E.M. Lilien, Hebron (1922), distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.
After Sarah died, Abraham went before the Hittites to ask for permission to bury her, an important act not only for the grieving husband, but also for the identity of the nation and the people that the stories of Genesis were meant to bring together. It isn’t only ancient cultures who believe that burying ancestors in a place gives heirs a sacred claim to it. But what sort of a claim? Today, we would want to make a distinction between legal or political claims and moral claims, of the sort that might entail visitation rights but not ownership. This is a complex issue, and two translations of Genesis suggest how difficult it is for us to understand the underlying grammar (legal? moral? religious?) of the narrated actions.
Abraham begins his speech by declaring himself an immigrant. In the translation of the Oxford Annotated Bible: “Abraham rose up from beside his dead, and said to the Hittites: I am a stranger and an alien residing among you; give me property among you for a burying place, so that I may bury my dead out of my sight” (23:3-4). This translation gives Abraham’s claim the sound of a precise legal matter. He is asserting residency status and requesting a grant of property. (It’s also easy to read too much into “out of sight” which makes Abraham sound as if he’s making an appeal to the Hittites’ pragmatism or perhaps their disgust, hinting that this whole display of the bodies is somehow theatrical. But other translations make this much less plausible, so we should probably ignore that aspect of Abraham’s voice here.) So is this a legal claim? According to Robert Alter, the “bureaucratic coloration” of the term “resident alien” (and, by extension, the sense of the Oxford translation) “misrepresents the stylistic decorum of the Hebrew” (Genesis: Translation and Commentary 129).
Alter devotes much more attention to the poetry of parataxis and diction. For Alter, the seemingly excessive “ands” that attach one sentence to the next and one phrase to another are a significant part of the vision of the world underlying the writing of Genesis. Likewise, subtle shifts in tense and register. Attempting to catch these modulations of decorum, Alter distinguishes Abraham’s voice from the narrator’s, giving in his translation a much more resonant (and morally complex) beginning: “And Abraham rose from before his dead and he spoke to the Hittites, saying: ‘I am a sojourning settler with you. Grant me a burial holding with you, and let me bury my dead now before me'” (23:3-4). The subsequent dialogue with the Hittites, Alter suggests, actually presents an exciting and nuanced negotiation over the definition of Abraham’s status (is he “with” them or “among” them?) and over his claim to a “holding.”