Genesis 23: The Death and Burial of Sarah

silver coins bagHebrew-English Text

I. Summary

Sarah dies and Abraham buys the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite and buries her in it.

II. Photo

Abraham buys the cave of Machpelah: “Abraham paid out to Ephron the money that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites — four hundred shekels of silver at the going merchants’ rate.” (v. 16)

III. Select Verses

1-2: Sarah’s lifetime — the span of Sarah’s life — came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba — now Hebron — in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.

17-20: So Ephron’s land in Machpelah, near Mamre — the field with its cave and all the trees anywhere within the confines of that field — passed to Abraham as his possession, in the presence of the Hittites, of all who entered the gate of his town. And then Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre — now Hebron — in the land of Canaan. Thus the field with its cave passed from the Hittites to Abraham, as a burial site.

IV. Outline

1. The years of Sarah’s life

2a. Sarah’s death

2b-4. Abraham mourns and asks the Hittites for a burial plot

5-6. The Hittites grant Abraham his request

7-9. Abraham asks for the Machpelah cave from Ephron at full price

10-16. Abraham and Ephron agree on a 400 sheqel price and make the transaction

17-18. The transaction is made before the Hittites

19. Abraham buries Sarah

20. Summary: Abraham bought the cave from the Hittites for burial

V. Comment

Although Genesis 23 concerns the death and burial of Sarah, only three verses are devoted to that topic (1-2, 19). The rest of the chapter concerns Abraham’s purchase of the cave of Machpelah in order to bury Sarah, not the burial itself. Stephen C. Russell notes a number of peculiarities in this chapter including the impression that Abraham buys the field from Ephron and the Hittites, not just from Ephron. This can be seen from the initial discussion between Abraham and the Hittites that do not involve Ephron (vv. 3-10), the emphasis that the field was sold “in the presence of the Hittites” (v. 18), and the repetition that the “cave passed from the Hittites to Abraham” (v. 20). Another peculiarity is that the purpose of the acquisition, i.e., the burial of Sarah, is mentioned excessively (vss. 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 13) whereas the actual burial is only devoted one verse (v. 19). For Russell, these peculiarities can be explained with an understanding ancient and modern tribal economies. In some tribal societies, ownership is not exclusive to one person; many people can have different types of rights to one piece of land. A king might own the rights to choose what a piece of land is used for and who gets to use it, though the king may not have the right to use it himself. Similarly, a citizen might own the rights to use a piece of land for pasture but not agriculture, and the king may be able to grant the land to another family upon his death. This joint ownership is attested in documents from ancient Mari and Ugarit, which mention sales “from so-and-so and the king” and sales “from so-and-so and the tribal elders.” In the case of our chapter, Abraham is buying the cave of Machpelah from two parties. First, he buys the rights to use the land as a burial cave from the Hittite elders, who serve as wardens. Second, he buys the cave from Ephron, who had been using it for another purpose. According to Russell, “Abraham seeks the right to use land in a particular way: as a burial site. As such he requires rights that will be transferable to his heirs. Although Ephron has an estate of production in the land, the Bnei Heth hold an estate of administration in Ephron’s land. Their involvement in the transaction thus guarantees the permanent transfer to Abraham of rights to use the land as a burial site, including the right to bequeath the land to his heirs.” (170)

VI. Works Used

(see “Commentaries” page)

Stephen C. Russell, “Abraham’s Purchase of Ephron’s Land in Anthropological Perspective,” Biblical Interpretation 21-2 (2013), 153-170.

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