Monday, January 6, 2014

Compassionate Brother (part 14)

As an aside, a similar story of give and take and relent can be found in connection with Abraham, which serves as a reminder that there is a cultural component at play in this reunion exchange between Jacob and Esau, and that it is informed by the constant struggle for honor in almost every transaction.  The twenty-third chapter of Genesis opens with the report of the death of Abraham’s wife (Jacob’s grandmother) Sarah has died.  Abraham desired to obtain a burial site for Sarah, and speaks to a group of men, saying “I am a temporary settler among you.  Grant me ownership of a burial site among you so that I may bury my dead” (23:4). 

Not wanting to lose sight of Esau’s compassion, of his willingness to shame himself, and the fact that great honor accrues to him because of his extension of compassion, the encounter between Jacob and Esau is kept in mind, along with the culture of honor that even extends to routine transactions, as the exchange between Abraham and these men is observed.  Abraham receives a favorable answer as he hears: “Listen, sir, you are a mighty prince among us!  You may bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs.  None of us will refuse you his tomb to prevent you from burying your dead” (23:6).  Though this seems like the offer of a gift, in reality, with these words the negotiations have begun.  Abraham understands this.   

Abraham “got up and bowed down to the local people,” saying “If you agree that I may bury my dead, then hear me out.  As Ephron the son of Zohar if he will sell me the cave of Machpelah that belongs to him… Let him sell it to me publicly for the full price, so that I may own it as a burial site” (23:8-9).  Though this will certainly be a great honor for Ephron, the immediate acceptance of payment from Abraham would be a source of dishonor for Ephron.  Also, as every such transaction is an opportunity to elevate oneself in ongoing competition to accrue honor and eschew shame, getting Abraham to purchase more than that for which he has expressed interest will gain him some honor, as it demonstrates the shrewdness and business savvy of the seller.  Of course, this will not be unexpected by Abraham.  He’s willing to play the game, and has undoubtedly played the game throughout his life as well.  

The negotiation continues, as Ephron, couching the offer as a demonstration of magnanimity while also extending the range of purchase (a rather regular feature in transactions in the culture) says, “No, my lord!  Hear me out.  I sell you both the field and the cave that is in it.  In the presence of my people I sell it to you.  Bury your dead” (23:11).  Ephron has called attention to the fact that there are many witnesses to this negotiation, which is a tacit reminder of the honor game that is being played.  Hearing this, Abraham bows again and says “Hear me, if you will.  I pay to you the price of the field.  Take it from me so that I may bury my dead there” (23:13b). 

It should be noticed that Abraham does not yet name a price, leaving this to Ephron to propose---another feature of the game of honor.  Abraham receives the response of “Hear me, my lord.  The land is worth four hundred pieces of silver, but what is that between me and you?  So bury your dead” (23:15).  Though Ephron has been forced to name the price (and thus loses that end of the game), by his words he attempts to position the price as so low that it is practically a gift to Abraham.  Thus the game continues.  Those that have spent any amount of time in the east, whether living there or simply visiting, will be familiar with this type of exchange.           

No comments:

Post a Comment