The Tree of Life /10
Reflections on the Book of Genesis by Luigino Bruni

The man who has received a call is a ‘resident stranger’

I discovered later, and I’m still discovering up to this moment that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith.’ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reality and Resistance


The first time that the word “market” appears in Genesis (23:16) is in the selling and buying of a tomb, the down payment for the Promised Land. The first part of the land of Canaan to become Abraham’s property is a field he buys to bury his wife Sarah. God had promised him “property” (ahuzzà: 17,8) of the promised land, but the only land he manages to make his “property” (ahuzzà: 23,4) is a tomb.

 It happens often to those who follow a voice and set out on a journey in good faith – and the promised land appears, they live on it, they even love it but it does not become their property. Sarah dies in the land of Canaan, but she dies as a stranger and guest in that land. »I am a foreigner (ger) and stranger (tosab) among you« (23:4), says Abraham when he starts negotiating with the Hittites for the land where he could bury his wife – it is into the same land, the field and cave of Machpelah, where Isaac, Rebeccah, Leah and Jacob will also be buried. This first sepulchral property is actually telling us a lot about Abraham’s call, but also about the adventures of those who try to follow a voice, a call in their lives: being strangers, walking the lands of others, the mobile tent of the wandering Aramean are all essential parts of the condition of those who respond to a call or try to do so.

If Sarah and Abraham were the proprietors of only a tomb, then the promised land is inhabited, loved and enriched by them, but it is not possessed by them. This story does not only tell us about the importance of burying the dead in that culture (and in general, in the Antiquity: it is enough to think of Antigone); but also that to cross through the promised lands without possessing them is a high expression of that gratuitousness which is the truest nature of every call. By the acquisition of this land from the Hittites for Sarah’s tomb, Abraham transforms that territory into a “place” that will become a sacred place eventually; but the deeper message in this deal is that Sarah’s tomb does not make property or place out of the promised land which is always in front of us.

It is very interesting and revealing about the entire ancient Middle Eastern culture and about its contractual practice (the signs of which are completely lost in the suq of Damascus or Teheran) to see the process of closing a contract between Abraham and the owner of the field.  The selling price is shown as an almost marginal detail inside a conversation in which generous offers, praises and recognitions of dignity and honour are exchanged by the counterparts: »Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs.« (23:6) And Abraham replies: »If you are willing to let me bury my dead … intercede with Ephron son of Zohar on my behalf so he will sell me the cave of Machpelah … Ask him to sell it to me for the full price.« (23:8-9) Ephron seems to be willing to give him the piece of land even free of charge: »No, my lord. (…) Listen to me; I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. I give it to you in the presence of my people.« (23:11) At this point Abraham ‘bowed down before the people of the land‘ and he said,  »Listen to me, if you will. I will pay the price of the field. Accept it from me…« (23:13) The price itself only appears at this point of the dialogue: »Listen to me, my lord; the land is worth four hundred shekels of silver, but what is that between you and me?« (23:15) Abraham took the four hundred ‘shekels of silver, according to the weight current among the merchants‘ (23:16), and so ‘the field and the cave in it were deeded to Abraham by the Hittites‘ (23:20) – shekel was the measure of weight, about 11 grams. It is a high price when compared with the one paid by Jeremiah for a field (17 shekels of silver: Jer 32:9), or with the silver coins paid for Judah’s betrayal (that could be Roman dinars [3,9 grams] but shekels, too, as the latter were much more common in Jerusalem in that time).

This “economic themed” dialogue between Abraham and Ephron – notwithstanding its symbolic complexity, much of which seem way too distant to us – is very telling about the economic exchanges that are encounters of persons. In fact, they are authentically human encounters if we do not rid them of their human dimensions, especially that of words. ‘The first merchandise to be exchanged at the market are words‘, this is what an African friend of mine told me one day. In his land markets undisturbed by the logic of our individualistic-financial capitalism still exist and resist while the world is being transformed into a hypermarket without persons, without encounters, without words, without honour and recognition of the other’s face. Yes, due payments should be “honoured“, but first of all, persons can and should be honoured in the markets, otherwise economic life and we ourselves with it will be turned into sadness. But that ancient business encounter tells us that a contract with the “full price” paid can be – and normally is – a more adequate means than a donation to obtain important things from others with whom we are not in a relationship to be exchanging gifts. Gifts are good and relationally and morally superior to contracts only if there are good reasons to offer them and receive them, as Isaiah reminds us, too: ‘Those who walk righteously and speak what is right, who reject gain from extortion and keep their hands from accepting bribes‘ (33:15). Gifts without good reasons for them being given free of charge are none other but ‘bribes’ as Isaiah says, that is, donations, the gifts of the king-pharaoh without the sense of gratuitousness.

Starting from gamble to the exploitation of the earth, the world is full of gains “originating from abuse” that will eventually become “donations”, which the non-profit sector should not accept and “wash their hands” – hands that are still too rarely “agitated”. A contract, therefore, could be a good means even for acquiring the first patch through the down-payment of the promised land for the worthy burying of a wife. The most innovative and poor-friendly economic and social experiences we have generated throughout history have always been and are the intertwining of gifts and contracts, of gratuitousness and musts, of monastic rules and grace, obligations and freedom – they were contracts in the service of gifts and gifts in the service of contracts.

But Genesis also suggests that a contract, just like a gift, is deeply ambivalent (let us not forget that ambivalence is an important key to the reading of the biblical texts and to life as well if we want to penetrate into them).  Three chapters later (25:29-34), in fact, we realise that the second “contract” of buying and selling in Genesis is the one through which Jacob gets hold of Esau‘s birthright in exchange for a ‘pot of beans‘. The contract is considered legitimate also in the buying and selling of the beans-for-birthright (it will not be returned to Esau), but there is an explicit moral judgement for the extremely low price: ‘So Esau despised his birthright.‘ (25:34). Abraham had valued the field in which he would bury his wife and paid a high price for it; Esau was satisfied with too little which was telling about how little consideration he gave for his status. Prices should be indicative of values, and when they aren’t, they are wrong, and this is valid for yesterday and today equally.

The world has always suffered because of prices that were too high and so have excluded the masses of the poor from the possession of important goods. However, our capitalism is also suffering because of the prices that are too low: primary materials of food exchanged for a price that is lower than the value of ‘a pot of beans‘, prices that do not show value or values because they are the outcome of speculations and egoistic or short-sighted visions whose calculations do not include the future use of these resources by our children and grandchildren, a future that our capitalism values for less than a ‘pot of beans‘.

At the end of the amazing adventure of Abraham, the father of all – that I found a very lovable story – the last word should go to all those who, emigrants like Abraham and Sarah, died and continue dying in a foreign land, but without having any “shekels” to buy a tomb for their departed spouse. Abraham bought the tomb of Machpelah also for them, the deposit for a land without owners, the promised land.

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 27/04/2014