Ephron, the owner of the property, refused to take any payment. He said, however, “Land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is it between me and you?” (Gen. 23:15).
In other words, though he pretended he was a tzaddik and would not take any money, he made quite sure Abraham would get the message and give him the value of the property, or even more.
How much four hundred shekels were worth is hinted at, says JH Hertz, in the fact that in Hammurabi’s Code, dating from about the same period, the wages of a working man were six or eight shekels a year. Four hundred shekels would therefore pay a rather large staff.
But the question has to be asked: how could Ephron be so sure of the value of his property? Was Hittite society so sophisticated that there were experts able to give a precise valuation? Or is there something special about the number 400 in ancient thinking?
There are many instances of 400 in the T’nach – 400 years (Gen. 15:13), shekels (Gen. 23:15), warriors (Gen. 32:6, I Sam. 22:2), virgins (Judges 21:12), young men on camels (I Sam. 30:17), pomegranates (I Kings 7:42), prophets (I Kings 18:19, 22:6), cubits (II Kings 14:13) and lambs (Ezra 6:17).
The article on “Numbers, Typical and Important” in Volume 12 of the Encyclopedia Judaica speaks of certain numbers being specially important – one (denoting uniqueness, especially in relation to God), two (because various parts of the body come in twos), three (standing for completeness – beginning, middle and end), four (completeness – four directions, four corners, e.g. on a garment requiring tzitzit), seven (completeness – days of the week; the sum of 3 and 4), ten (completeness – fingers and toes; the sum of 3 and 7).
Multiples of 4 are common – e.g. 40 days, 40 years; twice 40 is old age, three times 40 is the span of human life, as seen with Moses). A large round figure is four times a hundred, and there is the still larger figure of 400,000 (Judges 20:2,17; II Chron. 13:3).
Hence Ephron knew what he was doing. His hypocritical deference to Abraham was one thing, but his greed ensured that the message that the land was immensely valuable (not just worth four shekels, or forty, but as much as 400) got across.