Abraham finally gets some land (Genesis 23)

As a nomad, Abraham lived in the land he’s been promised. How did he finally came to own a piece?

The Cave of Machpelah — Vincent van Gogh

Abraham and Sarah gave their entire lives to establishing a new kind of nation. It would be based on radically different political system: ruled by God instead of humans. It’s how the world was intended to be from the start, and the plan was to show the other nations what they were missing—the blessing of divine rule.

Abraham and Sarah knew they wouldn’t see the project fulfilled in their lifetime. When Sarah died, they owned none of the land God had promised for this nation—not even enough to bury her! That’s living by faith! That’s kingdom vision!

Have you noticed how different this is from the kingdom message you hear today? If television preachers mention the kingdom of God at all, they tend to say, “I’m a child of the king, so I have a right to be treated well, to have what I want.” Wealth, health, and prosperity might sell on TV, but that’s not faith. That’s not God’s kingdom.

Can you even imagine Abraham swaggering up to the Hittites and saying, “Listen, I’m a child of the king. He’s promised me this land, so hand it over!” Sure, God had promised him the land, but Abraham requests the privilege of buying a piece.

Abraham treats the people who currently own the land with honour and cultural sensitivity. He takes their point of view, describing himself as a landless traveller, a foreigner in their land (23:4). Perhaps this self-deprecating description also hints at Abraham’s sense of belonging to a kingdom other than the one the Hittites run. The writer of Hebrews seems to think so (Hebrews 11:9-16).

The Hittites respond to Abraham’s humility by honouring him as “a prince of God” (23:6). The phrase “of God” may be simply a superlative—a powerful (god-like or god-sized) prince. But consider how the story works here. Abraham has described himself from their point of view, to honour them. They respond by describing him from his point of view, to honour him. Abraham understands himself as the earthly regent of the heavenly king. It would be difficult to find a better phrase than “prince of God” to describe that role.

Recognizing Abraham’s regal position, one of the Hittites offers to give his field to Abraham for free (23:11). If this was your venture, what would you say at this point? I can just hear the testimony: “Amazing! Praise God! He has provided for my needs.”

That’s not what Abraham does. He understands the Hittite culture, and so he pursues the matter, getting the seller to name his price (23:13). Ephron insists, “It’s only worth 400 shekels, so don’t worry about it. Please, just have it” (23:15 paraphrased). Abraham now knows what Ephron thinks the field is worth. 400 shekels was a large sum. Abraham doesn’t haggle: he pays the full price (23:16).

Now, everybody loves a bargain, but there’s something important in this story. Far too often, churches expect to be given special concessions in business dealings. We place people under pressure—financial pressure, emotional pressure—as if we’re more important and deserve special treatment. Have you considered what people hear when we do that? Is there something for us to learn from Abraham about how we treat people in our culture and what we expect of them? When it comes to spending, we need to be wise, without presuming on people’s generosity.

That’s the story of how Abraham, the “prince of God”, purchased the only land he ever owned, even though God had promised him the whole land. He lays Sarah to rest in the land that will be their home. This burial plot is the seed of things to come.


What others are saying

Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 156:

Abraham’s spiritual odyssey reached its climax with the Akedah [binding of Isaac]. For all intents and purposes, his biography is complete. But two important issues remain: the concern with mortality and the preoccupation with posterity. The former finds expression in the acquisition of a hereditary burial site, the latter through the selection of a wife for Isaac so that the succession of the line may be secured. These are the topics of chapters 23 and 24, respectively.

K. A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27–50:26, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 310:

The occasion of her death required the purchase of a family burial plot. The notion of burial indicates permanency. That Abraham secures a family plot in Canaan rather than returning to Haran conveys the man’s commitment to the land promised him. Ancient peoples cherished their ancestral burial ground; burial in the ancestral grave indicated honor and continuity with the family. Later, while in Egypt, Jacob and Joseph insist that their remains rest in Canaan according to their faith in the divine promises (49:29–32; 50:24–25).

Read Genesis 23.



Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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