It sometimes seems as if the world is filled with people who choose to live as if they never expect to die. Even though millions of people die every day, many people seem to think that death will never happen to them- or to someone they know. Then a grandparent, friend, or some other family member passes away and everyone is suddenly reminded that this life isn’t permanent.
Psalm 89:48 tells us that “No one can escape the power of death and the grave” (CEV) and Genesis chapter twenty-three helps to illustrate that reality. You see, Genesis chapter twenty-three tells us about the death of Abraham’s wife Sarah, and it serves to remind us that everyone’s time here on earth is limited.
“Sarah lived to be a hundred and twenty-seven years old. She died at Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her” (Genesis 23:1-2).
Seventeen years have now gone by since the end of Genesis chapter twenty-two and the beginning of Genesis chapter twenty-three. Unfortunately, this chapter begins with the sad news that Abraham’s wife Sarah had passed away at the age of 127. It’s interesting to note that Sarah is the only woman whose death and age at death is recorded in the Bible. This should give us an idea about the kind of honor and respect that others had for her.
Sarah died in a town called Kiriath Arba. Kiriath Arba was also known as Hebron and it was located about twenty miles (32 km) away from the city of Jerusalem. (1) This was a town that was familiar to Abraham because he had spent some time living there at various points throughout his life. For example, Abraham lived at Kiriath Arba after he split off with his nephew Lot according to Genesis 13:8. It was also the town where Abraham was living when he heard that Lot had been captured and taken hostage in Genesis 14:13. Perhaps most importantly, Kiriath Arba was the place where God spoke to Abraham and Sarah to tell them that their son Isaac was going to be born (see Genesis chapter 18). So we can say that God graciously allowed Sarah to pass away in a familiar place where she had once made her home.
After Abraham had mourned (or expressed his grief) over his wife’s death, the time came to make her funeral arrangements- and we’ll soon see how these arrangements will have an impact on his descendants for generations to come.
(1) “Hebron” The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary. Originally published by Moody Press of Chicago, Illinois. Copyright © 1988
The “Hittites” that we read about in these verses would eventually grow to become a great empire in the area of the world known today as the nation of Turkey. But that empire was something that would be established in the future. In Abraham’s time, the Hittites represented a much smaller group, some of whom lived and owned property near the area of Kiriath Arba where Sarah died. So Abraham spoke to this group of people and basically said to them, “I’m living as a foreigner in your land and I don’t own any property here. Please let me buy an area to use as a burial plot.”
Now Abraham could have gone back and buried Sarah in his old hometown instead of buying some land from the Hittites, but there was one big reason why he didn’t. Remember that God originally told Abraham to “…Leave your country, your family, and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). That land was the place where Abraham and Sarah were living at the time of her death. It was also the place that God had promised to give to Abraham and his descendants (see Genesis 12:7). So for Abraham, there was no question of ever going back to where he came from. The final resting place for Abraham’s wife would be in the place where God’s future was for her family.
“The Hittites replied to Abraham, ‘Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead'” (Genesis 23:5-6).
It seems clear that the Hittites regarded Abraham as a very important person. In fact, the original language used to write this passage indicates that the Hittites viewed Abraham as a “prince with God” and that’s how some Bible versions translate this verse. (1) We’re also told that Abraham had such a good reputation among the other people living in that area that they made an offer to let him bury his dead in one of their own personal family tombs.
But Abraham wasn’t looking for a single burial plot; he was also thinking about the future generations of his descendants in the land that God had promised to give him- and he already had his eye on one particular spot.
(1) The American Standard Version (ASV) and English Standard Version (ESV) are two examples
“Then Abraham rose and bowed down before the people of the land, the Hittites. He said to them, ‘If you are willing to let me bury my dead, then listen to me and intercede with Ephron son of Zohar on my behalf so he will sell me the cave of Machpelah, which belongs to him and is at the end of his field. Ask him to sell it to me for the full price as a burial site among you'” (Genesis 23:7-9).
Did you notice how Abraham treated the people that he was dealing with in these verses? Remember that the Hittites regarded Abraham as “a prince” (Genesis 23:6) so they obviously recognized him as a person of great social status. Yet we’re told that Abraham bowed down or “gave honor” (CEV) to these very same people. This tells us that Abraham didn’t try to use his social position to get what he wanted. Nor did he try to use his army of fighting men to force the Hittites into doing what he wanted them to do. Even though the Hittites were not followers of God, Abraham still made sure to represent God properly by treating them with a sense of basic dignity and respect.
Now this may seem like a pretty ordinary business transaction up to this point, but watch what happens next…
“Ephron the Hittite was sitting among his people and he replied to Abraham in the hearing of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of his city. ‘No, my lord,’ he said. ‘Listen to me; I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead'” (Genesis 23:10-11).
So Ephron responded to Abraham by offering to give him this cave along with the entire field where this cave was located for use as a burial area. While that might seem like a pretty generous thing to do, we should remember that things may not always be the way they appear to be. You see, the Hittite law of that time made Ephron responsible for paying taxes on that property unless he sold all of it. If Abraham bought the cave -but not the field where the cave was located- Ephron still had to pay taxes on everything. So while it may seem as if Ephron was being generous in giving Abraham this field as well, a more likely explanation is that he wanted to get out of his tax obligations by getting rid of the cave and the field as a single unit.
“‘No, my lord,’ he said. ‘Listen to me; I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. I give it to you in the presence of my people'” (Genesis 23:11).
It’s easy to read this passage and assume that Ephron was willing to give all this property to Abraham for nothing. But while this may look like an offer of a gift from Ephron, it was actually just the first step in negotiating the price that he wanted Abraham to pay for his property. In the culture of Abraham’s day, a seller would respond to an offer to purchase something by first proposing to give it away as a demonstration of his or her generosity. It was then expected that the buyer would demonstrate his or her fairness by insisting to pay for the item that he or she wanted to buy.
The seller would then respond by mentioning a value for the item that was really much more than the item was actually worth. That value served as a cue for the buyer and the real negotiations would begin from that point. So now that you know the real strategy behind Ephron’s offer, keep an eye on these next few verses as he attempts to negotiate an agreement with Abraham…
“Again Abraham bowed down before the people of the land and he said to Ephron in their hearing, ‘Listen to me, if you will. I will pay the price of the field. Accept it from me so I can bury my dead there.’ Ephron answered Abraham, “Listen to me, my lord; the land is worth four hundred shekels of silver, but what is that between me and you? Bury your dead” (Genesis 23:12-15).
So Abraham followed the standard negotiating procedure of that culture as he insisted on paying for this property instead of accepting Ephron’s offer of a gift. Ephron then responded by placing a value on this land that was supposedly being offered to Abraham for nothing. In today’s terms, we would identify that value (“four hundred shekels of silver“) as Ephron’s “asking price.” Again, the asking price was usually much more than something was actually worth, but it was understood that this price could negotiated downward if the buyer still wanted to make the purchase.
This meant that the four hundred shekels of silver that Ephron was asking for was probably an inflated price. But instead of negotiating this price with Ephron, Abraham decided to do something unexpected instead.
“So Ephron’s field in Machpelah near Mamre — both the field and the cave in it, and all the trees within the borders of the field — was deeded to Abraham as his property in the presence of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of the city.
Afterward Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah near Mamre (which is at Hebron) in the land of Canaan. So the field and the cave in it were deeded to Abraham by the Hittites as a burial site” (Genesis 23:16-20).
We can learn some important things by looking at the way that Abraham carried out this business deal. First, Abraham treated the Hittites in a very respectful and professional manner- in fact, we’re told that Abraham “bowed down” twice during these negotiations (see Genesis 23:7 and 23:12). Abraham also made sure that the terms of the agreement were clearly defined so everyone knew exactly what each side would receive.
Finally, the Scripture quoted above tells us that Abraham conducted his business in the presence of other witnesses who could confirm that there was nothing inappropriate or illegal about what wa going on. So its clear that Abraham made sure to honor God and represent Him properly in his business dealings with others. This is another area where Abraham provides us with a good example to follow as we interact with others in our daily lives.
However, it’s also clear that Ephron did not show very much consideration for Abraham in his time of grief. Remember that Abraham was negotiating for a place to bury his beloved wife. If Ephron really considered Abraham to be a “prince with God” (Genesis 23:6), he could have chosen to set aside the usual negotiating practices of that time out of respect for Abraham. Unfortunately, Ephron seemed to view the death of Abraham’s wife as an opportunity to make some money.
Nevertheless, Abraham chose not to argue or debate over the price that was set by Ephron, even though it was probably much more that his property was actually worth. Abraham paid the asking price immediately without any dispute. As a man who had a reputation among the Hittites as someone who honored God, Abraham made sure to live up to that reputation in his dealings with those who didn’t know Him.