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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 23

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary


The Purchase of Land for a Possession Inclusive of a Burial Place (Genesis 23:0 ).

This chapter was originally a tablet on its own. It is the record of the business transaction between Abraham and Ephron the Hittite and bears the marks of a typical Hittite contract. But as far as the compiler is concerned in it we learn of the first piece of the land which comes permanently into the possession of the family of Abraham. It is the firstfruits, the earnest (visible and tangible guarantee) of his inheritance. Thus Isaac’s beginnings are founded in a solemn occasion, first ownership of the land.

So while it is at first sight the record of the closing of an era (the death of Sarah) it is actually the depiction of the beginning of a new era, the commencement of the possession of the land. Genesis 22:20-24 has begun the preparation for the new era, and this continues it. The emphasis of the compiler is on the fact that ‘the field and the cave that is in it were made sure to Abraham for a possession of a buryingplace by the children of Heth’ (Genesis 23:20). It is a proof of permanence in the land.

Abraham has, of course, already buried many of his ‘household’ in the land and Sarah could have been buried similarly. But this is the first time he has had to face up to the burial of his own close kin and she is a great lady. The previous burials were of strangers and sojourners in a land not their own. Abraham wants Sarah to be buried in her own land. Her burial therefore prepares the way for his own burial, and those of his descendants (Genesis 49:30-32; Genesis 50:13), in the chosen land. It looks to the future. The ‘possession of a buryingplace’ is an indication of permanence. It is a new beginning.

Verse 1

‘And the life of Sarah was one hundred and twenty seven years. These were the years of the life of Sarah.’

As mentioned of ages before, this age may not necessarily be intended literally (see on Genesis 5:0). It is one of those ending in seven as with Ishmael (Genesis 25:17) and Jacob (Genesis 47:28). Otherwise dates connected with Abraham and his descendants tend to end in nought or five. But it does indicate a good age.

Ishmael and Jacob were distinctive in dying outside the land of promise. It may be that Sarah, as a woman, is also not seen as directly connected with the promise. But in the end, while recognising that numbers are symbolic, we must admit that we do not know conclusively what their final significance was. After all Joseph died outside the land at one hundred and ten.

Verse 2

‘And Sarah died in Kiriath Arba (the same is Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.’

We are not told why Sarah happened to be in Hebron. It had previously been a place occupied by the family tribe and a sanctuary had been established there (Genesis 13:18; Genesis 14:13; Genesis 18:1 with Genesis 23:19). She may well have been visiting connections there, possibly with the purpose of maintaining the old alliances.

“Came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.” The mourning rites associated with death were considered very important and paid mourners would often be employed (compare Genesis 50:10. See Jeremiah 9:17 on). The phrase thus refers to Abraham as coming to prepare for her funeral. We need not however doubt that it was an intensely personal moment for him.

“Kiriath Arba”. This was an earlier name for Hebron and means ‘the city of four’ or ‘the city of Arba’ (see Joshua 14:15). The Anakim Arba may have taken his name from the city. It is stressed that it is in the land of Canaan, the promised land.

Verses 3-4

‘And Abraham rose up from before his dead and spoke to the children of Heth, saying, “I am a stranger and a sojourner with you. Give me a possession of a burial place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight”.’

Abraham seeks out the leadership of the people of the land at the city gate (Genesis 23:10). There the leaders, who know his purpose, are gathered in their official function to consider his request.

This is a unique moment in Abraham’s life. He seeks official ownership of part of the land of Canaan. He states clearly the situation. He is ‘a stranger and sojourner’. He has no land rights. But now he seeks to become an official landowner holding the deeds of the property.

No one would have hindered him from burying Sarah. People were being buried all the time and its necessity was recognised. But this is something different. Abraham would cease being ‘a stranger and a sojourner’. He wants ‘a possession’. He would become a recognised inhabitant of the land with certain rights and responsibilities accruing.

Verses 5-6

‘And the children of Heth answered Abraham, saying, “Hear us, my lord. You are a mighty prince among us. In the choice of our sepulchres bury your dead. None of us will withhold from you his sepulchre, but that you may bury your dead”.’

Their reply, while couched in polite oriental terms, gives consent to his suggestion. At a price they are willing to consider giving him ownership of a piece of land and thus altering his status in their eyes.

“You are a mighty prince (literally ‘a prince of God”) among us.’ Recognition is given to the fact that Abraham is a man of means and of some power. They are prepared to deal with him as an equal and as having the status to be accepted. There may also be some recognition here of his prophetic status. The writer probably intends us to see it as signifying Abraham’s status before God.

The remaining flowery language is not to be taken literally. The last thing that they expect is that Abraham will make use of their own sepulchres. They are simply saying that they recognise that it is reasonable for him as ‘a mighty prince’ to want a sepulchre for burying important members of his own family.

Verses 7-9

‘And Abraham rose up and bowed himself to the people of the land, even to the people of Heth, and he entered negotiations with them saying, “If it be your mind that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me, and entreat for me to Ephron, the son of Zohar, that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he owns, which is at the end of his field. Let him give it to me for the full price among you for the possession of a burial place”.’

Abraham already knows the land that he wants to buy and specifically describes it. In typical fashion he speaks of being ‘given’ the cave. Talking of buying and selling would have been frowned on. But he also makes clear that he expects to pay a fair price and none of them would have doubted it for a moment.

“The full price.” It has been claimed that this represents a Hittite techncial term.

Verses 10-11

‘Now Ephron was sitting among the children of Heth. And Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the children of Heth, even of all that went in at the gate of his city, saying, “No, my lord, hear me. I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the presence of the sons of my people I give it to you. Bury your dead ”.’

The conversation is taking place before the leading officials of the city. This is a public sale requiring the say so of the elders of the city, and especially so because it will alter Abraham’s status.

Ephron continues negotiation. He is willing, but if Abraham wants the cave he must also buy the field it is in. This would probably put him under certain feudal obligations. The ‘giving’ was not expected to be taken literally. They are in fact engaging in hard bargaining.

Verses 12-13

‘And Abraham bowed himself down before the people of the land, and he spoke to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, saying, “But if you will, I pray you, hear me. I will give the price of the field. Take it of me and I will bury my dead there”.’

With full acknowledgement to the elders Abraham agrees to buy the field as well as the cave.

Verses 14-15

‘And Ephron answered Abraham, saying to him, “My lord, hear me. A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between me and you. Therefore bury your dead ”.’

Ephron seemingly offhandedly, but really in deadly earnest, names his price and it appears to be a stiff one. Omri will later buy the site of the whole city of Samaria for six thousand shekels (1 Kings 16:24). So either the field was very large or Ephron has his eyes on a big profit. He is well aware that Abraham is gaining more than a field.

“Four hundred shekels of silver.” Prices were paid by weight of silver and not by coinage which made its appearance much later.

Verse 16

‘And Abraham listened to Ephron, and Abraham weighed for Ephron the silver which he had named in the hearing of the children of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current with the merchant.’

Abraham feels the price well worth paying. We have here a demonstration of how rich Abraham was. He could afford the price without argument.

Verses 17-18

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

This is the legal jargon by which the property transfer took place, outlining precisely what property was being sold together with its contents. Together with the stating of the price it is the centre of the covenant record. From now on the field and the cave are legally Abraham’s together with the feudal responsibilities entailed. The children of Heth were solemn witnesses to the transaction, confirming its legality. The mention of trees in such a transaction is typical of Hittite contracts.

Verses 19-20

‘And after this Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre (the same is Hebron) in the land of Canaan. And the field and the cave that is in it were made sure to Abraham for a possession of a burial place by the children of Heth.’

The record summarises with satisfaction the successful conclusion of the transaction, stressing that Abraham now owns property in the land which will benefit future generations.

“The same is Hebron.” A typical scribal explanation added later to explain to later generations the whereabouts of the site mentioned.

It is possibly difficult to appreciate how much this must have meant to Abraham. His wife was not buried in a foreign land but in land which belonged to him which he held in possession (note how this was stressed). Now he and his descendants will possess the land, their own land, in death until the final promise of Yahweh is fulfilled.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 23". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/genesis-23.html. 2013.
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