Translation commentary on Genesis 23:5 - 23:6

The Hittites answered Abraham: Abraham has made a request in Gen 23.4. Consequently the translation of answered should be appropriate for replying to a request. The Hebrew of verse 5 is literally “answered Abraham saying to him.” However, “to him” in this position is considered unidiomatic Hebrew, and Hebrew Old Testament Text Project and others consider it to be a misunderstanding of a closely similar particle meaning “would that” as a plea or request and position it as the opening word of the speech in Gen 23.6. The latter form occurs in verses 11, 13, 14-15. The recommendation is that verse 5 be translated as in Revised Standard Version, and that verse 6 begin with something equivalent to “pray” or “please listen to us.” Note that Good News Translation does this by translating verse 5 “they answered” and beginning verse 6 with “Listen to us, sir.” Bible en français courant has managed a more courteous style by translating (5) “The descendants of Heth replied: (6) Do us the honor of listening to us!”

Hear us: it should be noticed how the expression “Hear me” or “Hear us” is used as a discourse marker. In the negotiation between Abraham and the Hittites, this expression does not serve merely as an attention-getter or a request to listen to the speaker but signals that a proposal or counterproposal is to be put forward. Each time the expression is used, the negotiation moves to a new level. This is important because in many languages “Listen to me” or “Please hear me” will be understood as a rebuke to the listener for not paying attention. Therefore translators should pay particular attention to the style and procedure of the interchange between Abraham and the Hittites. The translation of “Hear me” or “Hear us” should signal to the reader that a proposal or offer is about to be put forward.

Lord: for discussion see 18.3. Here the reference is to a person of rank, commonly equated with “sir” as an address form in English. This title does not suggest that Abraham is the master or someone in authority over the Hittites, but that he is recognized as a wealthy and powerful person who merits their respect. The term chosen in translation should reflect these factors. Revised Standard Version reflects the Hebrew my lord. This may seem strange because The Hittites is the subject of answered. Therefore we expect “our lord.” Translators may find it necessary to adjust my lord to “our lord,” or to say something like Good News Translation, “Listen to us, sir.”

Mighty prince translates “prince of God [ʾelohim].” As von Rad points out, this expression in the minds of the Hittites meant little more than a polite title. To later Israelite readers it was “a lofty title of honor with which faith revered Abraham.” This title contrasts with the lowly description of “stranger and sojourner,” which Abraham gives himself in Gen 23.4. For further explanation of the use of “God” as a descriptive term, see 1.2.

Among us does not mean that the Hittites consider Abraham to be one of them but that they recognize his presence as part of the life of Hebron. We may translate, for example, “Here you are a mighty man” or “We acknowledge you in Hebron as a powerful man.”

Bury your dead in the choicest of our sepulchres: this reply is not the concrete response Abraham is seeking. It remains still at the level of courteous overstatement; and if it were taken literally, it would not give Abraham any legal title to the burial place. Your dead refers to Sarah, which is often rendered “your dead wife.” Choicest refers to the best, or most attractive grave, or whichever grave Abraham would like to choose. Sepulchres translates the noun form of the verb “to bury” and refers generally to the burial place or grave. In English “sepulchre” refers to a tomb or burial vault; but this restricted sense is not required here, and translators should use whatever terms are appropriate for burial in their own situation, provided that they refer to burial on land and not to some other means of disposing of a dead body such as cremation.

None of us will withhold from you his sepulchre: the sense of this is “Not one of us would refuse you his burial ground.” Good News Translation expresses this sentence positively as “Any of us would be glad to give you a grave.”

Or hinder you from burying your dead: Revised Standard Version‘s wording withhold and hinder creates a parallelism that does not fully appear in the Hebrew text. We may stay closer to the text by saying, for example, “No one would withhold his burial place from you to prevent you from burying your dead.” We may also say, for example, “None of us would refuse you a place to bury your dead.”

The last part of this verse may be restructured in a number of ways to allow it to sound natural in translation; two examples are “You can bury that body in any good burying place of ours; we won’t refuse you” and “You can bury your wife in any of our burying places; just pick out the place you want, and the owner will give it to you….”

Quoted with permission from Reyburn, William D. and Fry, Euan McG. A Handbook on Genesis. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1997. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

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