A wise sage once said that there are four phases in a person’s life. In phase 1, they are children and their parents take care of them. In phase 2, they become parents and take care of their own children. In phase 3, with their kids now grown and gone, they as adult children take care of their aging parents. Finally in phase 4, having grown old themselves, their adult children take care of them.
With our youngest child only a few years away from his high school graduation, it occurs to me that it won't be too much longer before Janice and I enter phase 3 - caring for our parents. Right now all 4 of them are still living, and relatively healthy to the best of my knowledge. My mom and dad are both in their 70’s while Janice’s dad is in his 80’s and her mom in her 70’s. It’s just a fact of life… if we live long enough, eventually we’ll get old. And while I pray that their passing is still many years away, I know that it will come someday.
In today’s message, will we learn about the death of Isaac’s elderly mother Sarah. If Isaac was in fact a teenager at the time of his offering (as assumed), then some 20-25 years have passed between chapters 22 and 23 with no record of what transpired. It is notable that the Bible dedicates an entire chapter to Sarah’s death and burial. This speaks to her significance as Abraham’s wife and the matriarch of the Hebrew people. Sarah is one of the most prominent women in all of Scripture.
I. SARAH’S DEATH (v1-7)
Sarah was 127 years old when she died. She resided in the city of Hebron at the time of her death. Her husband Abraham came to mourn and weep for her. His desire was to bury her in Canaan, the land that God had promised to him and his descendants. So Abraham asked the local citizens - the sons of Heth - if he might acquire from them a suitable place for her burial. Moved by their great respect for him, the sons of Heth offered to give Abraham “the choicest of [their] graves”. He was humbled by this kind gesture.
Though Abraham was 10 years older than Sarah, she preceded him in death. The original text reads that he “came to” or “went to” Hebron in order to mourn for her - in other words, he wasn’t there when she died. This has been interpreted in different ways. Some Jewish rabbis believe that Abraham and Sarah separated after the offering of Isaac. They speculate that she was so upset by Abraham’s actions that she moved back to Hebron on her own, leaving him behind in Beersheeba. Other scholars have explained the separation by suggesting that the couple had moved back to Hebron together at some point, and Abraham was simply away from home for some reason when Sarah passed away. I tend to agree with this latter point of view.
The sons of Heth were 1 of the 12 main tribes that populated the land of Canaan. They were the descendants of Heth, the second son of Canaan, the son of Ham, the son of Noah (Genesis 10:1, 6, 15). They were also known as the Hittites. One of the most well known Biblical figures from this family was Uriah, the ill-fated husband of Bathsheba, who lived centuries later during the reign of King David. The sons of Heth held Abraham in high esteem, which suggests to me that he was living among them with Sarah and had been for some time prior to her death.
II. FUNERAL ARRANGEMENTS (v8-16)
While Abraham appreciated their offer of a free burial plot, he wanted to purchase a piece of land that would indisputably belong to his family for generations to come. So he approached Ephron, the owner of a nearby field, and asked to buy the cave of Machpelah that was located on the property. Like his fellow countrymen, Ephron initially offered to give the field and cave to Abraham for free. However, Abraham insisted on paying for it. Ephron valued the property at 400 shekels of silver and, in the presence of everyone, Abraham paid the full price for it.
This transaction was conducted publicly before the sons of Heth. Abraham wanted to make sure that there'd be no future debate regarding the rightful ownership of the property. He paid the asking price without negotiation or hesitation. He wanted to make certain that this plot of land, where Sarah was to be buried, belonged perpetually to his family.
According to the Biblical record, this small field was the first piece of property in the Promised Land to officially belong to the Hebrews. Some 5 centuries later, the descendants of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob would take possession of the entire region during the conquest led by Joshua. Nevertheless, God was slowly honoring His covenant promises - first, by giving Abraham a son named Isaac and second, by giving him land in Canaan.
III. SARAH’S BURIAL (v17-20)
Ephron’s field, including all of its trees and the cave of Machpelah, was deeded over to Abraham. This cave and its surrounding acreage was located in or near Hebron, also called Mamre. Having officially purchased the cave, Abraham proceeded to bury his beloved wife Sarah inside. Her body would lie in Canaan, the land of promise that God had sworn to him.
The cave of Machpelah is commonly known today as “The Cave of the Patriarchs”. After the temple mount, which we discussed in last week’s sermon (on Mount Moriah), it is considered to be the second-most holy site in Israel. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah were all buried there. We will see this unfold as we continue through our study in Genesis. Today, thousands of pilgrims come to visit this sacred place every year.
In closing, I’ve always told my wife not to spend a huge amount of money on my funeral when I die. I’ve joked that she could just bury me in a garbage bag or toss my body overboard at sea. After all, I won’t be there. When I draw my last breath, I’m going straight to Heaven to dwell with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter to me what happens with this old broken body of mine, because I know that somebody I’ll have a much better, glorified one.
But would I bury her in a garbage bag? Absolutely not. All joking aside, the funeral process is a difficult, but deep expression of love for the deceased. Furthermore, it helps survivors to accept and grieve their loss. We set up gravestones as monuments that pay tribute to and remember those who've gone on before us. Funerals and burials are important, healing, and good.
Abraham loved Sarah and therefore wanted her buried in the Promised Land, wanted her body to be laid in a nice tomb, and wanted his family to have permanent access to her grave. These things were important to him and worth paying for. His actions demonstrate the value of conducting a proper funeral and burial for those we love.
While Sarah was laid in a family tomb (or cave) that was owned by her husband, Jesus was buried in a borrowed tomb that belonged to Joseph of Arimathea. In this case, there was no need for His mother Mary to buy it, seeing that Jesus wouldn’t be staying there for long. The Lord only used Joseph’s tomb for a few days, and then returned it in mint condition on Sunday morning when He walked out of the grave alive!