Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death
Having waited decades for the promised child to arrive, Abraham was tested by God to see if he valued God above all other things, even his beloved son. In the climax of the whole Abraham story, he proved that he did by being willing to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice (see Genesis 22).
We should live this life with eyes focused on the life after death.
With Genesis 23, the author begins to wrap up the life of Abraham in order to transition to the life of Isaac. When we were introduced to Abraham back in Genesis 11:27-12:9, God promised to give him land and descendants and to bless all nations through him. These themes are again present in this final section (23:1-25:18) as his life comes to a close.
The theme of land is the focus of Genesis 23. At 127 years old, Abraham’s wife Sarah passes away. After a long life together filled with many ups and down, he is understandably devastated at her loss and mourns for her (vv. 1-2). Then his mind turns to focus on giving her a proper burial, and he approaches the Hittites and says, “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you; give me property among you for a burying place, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” (vv. 3-4)
It’s easy to miss what an act of faith this request is. In that day, it would have been expected that someone like Abraham would have buried Sarah back in his native land of Mesopotamia. By burying her in Canaan, he’s turning his back on his native land and declaring that this is now his homeland (despite him not owning any land!).
Most of chapter 23 is devoted to Abraham negotiating the sale of Ephron’s cave (vv. 3-16). Ephron and the Hittites tried to let Abraham bury Sarah in one of their tombs, demonstrating both their respect for him and possibly even some reluctance to give Abraham a permanent possession of land.
But Abraham refuses to just use a Hittite tomb for Sarah or to be given the cave for free. He knows that if he were just given the land, it’s possible that Ephron’s descendants could one day come and try to reclaim it. Ownership is what Abraham’s after, and the enormous amount he pays for it as well as the references to witnesses (vv. 10, 23, 16, 18) leave no doubt that the cave (and the field it’s on) are now the legal property of Abraham.
Long ago, God promised that all the land of Canaan would belong to Abraham and his offspring (12:1-9; 13:14-18). The purchase of this field is a down payment of that promise. This transaction is a tangible demonstration of Abraham’s faith, showing his confidence that Sarah was being laid to rest in a land that would one day be populated with their descendants.
As Genesis progresses, Sarah is joined by others. After his death, Abraham would be buried in this cave (25:9-10) as would Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah. Leah’s husband, Jacob, after spending the last several years of his life in Egypt, is taken to the cave when he died (49:29-32; 50:4-14). When Joseph and the rest of Jacob’s sons journey to the cave to bury him, they’re living in Egypt. But by burying Jacob in this cave, they’re acknowledging that Canaan is their homeland which God will one day bring them back to.
As Hebrews says: “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” (11:13)
- How did Abraham demonstrate both grief and hope after Sarah’s death? In what ways is he an example to Christians today of how to approach the subject of death?
- This small field is a down payment that pointed to the future reality of all the land belonging to Abraham’s offspring. According to Ephesians 1:13-14, what “down payment” do Christians now possess? What future reality does this point us to? (See Revelation 21:1-4 and Romans 8:11)
- Abraham described himself as “a sojourner and foreigner” (23:4). According to Peter, this also describes Christians today (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11). How should the realization that we are “exiles” who are not yet home affect the decisions we make and the way we live our lives?
Hebrews 11:13 – “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.”