Commentary on Genesis 23

Last updated: August 12, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1Sarah lived 127 years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. 2And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her. 3And Abraham rose up from before his dead and said to the Hittites, 4″I am a sojourner and foreigner among you; give me property among you for a burying place, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” 5The Hittites answered Abraham, 6″Hear us, my lord; you are a prince of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will withhold from you his tomb to hinder you from burying your dead.” 7Abraham rose and bowed to the Hittites, the people of the land. 8And he said to them, “If you are willing that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me and entreat for me Ephron the son of Zohar, 9that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he owns; it is at the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me in your presence as property for a burying place.”

10Now Ephron was sitting among the Hittites, and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, of all who went in at the gate of his city, 11″No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the sight of the sons of my people I give it to you. Bury your dead.” 12Then Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. 13And he said to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, “But if you will, hear me: I give the price of the field. Accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there.” 14Ephron answered Abraham, 15″My lord, listen to me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.” 16Abraham listened to Ephron, and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants.

17So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field, throughout its whole area, was made over 18to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, before all who went in at the gate of his city. 19After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. 20The field and the cave that is in it were made over to Abraham as property for a burying place by the Hittites.

Notes

1-2 Sarah lived 127 years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.

Approximately the last 35 years of Sarah’s life are passed over in silence (21:12). She is the only one of the matriarchs to have her age at death recorded. Kiriath-arba means “city of four” and may refer to a confederation of four families around Hebron1 or to four related cities (Aner, Eschol, Mamre, and Hebron)2.

3-4 And Abraham rose up from before his dead and said to the Hittites, “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you; give me property among you for a burying place, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.”

It is debatable whether the Hittites of Genesis are the same Hittites who established an empire in Asia Minor. Abraham literally asks for a “holding of a grave.” The term “holding” is used in 17:8 and 48:4 for Israel’s eternal possession of the promised land. Abraham is asking for a piece of land that he can use permanently as a burial plot.3

5-6 The Hittites answered Abraham, “Hear us, my lord; you are a prince of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will withhold from you his tomb to hinder you from burying your dead.”

The Hittites reply with great warmth. They realize that God has blessed Abraham and made him successful (“prince of God”). They do not view Abraham as a foreigner but as someone who lives “among us.” However, they are reluctant to give Abraham a plot of land. Instead they merely give Abraham permission to bury Sarah in one of their tombs.

7-9 Abraham rose and bowed to the Hittites, the people of the land. And he said to them, “If you are willing that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me and entreat for me Ephron the son of Zohar, that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he owns; it is at the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me in your presence as property for a burying place.”

Negotiations were conducted sitting down so Abraham stood and bowed to indicate that he was about to make an important request. “Long tradition, going back to Josephus in the first century, identifies the site of Macpelah with the area now covered by the large mosque Haram El-Khalil in the town of Hebron. As remains of Herodian masonry are visible in the mosque, this corroborates Josephus’ comments that the tomb of the patriarchs was located their in his time.”4 That the cave was at the end of the field implies Abraham only wanted to purchase a small part of Ephron’s land. Abraham is explicit that he wants to purchase the land as a piece of property and not merely bury his dead their.

10-11 Now Ephron was sitting among the Hittites, and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, of all who went in at the gate of his city, “No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the sight of the sons of my people I give it to you. Bury your dead.”

Ephron’s response is ambiguous. Does he want to sell the land or merely allow Abraham to bury Sarah on the land? “Land merely ‘given’ is land on loan. A gift, as opposed to a sale, places the recipient under obligation to the donor. So if Abraham accepted the cave and land as a free gift from Ephron, he could find himself indebted to him in other ways.”5

12-13 Then Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. And he said to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, “But if you will, hear me: I give the price of the field. Accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there.”

Abraham refuses the offer to receive the land as a gift because then Ephron’s heirs could reclaim the land after Ephron’s death. In fact, Abraham is likely anxious to pay full price because a discounted price could be later connected to family debt problems and also allow heirs of Ephron to reclaim the land.”6

14-15 Ephron answered Abraham, “My lord, listen to me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.”

It is unclear whether the price was reasonable or not.

16 Abraham listened to Ephron, and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants.

This verse makes it clear that the purchase was legitimate and permanent. “Silver coinage was a much later development; thus the transaction price involved the measurement of a shekel by weight. Variance in scales required agreement on the accepted ratio (e.g., ‘sanctuary shekel,’ Exod 30:13; cf. 2 Sam 14:26; Prov 20:10, 23); in this case the measure was the one ‘current among the merchants’ (cf. Amos 8:5; Mic 6:11).”7

17-20 So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field, throughout its whole area, was made over to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, before all who went in at the gate of his city. After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in it were made over to Abraham as property for a burying place by the Hittites.

The burial of Sarah is not the central theme of this chapter. The central theme is that Abraham has gained possession of some of the promised land (12:7; 13:15, 17; 15:7-8, 18; 17:8; 22:17). The frequent references to the public nature of the negotiations make Abraham’s claim to the land beyond dispute (vv 10, 13, 16, 18). These concluding verses record the particulars of the transaction. Abraham (25:9), Isaac (35:27-29), and Jacob (49:30; 50:13) will also be buried in this cave.

Bibliography

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1B. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Walton, John H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary 2. Thomas Nelson, 1994.

1Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 126.

2Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 315.

3Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 127.

4Ibid., 128.

5Ibid.

6Walton, Genesis, 528-529.

7Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 320-321.

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