mak-pe'-la (ha-makhpelah, "the Machpelah"; to diploun, "the double"):
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 Genesis 23:17. The name is applied to the ground in Genesis 23:19; 49:30; 50:13, and to the cave in Genesis 23:9; 25:9. In Genesis 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 (Genesis 23:8-16). It is described as "before," i.e. "to the East of" Mamre (Genesis 23:17) which (Genesis 23:19) is described as the same as Hebron (see, too, Genesis 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 Acts 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.
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.
E. W. G. Masterman