Sermon preached on Genesis 23 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/12/2023 in Petaluma, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Several years back the OPC produced a packet entitled “If I Should Die”. The packet was to help people plan ahead for various practical matters associated with their death, burial, and estate planning. I always found the title a bit funny, though, because unless the Lord returns before we die, our death is not an “if” but a “when”. Today’s passage confronts us with the reality of death as well as the matter of burial. Abraham’s burial of Sarah honors her and also expresses his continued hope in the promises of God, promises which had not yet been fully fulfilled. Let us work through our passage and think on these things.
Let us begin by considering Sarah’s death. Verse 1 confronts us with Sarah’s death. She lived a long life, 127 years. I would certainly want to say she lived a blessed life, but that doesn’t mean she lived an easy life. We had first learned of Sarah back in chapter 11 and were immediately told that she was barren. She lived her first 90 years of her life barren. When she was about 65 years old, still barren, God made that initial promise in Genesis 12 that Abraham would be a father of many nations. Yet, still she had no children, and so after 10 more years, that is when she offers her maidservant Hagar to have a child with Abraham. But then, God says, no, it will be through Sarah that God would make a mighty offspring through Abraham. So, she had to yet wait longer, until finally at the age of 90, she gave birth to Isaac. We could also mention the challenges she faced in her life with both Pharoah and Abimelech. We could also mention the conflict she ended up having with Hagar. So, yes, surely she did have a life blessed by God, but that doesn’t mean it was easy. She had to endure in her faith in God, and had to have a lot of patience despite her challenges. Take an application here. We can have blessed life of faith that still has challenges that require patience.
Note that she died at Hebron, which reminds us of her sojourning life that she and Abraham had. Remember, after Lot and Abraham separated, they had settled in Hebron near the Oaks at Mamre. Then, we later saw them sojourn down around the land of the Philistines in the modern-day Gaza strip area. Then we saw them also sojourning around Beersheba – remember the well they had there. But now we see them back at Hebron. This reminds us of what Abraham acknowledges in verse 4, that they were sojourners. Even when they had settled at times in Hebron, it was still as a sojourner living in tents. They never permanently settled in the land. They were always foreigners to the land of Canaan, even though they were long-time residents. Part of the reason for that was because they were not yet property owners, which becomes clear in today’s passage.
Notice in verse 2 that Abraham mourns and weeps for Sarah. This is fitting when a loved one dies. Even if they were a believer and we believe we’ll see them again in the afterlife, it is still appropriate for us to mourn and weep for a loved one. Remember that Jesus wept for Lazarus, even when Jesus knew he was about to raise him from the dead. How much more here for Abraham to know that he would be departed from his beloved wife until they meet again in glory. Abraham had lived so many decades with her by his side. Now he would have to live almost another forty years without her, before his death at the age of 175, as we’ll see in Genesis 25. That is both a long time to have lived and known someone so closely. And it is a long time then to live without them afterwards. This is part of what we do when a loved one dies, we weep and mourn in our loss of them. We honor them in our grief, to express how we will miss them. We also express our gratitude toward God for bringing them into our life, because our grief acknowledges how much we’ve appreciated them. But our mourning and grief also acknowledges the sting of death. Death is a terrible thing. No one should want to die. And for us to lose a loved one to death pains us. Death stings, and Abraham feels its sting here.
Let us then turn next to what must naturally follow the death of a loved one – caring for the remains of the deceased, as Abraham buries Sarah. This is first burial described in the Bible. To clarify, this is a practice that was already happening at that time, even among these pagan Hittites. But it is the first time Genesis speaks of it. Not only is burial first mentioned here, but it is clearly a significant concern. Genesis not only spends this whole chapter on the topic, but the word “bury” appears fourteen times here. Abraham shows concern about the proper care for Sarah to see that she is buried.
Let me pause and note that as a pastor I often am asked what I think about burial versus cremation. I am always careful to not say more than Scripture, so I try to first acknowledge that the Bible doesn’t explicitly address that question. It’s like if you ask me what does the Bible say about social media, well, the Bible doesn’t explicitly address social media practices. Yet, let me humbly encourage you to consider burial because of what we do see in Scripture. Scripture repeatedly depicts God’s people showing honor and care for the bodies of the deceased, and that burial is their long-practiced way of doing that. Even though the Bible emphasizes the value of our spirits, it repeatedly shows God’s people assigning dignity to human bodies after death, i.e. after the spirit has left the body. For example, think of how we see this in Jesus’ burial. Remember how greatly Jesus commended Mary in Mark 14 for using that really expensive perfume just before he died, saying that she had anointed his body for his burial. Or, remember when Mary Magdalene mistakenly at first thought that the gardener had moved Jesus’ dead body in John 20, she wanted to find out to where, so she could return Jesus to his proper place of burial. Or go back to Joseph in Genesis 50. He died and was buried in Egypt, but his last wishes were that one day Israel would bring his remains back to the Promised Land when they one day returned, so he could be buried there. Indeed, I could give many other examples in the Bible where there is concern for God’s people to be properly buried, and to show respect and care to the dead bodies. So, I would not say Scripture strictly requires burial, but I do believe Scripture commends it. And so, I too would recommend to you to consider the longstanding practice of burial.
To be clear, God can resurrect believers who were cremated. Think of all the Christians who have been burned at the stake as martyrs, for example. And our dead bodies do eventually turn to dust, Genesis 3. So please don’t misunderstand me, getting cremated wouldn’t prevent someone’s ability to be resurrected.
Let me also note, that the most common reason I hear of why people choose cremation is cost. Surely, finances must be some consideration. Yet, I would also say that they surely can’t be the only consideration. Otherwise, Jesus wouldn’t have allowed that really expensive perfume to be used on him for his burial. And, likewise, Abraham here would have taken the free tomb option, instead of paying 400 shekels of silver. So, hopefully, I’ve given you some things to consider, but I digress, so let me return to Abraham here.
Abraham then proceeds to make burial arrangements by approaching the local Hittites. Remember, they are in the land of Canaan, which is made up of several Canaanite people groups, which include the Hittites. So, he goes to the owners of the land and makes a very humble and respectful appeal to them in verse 4 that they might allocate some property among them so he can bury his deceased. He points out that he is just a sojourner and a foreigner. They are the ones in charge of that land, so he treats them accordingly with his humble appeal. They then very respectfully and generously reply to him in verse 6. They not only call him a lord, but also a prince of God. That is an outstanding thing for to them call him, and clearly shows they recognized some special blessing of God upon Abraham. Notice that in verse 6 they then offer that Abraham could use any one of their tombs to bury Sarah. They even say he can pick the “choicest”. In other words, they offer him free use of any tomb in the land, even the best of the best, if that’s what he desires. That is very generous of them.
Abraham recognizes their graciousness in verse 7 by bowing before them. But then he gives a more specific request. He doesn’t want to just use some space in one of their tombs. He wants to buy one for himself. He wants to be able to own the tomb and the land that it is on. Think about the significance here. We’ve been reminded that, all their life here in Canaan, Abraham and Sarah have been sojourners. They’ve been guests in someone else’s home, so to speak. If Abraham buries Sarah in one of their tombs, then Sarah in her death will continue to be what she was in her life, a sojourner and a foreigner in their tomb. But if she is buried there in a tomb of their own, then she will be in her death what she hoped for in her life, a possessor and inhabitor of at least some of the Land of Promise. Again, do you see how the Bible shows there is significance in our final arrangements to consider? So, Abraham instead requests that he might be able to purchase the cave of Machpelah to be his own property for a burial site.
We then see his discussions with the owner of the cave and land. This Ephron, son of Zohar, graciously offers to give him the cave and the land. Abraham, however, insists that he pay for it. Ephron suggests that the cost would be such a small amount for people such as them, only four hundred shekels of silver. Abraham without hesitation pays him that amount. Let me say, there are many that think Ephron is engaging in cultural haggling here with Abraham. That Abraham was never expected to take the land for free, and that Ephron’s stated price should have been understood as an overpriced first-offer to start off negotiations. Such conclude then that Abraham overpaid. While that may be true, I’m not sure we have enough historical data about haggling back then and there to be dogmatic about that. What I think the more important point is to recognize the insistence of Abraham to own it fair and square. Part of the reason for this is to remember how back in Genesis 14 he wouldn’t accept a handout from the King of Sodom, lest it be said he made Abraham rich. So here too, Abraham will finally acquire property in the land of Canaan, but he will do it with purchasing it outright instead of taking handouts from the Hittites.
That is why the account then concludes by telling us that Abraham completed the purchase in all the official ways. In verse 16, it records how Abraham weighed out the silver in the hearing of the Hittites. In other words, there are all these public witnesses to the transaction to hear what the price was and to see that Abraham paid it. Likewise, he made his payment with the official weights of the community’s merchants, verse 16. Likewise, verse 18 specifies that the transaction was done in the presence of the Hittites, in front of all present at the city gates. The city gates are where the elders would have sat at a town and done such business. So, no one could later come back and claim that Abraham didn’t properly own this cave and field.
We see the description of the property in verse 17. There is the field with several trees. It has this cave to be used for the burials. In fact, other patriarchs of Israel would also be eventually buried here, including Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah. Today this is also known as the Cave of the Patriarchs. And it points out that it was to the east of Mamre, so it would have been somewhat close to where Abraham had pitched his tent in the area. So then, Sarah is ultimately buried in this land and tomb now owned by Abraham and family.
What I’d like to do now in our final point for today is to spend some time assessing and applying this chapter as it relates to the pilgrim life of God’s people here and now on this earth. Abraham and Sarah were pilgrims, sojourners looking ahead to one day taking hold of the promises of God, including possessing the Promised Land. And that pilgrim living of them is typological for the ultimate pilgrim living for God’s people on earth. I refer to the fact that God’s people are ultimately just sojourners on this earth, foreigners to this godless world, whose citizenship is in heaven and our destination is the glory of the world to come. Abraham and Sarah’s pilgrimage toward an earthly promised land is ultimately a picture of a pilgrimage to a heavenly land. Indeed, this is the specific application we find talked about in Hebrews 11 when it says Abraham ultimately desired a heavenly country. This we share in common with Abraham and Sarah. And so their pilgrim life has applications for our pilgrim life today.
Let me quote a little further from Hebrews 11. In verse 13 speaking of the patriarchs, it says, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” We would be right to use that very closely in today’s passage. Sarah here died in faith, even as Abraham acknowledges to the Hittites that they were but strangers and exiles on earth. Yet, in Abraham’s faith to purchase a little bit of the Promised Land, he was seeing the promises of God, and greeting them from afar, even the promise of land.
So think of what this tangibly meant for Abraham here. On the one hand, God had told Abraham time and again, that all the land of Canaan would one day belong to his offspring. So there is a sense in which God has given it all to him, but yet it wouldn’t actually happen until after his life. So, all this land, in a sense is his, but yet not yet. And think of all the other good promises that God had given Abraham, but had not fully come to pass yet. This is what I mean by saying he has a pilgrim life. The full fulfillment of the promises of God is where he is headed, but his journey is not complete. He’s not arrived yet to possess all these good promises. So, what does that practically mean for him? This fact that Abraham had not yet received all these promises had several practical ramifications for him while he was on the journey.
One ramification of his pilgrim status is that he had to pay for the cave and the field. Whether it was a fair price or not, it didn’t belong to him. So, he had to fork over the money for it. One day the God would give all this land to Abraham’s seed, but that was not yet reality, so he had to buy it. Another ramification of his pilgrim status is that he has to go to these pagan Hittites and treat them with the respect as the authority that they were. He was dealing with the Hittite civil government, whatever that all entailed. But God had promised Abraham that kings would come from him line. In other words, Abraham in God’s promise is the king of all this land. And yet, that was not yet realized. So, while the Hittites recognize him with this title of a prince of God, they were still the ones in charge in this situation, and he had to humble himself under them and hope they would deal kindly with him. A third ramification of his pilgrim status is that he had to make sure this property deal was done properly in the presence of the Hittites, so that there would be no question that the land was officially his. Yet, all this land including that cave had already been promised by God in the presence of God. But that promise was not yet fulfilled, so Abraham had to go through the proper procedures to officially come into title to the land.
Let us not miss the final and most serious ramification of Abraham and also Sarah’s pilgrim status. Death. Sarah died here. Abraham will also die in just a couple chapters and he’ll be buried here too. As Hebrews said, “These all died in faith.” Death is the last enemy, according to 1 Corinthians 15. When Abraham and Sarah died, they still hadn’t received the fulness of God’s promises. As I said, there was a sense they began to possess them more in death than in life, because there they were buried in the cave in the Promised Land that actually belonged to them.
Saints, I hope you see that Abraham and Sarah’s pilgrimage as it pertained to the earthly Promised Land is a picture and a type of the ultimate pilgrimage God’s people go on in this life as we look forward to glory. Like Abraham and Sarah, this world is not our final home, yet Jesus said in the beatitudes, we will inherit the earth. But since we haven’t yet inherited the earth, we live as pilgrims here and now. Likewise, the Scripture tells us that one day we will judge even angels, but right now we are under not only angels but even under the many earthly authorities, and we hope they are kind to us. And like Abraham and Sarah, unless the Lord returns first, we too will one day die, even though God has already promised us eternal life. But that will be in the resurrection, so as pilgrims in this world be both live and die.
So then, brothers and sisters, we too are sojourners and foreigners living a pilgrim life like Abraham and Sarah. We possess God’s promises by faith, but not yet by sight. Right now our life may be long and blessed yet still full of trials and troubles. Right now we will need much patience and humility as we live the pilgrim life of faith. But may we take encouragement by our forefathers like Abraham and Sarah who also walked this walk. And let us be encouraged that Jesus not only has begun a work of faith in us his people, but he will also complete it. Let us trust in him as we walk by faith now unto the glory that awaits us at his return.
Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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