Before we turn our attention to Genesis 23, I want to spend a few moments on the end of chapter 22, which I didn’t deal with the last time. You’ll recall that chapter 22 tells the story of how the Lord commanded Abraham to take his son, his only son, whom he loved, and to sacrifice him as a burnt offering to the Lord.
And last time, we noted that this was a special case, or an extra-ordinary case, not an ordinary one. You see, ordinarily, or normally, the Lord commands parents to love their children and to bring them up in the knowledge of the Lord. That’s his will for us. And so, what we have in this chapter, is a special case. It’s unique.
And we saw that the events of chapter 22 highlight the obedience of faith, or the obedience that comes from faith. You see, Abraham believed God’s promise that he was going to make Abraham’s offspring into a great nation. And so, because he trusted God to keep his promise, Abraham was prepared to obey the Lord and to sacrifice his son. He believed that somehow, somehow, his son would survive what was going to happen. And so, because he believed, he was prepared to obey the Lord.
But we also noted last time that even though Abraham was prepared to offer up his son, his only son, whom he loved, to God as a sacrifice, even though he was prepared to offer up the most precious thing he had as a burnt offering to make up for his sins, nevertheless, Isaac was not enough. The death of Isaac was not enough to pay for his sins. And whatever we might try to offer to God to make up for our sins, it’s not enough. And so, the Lord stopped Abraham before he killed his son; and he provided him with a ram to sacrifice instead. And the ram, and all the other sacrifices the Jews used to offer to God in the temple, were designed to fill in until the time came when the Lord Jesus, God’s son, his only Son, whom he loved, climbed a hill and offered himself as the perfect sacrifice to take away our sins. The sacrifice of Isaac pointed forward to the coming of the Saviour and to the true Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
So, that’s what we were thinking about last time. But we didn’t get to the end of chapter 22. So, look with me now briefly at verses 15 to 19 first of all, and then verses 20 to 24.
First of all, in verses 15 to 19, the Lord spoke to Abraham from heaven and confirmed his promises to Abraham once again. Look at verse 17:
I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.
That’s the promise to make Abraham into a great nation. Then the Lord said:
Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies.
That’s the promise to give Abraham’s descendants the Promised Land to live in.
Well, you’ll remember — won’t you? — that God’s promises to Abraham are fulfilled in an earthly, ordinary and provisional way because from Abraham, there came the Twelve Tribes of Israel, a great nation of people. And the Lord gave them the land of Canaan as their own. So, he gave Abraham a people and a place.
But God’s promises to Abraham are also fulfilled in a spiritual, greater and eternal way because Abraham is the father of every believer. Everyone who shares Abraham’s faith is one of Abraham’s spiritual descendants. And so, the Lord’s promise to make Abraham into a great nation is fulfilled by the church of Jesus Christ which extends throughout the world.
And the promise to give Abraham a land is fulfilled in a spiritual, greater and eternal way in the new heavens and the new earth which we read about in the last book of the Bible where all of God’s believing people will live for ever and ever.
So, there’s a people: believers across the world. And there’s a place: new heavens and a new earth and eternal life in the presence of God. And here, at the end of chapter 22, the Lord confirmed his promises to Abraham once again.
But look as well at verse 18. The Lord said to Abraham:
And through your offspring all nations on the earth will be blessed.
And that refers to the coming of the Lord Jesus into the world, because the Lord — according to his human nature — was descended from Abraham. And he came into the world so that all who believe in him might receive the blessing of God — forgiveness and eternal life — and not his curse.
So, here’s the Lord, confirming his promises to Abraham, saying to him:
Because you obeyed me, and were prepared to offer up your son to me, I now swear by myself: I will surely do this.
And just to add one more little detail: Do you remember God’s command to Adam back in chapter 1? God commanded Adam to fill the earth and to subdue it. In other words: he commanded Adam to fill the earth with people. And he commanded Adam to subdue the earth by making it a place where God’s people would worship the Lord. Well, what Adam failed to do, God now promises to do through Abraham and through the Lord Jesus, because, through the preaching of his word, the Lord Jesus is making a people for himself: all those men and women and boys and girls around the world who have been called and drawn to him for salvation. And when he comes again, there will be a new heavens and a new earth which will be the place where we worship the Lord for ever and ever. Do you see? It all fits together: God’s command to Adam about a people and a place; and Adam’s disobedience; And God’s promise to Abraham about a people and a place; and Christ’s obedience. From the very beginning, God was working out his great plan for our redemption.
So, that’s verses 15 to 19. In verses 20 to 24, we have a brief genealogy. But it’s not about Abraham’s descendants. Instead it’s about his brother’s descendants. Do you see that in verse 20? It’s about his brother, Nahor, and his children. And the most significant name in this list is in verse 23 where we read that Bethuel became the father of Rebekah. Well, just as you might put a sweet in your pocket and save it to later, we’re meant to put that detail about Rebekah in our pocket and save it until later. But we won’t have to save it for too long, because in chapter 24 we read how Abraham wanted a wife for his son. And he sent his servant to find one for him. And the Lord led the servant to Rebekah. And from Isaac and Rebekah, there came Esau and Jacob. And from Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, there came the Twelve Tribes of Israel. And from the Twelve Tribes of Israel, there came, in due course, the Lord Jesus, the Saviour of the world. God was working out his purposes for the world and his great plan of redemption for his people. So, that’s the end of chapter 22. Let’s turn now to chapter 23.
And Genesis 23 reports the death of Sarah and the elaborate negotiations Abraham had to make in order to purchase a burial ground for her. We see how he went to the people of the land to see if he could buy some property for a burial site. Well, he’s keen to buy, but the people of the land don’t seem so keen to sell. Look at verse 6: They spoke politely to him, calling him a mighty prince. But then they only offer him the use of a tomb. Do you see that? He wanted to buy, but they only offer to let him use one of their own tombs. They don’t want to sell him their land. Well, it’s then Abraham’s turn again. He actually had a particular site in mind, and he knew who owned it and so he inquired whether this particular person was prepared to sell the cave to him. And Abraham was prepared to pay the full price of the cave. Now the owner, Ephron, was there. And he was prepared to do business. In verse 11, he offered to give Abraham, not only the cave, but the whole field. Now, it’s unlikely that he intended to give the land to Abraham for nothing. What he means is that he was prepared to give Abraham the field for a suitable amount of money. We say something similar. The salesman tells us:
You can have that for £100.
I’ll let you have that for only £500.
And so, in verses 12 and 13, Abraham agreed to buy the field and the cave. Ephron then named his price. And in the sight of everyone else, Abraham handed over the price of the field and the deal was done. And once the deal was completed, Abraham buried Sarah’s remains. And the chapter ends by confirming that the field and the cave were legally made over to Abraham.
Well, there are really two things I want us to note from this passage today. First of all, there’s Abraham’s grief. And then there’s the significance of burying her in the land Canaan.
So, the first thing to note is Abraham’s grief over his wife’s death. Verse 1 tells us that Sarah died at the age of 127; and then, in verse 2, we read how Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her. Now that’s shorthand for saying that he would have done what was normal in those days: he would have torn his clothes; and cut his beard; and dishevelled his hair; and covered himself with dust and ashes; and he would have fasted. That was the way that people mourned in those days and by doing these things they demonstrated their absolute grief and sorrow over what has happened. And in verse 3, when he went to speak to the Hittites, he was perhaps still in mourning. Abraham mourned and wept for his wife who had died.
But things are sometimes different now. I have a book at home, which I read years ago, called, ‘Why Do Christians Find It Hard To Grieve?’ The author explains that, as a young minister, he discovered that it was often those in his parish with an explicit Christian faith who were the ‘worst’ at grieving and who found grief embarrassing even. He describes how one fine Christian woman — who had been bereaved — had called him to seek his help. And in the course of the conversation, she said to him apologetically:
If I was a real Christian, I wouldn’t get so upset.
Isn’t that striking? Here was someone who felt that being a believer was inconsistent with grieving over a loved one’s death. They were incompatible. She believed that real Christians shouldn’t grieve. Grief betrays a lack of faith. It demonstrates a lack of trust. Wasn’t the person who had died a believer? Wasn’t he now with the Lord? Well, then their death should not be a cause for sorrow, but of rejoicing. That’s often the attitude today and so now, funerals become a ‘celebration’. We’re told that we’re not to feel sorrow or sadness, but we’re to celebrate the life of the person who has died.
And yet those who are left behind, those who have lost a loved one, still feel an immense and deep sorrow, because of their loss. I’m reminded of someone I know whose mother had died. This person I know and her mother were both believers. And the person I know happened to mention to another Christian friend that her mother had died. And do you know what this person said when she heard the news about this believer who had died. She said: ‘Praise the Lord!’ Now, we understand what was meant: Praise the Lord that this person has now gone to be with the Lord. Praise the Lord that, for the sake of Jesus Christ, God does not count our sins against us, but forgives us and brings us into heaven to be with him. Praise the Lord for the promise of everlasting life. Yes, praise the Lord, because all of that is true. That’s the kind of thing the apostle Paul was able to say to the believers in Thessalonica who were anxious about the eternal fate of their loved ones who had died. And Paul wrote to teach them about the resurrection of believers when Christ returns. And he wrote those things about the resurrection so that the believers in Thessalonica would not grieve over their loved ones like the rest of men who have no hope. Because of the hope of the gospel, we needn’t grieve like those who have no hope. But — and here’s the point — we will still grieve. And when someone we loved has died, then it’s a time for sorrow and sadness and mourning. Someone who was dear to us has been taken from us and we will not see them again in this life. And what we need at that time is comfort and compassion and sympathy, for a great tidal wave of sorrow will sweep over us again and again and again. And when the happens, we will be like Abraham and we will mourn and weep.
Well, we could turn forward in our Bible to Genesis 37 where we have the account of Jacob and his sons. His sons, you remember, had sold Joseph into slavery and they brought back his coat, covered in the blood of an animal, and they pretended to their father that some wild beast had killed his dear son. And we read how Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son for many days. And his other sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said:
In mourning will I go down to the grave to my son.
His grief is depicted so clearly in the book of Genesis. And so we read how Jacob wept for his son.
Or in 2 Samuel 18, King David was given the news that his son, Absalom had died. And David, we read, was shaken by the news. And he went up to a room by himself and wept, saying:
O my son, Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you!
Do you see his grief?
Or we could turn to the New Testament. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, refers to Epaphroditus who almost died. But, says Paul, God had mercy on him and he survived. And then he added that God had mercy on him — Paul — because God had saved him from … what? From the sorrow of losing Epaphroditus!
Or we have the sorrow of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, following the Lord’s death. They didn’t realise that the Lord had risen. And so, we read how their faces were downcast as they spoke of all that had happened to him in Jerusalem and how the Lord had died.
And we have Mary Magdalene, weeping for the Lord Jesus outside his tomb, for she thought he was dead.
And then, finally, we have the sorrow of the Lord Jesus, following the death of his friend, Lazarus. He’s taken to Lazarus’s tomb, and in the shortest verse of the Bible, only two words, we’re told that Jesus wept. And those who saw it remarked:
See how he loved Lazarus!
They knew he loved Lazarus, because he was mourning and weeping for him.
Throughout the Bible, we meet people who are filled with sorrow because someone they loved has died. They’re not afraid or ashamed to grieve over their loved ones just as Abraham grieved over the death of Sarah. So, none of us should feel shame or embarrassment or that we have failed as a Christian if we too grieve and are filled with sadness when someone we loved has died. And none of us will want to look down on fellow believers who are mourning. Yes, we believe in the resurrection of the dead and we believe in the life everlasting. But when someone has died, we’ve lost someone who was very dear to us. And in those moments we will want to receive the comfort and the support and the sympathy of our Christian brothers and sisters.
So, that’s the first thing we can learn from this passage. The second thing to note from this passage is the significance of burying Sarah’s body in Canaan.
My father grew up in Donegal; and his brother, until his death a few years ago, owned and looked after the family farm. However, my Dad and his three sisters all left Donegal. My Dad ended up in Bangor. Another sister lives on one of the Shetland Islands. Another lived in England, although she too died recently. And another lives in Northern Ireland. Now I’ve heard this final sister give very specific instructions that when she dies, she wants her remains taken back to Donegal and she wants to be buried in the church graveyard which is across the fields from the family farm. She wants to be buried where she grew up. In other words, she wants to be buried back home.
Well, when Yvonne and I were in Scotland, we met a couple from Northern Ireland who are now working in Scotland: he’s a Presbyterian minister. Though they intend to live and work in Scotland for the rest of their lives, they mentioned to us once that they had bought a grave site for both of them, back in Northern Ireland. They want to be buried back home.
Another person I know, went off on holiday with her husband. On holiday her husband had a heart attack and died. And, of course, arrangements were made for his body to be flown back to Northern Ireland. He was to be buried back home.
Why did Abraham want to bury Sarah in the land of Canaan? Why didn’t he take her remains back to Ur of the Chaldeans or to Haran were they had come from? After all, they were only aliens and strangers in the land of Canaan. They didn’t own any property. They lived only in tents. Why not return to the family farm, as my aunt wants for her own burial? Well, because they believed that the land of Canaan was their home. Canaan was the Promised Land, the land that God has promised to give to Abraham and to his descendants. God had come to them in chapter 12 and had told them to leave Haran and to leave Abraham’s father and family and go to the land of Canaan. And off he went, going to the land God promised to give to him.
And then do you remember, when Abraham and Lot had to separate, God said to Abraham:
Look north. Look south. Look east. Look west. All the land that you see, I will give it to you and your offspring forever.
That was God’s promise to Abraham and Abraham believed God’s promise. And though he didn’t own any of the land, he believed that this was his home, that God would surely give it to his family. And so Abraham buried Sarah there, in Canaan, because this was to be their home. And this was where Abraham was buried as well. And this was where their son Isaac and his wife were buried. And this was where Jacob and Joseph were buried, even though Jacob and Joseph died in Egypt. But do you remember? Their remains were brought back to the land of Canaan, to the Promised Land, by the Israelites, because this was their home, given to them by God.
Now, Abraham had to pay for this field and burial site. And he had to pay a high price for it. But he paid it without complaint, because it was important that Sarah should be laid to rest in the promised land of Canaan. And until the price was paid, her body could not be laid to rest. Well, many years later, Jesus Christ would pay a high price in order that we might possess the Promised Land of Eternal Life. If the price were not paid, we would have been shut out of God’s presence forever, because not one of us is able to pay the price ourselves and there’s nothing we could offer to God to make up for our sin and disobedience. Nothing at all. Nothing. But by giving up his life on the cross, and by suffering in our place the punishment we deserve for our sin and disobedience, Jesus Christ paid for all our sins completely and forever. And having paid for our sin completely and forever, he has reconciled us to God and opened up the way for us to come into God’s presence to be with him for ever and ever. The Promised Land of Eternal Life is opened to us; and the way into it has been opened up by Jesus Christ. And through trusting in him, we take possession of it. Through trusting in him, we are given the sure and certain hope that though we die, one day our bodies will be raised from the grave and we will be with the Lord forever.
Well, if you were to read Hebrews 11, you’d see that Abraham believed this as well. Listen to what it says there:
All these people [Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob] were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country -– a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Do you see? Abraham looked beyond the Promised Land of Canaan and he was longing for something even better. He was looking forward in faith to the Promised Land of Eternal Life.
So, we can imagine Abraham, paying for the land, and burying his wife’s body there, and looking all around him at the field he now possessed, and all the land around it, which God had promised to him; but secretly, in his heart, he was longing, longing for something even better. Oh, the land was flowing with milk and honey. It was a good land, full of good things. But Abraham was longing for an even better land. He was longing for the resurrection and eternal life in the presence of the Lord.
And whenever we take the body of a loved one down to Roselawn or Carnmoney or to another cemetery, and we lay their bodies in the ground, that’s what we’re hoping for, isn’t it? We believe that there’s more to our life than this world. And we believe that death is not the end. And in every disappointment and every trial and every sorrow and every heartache and every bereavement that we suffer in this troubled life, we’re longing, we’re longing for a better country, a better place, where there will be no more sorrow or sadness or trouble or pain or death, but only everlasting life and that fullness of joy and those pleasures for evermore which the Lord has prepared for all his people.
Well, do you see? There you have it again: a people and a place; all of God’s people in the place he has prepared for us. And once we reach that place, we’ll see that the joy God’s people experience there far outweighs all the sorrow and sadness we might experience in this life. And for ever and ever we’ll praise the Lord Jesus who has brought us there.
And so, once again we ought to give thanks to God for Jesus Christ and for the great hope he gives to sinners like us. And once again, we ought always to trust in Christ. And once again, we ought to stand firm and to keep believing, so that we don’t wander away from his people and fall short of entering the place he has prepared.