Creating a High Trust Society Requires Generosity
Or, What's Wrong With the Hittites?
I am a resident alien (ger v’toshav) among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial. (Genesis 23:4)
“Your Father Is an Amorite and Your Mother a Hittite” (Ezekiel 16:3)
“Swear by the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell.” (Genesis 24:3)
Abraham seeks to bury his deceased wife, Sarah, in the land of Canaan—the promised land. Moses himself will not enter the Promised Land and will instead be buried on the mountain overlook, this side of the Jordan, but Abraham and Sarah seek to complete their metaphorical journey, at least in death and mourning. They seek to “cross over,” true to their namesake, ivrim. They cross over in many senses: by leaving their place of origin, by founding a new lineage, and by marking the lintel between life and death.
The first land acquisition on Biblical record is the purchase of a burial plot. Cain founds a city. Noah captains an ark. Abraham founds a graveyard. There have been settlers and migrants in previous Biblical chapters, but land purchasing begins with Abraham’s choice of gravesite. There’s a meta-lesson in this: what does material ownership mean when you literally can’t take it with you? And yet what could be a greater commitment to this world than the construction of a monument in memory of those who once lived?
The purchasing of a grave is an act of hope, as it suggests an investment in future generations of mourners who will care. A world with no future would negate the desire to acquire at all, let alone mourn. Sarah lives—chayei Sarah—in her transformation from mortal to symbol, from historical figure to mythic amalgam, from subjective experience to collective energy. When Abraham says he is a “ger v’toshav” he speaks not just to his precariousness and ambiguity as someone whose destiny is in, but not of, the land. Ger v’toshav means that he is a stranger to life as well as a resident of life. He is an immigrant to this world as well as a guest in this world. He is a kind of conquerer of and laborer in this world as well as a puzzled visitor for whom it is an object of curiosity.
The process by which Abraham attains his plot is odd, involving a negotiation with the Hittites. The discourse flows from humble request (help me) to generous response (sure, I’ll give it to you) to mercantile negotiation (only if the price is right). The exchange is laden with double speak. Rashi cites a Midrash that implies Abraham’s original request itself is layered: behind his vulnerable ask is a tacit threat—God gave this land to me so don’t make me take it. Meanwhile, Ephron, the Hittite spokesman, asks Abraham a rhetorical question, “A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver—what is that between you and me?” (23:15). Ephron is asking for a lot and knows he will get it. He’s not quite price gouging, but the diminutive stance is a conceit. In any case, the haggling is a kind of absurd and yet realistic account of the pettiness required in dealing with the logistics of mourning, suggesting that even, or especially, death belongs to “being-in-the-world.”
The Hittites don’t appear much in the Torah. This is their major cameo. But we know a few things about them. 1) They descend from Ham through Ham’s son Canaan (for whom the land is named). 2) Ezekiel disparagingly tells the Israelites that their ancestry is partially Hittite. Now, Ezekiel is making a dig at the people—he’s telling them that they’re not special at all, that their ancestral line has nothing to do with their greatness, that God deserves all the credit for transforming them from a base background to a heroic future. But if you want to speculate, Ezekiel might be suggesting an alternative Israelite history, one that suggests a composite of different groups all of whom become post-facto children of Abraham, but most of whom are not literally his biological offspring. The Jews are adoptees, we might say. Of if you prefer a less shocking possibility, then consider Ezekiel to be making an argument about cultural family trees—the influence of Amorite and Hittite culture on the Israelites runs very deep.
So when Abraham engages with the Hittites, we should see it as a story about cultural exchange—Abraham and the Hittites are deeply interdependent, and even if the deal between them is transactional, there is a kind of intimacy to it, too. It is a deal between those whose claim to the land is rooted in the past and those whose claim to it is rooted in the future. Abraham is a stranger by way of the past, but a resident by way of the future.
The phrase “ger v’toshav” appears later in the Torah (Lev. 25:46) also in the context of business, and also in the context of business conducted under duress—the family of a person who becomes an indentured servant to a resident alien has the right to redeem him. But it’s ironic—in Leviticus, the ger v’toshav appears to be a non-Israelite, while in Genesis it is the proto-Israelite who is the ger v’toshav. This suggests the Torah sees both sides of the coin: the ger v’toshav is in some ways an intruder who needs to be contrained. In other ways, the ger v’toshav is a welcome addition to the economy, keeping it fresh and alive. Abraham’s purchase, if you want to say it bluntly, enhances Hittite GDP, and is one of the first instances of Bastiat’s theory that trade curtails hostility.
At the same time, the story of Abraham and the Hittites comes directly before Abraham makes Eliezer swear that he not let Isaac marry among the locals. Eliezer is to go on a journey to find Rebecca from among Abraham’s kin—although he doesn’t yet know it. The intensity of Abraham’s dying wish suggests the Hittites are not suitable for marriage and that the story of his exchange with them is both cause and symptom of this fact. Another proof of this is that Esav later takes a wife from the Hittites, suggesting that his own temperament is closer to theirs.
Rebekah said to Isaac, “I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries a Hittite woman like these, from among the native women, what good will life be to me?”
Abraham insists on buying land from the Hittites rather than accepting it as a gift so as to maintain a more distant relationship. For he knows that gifts participate in a kind of spiritual economy in a way that purchases do not. Meanwhile, the Hittites engage in double-speak in a way that suggests their original posture of generosity is a veneer. Rebecca, by contrast, is a paragon of genuine hospitality, bringing water not just to Eliezer, but also giving drink to his camels—she is the gift giver. When it comes to partnership, Abraham wants his line to be in close relationship with those who have a spirit of generosity. He also wants a spirit of generosity to be a defining trait of his closest relationships, and thus of his family culture. Keeping ledgers and accounts is for strangers and resident aliens. Purchasing is for strangers, giving for friends. (Rebecca is the daughter of Bethuel and Lavan, who are not as generous as she—thus Eliezer heaps wealth upon them in a way that suggests a purchasing relationship rather than a gift-giving one; Lavan, in fact, is one of the most cunning manipulators in Tanakh, and effectively enslaves Jacob for 14 years, a core theme in the Passover seder).
The word chet means broken, shattered, or dismayed. The Hittites are called “b’nei chet.” Here is Jeremiah (50:2) enumerating the ways in which different civilizations and their idols are brought law:
Declare among the nations, and proclaim;
Raise a standard, proclaim;
Hide nothing! Say:
Babylon is captured,
Bela is shamed (bel chet)
Merodacha is dismayed.
Her idols are shamed,
Her fetishes dismayed.
Perhaps the Hittites take their name from the fact that their idolatry is a source of shame? Or perhaps they are a fearful people, and this explains why they are contrasted with the ethos of generosity and openness characteristic of Abraham, Sarah, and Rebecca. In the world of strangers, where trust is low, it is rational to be fearful, and reasonable to hedge risk by assuming worst case scenarios. Yet, leadership requires taking the leap into trust and optimism and generosity even when these may seem naive or gullible. Rebecca might have been a fool to trust Eliezer, but her child-like greeting also changes her life and her destiny—and Abraham knows it, which is why he sends Eliezer on the mission.
If Israelite= Open and Hittite = Closed, if Israelite = Faith in the Lord and Hittite = faith in idols, we now appreciate Ezekiel’s argument when he tells us that we are descended from Hittites. The posture of being open or closed, generous or fearful is a choice, even if it is also a temperment. One must overcome one’s origins, not just geographically and culturally as Abraham did, but psychographically. One must make the inner Lech l’cha from being a transactional, self-interested ego-centric fearful person to a person capable of giving without expectation of compensation, as in the case of Rebecca. This is not always possible practically speaking, nor is it always advisable. Abraham transacts with Hittites in accordance with their norms and would be foolish to treat them as though they were family. But when it comes to the most important things in life, when it comes to building a destiny, you want to find the Rebeccas, and you want to be like them. The Hittites play a short term game and get a short term return. Rebecca plays an eternal game and is rewarded with existential longevity. That she herself expresses aversion to the Hittites suggests a dark backstory, at least within the literary frame of the Torah. The Hittites are fearsome because they themselves live in a state of fear, as their name suggests. But fear won’t lead to crazy journeys, to leaving one’s place of origin, to making new discoveries, new commitments, and new relationships.
How did or does the Israelite come not to be a Hittite, given Ezekiel’s claim that she descends from the Hittites? In the prophetic telling, it is the Exodus story that opens us up to the possibility of freedom for ourselves and others. The Exodus story which is promised to Abraham (your descendants will be slaves in Egypt…) is a promise of a transformation of human nature from closed and fearful to human nature as open and hopeful. When we cultivate openness in ourselves, we fulfill Abraham’s original journey, we fulfill the purpose of the Exodus, and we emulate our foremother, Rebecca.
Zohar Atkins @
P.S. I hope you enjoy my conversation with Marjorie Perloff on poetry and the avant-garde.