At his Sunday morning cabinet meeting this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu donned a kippah to read from the Torah. Two days earlier the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, “acting on a request from the Palestinians, declared Hebron’s Old City to be a heritage site in danger” (https://www.jta.org/2017/07/09/news-opinion/israel-middle-east/netanyahu-reads-ftom-genesis-to-illustrate-jewish-peoples-israels-claim-to-cave-of-patriarchs).
In response to the resolution, Netanyahu read Genesis 23:16–19.
Abraham heard Ephron. So Abraham weighed out to Ephron the silver that he had spoken of in the ears of the sons of Heth—400 shekels of silver at the merchant’s rate. Now Ephron’s field that is in Machpelah next to Mamre—the field and the cave that is in it, and all the trees that are in the field in all its surrounding territory—was handed over to Abraham as a purchased possession in the eyes of the sons of Heth, before all those who enter the gate of his city. Afterward, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah next to Mamre (that is, Hebron), in the land of Canaan. (Tree of Life Version)
Netanyahu’s point is clear enough: Hebron and the cave of Machpelah have been Jewish heritage sites since the days of Abraham, and it’s wrong for UNESCO to focus only on their significance to Palestinians. Israel raised similar objections last year when UNESCO passed a resolution that appeared to deny Israel’s claim on Jerusalem. Despite the UNESCO terminology, Netanyahu declared, “The connection between the Jewish People and Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs is one of purchase and history which may be without parallel in the history of nations” (www.jta.org).
The story of Abraham’s purchase of the cave of Machpelah has an additional implication, just as relevant as this one. Years before the purchase, “After Lot separated himself from him, Adonai had said to Abram, ‘lift up your eyes, now, and look from the place where you are, to the north, south, east and west. For all the land that you are looking at, I will give to you and to your seed forever’” (Gen. 13:14–15). This promise was repeated several times and Abraham could have argued that Ephron’s field actually belonged to him and his descendants and demanded a place to bury Sarah. Or he could have gathered his followers, as he’d done years before when he successfully rescued Lot (Gen. 14:14ff.), and mounted a military campaign to take possession of the cave. Instead, Abraham approached the owner with humility (“I am a stranger and an alien residing among you;” 23:3), and negotiated a deal that most commentators think was pretty sweet for Ephron.
This purchase reveals that regarding the land there is both Promise, which is from above, immutable, and firm; and Possession, which involves human effort, and its attendant successes and failures. Centuries later, when the Torah is given at Mount Sinai, it will add conditions, not to the Promise, but to Possession of the Land. Later, in Deuteronomy, when Moses addresses the generation about to take possession of the Land, he emphasizes that it’s not Israel’s military might or numerous population that will gain the victory, but God’s gift (e.g. Dt. 7:7–8). To continue to merit that gift—to maintain possession—the Israelites must walk in accord with his Torah.
Keep, therefore, all the Instruction that I enjoin upon you today, so that you may have the strength to enter and take possession of the land that you are about to cross into and possess, and that you may long endure upon the soil that the Lord swore to your fathers to assign to them and to their heirs, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Dt. 11:8–9, NJPS)
As a Messianic Zionist, my hope doesn’t rest on military and political power for Israel’s future, although we must pay attention to these, but ultimately on God’s purposes and on teshuvah—a return to God and his ways—among my people.
This distinction between Promise and Possession is vital to our discussion of Israel today. The promise to Abraham establishes that the Jewish return to the land of Israel in the past 150 years fulfils a biblical mandate. The specific form of return embodied in the state of Israel, however, is a matter of possession, a pragmatic, human response to the promised return.
Current Palestinian leadership may be a tougher negotiating partner than Ephron—or perhaps no partner at all, as some claim—but it would not violate God’s promise for Israel to accept a less-than-complete possession of the land for the sake of peace. Abraham had a clearer right to the Land than anyone, and he acknowledged that possessing the Land might be a long and arduous process when he handed Ephron 400 shekels for the cave of Machpelah.