Great Moments in Bible History
A Great Woman
Death is the great enemy. Life is amazingly short (though few of us realize this when we are young) and can only have one ending—death. Up to this point in our story the book of Genesis has recorded a lot of deaths, but no funerals or burials. Chapter 23 contains the first funeral in the Bible. “Sarah lived 127 years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. 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” (Genesis 23:1-2).
We don’t know how long Abraham and Sarah were married, but we know they had lived 62 years together in Canaan, the land God had promised to give to them and their descendants. Sarah is one of the truly great women of the Bible. She is the only woman whose age at death is recorded in the Bible. She is the only woman to whom God gave a new name.
Sarah is the first of several women in the Bible who were unable to have children until God demonstrated His power by giving them a child. When God initially called Abraham to move to Canaan and promised that his descendants would become a great nation (Genesis 12), He did not mention Sarah. After decades of childlessness Sarah thought that she was not going to be included in God’s promises to Abraham. She suggested that Abraham father a child through her servant Hagar (Genesis 16). Thirteen years later she learned that God had no intention of fulfilling His promises through Hagar. He was going to give Abraham a son through his wife Sarah. When Sarah first heard that she laughed in disbelief, but when God’s word came true she laughed with joy.
With Sarah God took the opportunity to demonstrate that He does not need our help to accomplish His plans. In fact, He often prefers to do things the hard way! Certainly the way He did things for Sarah must have increased both her faith and that of her husband.
It is fitting that the funeral of such a great woman would be recorded in scripture. In fact, the whole of chapter 23 is occupied with Sarah’s death and burial. Strangely enough, though, the funeral occupies only the first two verses (which are quoted above). The rest of the chapter is concerned with her burial. That is the topic of our next article.
The First Piece of the Promised Land
Abraham had a problem. His wife died, and he had nowhere to bury her. Over six decades earlier God had told Abraham to leave his family and move to a new country that God would show him. Abraham obeyed and God promised him, “All the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever” (Genesis 13:15). That new country was named Canaan. After six decades Abraham and Sarah were still living in it, but God had not yet given it to them. In fact, they owned no land at all—even though God promised that one day they and their descendants would have it all. When Sarah died, the author of Genesis tells us that she died in the land of Canaan.
The people who owned the land in the area where Abraham was living were called Hittites. Abraham went to them to buy a tomb for his wife. In the discussion that followed it is clear that Abraham was very respected by those people. “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” (Genesis 23:6). In those days a tomb was a cave—either a natural cave or one dug out by hand. A single tomb would hold multiple people, often several generations of a family. So when the Hittites generously offered to let Abraham bury Sarah in the best of their own tombs, it was likely they were thinking of sharing a tomb with him. He could bury Sarah in one of their tombs and they would bury some of their own people in that same tomb. But Abraham did not want a shared tomb. He wanted to bury Sarah in a tomb that he owned. It would become his own family tomb.
In that society when you wanted to buy something as important as a family tomb you did not negotiate directly with the seller. You went through an intermediary. The story is told in great detail about how Abraham asked the Hittites to see if a man named Ephron would be willing to sell his cave (called the cave of Machpelah). Ephron named a price. Abraham did not try to bargain him down, but paid the full price he asked. The Hittites were all witnesses of the transaction.
“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” (verse 19). Our author began and ended this story with the mention of “the land of Canaan.” He wants us to understand that now Abraham has permanent possession of part of the land God promised to give him. His wife, who shared with him his life of faith, is now departed, but her body is resting in the promised land. For the remainder of the Genesis story this tomb will be a focal point, helping to keep Abraham’s descendants in the land. He himself will be buried there. His son and his grandson as well as their wives will be buried there.
This tomb that Abraham bought will serve as a down payment on the land God promised to him. It must have encouraged Abraham in his confidence that someday God would give his descendants all the land He had promised him.
Do We Have a Down Payment Too?
You and I are not Abraham, but if you are a Christian then God has made promises to you just like He made to Abraham. The entire chapter of Hebrews 11 is a comparison of the lives of faith of Abraham and his descendants with the lives of Christians. Just as they recognized that “they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13), so are we. Just as they desired “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (verse 16), so do we.
Has God given us a down payment on His promises like He did to Abraham? Indeed, He “has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 1:22). This is a little different than Abraham’s down payment, because Abraham could see the land that he had purchased, but we cannot see the Holy Spirit. We can, however, see the Spirit’s effects in our lives.
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). When we see ourselves becoming more loving, more joyful, more at peace, we are encouraged to know that God is at work in our lives to bring about for us what He has promised.
Of course, this work requires our cooperation. “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). Nevertheless, we would be incapable of accomplishing this work without the Holy Spirit.
God has given us a down payment on His promises for the same reason He gave Abraham a down payment—to encourage us to continue believing in God and in His promises. “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us” (1 John 3:24).