If you have had a conversation with me in the past 18 months, you know that I pretty much have a one-track mind. Yep, all I think about is Bitcoin and the technology that underlies it, the blockchain.
Just like email or a browser is an application that uses the Internet, Bitcoin is an application that uses a blockchain. And just like the Internet has spawned millions of apps, blockchains will (and are) spawning an entire new set of apps. Now, I realize that the concept of a blockchain is not easy to comprehend; on the surface, it represents a pretty significant paradigm shift. But it’s really not.
In fact, last week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, shows us that Avraham Avinu laid the philosophical groundwork for blockchain in his purchase of the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite. What we see, upon closer examination, is that the concept of the blockchain serves as Avraham’s “original intent” for how assets should be transferred in order to protect property rights and maintain civil society.
Let’s take a look by starting at Chapter 22, verse 10: “Now Ephron was sitting in the midst of the children of Heth; and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the children of Heth, even of all that went in at that the gate of the city.” In Nahum Sarna’s book, “Understanding Genesis,” he explains that “it was the practice to conduct the affairs of the community in the gateway, a popular meeting place for public gatherings.”
The gate as a locus for asset and information exchange is something that is familiar through Tanach. Lot was sitting at the gate when the messengers came to him; Boaz goes to the gate to redeem Elimelech’s estate; and Amos asks of Israel to “establish justice in the gate.” It turns out that many ancient Near Eastern documents end with a formula “the tablet was written after the proclamation in the entrance of the gate.”
Sarna writes, “the idea was to give the widest possible publicity to the settlement and to obtain the confirmation of the entire community, so that the likelihood of future litigation might be eliminated.”
There is a concept in the study of biblical text called a “milah mancha,” which basically is a thematic word that repeats itself multiple times in a given section in order to drive home a specific point. In this story, it is the root shin-mem-ayin, which forms the word שמע and means “hear.” This root word appears six times in the story, signifying the importance of multiple confirmations in a transaction. I would argue that the repetition of the word “hear” is not just for Avraham and Ephron, it’s for everyone listening so that the story can be retold and a collective memory is established.
Lastly, the transaction took place directly between Avraham and Ephron. No intermediaries. Why did Avraham insist on a direct transaction with no intermediaries, with multiple confirmations, the need for an established collective memory, and to do it all in an open space that anyone could verify?
He needed immutability. When all was said and done, there could be no doubt at any point down the road that the transaction had occurred. Avraham needed to be recognized as the legal owner of the land. This was particularly acute because Avraham knew that as a “resident alien” he was at a legal disadvantage, so he needed a large consensus to provide additional security.
Now, let’s get back to my favorite topic, blockchain.
Blockchains work by cryptographically securing a certain number of entries in a global ledger in a box, or a “block” of data. Each block is then cryptographically linked to the block that came before it and the block that comes after it. A series of blocks linked together and you have a chain. Hence, blockchain.
These records are not kept in one place on one computer. Instead, they are decentralized among many different computers in the network. In short, blockchain technology offers the same thing that Avraham sought: a tamper-resistant immutable record of transactions.
In order for the Avraham’s deal to be rolled back, Ephron would have to corrupt every single person who was a witness to the transaction or a passerby at the gate. Similarly, to change a blockchain database requires changing not one computer but the majority of the computers in the network. In both cases, they are doable, but they are also potentially very expensive and time-consuming tasks.
And for those of you who remember that the word “שמע” appears six times in this story, you may take comfort in knowing that a Bitcoin transaction isn’t considered final until it has been confirmed by a constant pre-defined number of blocks. That number? Six.
Since the release of the Bitcoin blockchain on Jan. 3, 2009 by Satoshi Nakamoto, interest in the past and future of blockchains has grown dramatically. Many of the earliest pioneers are celebrated for their groundbreaking work, and rightfully so.
To that list, I am proud to add Avraham Avinu. His thoughtful and conscious parameters for creating a transactional environment that could serve the test of time, protecting citizens and resident aliens alike, is the biblical foundation for the blockchain revolution which we are witnessing.
By Jeremy Epstein
Jeremy Epstein is the CEO of Never Stop Marketing, which helps companies navigate the challenges and opportunities of blockchain technologies and crypto-assets. He is married with three children and attends Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, Maryland.