The Cave of Machpelah
The story of Abraham is a story of faith in God’s promises against all odds.
That’s what we’ve seen so far this fall with the life of Abraham, and that’s what we will continue to see now with the life of Isaac.
The highest point in Abraham’s story came last week in Chapter 22, when God tested Abraham in the sacrifice of Isaac. That was the climax of Abraham’s story, and now the narrative of Genesis is going to begin focusing more on Isaac.
And so for the next few weeks we’re going to talk a lot about Isaac, but in a way, when we talk about Isaac, we’re still talking about Abraham because we’re talking about God fulfilling the promises he made to Abraham — and if we’re going by that logic, we could say that for the rest of the Bible we never stop talking about Abraham because we never stop seeing God fulfill his promises to Abraham.
This is what happens when you have a promise-keeping God. Promises get stacked upon promises until everywhere you look you see the faithfulness of God. I want that to happen for us in Genesis because it will change the way we read the Bible. And today’s chapter is important because this chapter marks a big transition in the this book overall.
Chapter 23 in Summary
We’re in Chapter 23 today and overall in Chapter 23 there are three things going on:
- First, there is the death of Sarah, which is what leads to Abraham buying land;
- Second, Abraham negotiates with the Hittites regarding the land, which is the bulk of the chapter;
- Third, there is the location of the land, which is where we find the most important part.
And so in summary you’ve got:
- The death of Sarah;
- The deal with the Hittites; and
- The land that was purchased.
And these three things are straightforward in the chapter, but each one is loaded with meaning, and so in order for us to get it, we need to slow down on each one. So we’re going to do that, starting with Sarah. Let’s pray and get going.
Father, you speak through your holy word, and I trust, by your grace, that you have something to say to us this morning. Open our hearts to receive it, we ask, in Jesus’s name, amen.
1. The Death of Sarah
The death of Sarah is the first thing we read about in the chapter, and right away there are at least two different ways we’re supposed to take it, the story level and the ground level.
At the Story Level
First, at the story level, Sarah’s death marks the transition in Genesis overall.
Since way back at the end of Genesis 11 (and really beginning with Chapter 12) the book of Genesis has been all about the story of Abraham, with the climax of his story being Chapter 22. But now in Chapter 23, we’re going to see the transfer of focus from Abraham to Isaac. And we can see this transition start to take place at the end of Chapter 22, verses 20–24, because that’s the place where Rebekah is first mentioned. Rebekah is introduced at the end of Chapter 22 because she is going to become Isaac’s wife in Chapter 24.
Which then means, if Rebekah will become the next patriarch’s wife, she will become the next matriarch, and that means she will become the leading female figure in the story. And to make this clear for us, right after Rebekah is introduced at the end of Chapter 22, the very next thing we read is about the death of Sarah in Chapter 23.
So at the story level, the death of Sarah marks the transfer of one matriarch to another, which is then setting up the transfer of focus from Abraham to Isaac, which is then highlighting the faithfulness of God. Because the steady message in all of this is: Look at what God is doing! He is keeping his word to Abraham — because God always does what he says he will do.
That is what is happening at the high-view, story level. It’s neat and clean and it makes a ton of sense at the story level.
At the Ground Level
But then there’s another level, call it the ground level, and this is the level where death is a real thing that affects real people, and we can’t read about Sarah without facing this fact.
That’s because, just in terms of the text itself, the topic of death is a repeated over and over again in this chapter. The word for death is used eight times in Chapter 23 (23:2–4, 6, 8, 11, 13, 15) — and that’s alongside eight uses of the verb “to bury” (23:4, 6 [2x], 8, 11, 13, 15, 19); and then five uses of the words for “tomb” or “burial site” (23:6 [2x]; 23:4, 9, 20).
And so if we’re honest with this passage, there’s just no way to get around it. We have to deal with the topic of death. The death of Sarah is the event that has led to everything else going on in this chapter, and when we consider her death I think there are two takeaways that might help us.
1. Abraham mourned and wept.
This is the big reason we can know we’re not supposed to fly over the details here. Sarah’s death is not just about narrative transitions because we read in verse 2 that Abraham, the mighty man of faith, mourns and weeps at the loss of his wife.
It’s a brief description, but it’s important. Verse 2 says that “Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her,” and then, in verse 3 we read that “Abraham rose up” — which implies that he was laid low in sorrow.
Now the word for mourn refers to an audible crying out, which means, that if we take this all together, what we’re reading about here is a husband who was curled up in grief over the death of his wife. And that means that if we could have been there, we would have heard him weeping.
Think about that for a minute. This is when we have to stop for a second and remember that this is a real moment that happened in history. Abraham wept, and he wept out loud. . . . and we’re talking about Abraham here.
This is not just any man. This is Abraham, the father of faith! How many other humans in world history have seen and heard from God the way Abraham did?
He was 137 years old at this point. He has been in Canaan following, trusting, obeying God for 62 years. He has heard God speak to him, and he has seen God provide for him — and if anyone would have had the right perspective on death, Abraham would have been that guy. He knows how it all works. He has lived with his eyes on the future, and yet here in this story he still mourns and weeps. He cries like any man would cry over the death of his wife because at the end of the day Abraham, who is not just any man, is still a man — and death hurts. Death is still our greatest enemy, and it hurts.
We saw that about death in the Gospel of John this past summer. When Lazarus died, Jesus came to his tomb, and there we read the shortest verse in the whole Bible, John 11, verse 35, “Jesus wept.” And Jesus wept, remember, because death, our worst enemy, is the separation of things united, and there’s nothing more painful than that. And so Abraham weeps. This giant of faith mourns and weeps. [And he will do more than that, but we have to see this part first.]
2. Sarah’s legacy was her life.
We see this by a subtle clue in the text. Verse 1 opens simply: “Sarah lived 127 years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.”
And we should just note that the text does not say, “Sarah died when she was 127 years old.” It says Sarah lived 127 years.
That’s intentional. There were actually some ancient Jewish interpretations of this passage that made a big deal about Sarah’s age because of the number. The number 100 is symbolic for a long time; 20 is symbolic for beauty; and 7 is symbolic for perfection. So to say that Sarah lived 127 years it could also mean to say that she lived a long, beautiful, blameless life. This verse has been read that way by some early interpreters.
And here’s the thing: whether that’s the case or not, at the very least, I want us to see that Sarah’s legacy is determined by her life, not her death. It’s not how she died, or when she died, or even that she died — it’s that she lived. Sarah lived 127 years, and those years mean something.
And when we think about this, it can be both encouraging and challenging, because we all are going to have some number there. Think about this. We will all live some number of years. There’s a good chance that none of us are going to make it to 127, but you will have some number, and whatever the number is, what matters is what we do with that time that we have.
Psalm 90:12 Moses prays, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” and I think Sarah helps us do this. Sarah lived 127 years. And we’re living right now. So our legacy — or whatever you want to call it — our legacy is happening right now. God, make us faithful. [There’s more to say here, but I want us to see this first.]
For now we’ve got to move on. The second thing happening in this chapter is Abraham’s deal with the Hittites.
2. The Deal with the Hittites
This is actually the bulk of the chapter and it’s a little strange. I’ve always been a little puzzled by this part of the story. Basically, what happens is that Abraham, after grieving Sarah’s death, he gets up and goes to the Hittites and wants to buy a piece of property to bury Sarah, and it’s the negotiations over the property that get complicated.
Two Realities Made Clear
Right away in verse 4, we’re reminded two things about Abraham: one is that Abraham is still a nomad. He says first thing to the Hittites, in verse 4, “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you.” So Abraham is still on the road, still living in tents, as he has been for the last 62 years.
The next thing we see is that Abraham, although he is still sojourning, he is sojourning in the land of Canaan, and specifically in the area where the Hittites lived. That’s why he goes to the Hittites to make the deal — he is on their land; in their territory. And what’s interesting here is that back in Genesis 15:19 God tells Abraham straight up that he was going to give him the land of the Hittites. So this land that Abraham is standing on is part of God’s land promise to him, but right now it belongs to the Hittites. So get this: Abraham is buying a chunk of the land from the Hittites that God said he would give him. But the strange part is that the Hittites offered to give him a slice of the land for free but he refuses it as a gift and insists on buying it.
The Hittites, in verse 6, recognize that Abraham is sort of a big deal. And this is key, because it’s another instance, like in Chapters 21 and 14, when Gentile kings recognize God’s blessing on Abraham. These Hittites say to Abraham “you are a prince of God among us” — so here, just take the land. Choose whichever part you want.
But Abraham says no. And then they do this back and forth that takes up most of the chapter, and Abraham insists on buying the land, which he eventually does. Now what’s the point of this?
Why Does Abraham Buy the Land?
One reason Abraham insists on buying the land is because Abraham is determined not to take anything from the nations. We saw that in Genesis 14 when Abraham refused gifts from the King of Sodom. God has blessed Abraham to bless the nations — so he doesn’t want their handouts. That’s one reason.
But another reason Abraham insists on buying the property, and I think the more important reason, is that Abraham wants his acquisition of the land to be indisputable and permanent.
We saw that at the end of Chapter 21 when he and Abimelech made their treaty over the well at Beersheba. The land that God promised Abraham is land that Abraham is beginning to possess by legitimate human negotiations. He doesn’t want to borrow it, he wants to own it. And that’s important.
The Hittites would like it better if this “prince of God” were just a vagabond. They don’t want Abraham to have actual stakes in their territory.
But, see, it’s too late for that. God promised Abraham this land, and what we see here is that Abraham is believing God’s promise by living like it’s going to be true. God said he’d give me the land of Canaan, so I’ll go ahead and start buying it. That’s what is happening here.
By faith, Abraham, because he has a great promise behind him, he’s taking little steps now with a big vision in front of him. And that’s the way to live.
But this only makes sense if we remember where this land is and what Abraham is doing with it.
3. The Land That Was Purchased
This is our last thing to see, and it gets at the important part of the chapter, but first there’s something we should note. There has been a repeated theme going on in Abraham’s story that’s easy to miss: It’s that after every episode where we see the display of Abraham’s faith, it is followed with information about God’s promise of the land.
Repetition of Land in Abraham’s Story
It starts back in Genesis 12:1.
In Genesis 12:1 Abram is told to leave his home and just go to a land that God is going to show him. Just go, God says, and that’s it. And well, Abram trusts God, and obeys, and so he goes, and then after Abraham goes in verses 4–7 that’s when God tells him explicitly that Canaan is the land of promise.
Then in Genesis 13:8–9 when conflict arises between Abram and Lot, Abram doesn’t squabble over the land, but he remembers what God told him, and so he tells Lot to take his pick on where he wants to settle. This is meant to show Abram’s faith in God’s promise. And then right after he does this, God comes to Abram in verses 13–18 and he repeats the land promise to him, but with more intensity. He says: Lift up your eyes, Abram, and see, north and south and east and west, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever (verses 14–15).
Then in Genesis 15:6 we read that Abram, regarding the promise of offspring, believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness, and then again Abram’s faith is followed by the land promise being repeated in verses 18–21.
So every pivotal scene of Abraham’s faith is followed by a reminder that God has promised him land. That is the trend that is going on here.
And well, Chapter 22 is the most pivotal scene of Abraham’s faith, and what happens after it? Chapter 23 — Abraham buys land in Canaan.
This reminds us that one of the most central parts of God’s promise to Abraham is the land. The story keeps bringing us back to this. Now the offspring promise is the non-negotiable. It’s got to happen. And it does happen. But we can’t forget about the land. The land matters.
The Bookends of the Chapter
Now we’ve already seen that the Hittites lived in the land of Canaan — that’s the setting of Chapter 23 — but we should notice how important this is to the chapter. The entire chapter is bookended by this information!
Chapter 23 begins by telling us that Sarah died in “Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), in the land of Canaan.” And then the chapter ends with verse 19, “Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan.”
So we can’t miss this. We’re supposed to know for sure that Abraham is in the land that God has promised him. He’s in the land of Canaan, and he’s determined to buy property in the land of Canaan because he’s determined to bury Sarah in the land of Canaan.
But why? What is this so important? This is the main thing we need to see.
Abraham’s Faith in the Resurrection
Now on one hand, Abraham is determined to bury Sarah in Canaan because this shows that Abraham believes God’s promise about the land. We’ve seen that. Abraham puts his money where his faith is. He believed God’s promise.
But it’s also more than that — because Abraham is not just buying the land to own the land, he is buying the land to bury Sarah. Which means, it’s not just that Abraham is trusting that this land will be his, but he’s also trusting that Sarah is going to be raised from the dead. That’s why it matters where he plants her.
The major theme just below the surface of this chapter is Abraham’s faith in the resurrection.
Remember that last week Pastor Joe read to us from Hebrews 11. The New Testament author of Hebrews read Genesis 22, in Abraham’s story, and said that the reason Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac is because Abraham knew that God could just bring him back to life. Abraham knew God had that resurrecting power! — and my hunch is that the author of Hebrews saw this in Abraham’s faith in more places than just Chapter 22. This is what is going on in Chapter 23, too.
Because it’s one thing to just buy property — Abraham could have just bought more wells in Canaan and buried Sarah wherever. But the repeated point in this chapter is death and burial. It’s that Abraham wants to bury Sarah in Canaan — which means that for Abraham to bury Sarah in Canaan it has something to do with the location, but it has more to do with what he believes is going to happen to Sarah after she dies.
One day Sarah is going to come back to life. One day Sarah will live again. One day she is going to wake up — and when she wakes up, she’ll be in the land that is hers. And this changes everything. The resurrection changes everything.
This Changes Everything
First, it changes the way Abraham grieves. Yes, he mourns and weeps for Sarah, as we saw in verse 2, but he doesn’t stay there. He gets up. And when he gets up, he goes to buy the land. This shows us that Abraham grieves in hope. Death does not have the last say. That is what the resurrection means: Death never has the last say.
And so, this also changes the way we live. Sarah lived 127 years here on this earth; we’re all going to live some set number of years on this earth; but that doesn’t mean we get anxious about that time and try to seize the day and act like there’s no tomorrow. It doesn’t mean that whatever we don’t “get” now is lost forever. In fact, some of the greatest blessings we will ever receive are going to be after our resurrection — like the whole world. One day, Christian, you are going to inherit the whole world! It’s all going to be yours (see 1 Cor 3:21–23; Matt. 5:5).
And so, by all means, “make the best use of the time” now (Eph. 5:16), but don’t fret over missed opportunities — because for the Christian there will always be a tomorrow, and in the most profound way.
Abraham knew that, didn’t he? That was his life! He did not receive the things promised, but he saw them and greeted them from afar; he was a stranger on this earth; he was seeking a homeland, but he knew it wasn’t here, not yet — Abraham desired the better country.
And it’s because he knew that death was not the end (Heb 11:13).
And that means that the most important part of Genesis 23 was not when Abraham bought Sarah a tomb, but it was many years later when Jesus walked out of his.
See, Abraham can say that he owns a tomb, but Jesus can say that he owns death — because he went there himself and he destroyed its power. And Jesus did not negotiate. Death may hurt you, but death cannot have you. Jesus conquered death. Jesus has won the victory, and his victory now belongs to us.
And that’s what we celebrate at this Table.
And the Lord’s Table we remember Jesus’s death — the bread represents his broken body, and the cup represents his blood — and so we remember his death, but we remember that he defeated death! Death does not have the last say. Jesus has the victory.
And if that is your hope this morning, we invite you to eat and drink, and rejoice with us.
Lord Jesus, you have won the victory over death. You paid for our sins on the cross, and then you conquered death in your resurrection, and in this moment we praise you. We recognize your resurrecting power, and we praise you! Lift our hearts and fill us with your hope, in your mighty name, amen.