[b-hebrew] The Role of Hebron: Abraham and Isaac

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Mon Jan 14 09:46:40 EST 2008


The Role of Hebron:  Abraham and Isaac
 
The primary role of Hebron in the Patriarchal narratives is as a place for 
the Patriarchs’ retirement and burial.  As such, Hebron’s role is much less 
grandiose than has been supposed.  This is a critically important point, because 
it betrays a northern Hebrew’s somewhat unflattering view of modest Hebron in 
southern Canaan, not a southern Hebrew’s overly positive view of Hebron.
 
Abraham’s Initial Encounter with Hebron
 
Abraham proceeds to Hebron in the second half of chapter 13 of Genesis, and 
Abraham makes the Covenant with YHWH at Hebron in chapter 15 of Genesis.  But 
though Abraham stays at Hebron for 12 long regular years, nothing else happens 
there, except that YHWH speaks to Abraham on several occasions there.  In 
particular, Sarah never gets pregnant with Isaac at Hebron.  Abraham then 
determines that he should leave Hebron, and go to Gerar, where Isaac is born.  
Although we know from the beginning of chapter 13 of Genesis that Abraham was very 
wealthy when he arrived at Hebron, there is no mention of wealth when Abraham 
suddenly leaves Hebron and moves to Gerar.  Reading between the lines, Abraham 
probably used up much of his material wealth in living at modest Hebron for 12 
years.
 
Hebron as Abraham’s Place of Retirement and Burial
 
Abraham moves to Gerar, where Sarah gets pregnant and Isaac is born.  The 
Covenant is fulfilled with Isaac’s birth at Gerar, rather than the Covenant being 
fulfilled at Hebron.  Why doesn’t Abraham then quickly move back to Hebron?  
Instead, the text makes a point of telling us at the end of chapter 21 of 
Genesis that Abraham stays in Gerar for a long, long time.  We know from chapter 
26 of Genesis that Isaac will get rich growing crops at Gerar.  Abraham is 
savvier than Isaac, so the implication, with hindsight, is that Abraham as well 
prospered economically at Gerar, doing far better than Abraham ever did at 
modest Hebron.  That must be one of the reasons why Abraham was in no hurry to 
return to modest Hebron.
 
As far as we can tell, Abraham does not move back to Hebron until Abraham is 
an old man and Sarah is on her deathbed.  Abraham famously buries old Sarah at 
Hebron in a large burial plot, and Abraham, a very old man by now (age 68½ 
regular years at Sarah’s death), lives out the remainder of his days at Hebron, 
in retirement.  Later, Abraham will be buried at Hebron.
 
Hebron as Isaac’s Place of Retirement and Burial
 
Isaac does not live at Hebron with his father after Sarah’s death.  Although 
Isaac comes back to Hebron to bury his father at Hebron, nevertheless Isaac 
continues to live at Beer-lahai-roi, just north of the Negev Desert, well south 
of Hebron.  When a terrible famine then hits southern Canaan, Isaac’s first 
thought is to go to Egypt.  But YHWH tells Isaac to go to Gerar instead.  Note 
that there is no hint that Isaac has any material wealth worth mentioning when 
Isaac moves to Gerar.  Isaac does not have a large flock, or else Isaac would 
not have been living on the edge of the Negev Desert.  We come to realize that 
during Abraham’s long retirement at Hebron, Abraham must have used up most 
all of his material funds, including his formerly vast flock.  At Abraham’s 
death, there appears to be effectively no material wealth to speak of to be 
haggled over by Isaac and Ishmael (both of whom come to Hebron for Abraham’s 
burial).  Abraham has clearly, and properly, designated Isaac as Abraham’s sole 
spiritual heir, and Ishmael does not contest that, but there’s apparently no real 
material wealth left to pass to anyone at Abraham’s death in modest Hebron.
 
Going back now to the time period immediately before Isaac moves to Gerar, a 
terrible famine was afflicting southern Canaan at that time.  Isaac was living 
just north of the Negev Desert at Beer-lahai-roi.  The traditional view that 
Isaac at that point moves to the middle of the Negev Desert, and gets rich 
growing crops in the Negev Desert, all the while a terrible famine is raging in 
southern Canaan, is nonsensical.  Historically, Gerar/Garu is in wealthy 
northern Canaan, not in the ultra-modest Negev Desert or the uninhabitable Sinai 
Desert.  The reference to Sur at Genesis 20: 1 points to the island city-state of 
Sur (later called “Tyre” by the Greeks) in northern Canaan, which was on the 
west edge of historical Garu (Biblical “Gerar”).  The name of the ruler of 
historical Sur in the mid-14th century BCE was Abimilki, which is essentially 
the same name as the ruler of Gerar in Genesis:  Abimelech.  Both rulers 
uniquely spend much of their time jousting for access rights to valuable water 
wells.  Finally, and very importantly, both in the Bible and in secular history, 
the only place where a Hebrew could get wealthy selling agricultural crops was 
in northern Canaan, where the rich buyer was Sur, a wealthy island city-state 
that had to buy all its food.
 
It is obvious that the Patriarchs prosper much more, on a material sphere, at 
Gerar (in northern Canaan) than they ever do at modest Hebron in southern 
Canaan.  Like Abraham before him, Isaac shows no inclination to leave the greater 
Gerar area.  As far as we can tell, Isaac does not go back to Hebron until, 
just like Abraham, Isaac’s beloved wife Rebekah is on her deathbed.  Rebekah is 
buried at Hebron, and Isaac retires at Hebron, just like his father Abraham 
before him.  And like Abraham, Isaac will later be buried at Hebron.
 
During the very long time period (30 regular years, from age 60 regular years 
to age 90 regular years) when Isaac is in retirement at Hebron, Isaac does 
nothing.  At least, nothing is reported in the text as to Isaac doing anything 
at Hebron.
 
As we are seeing, Hebron is viewed in the Patriarchal narratives primarily as 
being a fitting place for each Patriarch’s retirement and burial, not much 
more than that.
 
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois




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