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Abraham the Stranger

The Promises of God (The Life of Abraham)

Part XVIII

Series: Genesis: The Foundations of the Faith

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on May 23, 1999

Genesis 23:1-20

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Genesis 23:1-20

Abraham, the Stranger

If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Genesis 23. The last two weeks we have reviewed the climatic demonstration of Abraham's faith, his love to God in the offering of Isaac, his son, his only son whom he loved, and we have seen God's gracious oath given to Abraham in response, an oath of commitment to Abraham in which He swore by Himself to fulfill His promises. And this week we come to the very last of our studies in the life of Abraham. Oh, Abraham will be around for a few chapters to come, but after Genesis 23, Moses emphasis is on Isaac and his family. And so as we come to Genesis 23, I think you’ll agree with me there is a bitter sweetness, a poignancy about this chapter. Let's hear then God's holy word in Genesis 23:

Genesis 23:1-20

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the truth of Your word and in this passage which contains in it so many strange customs of which we are not familiar. We ask that You would yet open it to us, that the truth of Your word might inspire our hearts to hope and trust in You and in Your word. We ask these things in Jesus' name, Amen.

This is a story about persevering to the end. This is the story about trust in God and His promises. And this is also a story about unfulfilled hopes and dreams. But over and over in this chapter, one point is made clear. Abraham will receive a small parcel of land in the land of Canaan. And that parcel of land serves as a pledge, a down payment for the full return that God has promised him. God had promised Abraham that the land of Canaan was his. Sarah, his dear wife, would die and at her death he would own nothing. And after her death he would only own a field with a cave in it in which to bury his dead. And so Abraham had sojourned the whole course of his life and as of yet only owned one parcel in the land of promise. And yet that parcel was a pledge of the hope to come. And that is the point of this chapter. Over and over it is stressed that Sarah died in the land of Canaan, and that she was buried in the land of Canaan. And that Abraham was deeded over by the Hittites themselves a plot of land in the land of Canaan. So let's walk through the scenes of this poignant passage together.

Basically I'd like to break it down into five parts. I think that's rather logical. Let me explain why. First of all, if you look at verses 1 and 2 you see there the description of the death of Sarah. Immediately after Abraham has finished his morning time, he arises and in verses 3 through 6, we come to the second section of the chapter in which he approaches the elders of the city and asks them to sell him a place where he can bury his dead. Then in verses 7 through 11 after he has first made the request, and the elders of the city have responded with their own substitute suggestion, Abraham again, very politely, approaches the elders of the city and makes a specific offer, for a specific place, in a specific field owned by a specific citizen of the area. And so that's the third section in verses 7 through 11. Then that request is again substituted. There's a counteroffer made, and you enter the fourth section of the passage. It's in verses 12 through 16. There, Abraham eventually agrees to pay an exorbitant price for this field which was owned by Ephron, the Hittite. And finally in verses 17 through 20, it is recounted that Abraham is now a landowner in the land of Canaan. But what does he own? He owns a burial plot. That's it. Now, let's walk through this passage together very briefly tonight.

I. The death of Sarah.

We begin looking at verses 1 and 2 where the story of the death of Sarah is recorded. And we see here that Sarah dies in the land of Canaan, the land of promise. This chapter is a gigantic illustration, isn't it, of the truth that you find in Hebrews, chapter 11, verse 13? All these died in faith without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. And herein is the poignancy of this passage. We feel for Abraham and for Sarah. Their long sojourn without ever landing their own homestead in the land of Canaan. I want to remind you, by the way, that the old name mentioned here for Hebron reminds us of the presence of the Hittites, the sons of Heth in this passage, are related to the Hittites. So what we're being told is that our father of the faith, Abraham, bought his first plot of land in the land of Canaan from the Hittites themselves.

Now Sarah, we're told here, lived to be 127 years old. That would mean that Isaac was 36 or 37 years old. God was gracious to allow her to see her son into manhood. She could see with her own eyes her son, Isaac, growing into his own. I want to mention also that Sarah is the only woman in all of the Bible whose death and age at death is recorded in the Scriptures. That shows us her importance in the plan of God. We can scarcely imagine the impact of Sarah's death upon Abraham. They had wandered together for over 60 years, and they had been married, perhaps, for well more than a 100 years. And now Abraham makes his sojourn alone.

It's interesting, too, isn't it? The Bible never tells us to follow the example of Mary, the mother of Jesus. But twice, once in the Old Testament and once in the New Testament, we are told to follow the example of Sarah. Let me turn you to those passages. The first one you will find in Isaiah 51, verses 1 and 2. There Isaiah says this: “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, Who seek the Lord; 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 gave birth to you in pain; When he was but one I called him, and then I blessed him and multiplied him.” So here the children of Israel are called upon to look back to Abram and Sarah, the rock from which they were hewn. Then if you turn over to I Peter, chapter 3, verses 3 through 6, Peter says this to Christians and especially to Christian women: “Your adornment must not be merely external - braiding the hair, wearing gold jewelry, putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands; just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear.” Beautiful description of Sarah's submission in hard times to father Abraham. Sarah is a poster child for the submissive wife. What that man put that dear woman through deserves to be recounted and how faithful she was along the way. Ever since I read the book Red Hills and Cotton, a book which will not be familiar to many of you. But ever since I read Red Hills and Cotton, I can't help but think of grandmother Bowen every time I read the story of Sarah. And if you’ll indulge me for just a minute, I’ll read you Ben Robertson's description of his grandmother Bowen. This is Ben Robertson who was a journalist in South Carolina back in the 1920's and ‘30's. He says, “My grandmother and many southerners like her became serene in their old age. Because during their days they had faced every sort of tragedy and desperate trouble and had survived. There was no terror left that could try them. They had fought a gigantic, devastating war and had lost it. They had seen their country stripped and looted. They had lived under the unreasoning despotism of soldiers. They had lived under a radical government. Almost starving, they had taken the law into their own hands. They had ridden at night and terrorized. They had not hesitated to vote tombstones in elections. They had nullified an amendment to the Constitution. They had reconstructed a state, and in their old age their strength was firm. They were stoic in their repose. My grandmother was a short, round lady, all curves, with long wavy, snow white hair and clear eyes as blue almost as the sky. And she had a notable complexion. When she was more than seventy years of age, old Confederate veterans would come up to her at reunions and tell her tenderly that for fifty years they had remembered the beauty of her skin. Our grandmothers and grandfathers in the south influenced my generation more than all the schools and universities. Sensitive, eager, my grandmother was a real southern woman. We loved her, respected the richness of her glowing character. We admired the pattern she had made of her uncompromising life. Our grandmother taught us more than she ever knew. Sometimes I think she had more to do with our defining purpose than even did our fathers and mothers. They had knowledge and intuition and the power to inspire. She never gave up, never lost hope, although to her the land was a land of darkness, as darkness itself and of the shadow of death. Without any order and where the light itself was as darkness, and yet her voice to us was a cry.” I always think of old grandmother Bowen when I read of Sarah, this woman who wandered with her husband all of her life. And, of course, Sarah's death provides yet another opportunity for Abraham to show his faith in the promises. Well now he sets out to buy a plot in the land of Canaan, showing that he trusted that God would one day give His descendants the land.

II. Abraham purchases a grave for Sarah.

So we move to verses 3 through 6. Here, Abraham approaches the Hittites, and he asks to purchase a grave. They respond by offering to share a grave with him, to provide free of charge one of their own graves. So we see here Abraham seeking a burial plot in Canaan. Abraham, we are told in verses 3 through 6, politely speaks to the local Hittites, and he inquires about the purchase of a suitable burial site for Sarah. He acknowledges, if you’ll notice, in verse 4, he acknowledges himself to be a stranger. That is a technical, legal term. In other words, he's saying, I acknowledge that I am a resident alien and a nomad, and, therefore, my rights are due. So would you do me the favor of selling me a burial plot? He knows that he does not have the right to go in and demand that they sell to him. He is a resident alien, and there is the poignancy there, too, that at the end of his life our father, Abraham, would be known as a stranger and a sojourner, a resident alien and a nomad. And so Abraham approaches the city elders, and he requests to purchase a place, and they offer very kindly to share one of their own plots. But underneath that offer you must understand they desire that Abraham would not gain a permanent foothold in their land. You see once he was a landholder, then he would have had certain rights under the law, and they would have much rather him remain a landless dependent who had simply received their generosity.

III. The offer.

And so in verses 7 through 11 Abraham persists in his quest for a grave. And he comes out and he suggests the cave of Machpelah. And Ephron, the Hittite, offers him this field. Abraham, in verse 7, again very politely bows before the elders of the city, and he revisits his request. But this time he makes a specific suggestion of a place, and he mentions the owner. Now this was a good strategy on Abraham's part. He knew that by speaking in general to a group, he might not receive as warm a reply or response to his request as if he identified one particular person who was a potential seller, and of course a potential beneficiary of the sale. And so he mentions the name of a person from whom he is willing to buy, and he offers full price. But he says explicitly that all he wants is the cave. He’ll buy the field, but he just wants the cave. Now, by the way, if Abraham had been able to buy simply the cave, under Hittite law he would have had no right of obligation to the Hittite king in the area. And so Ephron makes a seemingly generous offer. He begins by saying, oh no, Abraham, you don't need to buy the cave. I’ll give you the field. Now apparently we are told this was a totally insincere offer. This was the beginning of a bargaining process. A bargaining match. A maneuvering to sell the field. By mentioning the field, Ephron is basically asking Abraham to give him a price. What are you willing to pay to buy the whole deal?

IV. The offer is accepted.

So in verses 12 through 16 after this haggling process, Abraham finally becomes a landowner in the land of Canaan. And he agrees to pay an exorbitant price to this Hittite. He refuses to allow the offer of Ephron to stand. Assuming it to be sincere, even if Abraham had accepted Ephron's offer, once Ephron was dead his children could, under Hittite law, have demanded the return of the land. So Abraham wanted to make sure that that land was secured for him and for his descendants. And so he agrees to pay an equitable price for the field. And then immediately the Hittite takes advantage of the weakness of Abraham's position. He says to him, “My Lord, listen to me; a price of land worth say four hundred shekels, what is that between two men like you and me?” We are men of means. Four hundred shekels is nothing. Well, you will recall that all that Jeremiah paid for a field in Israel 1500 years later was seventeen shekels. Now you can figure out what Ephron has just asked Abraham to pay. It is a huge price for this field. And of course Ephron probably expected Abraham to haggle with him. But Abraham's response takes him by surprise. He agrees to Ephron's price so that none of the descendants of Ephron can ever challenge his or his descendants’ ownership of the land on the grounds that they had been given a less than fair market value. For in Hittite law, if there was a land transaction of less than market value and then the descendants of the seller land ran into economic financial trouble, then they could sue and seek back the land which they had sold. And so Abraham pays a huge price in order to secure the land. And on the plot of land that he buys the patriarchs are buried. He establishes ownership on this parcel of land in Canaan, this burial plot.

V. The burial site described.

Now by the way as you look at verses 17 through 20, the details mentioned there, for instance the trees. The mentioning of how many trees are in the boundaries and the details accompanying in verses 17 through 20 are characteristic of Hittite treaty documents connected to real estate sales. When we find copies of Hittite land transaction documents, they are written just like this. And these details indicate that this was a fully secured contract. And of course the importance of this chapter lies in the obtaining of the grave. As Derek Kidner says, “They all died in faith.” By leaving their bones in Canaan the patriarchs gave their last witness to the promise, as Joseph's dying words made clear. And so Sarah's burial in the land of Canaan is important as a pledge of belief in the promises of God. What words, Joseph's words, his dying words - by the way, you’ll find them in Genesis 50:25. There he says this: “God will surely take care of you, and you shall carry my bones up from here.” Joseph didn't want to be left buried in Egypt. He wanted his bones brought back to the land of Canaan and buried with the patriarchs.

And so Sarah, Abraham and Isaac and Rebekah and Leah and Jacob would all be buried in this cave on this plot, the first foothold of ground owned by Abraham in the land of promise. This is, of course, a testimony to the certainty of Abraham's hope in the promise. When he was silent and in the grave, the cave of Machpelah cried out death formed no obstacle to his hope in the possession of God's promises. And isn't that the point of Hebrews, chapter 11, verses 9 and 10 and verse 16. Would you turn with me there. Hebrews, chapter 11, verses 9 and 10 and verse 16: “By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow-heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. And then again in verse 16: “They desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.”

And so this is a story about persevering to the end, fighting the good fight, trusting in God and in His promises and waiting on Him even when our dreams are unfulfilled. May God help us all to walk in the way of Abraham and Sarah. Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God it inspires us just to contemplate the faithfulness of these our forefathers in the faith. We thank you, oh Lord, for the one who was their hope, the Lord Jesus Christ. And we ask that by His grace we would persevere to the end, trusting in the promises of God, and one day walk in the celestial city whose trees and leaves are for the healing of the nations. We ask it in Jesus' name, Amen.

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© First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.