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15. Death and Burial of Sarah (23:1-20)
After the climax of the preceding chapter the events of the life of Abraham taper off gradually toward the conclusion. A few matters that must yet be reported in order appropriately to close this significant life are presented.
The seemingly unimportant event of this chapter, an event that could have been reported far more briefly, is recorded at greater length because it is an act of faith, in fact, a rather outstanding act.
1, 2. And Sarah became 127 years old; that was the length of her life. And Sarah died in Kitjath-arba, (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham came to bewail Sarah and to weep for her.
We believe we have rendered quite idiomatically and correctly the first verse of this chapter, which, rendered more literally, would run as follows: "And was the life of Sarah 127 years, the years of the life of Sarah." It is true that the statement is somewhat detailed, but it represents a rather common mode of speech, about like the statement: she became so old, and that was all. Some try to doctor up the text, either by an addition or by an omission; but all such efforts grow out of an unwillingness to believe that men of old spoke and wrote much as we do.
It so happens that Sarah is the only woman whose age and death are reported in the Scriptures, as commentators have observed from days of old. This cannot be without design. She is the mother of all believers, according to 1 Pet. 3:6, and so deserving of some such distinction. Chayyîm, the customary plural, expresses the multitude of aspects under which life appears.
2. Sarah’s death takes place at Kirjath-arba. Though in Gen. 22:19 Abraham had taken up his residence at Beersheba, yet since that time perhaps twenty years had elapsed. For Sarah, being 127 years old at death, lived 37 years after Isaac’s birth (cf. Gen. 17:17 and Gen. 21:5). If, then, Isaac had been nearly twenty years old at the time of the sacrifice upon Mt. Moriah (cf. Gen. 22:6), almost twenty years had passed since that time, During those years Abraham may have left Beersheba repeatedly and come to Hebron, his earlier place of residence (Gen. 13:18; 14:13).
"Kirjath-arba" is identified by the more common name "Hebron." The problem involved in the use of these two names seems to be covered by the following approach: according to Num. 13:22 the original name of this ancient city appears to have been Hebron. At the time Moses is writing, apparently, Arba, one of the Enakim, had taken .possession of the city and called it "the city of Arba" (Kirjath-arba); cf. Jos 14:15; 15:13; 21:11. According to these last mentioned passages the name Kirjath-arba was prevalent at the time of the conquest under Joshua, but the propriety of restoring the more ancient name, which apparently had never been forgotten by Israel, seemed to appeal to all. So also Moses here inserts the old familiar name to identify the city by the name it had borne in Abraham’s time, "Hebron." Now Hebron, Hebrew: chebhr’n, from chabhar, may mean: "city of treaty." Since "Arba" was above shown to have been an Enak prince, it is a proper name and cannot mean "four," as the Hebrew word otherwise could. The following phrase "in the land of Canaan" is not superfluous; for it recalls, that in Canaan, the land of promise, the mother of the children of Abraham died. (Cf. also Gen. 23:19).
Whatever Abraham may have been doing at the time of her death, he "came," when the news reached him, "to bewail Sarah and to weep for her." Such an expression as "he came" could hardly have been used if he had been present at the time of her decease. Not only was bewailing (saphadh, —"to beat one’s breast," "to lament") and weeping (bakhah) the customary oriental mode of expressing grief, it was also the natural expression of a deep and sincere sorrow on Abraham’s part. True and loving husband that he was, he felt his loss very keenly. Such demonstrations of grief are as natural and as proper to the Oriental as is our greater measure of restraint to us. It was usually indulged in before the dead body of the person who was being bewailed. "Bewail" involves audible expression of one’s grief.
3, 4. And Abraham arose from beside his dead and spoke to the children of Heth, saying: I am a stranger and sojourner among you; give me a grave for my own property among you and let me bury my dead out of my sight.
Much as he loved his good wife, the patriarch did not sorrow above measure; also, because burial within one day’s time after death was the rule in this land, he had to address himself to the task of securing a grave. The "children of Heth" or the Hittites are in possession of the city and its surrounding territory; they must be consulted. In the Orient any transaction is preceded by an exchange of compliments. In a measure this is the case in this instance, however, apparently there is no idle courtesy or shallow, insincere flattery on the part of Abraham at all, and on the part of the man Ephron very little, if at all. The Hittites themselves speak as sincerely as Abraham does. Throughout the whole scene Abraham demeans himself with fine tact and courtesy and the utmost of sincerity but without obsequiousness.
4. Abraham begins by outlining briefly his position among his neighbours: he is "a stranger and sojourner." The "stranger" (ger) is a foreigner in a strange land possessing no property and having no fixed habitation. The "sojourner," as we translate for want of a better term (tôshabh, from yashabh, "to sit," almost— "squatter") has a permanent dwelling but no property in the form of land. Abraham can class himself as both of these, for he sometimes settles down, sometimes wanders about as a nomad. His reference to his status recalls especially the fact that he does not as yet possess any land in this country. He asks "for a grave for his own property," literally: "possession of a grave." The grave, of course, is a burial place large enough to hold the remains of the family. He desires to have this grave in the very midst of these men ("among you"). There he hopes to bury his dead (meth, common gender, since in the face of death male or female is no issue). To bury out of sight is simply a more expressive way of describing burial. ’Eqberah is a hortative imperfect.
The thought involved in this verse in the use of the terms "stranger and sojourner" carries deeper implications, as is shown by the interpretation given by the author of Heb. 11:13-16: If these men, such as Abraham and Jacob (Gen. 47:9) spoke of their pilgrim state on earth, even while thinking of the land of promise, which did they regard as their true home? The "better country, that is a heavenly" (Heb. 11:16). This valid interpretation offered by the New Testament shows us that it is not wise to put too low an estimate upon the spiritual content of the words of the men of God of the Old Covenant. For the true faith which they possessed gave them deep insight and wisdom of utterance.
5, 6. And the children of Heth answered Abraham and said: Please listen to us, sir. Thou art a prince of God among us. Bury thy dead in the choicest of our sepulchres. Not a one of us would withhold his sepulchre from thee from burying thy dead.
A slight change of pointing is involved in our translation, without alteration of the text. The last word of v. 5lô, "to him," seems to make good sense in the phrase, "saying to him." However, strange to say, the word "saying" (le’mor) is never followed by a le. Lev. 11:1 comes nearest to being a parallel but uses the preposition ‘el. By pointing lô as lû ("please") and joining it with the following verse we remove the difficulty. At the close of v. 14 the same situation is found.
One can hardly say that the Hittites appear reluctant to let Abraham acquire even this small bit of ground. They prove themselves very courteous and, it would seem speak in all sincerity. For they give Abraham to understand that he needs to acquire no property, for they will all put their family sepulchres at his disposal, even "the choicest" of them. They explain why they are ready to grant so much by saying that Abraham has come to be ranked among them as "a prince of God." By this they mean that he is a "prince" (nasî’), a man of high station whom God has raised on high and upon whom tokens of divine favour have manifestly been bestowed, but who himself also stands in a relation of reverent obedience to God. Note how these heathen men use the word ’elohîm, "God," not Yahweh. They know the divinity only in a general way. Besides, they could not use the expression nesî’ yahweh, for that would mean "the prince of Yahweh"—which is not what they mean to say. Merely to class nesî’ ’ elohîm as a kind of superlative (K. S. 309 l) is rather shallow.
Here we may also yet dispose of the problem whether the Hittites could have dwelt as far south as Hebron. Some have claimed that the habitat of this people must be sought from the Orontes eastward, but that it cannot have run as far as southern Palestine. K. C. quoting from Sayce shows why such a claim as that of v. 3 and 5 is perfectly in place. The three arguments advanced are 1) that also Ezechiel traces the descent of Jerusalem from a Hittite mother (16:3, 45); 2) the country of the Hittites was promised to the descendants of Abraham (Gen. 15:19-21); 3) the testimony of the Tell-el-Amarna letters agrees to this in that the sons of a Hittite prince by name of Arzawia dwell to the south of the land and take part in an expedition against Jerusalem.
7-9. And Abraham arose and bowed to the people of the land, to the children of Heth, and he spoke with them saying: If it be agreeable to you that my dead be buried out of my sight, then hear me and intercede for me with Ephron, the son of Zohar, that he give me the cave of Machpelah, which belongs to him, which is at the end of his field; for the full price let him give it to me in the midst of you for a grave which is my own property.
7. Abraham is a man of fine courtesy, and so he acknowledges the gracious compliment the Hittites paid him by designating him as a prince of God and by offering him the use of the finest of their sepulchres. His acknowledgment consists of rising and bowing. The regular inhabitants of the land are called "the people of the land"— an expression which does not bear the bad sense that it acquired later in Nehemiah’s time, when it applied to the heathen inhabitants (’am ha’arets). We do Abraham wrong if we let either his actions or his words be thought of as insincere. His Canaanite contemporaries might use these same forms as idle gestures; not he, "the prince of God."
8. The Hebrew original has the expression "if it be with your souls," where "souls" may mean "inner purpose." This means, of course, "if it be agreeable to you." Abraham argues: if you are satisfied to let me use your sepulchres, you will not be averse to selling me a plot of ground as my own property. But in the Orient intermediaries are employed in all manner of business. So here the people assembled in the gate are to present Abraham’s case to Ephron, whose the particular plot is that Abraham desires, and whom Abraham may not even have known personally. Now Machpelah, according to v. Gen. 23:17; 49:30; 50:13, must have been a portion of ground upon which the cave Abraham desired, was located. The shorter expression, therefore, is "cave of Machpelah." Though makhpelah from kaphal may mean "double" (διπλοῦν)—Septuagint, yet here it cannot mean "the double cave" but the bipartite tract sought by Abraham comprising a portion of ground and a cave. This being "at the end of his field" will readily lend itself to purchase without necessitating the breaking up of Ephron’s property.
9. Abraham wants no favours. He is ready to pay "the full price," Hebrew: "full silver" (késeth male’). Abraham desires to make the purchase one that is fully attested by the presence of an adequate number of witnesses, therefore "in the midst of you" let him give it. We have again rendered the expression "for the possession of a burial place" in better English as "a grave which is my own property." Note wejitten has no waw conversive and so makes the action stand out more distinctly (K. S. 364 1). The be before keseph is beth of price. The mere fact that an Assyrian expression like "full silver" happens to have been discovered does not, however, yet give warrant to draw far-reaching conclusions from this correspondence as to the time of our incident, whether this Assyrian expression be found in the time of later Assyrian kings or in the time of Hammurabi. Such threads are too slender for hanging proofs on them.
10, 11. Now Ephron was sitting in the midst of the children of Heth; so Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, at least of all those who were wont to come to the gate of his city, saying: No, my dear sir, do thou listen to me. This field I give thee, and the cave which is in it, that I give to thee in the eyes of the children of my people; to thee do I give it to bury thy dead.
The Ephron that Abraham had referred to happens to be present in the city-gate where all such transactions were wont to be made and where the men of the town continually congregate. Consequently, there is no need of the functions of a mediator, and so he speaks for himself. Yoshebh, the participle, does not want to indicate that Ephron dwelt in this region (A.V.), but since yashabh primarily means "to sit," that he was at that very moment sitting with the townspeople there assembled (A.R.V.). This interpretation makes the statement fit so much the more closely into the thought-connection, which goes on to say that he replied to Abraham’s proposal. That the whole transaction was carried on "in the hearing of the Hittites" marks it as an official piece of business, fully attested and put on record. The phrase lekhol serves as an apposition to the preceding genitive, limiting it to those of the Hittites "who were wont to come (ba’ey, participle expressing customary action) to the gate of his city." Whoever happened to be present at a given time when a case like Abraham’s was being disposed of, these persons constituted a kind of court and jury as well as witnesses. The translation "even of all that went in at the gate" (A.V.) does not fit in this case, though the verb bô’ could mean "go in," because not all these could be present so that this case could have been transacted in their "hearing." Consequently, the le before kol gets a kind of restrictive sense—"at least." The expression "his city" in reference to Ephron does not give warrant to class him as the ruler of the city, for any man can call his home town his town. On lekhol see K. S. 280 e. The nounal force of the participle ba’ey definitely preponderates in this case, as the construct state also indicates (K. S. 241d).
11. The initial lo’ is used like our "No," and it is not to be altered to lû, which requires a different consonant: ’Adhonî is respectful address like "sir" or "my dear sir." The perfect natháttî, called the "perfect of instant action" (Skinner), is used to express the certainty of an act in a treaty or agreement; the deed is to be regarded as good as done. Abraham should consider the field and the cave as already given to him. However, we are afraid, judging at least by what all Oriental travellers report under this head, that this remarkable liberality was an empty gesture. 0rientals offer you as a gift whatever you admire; they do not expect that you will take it. Such an offer from God-fearing Abraham, however, would, no doubt, have been sincere. Even in case Abraham’s sincerity had begotten a like sincerity in Ephron, it would, nevertheless, have been rather improper for Abraham to accept the generous offer, because in that case Abraham would really have been ready to receive from a heathen man what in reality he had already received from a higher hand, though primarily for his descendants. To receive from man what had been given by God would have called in question whether God’s gift was true and valid.
12, 13. And Abraham bowed before the people of the land and said to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land: If thou wouldest only, I pray thee, hear me. I am paying the price of the field; accept it of me, and let me bury my dead there.
Many of these fine acts of courtesy ascribed to Abraham were, no doubt, dictated by custom. So his bowing before the people of the land was in acknowledgment of the fine offer Ephron, one of their number, had made. Luther especially remarks what fine manners also a good man of God may have and recommends laying aside all boorish clumsiness.
13. At the beginning of this statement some claim to have found an anacoluthon "expressing the polite embarrassment of the speaker." We hardly can accept the suggestion. The particle ’im with an imperfect gives an optative force (K. S. 355 x); the lû increases the force of this optative; the ’akh equals "only." Abraham is not hemming and hawing for very courtesy. Another perfect of instant action follows: "I am giving or paying"—which translation seems to catch the force of this perfect better than: "I will give" (A.V.). Abraham is more intent upon concluding an honest purchase and burying his dead honorably than upon anything else. So he pleads to have the gift accepted that he may perform the burial.
14, 15. And Ephron answered Abraham, saying: If thou wouldest listen to me, O sir, a piece of ground worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between me and thee? Bury thy dead.
As at the end of v. 5 we deemed it advisable to take the final word and point it to read lû, the optative particle, and read it with the following verb, so here.
15. With customary oriental politeness Ephron does not ask to be paid for his "piece of ground" (’e’rets); he merely suggests its probable worth but adds at the same time that such a sum is a mere trifle for men such as they are. It is true, 400 silver shekels, about $260, is not a big sum for a rich man. Nevertheless, if money had twenty times the present purchasing value in those days, as some claim, a sum of $5,000 for an acre or two is not a mere trifle. Apparently, Ephron is doing what Orientals regularly do: first they offer to give freely, not expecting their offer to be accepted; then they claim to fix a modest price, which is really quite exorbitant (cf. Delitzsch’s examples), but which by common consent is really only to serve as a starting point for the bargaining proceedings that are to follow, and in which Orientals engage with the keenest delight.
16. And Abraham hearkened unto Ephron, and Abraham weighed out to Ephron the money he had named in the hearing of the children of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, current with the merchant.
To us this looks like an instance where the nobler spirit of the God-fearing man stands out favourably by contrast with the conventional behaviour of the heathen man. Abraham is above such a thing as haggling or driving a shrewd bargain over a burial lot: such bargaining is unworthy of a godly man at all times and is the outgrowth of an unseemly love of money. Under such circumstances Abraham would rather accept the offer, let Ephron take advantage of him and so demonstrate that he stands on higher ground than do his neighbours. To the astonishment of all Abraham pays the full sum, pays it out by weighing (shaqal), inasmuch as coined money was not yet in circulation in those days. Besides, to take advantage of the seller in no sense, Abraham uses the higher standard "silver current with the merchant," i. e., accepted on every hand as full value. Socher is the itinerant merchant or peddler. ’Abher in reference to money means to be in current use.
17, 18. So the field of Ephron which was in Machpelah over against Mamre, the field and the cave which was in it and all the trees that were in the field within the entire confines of the field, was assured to Abraham as his purchased property in the sight of the children of Heth, that is, of all those who were wont to come to the gate of his city.
So the transaction was concluded. This record of it gives the details of the contract as they were outlined at the time. Ancient contract tablets present a close parallel to this case. Field, cave, trees are all involved in the purchase. Apparently, everyone present at the transaction knew exactly which field was involved and what its boundaries were; and so there was no need of a detailed description of the boundaries. Incidentally, we are here informed also what it was that prompted Abraham’s desire for this particular piece of ground: it lay "over against Mamre," therefore directly within sight of Mamre and contiguous to it. Abraham wanted a place of burial as near as possible to his place of residence, which since 14:13 apparently had always been the terebinths of Mamre, when Abraham was dwelling in the vicinity of Hebron. Wayyáqom, from qûm, "stand," here bears the less usual meaning of "being assured to" or of "passing into the possession of" anyone; auf das Konto jemandes eingetragen werden (K. W.).
18. The le before "Abraham" connects with the first word of v. 17, making "to Abraham" a dative of interest. The bekhol is of practically the same force as the lekhol of v. 10 above, which see. The words following are identical with the words of v. 10. The strong emphasis on the fact that this had been a public sale closed according to the approved fashion of that day, shows that the whole matter was one of unusual importance in Abraham’s eyes, both for himself and in reference to the future. For Abraham in faith desired that his wife’s and his own remains might rest in the land that had been promised to him and his descendants after him. He wanted his descendants to know that he had believed the divine promise. The presence of his sepulchre, among them would in later years be mute but eloquent testimony to them all that Abraham was sure of the validity of God’s promises. Consequently, the purpose of the whole narrative is not to show that by this initial purchase of one piece of ground Abraham secured a kind of hold or perhaps an option on the whole, as some contend. Abraham’s title to the land rested entirely on God’s promise given in a clear word and not on such devices as sale and purchase and legal formality.
19, 20. Thereafter then Abraham buried Sarah, his wife, in the cave of the field of Machpelah, over against Mamre, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan. And the field and the cave which was in it were assured to Abraham as a grave which was his own property bought of the children of Heth.
The burial is reported with a certain fulsomeness of expression characteristic of the Scriptures in recording notable events. The cave is mentioned, as well as its location in the field of Machpelah, as well as the fact that Machpelah faced Mamre. To this is added the parenthetical statement that Mamre is Hebron and the reminder that this was "in the land of Canaan," a phrase which has the same force here as in v. 2. The statement that Mamre is Hebron appears to be made in the sense that Mamre is a part of Hebron.
20. At a time when the children of Israel were on their way to take possession of the land, Moses did well to remind them how in faith their forefather had secured at least "a grave which was his own property," and thus to arouse in them the desire to finish the work of taking into full possession what had so long ago been promised to them.
A few more problems need to be touched upon. One is the critical problem. Practically unanimous is the verdict of criticism that the priestly writer (P) is the author of the chapter. We take up the question because we believe it furnishes a rather clear illustration of the shallowness of the critical method. Strack supports the contention of P’s authorship by three arguments. The first is the use of the divine name "Elohim," supposed to be a mark of P (v. 6). But, as we showed above, if the sense of the divine names means anything, the term Elohim in the above connection was unavoidable to express the thought of the Hittites; and so the use of the word is not a stylistic criterion. Secondly, he claims the language is that of P. This argument builds on the claim which criticism believes so very well established: that the P sections all have a fullness of detail like legal documents and a certain repetitiousness. However, the same thing may be claimed for the following chapter (24) which is by common consent ascribed to J. Of course, chapter 24 has no legal terminology, because it does not report a legal transaction as does chapter 23. In the third place, Strack claims that later portions from P refer back to this event repeatedly, and so it is supposed to be P’s exclusive subject matter. The passages cited are Gen. 25:9; 49:29; 50:13. Looking at these passages, we find that they appear to be ascribed to P (each being a brief section in the midst of material from a so-called different source) because originally chapter 23 dealing with the same event is ascribed to P. Consequently we have a perfect argument in a circle. Three passages are ascribed to P because they seem to build on a P passage, chapter 23. On the other hand, chapter 23 is from P because of these three passages. So weak and inconsequential is the textual critical argument.
Another problem is created by Acts 7:16, which ascribes Abraham’s purchase of a tomb to a place at Shechem and names the seller as "the sons of Hamor in Shechem." This seeming confusion is not to be described as an error of Stephen’s or Luke’s, the writer of the Acts. Apparently, two separate events are under consideration. Abraham must have purchased two burial sites, one in Shechem, one in Hebron. Only the second purchase is mentioned in Genesis. The record of the first purchase, apparently, survived only in Jewish tradition. Another solution of the difficulty, though a less likely one, is that at an early date a copyist wrote "Abraham" for "Jacob" in Acts (Acts 7:16) and the error was not discovered until it had come into almost all manuscripts.
As to the identity of the cave of Machpelah the question seems far from settled. It is true that many agree that the present site of the mosque in Hebron, which is built over a cave into which a few Christians of more recent time have been permitted to look, is the very spot where the cave of Machpelah must have been situated. The name of this mosque is Haram, and it lies within the present city of Hebron. Others feel that the original Hebron must have lain a mile or so west from the present site, at a spot known as er Rumeidy, near which are several fine old tombs. Should excavators secure permission to explore both these sites thoroughly, the dispute might be settled.
As a matter of historical interest we record the fact that in Machpelah’s cave Abraham himself was later buried (25:9), also Isaac (35:27, 29), also Rebekah and Lea (49:31), and lastly also Jacob (50:13). The Jewish interpretation which makes Kirjath-arba mean "city of four" in the sense that four patriarchs lie buried there—Adam, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—is, of course, pure guess as far as the burial place of Adam is concerned.
It hardly seems feasible to break up this chapter into portions. Abraham’s faith is again in evidence; and so we suggest some such subject as "A Testimony of Faith in the Face of a Loss by Death." This ought to prove a very practical text if treated from this point of view, for it gives occasion to emphasize that in the face of such losses faith should especially give testimony of its strength and its character.
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