Abraham's Ten Tests

Why is buying a burial place for Sarah considered a test by Rabbeinu Yonah?

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

“Abraham our father was tested with ten tests and he passed them all, which shows how great was Abraham our father’s love [for G-d]” (Pirkei Avot 5:4).

Thus the Mishnah laconically describes Abraham’s unbounded love for G-d, yet it does not tell us what these tests were. Various commentators offer various opinions; but almost all (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 26-31, Avot de-Rabbi Natan 33, Targum Yerushalmi to Genesis 22:1, Rashi, Rambam, Rabbi Ovadiyah of Bartinura, the Vilna Ga’on) agree that the Akeidah (the Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22) was the last of these tests.

Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona (1180-1263), however, disagrees: according to him the Akeidah was the ninth test, and the tenth test was the burial of Sarah and Abraham’s having to buy the Machpela Cave. On a superficial level, this seems easy to understand: being forced to buy the Machpela Cave from the Hittites, who had only recently invaded the Land, must have been terribly demoralizing for Abraham. Just as the command to sacrifice Isaac cast a doubt over the very future existence of his offspring, so too being forced to buy his own land from a foreign invader could have cast a doubt over G-d’s fundamental promise that this Land was his.

And the anguish of having to buy a burial site for his beloved wife while she was lying dead before him must have been a horribly harrowing experience for Abraham: he couldn’t even mourn his dead wife in peace without Ephron the devious Hittite haggling over the price of the field.

But it seems to me that Rabbeinu Yonah’s message goes far deeper than this superficial reading.

Rabbeinu Yonah, one of the greatest rabbis in the mediæval world, is best known for his monumental works Sha’arei Teshuvah (“The Gates of Repentance”), Iggeret ha-Teshuvah (“Epistle on Repentance”), and Sefer ha-Yir’ah (“The Book of Fear [of G-d]”), which rank among the most important books of Jewish ethics ever written.

Rabbeinu Yonah was a master of the topic of repentance. In the Maimonidæan Controversy he was one of the leaders of the opposition to the Rambam, going so far as to support (and maybe even instigate) the public burning of the Rambam’s writings in Paris in 1233.

But nine years later, when the Church burned twenty-four wagon-loads of the Talmud at the same place where the Rambam’s books had been destroyed, Rabbeinu Yonah saw this as Divine retribution and publicly admitted in the synagogue of Montpellier that he had been wrong to oppose the Rambam. As an act of teshuvah he vowed to travel to Israel, there to prostrate himself on the Rambam’s grave and implore his pardon in the presence of ten men for seven consecutive days. He began his journey but never reached Israel, dying of a mysterious illness in Toledo, Spain, on 28th Marcheshvan 5024 (November 1263), 749 years ago this coming Tuesday.

Since Rabbeinu Yonah’s greatest motif was repentance, it is through the prism of repentance that we should try to understand his enumeration of Abraham’s ten tests, and why he, alone among all the commentators, views Abraham’s purchase of the Machpela Cave as his final test.

Rabbeinu Yonah lists Abraham’s ten tests as:

In Ur of the Chaldees, Nimrod the king had him cast into a fiery furnace for refusing to betray G-d, and he miraculously survived (Bereishit Rabbah 38:13, Eliyahu Rabbah 6);

G-d’s command that he leave him homeland and family (Genesis 12:1);

The famine that struck Canaan as soon as Abraham arrived there (12:10), even though G-d had told him that “all the families of the earth will be blessed through you” (12:3);

When Abraham and Sarah came to Egypt, Pharaoh abducted his wife (12:15);

His war against the four kings with only 318 of his students (14:13-16);

Circumcising himself at ninety-nine years old (17:24);

Abimelech, king of Gerar, abducted Sarah (20:2);

Expelling Hagar and Yishmael (21:9-14);

Binding and being prepared to slaughter his son Yitzchak (22:1-18);

Having to buy the Machpela Cave to bury his dead wife (23:3-20).

The Rambam in his enumeration of Abraham’s ten tests omits the first of these. He includes Abraham’s begetting a son from Hagar after despairing of ever having a son by Sarah (Genesis 16:1-4) as a test, he counts the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael as two separate tests, and he omits the tenth. In the words of the Rambam, “The ten tests with which Abraham our father was tested are all written” – that is to say, all written directly in the Torah.

Now, Rabbeinu Yonah in his commentary writes that although the episode of the fiery furnace in Ur of the Chaldees “is not written explicitly in the Torah and is only known from tradition, the Torah hints at it”. It is hinted at in the name “Ur of the Chaldees”: the Hebrew word “ur” means “fire” (the same root as “or”, “light”), so “Ur of the Chaldees” denotes “the fire of the Chaldees”.

To understand why Rabbeinu Yonah includes Abraham’s having to buy the Machpela Cave to bury his dead wife, we have to go back to the Akeidah which, according to him, was Abraham’s ninth test.

The Akeidah narrative begins with the words “and it happened after these things…” (Genesis 22:1). The Rashbam (Rabbi Shmu’el ben Meir, c1080-c.1160), a grandson and close student of Rashi, picks up on this phrase. Based on the Midrash (Tanna de-Bey Eliyahu, Eliyahu Rabbah 7), he comments: “Whenever the Tanakh says ‘after these things’, there is a direct connexion with what had been previously… Here, it means ‘after these things’ when Abraham forged a covenant with Abimelech, with his son and with his grandson (Genesis 21:22-32), which obligated Abraham’s descendants [to recognise Philistine control over the land where they lived]… This infuriated G-d because after all, the land of the Philistines is included within the borders of Israel, and G-d would command them ‘You shall not leave any of [the hostile inhabitants of the Land] alive’ (Deuteronomy 20:16); and when Joshua divided up the Land [between the Tribes of Israel in Joshua Chapters 14-21], he included the five Philistine cities [in the territory of Judah].

And therefore ‘G-d tested Abraham’ (Genesis 22:1) – He reprimanded him and distressed him…, as though telling him: You take pride in including your son in the covenant which you forge between yourselves and your children? – So now, go and offer him up as a sacrifice, and see how much good that covenant which you have forged does you!”.

Let us see the original Midrash on which the Rashbam bases his comment: “A person must constantly be on his guard not to make any partnership with idolaters, and not to forge any covenant with them. Because we find that Abraham our father made a partnership with Abimelech, and ended up by forging a covenant with him…. And when he forged the covenant with him, the ministering angels gathered around G-d saying: Why would Abraham forge a covenant with an idolater?! The one person whom You chose from among seventy nations and languages! G-d told them: His only son, whom I gave him at a hundred years old – I will tell him to offer him up as a sacrifice. If he offers him up – well and good; you will thereby know that his intentions were good – for the sake of peace. But if not – then you have spoken well” (Tanna de-Bey Eliyahu, Eliyahu Rabbah 7).

That is to say, the Akeidah was a test for Abraham – but it was also his opportunity for repentance. It was the opportunity that G-d gave Abraham to prove that he had greater faith and trust in Him than he did in the mortal king Abimelech.

And now we return to Abraham buying the Machpela Cave. Let us look at Rabbeinu Yonah’s precise words: “The tenth [test] was the burial of Sarah; He had told him, ‘Rise, walk through the length and breadth of the Land, because I give it to you’ (Genesis 13:17). And when his wife died he could not find any place to bury her until he bought it, yet he did not doubt [G-d’s promise]”.

Maybe Rabbeinu Yonah sees this as the direct continuation of the Akeidah. In the covenant which Abraham forged with Abimelech, there were two components: first, that Abraham and his descendants would be protected by Abimelech and his descendants; second, that Abraham and his descendants would recognize Abimelech’s and his descendants’ control over part of the Land.

G-d reprimanded Abraham for both of these. The first measure-for-measure response was the Akeidah: Abraham thought to entrust his son’s security to Abimelech and his son – and as a consequence, G-d showed Abraham how Abimelech’s protection was irrelevant. This was not only a test – it was also Abraham’s opportunity for teshuvah.

The second measure-for-measure response was Abraham’s having to buy the Machpela Cave: Abraham thought to recognize Abimelech’s sovereignty over the Land in return for security and peace for himself and his descendants – and as a consequence he had to barter and haggle for a plot of land at the most harrowing moment of his entire life.

This, too, was not only a test – it was also Abraham’s opportunity for teshuvah. It brought him to the understanding that recognizing foreign sovereignty over the Land, or any part thereof, could not bring security and peace for himself or his descendants; indeed, all it did was to jeopardise his own ownership of and future in the Land.

Hence, according to Rabbeinu Yonah’s understanding, this tested Abraham’s faith in G-d’s earlier promise to give Abraham and his descendants the entire Land of Israel; and yet, as Rabbeinu Yonah concludes, he did not doubt His promise.

By listing the burial of Sarah as Abraham’s tenth and final test, Rabbeinu Yonah forces us to peer deep into our own souls and ask ourselves some penetrating questions: Do we genuinely believe in G-d, and in His promise and command to us to possess the entire Land of Israel? And if we do, do we honestly want to take possession of it all? Do we trust G-d and His promise and His protection more than we trust human allies?

Abraham and his experiences showed us what errors to avoid. Do we, in our generation standing on the brink of redemption, have the courage, the faith, the trust, and the honesty to pass our test?