Genesis 23: Buying a Burial Place
Sarah was a hundred and twenty-seven years old when she died at Hebron. She and Abraham had lived together a long time, going where the Lord led them, waiting together for the fulfillment of His promise, and rejoicing together in their son Isaac. And now the long life here was ended. We think of the old man kneeling by the side of Sarah, and then rising to arrange for a safe resting place for the body. He was "a stranger in the land." He had lived there many years, it is true, but probably outside the city, he and his family and servants a little tribe by themselves, and without any permanent possession. He wished now to buy a tomb or burial place, and the business was arranged at the gate of the city, where perhaps the chief men of the city were sitting, and in the hearing of all who passed in and out by the gate. Everyone would know and it would be remembered that the land was bought.
The cave of Machpelah was in a field near Hebron, belonging to Ephron. This was the place that Abraham chose and bought. There Sarah was buried, and afterward Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob and their wives. Look at our picture of Hebron. Can you find a large building with high walls and towers? It is a mosque, a Mohammedan church, which stands over the cave. The Mohammedans consider it as a very sacred place. The whole business of buying the cave was done with care and with great politeness, as is the custom with those people. We feel that it is a holy time when someone goes from this world and the body is laid to rest. It is holy, for angels are near to welcome the one who is passing to their world, and the Lord is near to raise up one who dies to the home which He has made ready.
It was a beautiful picture of eastern hospitality when Abraham received three visitors at his tent door. Now it is another picture, when with eastern politeness he buys the field and cave for a burial place from Ephron, one of the men of Hebron. For although Abraham had lived a number of years in this country and near Hebron, he owned no land for his own. Why did he need a burial place? Sarah had died, after her long life with Abraham, of which we have been learning. How old was Sarah? Our picture shows the mosque over the cave. In the picture we see it surrounded by other buildings of the town. Our chapter speaks of it as before Mamre or Hebron, which probably means that in the old time the field and cave were to the east of the town. How many different names of Hebron do you find in this chapter? Why was the bargain arranged at the city gate in the presence of the people? We read sometimes of a king or a judge sitting in the city gate, to hear and settle differences among the people.
The story speaks of the Hittites, or children of Heth, and Ephron was one of them, who sold Abraham the cave. The Hittites were at one time a powerful people, who lived mostly to the north of Canaan. In Abraham's time they were scattered through the land in several towns, of which Hebron, an old and important city of the land, was one. The Hittites were people remaining from an ancient church and were among the best people of the land. For this reason Abraham was allowed to live among them, and they were friendly to him. Why was the silver weighed in paying for the land? Evidently it was not coined. The shekel was originally a weight, and later a coin about the size of a fifty-cent piece. The mention of all particulars, the cave and the field and the trees in the borders of the field, reminds us of the importance of detail in the Lordís Word.
There is something very tender and holy about this story. Is it simply because we feel sympathy with Abraham? There is a deeper reason. What do angels think of when we read in the Word of burial? They think of resurrection to the heavenly world. In the old days people loved to say when one died that he was gathered to his fathers or to his people, and they had no thought of the family sepulcher, but of going to live with those dear to them in heaven. They would see that meaning in this story.
1. Where was Hebron? By what other names was the city called?
2. Who were the "sons of Heth"?
3. What do angels think of when the Bible speaks of death?
4. Did Abraham pay for the burial place, or did he accept it as a gift?
Two spiritual thoughts are brought to us in this beautiful chapter. First, we remember how often in the Scriptures the Lord's church is called the bride or wife. The death of Sarah can represent the languishing of spiritual life in the church, as it was languishing when the Lord came into the world, and as it has languished at other times. Abraham's mourning pictures the Lord's mourning because of this languishing of His church. The buying of the cave of the children of Heth, and the burial of Sarah there, represents the raising up by the Lord of a new church among the gentiles, as is done when a former church perishes. These kindly neighbors of Abraham, so willing to sell or give him the cave, represent the willing gentile people who received the Lord and became of His church. The Lord's joy in this reception is beautifully pictured in Abraham's bowing himself before the people of the land. (A. 2910, 2916)
The children of Heth, of whom Abraham bought the burial place, were remnants of an ancient people who preserved something of goodness of an external kind. They represent such external knowledge of good life and such good gentile states as the Lord can appeal to in establishing again a spiritual church. That the burial place was a cave means that the faith which the Lord finds is obscure. (A. 2913, 2935, 2986)
Ephron offered to give the cave, but Abraham insisted on paying for it fully. It may seem to us that we can of ourselves become heavenly. But this cannot be; it must be by the Lord's power and the Lord's gift. No one can add a cubit to his stature. This was represented by Joseph's returning to his brothers the money that they paid for corn. It is meant by the prophet's words, "Yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price." And it is meant in our story by Abraham's insistence upon paying for the field, and by his weighing out in full the four hundred shekels of silver. (A. 2946, 2966)
The other spiritual lesson grows out of the thought that when we read in the letter of the Word of burial, angels think of resurrection. They are the earthly and the heavenly sides of one event. With this thought in mind, the care of Abraham in providing the burial place for Sarah and for all his family tells us of the Lord's loving care and solicitude in providing heavenly homes for His children. This tender thought runs on into the redoubled assurance at the end of the chapter that the cave and the field were made a sure possession. (A. 2974, 2985)