Genesis 23 Sarah lived 127 years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. 2 And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her. 3 And Abraham rose up from before his dead and said to the Hittites, 4 “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you; give me property among you for a burying place, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” 5 The Hittites answered Abraham, 6 “Hear us, my lord; you are a prince of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will withhold from you his tomb to hinder you from burying your dead.” 7 Abraham rose and bowed to the Hittites, the people of the land. 8 And he said to them, “If you are willing that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me and entreat for me Ephron the son of Zohar, 9 that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he owns; it is at the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me in your presence as property for a burying place.”
10 Now Ephron was sitting among the Hittites, and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, of all who went in at the gate of his city, 11 “No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the sight of the sons of my people I give it to you. Bury your dead.” 12 Then Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. 13 And he said to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, “But if you will, hear me: I give the price of the field. Accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there.” 14 Ephron answered Abraham, 15 “My lord, listen to me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.” 16 Abraham listened to Ephron, and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants.
17 So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field, throughout its whole area, was made over 18 to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, before all who went in at the gate of his city. 19 After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. 20 The field and the cave that is in it were made over to Abraham as property for a burying place by the Hittites.
What are we to make of this passage? It’s kind of strange, isn’t it? It gives us a few short verses reporting Sarah’s death and then lets us look in on an ancient Middle Eastern land negotiation. Perhaps the biggest question before us is why this story is in the bible. In fact, as I worked through the text this week I became increasingly convinced that answering that question is probably the best way to help you see the meaning and implications of this passage. For that reason, this sermon is structured around explaining why this passage is in the bible from a historical, theological, and practical perspective. Ultimately, as I think you’ll clearly see, all three come together to show us the unwavering faithfulness of God even through death. Through this text and this particular approach to it, it is my great hope to help you see the glory of God in new ways and therefore hope in God in new ways as well. Let’s pray that God would make these things (and more) so.
THE REASONS FOR GENESIS 23
As I mentioned above, it seems to me that the best way for us to understand and apply this passage is to consider the various reasons for its inclusion in the bible. Let’s start with the historical reasons.
The Historical Reasons
Certainly there were countless events between Abraham’s calling and the Israelites taking of the Promised Land that are not included in the bible. Once again, the question before us is why this particular story is included when so many others aren’t.
At first it might seem like the reason was to record such a significant event in the life of the patriarch—the death of his wife. That would make sense from a historical perspective. Undoubtedly that’s a part of the reason for Genesis 23. The problem with that, however, is that Sarah’s death only takes up a tiny portion of this story. In fact, given the depth of detail Moses went into in order to describe the land negotiation (compared to the almost detail-less description of Sarah’s death), it really does seem as if the recording of her death mainly served as the impetus for the land purchase that followed. In other words, it seems that the real focal point of the story is Abraham’s negotiation and purchase of the land. But again, why does that matter? From a historical perspective, what makes that significant enough to warrant an entire chapter in the bible? There are two main answers to that question.
First, it explains why Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, and Jacob were all buried in this spot. The historical significance of this point is highlighted by the fact that Moses (the author of Genesis) returns to this event in Genesis 25:9-10 (Abraham’s death) and 49:29-32 (Jacob’s death) to inform the Israelites, in detail, why the patriarchs and their wives were buried there.
Second, as we’ll examine more closely in the next section, this passage describes the historical beginning of God’s giving of the Promised Land to Abraham (the land of Canaan, in which Hebron rests, and which Moses makes sure to point out several times). Until this point Abraham had merely been a “sojourner” and “foreigner” (v.4) in the land God promised. In this passage, through negotiation (rather than conquering), Abraham gained a claim on an actual plot of land.
Why is this passage in the bible? From a historical perspective it’s included to explain the final resting place of the Israelite Fathers and their wives and to record the very first act of divine fulfillment of His promise of this land.
The Theological Reasons
If those are the key historical reasons, what are the theological reasons for Genesis 23? That is, what heavenly perspective does this passage provide? There are four theological reasons for this passage’s inclusion in the bible that I want to highlight for you.
First, in this passage we’re given another opportunity to see the nature of the faith which God counted as righteousness for Abraham (15:6). That is, in this passage we’re given even greater clarity into the nature of true, saving faith and what it looks like to live out of it. In particular, we see Abraham’s faith in the fact that he chose to bury his wife in Hebron rather than his ancestral homeland. Both custom and prudence would have had Abraham travel back to Ur (or perhaps Haran where his father died). His family would have inevitably had a burial plot there. That’s exactly what Abraham would have done had he been living by sight. It would have made perfect sense. To live by faith in the promise of God, however, meant truly believing that Canaan was now his homeland. In faith, then, Abraham chose to live in light of the fact that God’s promises for the future are every bit as certain as the realities of the present. This passage is included as an example of genuine, God-given, righteousness-counting faith. Do you live this way? Are you truly convinced that God’s promises are every bit as certain as the present?
Second, this story is in the bible to highlight the fact that Sarah was a godly woman, worthy of imitation in a number of ways. It is to honor her and point God’s people to her as an example. One commentator (Wenham, WBC, 129-30) words it this way, “…with Sarah we meet a woman of heroic proportions, worthy grandmother of the nation of Israel. Her life was far from easy. She suffered the shame of childlessness till she was ninety. Twice she was trapped in a foreign king’s harem by her husband’s unbelieving folly. Twice she was provoked beyond the breaking point by her slave-girl Hagar or her son Ishmael. Once she had seen her own son leave to be sacrificed by his father. From the way her husband treated her sometimes, one might wonder whether he really cared about his wife at all.” And yet she remained faithful to Abraham and to God.
The Apostle Peter words it this way (1 Peter 3:4-6), “[Ladies,] let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. 5 For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.”
I see Sarah’s godliness most clearly in the fact that her life was a living reflection of one of the more striking passages in the bible. 1 Peter 3:1 says, “…wives, be subject to your own husbands, … even if some do not obey the word [of God]…” (1 Peter 3:1). It’s often difficult enough for wives to obey their own husbands when their husbands do obey God’s word. It’s exponentially harder still when their husbands aren’t obeying God. Why would God command such a thing?
To understand the answer to that question we need to consider the broader biblical principle under which this command falls. The broader principle, and the thing that brings us back to Sarah and Genesis 23, is this: true faith means trusting in God’s commands even above our own reasoning, our own comfort, and even our own lives. The broader principle, which applies to all of God’s people, is that we are to obey the God-given governing authorities in our lives even when it seems silly or dangerous (not to say sinful). Again, this is something we all need to learn and I love the fact that Sarah models it, perhaps better than anyone else in the bible. Grace, it is in her “folly” (the “folly” of obeying her at-times wavering husband) that we’re most able to see her godliness. May we all learn well from her. This passage highlights one aspect of godliness in general and godly womanhood in particular.
The third theological reason for this passage is tied to Abraham’s acquiring land in Canaan. As I mentioned above, prior to this time he had merely been a “sojourner and foreigner” in the land God had promised him. In this passage Abraham acquired the first fruits—a sort of divine down payment—of the Land. Historically, this is significant because it marks the details of this event. Theologically it’s significant because it marks the sweetness of this divine gesture. As proof that Abraham would indeed receive the whole of Canaan one day, God granted him a small portion this day. What a gift this was to one who had so long waited for the promise to be fulfilled!
Finally, and most significantly, from a theological perspective this passage is included to help God’s people in our understanding of the absolute certainty of God’s promises. Before I explain what I mean, consider this…What if I were to make you a promise that still hadn’t been fulfilled decades after I made it? Would that increase or decrease your trust in my word? What if I still hadn’t followed through even as you lay on your deathbed? What of your trust in me at that point; greater or lesser?
In some ways those are the exact questions Abraham was confronted with as his wife died and he grew increasingly near death himself. Would God make good on His promise of a great land and countless descendants even as the ones to whom He’d made the promises died?
We’ve already seen that neither barrenness, nor conflict, nor human schemes, nor faithlessness, nor the most powerful nations on earth, could keep God from keeping His Word. This passage adds death to the list. Again, the original recipients of the covenant promise began to die; Sarah in this passage and, as we’re about to see, Abraham two chapters later. As Hebrews 11:13 says, they would all die “…in faith, not having received the things promised…”. This passage is included to show the nature of God’s covenant-keeping faithfulness. And its nature is such that even death cannot break God’s promises. In fact, as the gospel reminds us, the best parts of God’s promises are only accessible through death—death of the Son of God on our behalf, and then our own physical death as the doorway to our final salvation.
Theologically, this passage is an essential part of the Bible because it shows us what true faith looks like in action, it honors the legacy of Sarah, an exemplary woman of God, it shows God’s kindness in giving a down payment on the Promised Land, and it shows the perfect certainty of God’s covenant promises.
The Practical Reasons
So what are we to do with this passage? How does it apply to us today? Why is this in the bible on a practical level? Husbands, should we all go out and purchase fields from pagans in which to bury our wives? Should we work to turn the negotiation tactics of this chapter into a bestselling business book (How to Acquire Land and Influence People)? Unfortunately, that’s how many people go about applying OT passages. And yet clearly that’s not how we’re meant to apply this passage today. How, then, are we to apply it? What significance does this passage have for the Church now?
The bible is filled with all kinds of things that we need as the people of God. It tells us who God is, who we are, how we relate to God, how we can be saved from our sin, how we are to function as Christians, and it tells of our spiritual past and future. In addition to these things the bible tells us is how we are to view the world God made. In other words, one of the great gifts God has given us in the Bible is a true and comprehensive worldview.
Worldview is the lens through which we see everything. To be clear, a worldview isn’t as much about facts (although facts are essential to worldview) as it is about how we discover, interpret, and interact with facts.
Consider the illustration one author (Paul Tripp) often uses. Picture two people sitting in traffic. Both are the same distance away from their work, both are expected to be at work at the same time, both have the same projects due, and both have bosses of the same finicky temperament. You get the idea…on the outside their situations are identical. Now imagine one happily singing along to their favorite song and the other fuming mad and honking relentlessly. Again, their facts are the same, but something’s different. The difference is their worldview; the lens through which they understand the facts in front of them. The happy singer has no less at stake than the mad honker, but in one way or another their view of the world is different enough to drastically effect their behavior—to cause them to act in nearly opposite ways.
In other words, while we often spend all our time worrying about the “facts” of life (the traffic around us), the bible focuses even more on the story inside which we’re meant to understand those facts. Sometimes it does so explicitly, as in passages like James 1:2-4, which tells us how we are meant to understand the hard things that come into our lives, and other times, as in our passage this morning, it does so more subtly, through the actions of godly people.
Consequently, it’s critical for us to understand the simple fact that because God designed the every part of the world in a specific way and for a specific purpose, there is a distinctly Christian way (a right way) to view every aspect of creation—every object, person, relationship, interaction, etc.—every one!
Before closing with seven aspects of a godly worldview, let me make something clear: this passage doesn’t directly or explicitly teach any of these things. We don’t go to Genesis 23 to learn the things I’m about to point out to you. We have to learn these things from other places in the bible that do explicitly teach them. We go to Genesis 23 to see what these things look like in the life of someone who believes them. Again, what we have in this chapter, then, is an example of what it looks like to live in light of the world as God has made it (and revealed it in His Word). With that, then, consider with me these seven aspects of a godly worldview and therein seven answers to the question of why, practically, Genesis 23 is in the bible.
- Husbands, love your wife (1-2; Ephesians 5:25). Abraham sometimes acted the fool toward his wife. Sometimes, I’m sure, Sarah reasonably questioned Abraham’s love. And yet, in the wake of her death it isn’t hard at all to see the reality of his love for her. He mourned for her, wept for her, the text implies he put on sackcloth and ashes, fell down in the dirt and rent his garments in anguish for her, and went to great lengths (and probably expense) for her burial. There can be no doubt that, according to God’s design, Abraham loved Sarah, and in this passage we get to see a bit of what that looked like.Before moving on to the second worldview component, let me make a quick pair of pleas to the married couples of Grace Church. Positively, husbands, work hard to learn what biblical love is, gain it for your wife and let us help you with both. Negatively, to any husbands who are struggling to love their wives or wives who are struggling to experience the love of their husbands, please let us help you with that too. Don’t miss the goodness and joy of loving your wife well or the corrosive, cumulative effect of failing to do so over time.
- Live by faith (3-20; Romans 1:17). As I pointed out in both Abraham and Sarah, this passage models and commemorates a life of faith; and therein a view of the world built upon hope in the Invisible. We can’t miss the several “foolish” ways in which this couple lived in light of their belief in God’s promises. Sarah, as we saw stayed with and even obeyed Abraham (calling him “lord) until the end in light of God’s promises. Abraham stayed in Canaan, believing that it really had been given to him according to God’s Word. We are meant to look to these two to see what life looks like when seen through the lens of faith. And we are meant to ask ourselves whether faith or sight mark our own lives.
- Respect the body even in death (3-4; 1 Corinthians 15). Did you ever wonder why Abraham went to such great lengths to secure a burial spot for Sarah; why he didn’t just bury her where she died or even just put her out to be eaten by wild animals? As we saw earlier, in part, it was an expression of his love for her. But there’s something deeper still. Given the nature of God’s creation, and even more so His recreation, God’s people have always understood the need to respect the human body in life and death. In life we respect it by eating well, exercising, resting, and being kind to ourselves. We do so because we are made in God’s image, we acknowledge that the things God makes are all good, and because our bodies are temples of the Spirit. In death we respect the body by laying it to rest in an orderly way because that is the most natural expression of our hope in the resurrection. Again, we need to go to other places in the bible to learn these things (they are not taught in Genesis 23), but we see them lived out by one with this worldview in this passage. We cannot be indifferent to the physical aspect of our being in life or death.
- Live as light (6-7; Matthew 5:14-16). Consider for a moment how the Hittites treated Abraham. They treated him with dignity and respect (“my lord; you are a prince of God among us”). They treated him with kindness (the choicest of our tombs will not be withheld). They were willing to allow Abraham, a “sojourner and foreigner” among them to borrow or purchase land from them. Why? Because Abraham lived as a light among them. God prospered Abraham and Abraham turned his blessing into blessing (the fulfillment of 22:18). He lived as a man of God among pagans and the result was that he was honored among them. This is the consistent teaching of the bible and we are able to catch a glimpse in this passage of what it looks like lived out. And in this we are confronted with our own interaction with the unbelievers in our lives. Are there real ways you are turning your divine blessing into blessing for them such that they benefit from your presence in their lives?
- Common grace is key to living in a fallen world (3-16; Romans 1; John 3:20). As we all know, Abraham’s experience in Genesis 23 is not always our experience (even as it wasn’t always Abraham’s experience). Sometimes (perhaps often times) living as a light among the darkness leads not to respect and kindness, but to anger and persecution. What’s the difference? Why is godliness a blessing in some contexts and not others among non-believers? The simple answer is the common grace of God. Common grace is the grace which God bestows on all mankind, not just those who honor Him as God. Common grace is what makes the rain cause all crops to grow, it’s what allows non-Christians to know that murder is wrong, it’s what makes the ungodly do nice things, it is the kindness of God that keeps things from being as bad as they would be if we were left entirely to our own devices. In Genesis 23 we see God’s common grace at work among the Hittites, causing them to love God’s light in Abraham. And this reminds us to thank God for holding back unmeasurable quantities of evil (even as we wrestle with unmeasurable quantities of evil).
- Pay what you owe especially among unbelievers (10-16; Genesis 14:22-24; Romans 13:7; Colossians 4:5-6). Abraham would not accept Ephron’s land for free. This was the case for several reasons. (He would not accept it for free because it was important that he owned the land outright rather than having it loaned to him. He wouldn’t accept it for free because it was important, as in chapter 14, to keep ungodly people from believing they had a claim to Abraham’s god-given success.) And perhaps chief among those reasons is the fact that God calls His people to pay what we owe, especially when it comes to preserving the reputation of God and His people among unbelievers. In Genesis 23 we’re able to see what this component of a godly worldview looks like in real life as Abraham insisted on paying the full (and probably inflated) asking price for the land. What does it look like to owe nothing? Our passage for this morning gives one example. Consider in light of it, then, how you might make sure you’re paying what you owe to all people, especially unbelievers.
- Precision and clarity are godly (17-20; Genesis 1:26; 1 Corinthians 14:33). Did you notice that after recording, rather extensively, the negotiations between Abraham and the Hittite men, Moses concluded chapter 23 with a succinct recap (17-20)? There was to be no doubt as to the specifics and validity of this contract. Grace, God is a god of order. For God, everything is purposeful and strategic and precise and clear. What’s more, as we saw from the first pages of Genesis, God created us in order to join Him in ordering and maintaining order in the world He made. There are countless ways that ought to play itself out in our lives, in Genesis 23 we see one—clear, careful words; clear, careful stating of expectations; and clear, careful follow through on commitments. A Christian view of the world is one of precision and clarity in every respect. This text exists in part to help us consider how we might need to add a measure of godly precision and clarity to our lives?
So why is Genesis 23 in the bible? Historically it’s there to help explain the final resting place of the Israelite Fathers and their wives and to record the very first act of divine fulfillment of His promise of this land. Theologically, it’s there to further display the nature of the faith which God counted as righteousness for Abraham, to highlight the fact that Sarah was a godly woman, worthy of imitation in a number of ways, to mark the sweetness of the divine gesture of giving Abraham the first fruit of the Promised Land, and to help God’s people in our understanding of the absolute certainty of God’s promises. And from a practical perspective, Genesis 23 is in the bible to help shape our view of the world by showing us how a person of faith sees various aspects of life and how that view acts in the world it sees.
Ultimately, however, Genesis 23 is in the bible to show us who God is and how He relates to His people in light of His covenant with us. Specifically, it helps us see that God is a god of such power and glory and might and truthfulness and goodness that not even death has the power to break His word. In fact, He is so powerful and glorious and mighty and truthful and good that death is merely another of His tools to accomplish His purposes. For these reasons, praise this God, Grace. Hope only and fully in every one of God’s promises, Grace. And do these things because by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, all of God’s power and glory and might and truth and goodness are being continually unleashed for your good!