New European Commentary

 

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23:1 Sarah lived one hundred and twenty-seven years; this was the length of Sarah’s life- No other woman has her age at death recorded in Biblical history. For all her weakness, Sarah is being presented as the spiritual mother of us all. She and Abraham are mostly commendable for hanging on to faith in God's program, for going along with it willingly, despite multiple weaknesses of character. In this senses they become our forbears.

23:2 Sarah died in Kiriath Arba (the same is Hebron), in the land of Canaan. Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her- Abraham 'came' to her presumably in the sense that he came into her tent; or perhaps the reference is to some funeral procedure, at which very time he asked the funeral guests from the surrounding peoples if he could buy a burial place for her.

 23:3 Abraham rose up from before his dead, and spoke to the children of Heth, saying- Abraham walked around in his promised land with the attitude of a stranger just passing through, although he was probably the most powerful man in it. The record of his purchase of Machpelah seems to exemplify this. Not only is the presence of the children  of Heth highlighted (Gen. 23:3,5,7,10,11,12,13,16,18), but the record of Abraham's words demonstrates his appreciation that he was only passing through: "Entreat  for me to Ephron... that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he has...  for full money he shall give it me for a possession... amongst you... and Abraham bowed down himself before the people of the land... and the field... in all the borders round about (was) made sure" (23:9-17 AVmg.). The mention of the borders really rubs it in. Not only was the land promised to Abraham, but he was politically more powerful than the children of Heth; he could have annexed it for himself at ease. The children of Heth were willing to giver it to him for free anyway (:11). Yet the realization by Abraham of his present position, the humility created by faith, shines through the narrative. Zacchaeus is called a son of Abraham in that he too humbly repented of his self-centred materialism (Lk. 19:9).

23:4 I am a stranger and a foreigner living with you. Give me a possession of a burying-place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight- The surrounding peoples were likewise all nomadic and may have also come from other areas (see on :10). The early Hittites (:5) were well know for this. Abraham had been in the area long enough to count as a local. But his receipt of the promises meant that he always considered himself merely passing through- just as we should, no matter what level of apparent permanence we have in our lives. Being a stranger and foreigner is the characteristic of all God's people who are in the spiritual family of Abraham (Ps. 39:12; 1 Chron. 29:15; Heb. 11:13).

 23:5 The children of Heth answered Abraham, saying to him- "Heth" means 'destruction' or 'dismay', the father of the Hittites (Gen. 26:34 cp. Gen. 27:46). Rebekah later considered their daughters too unspiritual for Jacob to marry (Gen. 27:46). This points up the clear difference between the Abraham family and those amongst whom they lived. Yet Abraham had been there for a long time. No matter how long we are in a particular location, employment or situation, we should always remember that we live "amongst" this world and are separate from them because of the longer term perspectives which we have.

 23:6 Hear us, my lord. You are a prince of God among us. Bury your dead in the best of our tombs. None of us will withhold from you his tomb. Bury your dead- They recognize that Abraham lived "among" them rather than being "of" them. No matter how long he lived there, he was never seen as a local. See on :5. The locals perceived that he was a mighty one in God's eyes; his faith had not remained hidden. The offer of any tomb is typical of Middle Eastern business- you can have anything, but of course later, you must pay for it.

 23:7 Abraham rose up, and bowed himself to the people of the land, even to the children of Heth- The 'people of the land' in later scripture (e.g. Zech. 14:1,2) would refer to the Canaanite tribes who originally lived in the land, who are the forefathers of many of the present Arab peoples. They are called "the people of the land (earth)" in Gen. 23:7, 12,13;  Dt. 7:6; Josh 4:24.  Another possibility is that they are 'people of the land' in the sense that at the times they gather themselves against Jerusalem they are present within the land of Israel.

He bowed himself to those whose land he would eternally inherit. It was all part of the ritual of purchase, but Abraham surely was aware that kings were to bow down to him on account of his seed, who would be the blesser of all nations (Is. 49:23). The blesser was understood as superior to the blessed (Heb. 7:7); and these nations of the land were to be blessed in him. But he now bows to them. We constantly feel the same Divinely intended paradox as we pass through life, inferior to those whom we shall soon reign over.

23:8 He talked with them, saying, If it be your mind that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me, and entreat for me to Ephron the son of Zohar- Ephron was there with them (:10), but because he was himself only dwelling amongst them (:10 AV), he needed the permission of the locals to "sell" the property. This would have heightened the sense of paradox- that Abraham, also living "amongst" the children of Heth for some time, had to buy a parcel of land which was eternally his.

 23:9 That he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he has, which is in the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me for a possession among you of a burying-place- The land was already promised to Abraham as an eternal possession. And yet he had to pay "full price" for it. This entire incident seeks to bring out the paradox, knowing that we as Abraham's seed will have many similar ones in our dealings with this world. It was "his field"- and yet the field and the whole land were eternally Abraham's.

 23:10 Now Ephron was sitting in the middle of the children of Heth- AV "dwelt among". Although note :11 "my people".

Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the children of Heth, even of all who went in at the gate of his city, saying- As noted on :4 and :8, Ephron may well have been a nomad himself who had come to live amongst the Hittites. This heightens the sense of paradox, that Abraham was likewise, and yet he had to pay a fortune for a burial plot.

23:11 No, my lord, hear me. I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the presence of the children of my people I give it to you. Bury your dead- This has the ring of credibility to it; this is exactly how things are done in the Middle East. Something is offered "free" and yet with the expectation of payment later.

 23:12 Abraham bowed himself down before the people of the land- - See on :7.

23:13 He spoke to Ephron in the audience of the people of the land, saying, But if you will, please hear me. I will give the price of the field. Take it from me, and I will bury my dead there- Abraham understood that what was offered free in such situations really had to be paid for. The record really is accurately recording words spoken thousands of years ago.

23:14 Ephron answered Abraham, saying to him-

 

There really is such strong emphasis that Abraham didn't own the land whilst he lived in it. Gen. 23:4,7,12,13 seems to draw a difference in legal categories between "resident aliens", "natives" and "the local people". Abraham was an alien, and needed approval from the local community council to buy a burial place; and even then, the council had to speak with the owner and as it were do Abraham a favour. Further, the price of 400 shekels for some land with a cave in it to bury the dead was exorbitant (Gen. 23:14). There are records of the sale of whole villages in northern Syria dating from about this time, recorded in the Alalakh Tablets (E.A. Speiser, Genesis [The Anchor Bible] (New York: Doubleday, 1964), p. 171). They were sold for between 100 and 1000 shekels. Jeremiah paid 17 shekels for a field (Jer. 32:9); Omri paid 6000 shekels for the entire site of Samaria (1 Kings 16:24). If ever we feel ripped off by this world, unreasonably treated in this land which is eternally ours, powerless to protest, left without option as Abraham was- then we are following in his steps, and are truly his "seed".

One senses a growing humility within Abraham. Despite being a great man, called a "mighty prince" by local people, with a large household and private army, he personally runs to entertain the strangers who later turned out to be Angels. He so believed in the promised land being ultimately his that he could offer to his younger relative Lot the choice of the best land to live in- when in their culture, the leader of the community, the elder, naturally had the best of everything. Progressive faith in the promises led Abraham to greater integrity and openness. In Gen. 21:25-32 we see Abraham as a secretive, furtive character, secretly digging wells in Abimelech's territory without telling him. By Gen. 23:1-20 we see Abraham buying land from the Hittites in a very public manner, sealed by witnesses- the record emphasizes the integrity and openness of the whole transaction. And this purchase of land is quoted in the New Testament as an example of Abraham's faith that he would inherit the land ultimately. The same effects will be seen in the lives of all those who truly believe in those same promises. Seeing it was traditional to bury people with their ancestors, the purchase of a family "burying place" was also a statement that Abraham had finally separated from his father's house back in Ur and Haran. From no w on, he saw Canaan as truly his land. We saw earlier how Abraham had struggled with this commanded separation from his father's house.

23:15 My lord, listen to me. What is a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver between me and you? Therefore bury your dead- This was an invitation to barter, stating the starting price, and yet being willing to go lower. But Abraham breaks with tradition and pays this very large price, without responding to the traditional invitation to barter.

23:16 Abraham listened to Ephron- As noted on :15, the significance of this was that Abraham declined to barter, and the language of :15 was an invitation to knock him down from 400 to something far less.

Abraham weighed to Ephron the silver which he had named in the audience of the children of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the current merchants’ standard- Abraham surely realized the paradox, that he was buying his own eternal possession. The price was very high, and yet Abraham must have paid it with almost a smile on his face, knowing that actually all the land was his.

23:17 So the field of Ephron, which was in Machpelah, which was before Mamre, the field, the cave which was in it, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all of its borders, were deeded- The stress upon "deeded" is to highlight the paradox, that the land had been eternally deeded to Abraham and his seed. The language of "borders", defining where the parcel began and ended, is also almost ironic, seeing that the whole land belonged to Abraham. Likewise the strict legal definitions of what was included in the deal are almost laughable when we perceive that the entire land was eternally Abraham's.

23:18 To Abraham for a possession in the presence of the children of Heth, before all who went in at the gate of his city- It was God who had given Abraham the entire land for an eternal possession. And yet the elders of the city sat there in all solemnity as if they were global power brokers. The contrast and paradox is being highlighted. Gen. 22:18 spoke of how the gate of all would be in Abraham's power; but he lived in faith of that day as then unseen.


23:19 After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre (that is, Hebron), in the land of Canaan- "After this" refers not to the initial meeting with the local elders, but to the receipt of the property deed from those "at the gate of the city" (:17,18). There is extreme emphasis upon the legal process; to highlight the paradox in the fact that Abraham had the whole earth deeded to him in possession for ever- by God and not man.

23:20 The field, and the cave that is in it, were deeded to Abraham for a possession of a burying place by the children of Heth- The repetition here of :17,18 serves to rub in the paradox- that the whole land, including the field and cave. were deeded to Abraham by God and for ever. "Deeded" translates the same Hebrew word used of God 'establishing' His covenant (Gen. 6:18; 9:9,11; 17:7,19). The weakness of human deeding is set up against the power of God's eternal deeding.