Having lived to be one hundred and seventy-five years old, Abraham died. He was buried alongside his wife Sarah in a field he had bought at a place called the Cave of Machpelah, in Hebron, at the corner of which was a natural cave that served as their burial place. The tomb of Abraham and his family is mentioned several times in Genesis (23, 8-19 and 25, 9-10):
“After which Abraham buried Sarah, his wife, in the cave of the field of Machpelah, opposite Mambre, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan (…). Abraham gave up the soul (…). Isaac and Ishmael, his sons, buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron, son of Mambre, the area which Abraham had bought from the sons of Heth.
In Hebron, local tradition has preserved for millennia an imposing monument that shelters the supposed tomb of Abraham and his family: the Haram-al-Khalil—built in the 1st century BC. BC, under the orders of King Herod the Great, has remained almost intact since its construction. Transformed into a mosque in the 12th century, the Haram-al-Khalil is today a high place for the three monotheistic religions. It is again placed under Muslim guard, and its access is limited.
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The interior design of the Cave of Machpelah
The work is presented as a rectangular building. Hose’s four blind sides evoke more of a fortress than a tomb. The interior is divided into two large rooms, one converted into a mosque and the other into a synagogue. They contain several cenotaphs, that is to say, symbolic coffins not containing the bodies. The actual bones are supposed to be in the cave of Machpelah, that is, in the basement.
The interior paving of the Haram-al-Khalil is supposed to cover the rock of the enigmatic cave. It is pierced by two sealed openings, which constitute the narrow entrances to two wells, access to which is strictly prohibited. What is in these wells? Only historical archives can bear witness to this.
The Sanctuary in the Cave of Machpelah
At first sight, the cave seemed devoid of any movable objects. But Arnoul soon spotted a few bones scattered in the dust on the ground. He also saw the entrance to a second cave where other human bones were deposited.
On one of the walls of the first natural cellar was engraved an inscription that he could not decipher. The monks called in as reinforcements dug behind her, in vain, then in the wall facing her: a cavity appeared in about fifteen terracotta jars containing the bones of twelve people.
The monks attributed these human remains to the biblical patriarchs and their immediate descendants. The twelve persons could be the twelve sons of Jacob. These relics were washed in a jar of wine and taken out to be presented to the public in reliquaries; some were sold to pilgrims, while others took their place in the tomb. The sanctuary then benefited from some work intended to improve access. The access shaft was completed by digging a staircase and the vault of the circular room by drilling a narrow beam. Later, the tomb became forbidden to access again when the Muslims took over the territory in 1187.
An exploration of the Cave of Machpelah
The Macphela cave was not reopened until 1967. At the end of the Six-Day War, the Israeli general Moshe Dayan attempted a new exploration. They were taking advantage of a troubled local situation. The narrowness of the access shaft prompted the officer to hire a twelve-year-old girl to whom he provided exploration equipment. The young explorer bravely slipped through the opening and came to the large circular room once described by the monks. It saw only three stone slabs, one engraved with an extract from the Koran. She also found the long corridor in which she slipped until reaching the staircase, the end of which was closed.
The young visitor needs to manage to go further. She took measurements and photos, which made it possible to draw up a detailed plan of the place without having been able to verify access to the cellars or see what they contained.
A final exploration was carried out in 1983 by Dr. Seev Jevin, director of the Israel Antiquities Service, which was more successful. He secretly unsealed the stone blocking the stairs at night and entered the hallway until he reached the large circular room. On the ground of this one, he spotted several poorly arranged stones. Having removed them, he found the entrance to a natural cave, probably the cave of Machpelah. This contained rubble and dust but gave access to a second oval-shaped room, where he found shards of pottery, a jar of wine, and some bones.
The history of the cave of Machpelah after the death of Abraham continues with that of his descendants. He and his relatives had led a nomadic and pastoral life: their immediate successors did the same. And their journey is a succession of adventures through which the divine message is revealed little by little.
The death of Abraham made his son Isaac the heir to his property and his knowledge of the revealed God. Isaac is best known for the episode of his false sacrifice, during which God pretends to ask for his life. But Isaac is not sacrificed, and Abraham, on the contrary, receives the divine blessing and the promise of numerous descendants. Isaac, in turn, had two sons, Esau and Jacob. The latter appropriated by a ruse the right of primogeniture and the paternal blessing. Thereby becoming the legitimate heir of the future line. Jacob (also called Israel) had twelve sons who were each to form a tribe of the Hebrew people later.
One of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, was mistreated by his brothers and sold as a slave to Ishmaelite merchants. His transfer to Egypt was paradoxically a chance because an exceptional destiny awaited him. And would allow his family to settle in Egypt for several generations (Gn. 25-36).