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Bible Commentaries

The Pulpit Commentaries
Genesis 23

 

 

Verses 1-20

EXPOSITION

Genesis 23:1

And Sarah was an hundred and seven and twenty years old (literally, and the lives of Sarah were an hundred and twenty and seven years); so that Isaac must have been thirty-seven, having been born in his mother's ninetieth year. Sarah, as the wife of Abraham and the mother of believers (Isaiah 51:2; 1 Peter 3:6), is the only woman whose age is mentioned in Scripture. These were the years of the life of Sarah—an emphatic repetition designed to impress the Israelitish mind with the importance of remembering the age of their ancestress.

Genesis 23:2

And Sarah died in Kirjath-arba—or city of Arba, Abraham having again removed thither after an absence of nearly forty years, during which interval Murphy thinks the reign of Arba the Anakite may have commenced, though Keil postpones it to a later period (cf. Joshua 14:15). The same is Hebron—the Original name of the city, which was supplanted by that of Kir-jath-arba, but restored at the conquest (Keil, Hengstenberg, Murphy; vide Genesis 13:18) in the land of Canaan—indicating that the writer was not then in Palestine ('Speaker's Commentary'); perhaps rather designed to emphasize the circumstance that Sarah's death occurred not in the Philistines' country, but in the promised land (Rosenmüller, Keil, Murphy). And Abraham came—or went; ἤλθε (LXX.), venit (Vulgate); not as if he had been absent at her death (Calvin), either in Beersheba, where he retained a location (Clarke), or in Gerar, whither he had gone to sell the lands and other properties he held there (Luther), or in the pasture grounds adjoining Hebron (Keil, Murphy)'; but as addressing himself to the work of mourning for his deceased wife (Vatablus, Rosenmüller), or perhaps as going into Sarah's tent (Maimonides, Ainsworth, Wordsworth, 'Speaker's Commentary')—to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her. "To arrange for the customary mourning ceremony" (Keil); the first verb, סָפַד (cf. σφαδάζω), referring to the beating of the breast as a sign of grief (cf. 1 Kings 14:13); and the second, בָּכָה, to flow by drops, intimating a quieter and more moderate sorrow. Beyond sitting on the ground and weeping in presence of (or upon the face of) the dead, no other rites are mentioned as having been observed by Abraham; though afterwards, as practiced among the Hebrews, Egyptians, and other nations of antiquity, mourning for the dead developed into an elaborate ritual, including such ceremonies as rending the garments, shaving the head, wearing sackcloth, covering the head with dust and ashes (vide 2 Samuel 3:31, 2 Samuel 3:35; 2 Samuel 21:10; Job 1:20; Job 2:12; Job 16:15, Job 16:16). Cf. the mourning for Patroclus ('Il.,' 19:211-213).

Genesis 23:3

And Abraham stood up—during the days of mourning he had been sitting on the ground; and now, his grief having moderated (Calvin), he goes out to the city gate—from before (literally, from over the face of) his dead,—"Sarah, though dead, was still his" (Wordsworth)—and spake unto the sons of Heth.—the Hittites were descendants of Heth, the son of Canaan (vide Genesis 10:15). Cf. "daughters of Heth" (Genesis 27:46) and "daughters of Canaan" (Genesis 28:1)—saying.

Genesis 23:4

I am a stranger and a sojourner with you. Ger, one living out of his own country, and Thoshabh, one dwelling in a land in which he is not naturalized; advena et peregrinus (Vulgate); πάροικος καὶ παρ ἐπίδημος (LXX.). This confession of the heir of Canaan was a proof that he sought, as his real inheritance, a better country, even an heavenly (Hebrews 11:13). Give me a possession of a burying-place with you. The first mention of a grave in Scripture, the word in Hebrew signifying a hole in the earth, or a mound, according as the root is taken to mean to dig (Furst) or to heap up (Gesenius). Abraham's desire for a grave m which to deposit Sarah's lifeless remains was dictated by that Divinely planted and, among civilized nations, universally prevailing reverence for the body which prompts men to decently dispose of their dead by rites of honorable sepulture. The burning of corpses was a practice common to the nations of antiquity; but Tacitus notes it as characteristic of the Jews that they preferred interment to cremation ('Hist.,' 5.5). The wish to make Sarah's burying-place his own possession has been traced to the instinctive desire that most nations have evinced to lie in ground belonging to themselves (Rosenmüller), to an intention on the part of the patriarch to give a sign of his right and title to the land of Canaan by purchasing a grave in its soil—cf. Isaiah 22:16 (Bush), or simply to anxiety that his dead might not lie unburied (Calvin); but it was more probably due to his strong faith that the land would yet belong to his descendants, which naturally led him to crave a resting-place in the soil with which the hopes of both himself and people were identified (Ainsworth, Bush, Kalisch). That I may bury my dead out of my sight—decay not suffering the lifeless corpse to remain a fit spectacle for grief or love to gaze on.

Genesis 23:5, Genesis 23:6

And the children of Heth answered. Abraham, saying unto him, Hear us, my lord. My lord (Adoni) = sir, monsieur, or mein herr. One acts as the spokesman of all; the number changing from plural to singular. The LXX; reading לֹא instead of לוֹ, after the Samaritan Codex, render μὴ κύριε, Not so, my lord; but hear us. Thou art a mighty prince among us. Literally, a prince of Elohim; not of Jehovah, since the speakers were heathen whose ideas of Deity did not transcend those expressed in the term Elohim. According to a familiar Hebrew idiom, the phrase might be legitimately translated as in the A.V.—cf. "mountains of God," i.e. great mountains, Psalms 36:6; "cedars of God," i.e. goodly cedars, Psalms 80:10 (Calvin, Kimchi, Rosenmüller, 'Speaker's Commentary'); but, as employed by the Hittite chieftains, it probably expressed that they regarded him as a prince or phylarch, not to whom God had given an elevated aspect (Lange), but either whom God had appointed (Gesenius), or whom God manifestly favored (Kalisch, Murphy). This estimate of Abraham strikingly contrasts with that which the patriarch had formed (Psalms 80:4) of himself. In the choice of our sepulchers bury thy dead; none of us will withhold from thee his sepulcher, but that thou mayest bury thy dead. This remarkable offer on the part of the Hittites Thomson regards as having been merely compliment, which Abraham was too experienced an Oriental not to understand. But, even if dictated by true kindness and generosity, the proposal was one to which for many reasons—faith in God, love for the dead, and respect for himself being among the strongest—the patriarch could not accede. With perfect courtesy, therefore, though likewise with respectful firmness, he declines their offer.

Genesis 23:7

And Abraham stood up (the customary posture among Orientals in buying and selling being that of sitting), and bowed himself to the people of the land, even to the children of Hath—an act of respect quite accordant with modern Oriental manners.

Genesis 23:8, Genesis 23:9

And he communed with them, saying, If it be year mind—literally, if it be with your souls, the word nephesh being used in this sense in Psalms 27:12; Psalms 41:3; Psalms 105:22that I should bury my dead out of my might; hear me, and entreat for me to Ephron the son of Zohar. The ruler of the city (Keil); but this is doubtful (Lange). "There is scarcely anything in the habits of Orientals more annoying to us Occidentals than this universal custom of employing mediators to pass between you and-those with whom you wish to do business. Nothing can be done without them. A merchant cannot sell a piece of print, nor a farmer a yoke of oxen, nor any one rent a house, buy a horse, or get a wife, without a succession of go-betweens. Of course Abraham knew that this matter of the field could not be brought about without the intervention of the neighbors of Ephron, and therefore he applies to them first". That he may give me the cave of Machpelah,—Machpelah is regarded as a proper noun (Gesenius, Keil, Kalisch, Rosenmüller), as in Genesis 49:30, though by others it is considered as an appellative, signifying that the cave was double (LXX; Vulgate), either as consisting of a cave within a cave (Hamerus), or of one cave exterior and another interior (Abort Ezra), or as having room for two bodies (Calvin), or as possessing two entrances (Jewish interpreters). It is probable the cave received its name from its peculiar form,—which he hath (Ephron's ownership of the cave is expressly recognized, and its situation is next described), which is in the end of his field—"so that the cession of it will not injure his property" (Wordsworth). At the same time Abraham makes it clear that an honest purchase is what he contemplates. For as much money as it is worth—literally, for full silver (1 Chronicles 21:22). Cf. siller (Scotch) for money. This is the first mention of the use of the precious metals as a medium of exchange, though they must have been so employed at a very early period (vide Genesis 13:2)—he shall give it me for a possession of a burying-place amongst you. The early Chaldaeans were accustomed to bury their dead in strongly-constructed brick vaults. Those found at Mughheir are seven feet long, three feet seven inches broad, and five feet high, are composed of sun-dried bricks embedded in mud, and exhibit a remarkable form and construction of arch, resembling that occur ring in Egyptian buildings and Scythian tombs, in which the successive layers of brick are made to overlap until they come so close that the aperture may be covered by a single brick. In the absence of such artificial receptacles for the dead, the nearest substitute the patriarch could obtain was one of those natural grottoes which the limestone hills of Canaan so readily afforded.

Genesis 23:10

And Ephron dwelt among the children of Heth. Not habitabat (Vulgate), in the sense of resided amongst, but sedebat, ἐκάθητο (LXX.); was then present sitting amongst the townspeople (Rosenmüller), but whether in the capacity of a magistrate or councilor is not stated. And Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the audience of the children of Hath, even of all that went in at the gate of his city,—this does not imply that he was the chief magistrate (Keil), but only that he was a prominent citizen (Murphy). On the gate of the city as a place for transacting business vide Genesis 19:1saying

Genesis 23:11

Nay, my lord, hear me: the field give I thee, and the cave that is therein, I give it thee—an Oriental mode of expressing willingness to sell. Ephron would make a present of cave and field to the patriarch,—"and just so have I had a hundred houses, and fields, and horses given to me",—the design being either to obtain a valuable compensation in return, or to preclude any abatement in the price (Keil), though possibly the offer to sell the entire field when he might have secured a good price for the cave alone was an indication of Ephron's good intention (Lange). At least it seems questionable to conclude that Ephron's generous phrases, which have now become formal and hollow courtesies indeed, meant no more in that simpler age when the ceremonies of intercourse were newer, and more truly reflected its spirit. In the presence of the ions of my people give I it thee (literally, have I given, the transaction being viewed as finished): bury thy dead.

Genesis 23:12, Genesis 23:13

And Abraham bowed down himself before the people of the land. To express his sense of their kindness, and appreciation of Ephron's offer in particular; aider which he courteously but firmly urged forward the contemplated purchase. And he spake unto Ephron in the audience of the people of the land, saying, But if thou wilt give it, I pray thee, hear me. Literally, if thou, I would that thou wouldst hear me, the two particles אִם and לוּ being conjoined to express the intensity of the speaker's desire. I will give thee money for the field. Literally, money of the field, i.e. the value of the field in money. This seems to indicate that Abraham at least imagined Ephron's offer of the field and cave as a gift to be not wholly formal. Had he regarded Ephron as all the while desirous of a sale, he would not have employed the language of entreaty. Take it of me, and I will bury my dead there.

Genesis 23:14, Genesis 23:15

And Ephron answered Abraham, saying unto him, My lord, hearken unto me: the land is worth four hundred shekels of silver. The word "shekel," from shakal, to weigh, here used for the first time, was not a stamped coin, but a piece of metal of definite weight, according to Exodus 30:13, equal to twenty gerahs, or beans, from garar, to roll. Coined money was unknown to the Hebrews until after the captivity. In the time of the Maccabees (1 Macc. 15:6) silver coins were struck bearing the inscription שקל ישראל. According to Josephus (Ant; iii. 8, 2) the shekel in use in his day was equal to four Athenian drachmae; and if, as is believed, these were one-fifth larger than the old shekels coined by Simon Maccabeus, the weight of the latter would be equal to three and one-third drachms, or two hundred grains, reckoning sixty grains to a drachm. It is impossible to ascertain the weight of the shekel current with the merchant in the time of Abraham; but reckoning it at a little less than 2s. 6d. sterling, the price of Ephron's field must have been somewhat under £50; a very consider able sum of money, which the Hittite merchant begins to depreciate by representing as a trifle, saying, What is that betwixt me and thee?—words which are still heard in the East on similar occasions—bury therefore thy dead.

Genesis 23:16

And Abraham hearkened unto Ephron (either as knowing that the price he asked was reasonable, or as being in no humor to bargain with him on the subject); and Abraham weighed to Ephron the silver,—"Even this is still common; for although coins have now a definite name, size, and value, yet every merchant carries a small apparatus by which he weighs each coin to see that it has not been tampered with by Jewish Clippers"—which he had named in the audience of the sons of Heth (the stipulation and the payment of the money were both made in the presence of witnesses), four hundred shekels of silver, current money with the merchant—literally, silver passing with the merchant, or goer about, i.e. with merchandise; from sachar, to go about (cf.. ἔμπορος, ἐμπορεύομαι). The Canaanites, of whom the Hittites were a branch, were among the earliest traders of antiquity (cf. Job 40:1-24 :30; Proverbs 31:24); and the silver bars employed as the medium of exchange in their mercantile transactions were probably stamped in some rude fashion to indicate their weight.

Genesis 23:17, Genesis 23:18

And the field of Ephron, which was in Machpelah,—here the word is used as a proper name (vide supra)which was before Mamre,— לִפְגֵי over against (Lange), to the east of (Keil), the oak grove—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,—"In like manner the operations in the contract are just such as are found in modern deeds. It is not enough that you purchase a well-known lot; the contract must mention everything that belongs to it, and certify that fountains or wells in it, trees upon it, &c; are sold with the field"—were made sure—literally, stood up or arose, i.e. were confirmed (cf. Le Genesis 27:14, Genesis 27:19)—unto Abraham for a possession in the presence of the children of Heth, before all that went in at the gate of the city. "This also is true to life. When any sale is now to be effected in a town or village, the whole population gather about the parties at the usual place of concourse, around or near the gate where there is one. There all take part and enter into the pros and cons with as much earnestness as if it were their own individual affair. By these means the operation, in all its circumstances and details, is known to many witnesses, and the thing is made sure without any written contract".

Genesis 23:19

And after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife—with what funeral rites can only be conjectured. Monumental evidence attests that the practice of embalming the dead existed in Egypt in the reign of Amunophth I., though probably originating, earlier.; and an examination of the Mugheir vaults for burying the dead shows that among the early Chaldaeans it was customary to place the corpse upon a matting of reed spread upon a brick floor, the head being pillowed on a single sun-dried brick, and the body turned on its left side, the right arm falling towards the left, and the fingers resting on the edge of a copper bowl, usually placed on the palm of the left hand—in the cave of the field of Machpelah before: Mamre. In which also in succession his own remains and those of Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah were deposited, Rachel alone of the great patriarchal family being absent. This last resting-place of Abraham and his sons, as of Sarah and her daughters, has been identified with Ramet-el-Kalil, an hour's journey to the north of Hebron (which is too distant), where the foundations of an ancient heathen temple are still pointed out as Abraham's house; but is more probably to be sought for in the Mohammedan mosque Haram, built of colossal blocks, and situated on the mountain slope of Hebron towards the east (Robinson, Thomson, Stanley, Tristram), which, after having been for 600 years hermetically sealed against Europeans,—only three during that period having gained access to it in disguise,—was visited in 1862 by the Prince of Wales and party. The same is Hebron in the land of Canaan (vide Genesis 23:2).

Genesis 23:20

And the field, and the cave that is therein, were made sure unto Abraham for a possession of a burying-place by the sons of Heth. The palpable discrepancy between the statements of the Hebrew historian in this chapter concerning the patriarchal sepulcher and those of the Christian orator when addressing the Jewish Sanhedrim (Acts 7:16) has been well characterized as praegravis quaedam et perardua, et quorundam judicio inextricabilis quaestio (Pererius). Of course the Gordian knot of difficulty may be very readily cut by boldly asserting that a mistake has been committed somewhere; either by Stephen, the original speaker, under the impulse of emotion confounding the two entirely different stories of Abraham's purchase of Machpelah and Jacob's buying of the field near Shechem (Beds, Clarke, Lange, Kalisch, Alford, and others); or by Luke, the first recorder of the Martyr's Apology, who wrote not the ipsissima verba of the speech, but simply his own recollection of them (Jerome); or by some subsequent transcriber who had tampered with the original text, as, e.g; inserting Αβραὰμ, which Luke and Stephen both had omitted, as the nominative to ὠνήσατο (Beza, Calvin, Bishop Pearce). The Just of these hypotheses would not indeed be fatal to the Inspiration of the record; but the claims of either Luke or Stephen to be authoritative teachers on the subject of religion would be somewhat hard to maintain if it once were admitted that they had blundered on a plain point in their own national history. And yet it is doubtful if any of the proposed solutions of the problem is perfectly satisfactory; such as

HOMILETICS

Genesis 23:1-20

The death and burial of Sarah.

I. THE DEATH OF SARAH.

1. The mournful event. The death of—

2. The attendant circumstances. Sarah died—

II. THE BURIAL OF SARAH.

1. The days of mourning. "Abraham came to mourn and to weep for Sarah." The sorrow of the patriarch was—

2. The purchase of a grave. Here may be noted—

3. The last rites of sepulture. "After this Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah;" with unknown funeral rites, but certainly with reverence, with sadness, with hope.

Learn—

1. The duty of preparing for death.

2. The propriety of moderate indulgence in grief.

3. The obligation resting on surviving relatives to carefully dispose of the lifeless bodies of the dead.

4. The wisdom of good men acquiring as soon as possible for themselves and their families a burial-place for a possession.

HOMILIES BY R.A. REDFORD

Genesis 23:19, Genesis 23:20

The death and burial of Sarah.

I. TRUE RELIGION SANCTIFIES NATURAL RELATIONSHIPS. Those who know themselves blessed of God do not only feel that their human affections are precious and true, but do, in obedience to his will, preserve the greatest respect for their bodily frame, and for their dead who died in the Lord, and whose dust is committed tenderly to his keeping.

II. THE PEOPLE OF GOD WERE UPHELD BY FAITH IN THEIR CARE FOR THE DEAD. They looked beyond the grave. Some say there is no evidence of the doctrine of immortality in the Old Testament until after the captivity Surely Abraham's feelings were not those of one who sorrowed without hope. The purchase of the field, the securing possession for all time of the burying-place, pointed to faith, not the lack of it. Where there is no sense of immortality there is no reverence for the dead.

III. THE PURCHASE OF THE FIELD was not only its security, but a testimony to the heathen that the people of God held in reverence both the memory of the dead and the rights of the living. All social prosperity has its root in religious life.—R.

HOMILIES BY J.F. MONTGOMERY

Genesis 23:20

Lessons from the sepulcher.

"And the field, and the cave that is therein, were made sure unto Abraham for a possession of a burying-place." Abraham's first and only possession in Canaan, a sepulcher. The importance of the par-chase appears in the careful narrative of the transaction. For himself he was content to live as a stranger and pilgrim (cf. 1 Peter 5:7); but Sarah's death led him to acquire a burying-place. Declining the offer to use any of the sepulchers of the people of the land, he bought the field and the cave, and carefully prepared the evidence of the purchase. The purchase showed his faith in God's truth; one of the branches of Adam's temptation (Genesis 3:4). It had been promised that his seed, after dwelling in a land not theirs, should return and possess that whereon he stood (cf. Jeremiah 32:14, Jeremiah 32:15). Type of entrance into rest after pilgrimage (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:1). It showed also his faith in a resurrection (cf. Psalms 16:10). The desire that he and his family should lie in the same sepulcher speaks of a life beyond the present. Parted by death, they were one family still. Sarah was to him "my dead." There was a link between them still. The living and dead still one family. Doctrine of communion of saints (cf. Matthew 22:32). Death was the gate of life (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:16). Canaan a type of the rest which remaineth; Abraham of the "children of the kingdom," pilgrims with a promise. No rest here. Life full of uncertainties. One thing sure, we must die. But—

I. WE ENTER THE HEAVENLY REST THROUGH DEATH; THE CITY OF GOD THROUGH THE VALLEY OF BACA. Here we walk by faith. Great and glorious promises for our encouragement, that we may not make our home here; yet we know not what we shall be. Sight cannot penetrate the curtain that separates time from eternity. Thus there is the trial, do we walk by faith or by sight? We instinctively shrink from death. It is connected in our mind with sorrow, with interruption of plans, with breaking up of loving companionship; but faith bids us sorrow not as those without hope. It reminds that it is the passing from what is defective and transitory to what is immortal. Here we are trained for the better things beyond, and our thoughts are turned to that sepulcher in which the victory over death was won; thence we see the Lord arising, the pledge of eternal life to all who will have it.

II. THE SEPULCHRE WAS MADE SURE TO ABRAHAM. In time he should enter it as one of the company gathered there to await the resurrection day; but meanwhile it was his. And if we look upon this as typical of our interest in the death of Christ, it speaks of comfort and trust. He took our nature that he might "taste death for every man." His grave is ours (2 Corinthians 5:14). We are "buried with him," "planted together in the likeness of his death.' The fact of his death is a possession that cannot be taken from us (Colossians 3:3, Colossians 3:4). He died that we might live. If frail man clings to the tomb of some dear one; if the heart is conscious of the link still enduring, shall we not rejoice in our union with him whose triumph makes us also more than conquerors?

III. THE FIELD AND CAVE. How small a part did Abraham possess in his lifetime, but it was an earnest of the whole; he felt it so, and in faith buried his dead (cf. Genesis 1:25; Hebrews 11:22). An earnest is all we possess here, but still we have an earnest. In the presence of the Lord (John 14:23), in the peace which he gives, in the spirit of adoption, we have the "substance of things hoped for," a real fragment and sample of the blessedness of heaven.—M.

 


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Bibliography Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Genesis 23:4". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tpc/genesis-23.html. 1897.

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