1 Sarah lived 127 years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. 2 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. 3 And 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.” 5 The 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.” 7 Abraham rose and bowed to the Hittites, the people of the land. 8 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, 9 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.”
10 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, 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.” 12 Then Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. 13 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.” 14 Ephron 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.” 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.
17 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 18 to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, before all who went in at the gate of his city. 19 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. 20 The field and the cave that is in it were made over to Abraham as property for a burying place by the Hittites. – Genesis 23:1-20 ESV
For 62 years, Abraham and Sarah had lived together as husband and wife in the land of Canaan. Since the day God had called Abraham out of Haran, this couple had spent over a half-century wandering through the land that God had promised to give Abraham as an inheritance. But other than a small plot and a well that he had purchased from Abimelech in Beersheba, Abraham never owned any real estate of significance. The author of the book of Hebrews describes Abraham’s nomadic lifestyle, living in tents and caring for his flocks and herds.
…when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith—for he was like a foreigner, living in tents. – Hebrews 11:9 NLT
And yet, God had repeatedly promised to give Abraham all the land of Canaan as his inheritance.
“Look as far as you can see in every direction—north and south, east and west. I am giving all this land, as far as you can see, to you and your descendants as a permanent possession.” – Genesis 13:14-15 NLT
“I have given this land to your descendants, all the way from the border of Egypt to the great Euphrates River — the land now occupied by the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites.” – Genesis 15:18-21 NLT
Now, 62 years after arriving in the land that was to be his inheritance, Abraham lost the woman who had been his constant companion. She had born him the son through whom the promises of God would be fulfilled. This woman had endured decades of infertility. She had put up with Abraham’s occasional displays of lousy leadership. In fact, on two separate occasions, her husband had sold her as a concubine in order to save his own skin. Of course, Sarah had not been an icon of virtue and righteousness. As she had grown increasingly more frustrated with her own barrenness and God’s apparent inability to fulfill His promise, she had attempted to provide a solution. Her bright idea to have Abraham sire a son through her Egyptian handmaid had worked, but it only resulted in conflict and not an heir. Sarah grew jealous of Hagar and her son, eventually having them exiled and disinherited – twice.
But despite Sarah’s many malevolent machinations, God eventually rewarded her with a son of her own. At the ripe old age of 90, she had given birth to Isaac. And now, 37 years later, Sarah breathed her last. Her death took place at Kiriath-arba, which would later become known as Hebron. Her death, while probably not unexpected, hit Abraham hard. After a proper period of mourning, he made an appeal to the local occupants of the land, requesting permission to purchase a burial site. This request is significant because it reveals Abraham’s commitment to the land of promise. Since Abraham and Sarah were both natives of Ur in Mesopotamia, it would have been acceptable for him to return to their native land and bury her body there. Yet, he wanted to inter his wife’s remains in Canaan, the land that God had promised to give him as an inheritance.
Moses reveals that Abraham approached the sons of Heth. According to Genesis 10, these would have been the direct descendants of Canaan, the grandson of Noah.
Canaan fathered Sidon his firstborn and Heth, and the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites. Afterward the clans of the Canaanites dispersed. And the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon in the direction of Gerar as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha. – Genesis 10:15-19 ESV
While the English Standard Version refers to these occupants of Canaan as Hittites, they should not be confused with the much-later Hittite Empire that came out of Asia Minor. These were Canaanites, the descendants of Ham’s son, and they occupied and controlled the land surrounding Hebron. So, Abraham was forced to negotiate with the sons of Heth in order to purchase a burial site.
“Here I am, a stranger and a foreigner among you. Please sell me a piece of land so I can give my wife a proper burial.” – Genesis 23:4 NLT
This entire transaction, while conducted with civility and politeness, is actually little more than a protracted case of bartering over a purchase price for the land. As a foreigner, Abraham had no right to own land in Hebron and was totally subject to the whims of the sons of Heth. What makes this story so intriguing is that land was one of the greatest assets a man could own. The ownership of land was critical to a family’s survival and it was carefully passed down from generation to generation. So, Abraham knew that his request for land was going to cost him dearly. He would have to pay a premium and was more than willing to do so. And what makes this so ironic is that, according to God, all this land was Abraham’s rightful inheritance. He was having to purchase what was already rightfully his.
But Abraham played the game and negotiated with the sons of Heth. What takes place appears to be a well-orchestrated legal transaction between Abraham and Ephron, the property’s legal owner. According to local custom, Abraham attempts to broker the deal in full view of the elders of the community. They will serve as witnesses to the agreement. And, with the sons of Heth acting as mediators, Abraham negotiated the details of the transaction with Ephron.
What takes place next is a kind of dance between the two men. Abraham offers to pay full price for the land, but Ephron plays the part of the gracious and overly generous patron by offering to give it to Abraham as a gift. But Abraham knew this offer was insincere and simply a bargaining tool. Ephron was attempting to portray himself as disinterested in profiting from Abraham’s loss. But Abraham reiterated his offer to pay full price for the land. This led Ephron to respond with a highly inflated asking price. Despite all his outward displays of feigned sorrow and sympathy, Ephron was taking full advantage of Abraham’s predicament. He knew he had the unfortunate widower right where he wanted him. And his price of 400 shekels of silver must have brought a sly grin to the faces of his neighbors. They knew this was highway robbery. But Abraham didn’t bat an eye.
So Abraham agreed to Ephron’s price and paid the amount he had suggested—400 pieces of silver, weighed according to the market standard. The Hittite elders witnessed the transaction. – Genesis 23:16 NLT
And Moses points out that, upon the exchange of the 100 pounds of silver, the land “was transferred to Abraham as his permanent possession in the presence of the Hittite elders at the city gate” (Genesis 23:18 NLT). At this point in his long tenure in Canaan, Abraham owned two pieces of land. He owned a well and the plot on which it was located in Beersheba, and he owned a burial cave in Hebron. One represented life while the other was a symbol of death.
Abraham had already experienced much life in the land of Canaan. Now, he was experiencing the pain and sorrow of death. But he remained committed to the land because he believed in the promises of God. Over the years, this burial plot would be put to good use. Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah would all be buried there. And this burial site would remain the property of Abraham for generations to come. So, almost half a millennium later, when the descendants of Abraham returned to the land of Canaan from their 400 years of captivity in Egypt, “the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan” (Genesis 23:19 ESV), would still belong to Abraham. And, in time, God would expand the landholdings of Abraham to include all of Canaan, just as He had promised.
In life and in death, Abraham would remain fully committed to the promise of God. This great patriarch of the Hebrew nation would eventually die and be buried alongside his wife in Hebron. But the author of Hebrews portrays Abraham as having died in faith, resting, even in death, on the future promises of God.
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. – Hebrews 11:13-16 ESV
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.