Genesis 23
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 23. (P). 1, 2, The Death of Sarah; 3–18, Abraham purchases from Ephron the Hittite the Cave and Field of Machpelah; 19, He buries Sarah there; 20, Abraham’s Property

The Burial of Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah

This chapter is entirely from P, as is shewn by the characteristics of language, by the frequent repetitions, by the legal and statistical minuteness (e.g. in Genesis 23:17-18), and the mention of Sarah’s age. The narrative preserved the tradition respecting the first possession of Canaanite soil by the Israelite patriarchs. The veneration of the cave of Machpelah as the traditional burying-place of the patriarchs will account for the minuteness with which Abraham’s purchase of the famous cave is here described. It seems to set an anticipatory seal of possession upon the land of promise. See Genesis 25:9-10, Genesis 49:29-32, Genesis 50:13 (P).

The details given in this chapter are a faithful picture of the usages of the East; but there is nothing to warrant the assertion that they are peculiarly Babylonian.

And Sarah was an hundred and seven and twenty years old: these were the years of the life of Sarah.
1. the life of Sarah] Sarah died at the age of 127, 37 years after the birth of Isaac. Cf. Genesis 17:1; Genesis 17:17, Genesis 21:5 (P).

And Sarah died in Kirjatharba; the same is Hebron in the land of Canaan: and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.
2. Kiriath-arba (the same is Hebron)] Cf. Genesis 35:27 (P). Kiriath-arba means “the city of four,” probably four confederate tribes. It was the earlier name of Hebron, which itself may mean “Confederation.” The two names are mentioned in Jdg 1:10. In Joshua 14:15; Joshua 15:13, where the early name is also mentioned, Arba is regarded as a proper name. For Hebron as one of the dwelling-places of Abraham, see Genesis 13:18.

Abraham came to mourn for Sarah] As if, at the time of Sarah’s death, Abraham had been residing in some different place. He came to “mourn”; and this word refers to the Oriental solemnity of wailing for the departed.

And Abraham stood up from before his dead, and spake unto the sons of Heth, saying,
3. rose up] The use of this word is explained by the habitual attitude of prostration in mourning. Cf. 2 Samuel 12:16-17; 2 Samuel 12:20.

the children of Heth] See note on Genesis 10:15. Cf. Genesis 26:34, Genesis 27:46, Genesis 49:32 (P). Hittites seem to have amalgamated with native Canaanites. In P, here, and in Genesis 28:1; Genesis 28:8, they seem to be identified with Canaanites. The settlements of Hittites in the N. of Palestine may have extended in groups and families southwards. But “the children of Heth” are here spoken of as the native inhabitants of Hebron. Ezekiel regards “Amorites” and “Hittites” as original dwellers in Palestine (Genesis 16:3; Genesis 45).

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.
4. a stranger and a sojourner] Abraham describes himself, in a proverbial phrase, as one whose origin is foreign, and whose period of residence is uncertain. LXX πάροικος καὶ παρεπίδημος, Lat. advena et peregrinus; cf. Leviticus 25:23; 1 Chronicles 29:15; Psalm 105:12; Hebrews 11:9. The same phrase is employed by St Peter in 1 Peter 2:11 to describe the shortness and uncertainty of life on earth, and to indicate that the true citizenship is in heaven. The “stranger,” in the Heb., belongs to the phraseology of nomad life; “the sojourner,” of settled life.

And the children of Heth answered Abraham, saying unto him,
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.
6. my lord] A title of respect, Adoni (see note on Genesis 18:3). LXX Κύριε, Lat. domine.

a mighty prince] Heb. a prince of God. The Hebrew idiom for the superlative, “a prince worthy to rank with the sons of God”: cf. Deuteronomy 33:1. For other instances, cf. Psalm 36:6, “the mountains of God” = A.V. “the great mountains,” Psalm 80:10, “cedars of God” = A.V. “the goodly cedars.” See note on Genesis 10:9, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.” For “prince,” nâsî, cf. Ezekiel 12:10; Ezekiel 27:21; Ezekiel 30:13; Ezekiel 32:29; Ezekiel 38:2.

in the choice of, &c.] In the complimentary style of Orientals the preliminaries to a business transaction are characterized by the greatest deliberateness and the greatest generosity. The opening proposal is that Abraham should make use of one of the “choicest” Hittite sepulchres, for the burial of Sarah. Even if the offer was meant seriously, Abraham will not accept it; he wishes to possess a burial-place of his own. For the phrase “the choice,” cf. Isaiah 22:7; Isaiah 37:24. It means what we should express familiarly as “the pick of.”

Probably their complimentary phrase is intended to conceal their dislike of selling a grave.

And Abraham stood up, and bowed himself to the people of the land, even to the children of Heth.
7. bowed himself] Abraham’s humble demeanour towards the people of the land doubtless conforms to the elaborate usages of Oriental bargaining. But it is also probably here emphatically recorded as indicating Abraham’s loneliness among the people of the land, and, therefore, in ironical contrast with the time when his descendants would conquer the Canaanites and possess their country.

the people of the land] Cf. Genesis 42:6 (P). This is the phrase, ’am ha-âreṣ, so common in post-exilic literature for “the heathen”: compare “peoples of the land,” Ezra 10:2; Ezra 10:11; Nehemiah 10:28; Nehemiah 10:30.

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,
8. communed with] Heb. “spake with.” The word “communed” is unnecessarily formal as a translation, cf. Genesis 18:33.

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.
9. the cave of Machpelah] Machpelah is not the name of the cave, but of the locality; cf. 17, Genesis 49:30, Genesis 50:12. The old explanation that the cave was so called, because it was “a double cave,” has therefore been questioned; but the LXX and the Lat. both render Machpelah as if it were the equivalent of “double,” LXX τὸ σπήλαιον τὸ διπλοῦν, Vulg. speluncam duplicem. The name in the Hebrew always has the article, as an appellative or descriptive noun. The tradition of the cave being a double one is continuously maintained. Its correctness is indisputable.

in the end of his field] Abraham here only asks for the cave at one end of the field of Machpelah.

for the full price] Lit. “for full silver”; cf. 1 Chronicles 21:22. The payment was to be full value and in good money. See note on Genesis 23:16. The expression is one which was also current in the Assyrian language.

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,
10. audience] Lit. “ears,” as in Genesis 23:13; Genesis 23:16. The presence of witnesses is evidently requisite for the validity of the transaction: cf. Ruth 4:9-11.

all that went in at the gate of his city] Cf. Genesis 23:18. A technical phrase to denote full citizens. The gate was the place of popular assembly for the elders of a city; cf. Genesis 19:1.

A similar phrase occurs in Genesis 34:24, “all that went out at the gate.” The classical illustration of business transactions conducted at “the gate” of a city is to be found in the Book of Ruth, chap. Genesis 4:1 ff.

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.
11. the field give I thee, &c.] As in Genesis 23:6, we have here the complimentary style of bargaining. Observe the successive stages: Abraham in Genesis 23:9 asks to buy the cave only; Ephron in Genesis 23:11 offers to give the whole field and the cave in it for nothing; Abraham in Genesis 23:13 offers to pay for the field; Ephron in Genesis 23:15 mentions the price for the land; Abraham in Genesis 23:16 duly pays for the field and the cave (Genesis 23:17).

And Abraham bowed down himself before the people of the land.
12. bowed himself] See note on Genesis 23:7. He had been sitting, while Ephron was speaking.

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.
13. But if thou wilt] Abraham answers in short, broken sentences, acknowledging the generous offer, but insisting on the payment of the price. Here, however, he makes an offer for “the field,” not merely for “the cave in the end of the field”; cf. Genesis 23:9. He politely declines to notice the suggestion of a gift, but offers to buy.

And Ephron answered Abraham, saying unto him,
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.
15. worth four hundred shekels of silver] About £ 55. See note on Genesis 20:16. On the Hebrew value of a shekel, cf. Exodus 30:13, Ezekiel 45:12. In 2 Samuel 24:24 David buys the threshing-floor and the oxen of Araunah for 50 shekels of silver. In the Code of Hammurabi a hireling would not receive more than I shekel a month as wages (S. A. Cook, p. 172).

what is that betwixt me and thee?] Ephron has mentioned a full price; he is poor, Abraham rich: the figure could not possibly be a hindrance to the bargain. The important thing is that he, the owner, is willing to sell. Abraham will, therefore, of course purchase.

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.
16. weighed] The scales were ready. “Weighed” is the appropriate word for the payment of money in days when money was not coined. Coined money seems not to have been in use among the Israelites before the Exile. The price of an article was reckoned by the weight of metal—silver or bronze—given in exchange for it. The metal might consist of bars or rings. Possibly in Joshua 7:21, “a wedge of gold” was a bar, or ingot. For other instances in which the word for “to pay” is in the Hebrew “to weigh,” cf. 1 Kings 20:39; Isaiah 55:2 (“spend”); Jeremiah 32:9-10; Zechariah 11:12. Sayce (quoted by Skinner, p. 338, n.) mentions evidence for “shekels stamped with a seal” in the period of Hammurabi (Cont. Rev. Aug. 1907).

silver, current money with the merchant] Lit. “silver passing over to the merchant,” i.e. pieces of good metal used in commercial exchange. LXX τετρακόσια δίδραχμα ἀργυρίου δοκίμου ἐμπόροις, Lat. quadringentos siclos argenti probatae monetae publicae.

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
17. So the field of Ephron] This and the following verses contain, in language of legal minuteness, the description of the purchase. The sentence probably represents the form of a deed of sale, such as was included in Hebrew contracts. Similar minute details are found in Babylonian legal deeds of sale. Notice the particular mention of “the field,” “the cave,” “all the trees,” “all the border,” “made sure,” “in the presence of,” “all that went in at the gate of his city.”

before Mamre] i.e. “in front of” = “to the east of,” as in Genesis 23:19, cf. Genesis 16:12, Genesis 25:18; Numbers 21:11; Deuteronomy 32:49 (“over against”). For Mamre, a locality either identified with, or contiguous to, Hebron, cf. Genesis 13:18, Genesis 35:27.

Unto Abraham for a possession in the presence of the children of Heth, before all that went in at the gate of his city.
18. all that went in at] See note on Genesis 23:10. The necessary witnesses of the transaction. There is no document to be attested.

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.
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.
20. were made sure] This verse repeats and summarizes the transaction which for all subsequent ages symbolized to the Israelites their ancestral connexion with, and sacred rights in, the land of Canaan.

a buryingplace] Besides Sarah there were buried in the cave of Machpelah, Abraham (Genesis 25:9), Isaac (Genesis 35:27; Genesis 35:29), Rebekah and Leah (Genesis 49:31), Jacob (Genesis 50:13).

The cave, which is traditionally identified with the burying-place of Abraham, is still regarded with immense veneration by the Mahommedans. A large mosque has been erected over it. In 1869 the Prussian Crown Prince Frederick, and in 1881 the late King Edward VII, who was then Prince of Wales, received permission to visit the cave. But, as a rule, Christians are not allowed to view it.

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