My grandfather, Rabbi David Stavsky always loved sharing his insights into the weekly Torah portion. Every year, when we would read about the burial of Sarah in Hebron, my grandfather would ask, how did Abraham and Ephron settle on the price of 400 silver shekels for the Cave of Machpela?
My grandfather would answer with a cute math explanation based on a sharp reading of Ephron’s precise words, “four hundred shekalim of silver – what is that between you and me?” In Hebrew, Abraham is spelled with five letters and reish is the middle letter, and Ephron is also spelled with five letters with the reish as the middle letter. Every Hebrew letter has a numerical value and reish is 200, so Ephron basically said to Abraham, between my reish and your reish we get to 400!
I am not sure if that is really how Ephron came up with the amount, since silver was the most common form of payment in the Bible, and presumably 400 was based on the market value.
Compared to what Avimelech gave Avraham, 400 silver shekels was actually a good deal. After unwittingly kidnapping Sarah, Avimelech sent Avraham and Sarah home with an even larger amount:
Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves, and gave them to Avraham; and he restored his wife Sara to him. And Abimelech said, “Here, my land is before you; settle wherever you please.” And to Sara he said, “I herewith give your brother a thousand pieces of silver; this will serve you as vindication before all who are with you, and you are cleared before everyone.” (Genesis 20:14-16)
But on the other hand, 400 shekels was a lot more than what Joseph was sold for:
When Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Yosef up out of the pit. They sold Yosef for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who brought Yosef to Egypt. (Genesis 37:28)
So did Abraham overpay for the Cave of Machpela or did he get a good deal?
According to archaeologists in Israel, a shekel unit of weight is equivalent to 11.33 grams. Therefore 400 shekels of silver is equal to four and a half kilograms, or ten pounds of silver. While today, ten pounds of silver is worth about $3,500, in Biblical times it was worth much more.
Robert Stieglitz, a professor at Rutgers and archaeologist, did an exhaustive study in 1979 on commodity prices based on economic texts found at Ugarit from the Biblical time period. He found other examples of real estate that sold for 400 silver shekels, which according to Tzilla Eshel, an expert on the ancient use of silver, would be worth around $624,000 today.