The story of Abraham begins to wind down with the death of Sarah and Abraham’s subsequent purchase of her burial site. The burial site becomes Abraham’s first inheritance in the land. It is the first step to gaining all of Canaan as God promised. The events of Chapter 23 show a loving and sovereign God working His will even in the death of His servant’s wife.
At some point between the time of Isaac’s near-sacrifice and the events in Chapter 23, Abraham and his family move back to the area around the oaks of Mamre (where they lived for many years before going to Gerar/Beersheba), also known as Hebron. It is here, thirty-seven years after giving birth to Isaac, that Sarah dies.
Sarah is the only woman in Genesis whose age at death is recorded. She is 127 years old. As stated, this means Isaac is 37 and still unmarried (he marries at 40). Sarah lives to see her son into adulthood but does not see him marry or start a family.
Abraham mourns and weeps for her after she dies. It is interesting to consider their history. They grew up together even before they married (they are half brother and sister), so Abraham knew her throughout her entire life. They were likely married well over 110 years. To lose his 127-year companion has to be an incredible blow.
Abraham ends his mourning and decides to find a place to bury Sarah. Interestingly, he does not take her back to his homeland in Haran or Ur. He knows his inheritance is in Canaan and it is here his descendants will live. Thus Canaan is his home and he will bury Sarah here and be buried here. His choice of burial site shows his faith in God’s promises regarding the land (this will show itself again in his choice of a wife for Isaac – he will insist that Isaac marry a kinsman from Haran but will not allow Isaac himself to return there, presumably to make sure Isaac does not settle in Haran instead of Canaan).
Abraham approaches the sons of Heth to purchase a plot of land. Heth was a son of Canaan (10:15) and his descendants are the Hittites. Interestingly, this area was named for Mamre the Amorite (14:13) but apparently he and his brothers are not a part of this story. This is Abraham’s first recorded interaction with the Hittites.
Abraham has been in Canaan for 62 years but still refers to himself as a stranger and sojourner among the people. Though he is a six-decade resident he owns nothing (see Heb 11:8-10 where the author says that Abraham lived as an alien because he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God – living 62 years without a permanent stake is not a problem if your eyes are on something much bigger). He is a nomad who travels throughout the land chasing good pasture for his vast herds, so he has no permanent home and no land that is his own (which brings up the question of how he is able to find area for his immense wealth without offending any local landowners – how does he know where he can camp and does he have to get permission, as he did from Abimelech in Beersheba – 20:15?). Thus he asks the Hittites for enough land to bury his dead.
The sons of Heth answer him in a way that shows his stature in the land. They say he is a mighty prince of God (they recognize – as Abimelech did (21:22) – that God is with Abraham) and that he can have any of their graves just for asking. “None of us will refuse you his grave for burying your dead.” Remember that God promised Abraham He would make his name great (12:2). Apparently that promise has already begun to be fulfilled.
Abraham – in a kind but insistent way (he actually bows before them) – does not accept their offer to give him land. He gently tells them he would rather buy it outright. The text does not explain his reticence, but we can make some educated guesses. Remember that he was adamant after defeating the kings of the east that he would not accept any of the spoil for fear that the king of Sodom would claim to have enriched him (14:23). The same thought may be behind his actions here. Also, he may simply be concerned that a gift of land could be rescinded. If the Hittites give him a burial plot someone could later say it really does not belong to him. By buying it he makes sure that it is legally his with no questions asked. A purchase will ensure it stays in his family’s hands long after he’s gone.
Abraham tells the Hittites he has his eye on some land owned by one of their countrymen, Ephron the son of Zohar. Ephron has a cave at the end of a field that would make a good burial site for Sarah. If the sons of Heth want to help Abraham they could approach Ephron and see if he will sell the cave.
What happens between verse 9 and verse 10 is not entirely clear. Verse 9 leaves the impression that Ephron is not with the group Abraham addresses. But in verse 10 it says he is with the sons of Heth and hears what Abraham says. The end of verse 10 may explain the situation. It says Ephron is sitting at the gate of his city. If this is the case, perhaps the sons of Heth take Abraham to see Ephron in his city and then Ephron sits among the sons of Heth and listens as Abraham explains what he wants to do.
Ephron responds similarly to how the original group of Hittites responded to Abraham. He says Abraham can have the cave at no cost. Not only that, but he will throw in the field that adjoins the cave. It is interesting to consider Ephron’s words. Either he has incredible respect for Abraham and wants to do him a service, or he is throwing this out as a negotiating ploy. Perhaps Abraham understands that Ephron does not truly mean to give him the land and is simply going through the accepted process of negotiation.
Abraham responds to Ephron and makes it clear he does not want a gift and does not even want a deal. As a matter of fact, he effectively tells Ephron to name his price and Abraham will pay it. He is not here to get a favor or even to bargain. He wants to secure a burial plot for generations of his family and wants to do it completely above-board so no one will ever question the transaction.
Notice throughout that Abraham goes out of his way to express respect to the Hittites (he bows before almost every statement) but also to make things as legal and public as possible. He carries out the negotiation in front of the people of the land. He wants to make sure there is never a reason for the Hittites to come back later and reclaim the land.
Ephron answers and indirectly sets a price. He does not come right out and say what it will take for Abraham to buy the land but instead phrases it as if it is an insignificant amount between friends and barely worth mentioning (…a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between me and you?”). However, the price he names – 400 shekels (over seven pounds of silver) – is likely not insignificant at all and may represent an amount far beyond what an average worker could afford. It very well could be that Ephron throws out this number as an asking price he assumes Abraham will negotiate from.
Abraham does not negotiate at all. He accepts Ephron’s price. Abraham weighs out the silver based on the commercial standard of the day and gives it to Ephron (perhaps an amazed Ephron?). Thus the field that is in Machpelah, which faced Mamre, and the cave that adjoins it are deeded over to Abraham in the sight of the sons of Heth and the people at the gate of Ephron’s city. Abraham officially has his first legal inheritance in the land.
After the transaction, Abraham buries Sarah in the newly-purchased cave. Thirty-eight years from now (!) Abraham himself will also be buried there. So will Abraham’s son, Isaac; Isaac’s wife, Rebekah; Isaac’s son, Jacob; and Jacob’s wife, Leah. Abraham’s intention of owning the field and the cave so generations of his descendants can be buried there will be fully realized.
It is interesting that in this chapter the death of Sarah is only mentioned as a means to explain how Abraham comes to own land in Canaan. Her death takes up two verses while the rest of the chapter recounts Abraham’s acquisition of her burial plot. The author apparently wants us to know how God enables Abraham to own land more than he wants to discuss Sarah’s death. And in so doing he shows how even in death God sovereignly moves to fulfill His promises to Abraham. Abraham is great in the eyes of the Canaanites, he has a son who is the first of what will be a great nation, and he now owns a section of what will ultimately belong wholly to his descendants. His lifelong companion is gone but his God continues to bless and guide him.
With that in mind it is interesting to see Chapter 23 in light of the two that precede it. In Chapter 21 Abraham lost Ishmael. In Chapter 22 he almost lost Isaac. In this chapter he loses Sarah. He comes to the end of his life and the people who mean the most to him begin to fall away. The constant in every event, however, is the One he walks with and has been walking with since he left Ur. Sarah is gone and Ishmael is gone, but God is with him and will never leave him, and in the end that means he can live another 38 years and die satisfied with life (25:8). God has stripped some of the most important people in his life away from him, but God Himself has proven over the last 62 years that He will be with Abraham every step of the way.