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As Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas start down the road of re-defining the relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians, they will have as models their common patriarch Abraham and his biblical negotiating partner Ephron the Hittite, who together taught mankind a profound lesson in civility and grace in times of great risk and uncertainty. The occasion was the making of the first contract between man and man in the Bible, as set forth in Chapter 23 of Genesis. The underlying event was the death of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. And the scene was Hebron, which remains in many ways, along with Jerusalem, the Ground Zero of Middle East strife. The passage is one of the most understated yet moving in the Bible. It begins with the death of Sarah at the age of 127 years in the land of Canaan, specifically Kiriath-arba, renamed (as the Bible tells us) Hebron. Abraham “came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.” And then, after the mourning period, Abraham “rose up” from the ground (even today, mourners in Jewish tradition rise up after sitting on low chairs in the house of mourning), to speak to the townsmen of the Hittites who then controlled Canaan.
I am a stranger and sojourner with you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.

So much is reflected even in that opening statement. As a “stranger and sojourner” � a more recent translation renders it “resident alien” � Abraham acknowledges his inferior legal status to the owners of the land. He is a wanderer, a foreigner, and without legal rights. Thus, he can secure only those rights � for example, the right to own land � that the Hittites agree to confer upon him through a valid contract that will bind them. THE HITTITE RESPONSE The response of the Hittites would seem to be everything one could hope for in terms of civility:

Hear us, my lord; you are the elect of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold his burial place from you for burying your dead.

Stranger he may be, but a distinguished one, and the Hittites offer their own family sepulchers to Abraham, as a gift. They would not dream of charging him. Yet Abraham declines this offer, bowing graciously to the townsmen, and saying:

If it is your wish that I remove my dead for burial, you must agree to intercede for me with Ephron, son of Zohar. Let him sell me the cave of Machpelah that he owns, which is at the edge of his land. Let him sell it to me, at the full price, for a burial site in your midst.

Thus, Abraham has a precise plot of land in mind, not just “a burial site” � and he means to pay for it. Ephron, as it turns out, is present: The gathering of townsmen is in fact a governing council for the town. And he answers Abraham, in the hearing of all the Hittites:

No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field and I give you that cave that is in it; I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead.

Again, could we imagine anything more generous or civil? Ephron not only will grant Abraham’s wish for the specific site, but also insists that Abraham take it as a gift. But Abraham, bowing low in deference again, spurns the gift, with perhaps some agitation this time:

If only you would hear me out! Let me pay the price of the land; accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there.

QUIET TITLE What is going on here? Admirable civility to be sure, but in some ways perhaps less and more than mere polite interchange between men of different nations. Abraham wants the specific site, but he wants to pay full value for it, because he knows that is the only way, as a “stranger,” he can assure himself of undisturbed, quiet title to the land. A gift can be retracted; a contractual right secured by payment of full value cannot. And while Abraham does not say so, he also wants this land as a family tomb, and as we learn in Genesis, Chapter 25, he was subsequently laid to rest there. All this must have been sensed by Ephron and the Hittites. If they could choose between being generous benefactors on the one hand and giving up control over the land in perpetuity on the other, it is no surprise that they would prefer the former. The respected stranger could bury his wife � at no charge � in their finest sepulchers, and their control over the land would not “pass” in a legal sense. But they do not have that choice � they are instead confronted with the conflict between the urgent desires of a man in mourning whom they respect greatly, and their desires to control the land and the future. 400 SHEKELS Ephron’s response is nuanced and eloquent:

My lord, do hear me! A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver � what is that between you and me? Go and bury your dead.

One more time, then, he tries to persuade Abraham to accept the gift � the price is not worthy of discussion between two such prominent men, he suggests � but at the same time, he skillfully inserts the price so that Abraham has the information and, now, the ability to accept it if he remains resolute in his course. (Biblical scholars leave little doubt that 400 shekels was “full price” � one reports that in the Code of Hammurabi, the wages of a working man for a year amounted to six to eight shekels.) Abraham was resolute, as the Bible informs us in the next, wonderfully laconic sentence:

Abraham accepted Ephron’s terms.

And so, Abraham paid out to Ephron “400 shekels of silver, current money with the merchant,” and, in language remarkably like a modern-day deed, Ephron’s land in Machpelah � “the field with its cave and all the trees anywhere within the confines of that field” � “passed to Abraham as his possession.” (Another translation says they were “made sure unto Abraham for a possession.”) The land went from being Ephron’s ancestral site to becoming Abraham’s, all “in the hearing of the Hittites,” the witnesses who attested to and validated the transaction. LAW AND CIVILITY This tale is a remarkable testament to the belief in law as a civilizing force. Here, near the beginning of the Bible, the sanctity and permanence of a contract is key to the resolution of a conundrum created by conflicting human desires on the part of Abraham and the Hittites. Yet that principle of the sanctity and permanence of law is neither proposed nor noisily advocated as part of the passage; it is simply assumed, almost as a natural condition. But perhaps even more important, the story of the purchase of Sarah’s burial site stands out as the pre-eminent example of civility between peoples in the Bible. Always in the backdrop of this drama is the fact that Abraham was a sojourner in Canaan because God had told him to go there. In an unforgettable passage found in Genesis, Chapter 12, Verses 1-2, God says to Abraham:

Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing.

The Promised Land, as Abraham was to find out, was Canaan. And surely Ephron and the Hittites at least sensed that Abraham was potentially more than a distinguished wanderer. They had great respect for him and his faith (“you are the elect of God among us”) and must have known that he had greater designs. And so, by allowing Abraham, the first Jew, to secure his first legal possession of real property in the Promised Land, they were setting in motion the potential for a dispute over ownership that would last to the present day. Abraham, too, knew all this. But he staked no divine claim. He asked only for the sufferance of the Hittites to grant him what he knew they had no obligation to grant, and he insisted on paying full value. Both parties knew the stakes. Both knew the future was uncertain. And both were nevertheless content to deal with one another at arm’s length, but with respect, and to hope that their descendants could one day sort it all out. Now Sharon and Abbas are beginning to deal with today’s issues of land and borders: which settlements will stay and which will go; access and control over the sacred Muslim sites in Jerusalem; the future of The Fence, and many more. Each leader will have to decide what he must have on behalf of his people, what he is willing to give up, and which risks and uncertainties are tolerable in exchange for the prospect of peace. We can only hope that in the choices they make, they find guidance and inspiration from their biblical forebears. Jeffrey F. Liss is the U.S. co-managing partner of DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary. He works in the firm’s D.C. office.

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