Genesis 22:20 – 23:20

 20 Now after these things it was told to Abraham, “Behold, Milcah also has borne children to your brother Nahor: 21 Uz his firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel the father of Aram, 22 Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Bethuel.” 23 (Bethuel fathered Rebekah.) These eight Milcah bore to Nahor, Abraham’s brother. 24 Moreover, his concubine, whose name was Reumah, bore Tebah, Gaham, Tahash, and Maacah.

23 Sarah lived 127 years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her. And Abraham rose up from before his dead and said to the Hittites, “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you; give me property among you for a burying place, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” The Hittites answered Abraham, “Hear us, my lord; you are a prince of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will withhold from you his tomb to hinder you from burying your dead.”[1]

Just before recording Sarah’s death, Moses wants his readers to know Abraham’s brother has also been blessed with twelve sons, just as Ishmael was blessed with twelve sons, and Jacob will be blessed with twelve sons. This information closes out the Account of Terah (11:27-31) and paves the way of the account of Isaac and Jacob by introducing Rebekah into the family genealogy. Father Abraham’s story is drawing to a close.


When Sarah died, she and Abraham had been married well over 100 years. It had been 62 years since she and her husband had left Ur to begin their journey to the Promised Land. She had wandered with Father Abraham through Egypt and back again, down through the southern deserts and into Abimelech’s kingdom, and now back to the alter at the oaks of Mamre. She died in the center of the Land where Abraham and she had returned with their great army of slaves and flocks following their sojourn in Abimelech’s kingdom. Abraham was now 127 years old and Isaac was 37 years old.

Sarah had been with Abraham through all his failures as he twice dragged her into complicity with his lying self-protection schemes involving Pharaoh and Abimelech. She also dragged Abraham into her plan to try and produce God’s promised seed through her Egyptian slave girl. But above all, she was the miraculous mother of Isaac, the promised seed. She was the mother of all Israel. And, most importantly, a woman who trusted into the bare word of God. Isaiah sang to the wayward children of Jacob/Israel, “look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.[2]

St Author of Hebrews wrote of her, “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.[3] The apostle Peter listed Sarah as an example of a humble Godly woman (1 Pt. 3:3-6). It was Sarah who displayed more trust into God’s promise of Isaac to be the true seed than did Abraham, torn by his love of Ishmael – the seed of the flesh. She recognized the threat Ishmael’s continued presence posed to God’s land promise. She believed salvation to be in the line of Isaac alone, and her counsel, to ‘cast out the bondwoman and her son,’ was sanctioned by God himself. St Author enshrines her among the roll of those of whom the world was not worthy.

Luther wrote of these two verses:

Scripture has no comments even on the death of other matriarchs, just as it makes no mention of how many years Eve lived and of where she died. Of Rachel it is recorded that she died in childbirth (Gen. 35:16–19). All the other women it passes over and covers with silence, with the result that we have no knowledge of the death of Mary, the mother of Christ. Sarah alone has this glory, that the definite number of her years, the time of her death, and the place of her burial are described. Therefore this is great praise and very sure proof that she was precious in the eyes of God.[4]

Sarah’s death and God’s land promise merge in our passage this morning. “The pall of death enshrouds this passage. It begins with ‘Sarah died’ and ends with ‘Abraham buried Sarah his wife’ and is laced in between with variations of ‘bury . . . dead’ seven times.”[5] Moses writes in verse 2, “And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.” This is the only time in Abraham’s long story in which we are told that he wept. He didn’t weep at the death of his father, or at Lot’s capture, or at the destruction of the cities of the Dead Sea Plain, or even at the command to sacrifice Isaac. The death of a loved one is always a time to contemplate the temporal and the eternal.


Sarah was the first of many generations of God’s elect that would die without receiving the land promise (Heb. 11:13). Abraham had been told he himself would not live to see the land promise fulfilled. But he had the certainty that YHWH el olam, the eternal unchangeable Creator Covenant God, would fulfill his promises. “To your offspring I will give this land” (12: 7). “All the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever” (13: 15). “Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you” (13: 17). “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” (15: 18). “And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession” (17: 8).

Moses writes in verses 3 and 4, “And Abraham rose up from before his dead and said to the Hittites, “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you; give me property among you for a burying place, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.”  Previously, Abraham had nothing of the Promised Land other than grazing and water rights granted by Abimelech. As a resident alien now again living among the Hittites, he is not entitled to purchase land.[6] Surely over the course of his over 70 years of wanderings, he had slaves die. But never do we read he purchased burial plots for them. Some he no doubt buried in Egypt, others in Gerar. But now he seeks a place of burial that will testify to God’s covenant promises to him and Sarah and all Isaac’s seed. By owning a part of the land to bury his family, he was prophesying the ultimate ownership of this land by God’s people.

Abraham was so certain his descendants would receive this land of promise he wanted Sarah entombed here in the heart of Canaan as his public stake in God’s promises. Sarah’s death forced him to think again beyond the present appearance of things. So, St Author of Hebrew wrote, “By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.[7] Abraham was a sojourner and foreigner. His distant son David, the most powerful king of Israel, would also sing, “I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my fathers.[8] All that David was and all that he possessed was only temporary and he looked forward to a better and eternal land.

The Apostle Paul stated to the Ephesians, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” [9] To the church at Philippi he wrote, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.[10]

Abraham’s request to purchase a burial cave began the customary protocol of ancient Near-Eastern contract negotiations. The Hittites were the dominate culture of the region of Hebron at the time. They answered Abraham in perfect politeness and hospitality required by etiquette: “Hear us, my lord; you are a prince of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will withhold from you his tomb to hinder you from burying your dead” (v. 6). A foreigner cannot own land, but they politely offered the use of whatever tomb Abraham was pleased to choose. Their public recognition of Abraham as a prince of God among us was a foreshadowing of the blessings to come upon all peoples through this man if faith.

But Abraham was looking for something more permanent than a place to store his wife’s bones before moving on again. He was not seeking a favor, but a real estate deed. “Abraham rose and bowed to the Hittites, the people of the land. And he said to them, ‘If you are willing that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me and entreat for me Ephron the son of Zohar, that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he owns; it is at the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me in your presence as property for a burying place.’[11] Nowhere else do we read of Abraham bowing. But here he functions within the local customs. He is not above the world, but in the world and subject to its rulers and laws just as we are to be.

Moses continues: “10 Now Ephron was sitting among the Hittites, and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, of all who went in at the gate of his city, 11 ‘No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the sight of the sons of my people I give it to you. Bury your dead.’” Despite his threefold use of “I give,” Ephron is only following the exceedingly polite protocol for negotiating a sale.

Abraham could have asserted his spiritual right to the land. He could have jumped up and taken Ephron’s offer of free land. He could have demanded as God’s chosen prophet who carried God’s land grant that he be given the land. But Abraham would have no legal, contractual right to the land if he took the free offer. Why didn’t he “step out on faith and claim it”? Because God had already revealed (15:13-16) that Abraham’s descendants would inherit the land after 400 years of wandering and affliction. The covenant promise of land is a spiritual reality for Abraham, but not a physical reality. He must still function in the realm of the world, the flesh, and the devil. He must subject himself to the customs and laws of the land. Like you and I, Father Abraham lives in the reality of the “Already, but not yet.” He is a citizen of heaven who must also become a citizen of the Hittites to own Ephron’s cave at Machpelah.

Under Hittite law, if Abraham purchased the agriculturally worthless cave only, he would owe no taxes or civil obligations to the government. But if he purchases the entire property for an agreed upon price, then he must take on all the obligations of Hittite citizenship, including loyalty to king and country. Abraham must hold dual citizenship the same as you and I do.[12] The man the Hittites call “a prince of God” must subject himself to Hittite culture in order to act out his prophecy of future ownership of all Canaan.

The Apostle Paul didn’t invent the idea of being in subjection to earthly rulers, God’s prophet Abraham acted it out millennia before. This is why Paul would later write to the church of Rome:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. …one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. [13]

For Abraham, the elaborate contractual ceremony continues in verses 12 through 15. “12 Then Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. 13 And he said to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, ‘But if you will, hear me: I give the price of the field. Accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there.’ 14 Ephron answered Abraham, 15 ‘My lord, listen to me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.’[14] Four hundred shekels of silver was a large sum of money. In the early Bronze Age, there were no coins. So, silver nuggets were weighed on a scale as currency. Ephron receives pounds of silver (some say only 6.25 pounds, others over 100; nobody really knows the equivalent English weight of a shekel). Some suggest Abraham allowed himself to be ripped off as they consider this an excessive price. But Moses doesn’t tell us how large the entire property was so there’s no way for us to know if this was a bad deal. It’s possible that Abraham pays over a portion of the 1,000 pieces of silver he received from Abimelech as a declaration of Sarah’s innocence (20:16).

What we do know is that Abraham made no counteroffer. He insisted on paying the full price. One scholar writes:

[The transaction] parallels the exchange between David and Araunah over the purchase of Araunah’s threshing floor (2 Sam. 24:18–25; 1 Chr. 21:22–25), even to the point that David insists on paying the full price for the property. Like Abraham before him, David believes that the property cannot legally become his unless he pays the full, legitimate price (1 Chr. 21:24). To receive the property for free could be an insidious way of the original proprietor retaining actual ownership of the land. [15]

Abraham received what he wanted. First, the deal was transacted in the gate of Ephron’s city in full public view. Second, the agreement was struck in the hearing of all the Hittites, who watched as the pounds of silver were measured out (v. 16) according to common business practices of the era. Third, the price was Ephron’s first offer so that no Hittite could dispute Abraham’s ownership. No price was too high for a resting place for his bride and princess. All was done with patriarchal dignity and in submission to the common mercy of God expressed in the will of the local civil government.[16]


Moses concludes the scene in verses 17-20. “17 So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field, throughout its whole area, was made over 18 to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, before all who went in at the gate of his city. 19 After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. 20 The field and the cave that is in it were made over to Abraham as property for a burying place by the Hittites.

No one knows for certain where the cave of Machpelah was. The traditional burial site of the patriarchs has a large rectangular building on top, half of which is a synagogue and half a mosque. The Jews consider it to be the second most holy place in the world after the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The cave became an ossuary, a depository for the burial of the patriarchs’ bones. Each patriarch gave their testimony of trust into the Promised Seed by insisting on burial at that sight.

Calvin wrote of this scene:

Abraham often declares that he was buying the field for a place of sepulture. And Moses is the more minute in this matter, that we may learn, with our father Abraham, to raise our minds to the hope of the resurrection. He saw the half of himself taken away; but because he was certain that his wife was not exiled from the kingdom of God, he hides her dead body in the tomb, until he and she should be gathered together.[17]

Abraham’s descendants made the cave in Ephron’s field the family cemetery. Here, Isaac and Ishmael buried Abraham. Isaac and Rebekah were also buried in Machpelah. Jacob buried Leah here. Joseph buried his father Jacob in the cave tomb (Gen. 49:29–32). Genesis ends with Joseph dying in Egypt, far from the land promised to Abraham’s descendants, and charging his sons to take his body with them when God takes them back to the Promised Land. For this trust into the covenant, Joseph is praised in the Book of Hebrews (Heb. 11:22).[18]

The land transaction receives far more words from Moses than Sarah’s death to draw attention to the fact that Abraham’s actions are those of a prophet revealing the divine word of YHWH. He wept and mourned over the death of his wife. But then the prophet acts out that to which the Apostle Paul will later give words, writing to the believers in Thessalonica:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.[19]

When Abraham arose from his mourning, the prophet said to the Hittites, “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you.” Abraham’s children considered those words so important they are repeated throughout the history of Israel. When Moses gave God’s instruction regarding the land, he said to the people, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev. 25:23).[20] When David uttered his great prayer to God at the dedication of material for building the temple, he said, “But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. 15 For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding.” [21] Writes one scholar, “In each case—even in later Jewish history, when the land was actually in Jewish possession—the true people of God used Abraham’s expression to confess that their home was not here but that they awaited a better home—heaven.”[22] The earthly land promise was conditional and temporal. Israel lost their title to Palestine through disobedience to God and never recovered it.

What Abraham, and all who trust into the perfectly-lived life and sacrificial death of the risen and ascended Promised Seed, the Lord Jesus Christ, sought as the ultimate Land was not Canaan but the heavenly city – the place were God fully and eternally fulfills his promises to be our God, for us to be his people and to live fully and uninterruptedly with Him. Christ lived the holy life Adam failed to live and died the blood-shedding death of an innocent which Adam’s (and our) sin deserves. He offers his sacrifices to any who will but trust into his person and work as the only means of being right with God. Only those who are counted righteous in Christ can anchor themselves in that perfect city. Only we, like Abraham, have that comfort in life and death.

St Author of Hebrews wrote of Abraham and all with him who looked to the coming person and work of the Promised Seed:

…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. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. [23]

That city is also prepared for us who have rejected our citizenship with the world, the flesh, and the devil. Let us draw hope from that well as we sojourn in this dry and weary land. We weep when there is cause to weep. We get on with the business of living when life must be lived. But in joy or in sorrow, in life or in death, we do not forget that we are citizens of that heavenly city and press on toward it.[24]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 22:20–23:6.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Is 51:1–2.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 11:11.

[4] Luther, 4:189.

[5] Hughes, 308. Kindle Edition.

[6] Waltke and Fredricks, 315.

[7] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 11:9–10.

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ps 39:12.

[9] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Eph 2:19–22.

[10] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Php 3:20–21.

[11] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 23:7–9.

[12] Hamilton, 2:130.

[13] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ro 13:1–7.

[14] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 23:12–15.

[15] Hamilton, 2:131.

[16] Hughes, 310. Kindle Edition.

[17] Calvin, Ge 23:8.

[18] Boice, 2:714.

[19] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Th 4:13–14.

[20] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Le 25:23–24.

[21] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Ch 29:14–16.

[22] Boice, 2:14.

[23] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 11:13–16.

[24] Boice, 2:715.