Genesis 23: The Death of Sarah

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Initially, it might seem that the short genealogy involving Abraham’s brother, Nahor, is quite out of place at the end Chapter 22. Yet, it provides an essential link to the next generation. When Abraham sacrificed the ram instead of Isaac, he was able to safeguard his son and secure the future of God’s promises. But in order for the promises to continue, Isaac must also marry and have descendants.

So it is that “some time later,” news comes to Abraham about his brother’s family. Nahor and his wife have eight sons; he has four more with his wife’s concubine, bringing the grand total to twelve. Each of his sons is named, and most of the names refer either to tribes or to geographical areas. Some are completely unknown. The last of Nahor’s sons with his wife, Milcah, is named, Bethuel. Remarkably, the narrator makes note that Bethuel is the father of Rebekah. Future stories will include Bethuel’s son, Laban, but the narrator is only interested in Rebekah at this time, though he gives no immediate explanation for that interest. The particular placement of this genealogy at the end of the story provides a nice parallel to the genealogy that precedes the initial call to Abraham. The whole tale, then, begins and ends with a genealogy—a typical Hebrew literary technique.

Continuing with the transition from one generation to the next, Chapter 23 begins with the death of Sarah. She “lived to be a hundred and twenty-seven years old.” She is the only matriarch whose age is recorded at her death. This highlights her importance and raises some interesting questions about the age of Isaac on Mount Moriah. Some scholars maintain that Isaac was an adult at the time of his binding and that Sarah died when she found out what was happening. That would put Isaac in his thirties. Others insist that Isaac was merely a young lad, and Sarah lived for many years after the events in the land of Moriah. There is simply no way to know for sure.

What is even more intriguing, however, is the notion that Sarah and Abraham were not living together at the time of her death. Following the binding of Isaac, Abraham returns to Beersheba; Sarah dies at Hebron. The distance between them is roughly 26 miles, which was a great distance in biblical times. This notion of separation is furthered by the text that states that Abraham came “to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her.” While the Hebrew word can have a sense of preparation for action when used with another verb, it may also be a verb of location. He has to come to her from some place else in order to mourn for her. The sad fact could be that after the binding of Isaac, neither Isaac nor Sarah spent time in Abraham’s company.

The act of mourning, of course, consists of much more than weeping over her, but the rites are not specified because the real interest of the text lies in what follows—the arrangement of a proper burial place. Sarah’s death and burial is the first to be recorded in our story, and the extraordinary detail of these arrangements indicates how important this is for the life of the community.

The negotiating session consists of several parts. Initially, Abraham asks the inhabitants of Hebron, the Hittites, whether they will allow him to have a burial plot for his wife. He identifies himself to them as a resident alien in their land. As an alien, he has to have their permission to bury his dead, and, technically, he cannot own any land. And even if this last point were to be overcome, he cannot own the land in perpetuity. So what is seen here is some delicate posturing by both sides as the details of this agreement unfold.

The Hittites respond to his initial statement with a great show of sympathy and goodwill. They offer him any burial place of his choosing, identifying him not as an immigrant, but as a prince among them. For this reason none of them will deny him a place to bury his dead. But they do not offer to sell him any of their land. Such a sale would violate the integrity of their tribal customs. In the ancient world, land was linked to one’s forefathers and held in trust for one’s family. Not surprisingly, owners were notably reluctant to part with any of it, even if it were only a small portion of their property. And selling it to an alien would do nothing but dilute the strength and cohesion of their tribal community. This could have dire implications in times of conflict and war. No wonder, then, that the whole community is involved in the decision.

Still, they give Abraham enough encouragement that he is able to continue with the process. He bows to them, is very respectful, dignified, and grateful for their generosity and understanding. But he becomes more specific, asking for a particular cave. If they want him to bury his dead, then they must intercede for him with Ephron, the owner of the cave. The cave that he wants is only a small piece of his property, and he is willing to pay full price for it. He is insistent upon owning this land, a point deliberately passed over by the Hittites. As it turns out, Ephron is among those in the group and graciously, before the whole community as his witness, offers to give the cave to Abraham. He offers not only the cave, but the land surrounding it as well. Again, nothing is said about selling it. If Abraham took all the land, and not just the cave, he would be legally responsible for its upkeep and the management of any tenants that might be on the land. But gifting land to someone is like loaning it to him. Were Abraham to accept this offer, he might very well find himself indebted to Ephron in many other ways. And someday, Ephron or his heirs might want the land to be returned. Neither scenario is acceptable to Abraham. He wants to own the land free and clear.

Still, negotiations are moving forward. So Abraham bows low again, once again being very deferential. He realizes the need for the agreement to be public, so he speaks to Ephron in the hearing of all the people of the land. Once again, Abraham offers to pay for the land.

Up until this time, it has not been clear whether Ephron really wants to sell the land. Now however, he names an exorbitant price and minimizes its impact saying, “What’s a mere 400 shekels between us?” To his way of thinking, Abraham can obviously afford it, and that is his asking price. Now just for perspective, David paid the Jebusites 50 shekels for the site of the Jerusalem Temple. Jeremiah bought his cousin’s field for 17 shekels. And Omri spent 6000 shekels for the whole area of his future capital of Samaria. We don't know how big this cave actually is, but even allowing for changes in valuation of the currency, 400 shekels sounds rather excessive. And in accordance with ancient traditions, he probably started with a high price expecting some hard negotiating over the amount. Yet Abraham doesn’t hesitate for a minute. He says he will pay full price, and he makes no attempt to beat down the price. In full view of everyone, he weighs out the amount. The posturing is over; the show of civilities is over. The land is legally transferred.

For the very first time, Abraham now has unimpeachable possession of a piece of the Promised Land. His ownership will last in perpetuity. It is a powerful witness to the promise that his descendants will inherit the land. Granted, it is a rather small piece of the land, but it provides at least a beginning fulfillment of the promise of land.

The final paragraph reads like a legal document—although the negotiations are all conducted verbally. It identifies the owner (Ephron), the location (Machpelah near Mamre), a description of the property (both the field and the cave in it, and all the trees within the borders of the field), the method of acquisition (was deeded to Abraham as his property in the presence of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of the city), and the right of perpetuity. The land is purchased for the purpose of a burial ground, and Abraham uses the land for that purpose. This act is really what seals the transaction and makes it incontestable. That it is located in Canaan, specifically facing Mamre, is important to the story. Mamre is where Sarah experiences the promise of a child. Many promises are made to them by God during their years in Mamre. So it is a place filled with many happy memories, and it will become the burial grounds for three generations.

Having thus fulfilled his obligation to the dead, Abraham will now turn to the needs of the living. Isaac is still without a wife, which again places the promise of descendants in jeopardy. It is Abraham’s role to find him a wife, and the fact that he is old and advanced in years merely adds to the urgency of his task. It will soon become obvious why the narrator mentioned Rebekah in his genealogy.