At the beginning of his weekly cabinet meeting, on 9 July 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu read from Genesis 23.16, 19-20. This passage narrates the story of Abraham’s purchase of a tomb for the burial of his wife, near the city of Hebron.
16 Abraham agreed with 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…. 19 After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. 20 The field and the cave that is in it passed from the Hittites into Abraham’s possession as a burying place.
Hebron is a city in Palestine which is currently under military occupation by Israel.
On 7 July 2017, UNESCO voted to recognize the Mamluk-era Old Town of Hebron (Al-Khalil), including its first-century CE Tomb of the Patriarchs (the Ibrahimi mosque), as a protected World Heritage site.
In response, Netanyahu argued, based on the legendary account in Genesis 23, that Hebron was Jewish. “The connection between the Jewish people and Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs is one of purchase and of history which may be without parallel in the history of peoples.” Netanyahu also had a bit of a tantrum, and said that he wouldn’t pay $1 million from Israel’s United Nations membership dues, but would instead transfer the funds to the establishment of The Museum of the Heritage of the Jewish People in Kiryat Arba and Hebron.
But did Abraham really buy the tomb?
According to Genesis 23, Abraham bought the tomb from a Hittite man named Ephron. However, Abraham’s legal title to the land is highly questionable, in light of the rival account in the Torah, in Numbers 13. Here, the city of Hebron clearly belongs to three Giants (Anakim), named Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai. It doesn’t belong to Hittites at all. So on the basis of Numbers 13, we have to question whether the Hittite Ephron ever had a good legal title to give to Abraham. Hebron, according to this account, belonged to Giants.
Therefore, under the legal principle of Nemo dat quod non habet (a person cannot grant a better title than they have), Abraham never legally bought the land. He could only have bought it from its legal owners, the Giants. If we treat the Torah as history, we must respect the legal ownership of Hebron by ancient Giants.
… unless, of course, both Genesis 23 and Numbers 13 are just legends, and neither should be cited as “history” by a modern Prime Minister.
But then, might the Israeli government have to admit that the notion of modern Israel’s right to “Greater Israel” (Kol Yisrael) might itself be based on legends?