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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator

Genesis 23



Verse 1-2

Genesis 23:1-2

Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her

Abraham in the house of mourning

What lessons would such a man as Abraham learn in this house of mourning?


II. TO REALIZE THE FACT OF HIS OWN MORTALITY. “I may be the next to go.”



Mourning for the departed

The true mourning a sanctified feeling of death.

1. A fellow-feeling of death with the dead.

2. An anticipation of death or a living preparation for one’s own death.

3. A believing sense of the end or destination of death to be made useful to the life. (J. P. Lange, D. D.)


1. On Mount Moriah we find Abraham doing God’s will; here we find him suffering it.

2. Look at Abraham buying a grave; the best man of his age here bargains for burial ground. Ponder well this transaction, and consider that in return for four hundred pieces of silver Abraham gets a burying-place.

3. The behaviour of the children of Heth calls for appreciative notice. They treated Abraham with generous pity and helpfulness.

4. Man’s final requirement of man is a grave. In the grave there is no repentance; the dead man cannot obliterate the past.

5. Abraham mourned for Sarah. Consecration to God’s purpose does not eradicate our deep human love; say, rather, that it heightens, refines, sanctifies it. (J. Parker, D. D.)

A break in the home circle

Perhaps we who lead briefer and, at the same time, more stirring and varied lives, with rapid change and a multitude of interests to divide attention, cannot fully realize how the members of such a home circle as Abraham’s grew into each other, or how one out of such a circle would be missed. Through long unbroken periods they lived constantly together, and were everything to one another. Of society, except that of their own slaves, there was little or none. The round of easy occupations which made up their shepherd life left ample leisure for domestic converse. It was inevitable that their lives should grow together as if welded into one. Husband and wife, parent and child, must have moulded one another’s character to an extent hardly possible in other states of society. Stronger natures impressed themselves upon feebler ones. The older generation made that which succeeded it. The experiences and the teaching of the aged father created an unwritten family code, which ruled alike his son and his grandson. Each memorable incident in the family annals crystallized itself, no doubt, through constant repetition, and passed down with hardly any change of form as part of the family tradition. From such a close circle of relations the disappearance of one loved and familiar face would leave a blank never to be filled and scarcely ever to be forgotten. This must have been especially the case when death made its first breach in the family, and, at the ripe age of a hundred and twenty-seven years, Sarah, princess, wife, and mother, fell asleep. Her death made Abraham a lonely man. It broke the final link to his ancestral home. It robbed him of the only one who cherished with him a common memory of his father’s house and the happy days of youth. She alone was left of those who, sixty-two years before, had shared his venturous emigration from Haran. He was her senior by ten years; and her removal must have come to him like a warning that before him likewise there lay another emigration, more venturous than the last--one final journey into a land still farther off. (J. O. Dykes, D. D.)


1. Of Sarah, princess. Kings and great men die. “Wealth cannot deliver in the day of his power.”

2. The wife of a great man. Derives her chief dignity from this connection. Little expected the honour that would befall her from this marriage. The source of Abraham’s joy, as well as the occasion of some of his sins.

3. The mother of the free. The ancestress of Jesus, and those who believe in Him.

4. Died at Hebron = alliance. The alliance with Abraham dissolved, and her eternal alliance with Abraham’s God, and one who was before Abraham John 8:58), now inaugurated. Happy are those who compose the bride--the Lamb’s wife; the day of death is with them the day of theirespousals. The alliances of earth, abandoned for a better and more lasting one.


1. A cave. We are of the earth, earthy. Dust, and must return to dust.

2. Purchased. Abraham selected one that would receive his own remains. (“The family meeting-place” is an epitaph at Pere la Chaise.) Men sometimes think more of their sepulchres than of death; and make greater preparation for the temporary repose of the body than the eternal rest of the soul. It was all that Abraham purchased of the promised land. The country was given to the living. The promised land of heaven for the living is a free gift, and there will be no bargaining for graves there. Man sells a place for the dead, God gives a home for the living.

III. THE BURIAL. “That I may bury my dead out of my sight.” The object that once most pleased the eye must be put “ out of sight,” as a loathsome thing. Life, a fountain of beauty and attractiveness. How glorious that world must be where they die no more, and are never put out of sight. Those who die in the Lord, and are put out of sight, will presently be in sight for ever. The aged man before the grave of his wife. The parting is not for long. A few more steps, and he will be at home with his princess for ever. But with all this Christian hope, the loss of dear friends and the sunderings of long companionships is painful. At such times may we be able to say, “Thy will be done.” Learn:

1. The great and good and best loved must die.

2. The earthly dissolution may be the beginning of our eternal union.

3. It is little the world can furnish us besides a place to lie down in at the end of the journey.

4. Happy are those who, being saved themselves, have a good hope of meeting those who are “not lost, but gone before.” (J. C. Gray.)

Tears over the dead

In those tears of Abraham was anguish; but there might have been remorse. Apparently Abraham had nothing to reproach himself with. Quarrels in his married life are recorded, but in all he behaved with tenderness, concession, and dignity. In all things he had supported and cherished his wife, bearing, like a strong man, the burdens of the weak. But oh! let us beware. There are bitter recollections which enhance the sorrow of bereavement and change it into agony--recollections which are repeated to us in words which remorse will not cease to echo for ever and ever. “Oh, if they would but come again, I’d never grieve them more.” It is this which makes tears scald. To how many a grown heart have not those childish words of the infant hymn gone home, sharp, with an undying pang! (F. W. Robertson, M. A.)

A burying-place

Constantine the Great, in order to reclaim a very worldly man, marked out, with a lance, a piece of ground the size of a human body, and then said, “If you could increase your possessions till you acquired the whole world, in a short time such a spot as this will be all you will have.”

Verses 1-20


Genesis 23:1-20

IT may be supposed to be a needless observation that our life is greatly influenced by the fact that it speedily and certainly ends in death. But it might be interesting, and it would certainly be surprising, to trace out the various ways in which this fact influences life. Plainly every human affair would be altered if we lived on here for ever, supposing that were possible. What the world would be had we no predecessors, no wisdom but what our own past experience and the genius of one generation of men could produce, we can scarcely imagine. We can scarcely imagine what life would be or what the world would be did not one generation succeed and oust another and were we contemporary with the whole process of history. It is the grand irreversible and universal law that we give place and make room for others. The individual passes away, but the history of the race proceeds. Here on earth in the meantime, and not elsewhere, the history of the race is being played out, and each having done his part, however small or however great, passes away. Whether an individual, even the most gifted and powerful, could continue to be helpful to the race for thousands of years, supposing his life were continued, it is needless to inquire. Perhaps as steam has force only at a certain pressure, so human force requires the condensation of a brief life to give it elastic energy. But these are idle speculations. They show us, however, that our life beyond death will be not so much a prolongation of life as we now know it as an entire change in the form of our existence; and they show us also that our little piece of the world’s work must be quickly done if it is to be done at all, and that it will not be done at all unless we take our life seriously and own the responsibilities we have to ourselves, to our fellows, to our God.

Death comes sadly to the survivor, even when there is as little untimeliness as in the case of Sarah; and as Abraham moved towards the familiar tent the most intimate of his household would stand aloof and respect his grief. The stillness that struck upon him, instead of the usual greeting, as he lifted the tent-door; the dead order of all inside; the one object that lay stark before him and drew him again and again to look on what grieved him most to see; the chill which ran through him as his lips touched the cold, stony forehead and gave him sensible evidence how gone was the spirit from the clay-these are shocks to the human heart not peculiar to Abraham. But few have been so strangely bound together as these two were, or have been so manifestly given to one another by God, or have been forced to so close a mutual dependence. Not only had they grown up in the same family, and been together separated from their kindred, and passed through unusual and difficult circumstances together, but they were made co-heirs of God’s promise in such a manner that neither could enjoy it without the other. They were knit together, not merely by natural liking and familiarity of intercourse, but by God’s choosing them as the instrument of His work and the fountain of His salvation. So that in Sarah’s death Abraham doubtless read an intimation that his own work was done, and that his generation is now out of date and ready to be supplanted.

Abraham’s grief is interrupted by the sad but wholesome necessity which forces us from the blank desolation of watching by the dead to the active duties that follow. She whose beauty had captivated two princes must now be buried out of sight. So Abraham stands up from before his dead. Such a moment requires the resolute fortitude and manly self-control which that expression seems intended to suggest. There is something within us which rebels against the ordinary ongoing of the world side by side with our great woe; we feel as if either the whole world must mourn with us, or we must go aside from the world and have our grief out in private. The bustle of life seems so meaningless and incongruous to one whom grief has emptied of all relish for it. We seem to wrong the dead by every return of interest we show in the things of life which no longer interest him. Yet he speaks truly who says:

"When sorrow all our heart would ask,

We need not shun our daily task,

And hide ourselves for calm;

The herbs we seek to heal our woe,

Familiar by our pathway grow,

Our common air is balm."

We must resume our duties, not as if nothing had happened, not proudly forgetting death and putting grief aside as if this life did not need the chastening influence of such realities as we have been engaged with, or as if its business could not be pursued in an affectionate and softened spirit, but acknowledging death as real and as humbling and sobering.

Abraham then goes forth to seek a grave for Sarah, having already with a common predilection fixed on the spot where he himself would prefer to be laid. He goes accordingly to the usual meeting-place or exchange of these times, the city-gate, where bargains were made, and where witnesses for their ratification could always be had. Men who are familiar with Eastern customs rather spoil for us the scene described in this chapter by assuring us that all these courtesies and large offers are merely the ordinary forms preliminary to a bargain, and were as tittle meant to be literally understood as we mean to be literally understood when we sign ourselves "your most obedient servant." Abraham asks the Hittite chiefs to approach Ephron on the subject, because all bargains of the kind are negotiated through mediators. Ephron’s offer of the cave and field is merely a form. Abraham quite understood that Ephron only indicated his willingness to deal, and so he urges him to state his price, which Ephron is not slow to do; and apparently his price was a handsome one, such as he could not have asked from a poorer man, for he adds, "What are four hundred shekels between wealthy men like you and me? Without more words let the bargain be closed-bury thy dead."

The first landed property, then, of the patriarchs is a grave. In this tomb were laid Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah; here, too, Jacob buried Leah, and here Jacob himself desired to be laid after his death, his last words being, "Bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite." This grave, therefore, becomes the centre of the land. Where the dust of our fathers is, there is our country; and as you may often hear aged persons, who are content to die and have little else to pray for, still express a wish that they may rest in the old well-remembered churchyard where their kindred lie, and may thus in the weakness of death find some comfort, and in its solitariness some companionship from the presence of those who tenderly sheltered the helplessness of their childhood; so does this place of the dead become henceforth the centre of attraction for all Abraham’s seed to which still from Egypt their longings and hopes turn, as to the one magnetic point which, having once been fixed there, binds them ever to the land. It is this grave which binds them to the land. This laying of Sarah in the tomb is the real occupation of the land.

During the lapse of ages, all around this spot has been changed again and again; but at some remote period, possibly as early as the time of David, the reverence of the Jews built these tombs round with masonry so substantial that it still endures. Within the spate thus enclosed there stood for long a Christian church, but since the Mohammedan domination was established, a mosque has covered the spot. This mosque has been guarded against Christian intrusion with a jealousy almost as rigid as that which excludes all unbelievers from approaching Mecca. And though the Prince of Wales was a few years ago allowed to enter the mosque, he was not permitted to make any examination of the vaults beneath, where the original tomb must be.

It is evident that this narrative of the purchase of Machpelah and the burial of Sarah was preserved, not so much on account of the personal interest which Abraham had in these matters, as on account of the manifest significance they had in connection with the history of his faith. He had recently heard from his own kindred in Mesopotamia, and it might very naturally have occurred to him that the proper place to bury Sarah was in his fatherland. The desire to lie among one’s people is a very strong Eastern sentiment. Even tribes which have no dislike to emigration make provision that at death their bodies shall be restored to their own country. The Chinese notoriously do so. Abraham, therefore, could hardly have expressed his faith in a stronger form than by purchasing a burying-ground for himself in Canaan. It was equivalent to saying in the most emphatic form that he believed this country would remain in perpetuity the country of his children and people. He had as yet given no such pledge as this was, that he had irrevocably abandoned his fatherland. He had bought no other landed property; he had built no house. He shifted his encampment from place to place as convenience dictated, and there was nothing to hinder him from returning at any time to his old country. But now he fixed himself down; he said, as plainly as acts can say, that his mind was made up that this was to be in all time coming his land; this was no mere right of pasture rented for the season, no mere waste land he might occupy with his tents till its owner wished to reclaim it; it was no estate he could put into the market whenever trade should become dull and he might wish to realise or to leave the country; but it was a kind of property which he could not sell and could not abandon.

Again, his determination to hold it in perpetuity is evident not only from the nature of the property, but also from the formal purchase and conveyance of it-the complete and precise terms in which the transaction is completed. The narrative is careful to remind us again and again that the whole transaction was negotiated in the audience of the people of the land, of all those who went in at the gate, that the sale was thoroughly approved and witnessed by competent authorities. The precise subjects made over to Abraham are also detailed with all the accuracy of a legal document- "the field of Ephron, which was in Machpelah, which was before Mature, the field and the cave which was therein, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all the borders 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 this city." Abraham had no doubt of the friendliness of such men as Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre, his ancient allies, but he was also aware that the best way to maintain friendly relations was to leave no loophole by which difference of opinion or disagreement might enter. Let the thing be in black and white, so that there may be no misunderstanding as to terms, no expectations doomed to be unfulfilled, no encroachments which must cause resentment, if not retaliation. Law probably does more to prevent quarrels than to heal them. As statesmen and historians tell us that the best way to secure peace is to be prepared for war, so legal documents seem no doubt harsh and unfriendly, but really are more effective in maintaining peace and friendliness than vague promises and benevolent intentions. In arranging affairs and engagements one is always tempted to say, Never mind about the money, see how the thing turns out and we can settle that by-and-bye; or, in looking at a will, one is tempted to ask, of what strength is Christian feeling-not to say family affection-if all these hard-and-fast lines need to be drawn round the little bit of property which each is to have? But experience shows that this is false delicacy, and that kindliness and charity may be as fully and far more safely expressed in definite and legal terms than in loose promises or mere understandings.

Again, Abraham’s idea in purchasing this sepulchre is brought out by the circumstance that he would not accept the offer of the children of Heth to use one of their sepulchres. This was not pride of blood or any feeling of that sort, but the right feeling that what God had promised as His own peculiar gift must not seem to be given by men. Possibly no great harm might have come of it if Abraham had accepted the gift of a mere cave, or a shelf in some other man’s burying-ground; but Abraham could not bear to think that any captious person should ever be able to say that the inheritance promised by God was really the gift of a Hittite.

Similar captiousness appears not only in the experience of the individual Christian, but also in the treatment religion gets from the world. It is quite apparent, that is to say, that the world counts itself the real proprietor here, and Christianity a stranger fortunately or unfortunately thrown upon its shores and upon its mercy. One cannot miss noticing the patronising way of the world towards the Church and all that is connected with it, as if it alone could give it those things needful for its prosperity-and especially willing is it to come forward in the Hittite fashion and offer to the sojourner a sepulchre where it may be decently buried, and as a dead thing lie out of the way.

But thoughts of a still wider reach were no doubt suggested to Abraham by this purchase. Often must he have brooded on the sacrifice of Isaac, seeking to exhaust its meaning. Many a talk in the dusk must his son and he have had about that most strange experience. And no doubt the one thing that seemed always certain about it was, that it is through death a man truly becomes the heir of God; and here again in this purchase of a tomb for Sarah it is the same fact that stares him in the face. He becomes a proprietor when death enters his family; he himself, he feels, is likely to have no more than this burial-acre of possession of his land; it is only by dying he enters on actual possession. Till then he is but a tenant, not a proprietor; as he says to the children of Heth, he is but a stranger and a sojourner among them, but at death he will take up his permanent dwelling in their midst. Was this not to suggest to him that there might be a deeper meaning underlying this, and that possibly it was only by death he could enter fully into all that God intended he should receive? No doubt in the first instance it was a severe trial to his faith to find that even at his Wife’s death he had acquired no firmer foothold in the land. No doubt it was the very triumph of his faith that though he himself had never had a settled, permanent residence in the land, but had dwelt in tents, moving about from place to place, just as he had done the first year of his entrance upon it, yet he died in the unalterable persuasion that the land was his, and that it would one day be filled with his descendants. It was the triumph of his faith that he believed in the performance of the promise as he had originally understood it; that he believed in the gift of the actual visible land. But it is difficult to believe that he did not come to the persuasion that God’s friendship was more than any single thing He promised; difficult to suppose he did not feel something of what our Lord expressed in the words that God is the God of the living, not of the dead; that those who are His enter by death into some deeper and richer experience of His love.

Such is the interpretation put upon Abraham’s attitude of mind by the writer, who of all others saw most deeply into the moving principles of the Old Testament dispensation and the connection between old things and new-I mean the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews. He says that persons who act as Abraham did declare plainly that they seek a country; and if on finding they did not get the country in which they sojourned they thought the promise had failed, they might, he says, have found opportunity to return to the country whence they came at first. And why did they not do so? Because they sought a better, that is, a heavenly country. Wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He hath prepared for them a city; as if He said, God would have been ashamed of Abraham if he had been content with less, and had not aspired to something more than he received in the land of Canaan.

Now how else could Abraham’s mind have been so effectually lifted to this exalted hope as by the disappointment of his original and much tamer hope? Had he gained possession of the land in the ordinary way of purchase or conquest, and had he been able to make full use of it for the purposes of life: had he acquired meadows where his cattle might graze, towns where his followers might establish themselves, would he not almost certainly have fallen into the belief that in these pastures and by his worldly wealth and quiet and prosperity he was already exhausting God’s promise regarding the land? But buying the land for his dead he is forced to enter upon it from the right side, with the idea that not by present enjoyment of its fertility is God’s promise to him exhausted. Both in the getting of his heir and in the acquisition of his land his mind is led to contemplate things beyond the range of earthly vision and earthly success. He is led to the thought that God having become his God, this means blessing eternal as God Himself. In short Abraham came to believe in a life beyond the grave on very much the same grounds as many people still rely on. They feel that this life has an unaccountable poverty and meagreness in it. They feel that they themselves are much larger than the life here allotted to them. They are out of proportion. It may be said that this is their own fault; they should make life a larger, richer thing. But that is only apparently true; the very brevity of life, which no skill of theirs can alter, is itself a limiting and disappointing condition. Moreover, it seems unworthy of God as well as of man. As soon as a worthy conception of God possesses the soul, the idea of immortality forthwith follows it. We instinctively feel that God can do far more for us than is done in this life. Our knowledge of Him here is most rudimentary; our connection with Him obscure and perplexed, and wanting in fulness of result; we seem scarcely to know whose we are, and scarcely to be reconciled to the essential conditions of life, or even to God; -we are, in short, in a very different kind of life from that which we can conceive and desire. Besides, a serious belief in God, in a personal Spirit, removes at a touch all difficulties arising from materialism. If God lives and yet has no senses or bodily appearance, we also may so live; and if His is the higher state and the more enjoyable state, we need not dread to experience life as disembodied spirits.

It is certainly a most acceptable lesson that is read to us here-viz., that God’s promises do not shrivel but grow solid and expand as we grasp them. Abraham went out to enter on possession of a few fields a little richer than his own, and he found an eternal inheritance. Naturally we think quite the opposite of God’s promises; we fancy they are grandiloquent and magnify things, and that the actual fulfilment will prove unworthy of the language describing it. But as the woman who came to touch the hem of Christ’s garment, with some dubious hope that thus her body might be healed, found herself thereby linked to Christ for evermore, so always, if we meet God at any one point and honestly trust Him for even the smallest gift, He makes that the means of introducing Himself to us and getting us to understand the value of His better gifts. And indeed, if this life were all, might not God well be ashamed to call Himself our God? When He calls Himself our God He bids us expect to find in Him inexhaustible resources to protect and satisfy and enrich us. He bids us cherish boldly all innocent and natural desires. believing that we have in Him one who can gratify every such desire. But if this life be all, who can say existence has been perfectly satisfactory-if there be no reversal of what has here gone wrong, no restoration of what has here been lost, if there be no life in which conscience and ideas and hopes find their fulfilment and satisfaction, who can say he is content and could ask no more of God? Who can say he does not see what more God could do for him than has here been done? Doubtless there are many happy lives, doubtless there are lives which carry in them a worthiness and a sacredness which manifest God’s presence, but even such lives only more powerfully suggest a state in which all lives shall be holy and happy, and in which, freed from inward uneasiness and shame and sorrow, we shall live unimpeded the highest life, life as we feel it ought to be. The very joys men have here experienced suggest to them the desirableness of continued life; the love they have known can only intensify their yearning for this perpetual enjoyment; their whole experience of this life has served to reveal to them the endless possibilities of growth and of activity that are bound up in human nature; and if death is to end all this, what more has life been to any of us than a seed-time without a harvest, an education without any sphere of employment, a vision of good that can never be ours, a striving after the unattainable? If this is all that God can give us we must indeed be disappointed in Him.

But He is disappointed in us if we do not aspire to more than this. In this sense also He is ashamed to be called our God. He is ashamed to be known as the God of men who never aspire to higher blessings than earthly comfort and present prosperity. He is ashamed to be known as connected with those who think so lightly of His power that they look for nothing beyond what every man calculates on getting in this world. God means all present blessings and all blessings of a lower kind to lure us on to trust Him and seek more and more from Him. In these early promises of His He says nothing expressly and distinctly of things eternal. He appeals to the immediate wants and present longings of men-just as our Lord while on earth drew men to Himself by healing their diseases. Take, then, any one promise of God, and, however small it seems at first, it will grow in your hand; you will find always that you get more than you bargained for, that you cannot take even a little without going further and receiving all.

Verses 3-20

Genesis 23:3-20

Abraham buried Sarah his wife

Abraham burying his dead



1. His independence (Genesis 23:4; Genesis 23:6).

2. His exactness (Genesis 23:17-18).

3. His courtesy.


1. He believed in immortality.

2. He believed that God would grant his posterity to inherit the land.

3. He believed in a future state of blessedness for the righteous. (T. H.Leale.)

Circumstances connected with Sarah’s burial

1. Observe the honour which the ancients paid to the dead. This proves that they had a secret glimmer of immortality.

2. Observe the transaction with the children of Heth. A scriptural precedent for exactitude in business.

3. Observe also how courteous phrases contain a higher excellence than they mean. “What is that betwixt me and thee?” The children of Heth had no intention whatever of being taken at their word any more than a man has now when he calls himself your humble servant or bids you command him. We must go back to an earlier age when phrases were coined and meant something, when gifts were gifts and nothing was hoped for in return, in order to catch the life that was once in our conventional phraseology. So now language preserves, as marble preserves shells of hoar antiquity, the petrified phrases of a charity and humbleness which once were living. They are dead, but they do at least this, they keep up memorials of what should be. So that the world, in its daily language of politeness, has a record of its duty. Take those phrases, redeem them from death, live the life that was once in them. Let every man be as humble, as faithful, as obedient as his language professes, and the kingdom of God has come!

4. Lastly, we find in connection with Sarah’s burial a Divine provision for the healing of Abraham’s sorrow. He was compelled to exert himself to obtain a place to “ bury his dead out of his sight.” Had he not had to arouse himself and procure a grave for Sarah, he would have brooded over his grief. This is the merciful plan of compensation which God has provided for us; the necessities of life call us from our sorrow. All these merciful provisions plainly show us that we are in a Father’s world. (F. W. Robertson, M. A.)

Machpelah, and its first tenant





1. Because it has been the man’s dwelling-place.

2. Because it has assisted the soul to express itself.

3. Because it is destined for a higher and nobler service.

The purchased grave


1. It taught him that the highest earthly possessions terminate in a grave.

2. It implies that he waited for death.


1. Its purchase taught them that it would soon be theirs.

2. Its stillness taught them to be active.

3. Its solemnity taught them to seek that country where there is no grave. (Homilist.)

The cave of Machpelah


II. ABRAHAM’S PURCHASE. Strange possession to be the first portion in the land which was promised! A place to bury the dead in--yet observe how this very purchase is an act of faith and a pledge for the future fulfilment of God’s promises.

III. ABRAHAM’S HOPE (Hebrews 11:13-16). We Christians to whom more light has been granted concerning the hopes of “the heavenly city” beyond this earthly life can see how, in Jesus Christ and His gospel, the sorrow for the dead and the fear of death are changed into thankfulness and hope. In Christ’s death, burial, resurrection we trace an upward course to life eternal. Death is conquered. “Paradise” is the peaceful resting-place of those who “sleep in Jesus.” Heaven is the final fulness of joy. (W. S. Smith, B. D.)

Death and burial

Abraham declares himself a stranger and a sojourner in the land, and humbly prays for a burying-place to bury his dead, once so dear and so lovely, “out of his sight”; expressing thus a sad, universal, and most humiliating fact, that death “changes the countenance” of its victims, as well as “sendeth them away”; and so changes them that disgust succeeds to delight, terror to affection; and so dreadful is the mixture of the memory of past beauty and the sight of present decay, that the survivor needs no exhortation to hide his friend in the grave, but with eager haste commits parent, or child, or brother, or wife, or lover, into the dust, and almost rejoices as he shuts the coffin to know that that disfigured countenance he shall see no more. What a strange view of the power and mystery of death is implied in the thought of not hatred, but love, crying out for the eternal removal of its object out of its sight! But often it is not the mere physical rottenness which awakens this desire; often, too, there arise painful, agonizing, terrible thoughts on the sight of a departed friend. The whole of the past history of the friendship or love; its first commencement and the joys connected with it; the trials and troubles, perhaps partial estrangement or complete alienation for a time, which darkened its progress; the exquisite pleasures, or no less exquisite pangs, which alternated; benefits received from the departed which were unrequited, or injuries done to them which were never fully repaid; every harsh look or word on the side of the living remembered, while on that of the dead all but their smiles and kindness are forgotten; the scenes of the sick-bed; the last farewell on the brink of eternity; all these heartquaking, melting, rending images arise, and clustered around and pictured as they are on the mirror of that pale face and shut eye, might drive to insanity and howling despair, were it not that a veil for that mirror of past joy became sorrow, and past grief became distraction, has been provided, in the merciful lid of the coffin--a lid which henceforth only the worm, the eye of imagination sometimes venturing to peep into darkness, but as speedily withdrawing the gaze, and the light of the last morning, shall be able to penetrate. (G. Gilfillan.)

Significance of behaviour in the presence of grief

Circumstances test the true quality of men. Irreverence in the presence of grief is an infallible sign of the deepest degeneracy; it marks the ultimate deterioration of the human heart. On the other hand, to be chastened by sorrow, to be moved into generous pity and helpfulness, is to show that there is still something in the man on which the kingdom of Jesus Christ may be built. Never despair of any man who is capable of generous impulses. Put no man down as incurably bad, who will share his one loaf with the hungry, or give shelter to a lost little one. Poor and crude may be his formal creed, very dim and pitifully inadequate his view of scholastic theology; but there is a root in him which may be developed into much beauty and fruitfulness. For this reason, I cannot overlook the genial humanity and simple gracefulness of this act of the Hittites. (J. Parker, D. D.)

Ephron and Abraham--a life-like picture

It was quite in accordance with Eastern usage that Abraham did not apply directly to the proprietor of the plot in which the cave lay, Ephron by name, the son of Zohar, but made interest with him through the leading men of the city. Courtesy required, too, that their consent should be secured for the proposed arrangement. The whole narrative, which is most minute, wears the strongest local colouring. Abraham’s respectful attitude, his repeated prostrations with his face to the ground, the polite hospitality of the townsmen, the difficulty in coming to a bargain, the offer of Ephron to waive the question of price, his indirect mention of the four hundred shekels, the conclusion of the sale at the city gate in the place of concourse, the weighing of uncoined rings or ingots of silver which served for a medium of exchange, and the copious phraseology as of a legal document, by which, before witnesses, the cave, with the field, the fence around it, and the trees on it, were all conveyed in perpetuity to their new owner--these particulars correspond, we are assured by Dr. Thomson, a competent witness, to what may be seen at this day in Eastern bargain-making. It is true that nowadays the courtesy is merely formal, and such generous phrases as those of Ephron and his fellow-citizens are grown very hollow indeed. Still, it seems questionable to conclude, as Dr. Thomson himself has done, that they meant no more in that simple age, when the ceremonies of intercourse were newer and more truly reflected its spirit. Besides, it is hardly fair to place an occasion like that before us quite on a level with the ordinary chaffering of an Arab market-place. One must take care, no doubt, not to read all the incidents of a story, which is sacred as well as ancient, through such an unreal light as will invest them with fictitious dignity. On the other hand, we may equally err if, in our efforts to be realistic, we rob the record of its native dignity, or vulgarize the manners of antiquity because the manners of to-day are vulgar. (J. O. Dykes, D. D.)

Sarah’s tomb

Around the grotto which thus became the sepulchre of Abraham’s family, and which afterwards was to receive, not only his own dust, but that of his son and grandson with their wives, there has grown up an interest as enduring, and an obscurity as deep as attach to any grave on earth save one. The piety of some unknown age, probably Jewish, erected round the spot massive walls of noble masonry, which still exist. Inside these walls the devotion of early Christians consecrated a church, and over the church the devotion of the Mussulman a mosque. The gates of that mosque, the famous Haram of Hebron, had been closed against Western unbelievers for six centuries, when with extreme difficulty access to it was procured for the Prince of Wales and his suite in the year 1862. What they saw inside an enclosure so jealously guarded has been told with his accustomed precision of statement by Dean Stanley. Railed off, each one within its separate chapel, there lie the coffin-like shrines to which are attached the venerable names of Sarah and Abraham, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Leah and Jacob. These, however, are only empty monuments. The real tombs, if they exist at all, must be sought beneath the floor of the building, in the rocky cavern underground. To this vault a trap-door in the pavement promises to give access; but as yet its darkness remains unvisited and unviolated. So far as could be ascertained through such a brief and partial inspection of the mosque, it is clear that the contents of that sacred place answer exactly to the requirements of the scriptural narrative. Unfortunately, more than this cannot be said. It is reserved for some explorer more fortunate than even the Prince of Wales to disclose the well-kept secret of the tomb of the patriarchs. (J. O. Dykes, D. D.)

Sarah’s tomb

Only one European, Pierroti, an Italian architect in the service of the Sultan, has ever seen more than the floor of the upper chamber, with its six tawdry erections, placed there in accordance with a practice usual in Mahometan sepulchres. Pierotti, daringly pressing after the chief Sanon, or priest of the mosque, when he was entering the lower story on a special occasion, found the entry was by a horizontal door in the porch. First a carpet, then a grated iron door, was lifted; after which a narrow stair appeared, cut in the rock. Undeterred by blows and violence, he managed to descend this far enough to see into the lower cavern in a northern direction, and to notice sarcophagi of white stone; the true tombs of some of the illustrious dead, in striking corroboration of the statement of Josephus, that they were of fair marble, exquisitely wrought. There can be little doubt, indeed, that the remains of the three generations of patriarchs and their wives, Rachel alone excepted, still lie safely in this their venerable sepulchre. (C. Geikie, D. D.)

Origin of money

When he required this sepulchre, he offered so much money we are told-shekels of silver-and this money was weighed. This informs us that silver came so early as this period of the world to be currency. I mentioned, I think, before, that the earliest money was cattle. Hence, the Latin word pecunia, from which our expression pecuniary transactions is derived, comes from pecus, which means cattle. And it is very singular that in the Greek language every word that is used for purchase or property is a derivation from some other word denoting an animal. Thus the Greek word αρνυσθαι, which means, “to bargain,” is derived from a Greek word that means a lamb. Again, πωλεω, to sell, is derived from the word used for a colt. Again, the Greek word ωνεομαι, to profit, comes from a word signifying an ass. Again, the Greek word προβιας, revenue, is derived from the Greek word προβατον, sheep or cattle. In short, all the words in Greek and Latin that mean property transactions, buying and selling, are derived from cattle, and the earliest figures that were struck upon ancient coins were figures of cattle. A man was said to be possessed of so many thousand oxen or sheep, and when they entered into a bargain, they gave so many sheep or so many oxen to the person from whom they were purchasing. Here, for the first time, we have silver introduced as currency-that which, in fact, is still the currency of the greatest portion of the nations of the earth-gold being restricted to very few countries, as the representative of property-mainly, I believe, in this country; whereas on the continent it is, I believe, chiefly silver (J. Cumming, D. D.)

Abraham at Machpelah

What I wish to emphasize here is the open, manly honesty of Abraham. There was no cheapening of the price--nothing of “It is naught, it is naught, saith the buyer: and when he is gone his way, then he boasteth.” Here were only civility, courtesy, and integrity. He did everything in a business way, but he had respect for others as well as for himself. He recognized that there was another hearer than the multitudes assembled at the city gate, even God Himself, and he did not choose that He should hear anything of rudeness, or selfishness, or dishonesty from his lips. Oh, how much more pleasantly business would be conducted among ourselves if we were to act in this way! But too many of us are constantly on the watch for an advantage! The seller’s maxim too frequently is the selfish one of the Romans, “Caveat emptor”--“let the buyer look out for himself.” And the buyer, on his side, is too frequently just as eagerly anxious to over-reach the seller. It is far too often “diamond cut diamond” between them. But that both are bad does not excuse either, and God is listening to both. Ah! if we all remembered that, our stores would be different places from what they often are, and business would rise to its ancient and irreproachable renown. Faith in God--such faith as Abraham had-that is still the great necessity of life. For pureness, for integrity, for liberality, for courage, for courtesy, this is what we mainly need. It is as true to-day as when John wrote the words, “This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” (W. M. Taylor, D. D.)


It is related of Pope Clement XIV. (Ganganelli), that when he ascended the papal chair, the ambassadors of the several states represented at his court waited on him with their congratulations. When they were introduced, and bowed, he returned the compliment by bowing also; on which the master of the ceremonies told his highness that he should not have returned their salute. “Oh, I beg your pardon,” said the good pontiff, “I have not been pope long enough to forget good manners.”


When old Zachariah Fox, the great merchant of Liverpool, was asked by what means he contrived to realize so large a fortune as he possessed, his reply was, “Friend, by one article alone, in which thou may’st deal too if thou pleasest--civility.” (Moral and Religious Anecdotes.)

Courtesy to enemies

After the battle of Poitiers, in which the Black Prince fought and defeated the French king, the prince waited upon his captives like a menial at supper; nor could he be persuaded to sit at the king’s table. This was quite in accordance with the chivalry of the day. (Little’s Historical Lights.)

Verse 4

Genesis 23:4

I am a stranger and a sojourner among you

Strangers in the earth

THE EXHORTATION. A true Christian’s life should be that of a stranger and a sojourner.

1. Such persons are at once recognized. Marks of nationality may be more or less prominent. Sometimes the foreigner wears a strange costume, and speaks a strange language; and sometimes these things are studiously avoided; he assumes our dress, converses in our dialect; nevertheless, there is always something about him which bespeaks “the sojourner.” And so should it be with the Christian.

2. These peculiarities will be observable in all the common business of life. Not, indeed, in any disregard of useful industries and occupations. A wise foreigner, passing through a strange country, will make the best use of his time, mingling with its inhabitants, studying its institutions, observing its manners and customs, examining minutely its improvements in science and art, perhaps investing largely in its agricultural implements, and mechanical machinery, and scientific apparatus, and many of its products and fabrics, ornamental and useful. He may for the time appear, more even than native citizens, attentive to and engrossed by such matters; nevertheless, every man who deals with him perceives that his interest in them is that of a sojourner, who examines and purchases with a view to some use or enjoyment in his own distant land. Just so should it be with the Christian.

3. These marks of a foreigner will be manifest in all the pleasures of life.

4. A foreigner may be known by the opinions he forms and expresses of all things that surround him. Many such things, which to us, through custom and familiarity, seem proper and consistent and natural, will often strike him strangely. This point is finely illustrated in Oliver Goldsmith’s “ Citizen of the World.”

II. As A CONSOLATION. If we are “strangers and sojourners on earth,” then--

1. Our better portion and grander heritage and home are in heaven. Like the patriarchs, we should “look for a city whose maker is God!” and, like the apostles, should rejoice to think that presently we shall be “absent from the body and present with the Lord.”

2. Strangers and foreigners think ever and most tenderly of their distant native lands. Of the dear doors that will open, and the loved voices that will welcome them, when, having accomplished the ends of their brief sojourn in those stranger-scenes, they cross the ocean, and cast anchor in distant harbours, and go ashore to their own cities. And herein they should be our models. Good as Christian life may be on the earth, yet there are better things in heaven. (The Preacher’s Monthly.)

The believer and the world; or, Abraham the stranger and sojourner

We shall attempt the task of analysing the relations which Abraham sustained to his heathen neighbours. We perceive at once that they were those of entire friendliness, but of absolute separation. We shall follow, therefore, this simple division of the subject of this chapter.

I. HIS FRIENDLINESS. Mark you, not his “ friendship.” Let it not be implied that there was any agreement of his principles with theirs, any community of interests between them, or any sympathy in character. He was indeed their friend, but he was not their fellow, and in his friendship there was no fellowship whatsoever. Their life was abhorrent to him. Their practices were such as gave him the greatest pain. The neighbours of Abraham were cruel, covetous, and licentious beyond the very conception of the vast majority who live in Christian lands to-day. But Abraham never ceased to be on friendly terms with them. He never manifested towards them an amicable disposition, treated them with noticeable courtesy and did them signal favours. But Abraham always kept the peace, and never made an enemy among them all. Some of the stories are exceedingly beautiful, as illustrating the existing friendliness. Look, for example, at that of the covenant between Abimelech and Abraham. The feelings which neighbouring chiefs entertained toward Abraham is nowhere better shown than at the time of the sack of Sodom and the capture of Lot and his family. But this was not all. His magnanimity took a higher form and his friendliness was of nobler nature than could possibly have been displayed in any affair of temporal character. Those heathen lay upon his heart. No one ever pleaded for guilty men as Abraham did--save only their Divine Saviour. A praying friend is the best friend, and such was Abraham!

II. Is it possible, then, for one who shows such friendliness to the ungodly, to be also ABSOLUTELY SEPARATE, from them? Yes, Abraham made it plain: so plain that it was clear, not only in his own secret soul--as is so often the case; but clear also to all among whom he sojourned. They would have been glad to have had him identify himself with them. But he would not do so. Nearly seventy years he lived among them; but he was not of them. He was a “confederate” only, never a “compatriot”; a sojourner, never a citizen. As his separation from these sinners is the important thing for us to study, note the following particulars wherein it was manifested. Beginning with the simpler, observe that it appeared--

1. In the food which he ate. A trifling thing, you say, but nothing is trifling whereby the holy is set apart from the unholy. Leaven is produced by fermentation, and fermentation is a species of corruption. Therefore Abraham would have none of it. So, when the three angels appeared to him as he sat in his tent door (Genesis 18:1-5)he was ready to entertain them, and offered at once to “fetch them a morsel of bread” for their “comfort.” Ah! it is worth our while to remember that in just such trifles there is a vast difference between the clean and the unclean. As some one has so wisely said, it is by trifles that we reach perfection, and perfection is no trifle.

2. In his dwelling. It was a tent, which could be easily moved from place to place. Had Abraham ever built a house, the whole meaning of his outward life would have been destroyed. It would have indicated that he had come to stay, and have rendered ridiculous his declaration, “I am a sojourner with you.”

3. In his private business. His avocation was in keeping with his mission, and his covenant relations to his God. He did not mingle with the ungodly multitudes. The cities, with the glare and glitter of their iniquitous life, had no attraction for him. Lot became covetous of their wealth, ambitious for their preferment, and settled in Sodom; but Lot was not a party to the everlasting covenant--not a “church-member.”

4. In his business transactions. He must needs have dealings with men of the world; but he so dealt with them as to emphasize his separateness. He became rich, but he never manifested any undue haste to be rich, nor took any “ short cut” to fortune. Observe several illustrations. What a noble spirit he manifested in the dissolution of the partnership existing between himself and Lot. But his principles are more plain, if possible, in his transaction with Ephron, the Hittite (Genesis 23:1-20.). The custom of the country was not the law of his life. He was the only man in all the land who conducted his business in this way.

5. Once more: his separation from the world appears in his conquest of the world. Though Abraham was a man of peace, as we have seen, yet it seems most appropriate that once, at least, in his long life, he should have exhibited his peculiar power over the men and agencies of this world. It was spiritual power for physical ends--something of which the world as yet knows little. Chedorlaomer and his allies had sacked Sodom, and were hastening away with the spoils and captives. (D. R. Breed, D. D.)


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Bibliography Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Genesis 23:4". The Biblical Illustrator. 1905-1909. New York.

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