Friday, November 28, 2008

Genesis 24:15-21 Was There Success and Was It from God?

Genesis 24:15-21: And it came about before he had finished speaking, that behold, Rebekah who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor, came out with her jar on her shoulder. And the girl was very beautiful, a virgin, and no man had had relations with her; and she went down to the spring and filled her jar, and came up. Then the servant ran to meet her, and said, “Please let me drink a little water from your jar.” And she said, “Drink, my lord”; and she quickly lowered her jar to her hand, and gave him a drink. Now when she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I will draw also for your camels until they have finished drinking.” So, she quickly emptied her jar into the trough, and ran back to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels. Meanwhile, the man was gazing at her in silence, to know whether the Lord had made his journey successful or not.

Abraham’s servant had not finished his prayer yet and Rebekah, Abraham’s grand-niece, the grand-daughter of his brother Nahor, comes to the well with her jar. Sometimes, once God gets the desired attitude from His servants, He moves very quickly to bring about an answer to our prayer. He certainly did in this case.

Neither Abraham nor the servant have made any demands on what the woman God chose for Isaac should look like or what her past history should have been. All that was requested is that she satisfy the short-term criteria that the servant had asked for as a sign. Yet scripture says that this woman was very beautiful and had never had sexual relations with a man. Bonus. Oftentimes, God does not only grant us what we ask for, but He satisfies that request beyond our wildest dreams or expectations.

Nor was Rebekah a dilly-dallier. From the text we see that she came down, filled her jar, and then started back up towards the city. She wasn’t at the well to gossip or chat. Abraham’s servant actually had to run to catch her. When he met her, he asked her for a drink in accordance with the plan. Rebekah obliges him right away in a most polite manner and moves quickly to give him a drink. When he was done, she quickly informed him that she would draw as much water as necessary for all of his camels to be satisfied. She did not ask if she could do this; she simply did it. This was not a young lady being disrespectful, but one who knew what the right thing to do was. The text says she drew water with her jar and emptied it into the trough for the animals to drink and she kept doing that until they stopped drinking. Rebekah would have done well working today at IBM where employees are taught to do “complete staff worker”. Rebekah was certainly thorough in her approach to her work, responsibility and in this case, hospitality.

Now the words she used were not exactly those that the servant had told God he would be looking for, but they were close enough if not better than expected. A cynic or a fool may have been looking for the exact words and anything else could have indicated that this was not of God. But the wise servant realized that God had arranged for the response of Rebekah to be far beyond what the servant had hoped for.

Now you would think with all this reassurance the servant would have been jumping up and down and rejoicing in his success and the blessing God had bestowed on his master, Abraham. But instead, he kept gazing at Rehekah in silence in order that he may know whether it was indeed God that had made his journey successful. What are we to make of this? Let me suggest that either the wise and cautious servant did not want to be fooled by his own emotions (which may have been ill-founded) or he simply felt the gravity of making a wrong judgment with respect to his assignment should what he was experiencing not have been from God. We would do well to follow suit as we allow God to direct our lives. We need to remember that the Enemy is also very much interested in causing us to falter in how we interpret things that happen to us.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Genesis 24:10-14 "God, Bless Me and My Master, Today."

Genesis 24:10-14: Then the servant took ten camels from the camels of his master, and wet out with a variety of good things of his master’s in his hand; and he arose, and went to Mesopotamia, to the city of Nahor. And he made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water at evening time, the time when women go out to draw water. And he said, “O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today, and show lovingkindness to my master Abraham. Behold, I am standing by the spring, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water; now may it be that the girl to whom I say, ‘Please let down your jar so that I may drink,’ and who answers, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels also’; -- may she be the one whom Thou hast appointed for Thy servant Isaac; and by this I shall know that Thou hast shown lovingkindness to my master.”

In the opening of this passage, we see the servant doing what he had to do to equip himself for the task and then setting out to do exactly what he had promised his master he would do. Many times we make promises to either our earthly masters or to our heavenly Master, but we’re not prepared to equip ourselves for the task. We promise we’ll preach the Gospel everywhere but never study it ourselves or go to Bible school. Sometimes we tell God that we will use the talents He has given us (our voice, our ability to play the piano, our art, our physical ability in sports, etc.) to influence and reach thousands with his message of salvation but we are never really serious about it. We are not prepared to work hard to achieve the level of proficiency required for that kind of recognition and acceptance. We just don’t want to practice. If the truth be known, almost all of us would speak, sing, play, or compete, and give God the glory, if being good at it just came naturally without effort. While the ability does come innately for many, the success takes lots of hard work.

Abraham’s servant also knows what to take along with him as he packs gifts from Abraham’s family to take to the woman God will lead him to. Obviously, when you go to take someone’s daughter away to another land, you need to provide enough incentive and proof that she is joining a family able to take good care of her. At least that was the custom of that day.

The servant goes to visit the locale of Nahor, Abraham’s brother (Genesis 11:26) in Mesopotamia. This is the first time we come across this name of Mesopotamia. The word itself describes a land in the middle of or between (meso) and rivers (potamia) in the Greek. The rivers are the Tigris and the Euphrates, and today we find the countries of Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, and the Khūzestān Province of southwestern Iran.

While we do not know what time he arrived there, we do know that he waited until evening time to cause his camels to kneel down by the well, outside the city. He knew that this was the time that the young maidens and other women would be coming to the well from inside the city to get water for their families. Abraham’s servant positions himself in the right place, at the right time, in order to carry out his assignment for his master. Many times we want to succeed in serving God but we are not prepared to be in the right place for doing so, nor are we patient enough to do it at the right time.

The servant then does something interesting – he prays. Scripture says that he prays to “the God of (his) master Abraham” but the two words prior to that may well indicate his own personal relationship with that God. Abraham had certainly modeled and encouraged the worship of God among his household and, as a faithful servant, this man may well have adopted God as his very own Lord. And what he asks for is even more interesting. He prays that God would show lovingkindness to his master by allowing him (the servant) to be successful. The servant’s success is the means by which his master will be shown lovingkindness by God. There is nothing in it for the servant except his rejoicing in being a vessel by which his master would be shown God’s favor. What an example for us as we go about our daily service to God. Our prayers for our success should be tied directly to God and to His Name being glorified in the world as a result.

Then the servant tells God what he has done by going to the well at the time the young women are coming to draw water. Now certainly God knew that the servant had done that; he did not need to tell Him. So why utter those words? I believe the servant was simply saying to God, “I have followed my instructions totally, and I went with the leanings of my understanding that you placed in my heart and mind, so God please honor my efforts with a sign in order that I may be able to know which one of these girls is the one you have appointed for Isaac.” And the servant proceeds to establish and suggest some very practical short-term criteria to define success so that he would know God’s will in this matter. We often do that ourselves. We set up certain conditions that need to be satisfied as a means of our understanding what God would have us do in a particular circumstance. Many times, however, people set up extreme criteria that if met would prove God’s existence, presence, and involvement beyond a shadow of a doubt. In fact, if God were to satisfy those criteria, there would no longer be any need for faith. It would be totally unreasonable not to believe in Him. God would not be quick to do that because even when He did, as we will see later in scripture, people still denied His existence.

Abraham’s servant on the other hand, picks criteria that, on the one hand, are practical enough and on the other beyond the realm of common practice in order to ascertain God’s will in this case. Think about it. Nine out of ten women that would be going to the well that day would have been taught to offer water to strangers. In fact, even those that were not taught specifically to do so, likely would simply out of common courtesy, especially when asked for a drink. Less likely, but still within the realm of possibility, would be that the same woman that gives him a drink would take the time and the trouble to also water the stranger’s animals. If that were to happen, most skeptics would chalk it up to a sheer coincidence. Those of us, however, who are looking for just enough divine intervention in their lives to know we are on the right track, would consider this occurrence nothing but God’s hand in our lives. We all need to be constantly seeking that kind of guidance and direction as we seek to do His will.

Finally, this passage concludes with the re-acknowledgement by the servant, that all he is asking for, and all God will do, would be for the sake of his master. That’s our job as well. “God, do this and allow this, strictly for your glory and your name’s sake.” Amen.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Genesis 24:5-9 Seeking Clarification of the Task Required

Genesis 24:5-9: And the servant said to him, “Suppose the woman will not be willing to follow me to this land; should I take your son back to the land from where you came?” Then Abraham said to him, “Beware lest you take my son back there! The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me, and who swore to me, saying, To your descendants I will give this land, He will send His angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this my oath; only do not take my son back there.” So the servant placed his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master, and swore to him concerning this matter.

There is this need in good servants to make sure they have their instructions right. They do not want to mess up. Smart servants also think ahead and consider the possible outcomes of following their instructions. Abraham’s servant wants to know what would happen if the woman he chose for Isaac would not be willing to return with him. What is interesting about this question is that the servant was only told, at the end of verse four in the previous section, to “take a wife for my son Isaac.” He was not told how to do it exactly. Knowing his master well enough, the servant was able to figure out that Abraham would want the woman brought back and he was to ask her to return with him.

Sometimes men and women who want to serve God expect every detail to be provided in terms of every action they are to take in the process. Is this due to our inability to think for ourselves? I hope not, because God created us in His image. We are intelligent beings that have been blessed with the gift of creativity. Is it due to our laziness and the fact that our culture likes to spoon-feed us on just about everything? Again, I hope not, because serving the Lord requires us to give it all we have in terms of effort. One other possibility is that we do not know our Master well enough to ascertain what He would expect. If so, we need to spend more time with Him.

So Abraham’s servant asks the question he did, along with suggesting one possible answer – that he return alone and get Isaac and take him back there for the chosen woman to see. That was the last thing Abraham wanted and indicated so. But let us look closer at how he really answered the question. He simply shared with his servant that the God of heaven who has already proven His involvement in Abraham’s life, will indeed “send His angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there.” That is the kind of earthly master I would want to work for; someone who hears my suggestion, understands my concern, and who can reject it kindly while still addressing my need. And in the process, assuring me of success. Abraham told his servant that in no way should Isaac be taken back there, but instead God will send his angel and the servant will succeed. And as an extra measure of comfort for the servant, Abraham tells him that should the woman not be willing to follow him back, he will be free from the covenant or promise he made to Abraham. Do as I requested, and if it does not work out, you’re free from that obligation. Isn’t this how we often treat our children that we love so much when they hesitate to take a risk in life.

Even though I have been a people manager for close to four decades now, I am still learning the lesson that good employees who want to serve me and our organization well need not only clarification as to their instructions, but also a level of comfort that they can succeed or that they will be absolved of their responsibility under certain conditions. The secret of course in a situation like this is to have such a relationship between supervisor and supervisee that the former takes the time to address the needs of the latter and the latter has enough confidence in the former’s assessment of the task and his/her abilities to perform it, that they can commit themselves to it. Such was the case here. Abraham addressed the servant’s concerns and the servant was able to fully commit himself to the assigned task and swore to him that he would perform it.

We are called to be that kind of servant to God. Some of us are called to be that kind of servant to our earthly managers. Others are also called to be that kind of ‘master’ to those that are under our care as employees and as members of our household.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Genesis 24:2-4 Taking Care of Business

Genesis 24:2-4: And Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his household, who had charge of all that he owned, “Please place your hand under my thigh, and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but you shall go to my country and to my relatives, and take a wife for my son Isaac.”

It is probable but not certain that Abraham sensed his days were coming to an end. Isaac had also become a young man, eligible for marriage. So Abraham calls his most trusted servant to come to his side. Even though he was the longest-standing employee in Abraham’s household and the one in charge of all that Abraham possessed, I think it is noteworthy that the servant’s name is not mentioned in the text. At least it is not mentioned here. In Genesis 15:2 we read about Abram’s steward, a man called Eliezer from the house of Damascus. However, there is controversy as to whether this was still the same person or one who had been promoted to the job when Eliezer died. Regardless of who it was, what matters is that true servants do not get credit. Their service is all for and about their master. In this day and age, this aspect of service is hard for many to grasp and adhere to. Ultimately, people want to be recognized and praised for their part.

I recently considered that very issue. Does God really get cranky if one of us receives some recognition for our accomplishments? Aren’t most fathers thrilled when their children succeed? Does not every young person want to become great? Some, men in particular, also want to be recognized as such when they achieve something of significance. So, is this wrong?

There is no doubt that “to God be all Glory” is the modus operandi for the Christian that has an opportunity to achieve something great. But I believe that is different than giving credit and recognizing someone else who has achieved something great. While there is a fine line here, I believe our job as Christians is to recognize others and their achievements and then wait for them to give God the glory for what they have done. It is not to strip them of their recognition and credit.

We need to partner together to raise young men and women who will attempt and accomplish great things for God. But let us be clear. Greatness is not glory. Glory belongs to God. Greatness is reflected glory like the stars and the moon reflect the glory of the sun. As Christians we are to reflect the Glory of Christ. And if some seek the glory, don’t worry, God can take care of Himself, he knows those that are serving out of impure motives.

Abraham asks his servant to place his hand under his master’s thigh. This is believed to have been an ancient form of undertaking a very serious oath. It required the oath taker to swear his total commitment and deliverance of the request. It is interesting how Abraham makes his servant swear by the “Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth” to make good his promise. We first came across this idea of “swearing by God” in Genesis 21:23 where Abimelech makes Abraham swear that he will not deal falsely with him, or his son, or his grandson. And Abraham obliged. Throughout the centuries taking an oath in the name of God is considered a most serious business. Even today in our court systems, we take an oath to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, “so help us) God” and we take that oath with our hand on a copy of the Bible. Abraham was the first one to take such an oath and the second one to require it.

So what was it that Abraham wanted his trusted servant to do? Simply this: that he makes sure that Isaac does not marry a daughter of the Canaanites, the very people among whom Abraham lived. Instead the servant was to go back to Abraham’s own country and to his own relatives to find a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac. Abraham knew that the promise had to come through as pure a lineage as possible from those that were true God worshippers.

He asked his servant to undertake this journey either because Abraham was too old to make such a journey, or more likely, because it was customary that one’s trusted servant or steward be entrusted with such responsibility as a representative of the parent. I would venture to say that should this have happened in this day and age, at least in North America, the valet’s response might be totally different than what we are told the servant responded with in the next passage.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Genesis 24:1 Blessed in Every Way

Genesis 24:1: Now Abraham was old, advanced in age; and the Lord had blessed Abraham in every way.”

When Scripture says someone is old and advanced in age, you can be sure it means that his or her time is drawing near and that was indeed the case with Abraham. Overall life had been good for him. The text says, “…the Lord had blessed (him) in every way.” As I pen these words, I find myself in my sixty-second year of life. My wife of over 37 years is sitting in our den reading. Down the street my younger daughter and her husband are relaxing together, having put their three young children to bed. My youngest child and only son who lives in the city has finished work and is spending the evening with friends after making plans with us to go to the re-opening of our Art Gallery tomorrow. My oldest daughter, her husband, and two energetic young boys are swimming in their pool in South Carolina after talking to us about our trip to see them next week. Currently, everybody’s health is good. There is food on the table for all of us. And we all worship and serve God freely in our two countries of North America. Everyone that needs to be is employed. In short, even though I know I have neither deserved it for my past, nor deserve it now, God has blessed me.

I stop and think about my readers and I wonder how different ones would react to that. Some would, I believe, place themselves in a similar boat as I am in. Others could well say, “That’s easy for him to say. That’s not my experience.” And it may very well not be. But then I wonder whether the cause of the difference is indeed the circumstances or the person perceiving them. I know of people in similar circumstances as those I am in but much wealthier who do not consider themselves blessed at all. I know of others who have had many more struggles, have suffered incredible losses of all sorts including loved ones, and are depending on God daily for their survival, that consider themselves incredibly blessed. I have also reflected on some very difficult times in my own life – when I lost my mother just after our third child was born; when I slipped away from God and did my own thing; when I lost my dad to cancer; when I had to deal with my own cancer; and when my son separated from his wife, to name a few. I remember distinctly that at no time during those periods did I feel anything but blessed. Even in my sin I felt blessed, as God pulled me out of the trash and restored me to Himself.

Abraham was indeed a man who loved God and wanted to serve Him. And God blessed him. I believe God still does that today for those that love Him and want to serve Him. He does not always make us rich, our healthy, or famous – but He blesses us in ways that make a difference. He makes us content and give us peace and comfort and understanding and wisdom and patience and so much more. There’s something about loving God and serving Him that turns on the “internal blessings” tap.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Genesis 23:17-20 From Death to Burial

Genesis 23:17-20: So Ephron’s field, which was in Machpelah, which faced Mamre, the field and cave which was in it, and all the trees which were in the field, that were within all the confines of its border, were deeded over to Abraham for a possession in the presence of the sons of Heth, before all who went in at the gate of his city. And after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field at Mchpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. So the field, and the cave that is in it, were deeded over to Abraham for a burial site by the sons of Heth.

In this brief passage, the writer provides us with greater details about Ephron’s field that was sold to Abraham so that Sarah could be buried. From verse 9 we had learned the field was in Machpelah. Now we are also informed that Machpelah faced Mamre. We first heard of Mamre back in Genesis 13:18 (the place were Abraham, then called Abram, came and lived and built an altar to the Lord), and again in 18:1 (where the Lord appeared to Abraham as he sat in his tent’s door, in the heat of the day). The land that he bought to bury Sarah faced that plain of Mamre.

The actual word ‘mamre’ means strength or fatness in the original Hebrew, but it was also the name given to an Amorite who had aligned himself with Abram (see Genesis 14:13, 24). Strongs describes the actual plain as an oak grove on Mamre’s land in Palestine where Abraham dwelt and near the burial place of Abraham himself, identified as Hebron.

So Abraham gets this land that faces his home. He gets the field and the cave and all the trees in it and to seal the deal, Ephron gives him a deed of ownership in front of the sons of Heth and others that were going in and out of the city gate. We that all settled, Abraham buries Sarah his wife there.

Anyone who has been personally responsible for burying someone can identify with the relief that Abraham must have felt after laying Sarah in the ground. The time between someone dying and when they are buried is one of great sorrow, anxiety, weariness, loss, and so much more. But ultimately, God has given us a means whereby once we see our loved one’s body lowered into the earth then covered over, we can begin, ever so slowly for some, to breathe normally again and to attend to our other responsibilities in life – to those of our loved ones that are still with us, to our work, to our church, and to our relationship with God. Abraham started to do just that.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Genesis 23:13-16 Fair & Above Board Exchange

Genesis 23:13-16: And he spoke to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, saying, “If you will only please listen to me; I will give the price of the field, accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there.” Then Eprhon answered Abraham, saying to him, “My lord, listen to me; a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between me and you? So bury your dead.” And Abraham listened to Ephron; and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver which he had named in the hearing of the sons of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, commercial standard.

The writer of this passage is very careful to include phrases that point to more of a cultural ritual of exchange between a buyer and a seller in those days. Thus he writes about this taking place “in the hearing of the people” and “please listen to me”. Abraham pleads with Ephron to listen to him as to why he should be paid for his land – the very thing that Ephron wanted. I am sure no one had to beg him to listen or to ask him to do Abraham a favor and accept money so he could get on with the business of burying his dead.

This was clearly about burying one’s dead and the exchange involving the acquisition of a burial place was a formality that one had to go through if they did not own land for this purpose. Ephron in the propose of pretending to say “no, no, it’s merely a piece of land and you need it to bury your dead” was very capable at the same time of sneaking in the desired price, “it’s only worth four hundred shekels of silver”. But he goes on, “we won’t let that small amount get between us; so I’ll oblige you and accept the money. Go ahead, bury your dead.”

The whole exercise is similar to working with a funeral services director in order to make arrangements for the funeral and burial of a loved one these days. The bottom line is you have to do it. Both parties know it. Yet, there is a formal ritual that one goes through to choose the casket and the arrangements while still trying to minimize costs. The funeral director on the other hand as sympathetic as he/she may be to your situation, still needs to make money for his services and products.

At the end of the day, Abraham gets the land he wanted to bury Sarah and Ephron gets the price he wanted. And it is all done in the presence of the sons of Heth in accordance with the “commercial standard” of the day. This may imply two things. First, that the whole deal was handled properly in openness and fairness and second, that the money was all paid in full up front. This is still an excellent goal for all even today in carrying out business.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Genesis 23:8-12 Abraham Negotiates A Burial Plot

Genesis 23:8-12: And he spoke with them, saying, “If it is your wish for me to bury my dead out of my sight, hear me, and approach Ephron the son of Zohar for me, that he may give me the cave of Machpelah which he owns, which is at the end of his field; for the full price let him give it to me in your presence for a burial site.” Now Ephron was sitting among the sons of Heth; and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the sons of Heth; even of all who went in at the gate of his city, saying, “No, my lord, hear me; I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the presence of the sons of my people I give it to you; bury your dead.” And Abraham bowed before the people of the land.

Like a wise and experienced negotiator, Abraham knows that he has the general support of the sons of Heth. Whether he had preplanned in his mind exactly which burial site he would ask for or not is not clear from the text. We know he did ask for a specific piece of property to be made available for that purpose.

Zohar must have been a son of Heth and he in turn had a son called Ephron. It was this man’s property that Abraham sought to bury his dead. And in particular he was asking for the cave of Machpelah. Strong’s Concordance identifies this cave as being in a field near Hebron.

It is interesting to note that Abraham not only knew the land and the cave, but he knew who owned it and its exact location. Abraham must have been an inquisitive sort and possibly had his servants find all this out, likely between the time Sarah died and when he met with the sons of Heth. We have no other evidence to believe that he acquired this knowledge earlier but it is possible that he may have had business interests in this geographic area where clearly Sarah had some friends or possibly relatives.

Abraham offered to pay the full fair value of the land in order to have ownership of it. It was important to own one’s burial sites in order to prevent future use of the land beyond one’s control. We note that he did not try to get a deal but wanted to pay fairly for the land. And he wanted the transaction to be legal in accordance with the times. That is that the money be turned over to the seller in the presence of others.

Perhaps unbeknownst to Abraham, Heth’s grandson Ephron and a Hittite was present at this meeting and since it was his land being asked for by Abraham whom his kin had labeled a ‘mighty prince’, he spoke up so everyone, even the passers by, could hear him. Ephron was part of a nation called the Hittites who were descendants of Heth dwelling at and around Hebron. Strong’s indicates that later they became the people of central Anatolia which is now modern Turkey and then later also inhabited northern Lebanon.

Ephron also shows respects to Abraham addressing him as “my lord” but indicates he is not prepared to accept money for his property but rather wants to give it to Abraham – not only the burial cave but also the entire field so that he can bury his dead. And Ephron also wants witnesses to that effect. What was going on here? Well, for starters, Ephron had already heard Abraham say he wanted to pay the full value of the land. But cultural and social practices of the time required, as part of the bartering, Ephron to offer to give it away to such a great man as Abraham, likely knowing full well that Abraham would have nothing to do with it. The process was just common courtesy between businessmen. It is not too different than offering to pay for your meal by reaching for your wallet at the restaurant when someone else invited you and you know it is his/her responsibility to pay. The gesture is still made, however. So with Ephron; he makes the gesture to take the loss, knowing that a gentleman and lord would not accept it. Nevertheless, it is Abraham’s turn to respond. Notice Abraham bowed before the people, but in the next verse, we will see he spoke directly to Ephron, again evidence that this whole exchange was cultural in nature.

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