Bible Commentary: Genesis 23

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Bible Commentary

Genesis 23

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The Death of Sarah

Sarah dies at 127 years of age. She had lived to see her beloved Isaac reach his 37th birthday. Abraham must now provide a burial place for his wife. The transactions recorded in this chapter are insightful for their picturesque detail and cultural accuracy.

At one time various scholars declared the Hittites (descendants of Heth, mentioned in Genesis 10:15 Genesis 10:15And Canaan begat Sidon his first born, and Heth,
American King James Version×
) to be fiction because archaeologists and historians could find no trace of them outside the Bible. Thus, in their reasoning, the Bible was also a fiction. But then came revolutionary archaeological finds that conclusively proved the Hittites were not imaginary but instead ruled a large and powerful empire centered in modern-day Turkey but with extensive holdings in upper Mesopotamia, down the eastern Mediterranean coast and even in Egypt for a time. Much of the archaeological data on the Hittites comes from voluminous cuneiform tablets detailing business transactions. Interestingly, those tablets show that Hittite title deeds to land made particular mention of the number of trees on the property, just as recorded in verse 17—a small detail that provides startling confirmation of the accuracy of the Genesis record.

The actions and dialogue recorded between Abraham and the Hittites provide a marvelous picture not only of Abraham’s personal comportment but also of the complex rules of approach common to much of Middle Eastern culture. Abraham calls himself a stranger and sojourner when he addresses the council of the sons of Heth. The word translated stranger is ger. The ger was similar to what we call a resident alien, and it carried the idea of submissive dependency upon the host. That Abraham would so characterize himself before a council who knew him to be a “mighty prince among us” (verse 6) shows not only his humility but also the cultural practice of self-humiliation. This self-humiliation is reinforced by Abraham twice bowing himself before the people.

The dialogue between Abraham and Ephron also preserves the very strong Middle Eastern flavor of the whole transaction. Abraham requested the council of the sons of Heth to “intercede for me” (as the Hebrew literally says) with Ephron, at once showing deference and submission befitting his status as a ger. Ephron, in fact, was already sitting before Abraham (for verse 10 should be translated, “And Ephron sat among the sons of Heth”), but to show his deference Abraham does not directly address him. Now the haggling for a price begins.

Although the conversation does not appear to be haggling, it actually is—only it is done in such a way as to cause each party to the negotiation, Abraham and Ephron, to appear to be righteous and generous. Ephron, with great show, implores Abraham to take the land without payment, an offer that he fully expects Abraham to politely refuse. Indeed, according to the culture of the day, Abraham had to refuse. It should be noted here, though, that Abraham had only asked for the cave at the end of Ephron’s field. Ephron’s response meant that if Abraham wanted the cave, he was going to have to buy the whole field. In reply, Abraham offers to buy the field, but he does not name a price—for to do so would have transgressed proper etiquette by putting Ephron in the awkward position of appearing to put the bite on a mourning man if the price were not to his liking. Ephron then replies, again with an award-winning display of “magnanimity,” naming as expected a price for the land that was somewhat excessive but characterizing it as an inconsiderable sum.

Normally, Abraham’s next move would be to “generously” offer a lower amount, leading Ephron to come down on his price. The haggling would continue until a satisfactory deal was struck. But in this circumstance, Abraham simply pays the first price Ephron names. Perhaps he wanted all to witness that his acquiring of this property was more than fair. No doubt, he wanted the land right away—and that there be no question about ownership. With the negotiations ended, Abraham acquires the property for a burial place. Remarkably, with all that God promised Abraham, this was the only piece of land the Bible records him ever personally owning during his lifetime.

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