The death and burial of Abraham’s wife, Sarah (Genesis 23:1-23:20)
After living to the age of 127 years old, Sarah died in Hebron. After mourning her death, Abraham approached the Hittites and asked if they would be willing to sell him land he could use as a burial site for Sarah (being a foreigner to the area, Abraham owned no land). Out of respect for Abraham, the Hittites agreed.
Abraham next asked that they broker a deal between him and Ephron to purchase the Cave of Machpelah specifically. Ephron, who was sitting amongst those who were listening to Abraham’s plea, agreed to give Abraham not only the cave, but the entire field it was located in.
Abraham resisted Ephron’s offer, insisting that he pay for the field rather than receive it for free. Ephron told Abraham that the field was worth 400 shekels of silver but reiterated that he would give it to Abraham at no cost. Abraham paid 400 shekels to Ephron and the land, and the cave, were deeded to him as property. Abraham then buried his wife Sarah in the cave in the land of Canaan.
What the story means to us today
Generations live and die
The intent of this story likely has a deeper, more historical purpose (a historical background of Abraham’s land purchase) but regardless, this particular story will be followed (in the next chapter) by an account of Isaac finding a bride. This reminds us that generations continue – one generation dies while another arises to take its place.
Additional thoughts and considerations
Why include a story about the burial of Sarah?
This story may seem rather odd or unimportant – why dedicate an entire chapter to report the burial of Abraham’s wife? In fact, its significance goes quite deep within the context of the history of Israel. This is the first piece of land owned by Abraham – and it was *purchased* in a legal transaction, not given to him for free. Essentially, it formed the foundation for the land of Israel and became the first piece of land in the territory that God promised.
A cave and land for free?
There is debate regarding the interpretation of Ephron’s offer to Abraham. It may be that Ephron’s offer to “give” the land to Abraham was not intended to imply the land would be given away for free but rather, was Ephron’s insistence that Abraham not purchase merely the small cave by itself but that the land surrounding it must be included in the transaction too (at additional cost to Abraham). Some have theorized that ancient law would have required Ephron to pay the taxes if a small piece of the parcel were sold, an obligation that would instead pass to Abraham if the entire tract was included in the transaction. Or possibly Ephron was indeed offering to give both the land and cave at no cost knowing that Abraham would instead want legal title to it and would refuse the gift, countering with a payment offer for both the land and the cave.
It is hard to imagine Abraham’s status was such that the Hittites would offer him the land for free. Still, we cannot discount that possibility.
Where was Abraham when Sarah died?
Given the description of events in the previous chapter, it is quite possible that Abraham was in Beersheba (the previous chapter notes that Abraham returned to Beersheba and “dwelt there”) at the time Sarah died and had to return quickly to her side after her passing.
The Cave of Machpelah
Subsequent to the story of Sarah’s death, Abraham, Isaac (Jacob’s father), Jacob/Israel, Rebecca (Jacob’s mother, and Leah (Jacob’s wife), are all believed to have been buried in the Cave of Machpelah.
The Science behind the story
At the time of this story, a “shekel” was not a coin but rather a unit of weight that is believed to have represented approximately 11 ½ grams (some say 14 ½ grams) or about 4/10 ounce. Trading would be measured in shekels but the material traded could be silver, gold, brass, or even iron. Later, in New Testament times, it became a coin of the same weight struck in gold by Jewish authorities.
The total weight of silver given by Abraham for the purchase of the land was about 10 pounds. Many believe this was an exorbitant amount for the land he wished to purchase.
The site of the land that Abraham purchased is named Kiriath Arba (or Kirjath-arba, meaning “city of Arba”) and is noted as being “near Mamre”. Mamre is believed to be located at Ramet el-Khali, about two miles north of Hebron and 10 miles northeast of Jerusalem. This would indicate that the land purchased by Abraham was likely near (or within) Jerusalem. A modern-day settlement named Kiryat Arba exists just east of Hebron but its relation to the Kiriath Arba mentioned in these verses is unknown.
The Cave of Machpelah
Archaeologists have uncovered much of the enclosure that was built around the Cave of Machpelah by Herod the Great in 40 BC. The structure built by Herod was destroyed by the Persians in 614 AD. It was rebuilt a few decades later, after the area came under the control of Muslims. Several areas within the structure are revered as the burial places of the great Patriarchs and Matriarchs.
Today, there are two entrances to the cave. Both entrances are sealed (one by a gate and the other by a large stone) and are generally inaccessible to the public (out of respect for the dead) but throughout history, clandestine investigations into the cave’s underground areas have taken place. One investigation involved the nighttime lowering of a 12-year-old girl into the cave chamber (supposedly with a camera). They reported finding a staircase, long hallway, and a small, simple room.
Were the ancient bodies of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob discovered?
At least two historical documents indicate that around 1113 AD, parts of the cave’s ceilings collapsed revealing the bodies of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (“shrouds having fallen to pieces, beside them were placed lamps of gold and silver”). Several decades later (1170 AD), Benjamin of Tudela, a well-known traveler who visited Europe, Asia, and Africa during the 12th century, documenting his travels in exquisite detail, visited the city and wrote of his experience:
“The custodians tell the pilgrims that these are the tombs of the Patriarchs, for which information the pilgrims give them money. If a Jew comes, however, and gives a special reward, the custodian of the cave opens unto him a gate of iron, which was constructed by our forefathers, and then he is able to descend below by means of steps, holding a lighted candle in his hand. He then reaches a cave, in which nothing is to be found, and a cave beyond, which is likewise empty, but when he reaches the third cave behold there are six sepulchres, those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, respectively facing those of Sarah, Rebekah and Leah, upon which the names of the three Patriarchs and their wives are inscribed in Hebrew characters. The cave is filled with barrels containing bones of people, which are taken there as to a sacred place.”
23 Sarah lived to be a hundred and twenty-seven years old. 2 She died at Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her.
3 Then Abraham rose from beside his dead wife and spoke to the Hittites. a He said, 4 “I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.”
5 The Hittites replied to Abraham, 6 “Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead.”
7 Then Abraham rose and bowed down before the people of the land, the Hittites. 8 He said to them, “If you are willing to let me bury my dead, then listen to me and intercede with Ephron son of Zohar on my behalf 9 so he will sell me the cave of Machpelah, which belongs to him and is at the end of his field. Ask him to sell it to me for the full price as a burial site among you.”
10 Ephron the Hittite was sitting among his people and he replied to Abraham in the hearing of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of his city. 11 “No, my lord,” he said. “Listen to me; I give i you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead.”
12 Again Abraham bowed down before the people of the land 13 and he said to Ephron in their hearing, “Listen to me, if you will. I will pay the price of the field. Accept it from me so I can bury my dead there.”
14 Ephron answered Abraham, 15 “Listen to me, my lord; the land is worth four hundred shekels of silver, but what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.”
16 Abraham agreed to Ephron’s terms and weighed out for him the price he had named in the hearing of the Hittites: four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weight current among the merchants.
17 So Ephron’s field in Machpelah near Mamre—both the field and the cave in it, and all the trees within the borders of the field—was deeded 18 to Abraham as his property in the presence of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of the city. 19 Afterward Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah near Mamre (which is at Hebron) in the land of Canaan. 20 So the field and the cave in it were deeded to Abraham by the Hittites as a burial site.
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
1–2 Sarah lived 127 years. 2 Sarah died in Kiriath Arba, present-day Hebron, in the land of Canaan. Abraham mourned for Sarah and wept.
3 Then Abraham got up from mourning his dead wife and spoke to the Hittites: 4 “I know I’m only an outsider here among you, but sell me a burial plot so that I can bury my dead decently.”
5 The Hittites responded, 6 “Why, you’re no mere outsider here with us, you’re a prince of God! Bury your dead wife in the best of our burial sites. None of us will refuse you a place for burial.”
7 Then Abraham got up, bowed respectfully to the people of the land, the Hittites, 8 and said, “If you’re serious about helping me give my wife a proper burial, intercede for me with Ephron son of Zohar. 9 Ask him to sell me the cave of Machpelah that he owns, the one at the end of his land. Ask him to sell it to me at its full price for a burial plot, with you as witnesses.”
10 Ephron was part of the local Hittite community. Then Ephron the Hittite spoke up, answering Abraham with all the Hittites who were part of the town council listening: 11 “Oh no, my master! I couldn’t do that. The field is yours—a gift. I’ll give it and the cave to you. With my people as witnesses, I give it to you. Bury your deceased wife.”
12 Abraham bowed respectfully before the assembled council 13 and answered Ephron: “Please allow me—I want to pay the price of the land; take my money so that I can go ahead and bury my wife.”
14 Then Ephron answered Abraham, 15 “If you insist, master. What’s four hundred silver shekels between us? Now go ahead and bury your wife.”
16 Abraham accepted Ephron’s offer and paid out the sum that Ephron had named before the town council of Hittites—four hundred silver shekels at the current exchange rate.
17 That’s how Ephron’s field next to Mamre—the field, its cave, and all the trees within its borders—18 became Abraham’s property. The town council of Hittites witnessed the transaction. 19 Abraham then proceeded to bury his wife Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah that is next to Mamre, present-day Hebron, in the land of Canaan. 20 The field and its cave went from the Hittites into Abraham’s possession as a burial plot.
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
The NET Bible
23:3 Then Abraham got up from mourning his dead wife and said to the sons of Heth, 23:4 “I am a temporary settler among you. Grant me ownership of a burial site among you so that I may bury my dead.”
23:5 The sons of Heth answered Abraham, 23:6 “Listen, sir, you are a mighty prince among us! You may bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb to prevent you from burying your dead.”
23:7 Abraham got up and bowed down to the local people, the sons of Heth. 23:8 Then he said to them, “If you agree that I may bury my dead, then hear me out. Ask Ephron the son of Zohar 23:9 if he will sell me the cave of Machpelah that belongs to him; it is at the end of his field. Let him sell it to me publicly for the full price, so that I may own it as a burial site.”
23:10 (Now Ephron was sitting among the sons of Heth.) Ephron the Hethite replied to Abraham in the hearing of the sons of Heth—before all who entered the gate of his city—23:11 “No, my lord! Hear me out. I sell you both the field and the cave that is in it. In the presence of my people I sell it to you. Bury your dead.”
23:12 Abraham bowed before the local people 23:13 and said to Ephron in their hearing, “Hear me, if you will. I pay to you the price of the field. Take it from me so that I may bury my dead there.”
23:14 Ephron answered Abraham, saying to him, 23:15 “Hear me, my lord. The land is worth 400 pieces of silver, but what is that between me and you? So bury your dead.”
23:16 So Abraham agreed to Ephron’s price and weighed out for him the price that Ephron had quoted in the hearing of the sons of Heth—400 pieces of silver, according to the standard measurement at the time.
23:17 So Abraham secured Ephron’s field in Machpelah, next to Mamre, including the field, the cave that was in it, and all the trees that were in the field and all around its border, 23:18 as his property in the presence of the sons of Heth before all who entered the gate of Ephron’s city.
23:19 After this Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah next to Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. 23:20 So Abraham secured the field and the cave that was in it as a burial site from the sons of Heth.
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
King James Version
23 And Sarah was an hundred and seven and twenty years old: these were the years of the life of Sarah. 2 And Sarah died in Kirjath-arba; the same is Hebron in the land of Canaan: and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her. 3 And Abraham stood up from before his dead, and spake unto the sons of Heth, saying, 4 I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a buryingplace with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight. 5 And the children of Heth answered Abraham, saying unto him, 6 Hear us, my lord: thou art a mighty prince among us: in the choice of our sepulchres bury thy dead; none of us shall withhold from thee his sepulchre, but that thou mayest bury thy dead. 7 And Abraham stood up, and bowed himself to the people of the land, even to the children of Heth. 8 And he communed with them, saying, If it be your mind that I should bury my dead out of my sight; hear me, and intreat for me to Ephron the son of Zohar, 9 That he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he hath, which is in the end of his field; for as much money as it is worth he shall give it me for a possession of a buryingplace amongst you. 10 And Ephron dwelt among the children of Heth: and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the audience of the children of Heth, even of all that went in at the gate of his city, saying, 11 Nay, my lord, hear me: the field give I thee, and the cave that is therein, I give it thee; in the presence of the sons of my people give I it thee: bury thy dead. 12 And Abraham bowed down himself before the people of the land. 13 And he spake unto Ephron in the audience of the people of the land, saying, But if thou wilt give it, I pray thee, hear me: I will give thee money for the field; take it of me, and I will bury my dead there. 14 And Ephron answered Abraham, saying unto him, 15 My lord, hearken unto me: the land is worth four hundred shekels of silver; what is that betwixt me and thee? bury therefore thy dead. 16 And Abraham hearkened unto Ephron; and Abraham weighed to Ephron the silver, which he had named in the audience of the sons of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, current money with the merchant. 17 And the field of Ephron, which was in Machpelah, which was before Mamre, the field, and the cave which was therein, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all the borders round about, were made sure 18 Unto Abraham for a possession in the presence of the children of Heth, before all that went in at the gate of his city. 19 And after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre: the same is Hebron in the land of Canaan. 20 And the field, and the cave that is therein, were made sure unto Abraham for a possession of a buryingplace by the sons of Heth.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.