A Grave for Sarah

Genesis 23
It has been said that a person does not know how to live unless they know how to die well. We only think that we know how to live. The reality is that as a culture we do not know how to die. The stories that you hear about people dying indicate that they do not know about eternal things. They have had their minds so set on earthly things, that when they are faced with eternity, they do not know what to think. They do not know that they need a relationship with Jesus Christ. This chapter tells us about the promises that God gave to Abraham. Abraham believed them so much that he was willing to pay a very high price for a piece of that promise. As he was willing to buy that field with the treasure in it, so must we be ready to do so.

The chapter starts out with Sarah’s death. This is a real hardship for Abraham, who has been married to her for most of his life. As any of us know who have had this happen, it disrupts our entire life to lose a loved one with whom you have spent so much time. Everything changes. Abraham knew this, and yet he knew the value of the promise that God had made to him. Even the death of his wife was not going to stop Abraham from pursuing the promise of God. The chapter focuses far more on the funeral arrangements than on the actual death of Sarah. The reason for that is that the piece of land that Abraham winds up purchasing is part of the promise land itself. This is the first-fruits of possession, as it were. Abraham wants a piece of that land. Matthew 13:44 say this: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” So, the question for us today is this: are we willing to sell everything that we have to go buy that field, the field of promise? It will look like the field where Christ was crucified. But that is our treasure. Abraham bought a slice of the promised land, the land where Christ would one day live, die, and come to life again. That is the treasure that Jesus was talking about in the parable. It is the treasure that Abraham wanted above everything else, and it is the treasure that we should pursue with all our might. Let’s look at the details.

Notice first that Sarah died in Hebron, and that that is the place where the grave is located. This is significant. Hebron is the place where Joshua and Caleb had spied out the land, and then told the people that they could conquer it. It is also the place that Caleb later received as his inheritance. And it is the city over which David ruled first, as the first-fruits of his inheritance of the kingship from the Lord. Hebron has great significance in the history of Israel, as a result.

Abraham first mourns for his dead wife. There are some people in the Christian world whose motto is, “Real Christians don’t cry.” This is a terrible motto, since it implicates Jesus Himself, who wept when Lazarus died. It is highly unnatural to deny our grief. We should instead allow ourselves to grieve at the death of a loved one. Grief is part of this world in which we live. Matthew Henry says that when a body is sown into the grave, it must be watered with our tears. Death is a terrible thing. That is why Abraham says that he wants to bury her out of his sight (verse 4). Because death has taken her, she quickly becomes unrecognizable.

However, we must remember that death exists because of sin. That means that death is the true nature of sin revealed. If you want to know what sin really looks like, then look at death. All the decay, corruption, and hideousness of sin is revealed in death itself. Scripture says that sin gives birth to death. Death is the final form of sin. It was Adam’s sin that brought death into the world. Satan would have us think that sin is fun. Our sinful nature would want us to think that as well. But the truth of the matter is that sin is death. It is just as hideous as death. The next time we are tempted to sin, we should think of death’s hideousness, and remember that Christ went to the cross to undergo the penalty of sin, which is death. It was our sin that put Him there. Remembering this is part of the grace that God gives us to conquer our sin.

We see Abraham negotiating with the Hittites about this portion of land. Notice that Abraham says that he is but a sojourner, passing through. That is why he wants something that he can call his very own. But the Hittites already know Abraham’s worth. They call him literally the prince of God. What they say would lead someone to suppose that Abraham could bury his dead in any of their tombs. However, they did not say that Abraham could just have some land. This is the way Ancient Near Eastern bargaining went on. Compliments fly thick and fast, but no one is planning on giving anything to anyone. You might have that impression just from reading this passage. However, there are a few clues that indicate that no one is giving anything away.

Nor does Abraham want to get anything for nothing. That is why is says that he will pay full price for the cave at the end of Ephron’s land. Notice that he doesn’t want to get in anyone’s way, either. It is not in the middle of anyone’s land, but it is at the end of the field. The selling of land was a public event, which was why it had to happen in the hearing of everyone belonging to the village.

Now, verse 11 is a puzzle until you learn how those people do things. Ephron first offers it as a gift. But gifts were notoriously unreliable in those days. Just because someone gave you land doesn’t mean that you will get to keep it. It meant that the person you gave it to was now in your debt. Arabs will always offer it as a gift. But then they expect you not to take advantage of the offer, and make an offer. So, in normal negotiation, you would first offer it as a gift, and then you would offer an enormous price for the first round of bargaining, always saying that that is such a small price to pay among friends, making sure that that left you with some wiggle room. That is what is happening here. Ephron knows that a good deal will come, if he plays his cards right. Furthermore, he includes the field along with the cave. He knows a good opportunity when he sees it. Abraham was only interested in the cave, but Ephron wants to sell him the field as well.

Verse 15 says it all. Ephron says that it is worth four hundred pieces of silver, but what is that between friends? It is important to know that this was an enormous price for the field. What Ephron was expecting was a very low offer from Abraham, and then they would haggle their way toward a middle price. That was the way things were done in those days. So Ephron must have been very surprised indeed when Abraham agreed to Ephron’s asking price. After all, when it comes to burying the dead, it is not fitting to haggle over the price of a burial plot. Abraham buying the plot meant that he owned it free and clear. All the Hittites of the area knew that the land belonged to Abraham.

So here is the question for us. Are we willing to do anything to have that down payment on the Promised Land of the new heavens and the new earth? Are we willing to give up anything for it? Are we willing to give up our favorite sins? Are we willing to give up anything that gets in the way? Jesus says that we need to count the cost of discipleship. You don’t start a building project without knowing how much it is going to cost. Otherwise, you might wind up with a half-finished building. Martin Luther said that a religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing is worth nothing. Christ gave up His all for you. Will you not give Him your life in return?

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1 Comment

  1. Phyllis Cooper said,

    January 3, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    What do the Hebrew words mean in the picture beside the Gen. 23 sermon?

    Thanks for your open preaching of the Gospel!

    God bless.


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