New European Commentary


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Deeper Commentary

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. Literally "one hundred years, twenty years and seven years". This perhaps reflects the importance given to every year, just as the phrase "he died being full of days" likewise suggests the extreme importance of every moment lived. And that significance attaches to old age too. God has a very limited time frame to prepare us for eternity, and every moment counts. And we are to perceive that. There is no retirement, old age is as significant [arguably more significant] than the rest of our lives. There is no spiritual retirement, and it's not over until it's over.

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 give 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-centered materialism (Lk. 19:9).

23:4 I am a stranger and a foreigner living with you- As a 'foreigner', it appears from inscriptions of local laws that he would have been unable to buy land, and unable to bury his dead [visiting foreigners had to cremate their dead]. So perhaps that is why the 'sale' of the property is arranged as a 'gift with compensation'. This was an acute contrast with the promises of eternal inheritance just reaffirmed to him in Gen. 22. Abraham didn't even have as it were a residence permit. If he were a permitted temporary foreign visitor, he would've been able to bury his dead and buy land. But he didn't even have that status. He was literally just passing through. And he spent his life in Canaan in that spirit. The Biblical account fits admirably with what has been uncovered of the local Canaanite laws. The laws are also specific that foreigners could not pass on as inheritance any land they bought or leased. Again, the contrast is clear with the promise that the whole land would be Abraham's and would pass to his "seed". Living as Abraham's seed in this world, our values are likewise absolutely counter inversions of all around us- where ownership of property is seen as the great aim of life. The high price Abraham was charged is reflective of how the whole deal ran contrary to the spirit of the law and culture of the local people. The legislation discovered explains why land must not be sold to foreigners, nor be allowed to be passed on to their descendants: the concern was that the "seed" of the foreigners would increase and come to dominate the land of Canaan. And yet this was exactly the statement of the promises to Abraham- that his seed would indeed multiply and eternally possess that land. This was why sale of land to foreigners had to be agreed by the community and not just the seller; hence we read of the people who could enter the gate (:10), those who had free access to the town, i.e. the citizens. The world we live in is likewise structured exactly as the opposite of the message of the Kingdom preached in the promises to Abraham which are the foundation of the Gospel of the Kingdom. The whole chapter is remarkably similar to property transaction documents uncovered from that era; but it lacks one thing which they generally all have, namely a reference to who shall inherit the land once the new owner dies. The omission is significant- the sons of Heth were nervous about the "gift for compensation", and didn't want to fall foul of their legal code in allowing for this. At best, it was a gentleman's agreement that Abraham's descendants could be buried there. And the irony of course is that God had deeded that field and the whole land to Abraham and his descendants for ever. "Machpelah" means 'two levels', and truly 'the cave of two levels' spoke of the earthly temporal level, and the eternal level.  

Perhaps Heb. 11:13 has this in mind when observing that Abraham 'confessed' that he was a stranger and pilgrim. This act of Abraham was a confession of faith, according to Heb. 11:13. We are to understand that as Abraham said this, he had consciously in mind that the land was in fact eternally his. And we are to have this perspective when we 'buy' things, when we are ripped off and deceived financially [as I suggest Abraham was], or even when things appear to go well for us materially.

This incident follows straight on from Abraham's amazing expression of faith in the events of Gen. 22, and the reaffirmation of the promises to him afterwards. But now he is reminded, by a kind of enforced juxtaposition, that these promises are far future in ultimate fulfilment. For he doesn't possess even a field in the land of promise. And Gen. 23 is full of legal language; the ties that bind in human life are still there and not immediately released by the promises of the Kingdom.

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).

We note that the need to purchase the cave came straight after the promises given Abraham in Gen. 22. The contrast could not have been stronger between our present position and our eternal destiny. But Abraham's desire for "a possession of a burying place" could be read as meaning that he still wanted to have his cake [of future eternal inheritance] and eat it in this life [by having a permanent "possession of a burying place"]. See on :11.

 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 can be read as typical of Middle Eastern business- you can have anything, but of course later, you must pay for it. But it could also be argued that the Hittites wanted to 'give' a place in an existing tomb because of the legal issues discussed above. But Abraham didn't just want a burial place- otherwise he'd have accepted this offer. He wanted a plot for perpetuity, an inheritance, ownership of land. And that is at variance with God's intention to give him nothing in this life.

 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. And yet we can read this another way. Ephron genuinely offered the land for free. But Abraham wanted it as a permanent inheritance, and so he wants to pay for it in the hope this will guarantee it to him. In this case, his confession of faith that he is a foreigner is nuanced by the sense within him that he also wanted a permanent inheritance in this life, even of a field and a cave. This would fit with our sense that his faith had peaks and troughs, and at the same time as showing faith, he also showed unbelief. Just as we do. In fact, in this case, his faith would be typical of our own faith- we believe, but, "Lord, help my unbelief" which can coexist with faith. Abraham's desire for "a possession of a burying place" (:4) could be read as meaning that he still wanted to have his cake [of future eternal inheritance] and eat it in this life [by having a permanent "possession of a burying place"]. He did not receive a possession in this life; Acts 7:5 is clear that God "gave him no inheritance in it, no, not enough to set his foot on it, and He promised that He would give it to him in possession and to his seed after him". But he certainly tried by all means to get a few square feet of permanent inheritance. And he did this right after the undoubted climax of faith in Gen. 22. Our faith likewise is a jagged graph if plotted over time. The contrast is strong and intended between Acts 7:5, and Abraham's intentions of buying a permanent possession, for any price. And in fact Stephen's argument in Acts 7 is that Abraham and all the giants of faith in Israelite history were in fact not of total faith. And on that basis he is appealing to people with less than perfect faith to throw themselves at the feet of the Lord Jesus.

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. The Hebrew for "price" is 'full silver / price'. Abraham was showing how desperate he was for that piece of land.

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. If the children of Heth are 'Hittites', as commonly thought, then it must be noted that the Hittites were themselves not the owners of the territory around that cave. Hebron belonged to the Amorites not the Hittites at the time of Josh. 10:5. Josh. 14:15 informs us that "the name of Hebron before was Kiriath Arba, after the greatest man among the Anakim"; "Kiriath Arba, named after the father of Anak (the same is Hebron)" (Josh. 21:11). The Hittites were not "Anakim", they originated in modern day Turkey. The Amorites were "Anakim". The cave was "before Mamre" (:17); and Mamre was the home of the Amorite leader called Mamre, who is called "the Amorite, brother of Eshcol, and brother of Aner" (Gen. 14:13). The critics claim that Hittites would not have actually been the municipal council, as it were, in that area. And maybe they're right. In which case, it's possible we are to conclude that they presented as the owners when in fact they were themselves visiting traders, which is what the Hittites were noted for at that time. And so despite the large price, Abraham was actually deceived. And this gives more poignancy to the NT emphasis that he never permanently owned anything in Canaan, but will receive the land as eternal inheritance. The large price of the land is a hint that the Hittites were less than honest, especially if they began the bargaining by saying 'We will give it to you for free' when clearly that wasn't their intention. Comparison with other Bible texts about who owned Hebron would lead us to conclude that like the Gibeonites, they were deceiving Abraham. This is not stated, but we have here the hermeneutic of remez, or 'hints'. Whilst the Gospel message is clear in the Bible, much of the other material is to be interpreted by following hints. This principle is in order to drive us to the text of Scripture and comparison of scripture with scripture, in order to join the dots and see the picture. I would argue that the information about these Hittites is to be read in the same way, and we can conclude that Abraham was deceived by them. The cave never became the permanent burial place of Abraham's longer term seed as he had imagined.

We recall that Abraham had received 1000 pieces of silver from Abimelech, as a kind of humiliation of him for betraying Sarah (Gen. 20:16). And now those same pieces of silver are used to buy her burial plot.

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 comes over as desperate to buy the land, to get himself a lasting possession, at any cost. Even though it never really worked out- we never hear of the cave being used for burials of his seed beyond the next two generations after him.

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- "Deeded" is AV "made sure". This is however alluded to in Rom. 4:13,16. The "promise to Abraham and his seed, that he should be heir of the world, did not come through the law, but through... faith, that it may be according to grace; to the end that the promise may be sure to all the seed. Not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all". The 'making sure' was achieved by God's grace, through faith. And this confirmation or making sure of the promises to Abraham, which encapsulate the Gospel of the Kingdom, was through the death of the Lord Jesus. Not by paying money. And this is our challenge; to believe, by faith alone, that by grace alone our inheritance is yet future, but is "made sure" by the Lord's death, and not by any human device. Our faith in this is sadly not total; and neither was Abraham's. But he endured in faith, and in this sense is "the father of us all".

The repetition of "deeded" in :17,18,20 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. And that establishing was ultimately through the Lord's death. And Abraham has just been taught this in Gen. 22; God there swore by an oath, on His own immortal life, as it were, that He would truly fulfil the promises to Abraham. But now Abraham seeks to 'establish' that in his own strength and with his own wealth. As Hebrews 6 explains, we have anchor-firm hope and consolation, because the promise of salvation has in fact been further confirmed or established / made sure by the Lord's death. Because of this further confirmation, our Hope is "stedfast" (Heb. 6:19), the same word for "made sure" in Rom. 4:16. And again the same word in Heb. 9:17, the covenant / testament is "of force", it is established, by the death of the Lord Jesus.