MACHPELAH (măk-pē'la, Heb. makhpēlâh, a doubling). A field near Hebron that Abraham purchased from Ephron the Hittite for four hundred shekels of silver in order to use a cave in it as a place of burial for Sarah (Gen.23.19-Gen.23.20). Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, and Jacob were also buried there (Gen.25.9; Gen.49.31; Gen.50.13). Its name may mean it was a double cave. A Muslim mosque stands over the cave of Machpelah today, and entrance into it is forbidden.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs, built over the traditional Cave of Machpelah.

MACHPELAH măk pē’ lä (מַּכְפֵּלָ֔ה, always with the definite article meaning the double [cave]; Gr. [LXX] τό σπήλαιον τό διπλου̂ν, the double cave), the burial place which Abraham purchased of Zohar the Hitt. of Hebron, now located under the Ḥaram el-Khalil in Hebron. The name does not occur outside Genesis and always designates the sepulchers of the patriarchs.

The occasion of the mention of Machpelah was the death of Sarah and the necessity to find a secure sepulcher for her, himself and their posterity. Analysis of Genesis 23 and Hitt. law codes have shown that Hittites of Anatolia maintained an outpost at Hebron at this time (M. Lehmann, “Abraham’s Purchase of Machpelah and Hittite Law,” BASOR, 129 [1953], 15-18). The process of negotiation was perfect etiquette and custom which still prevails in many Arab communities, but in Abraham’s case the price finally paid was deliberately exorbitant, and the offer first of the land for nothing is not to be considered a true offer. The high price was prompted by the aversion of the native Hittites to have a non-Hitt. acquire proprietary, hence citizenship, rights in their midst. They could hardly deny the privilege to Abraham since he was a prince of God (Gen 23:5, 6), but sought to dissuade him by the excessive price asked. Abraham was not so easily put off, and going on the strength of God’s promises that he should inherit the land (12:7; 13:15; etc.), he took the first step to this end as a token of his belief in God’s promises and unhesitatingly paid the price demanded.

The record simply locates the cave “in Machpelah” (23:17), “east of (opposite) Mamre” (v. 19; 25:9), “in the field” (25:9; 49:30; 50:13). Abraham was buried there by Isaac and Ishmael; Isaac and Rebekah were likewise buried there, and Jacob required that his sons bury him where he had buried Leah (49:30). By this Jacob expressed the same confidence in the promises of God which was exhibited by Abraham his grandfather. However, though the record locates the cave opposite Mamre, yet it is only a general term and no other landmarks are given by which to locate it, indicating that the site was obviously known, and that the name was sufficient to localize it. For the archeology of the locale of Hebron see Hebron. The Ḥaram lies NE from the tell of Hebron across the vale on the lower slope of the N ridge on its S side.

Acts 7:15 poses a problem, but one of report, not of actuality. The writer had confused the purchase by Jacob of a field from Hamor of Shechem with the field Abraham purchased; it may well be that his words cite a variant Gr. VS of his day. His usage does not change Genesis.

Josephus was the next earliest writer to mention Machpelah (War IV. ix. 7) in which he wrote of the “monuments” of Abraham as being “shown to this very time” in the “small” city of Hebron. He records that Isaac was buried by his sons beside his wife in the same cave. From that time to this a connected witness places Abraham’s tomb in the present city of Hebron under the present Ḥaram.

This Ḥaram is today a Muslim sanctuary, but in 1967 the cenotaphs marking the burials were removed from their inner rooms to an outer court. The sanctuary itself sets NE to SW, measuring 197 ft. long by 110 ft. wide with masonry walls eight to nine ft. thick. The stonework up to the cornice atop the pilasters is homogeneous and Herodian, while that above is Muslim. Around the exterior at about the line of the floor within occur a series of pilasters about 3 ft. 9 in. wide spaced approximately seven ft. apart, providing for sixteen on the sides and eight on the ends. Entrance to the Ḥaram is along the SW side from the N to the S between adjacent buildings. The visitor is required to wait in a vestibule before proceeding into an arched aisle at the westerly side with a court opening off therefrom with the cenotaphs of Jacob and Leah formerly each in his (her) own chapel on the N side, while those of Abraham and Sarah are to the S in theirs.

A former church, now a mosque, occurs to the S of these memorial rooms; here were located the cenotaphs of Isaac and Rebekah. All the men were placed on the easterly side of the sanctuary. The location of each of the cenotaphs of Isaac and Rebekah supposedly mark the location of their bodies in the cave below, which is reported to extend under the entire church. In the mosque is found a low curb with a brass plate viewing hole, located over a small room of the cave below (about twelve ft. square). A small mosque outside the Ḥaram commemorates Joseph’s reburial from Shechem on account of the antipathy between Jews and Samaritans.

The history of Machpelah since Genesis is obscure down to the Christian era. Perhaps Isaiah 51:1, 2: “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were digged. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you,” is perhaps a veiled reference to the cave. The later veneration of the site by Jews and Muslims alike supports the view that knowledge of the cave was not lost. Jubilees frequently mentions Abraham’s “house” in Hebron (29:17-19, 20; 31:5, etc.). In Lat. tradition it was called baris Abraham (palace of Abraham). (See R. H. Charles, Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs [1908], 247.) Comparison with Herodian stonework of the Temple in Jerusalem with that of the Ḥaram in Hebron makes it certain that the Ḥaram enclosure in Hebron was built by Herod the Great to memorialize for all later time the location of the cave. This included apparently an entrance and vestibule before the double cave, and on an upper level erected the memorial to which Josephus referred.

In the time of Eudoria of Justinian (c. early 6th cent. a.d.) the church, now a mosque, was built, recorded c. 570 by an anonymous visitor who also recorded seeing the tombs of the patriarchs. In a.d. 670 Arculf recorded the presence of the cenotaphs. In a.d. 980 Muqaddasi recorded the cenotaphs located as of recent times (Le Strange, Palestine Under the Moslems), that the monuments of Isaac and Rebekah were built by the Mamelukes but those of Abraham and Sarah came from the Abbasid or Omayyad periods. The Calif Mahdi is reported by Nasir-i-Kosru in a.d. 1047 that he constructed the present access in 918, possibly due to the obstruction of Joseph’s tomb to the E.

In a.d. 1119 the bones of the patriarchs were reportedly found when access through the church floor at the peephole was made to a vestibule below to the two chambers to the W. This same chamber is reported to have been visited by an Eng. officer in 1917 through an opening hidden since the crusades. Benjamin of Tudela visited the graves in a.d. 1170. The Eng. officer is said to have glimpsed one of them. See nodetitle.


G. Le Strange, Palestine Under the Moslems (1890); R. H. Charles, “Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs,” The Greek Versions of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (1908); L. H. Vincent, E. J. H. MacKay and F. M. Abel, Hebron, le Haram el Khalil, sepulture des Patriarchs (1923); M. Lehmann, “Abraham’s Purchase of Machpelah and Hittite Law,” BASOR, 129 (1953), 15-18; R. de Vaux, “Machpelah,” Dictionnaire de la Bible, Supp. V (1953), cols. 618-627.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

The name of a piece of ground and of a cave purchased by Abraham as a place of sepulcher. The word is supposed to mean "double" and refers to the condition of the cave. It is translated "double cave" (to diploun spelaion) in the Septuagint in Ge 23:17. The name is applied to the ground in Ge 23:19; 49:30; 50:13, and to the cave in Ge 23:9; 25:9. In Ge 23:17 we have the phrase "the field of Ephron, which was in (the) Machpelah."

1. Scriptural Data:

The cave belonged to Ephron the Hittite, the son of Zohar, from whom Abraham purchased it for 400 shekels of silver (Ge 23:8-16). It is described as "before," i.e. "to the East of" Mamre (Ge 23:17) which (Ge 23:19) is described as the same as Hebron (see, too, Ge 25:9; 49:30; 50:13). Here were buried Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. (Compare however the curious variant tradition in Ac 7:16, "Shechem" instead of "Hebron.")

2. Tradition Regarding the Site:

Josephus (BJ, IV, ix, 7) speaks of the monuments (mnemeia) of Abraham and his posterity which "are shown to this very time in that small city (i.e. in Hebron); the fabric of which monuments are of the most excellent marble and wrought after the most excellent manner"; and in another place he writes of Isaac being buried by his sons with his wife in Hebron where they had a monument belonging to them from their forefathers (Ant., I, xxii, 1). The references of early Christian writers to the site of the tombs of the patriarchs only very doubtfully apply to the present buildings and may possibly refer to Ramet el-Khalil (see Mamre). Thus the Bordeaux Pilgrim (333 AD) mentions a square enclosure built of stones of great beauty in which Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were buried with their wives. Antonius Martyr (circa 600) and Arculf (698) also mention this monument. Mukaddasi speaks (circa 985) of the strong fortress around the tombs of the patriarchs built of great squared stones, the work of Jinns, i.e. of supernatural beings. From this onward the references are surely to the present site, and it is difficult to believe, if, as good authorities maintain, the great buttressed square wall enclosing the site is work at least as early as Herod, that the earlier references can be to any other site. It is certain that the existing buildings are very largely those which the Crusaders occupied; there are many full references to this place in medieval Moslem writers.

3. The Charam at Hebron:

The Charam at Hebron, which present-day tradition, Christian, Jewish and Moslem, recognizes as built over the cave of Machpelah, is one of the most jealousy guarded sanctuaries in the world. Only on rare occasions and through the exercise of much political pressure have a few honored Christians been allowed to visit the spot. The late King Edward VII in 1862 and the present King George V, in 1882, with certain distinguished scholars in their parties, made visits which have been chiefly important through the writings of their companions--Stanley in 1862 and Wilson and Conder in 1882. One of the latest to be accorded the privilege was C.W. Fairbanks, late vice-president of the United States of America. What such visitors have been permitted to see has not been of any great antiquity nor has it thrown any certain fight on the question of the genuineness of the site.

The space containing the traditional tombs is a great quadrangle 197 ft. in length (Northwest to Southeast) and 111 ft. in breadth (Northeast to Southwest). It is enclosed by a massive wall of great blocks of limestone, very hard and akin to marble. The walls which are between 8 and 9 ft thick are of solid masonry throughout. At the height of 15 ft. from the ground, at indeed the level of the floor within, the wall is set back about 10 inches at intervals, so as to leave pilasters 3 ft. 9 inches wide, with space between each of 7 ft. all round. On the longer sides there are 16 and on the shorter sides 8 such pilasters, and there are also buttresses 9 ft. wide on each face at each angle. This pilastered wall runs up for 25 ft., giving the total average height from the ground of 40 ft. The whole character of the masonry is so similar to the wall of the Jerusalem Charam near the "wailing place" that Conder and Warren considered that it must belong to that period and be Herodian work.

The southern end of the great enclosure is occupied by a church--probably a building entirely of the crusading period--with a nave and two aisles. The rest is a courtyard open to the air. The cenotaphs of Isaac and Rebecca are within the church; those of Abraham and Sarah occupy octagonal chapels in the double porch before the church doors; those of Jacob and Leah are placed in chambers near the north end of the Charam. The six monuments are placed at equal distances along the length of the enclosure, and it is probable that their positions there have no relation to the sarcophagi which are described as existing in the cave itself.

4. The Cave:

It is over this cave that the chief mystery hangs. It is not known whether it has been entered by any man at present alive, Moslem or otherwise. While the cave was in the hands of the Crusaders, pilgrims and others were allowed to visit this spot. Thus Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, writing in 1163 AD, says that "if a Jew comes, who gives an additional fee to the keeper of the cave, an iron door is opened, which dates from the times of our forefathers who rest in peace, and with a burning candle in his hand the visitor descends into a first cave which is empty, traverses a second in the same state and at last reaches a third which contains six sepulchres--those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and of Sarah, Rebecca and Leah, one opposite the other. ... A lamp burns in the cave and upon the sepulchre continually, both night and day." The account reminds us of the condition of many Christian tomb-shrines in Palestine today.

It would appear from the description of modern observers that all entrance to the cave is now closed; the only known approaches are never now opened and can only be reached by breaking up the flags of the flooring. Through one of the openings--which had a stone over it pierced by a circular hole 1 ft. in diameter--near the northern wall of the old church, Conder was able by lowering a lantern to see into a chamber some 15 ft. under the church. He estimated it to be some 12 ft. square; it had plastered walls, and in the wall toward the Southeast there was a door which appeared like the entrance to a rock-cut tomb. On the outside of the Charam wall, close to the steps of the southern entrance gateway is a hole in the lowest course of masonry, which may possibly communicate with the western cave. Into this the Jews of Hebron are accustomed to thrust many written prayers and vows to the patriarchs.

The evidence, historical and archaeological seems to show that the cave occupies only the south end of the great quadrilateral enclosure under part only of the area covered by the church.

See nodetitle.


PEF, III., 333-46; PEFS, 1882, 197; 1897, 53; 1912, 145-150; HDB, III., article "Machpelah," by Warren; Stanley, SP and Lectures on the Jewish Church; "Pal under the Moslems," PEF; Pilgrim Text Soc. publications.