24. Dealing with Death (Genesis 23:1-20)
I have always loved challenges. As a mechanic I delight to delve into a problem that seemingly evades diagnosis. As a preacher I thrive on the passages that would normally be passed by. It would seem that I have come to the right passage for my personality as I approach the twenty-third chapter of Genesis. A preacher whom I greatly respect confesses that this is one text he would not preach by choice. In reading over a sermon he preached on this chapter I note that four-fifths of his sermon dealt with one-tenth of the text.
We should not be shocked to find the death of Sarah recorded as a part of the biography of Abraham; however, of the twenty verses in this chapter, less than two of them refer to the emotional response of Abraham to his wife’s death. No romanticist could tolerate this! The remaining eighteen verses have to do with the purchase of the plot where Sarah is buried.
I know that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” but I want us to come to this text fully convinced that God has a word for us here. Furthermore, I believe that we must seek the greatest part of our instruction from the greater part of the passage—the purchase of the plot of ground in which Sarah is buried.
Preparation for Sarah’s Parting
While Sarah’s death is not recorded until Genesis 23, the previous chapter has prepared Abraham and us for the events of our passage. The “sacrifice” of Isaac on Mount Moriah brought Abraham to a firm faith in God’s power to raise the dead (cf. Hebrews 11:19). While this did not prove a necessity in the case of Isaac, it would be so with Sarah in the years ahead. A willingness to put Isaac to death enabled Abraham to accept the passing of his wife Sarah.
Furthermore, the last verses of chapter 22 record an incident which would bear upon the future:
Now it came about after these things, that it was told Abraham, saying, “Behold, Milcah also has borne children to your brother Nahor: Uz his firstborn and Buz his brother and Kemuel the father of Aram and Chesed and Hazo and Pildash and Jidlaph and Bethuel.” And Bethuel become the father of Rebekah; these eight Milcah bore to Nahor, Abraham’s brother. And his concubine, whose name was Reumah, also bore Tebah and Gaham and Tahash and Maacah ( Genesis 22:20-24; emphasis added).
In the providence of God a wife for Isaac had already been provided long before the need had arisen. God takes care of the future in advance. As a friend of mine has put it, “The ram is already in the bush” (cf. 22:13).
Beyond this, the report summarized in verses 20-24 reminded Abraham that his fatherland and family were far away. No doubt the news from “home” pulled at Abraham’s emotional heartstrings. When Sarah died there would be strong emotional reasons for taking her body “home” to bury it. These verses, then, remind us of the strong ties that still remained at Mesopotamia and the significance of Abraham’s decision to bury his wife in Canaan.
Abraham’s Faith Expressed
in His Response to Sarah’s Death
Godly Grief (vss. 1-2)
While our faith is not to be based upon our feelings, neither should it be divorced from our emotions. The first two verses provide the background to our chapter and also describe the grief of the patriarch:
Now Sarah lived one hundred and twenty-seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her (Genesis 23:1-2).
As commentators over the centuries have noted, Sarah is the only woman in the Bible whose age is revealed. One hundred twenty-seven years is a ripe old age, but the death of Sarah would have seemed untimely because of her youthfulness. Even at the age of ninety she was a woman attractive enough to catch the eye of Abimelech (20:1-2). Sarah must have appeared to have found the fountain of youth. Her youthfulness and beauty would have concealed the fact that death was coming upon her.
Abraham seems to have been elsewhere at the time of Sarah’s death. While some fanciful explanations exist for this fact, it would be most easily explained by Abraham being out with his flocks or something similar. When he learned of the death of his wife he came to her side to mourn for her.
While the emphasis of the passage does not fall here, we do know that Abraham expressed the grief common to those who face the death of a loved one. Faith is not evidenced by a stoic, stainless steel attitude toward death. Some years ago Jackie Kennedy was lauded for her ‘‘faith” when she “stood up so well” during the death of her husband. History has pretty well provided evidence that Jackie’s lack of emotion at the funeral may have been due to a lack of feeling for her husband. We need only to remark that our Lord wept at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:35).
The Purchase of a Plot (vss. 3-20)
Sarah’s death brought Abraham to a point of decision. The practical matter was: “Where shall I bury Sarah?” The principal issue, however, was this: “Where shall I be buried?” Most often when a burial plot is purchased for the first partner another is bought alongside for the surviving partner, and frequently a whole family plot is secured simultaneously. When Abraham decided upon the burial place for Sarah, he also determined the place of his burial and of his descendants.
Abraham thus approached the Hittites to purchase a burial plot for himself and his family. How strange it must have been for Abraham to petition the Hittites for a burial place in light of the often repeated promise of God:
On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite’ (Genesis 15:18-21).
Abraham was compelled to buy a portion of the land God had promised to give him and his descendants. Furthermore, he was to purchase the land from a people that God was going to give into his hand. How ironic that Abraham should humbly bow before these people and petition them for a piece of ground.
As we have noted, the majority of chapter 23 is devoted to the description of a legal transaction involving the purchase of a burial plot in Canaan. Only in the light of that culture and time can we grasp the transaction fully. It was a legal process that followed the practices of the Hittites precisely. Even my friend and fellow elder (who is a real estate attorney), could not have done it better.
Legal transactions were typically conducted at the city gate, where the city leaders were present and where witnesses were at hand (cf. Ruth 4:1ff). The terms of the agreement were determined by a sequence of negotiations fully within the customs and culture of the day. It may seem “foreign” to us, and so it is, but not to Abraham or the Hittites. Abraham’s dealings are a model of dignity and fair play.
Abraham’s request (vss. 3-4): Abraham had requested the sons of Heth (verse 3), the Hittites (verse 10), to provide him a place to bury Sarah. He acknowledged that his problem was his status as a “stranger and sojourner” among them (verse 4). At the bottom line this meant that he was not a property owner and had no permanent burial plot.
A generous offer (vss. 5-6): Abraham’s request was taken at face value. It seemed as though Abraham was only asking for the use of a burial place. A man of his station was not to be refused such a request. Abraham was considered a “prince of God.” These Canaanites recognized the hand of God upon this man and were inclined to treat him favorably, even as Abimelech had expressed previously (21:22ff) .
If Abraham wished the use of a burial place, anyone would gladly loan him the best they had. However, a borrowed grave was not acceptable to Abraham. There is really nothing wrong with a borrowed grave; our Lord was buried in one you recall (Matthew 27:60), but our Lord only needed His grave for three days, whereas Abraham needed his site for posterity (Genesis 25:9; 50:13). Nothing less than a permanent possession would satisfy Abraham.
A clarification (vss. 7-9): Abraham’s intentions were not yet understood. He desired a permanent possession, not a borrowed tomb. This land of Canaan was to be his home, not a mere stopping-off place. Consequently, Abraham asked the people to urge Ephron to sell him the cave of Machpelah, which was at the end of his field (verse 9). This was not to be a gift but a purchase at full value of the property.
A modification (vss. 10-11): Ephron, who was sitting among the city’s leaders, responded to Abraham’s request. The significant item is not the offer to give the land to Abraham, for this seems to have been mere formality; it was not an insincere offer so much as one which no one would accept with honor. The modification is in the quantity of land to be deeded over. Abraham asked only for the cave at the end of Ephron’s field, but Ephron specified that the deal was to be a package, the field and the cave. The significance of this will be suggested later.
An anticipated response (vss. 12-13): As expected, Abraham refused the offer of the gift but did accept the alteration of the agreement, and so the sale is well under way. The field with the cave will be sold to Abraham, and only the price needs to be established.
The price set and met (vss. 14-16): One must appreciate the beauty of the near-eastern culture to enjoy this final act of negotiation. Ephron was nobody’s fool. He persists in his offer to give Abraham the land free of charge, but he also places a value on the “gift” that is offered. This accomplishes two things: it names the price, yet in a very generous way, and it makes it almost impossible for Abraham to bargain over the price. If Ephron is so generous as to offer to give the land to Abraham, how could Abraham be so small as to dicker over the price? Abraham paid the price, and both men went away with what they had hoped for.
A final summary (vss. 17-20): Again in what seems to be very technical and legal terminology, the transaction is outlined. As was the custom, even the trees are mentioned in the deeding of the property (verse 17). A burial site was thus procured, and Abraham proceeded to lay his wife’s body to rest.
For Abraham the purchase of the cave of Machpelah was an expression of his faith in God. The writer to the Hebrews alluded to this when he wrote:
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).
By determining that Sarah, and later he and his descendants, would be buried in Canaan, Abraham “staked his claim” in the land which God had promised. The land where he would be buried was to be the homeland of his descendants. The place that God had promised him was the place where he must be buried.
Jeremiah expressed a similar faith when he purchased the field of Anathoth (Jeremiah 32:6ff). While God was to judge His people for their sins by driving them out of the promised land, so He would bring them back when they repented. The purchase of the field of Anathoth evidenced Jeremiah’s conviction that God would do as He had promised (Jeremiah 32:9-15).
Abraham’s purchase not only exemplified his hope for a better country, a heavenly one (Hebrews 11:16), it also involved him more deeply in the present world in which he lived as a stranger and sojourner. Sojourners didn’t own property, but now Abraham did, of necessity. Strangers and sojourners do not have as great an involvement or obligation as do citizens and property owners. Abraham’s purchase gave him a “dual citizenship,” so to speak. Let me suggest how this was so.
We are told that according to Hittite law Abraham would not have been obligated to the king had he only purchased the cave at Machpelah rather than the field and the cave.200 By acquiring property as he did, Abraham thus deepened his commitment of faith in God but also extended his worldly obligations. I think this is significant. In his first epistle Peter instructs Christians on their attitude and conduct toward this present world in light of the fact that we are strangers and pilgrims:
Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation. Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king (I Peter 2:11-17).
Christians are citizens in two worlds, not just one. While our inheritance is in heaven, “imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away” (I Peter 1:4), we have obligations in this present world. We must submit to earthly authorities and institutions (I Peter 2:11ff). We must also obey the laws of the land and pay our taxes (Romans 13:1-7).
Christians have often been accused of being “so heavenly minded, they are of no earthly good.” If I understand the Bible correctly, our heavenly mind is what makes us useful in the present. Abraham lived in the present in the light of the future. His future inheritance did not lessen his present obligations; it established his priorities. The fact that he would inherit the land of Canaan and “possess the gates of his enemies” (Genesis 22:17) did not mean he would be kept from purchasing property and bowing before constituted authority (cf. 23:7,12) and this at the very gates of those whom God would later put under his authority (15:20).
Abraham’s purchase of a burial plot provided Israel with roots in the promised land. Jacob, who died in Egypt, was buried in the cave which Abraham purchased (Genesis 50:1-14). When the Israelites were freed from Egyptian bondage, where else would they return but to their fatherland?
Interestingly, the land of Canaan had not yet been possessed when this book (Genesis) was written. But those who received it from the hand of Moses were those who looked forward to its conquest. None other than Caleb was given the privilege of taking the land which Abraham had purchased as an “earnest of his inheritance” (cf. Joshua 14:13). What motivation this story must have provided for the armies of Israel as they marched into Canaan to possess it!
For men today this event out of ancient biblical history has numerous implications:
(1) It indicates that in the Old Testament as well as in the New the grave is the symbol of hope to a true believer in God. The cave of Machpelah stood for centuries as a monument to the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The empty tomb of our Lord guarantees the Christian that the grave is not our final resting place but an abode for the body until Christ returns for His own (I Corinthians 15; I Thessalonians 4).
What does the grave mean to you, my friend? Is it the end or only the beginning? Your relationship to the God of Abraham and to His Son, Jesus Christ, makes the difference.
(2) Where we invest our money demonstrates where we plan to spend our future. One of the five men martyred for his faith in Ecuador, Jim Elliot, once said: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Abraham believed that God’s promises were true. His investment in Canaan was the best purchase he ever made. In New Testament terminology he “laid up his treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19-20). The way we spend our money indicates the reality of our faith.
(3) The covenant of God should be the basis for our actions and decisions. Abraham’s faith was in God, but it was not a nebulous, groundless faith. He believed in the covenant which God had made and had often reiterated. It was Abraham’s faith in God’s ability to keep His covenant which prompted his purchase of the plot where he was to be buried.
Often times people ask why we remember the Lord’s table every week. The answer is at least two-fold. First, this is what our Lord commanded and the early church practiced (Luke 22:14-20; I Corinthians 11:23ff; Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7). Second, this is a weekly reminder of the covenant which our Lord has made with us—the new covenant in His blood (Luke 22:20). Our actions and decisions should be governed by the assurance that this covenant will be fully realized in the life of the believer. That, my friend, is something to be reminded of frequently.
(4) The burial of a loved one is a significant opportunity for a Christian to publicly express his faith. Frequently we are told that the purchase of the burial plot was done before the eyes of the sons of Heth (23:3,7,9,10, etc.). The significance of Abraham’s actions did not pass these Canaanites by. They knew him as a “prince of God.”
The occasion of the death of a loved one should always be viewed as an opportunity for Christian witness. What we say at such times is very important, but let us not forget that what we do is also vital. Abraham’s deeds in chapter 23 are as significant as his declarations.
While what I have to say at this point is only inferential at best, I believe it to be true. There is a very real need to balance two factors. Twice Abraham spoke of burying his dead “out of his sight” (23:4,8). The body of a deceased saint is not to be venerated or treated as some kind of sacred object. The dead body is only the shell in which the soul has abided. The body must be laid aside, out of sight. Some would do well to consider this.
On the other hand, the body is that which God has fashioned (Psalm 139:13-16), it has served as the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 6:15, 19-20); it will be raised again and be transformed incorruptible (I Corinthians 15:35-49). Because of this the body should not be disposed of in such a way as to disregard the value it has been given by its Creator.
While we may decry the “high cost of death,” let me suggest that some may overreact to burial costs in such a way as to affect their Christian testimony. Unbelievers, who see no life after death, no resurrection, may well dispose of the body as cheaply and irreverently as possible. The Christian should give serious thought to this, however.
I do not think that Abraham was extravagant in the burial of his wife, but neither do I believe that he sought a bargain basement burial. Most scholars suspect the price of that plot was high.201 Abraham did not bargain over the price. He did not, excuse the expression, “Jew Ephron down.” The motivation of Abraham as well as his moderation should be considered in relationship to funerals. While our faith does not need frills nor our consciences silver-inlaid coffins, we must be careful not to reflect the values of a decadent society as we bury our dead.
200 “The situation is clarified by the Hittite law code found at Hettueas, Bogaskoi, in Asia Minor, which throws considerable light on the transaction. Law 46 stipulates that the holder of an entire field shall render the feudal obligations, but not he who holds only a small part. A later version stipulates that notice of the sale be made to the king and only those feudal services stipulated at that time are to be given. According to Law 47 lands held as gifts from the king do not incur feudal obligations, while sale of all a craftsman’s lands do carry it. On the other hand, if the larger portion of his holding is sold, the obligation passes to the buyer. One who usurps a field or is given a field by the people bears the obligation. By these various conditions it is seen that the land itself bears the obligation which posses to the new buyer.” Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 193.
201 There is much difference of opinion as to how high a price Abraham paid for the burial plot. Both the relative value of the silver and the size of the field are unknown. Since Moses did not state that the price was exceptionally high, we should draw such conclusions with caution.