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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 23

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter records the death of Sarah (Genesis 23:1-3); Abraham’s purchase of a burial place (Genesis 23:4-16); and the burial of the beloved Sarah in the cave of Machpelah (Genesis 23:17-20).

The brash and arrogant assertions that, “This is from the priestly source,”(F1) “This chapter belongs to P,”(F2) etc., which were common in the first third of this century have long ago been repudiated even by the critics. Even while such assertions were common, Alan Richardson denied that they were correct.(F3) More recently (1981), the great Dutch scholar Aalders summed up the “source” allegations thus: “The few evidences that allegedly point to `P’ are so inconsequential that this chapter actually calls the whole theory of divided sources into serious question.”(F4) This should surprise no one. We have repeatedly shouted that “The king is naked” as far as the whole “sources” nonsense is concerned. There are NO prior sources! Moses, the author of Genesis, could have consulted other prior writings, but why should he have done so? Repeatedly, the Bible tells us that “God spake unto Moses.” With a “source” like that, Moses had no need to consult pagan documents, even if any such documents had existed. The Hebrew University in Jerusalem has published to the whole world during this present decade the results of a 5-year computer study, revealing that “a SINGLE author wrote the Pentateuch!” As far as this writer is concerned, the whole divided sources theory is dead. However, like the lie that the disciples of Jesus stole his body, this falsehood also will continue to limp its way through history, and unbelievers will continue to parrot such outdated and disproved theories.

Verses 1-2

“And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years: these were the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiriath-arba (the same is Hebron), in the land of Canaan: and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her, And Abraham rose up from before his dead.”

The first question regarding this is the matter of how long this event occurred after those of the previous chapter. Our conviction that Isaac was about 33 years old at the time would place this event about four years afterward. Leupold thought Sarah died “twenty years” after the offering of Isaac.(F5) Willis placed the interval at “twenty-five years”;(F6) and other scholars differ from both. Our own conviction that the interval was only about four years, while not proved, is strongly supported by the statement of Josephus that, “Now Sarah died a little while after”(F7) the offering of Isaac. In the absence of any other actual testimony, we consider the calculation that Isaac was 33 years of age when Abraham offered him, and that Sarah died about four years later, as safe.

The death of Sarah is the only event of a woman’s death and burial to be recorded in the Bible thus far, indicating the epic importance of Sarah in the divine economy. N.T. references stress her status as “a type of the Jerusalem above which is our mother” (Galatians 4:26 ff). Peter pointed Christian women to the example of Sarah, “whose children ye now are” (1 Peter 3:6). And the author of Hebrews extolled her faith along with that of the greatest of the patriarchs (Hebrews 11:11).

“Kiriath-arba (the same is Hebron)” The allegation that this is an anachronism is ill-founded. As Keil pointed out, Hebron was the original name of this city, that Kiriath-arba was later given to it by Arba the Anakite, and that after the conquest of Canaan by Joshua, the children of Israel did not re-name the city, but only restored its original name.(F8) In the light of this, we should reject the suggestion that this passage has raised any problem whatever with reference to dating Genesis. The old name of Hebron was known for centuries before Moses wrote, and his explanation here that the Kiriath-arba mentioned was called Hebron was perfectly natural. Furthermore, this could well have been the reason that the Jews changed it back to the old name after they conquered Canaan.

“In the land of Canaan” Abraham and his company had evidently moved back to the scene of his earlier residence, following an extended period in Beersheba. At least, it is stated that “Sarah died … in the land of Canaan.” This itself is significant. Her death and burial in Canaan was “the real occupation of the land of Canaan.”(F9) This tied the posterity of Abraham irrevocably to the land of promise.

“Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her” This was done by loud wailing and falling upon the ground, after the customs of the times, and the statement that Abraham “came,” etc., would indicate that he was not actually present for Sarah’s death. He might have been concluding arrangements necessary in the move to Hebron from Beersheba, or he might merely have been in some field or pasture looking after his herds. We cannot know for certain. In either case, it is probable that Sarah’s death came rather quickly.

The history of redemption is focused right here in the record of Sarah’s precious life. It started with the great Protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15, where the “seed of woman” was promised who would crush the head of the serpent (Satan), a promise which by no stretch of imagination can be a reference to Jews racially. It appears again in the supernatural birth of Isaac from the womb of Sarah. And it culminates finally in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ our Lord, from the womb of Mary. We agree with Clarke who pointed out that, “God put more honor upon these two women, Sarah and Mary, than upon all the daughters of Eve besides.”(F10)

“And Abraham rose up from before his dead” This first half of Genesis 23:3 actually pertains to the death and mourning over Sarah. “Rose up” indicates that Abraham rose up from lying or sitting upon the ground, after the ancient oriental custom of mourning the dead. However, mourning could not go on forever. It never can. The tragic end of the life of a loved one never fails to be a traumatic shock to the bereaved, but the part of nobility is that of acceptance in humble submissiveness to the will of God, drying the tears, and confronting the tasks that remain. Similarly, that great successor to Abraham, David, after weeping over the death of the son of Bathsheba, called for a bowl of water, washed his face, commanded food to be set before him, and applied himself to the affairs of the kingdom. How shameful is that response to grief that permits sorrow to overcome the mourner, that renounces all duty, turns resentful against God Himself, and becomes, finally, not only more tragic than death itself but sinful as well.

“Abraham rose up” The burden was upon him. He was compelled to bury Sarah, but where? He might have thought of returning the body to Ur or to Haran his native land, but, no, God had given him the land of Canaan and had sworn by Himself that He would bring Abraham’s posterity into full possession of it after centuries had intervened. And Abraham, the “father of the faithful,” believed it. That faith lay behind his buying at once, at whatever cost, a burial plot for Sarah and others of his family who would follow him in “his own land,” the Promised Land.

Verses 3-6

“And Abraham rose up from before his dead, and spake unto the children of Heth, saying, I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a burying-place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight. And the children of Heth answered Abraham, saying unto him, Hear us, my lord; thou art a prince of God among us: in the choice of our sepulchres bury thy dead; and none of us shall withhold from thee his sepulchre, but that thou mayest bury thy dead.”

“Spake unto the children of Heth” “These were descended from Heth, one of the sons of Canaan, that group as a whole being called the Hittites.”(F11) Francisco, however, alleged that, “These Hittites are of uncertain origin; we can only be sure that the were not Canaanites.”(F12) The view of Whitelaw is preferable, because it harmonizes with Genesis 10:15, which has this: “And Canaan begat Heth.” It is most reasonable that the sons of Heth in this passage refer to the descendants of the Heth who was the son of Canaan.

“I am a stranger and a sojourner” By this, Abraham pointed out that he was a “resident alien”(F13) without any legal rights to own property. The expression “stranger and sojourner” is an idiomatic expression for “resident alien.”

Abraham’s reason for bringing the matter of the purchase of a burying-place to the attention of his neighbors in Hebron was founded in the custom invariably followed in those times of using a mediator, or go-between, in any kind of a commercial transaction.

“This is the first mention of a grave in the Bible.”(F14) The disposal of dead bodies by the rite of honorable entombment has been a characteristic of the Jews of all ages, according to the Roman historian, Tacitus. And indeed, civilized men, generally, all over the earth have preferred burial to cremation as a method of disposing of bodies of the dead.

The children of Heth responded in a most friendly manner to Abraham’s proposal, offering him the choice of any of their sepulchres, but Abraham could not bury Sarah in a borrowed grave belonging to a Canaanite!

“Thou art a prince of God among us” The righteous nobility of Abraham shines in such a compliment. The heathen populations knew that he was God’s man. And moved with sympathy for him, they offered him their burying-places. Kline commented that: “The fact that the Abrahamic community was God’s protectorate was commonly known; and this community was sizeable and its leader wealthy.”(F15)

Verses 7-9

“And Abraham rose up and bowed himself to the people of the land, even to the children of Heth. And he communed 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, that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he hath, which is in the end of his field; for the full price let him give it to me in the midst of you as a possession of a burying-place.”

Note that the “give me,” as used by Abraham in Genesis 23:9, actually means “sell to me,” for he mentioned paying the “full price.” This whole account follows the formal, super-courteous style of bargaining used among the Orientals until this day.

“In the midst of you” indicated that Abraham was talking about a legal transaction to be concluded in the city gate, after the usual custom, and in the presence of witnesses. Note also that Abraham had no desire to purchase the field in which the cave was situated. Wiseman pointed out that “Legal and feudal requirements”(F16) probably lay behind the request to buy only the cave, whereas Ephron insisted on selling the field also. Kline tells what was involved: “Under the old Hittite law code, a landholder continued to be responsible for the dues (taxes) on a recognized unit of property unless he disposed of it in its entirety!”(F17)

Abraham’s proposal to purchase Machpelah had been announced with approval in the city gate, where the rulers of the city customarily sat. And, evidently, Ephron himself, the owner of the desired Machpelah, was actually present. He responded at once.

Verses 10-13

“Now Ephron was sitting in the midst of the children of Heth: and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the audience of the children of Heth, even of all that went in at the gate of his city, saying, Nay, my lord, hear me; the field give I thee, and the cave that is therein, I give to thee; in the presence of the children of my people give I it thee: bury thy dead. And Abraham bowed himself down before the people of the land. And he spake unto Ephron in the audience of the people of the land, saying, But if thou wilt, I pray thee, hear me: I will give the price of the field; take it of me, and I will bury my dead there.”

“This priceless account of an ancient land transaction is an unqualified marvel. Note that Ephron refers to “my people,” and that the city is called “his city” (Genesis 23:10-11). Ephron must be understood as one of the city fathers. Note also that he is too shrewd to be maneuvered into selling part of a field that would have left him still liable for all the taxes. When he said, “I give it thee,” both he and Abraham, as well as the whole audience, knew that a “sale,” not a “gift,” was under consideration. Thus far the deal is agreed upon, except the price!

Verses 14-16

“And Ephron answered Abraham, saying unto him, My lord, hearken unto me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that betwixt me and thee? bury therefore thy dead. And Abraham hearkened unto Ephron; and Abraham weighed to Ephron the silver which he had named in the audience of the children of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, current money with the merchant.”

It would appear to be most likely that Ephron announced the price merely as a starting point for the negotiations which everyone in earshot no doubt expected. By all accounts, 400 shekels of silver was an exorbitant price. “Omri paid 6,000 shekels for the whole site of Samaria, and Jeremiah gave only 17 shekels for a parcel of land probably about the size of Machpelah.”(F18)

However, Abraham merely weighed out the required amount of silver and closed the transaction. Many have commented upon the grace, courtesy and fairness of this whole episode. Adam Clarke’s quaint comment was that, “Had Lord Chesterfield read this account, his good sense would have led him to propose it as a model in all transactions between men and his fellows.”(F19)

“What is that betwixt me and thee … ?” Ephron meant by this: “The land is worth 400 shekels of silver, a mere trifle; what is a small price like that between mighty and wealthy men such as we are?

Verses 17-18

“So the field of Ephron, which was in Machpelah, which was before Mamre, the field, and the cave which was therein, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all the border thereof round about, were made sure unto Abraham for a possession in the presence of the children of Heth, before all that went in at the gate of the city.”

“Which was before Mamre” This expression means “east of Mature.” “Ancient man considered the east to be in front of him.”(F20) The place of Machpelah is still visible today toward Hebron, where a great mosque has been constructed over the cave where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their respective wives, Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah lie entombed. Archeological confirmation of the authenticity of the site, however, is impossible, since all entrances to the actual cave have long been sealed, and no Christian has been allowed in the cave itself for the better half of a millennium. There is little doubt, however, that the grave sites, if not the actual remains, are really there. Deane conjectured that, whether or not the bodies of Abraham, Isaac, and their wives have been preserved, there can be little doubt that, “The embalmed mummy of Jacob may exist in a state of preservation as perfect as that of any Pharaoh of Egypt.”(F21) Notably, Isaac, although one of the great types of Jesus, was not a type in the manner of his burial; that honor pertained to Jacob. Just as Joseph begged for the body of the first “Israel” from Pharaoh; another Joseph begged for the body of the Second Israel (Jesus Christ) from Pilate; and both were buried “mummy style,” as John 19:40 affirms. Neither Jacob nor Jesus was buried in a “shroud.”

Verses 19-20

“And after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre, (the same is Hebron), in the land of Canaan. And the field, and the cave that is therein, were made sure unto Abraham for a possession of a burying-place by the children of Heth.”

Some have marveled that so much is made of this in the Bible, but the importance of it lies in the fact that this was the only part of the literal land of Canaan that Abraham ever owned. Also, his purchase of it at such an exorbitant price showed his faith that God in time would indeed drive out the Canaanites and give the land to the children of Abraham.

That Abraham insisted on buying the place, when free burial grounds were offered, stems from the implications that might have accompanied such a gift. That which God had sworn to “give” Abraham, he would not, under any circumstances, accept as a “gift” from the Canaanites. It was a similar attitude on Abraham’s part that caused him to reject the spoils tendered to him by the king of Sodom. Abraham did not wish to appear OBLIGATED to pagans.

Did Abraham believe in the resurrection of the dead? Certainly, only his absolute confidence in the resurrection enabled him to offer Isaac (Hebrews 11:17-19). “Therefore, we may conclude, that in depositing the body of his beloved wife in the grave, Abraham trusted her soul to God, and looked for a joyful resurrection.”(F22)


One of the so-called “contradictions” in the Bible is related in this purchase of Machpelah from Ephron. Stephen, the N.T. hero, in his final address stated that, “Our fathers were carried over into Shechem, and laid in the sepulchre that Abraham bought for a sum of money of the sons of Emmor (presumably the same as Shechem)” (Acts 7:16). Like all such variations, our failure to understand them stems from the extremely abbreviated record contained in the Bible. Stephen referred to a second purchase of a burial site in Shechem, another place where Abraham had built an altar. It is conjectured that he might have intended it for the family of Keturah. Evidently, however, Keturah’s descendants lost possession of the place. And still later, Jacob repurchased the site once owned by his grandfather. Stephen was surely correct in the statement that “the fathers,” some of them, were surely buried there. Not all the Jews were buried in one cemetery lot! This explanation by Morris(F23) is only one of a number of explanations that might be offered. The thing to remember is that Abraham lived nearly forty years after the burial of Sarah, and that there was plenty of time for him to have done a great many things left out of the sacred record. Therein lies the full explanation of that which is mistakenly thought to be some kind of contradiction. Certainly, none of Stephen’s hearers accused him of having any of his facts wrong, and we are certain that if Stephen’s words had not been strictly true, that evil crowd that stoned him to death would have shouted the error to the highest heaven.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 23". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/genesis-23.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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