Death of Sarah: God’s Ways with Israel Suspended
Genesis 23. If ch.22 gives us the obedience of faith, then ch.23 gives us the dignity of faith. In this chapter we have the death of Sarah, which typically represents the suspension of God’s working in grace with the nation of Israel. We also see a beautiful example of the dignity and testimony of faith to the world around, demonstrated by Abraham’s behavior in negotiating a burying-place for Sarah.
The Death of Sarah (23:1-2)
1 And the life of Sarah was a hundred and twenty-seven years: these were the years of the life of Sarah. 2 And Sarah died in Kirjath-Arba: that is Hebron, in the land of Canaan. And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her. vv.1-2 The Death of Sarah. Sarah is the only woman in the Bible whose years of age are counted exactly. She is an important person, not only in the life of Abraham, but in the scope of scripture. Galatians 4 shows that Sarah is a type of grace as opposed to Hagar who is a type of the law. Yet it does not follow that Sarah is a type of the Church, properly speaking. That is reserved for another woman: Rebecca. Instead Sarah is a type of the Jews under grace, like those to whom Peter preached in Acts 3. There are two things that had to take place before the bride of Christ could be called. Typically, these two things are pictured in ch.22 and ch.23. The first is the death of Christ, pictured by the sacrifice on Mount Moriah. The second is the setting aside of Israel in the ways of God, pictured by the death of Sarah. Before the Apostle Paul could be raised up to make known the truth of the Mystery, God gave Israel a final opportunity to receive God’s testimony. Once that provisional offer of pardon was rejected (stoning of Stephen), Paul is raised up. This is pictured by the death of Sarah, and then the call of Rebecca in ch.24. Sarah dies, and Abraham comes to mourn and weep for Sarah. Mourning was a formal process, and weeping is an internal reaction to sorrow. Sorrow at such a time is natural, and proper. Yet as believers, we “sorrow not, even as others which have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13), because we believe that those who sleep in Jesus will one day be raised. Abraham did not understand the full truth of 1 Thessalonians 4, but he did believe in the God of resurrection, and therefore his sorrow could be colored with the joy of knowing that she would one day be raised again.
Abraham Purchases a Burying Place (23:3-18)
3 And Abraham rose up from before his dead, and spoke to the sons of Heth, saying, 4 I am a stranger and a sojourner with you; give me a possession of a sepulchre with you, that I may bury my dead from before me. vv.3-4 Abraham Seeks a Burial Place. Abraham does not remain too long at the side of his dead wife. He rises up to make arrangements. He spoke the “the sons of Heth”, who were in possession of that part of the promised land. Abraham didn’t own any property, although God had promised it to his children. He could say, “I am a stranger and a sojourner with you”. The only land Abraham purchased was a burial place. What an outlook for those of faith! “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. … But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.” (Heb. 11:13-16).
Called from above, and heavenly men by birth,
(Who once were but the citizens of earth)
As pilgrims here, we seek a heavenly home,
Our portion in the ages yet to come.
We are but strangers here, we do not crave
A home on earth, which gave Thee but a grave:
Thy cross has severed ties which bound us here,
Thyself our treasure in a brighter sphere.1
Burial vs. Cremation. Genesis 23 is the first instance in scripture where the details are given of the interment of the body of one who had died in faith. Notice that Abraham buries Sarah, and he doesn’t cremate her body. We have no scripture to say that cremation is morally wrong, yet it is interesting that in scripture, those of faith always buried their dead (e.g. Gen. 49:31). Burial, more than cremation, tends to have the resurrection of the body in view. It is also a sign of respect for the body (2 Sam. 21:12-14). Cremation was a Pagan practice, although for many years it has become popular in Christianized lands. Now, of course God can raise the dead regardless of the state of their body, whether buried or burned. Nothing is beyond the reach of His power. We also cannot make a rule about things the scripture doesn’t tell us. The important thing is that we treat the body with dignity, because God does, and will one day change it to be like Christ’s glorious body!
5 And the sons of Heth answered Abraham, saying to him, 6 Hear us, my lord: thou art a prince of God among us: in the choicest of our sepulchres bury thy dead: none of us shall withhold from thee his sepulchre for burying thy dead. 7 And Abraham rose up, and bowed down to the people of the land, to the sons of Heth, 8 and spoke to them, saying, If it be your will that I should bury my dead from before me, hear me, and entreat for me Ephron the son of Zohar, 9 that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which is his, which is at the end of his field; for the full money let him give it to me amongst you for a possession of a sepulchre. vv.5-9 The Cave of Machpelah. It is clear that Abraham had the respect of the people of the land, among whom he dwelt as a stranger. The sons of Heth offer Abraham the choice of their land for a burying place. But Abraham had a specific place in mind, and he wanted to purchase it at the full price. It was near Hebron, which speaks of communion; a place Abraham had spent many happy hours in the presence of the Lord. This place would later become a kind of family tomb, where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah were buried (Gen. 23:19; 25:9; 49:30-31; 50:13).
10 And Ephron was dwelling among the sons of Heth. And Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham, in the ears of the sons of Heth, even of all that went in at the gate of his city, saying, 11 No, my lord: hear me. The field give I thee; and the cave that is in it, to thee I give it; before the eyes of the sons of my people give I it thee: bury thy dead. 12 And Abraham bowed down before the people of the land; 13 and he spoke to Ephron, in the ears of the people of the land, saying, But if only thou wouldst listen to me, I give the money for the field: take it of me, and I will bury my dead there. 14 And Ephron answered Abraham, saying to him, 15 My lord, hearken to me. A field of four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between me and thee? bury therefore thy dead. 16 And Abraham hearkened to Ephron; and Abraham weighed to Ephron the money that he had named in the ears of the sons of Heth — four hundred shekels of silver, current with the merchant. 17 So the field of Ephron, which was at Machpelah, which was before Mamre, the field, and the cave that was in it, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all its borders round about, 18 were assured to Abraham for a possession before the eyes of the sons of Heth, before all who went in at the gate of his city. vv.10-18 The Purchase of the field. The Abraham refuses to take advantage of the generosity and sympathies of his neighbors. We are given many instructions in the New Testament to maintain a good testimony before the world, and to not owe them anything, not to give even an appearance of evil, such that there could be an opportunity for the world to hold some claim against the gospel (Rom. 13:8; 2 Cor. 4:2, 8:21; 1 Thess. 4:12). It would seem that Ephron and Abraham were both very wealthy men, and that the value of the field was quite small in comparison. It was something Ephron was willing to give as a gift to Abraham, not only the cave, but the entire field. But Abraham insisted that the fair-market value be paid, with the appropriate currency, in the sight of witnesses, and that the terms of the purchase be abundantly clear; “the field of Ephron, which was at Machpelah, which was before Mamre, the field, and the cave that was in it, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all its borders round about”.
The Burial of Sarah (19:19-20)
19 And after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field at Machpelah, opposite to Mamre: that is Hebron, in the land of Canaan. 20 And the field and the cave that was in it were assured to Abraham for a possession of a sepulchre by the sons of Heth. vv.19-20 Abraham Buries Sarah. At last Abraham buries Sarah, and this closes out a phase of Abraham’s life. He now turns to focus on the promised seed (Isaac) and his future.