces his desire to buy Ephron’s land, and thus do the honorable thing by paying
  2. Ephron says that Abraham can have the land for free, thus making a very generous offer in front of the elders of the community
  3. Abraham insists on paying, not willing to take advantage of Ephron’s words, knowing Ephron does actually expect him to pay
  4. Ephron once again says that Abraham can go ahead and have the land, but he subtly names the price of the field
  5. Abraham listens to Ephron and pays the full price of the field and buries his dead

Notice how both men were able to get important business done while maintaining one another’s reputation and honor in the eyes of the community. Ephron is able to say that he offered the field for free and Abraham is able to say that he paid was justly Ephron’s due. For both to save face, Ephron’s refusal to accept money for the land had to be understood as what it was, an offer made as part of a very public honoring of Abraham, but not one that he actually wanted Abraham to take him up on. On the other hand, if Abraham had simply taken Ephron up on his offer of free land, the community would likely have been shocked and Abraham’s reputation would have taken a hit.

Why the dance? Why not just speak more directly for the sake of efficiency? Welcome to the complexities of living in a society that values honor and respect more than efficiency and directness.

I had a very similar exchange like this happen today, when texting a colleague’s language tutor. I asked him how many lessons’ payments we owed him. The dance went like this:

Tutor: “About the lessons, let it be Mr. AW, I don’t want to get money for those lessons.”

Me: “Mr. Mhmed, it’s no problem at all. Another teacher has already offered to bring it to you. Just let me know how many lessons you had and I will tell him.”

Tutor: “Mr. AW, just three hours and fifteen minutes, but for me it’s no problem if you let it be.”

Me: “Thank you so much Mr. Mhmed. We appreciate your kind help in teaching our colleague.”

I then went on to set up the delivery of payment for the language lessons. Even though Mhmed said he didn’t want me to pay him for those hours, I have learned that it is important to pay it anyway and to graciously push past my friend’s honorable offer.

A Westerner might initially feel that these offers are disingenuous or even dishonest. Were Ephron or Mhmed being dishonest by making offers they weren’t wanting others to actually accept? I don’t think that’s what’s going on. Offers like this need to be understood more in the realm of poetic flourish, an important way of verbally communicating respect. They are real gestures of respect and generosity, but it’s very important that neither side take them as literal offers. For a rough parallel, think about our own saying: I would give you the shirt off my back.

A former colleague once accepted a delivery driver’s offer of a free pizza. This Midwesterner was new in Central Asia and was thrilled that this kind delivery driver wasn’t going to make him pay for his pizza. “Wow! They’re so nice in this country!” The driver walked back to his motorbike, paused, then sullenly returned to my colleague’s door.

“I’m so sorry, if I don’t bring back the money for this pizza, I will lose my job.”

My colleague was of course mortified that he had almost cost this man his job by taking his offer too literally. We missionaries have all had to learn over time that it’s important to push back at least three times when a shop owner, taxi driver, or anyone offers us something for free. By not accepting these generous offers, we enable the one making them to save face as a generous person, and we also save face as those who don’t take advantage of others.

Like Ephron, many from Middle Eastern cultures simply consider it polite to offer something two or three times, even if they can’t actually afford it. They in turn expect others to decline these offers several times, and then if appropriate (such as an offer for tea) to accept it graciously at the third or fourth offer or in some indirect fashion such as, “please don’t trouble yourself.” While Western mamas teach their kids to say please and thank you, Middle Eastern mamas teach theirs to say no the first few times, even if they desire to say yes.

It’s all a part of the honorable dance, still going strong thousands of years after Abraham and Ephron took the floor.

Photo by Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash

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