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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 23

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes


16. The purchase of Sarah’s tomb ch. 23

Abraham’s purchase of a burial site in the Promised Land demonstrated his intention to remain in Canaan rather than going back to his native homeland. Since he was a sojourner in Canaan his friends probably expected him to bury Sarah back in their home area, namely, Mesopotamia.

The two major events contained in this chapter continue Moses’ emphasis on God’s faithfulness. They do so by recording the death of Abraham’s wife, the mother of his heir, and by showing the beginning of the fulfillment of the land promise that God had given Abraham.

Verses 1-2

Sarah is the only woman whose age at death the Scriptures record (Genesis 23:1). She is also the only woman whose name God changed (Genesis 17:15). This notation of her age illustrates her importance. Isaac was 37 years old when his mother died. Abraham died at the age of 175 (Genesis 25:8), 38 years after Sarah.

Abraham and Sarah had moved back near Hebron after having lived at Beersheba for some time (Genesis 23:2; cf. Genesis 22:19).

"It should be stressed here that the world of the patriarchs was that of a developed and organized society and not what is usually regarded as a simple pastoral-bedouin existence. Throughout Genesis 12-50 there are connections to Mesopotamia and to Egypt as well as negotiations with local political centers (Shechem, Salem and Hebron) as well as Gerar in the Western Negev on a branch of the Coastal Highway.

"Much of the theological relevance of the patriarchs is based upon the fact that there were other more attractive lifestyles available to these early Biblical figures. The option they chose gave them few of the advantages they could have enjoyed elsewhere, especially in Mesopotamia where their family was established. In light of this fact and the great promises made to Abraham during his lifetime, his remark to the leaders of Hebron after the death of his wife, Sarah, takes on new meaning." [Note: Monson, pp. 153-54.]

Verses 3-16

Typically ancient Near Easterners buried family members in their native land. [Note: Ross, "Genesis," p. 66.] Abraham’s desire to bury Sarah in the Promised Land shows that he had turned his back on Mesopotamia forever (Genesis 23:4). Canaan was his adopted homeland.

God had made Abraham a powerful person, which his neighbors acknowledged (Genesis 23:6). [Note: On Abraham as a "mighty prince," see Wiseman, "Abraham . . . Part II: Abraham the Prince," pp. 228-37.]

"Abraham has put himself at the bottom of the social ladder, and they put him at the top." [Note: E. F. Roop, Genesis, p. 154.]

"Their warm and generous reply apparently gave Abraham all he wanted, but permission to bury Sarah was only part of what he had requested. He had asked for a burial plot, not simply for the use of one of their graves. Despite the warmth of their reply, the Hittites, by omitting any mention of this point, probably indicate their reluctance to transfer land to Abraham, for then he would no longer be a landless sojourner." [Note: Wenham, Genesis 16-50, p. 127.]

These Hittites (Hethites) were residents of Canaan, not members of the mighty Hittite Empire that later flourished north of the Promised Land in Syria. [Note: See Bryant G. Wood, "Hittites and Hethites: A Proposed Solution to an Etymological Conundrum," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54:2 (June 2011):239-50.]

Why did Ephron want to sell Abraham the entire plot of ground in which the cave lay rather than just the cave as Abraham requested (Genesis 23:8-11)? Hittite law specified that when a landowner sold only part of his property to someone else the original owner had to continue to pay all taxes on the land. However if he sold the entire tract the new owner was responsible to pay the taxes (cf. 1 Chronicles 21:24). Consequently Ephron held out for the entire tract knowing that Abraham needed to make his purchase quickly so he could bury Sarah. [Note: Barker, p. 134.]

Abraham’s willingness to pay what appears to have been an unusually large price for the land further demonstrates his faith (Genesis 23:15-16). An average field cost four shekels per acre, and garden land cost 40 shekels per acre. [Note: Francis D. Nichol, ed., The Seventy-Day Adventist Bible Commentary, 1:356.] Abraham was willing to pay 400 shekels. Of course, the text does not give the exact area of the property, but it appears to have been relatively small.

"The piece of property was no bargain for Abraham; 400 shekels would be more than a hundred pounds of silver. David paid only one-eighth that amount-50 shekels of silver-for the purchase of the temple site from Araunah (2 Samuel 24:24)." [Note: Hamilton, The Book . . . Chapters 18-50, p. 135.]

Ephron’s responses to Abraham’s requests sound very generous, but he was really making it difficult for Abraham to pay less than his asking price. Ephron’s object may have been to get a present from Abraham for having given him the field and cave that would compensate for the value of the land. Such a gift was customary. On the other hand he may have wanted to preclude Abraham’s offering to pay him less than his asking price (Genesis 23:15). [Note: See Keil and Delitzsch, 1:255-56; Leupold, 2:650; and G. C. Aalders, Genesis , 2:58-59.]

"Did the patriarchs who forsook everything for the sake of the promises go unrewarded? No, answers our narrative. In death they were heirs and no longer ’strangers.’ A very small part of the Promised Land-the grave-belonged to them; therefore they did not have to rest in ’Hittite earth’ or in the grave of a Hittite (cf. Genesis 23:6), which Israel would have considered a hardship difficult to bear." [Note: von Rad, p. 250.]

"At a time when the children of Israel were on their way to take possession of the land, Moses did well to remind them how in faith their forefathers had secured at least ’a grave which was his own property,’ and thus to arouse in them the desire to finish the work of taking into full possession what had so long ago been promised to them." [Note: Leupold, 2:653.]

Verses 17-18

Abraham’s purchase of the cave of Machpelah (lit. double cave, or split cave) indicates his continuing faith in God’s promise to give the land of Canaan to him and his descendants. Similarly Jeremiah purchased property in the Promised Land on the eve of the Babylonian captivity to express his belief that God would bring the Israelites back there eventually (cf. Jeremiah 32:6-15). One does not usually bury his family in a place unless he considers it his home and plans to be there a long time.

Verses 19-20

The writer noted twice that Hebron was within the land of Canaan (Genesis 23:2; Genesis 23:19) and stressed repeatedly that the negotiations for the land were official (Genesis 23:10; Genesis 23:13; Genesis 23:16; Genesis 23:18). There was no doubt that this part of the land now justly belonged to Abraham and his heirs.

"This verse [Genesis 23:20] is a conclusion to Genesis 23:2-19. It seems strange appearing after Genesis 23:19 -which would have been a reasonable note on which to conclude. Its placement here points out that the crucial element in this chapter is not Sarah’s death, but Abraham’s acquisition of land from outsiders. As such, it is a harbinger of things to come." [Note: Hamilton, The Book . . . Chapters 18-50, p. 136.]

"The very fact that Abraham buried Sarah in the land of Canaan is proof of his unwavering faith. Knowing that his descendants would have to endure four hundred years of bitter bondage in a foreign country (Genesis 15:13), he looked beyond that to the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises." [Note: Davis, p. 223.]

Isaac and Jacob as well as Abraham used this burial site. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah were all buried here. Rachel’s tomb was near Bethlehem (lit. house of bread, i.e., granary).

The time of death should be the time when the godly proclaim their faith most loudly in view of our hope in God’s promises.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Genesis 23". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/genesis-23.html. 2012.
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