Torah Portion of the Week: Important, but Not Holy

Parashat Hayei Sarah.

AP / Haaretz Archive

Holy places in the Bible have two intertwined characteristics: revelation and cult. A place where God has revealed himself is sanctified, becoming a ritualistic site. Thus, for example, later in Genesis, God reveals himself at Bethel to Jacob, who declares: “This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven” (Genesis 28:17). Jacob erects a pillar there, pouring oil on it and swearing to give God a tenth of his earnings. All these – the label “abode of God,” the pillar, oil and tithe – are a sanctuary’s prominent features.

This is an important motif in Genesis: The patriarchs journey throughout Canaan, establishing ritualistic sites that in the distant future will serve their descendants. In several places, Abraham builds “an altar there to the Lord who had appeared to him” (Gen. 12:7); in Beersheba, following God’s revelation, Isaac “built an altar and invoked the Lord by name” (Gen. 26:25). Biblical criticism assumes that these narratives were written retrospectively, after Israel had settled in Canaan, and that they functioned as explanations for the sanctity of its ritualistic sites.

In this week’s portion, Hayei Sarah (Gen. 23:1-25:18), we read a description of the Machpela cave in Hebron’s founding. A closer look at the story reveals that it does not belong to the pattern of narratives on the founding of holy sites. This story – unlike the texts mentioned above – is part of the narrative thread that begins in the first Creation story. Throughout the Torah, that thread is intertwined with other narrative threads, and elements from the various tales alternately appear. In the column on Lech Lecha (Gen. 12:1-17:27), we noted its version of Abraham’s immigration to Canaan, discussing how it portrays his movement not as the result of a divine command but rather as the continuation of his father’s unexceptional human initiative.

Scholars term the narrative thread continuing from the first Creation story, which includes the Machpela cave tale, the "Priestly Code" or "Priestly Source." An immense part of that source – which, after being intertwined with the other narrative threads, occupies a large portion of the Torah – deals with laws of the sanctuary, sacrifices, purity, defilement and other notable ritualistic matters, and is explicitly addressed to the priests (kohanim). Scholars hypothesize that this thread was composed by the priests of Jerusalem’s First Temple (or, say some, the Second Temple).

Naturally, a prominent feature of the Priestly Source is its emphasis on the sanctuary’s importance. During the period most of the Torah depicts – from the Exodus from Egypt to entry into Canaan – the sanctuary is portable (the Tabernacle), surrounded by the Israelite camp. The priestly writings in the latter portions of Exodus depict in detail the sanctuary’s construction, following which God takes up residence there. Only then, according to the priestly source, does Israel’s sacrificial worship begin: Beforehand, it says, no one offered sacrifices.

The tale of Cain and Abel, which depicts the founding of ritual in human society, does not belong to this source. Judging by the figures appearing there, the narrative background and the common motifs, it is a direct continuation of the Second Creation story. In Noah’s Flood, two stories are merged: in one, God commands Noah to take seven ritualistically pure animals to be sacrificed to God after the deluge, while in the Priestly Source, he takes only two and no ritual is held after emergence from the ark. Similarly, the binding of Isaac is not associated with the Priestly Source but to one of the other narrative threads.

What about Hebron? Abraham establishes a holy place there: “And Abram moved his tent, and came to dwell at the terebinths of Mamre, which are in Hebron; and he built an altar there to the Lord” (Gen. 13:18). This, however, is not a priestly tale. The priestly version of Israelite history does not recognize the patriarchal period’s ritualistic sites; instead, the priestly source assumes that the Temple in Jerusalem is the legal “heir” to the tabernacle – not of any site established in the patriarchal era. The Priestly Source cannot depict creation of the Jerusalem Temple because that would deviate from the Torah narrative’s historical horizon.

The priestly source’s authors certainly knew of the existence of the sanctuary in Hebron, perhaps were even familiar with the tradition of Abraham’s having founded it sometime in Israel’s prehistory in Canaan. Though we do not know when this sanctuary was actually established, there is biblical testimony of its existence in King David’s era. Absalom, David’s son, says, “Let me go to Hebron and fulfill a vow that I made to the Lord” (2 Samuel 15:7), and elsewhere in the Bible we read, “and David made a pact with them in Hebron before the Lord” (1 Chronicles 11:3). The biblical phrase “before the Lord” signifies a sanctuary.

Whereas Hebron is important in the Priestly Source, it is not a holy place. The story of Machpela’s acquisition by Abraham includes two central characteristics unsuited to a ritualistic site. First, Abraham purchases the cave with his own money. But a holy place is not private property and is not established as a result of any human decision. Rather, as we have seen, holy places are established following divine revelation. The second characteristic is even clearer: The Machpela cave serves as a burial, not a ritualistic, site.

In biblical religion, there is conflict between sanctity and death. The Torah’s priestly rules prohibit anyone who has come in contact with a corpse from approaching the sanctuary until he has conducted a complicated purification ritual. In the Book of Kings, we read that, when King Josiah of Judah wants to shut down all the sanctuaries in his kingdom except for the one in Jerusalem and to prevent the renewal of ritual in those sanctuaries in the future, he fills them with human bones. He knew what every Israelite knew: A burial site is impure, not holy.

The Machpela cave in Hebron has great historical importance for the Priestly Source, which refers to it repeatedly throughout Genesis as the official burial site of the patriarchs and the matriarchs, and which stresses that Abraham paid for the site in full. However, anyone seeking evidence in the Bible for Machpela’s status as a holy place will find no such testimony in Parashat Hayei Sara.

All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.