Published: 14 March 2022

The Cave Of Machpelah

Cave Of Machpelah

Sarah, died at the age of 127 years and her husband, Abraham, buried her in the Cave of Machpelah near Hebron. Sarah is the only woman in the Bible whose age at the time of death is recorded. This is a reminder of her importance in God’s plan. Herod the Great memorialized the location of her tomb with one of his massive construction projects in the 1st century BC. 

Since Abraham did not own any land in Canaan, he had to purchase a burial place. He approached the sons of Heth to inquire about purchasing a cave to use as a family tomb. Abraham negotiated with Ephron to purchase a piece of land just east of Hebron for four hundred shekels of silver (Gen 23:17-18).

The Cave of the Patriarchs

Abraham buried Sarah “in the cave of the field of Machpelah” (Gen 23:19). When Abraham died forty-eight years later, this is where his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him (Genesis 25:9). Isaac and Rebekah were both buried here (Genesis 49:31). Jacob buried Leah here (Genesis 49:31), and Joseph buried Jacob here (Genesis 50:13).

This field with its cave is east of the ancient city of Hebron which Genesis 23:2 says was also known as Kiriath-arba. Tel Rumeida is the modern name of the ancient location of Hebron. Archeologists have confirmed human occupation at the site since at least 2000 BC.1 The Cave of Machpelah is a half mile to the east of ancient Hebron.

Herod’s enclosure

Herod’s enclosure wall. Photo:

Herod the Great built a massive stone wall around the Cave of Machpelah sometime during his reign (approximately 37-1 BC). This enclosure still stands today to mark the site of the Cave of Machpelah. The level of preservation of the wall Herod built is remarkable. Sources say that it is perfectly preserved even today, more than 2000 years after its construction.2 This wall is the only fully intact structure built by Herod which survives to the present day.

At some point before 985 AD a mosque was built within the enclosure which now covers the cave. Around the 15th century AD, the Muslims closed the entrance to the cave and it remains closed to this day.

Jews and Muslims both venerate the site. Racial and religious tensions have resulted in violence and fatalities in recent decades. In an effort to allow access to both Jews and Muslims, an agreement has been reached where most of the structure is under Muslim control with a small portion occupied by Jews. The entrance to the caves is in the Muslim controlled portion of the building. However, in recent decades a few lucky Jews have gained access. 

Michal Arbel

Muslims forbid entrance into the burial cave, but a few stories have emerged over the years telling of access to the area beneath the Mosque. The best known story took place after the Six-Day War when the Jews gained control of Hebron. In 1968, a young girl named Michal Arbel entered the passageways beneath the mosque. Only twelve years old at the time, she was small enough to squeeze through the entrance into the area leading to the cave. The only known opening at the time was a circular shaft eleven inches in diameter. 

Michal Arbel being lowered down the “Candle Shaft.”
The “Candle Shaft” leading to the chambers below the mosque. Photo:

Under the supervision of the Israeli Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan, the men lowered Michal on a rope to take photographs and make drawings of the area beneath the floor of the mosque. She documented a chamber and steps at the end of a narrow hallway. She was able to determine that a stone forming part of the mosque floor covered the top of the steps. During her investigation, she was unable to find an entrance into the Cave of Machpelah.

Noam Arnon

Another exploration beneath the mosque took place in 1981. Noam Arnon secretly gained access to the chambers beneath the mosque in hopes of finding the actual burial cave. During a Jewish prayer service in the areas adjoining the mosque, Arnon was able to lift the stone covering the steps that Michal Arbel had discovered back in 1968. While the guards slept, Arnon and his helpers opened the entrance under cover of the loud singing and dancing of the Jewish worshippers. 

They made their way down the steps, and along the corridor until they were below the spot where Michal Arbel descended down the shaft more than a decade earlier. As they stood there, they felt a breeze coming up from the floor beneath them. They quickly determined that some of the rocks under their feet were covering access to the Cave of Machpelah!

Inside the Cave of Machpelah

The definition of the ancient Hebrew word machpelah is “double-cave” or “split cave” and that is exactly what Noam Arnon found.3 Upon removing the stones from the floor, they entered and found a two chambered burial tomb. Inside they found human bones and pottery.

The bones were left inside the cave and therefore did not undergo any kind of scientific examination. However, the pottery dated to the time of the first temple period – the time of the Judean kings.

“The analysis found that the items of pottery that were brought to the cave from various sites around Israel – the Hebron Hills, Jerusalem, and the Shfela (Judean Foothills) – by people who lived in these areas and had gone to the cave. This shows us that most likely the cave was a pilgrimage site during First Temple times.”4

Little doubt of the cave’s authenticity

Arnon recently authored a 600-page doctoral thesis which contains his analysis of the cave of the Patriarchs. Arnon has no doubts this is indeed the burial site of Sarah, Abraham, and their sons. Perhaps in the future the politics of the region will permit a more thorough and rigorous study of the site. Even lacking a formal archeological analysis, there can be little doubt that this is the cave purchased by Abraham 3,800 years ago.

In the articles linked to below, you can read more about the Cave of the Patriarchs and learn about others who were lucky enough to enter the forbidden chambers.


  1. Murphy-O’Connor, J. The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700. 5th ed., rev. Expanded. Oxford archaeological guides. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008: 312.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Koehler, Ludwig, Walter Baumgartner, and M. E. J. Richardson, eds. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Accordance electronic ed., version 3.6. Leiden: Brill, 2000: s.v. 2:581, מַכְפֵּלָה.