Abraham and the Hittites
THE Hittites were the descendants of the Biblical patriarch Heth, who was a grandson of Ham through Canaan. (Gen. 10:6, 15) The word Hittite(s) occurs 47 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, while the name Heth is used 14 times, thus indicating an outstanding ancient people appearing on the scenes of Biblical history all the way from early post-Flood days to the period of the Hebrew kings. (Gen. 15:20; 2 Sam. 11:3; 2 Chron. 8:7) Secular ancient history knew nothing of these ancient people until after 1871, when archaeologists began to find inscriptions mentioning the Hittites, thus confirming the Bible record of their existence.a
In 1906 in Asia Minor 90 miles east of Ankara, Turkey, excavations were begun of what proved to be the ancient Hittite capital city, Boghaz-keui, where some ten thousand clay tablets were found written in the Hittite and other dead languages of the past.b Many of these tablet-documents have now been deciphered and from them much of the language, laws and culture of the Hittites has been reconstructed. It is now commonly accepted that the Hittites operated a vast ancient empire dominating most of Asia Minor with an extension of their political control over most of Palestine from the years of about 2000 to 1200 B.C. Therefore Hittite government and law dominated much of the land of Canaan during the sojourn of Abraham in the Promised Land.
The Scriptures are clear that while Jehovah God gave Abraham the promise of Palestine as the future home for his posterity, yet Abraham himself during all the rest of his life remained a temporary resident moving about from place to place with his flocks. (Gen. 15:18-21; Heb. 11:9) This meant that for any business or legal transactions with the city organizations existing in Palestine, it became necessary for Abraham to conform to the dominating law of those cities. In 1951 there were published in London English and Hebrew translations of two hundred paragraphs of Hittite legislation, having reconstructed two hundred laws from the tablets found in 1906 and subsequently. Several of these laws shed interesting background information as to the dealings Abraham had with the sons of Heth.c
Upon the death of Abraham’s wife Sarah near Kiriath-arba (later called Hebron) in 1881 B.C., Abraham negotiated with the sons of Heth for the purchase of the cave of Machpelah as his family burial place. Heretofore many students of the Scriptures have considered the record of Abraham’s negotiation before the town council of the Hittites as a shining example of agonizing oriental bargaining involving hypocritical formalisms where Ephron, the Hittite, was shrewdly holding out for a high price. It was thought this involved the display of false oriental generosity when Ephron glowingly pretended to offer Abraham the field as an absolute free gift. (Ge 23 Vs. 11) Skillfully then Ephron ‘incidentally’ mentions the high price of 400 shekels to which Abraham is forced to agree as the final price for the deal. After that the town governmental elders confirm the possession to Abraham.—Gen. 23:1-20.
In view of the publishing of the Hittite laws there may be an altogether different understanding of this Scriptural account. The Hittite government seemed to be a feudal state where the dominating king levied by law a feudal land tax of service or possibly the alternative annual payment of money. Whoever owned the land was forced to pay the feudal dues to the king. When the entire parcel of land was sold, the new owner was obligated by Hittite law to accept responsibility for the payment of the feudal tax or dues to the king. However, the Hittite law made an exception that if only a part of a field or parcel of land was sold, then the feudal obligation still remained in the hands of the major owner and did not pass on to the new owner of the small part.
Hittite law, paragraph No. 46, partly reads: “If anyone occupies fields in a town as a feudal holding by way of inheritance, if all the fields are given to him he shall render the feudal dues; if only a few of the fields are given to him he shall not render the feudal dues, but they shall be rendered from his paternal estate.”d No. 47B reads: “If anyone buys all the fields of a soldier, he shall render the feudal dues, and if he only buys a few of the fields, he shall not render the feudal dues.”e
Abraham must have been well informed as to these land laws of the Hittites and also must have been aware of the following additional law involving a pagan religious rite to be performed when an entire major field was purchased. Law paragraph No. 169 reads: “If anyone buys a field and divides the boundary, he shall take flour and cast it before the sun-god and say ‘Plant thou every elzi tree which is in my land.’ Also he shall say ‘Sun-god and weather-god, let no anger be upon me.’”f With this legal background let us see what different understanding may be obtained from the Biblical account.
Abraham approaches the Hittite city elders or rulers of Hebron admitting that he is a temporary resident among them and that he desires to obtain possession of a burial place for his dead wife. (Ge 23 Vss. 3, 4) The elders respond with courtesy by agreeing to allow Abraham to obtain a burial place in their territory. (Ge 23 Vss. 5, 6) In an effort to avoid the payment of feudal dues for generations thereafter and also to avoid the rendering of pagan religious rites, Abraham asks to buy only the cave of Machpelah which is part of the field of Ephron.—Ge 23 Vss. 7-9.
Ephron, the owner of this entire field, himself was apparently one of the city elders then sitting at the gate of Hebron hearing legal cases of judgment. In ready response to Abraham’s plea, Ephron offers on sale the entire field including the cave of Machpelah. (Ge 23 Vs. 11) The Hebrew word translated “give” in verse 11 is the same as the word translated “give” in Ge 23 verse 12 that is associated with money, thus meaning consistently in this chapter either “sell” or “pay.” Ephron seemed unwilling to divide his property and thus become responsible for the feudal dues for whatever small part Abraham might purchase from him. So Ephron offers to sell the whole field that Abraham might bear all the legal obligations in connection with the feudal tax as the new owner.
Abraham replies that he would be willing to pay the large amount necessary for the entire field only that he might have a place to bury his beloved dead one. (Ge 23 Vs. 13) Ephron does not give in to Abraham’s request. He remains firm and insists that the entire field is worth four hundred shekels, which, after all, is a small amount between Abraham and himself. The Biblical record indicates Abraham bought the entire field, including all the trees and the cave therein. This implies that Abraham finally had to agree to assume whatever feudal taxes there were attached to the purchase of this entire tract of land that would have to be paid to the king of the Hittites.—Gen. 23:14-20.
When the city elders confirmed this transfer of property rights to Abraham there is no record that he was required to perform the formalistic pagan religious rite in connection with such purchase. They may have excused him because the Hittites recognized Abraham as “a chieftain of God.”—Gen. 23:6, NW.
The fact that the conveyance of land made mention of trees also indicates Hittite legal background, because it is a characteristic trait of Hittite business documents to list the exact number of trees at each real estate sale.g
Again we find Biblical archaeology confirming the reliableness of the sacred Scriptures. Actually this Genesis 23 account proves that the compiler of Genesis must have lived long before 1200 B.C. to have known of the Hittite laws and empire, since this ancient state ceased to exist as an early dominant power in the Near East around 1200 B.C. Modernists and higher critics who have rejected Moses as the early compiler of Genesis are shown up once more as grossly wrong. Why, a century ago higher critics even scoffed at the Bible’s frequent mention of the Hittites, claiming such a people never existed. The Bible continues to square as unfailingly true in its accounts of all contemporary civilizations.
a The Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, 1944, p. 251.
b Light From The Ancient Past, by J. Finegan, 1946, p. 165.
c The Hittite Laws, by E. Neufeld, London, 1951.
d Ibid., pp. 14, 15.
e Ibid., pp. 14, 15.
f Ibid., p. 46.
g Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, February 1953, pp. 15-18.