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Genesis 23:1. The years of the life of Sarah.] Heb. pl. lives. Probably used as the plural of eminence. Some of the Jewish expositors refer the expression to three stages in the life of Sarah.—
Genesis 23:2. Hebron.] Same as Kirjath-Arba. “Here Abraham had resided, and, having been absent some forty years, had returned. This was a most ancient city, the earliest seat of civilised life, having been built seven years before Zoan, the oldest capital of Egypt (Numbers 13:22). It is now a town of some prominence, but chiefly notable for the mosque built over the tomb of Sarah.” (Jacobus.) In the land of Canaan. Hebron was situated in the hill country of Judea, about thirty miles south of Jerusalem.—
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Genesis 23:1-2
ABRAHAM IN THE HOUSE OF MOURNING
Abraham, who had been tried by the word of the Lord, is now tried in the ordinary course of Providence. His wife dies. The desire of his eyes is stricken down by his side. We now find him in the “house of mourning.” He had long known God, and had been familiar with spiritual truth, and therefore would not fail to lay to heart the solemn teachings of such an event as this. What lessons, then, would such a man learn in this “house of mourning?”
I. That in view of the awful fact of death, the littleness of human life is seen. Abraham, at such a time as this, would naturally dwell upon the strange and eventful history of that life which had just closed. Full as it was of wonderful experiences and varied incident, yet, in the face of this awful fact of death, these things seemed as though they had never been. They seemed to depart for ever, like a shadow that passes over a field of corn. When death comes, human life appears to be stripped of all substance, and to be only like the memory of a dream. However long a man may live, truly his days are few and evil. For when time is once gone it matters not how long it has been. All the distinctions which are among men, of learning and ignorance, riches and poverty, high and low estate, vanish before this common lot, mortality. Life passes on quickly to its close, and then, to all human seeming, disappears. How rapid was the succession of events in the life of Sarah! A few chapters back, and we read of her marriage; then of the birth of her child; and now we read the account of her death and funeral. This rapid passing over a long history arises, as we know, from the brevity of Scripture biography; yet herein human life is truly represented. Our life, after all, consists of but a few chapters. A baptism, then a wedding; and pass a few more years at most, then a funeral. Such are the short and simple heads of our mortal story. And when the end comes, what a poor and despicable thing life seems! Abraham learned further:—
II. To realise the fact of his own mortality. “The living know that they shall die.” We all accept the fact of our mortality, but we seldom realise it until death strikes down a near object, and wounds our own heart. When those loved ones die, whose lives have been bound up closely with our own, then death becomes awfully credible. Men tell us of the horror they have felt upon their first sensations of the shock of an earthquake. They felt as if this firm-set earth was no longer to be trusted. They were safe nowhere. And so, when the stroke of death falls upon those whom we have long and deeply loved, the feeling rushes upon us suddenly, that after all this solid life is hollow. Our first thought is, “I may be the next to go.” When Abraham saw his wife lying dead, the thought of his own mortality would be forced upon him as it never had been before. Such is the estimate which must be formed of human life when seen from this side. But a godly man could not rest in such a despairing view of human life and destiny. Therefore he learned also:—
III. To feel that there is a life beyond. Abraham lived the life of faith. He knew that his soul was linked with the ever-living God who would be the eternal possession of those who trust in Him. The soul that partakes of the Divine nature cannot die. Abraham had a fixed belief in a future life, but there are moments when such a belief becomes more intense and real. When he came to mourn and weep for Sarah, he would not merely know, but feel the truth of an immortality. Our conviction of a future life does not depend upon reasoning. We can reason ourselves just as easily into the opposite conclusion. There is no absurdity in supposing the mind altogether to perish. Why should we not go back again to that original nothing whence we came? It is, after all, not the intellect but the heart that believes. Our affections will not allow us to believe that our loved ones are clean gone for ever. When we mourn for the dead, the immortal part of us sends out its feelers for that part which is severed and gone. That grief which blinds the eyes with tears, does, at the same time, open the eyes of the soul to see beyond into the invisible world. Sorrow pierces the veil, and when all is lost here that other world becomes more real. Again, Abraham learned:—
IV. The sacredness of sorrow for the dead. Abraham believed in God; had submitted to His will; had resolved to obey that will, even when it seemed cruel. He was a stern saint, a man of iron determination, who would not shrink from the most difficult duties in the service of his God. Yet this strong man weeps. He feels that it is right to weep—that religion has not destroyed, but rather intensified his humanity. He must pay nature her tribute. The example of those saints whose lives are recorded in the Bible shows us that sorrow for the dead is consistent with perfect submission to the will of God. “Joseph,” we are told, “lifted up his voice and wept.” We read of the tears of Jacob and of Peter. And even the Lord Jesus, who was free from the sins of our nature, but possessed of its power to feel sorrow, wept over the grave of Lazarus. Piety towards God does not condemn us to lose our humanity. That religion which seeks to eradicate the essential qualities of human nature is not of God. Cloistered virtue, which aims to stifle the domestic affections, has no encouragement from the Bible. True to the facts of human nature, that Book shows us how those who have lived nearest to God have had the largest heart towards mankind. Abraham, the chief example of strong and unstaggering faith, weeps for his dead. The saint had not destroyed the man. The heart, which has the power to believe, has also the power to suffer.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Genesis 23:1. It is instructive to observe the time of her death. She was younger by ten years than Abraham, and yet died thirty-eight years before him. Human life is a subject of very uncertain calculation. God often takes the youngest before the eldest. She lived, however, thirty-seven years after the birth of Isaac, to a good old age, and went home as a shock of corn ripe in its season.—(Fuller.)
Few incidents in Sarah’s life are recorded. This tells much for the excellence of her character, as it implies the sober and noiseless manner in which she discharged her duties in the retired ways of domestic life. There the virtues of a woman’s character shine to the most advantage.
1. The pattern-woman (1 Peter 3:6).
2. The mother of the Hebrew people.
3. The mother of Isaac, in whom the promised seed was to be called. In the history of redemption she was second in importance only to the mother of our Lord.
Her name was significant of her illustrious and distinguished fame. To Abraham, from the beginning of his pilgrimage, she was Sarai—my princess. So he delighted affectionately to honour her. To the Church at large, the vast multitude of Abraham’s believing children, she is Sarah—the princess—to whom, as to a princess, they are all to look, and whom in all generations they are to call blessed (Genesis 17:16-17). Yet the tenour of her life was very private, unostentatious, and unassuming. She tarried at home. The leading features of her character, which the word of inspiration commends, were these: her holy and unadorned simplicity; her meek and quiet spirit—an ornament in the sight of God of great price; and her believing subjection to a believing husband (1 Peter 3:1-6). She was devoted to Abraham. Nor was it merely in the blindness of natural and fond affection that she waited on him, but with an intelligent apprehension and appreciation of his high standing, as the friend of God and the heir of the covenant.—(Candlish.)
Genesis 23:2. Death is the solemn thought of the world. Let it be ever so vulgarized or common, still, beneath the tent of the eastern emir or in the crowded cemeteries of the capital, death is an awful arresting thing. While civilisation has robbed other horrors of their wonder, death is still the insoluble event. But here we have something more than death—we have separation. Abraham and Sarah had lived together for long, but they were parted at last. The shock was broken in Abraham’s case by its naturalness. The dissolution of the aged is expected; and often the survivor dies soon.—(Robertson.)
Consider the place of her death. It was anciently called Kirjath-Arba, afterwards Hebron, situated in the plain of Mamre, where Abraham had lived more than twenty years before he went into the land of the Philistines, and whither he had since returned. Here Sarah died, and here Abraham “mourned” for her. We may take notice of the forms of it. He “came to mourn,” i.e., he came into her tent where she died, and looked at her dead body; his eye affected his heart. There was none of that false delicacy of modern times which shuns to see or attend the burial of near relations. Let him see her, and let him weep—it is the last tribute of affection which he will be able in that manner to pay her. We should also notice the sincerity of it; he “wept.” Many affect to mourn who do not weep; but Abraham both mourned and wept. Religion does not stop the course of nature, though it moderates it, and by inspiring the hope of a blessed resurrection, prevents our being swallowed up of overmuch sorrow.—(Fuller.)
In those tears of Abraham was anguish; but there might have been remorse. Apparently Abraham had nothing to reproach himself with. Quarrels in his married life are recorded, but in all he behaved with tenderness, concession, and dignity. In all things he had supported and cherished his wife, bearing, like a strong man, the burdens of the weak. But oh! let us beware. There are bitter recollections which enhance the sorrow of bereavement and change it into agony—recollections which are repeated to us in words which remorse will not cease to echo for ever and ever. “Oh, if they would but come again, I’d never grieve them more.” It is this which makes tears scald. To how many a grown heart have not those childish words of the infant hymn gone home, sharp with an undying pang!—(Robertson.)
The true mourning a sanctified feeling of death.
1. A fellow-feeling of death, with the dead.
2. An anticipation of death, or a living preparation for one’s own death.
3. A believing sense of the end or destination of death, to be made useful to the life.—(Lange.)
Is the believer the whole plot or fiemerely suffered, by way of indulgence to sorrow? The assurance that he may sorrow without sinning—that he may indulge his grief without offence—is an unspeakable consolation. The fact that Abraham “came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her”—still more the fact that “Jesus wept”—is as oil poured into the wounds of the heart’s lacerated and torn affections. But still more complete is the adaptation of the Gospel to man’s nature and man’s trials. The Patriarch evidently made conscience of his mourning. His sighs and tears were not merely regarded by him as lawful, for the relief of his overcharged and overburdened soul. Even into this department of his experience he carried his sense of obligation. In a religious and spiritual sense he made a business of his grief. He went about the indulgence of it as a work of faith. He allotted to it a fixed and definite time. He came to Sarah’s tent for the express purpose. He gave up for this work his other avocations and employments. His occupation was “to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.” There is, therefore, a time to weep; there is a time to mourn. There is a season during which to mourn and weep is not merely the allowed license or tolerated weakness of the believer, but his proper business, the very exercise to which he is called. This instance of Abraham is not only a warrant and precedent, but a binding and authoritative example. It not merely sanctions a liberty; it imposes an obligation.—(Candlish.)
Genesis 23:3. Stood up from before his dead.] “Abraham must be thought of as ‘weeping over the face’ of Sarah (2 Kings 13:14), and he rise sup from the face of his dead.” (Alford.) The sons of Heth. Descendants of Heth, the son of Canaan, a grandson of Ham, elsewhere called the Hittites. They were Canaanites. From them Esau took wives. (Genesis 26:34-35.)—
Genesis 23:6. My lord.] A title of respect equivalent to our sir. A mighty prince. Heb. A prince of God. The Heb. affixed the name of God to words to denote excellence of the superlative degree. Thus great mountains, great cedars, are called “mountains of God,” “cedars of God.” (Genesis 30:8; Psalms 80:10.)
Genesis 23:8. If it be your mind.] Heb. If it be with your soul. Soul often occurs in the O.T. in the sense of will, or desire, or inclination. (Psalms 27:12; Psalms 105:22.)—
Genesis 23:9. The cave of Machpelah.] In this eastern land it was customary to bury in caves, natural or artificial. Machpelah. Heb. The two-fold cave. The expression, though descriptive of its form, is here used as a proper name. The name was also applied to the whole field, including the cave. A mosque is now built over the spot. In the end of his field. Field denotes a larger extent of land than it does with us, and frequently signifies a territory, or large tract of country. “Jacob fled to the country of Syria.” Heb. “field of Syria.” For as much money as it is worth. Heb. For full silver, i.e., full money. The word silver is often used by the sacred writers to signify money.—
Genesis 23:11. The field give I thee, and the cave that is therein.] This was a formal expression after the Oriental fashion, refusing to name a fixed price, and offering as a gift, while at the same time expecting an equivalent for it.—
Genesis 23:16. Shekels.] From the verb shakal, to weigh. Hence is derived the English word scales. Among the Jews shekel was used both for a weight and a coin. There were then no stamped coins. The first use of coins has been ascribed to the Phœnicians. Current money with the merchant. It is still the custom to weigh money in the East, even where it is stamped, in order to see if it is of full weight; “current money with the merchant.”—
Genesis 23:17. And 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 borders round about.] “This minute specification seems like a recital of the very formula of sale, and shows the solemn significance of the whole proceeding. By the expression which was in (the) Machpelah, it would seem as if the name belonged not to the cave only, but also to the district or property.” (Alford.) Before Mamre. Probably signifies to the eastward of it. Were made sure. Heb. Stood for a possession. No mention is made of any document, and the title was probably established by a public proclamation of the sale, made in the gate.
Genesis 23:20. And the field, and the cave that is therein, were made sure unto Abraham for a possession.] The validity of his title is again recited on account of the importance of the fact.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Genesis 23:3-20
ABRAHAM BURYING HIS DEAD
This portion is remarkable in several respects. Here we have the first record of property in land, of purchase, of silver employed as money, and of mourning for the dead, and of burial. Here are the chief heads of human business, and the old, old fashion of mortality brought vividly before us. Abraham makes arrangements for the purchase of a family grave, and buries his wife in peace. It will be instructive to consider the Patriarch so engaged from three points of view:—
I. Consider him as a man. He did, on this occasion, what every right-minded man would feel bound to do. The necessities of human life and destiny cast certain duties upon men. Abraham must “bury his dead out of his sight” (Genesis 23:4). He feels the loathsomeness of death. Dishonour has fallen upon the body bereft of life, and it must be hidden in the tomb from the eyes of all living. Abraham had to perform a melancholy duty towards the dead body of his dear wife. He must provide a grave for her, and secure the possession of it so that her body shall rest undisturbed. She must have a funeral worthy of her station in life, aud of the love which he bare to her. In all this Abraham was doing a human duty, and he did it affectionately and in a spirit of high-minded self-respect. Considered merely as a man, he wins our admiration for those sentiments and feelings of humanity which are so remarkably evident in this narrative.
II. Consider him as a man of business. The transaction with the children of Heth sets forth the character of Abraham regarded as a man of business.
1. His independence. Not that scornful spirit of independence which has its root in pride, and despises others; but that high-minded feeling by which a man refuses, without sufficient necessity, to be under an obligation to his fellow man. In this case such an obligation might afterwards have proved inconvenient to Abraham, and have injured the influence of his character. He must deal with these strangers as a man of business ought to deal, honestly and in a healthy spirit of independence. The children of Heth offer the land for a sepulchre as a gift. (Genesis 23:6.) This is supposed to have been an instance of extraordinary liberality on their part, but the customs of eastern nations forbid such a supposition. Their custom was, and still is, to exchange gifts; but they were gifts which laid the party receiving them under an obligation to give back at least as much again. In the words of Ephron to Abraham, “Nay, my lord, the field give I thee, and the cave that is therein I give it thee” (Genesis 23:11), we have simply a conventional mode of speech—one of those made and provided forms which must be held to mean much less than they express. Abraham asks for a burying-place, and it is offered as a gift. (Genesis 23:4; Genesis 23:6.) He understands what is really meant, refuses the offer, and pays for the ground. Ephron makes a show of reluctance, but at length consents to receive payment. This was all well understood as being a common mode of dealing. Abraham was a just man, and at the same time prudent. It would not be expedient for him to be under an obligation to these people. Besides, he was rich and could well afford to pay, and why should he receive? He might receive such a gift from a dear friend, when no misunderstanding could arise, but not from strangers. It was expedient for him to preserve a manly spirit of independence. In dealing with the world we must be “wise as serpents” as well as “harmless as doves”—innocence must be regulated and guided by Wisdom
2. His exactness. Abraham takes great care to have the contract drawn up in due form, for the 17th and 18th verses are like an extract from a legal document. They read like a deed of conveyance. The boundaries of the field are accurately defined, and all the perquisites belonging to it—the trees and the cave. This exactness was the product of a religious feeling. Abraham was desirous to prevent future misunderstandings. When these arise it is well to quell them by a spirit of generosity and conciliation, but it is far better to contrive so that they shall not arise. In order to “live peaceably with all men” it is well that we should take care that, as far as in us lies, there shall be no cause for dispute. Men of business should be exact in all their dealings, for without attention to this the character even of a good man will suffer in the estimation of the world.
3. His courtesy. “Abraham stood up from before his dead, and spake unto the sons of Heth.” (Genesis 23:3.) He had that refined politeness which enabled him to control his emotions before strangers. When the apparently generous offer was made him, “Abraham stood up and bowed himself to the children of Heth.” There is a certain reverence which is due from man to man, and the observance of even the forms of it add a grace and charm to human life. A refined and courteous behaviour acts like oil in diminishing the friction of the social machine. The conventional forms which society has stamped with its approval are often used as mere meaningless phrases, but they are the survival of a time when they possessed solid worth and represented realities. True godliness would put meaning into them. The courtesy of Abraham was the result of a true feeling, not a mere form of salutation and address. The cultivation of such a courtesy would ennoble every transaction of human business.
III. Consider him as a godly man. Abraham acts throughout as one who trusted in God, and whose soul was united to Him for ever. In the light of this incident his conduct cannot be explained on the supposition that he looked only for temporal promises. The eye of his faith saw things “afar off,” yet to be realised in a life beyond life.
1. He believed in immortality. This is evident by his care that the dead should have decent and honourable burial. Why should there be such concern for the dead body if all is over and ended—if the being that inhabited it is blotted out of existence? This reverence for the dead shows that the mortal frame was once tenanted by spirit, and that that spirit continues to live on, though no longer discerned by men in the flesh. The honour paid to the dead by early nations, especially by the Egyptians, proves that they had a secret glimmer of immortality. Children do not believe that the dead are clean gone for ever, but speak of them as living and acting still. So it was in the childhood of the world. Unsophisticated nature accepts the doctrine of an immortal life. Abraham did not believe that his departed wife had done with God for ever, and therefore he paid honour to the temple where her consecrated soul once dwelt.
2. He believed that God would grant his posterity to inherit the land. Abraham knew that God had designed him to be the commencement of a great history, that his children should form a mighty nation in the land of Canaan, and dwell therein for ever. Sarah’s burial in that land was a kind of earnest of that inheritance—a sort of consecration of the soil. What a melancholy thought, that it should thus be consecrated by a grave!
3. He believed in a future state of blessedness for the righteous. When first called of God he went out on the faith of receiving an inheritance. When he came to Canaan he was told that that country should be his inheritance. Again he was told that while his seed four hundred years afterwards should possess the land, he himself was to have no inheritance in it on this side of the grave—he was to “go to his fathers” (Genesis 15:15). Still, there was the outstanding promise that he was to inherit the land. It would seem as if Abraham was deceived, that he was disappointed of his hope. But God was leading him on to higher things—teaching him to look away from this world. He was learning to see that the promise could only be fully realised in “a better country, that is, a heavenly.” True, the earthly land of promise was first made holy by a grave. But this world is to all men more a grave than a home, for in it life’s hopes and promises are buried, so that they might come forth purified and know a better resurrection. The earthly Canaan was but a land of graves for successive generations of Abraham’s children. There is nothing bright, nothing sure or abiding, but heaven. To that blessed land Abraham looked forward. He laid his wife to rest in hope, and though he himself “received not the promises,” he was persuaded that they would be fulfilled in a measure far beyond all earthly hope. He knew that there was only one city which had the everlasting foundations. Faith in God could not be sufficiently satisfied and rewarded by any earthly good. The interest of the righteous in God’s inheritance is not for a few short years, but for ever.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Genesis 23:3. His dead. So she is called eight several times in this chapter, to note that death makes not any such divorce between godly couples and friends, but that there remains still a blessed conjunction betwixt them, which is founded in the hope of a happy resurrection. Job’s children were still his, even after they were dead and buried. How else could it be said, that God gave Job twice as much of everything as he had before” (Job 42:10; Job 42:13), since he had afterwards but his first number of children, viz., “seven sons and three daughters?” (Trapp.)
The expression denotes the moderation of his grief, and the comparative ease with which, from a principle of piety, he was enabled to subdue his emotions and to rise up and engage in the active duties of life. As there is a time for weeping, so there is a time to refrain from weeping, and it is well there is. The necessary cases connected with our condition in this world are a merciful means of raising us from the torpor of melancholy.—(Bush.)
Genesis 23:4. He was a “stranger,” not one belonging to their race; a “sojourner,” a dweller in the land, not a mere visitor or passing traveller. The former explains why he has no burial place; the latter why he asks to purchase one.
The soil had been made over to Abraham by the Covenant of God, and yet he confesses that he was a stranger and pilgrim in the land. We can have no enduring possession in this world. David, though a wealthy man and a king, made the same confession. (Psalms 39:11.)
It is the acknowledgement that he here makes to the sons of Heth that is referred to in Hebrews 11:13 : “They confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” Abraham, however, did not sustain this character alone. Israel, when put in possession of the land, were taught to view themselves in the same light: “Ye are strangers and sojourners with me.” (Leviticus 25:23.) But Abraham’s confession, though true at all times, was peculiarly true and striking when thus uttered at the grave of Sarah. Never does the impression of this truth come upon us with such force; never do we feel the ties that bind us to the earth so loosened, so nearly rent asunder, as when we stand by the grave of those we love. However at other and happier times we may forget the frail tenure by which we hold this earthly tabernacle, we are strongly impressed with the conviction then. We then, indeed, “know the heart of a stranger,” and wonder that we have ever felt domesticated here on earth, where there is so much sin and suffering, so little stability and peace. Would that we could carry this abiding conviction along with us into the daily business of life! How little influence would its trials and disappointments possess over us! How much internal peace would it bestow to feel that we were “strangers and pilgrims” on earth, and that soon, amid the comforts of our Father’s house, we should smile at the little disquietudes of the way.—(Bush.)
All men are pilgrims on earth, for they pass on through life driven by an irresistible power. But believers in God are also strangers. Their true home is not here. They are not of this world.
To-day it is fair, the next day there may be the thundering storm: to-day I may want for nothing: to-morrow I may be like Jacob, with nothing but a stone for my pillow and the heavens for my curtains. But what a happy thought it is!—though we know not where the road winds, we know where it ends. It is the straightest way to heaven to go round about. Israel’s forty years wanderings were, after all, the nearest path to Canaan. We may have to go through trial and affliction: the pilgrimage may be a tiresome one, but it is safe. We cannot trace the river upon which we are sailing, but we know it ends in the floods of bliss at last. We cannot track the roads; but we know that they all meet in the great metropolis of heaven, in the centre of God’s universe. God help us to pursue the true pilgrimage of a pious life.—(Spurgeon).
A father with his little son is journeying overland to California; and when at night he pitches his tent in some pleasant valley, the child is charmed with the spot, and begs his father to rear a house and remain there; and he begins to make a little fence about the tent, and digs up the wild flowers, and plants them within the enclosure. But the father says, “No, my son! Our home is far distant. Let these things go; for to-morrow we must depart.” Now God is taking us, His children, as pilgrims and strangers homeward; but we desire to build here, and must be often overthrown before we can learn to seek “the city that hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”—(Beecher).
“Bury my dead out of my sight” has been a sad necessity for all living, since mortality has made war on life. See the triumphs of death! The faces of our friends, which to look upon was a delight, must now be disfigured in the corruption of the tomb. God changes their countenance and sends them away. The beauty which affection doted upon has disappeared; and those who lately were the desire of our eyes have now become a loathing unto all flesh. She whom Abraham could not bear that others should look upon with unholy desire must now be delivered over to the possession of Death. Let the beautiful, the gay, and the vain think of this, and remember the words, “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.”
Raised upon the triumphs of death are the triumphs of the resurrection. The “body of our humiliation” shall be charged till it becomes like unto the “glorious body” of Him who has vanquished death.
What disarrays like death? It defaces the fascination of the beautiful. It breaks the lamp of the wise. It withers the strength of the mighty. It snatches the store of the rich. Kings are stripped of trapping, trophy, treasure; “their glory shall not descend after them.”—(R. W. Hamilton.)
Genesis 23:5-6. The reply of the children of Heth is deeply respectful to Abraham, and confers on him an unusual favour—admission for his dead into the family sepulchres of the inhabitants: but it does not meet the point at which the request had aimed. They viewed Abraham as enjoying in a special manner the Divine favour, and possibly, as Kalisch suggests, regarded his residing among them as a protection and safeguard against Divine inflictions: compare Abimelech’s confession. (Ch. Genesis 21:22.) They therefore repudiate his description of himself as a stranger and a sojourner, and manifest a wish to incorporate him among themselves. He, therefore, while courteously acknowledging their favourable proposal, now makes known to them his full mind on the matter. His description of himself as a stranger and a sojourner had not been given at random: it had its deep foundation in truth, and was not to be complimented away, but to be adhered to and acted on.—(Alford.)
Genesis 23:7. The politeness of Abraham may be seen exemplified among the highest and the lowest of the people of the East; in this respect nature seems to have done for them what art has done for others. With what grace do all classes bow on receiving a favour, or in paying their respects to a superior! Sometimes they bow down to the ground; at other times they put their hands on their bosoms, and gently incline the head; they also put the right hand on the face in a longitudinal position, and sometimes give a long and graceful sweep with the right hand from the forehead to the ground.—(Roberts.)
Courtesy smooths the business of human life, and even goes very far towards taking away the grossness from things evil.
Henry IV. of France was standing one day with some of his courtiers at the entrance of a village, and a poor man passing by bowed down to the very ground; and the king, with great condescension, returned his salutation just in the same manner; at which one of his attendants ventured to express his surprise, when the monarch justly replied to him—“Would you have your king exceeded in politeness by one of the lowest of his subjects?”
Courtesy to noble minds is not only to be regarded as a gift, but a means of purchase to buy men out of their own liberty. Violence and compulsion are not half so dangerous; these besiege us openly, give us leave to look to ourselves, to collect our forces, and refortify when we are sensible of our own weakness; but the other undermines us by a fawning stratagem, and, if we be enemies, they make us lay down our weapons, and take up love.
Genesis 23:8-9. This exactitude in business was of more religious importance than at first sight appears. It was a means of preventing future misunderstandings. Quarrels arise often from false delicacy. It is painful to speak of terms, to introduce into questions especially so delicate as this of bartering and bargaining about money. One party in an agreement knows he means generously, and trusts the other. But each forms a different estimate of rights; one exaggerates, the other depreciates the service done. It is from such undefined boundaries and limitations, from non-distinctness between the mine and the thine, from the use of such phrases as “what you please,” that quarrels and dissensions most frequently occur. Therefore Abraham reads a lesson to men of business, and to those whose habits are not those of business. Doubtless there is a Christian way of bearing the consequences of neglect—it is, not to dispute at all; but it is better, if possible, to arrange so that no dispute should arise; and Abraham says as it were to each of us, Let every agreement be distinctly and accurately made, for the sake, not of interest, but peace and charity.—(Robertson.)
Civility, courtesy, and generosity adorn religion. The plainness of Christianity is not a rude and insolent one; it stands aloof from flattery, but not from obliging behaviour. Some also are very courteous to strangers, are very much the reverse to those about them; but Abraham’s behaviour to his neighbours is no less respectful than it was to the three strangers who called at his tent.—(Fuller.)
Machpelah. The term means double—a double cave, as it is. The name applied to the whole plot or field, including the cave, and sometimes is limited to the cave itself. The mosque now built over the spot is at the base of a rocky slope looking toward the plain of Mamre, and thus in view of Abraham’s encampment. The building was originally a Christian church, as its structure shows, and was at a later time converted into a mosque. Within the walls are the sacred shrines or monuments of the patriarchal family, in honour of the dead who are buried beneath. A chapel is built around each of these tombs, and is entered through a gateway of the railing, as in modern cathedrals. There are six shrines: those of Abraham and Sarah, the first pair, are in the inner portico,—the former in a recess to the right, the latter to the left, both closed by silver gates. “The chamber is cased in marble. The so-called tomb is a sarcophagus about six feet in height, built up of plastered stone or marble, and hung with three carpets of green and gold. Further on, and within the walls of the mosque, are the shrines of Isaac and Rebekah, with less style, while those of Jacob and Leah are in a separate cloister opposite the entrance of the mosque. All these are what the Biblical narrative would lead us to expect, and there is the evidence that the Mohammedans have carefully guarded these sacred spots, and they stand as the confirmation of our Christian faith. The mosque is called the Great Haram.” (See Stanley’s “History of the Jewish Church.”—(Jacobus.)
Genesis 23:10-12. Bargains and covenants used anciently to be entered into and solemnly ratified in the gates of the cities, from the ease of procuring witnesses among the crowds that resorted thither, written documents being then but little in vogue. It was especially of importance to Abraham that the purchase should be known and ratified. Had he accepted the sepulchre as a present, or bought it in a private way, his title to it might at some subsequent period have been disputed, and his descendants been deprived of that which he was anxious of securing to them. But all fears of this kind were prevented by the publicity of the transaction. The chief persons of the city were not only witnesses of it, but agents, by whose mediation Ephron was induced to conclude the bargain. Being witnessed, moreover, by all who went in or out of the gate of the city, there was little likelihood, after possession was once taken, that any doubt would ever arise respecting the transfer of the property, or the title of Abraham’s posterity to possess it.—(Bush.)
Ephron proposes to give the land. This, however, was only after the Oriental fashion of declining a price, the rather to put one under greater obligation and expecting a full equivalent, either in money or in service. We have often found among the people a refusal to name a fixed price, especially for any service done, expecting more by putting it upon your honour. Besides, it is in true Oriental style to pretend to the greatest liberality, which you find to be only an exaggerated manner of speech. Ephron expressed himself as willing to be bound by this free offer, “in the presence of these witnesses.” Abraham being known as rich and powerful, there was the greater motive with Ephron to waive a fixed price.—(Jacobus.)
It is well not to lie under any unnecessary obligations to the children of this world. By a wise caution in this regard, the righteous man preserves the full influence of his character.
Genesis 23:13-16. If thou wilt hear me. The language is abrupt, being spoken in the heat of excitement. I give silver. “I have given,” in the original, that is, I have determined to pay the full price. If the Eastern giver was liberal, the receiver was penetrated with an equal sense of the obligation conferred, and a like determination to make an equivalent return.—(Murphy.)
The traffic and purchase of Abraham, throughout, a testimony of Israelitish prudence and foresight, but free from all Jewish meanness and covetousness.—(Lange.)
The gradual development of money, from the weighing of the nobler metals to stamped coins, has had an important influence upon the history of mankind.
Observe, also, how courteous phrases contain a higher excellence than they mean. “What is that betwixt me and thee?” The children of Heth had no intention whatever of being taken at their word, any more than a man has now when he calls himself your humble servant, or bids you command him. We must go back to an earlier age when phrases were coined and meant something—when gifts were gifts and nothing was hoped for in return, in order to catch the life that was once in our conventional phraseology. So now language preserves, as marble preserves shells of hoar antiquity, the petrified phrases of a charity and humbleness which once were living. They are dead, but they do at least this—they keep up memorials of what should be; so that the world, in its daily language of politeness, has a record of its duty. Take those phrases, redeem them from death, live the life that was once in them. Let every man be as humble, as faithful, as obedient as his language professes, and the kingdom of God has come!—(Robertson.)
Genesis 23:17. Abraham had confidence that God would make sure the land to his posterity after him, yet he uses his own prudence and foresight. The promises of God do not preclude the use of human means.
The first real estate property of the patriarchs was a grave. This is the only good which they buy from the world—the only enduring thing they find here below. In that sepulchre Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, were laid; there Jacob laid Leah, and there Jacob himself would rest after his death, even in death itself a confessor of his faith in the promise. This place of the dead becomes the punctum saliens of the possession of the promised land. It was designedly thus minutely described, as the glorious acquisition of the ancestors of Israel. It was indeed the bond which ever bound the descendants of Abraham in Egypt to the land of promise, drew with a magnetic force their desires thither, and, collected in Canaan, they should know where the ashes of their fathers rested, and that they are called to inherit the promise for which their fathers were here laid in the grave.—(Delitzsch.)
The cave of Machpelah became for the Israelites the sacred grave of the old covenant, which they won again with the conquest of Canaan, just as the Christians in the Crusades reconquered the sacred grave of the new covenant, and with it Palestine. And the Christians also, like the Jews, have lost again their sacred grave and their holy land, because they have not inwardly adhered sufficiently to the faith of their fathers, who beyond the sacred grave looked for the eternal city of God, because they have sought too much “the living among the dead.” Even now the last desire of the orthodox Jews is for a grave at Jerusalem, in Canaan.—(Lange.)
Genesis 23:17-18. Throughout the above transaction there was much more in the mind of Abraham than was known to the people with whom he was dealing. The immediate and ostensible reason for making the purchase was to procure a place of interment for his wife; but he had others no less important. One of these was to express his confidence in the Divine promise. God had promised to him and to his seed the land wherein he sojourned; but Abraham had continued there till this time without gaining in it so much as one foot of land. Yet it was not possible that the promise could fail. He was as much assured that it should be fulfilled as if he had seen its actual accomplishment. Under this conviction, he purchased the field as a pledge and earnest of his future inheritance. A similar compact, made with precisely the same view, occurs in the prophecies of Jeremiah (Ch. Genesis 33:6-16, Genesis 42-44). Having their burying-place in Canaan, there their bones were to be laid with the bones of their father Abraham, and this was the most likely means of keeping alive in every succeeding generation the hope of ultimately possessing the whole land. (Bush.)
Genesis 23:19-20. The confirmation of his title is here repeated. It was a most important step, and a great fact in the history. Abraham, as father of the faithful—he to whom the Holy Land had been promised in covenant—had declared his faith in the promise, and buried his dead on the soil, to commend his faith to his descendants. Were made sure. Here rendered in the Greek was confirmed. “It stood” is also expressive, as we say it stood in his name, or the transaction stood. The mosque, Al Haram, as he saw it, has one minaret on each of two oblique corners of the walled inclosure. The walls, as seen from the filthy narrow streets, are high, solid and ancient in appearance, having the old bevelled bordering. As seen from the hill, the building proper occupies only a third or fourth part of the enclosure, and stands at one corner. On one side of the outer walls are eight pilasters and two buttresses. The masonry bears all the marks of the most ancient Jewish architecture, and Robinson is confident that it was erected before the downfall of the nation. Josephus’ account agrees with this view. For a diagram of this noble monument of sacred antiquity, see Stanley’s Lectures on the Jewish Church.—(Jacobus.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Genesis 23". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30