Thoughts on Parashat Chayei Sarah

This week’s parasha is Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23.1 – 25.18,[i] which deals with the death of Sarah, and the death of Abraham as well. It was after the death of Sarah that Abraham sent his servant back to his father’s household to get a wife for Isaac. Some would ask, if the LORD separated Abraham from his country and family (Genesis 12.1), why did he send back there to get a wife for Isaac, and why would Jacob in the future go back for a wife as well. The answer is simple, Abraham, as well as Isaac in the future, were adamant that their descendants were not to intermarry with the Canaanites (Genesis 24.3; 28.1). The Canaanite pantheon was largely a hybrid blending of local agricultural and fertility gods as well as those of Mesopotamia and Egypt. As a follower of what he understood as the true God and Creator of the Universe, Abraham did not want to assimilate with the local inhabitants and their gods. He probably thought it would be easier to bring someone from his family into his way of understanding than to try and convince a Canaanite to give up their family and ancestral gods. John Walton notes,

In Mesopotamian language, Abraham would have been described as having “acquired a god.” That he was led to a new land and separated from his father’s household would have effectively cut any ties with previous deities (located in city and family), and opened the way for Yahweh to be understood as the only deity to which Abraham had any obligation. By making a break with his land, his family, and his inheritance, Abraham was also breaking all of his religious ties. In his new land Abraham would have no territorial gods; as a new people, he would have brought no family gods; having left his country he would have no national or city gods; and it was Yahweh who filled this void, becoming the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” the “God of the Fathers.”[ii]

In Canaan, Abraham considers himself as an outsider (or foreigner) and a sojourner (ger v’toshav, when he speaks to the sons of Heth and to Ephron the Hittite. The NET bible translates ger v’toshav as “I am a temporary settler or resident alien among you.” Why is this important? Because, even though Abraham lived among the Canaanites and Hittites, he was in fact separate from them. He had a promise from the LORD that the land of Canaan would belong to his descendants (Genesis 12.7), but it wasn’t happening yet. Even though we may have promises from the LORD, it does not mean that we choose the time of their fulfillment. Abraham could have received a burial plot for Sarah for free, as a gift from sons of Heth or Ephron, but he did not want something that would potentially revert to the original giver. Like David when he wanted to buy the threshing floor from Araunah the Jebusite in order to follow the LORD’s command and build an altar (cf. 2 Samuel 24.18-25). Araunah wanted to give the property to David, but David replied, “I will not offer burnt offerings to Adonai my God that cost me nothing” (24.24). Returning to Abraham, he was adamant that he needed to purchase the land, so it was that a gravesite became to first legitimate possession of Abraham in the promised land.

Much has been said about Abraham’s death, “So Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, old and satisfied” (Genesis 25.8). Though a bit morbid, wouldn’t that be a great epitaph for one’s grave marker. He (or she) “died at a good old age, old and satisfied.” If we look back at the last three weeks, Abraham’s life was anything but easy, stress and worry free. But he had a position that few if any can claim,

“But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, descendant of Abraham, My friend…” (Isaiah 41.8)

It was Abraham’s obedience, faith, and trust that merited his being called a friend of Hashem. We began to see this relationship when Hashem stated in Vayera, “Should I keep secret from Abraham what I am about to do…” (Genesis 18.17). Regardless of the circumstance, Abraham trusted Hashem so that it was said that he “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness”[a]—and he was called God’s friend” (James 2.23). Though not explicitly like Abraham, Rashi notes that Sarah too died well; commenting on the phrase, “the years of the life of Sarah” he notes “that all of them were equally good.”[iii]

In the Haftarah, 1Kings 1.1-31, the last days of King David are contrasted to Abraham’s. King David couldn’t stay warm, he needed a new, young concubine just to sleep. Worse than that, his family and kingdom were still wracked by chaos and internal disputes. For one who once danced ecstatically before the LORD and wrote numerous psalms of praise, in the end he was anything but of “a good old age, old and satisfied.” May it be that our last days are like those of Abraham and not David.

Shabbat Shalom

[i] Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

[ii] Walton, John H., Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2006, p 151.

[iii] Comment on Genesis 23.1 –

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Michael Hillel with his wife Vered and their three children, made aliyah from the US in late 80s, and in biblical fashion has, for the last 27 years, done whatever his hands have found to do. In 2013 Michael began working on a MA degree in Messianic Jewish Theology. Using the tools learned from his studies, he has been writing teaching and devotional materials from both the Tanakh and Apostolic Writings. Since Messianic Judaism shares a communal context with both Judaism and Christianity, he incorporates material from both traditionally Jewish and Christian perspectives.