Genesis 23 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Genesis 23
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And Sarah was an hundred and seven and twenty years old: these were the years of the life of Sarah.


(1) Sarah was an hundred and seven and twenty years old.—Sarah is the only woman whose age at her death is mentioned in the Bible, an honour doubtless given her as the ancestress of the Hebrew race (Isaiah 51:2). As she was ninety at Isaac’s birth, he would now be thirty-seven years of age.

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) Kirjath-arba; the same is Hebron.—This was a very ancient city, built seven years before Zoan in Egypt (Numbers 13:22), probably by a tribe of Semites on their way to the Delta. It lies upon the very border of the Negeb of Judah, about twenty-two miles south of Jerusalem. Originally it was named Kirjath-arba, and though Arba is called “the father of Anak” (Joshua 15:13), yet the literal meaning City of Four (arba being the Hebrew numeral four), coupled with the fact that Hebron means alliance (Genesis 13:18), suggests that its building was the result of the union of four families; and afterwards, from the name of the city, Arba may have been often used as a proper name. At the conquest of Palestine there were descendants of Anak still dwelling there, and apparently they had restored the old title, but were expelled by Caleb (Joshua 15:14), who took it as his possession, and seems to have given its name to a grandchild, as a memorial of his victory (1 Chronicles 2:42). It is still an important town, with a population of 17,000 Moslems and about 600 Jews.

Abraham came to mourn.—At this period Abraham was in quiet possession of several headquarters, and apparently was himself at Beer-sheba when Sarah died at Hebron, where probably he had left Isaac in charge of his mother and the cattle.

And Abraham stood up from before his dead, and spake unto the sons of Heth, saying,
(3) Abraham stood up from before his dead.—His first care on arriving at Hebron had been to prostrate himself in Sarah’s tent, and give utterance to his grief. Only after this he rises to prepare for her burial.

The sons of Heth.—Up to this time we have read only of Amorites, Mamre and his toothers, at Hebron. It now appears that it was the property of the Hittites, a race who, while the Israelites sojourned in Egypt, became so powerful as to contend for empire with the Egyptians themselves. Their capital was Emesa in Northern Syria, and their history is now being made known to us not only by means of Egyptian records, but also of inscriptions in their own language (See Note on Genesis 10:15).

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 possession of a buryingplace.—While strangers might pasture their cattle upon the open downs, yet the consent of the natives seems to have been necessary before Abraham could occupy any spot permanently (Genesis 15:13; Genesis 20:15). He now wanted even more, and for the actual appropriation of any portion of the soil a public compact and purchase was required, which must be ratified not merely by the seller but by the consent of all the tribe, convened in full assembly at the gate of the city. Thus, in spite of his power and wealth, Abraham, as regards his legal position towards the inhabitants, was but a stranger and sojourner (Hebrews 11:9), and could secure a resting- place for his dead only by their consent.

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) A mighty prince.—Heb., a prince of God. Comp. “wind of God” (Genesis 1:2); “wrestlings of God” (Genesis 30:8); “mountains of God” (Psalm 36:6); “cedars of God” (Psalm 80:10). So also “a sleep of Jehovah” for a deep sleep (1 Samuel 26:12).

In the choice of our sepulchres.—The interview between Abraham and the Hittites is marked by the utmost courtesy on both sides, but it is a mistake to suppose that this acceptance of the patriarch’s proposal contained the idea that he might select a sepulchre without paying for it. The payment, in true Oriental fashion, is kept in the background, but is pre-supposed on both sides. After the acceptance of his proposal, it was Abraham’s turn to name the burying-place he wished, and the owner next consents, but while treating the purchase-money as a matter of small importance, he nevertheless asks a very high price, to which Abraham at once consents.

And Abraham stood up, and bowed himself to the people of the land, even to the children of Heth.
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,
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.—That is, the double cave, consisting probably of an outer and an inner compartment. As the land around is also called “the field of Machpelah” (Genesis 49:30; Genesis 1:13), some imagine that it was the valley that was double; but more probably’it took its name from the cavern. For a description of the Haram, within which the bones of Abraham and Sarah probably still lie, see Palmer, Desert of the Exodus, p. 397; Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, p. 101; and also the Appendix to his Sermons in the East.

For as much money as it is worth.—Heb., for full silver, rendered “the full price” in 1 Chronicles 21:22.

A buryingplace amongst you.—This translation is quite wrong. Abraham had no wish that Sarah should be buried amongst the Hittites, but required that the sale should be duly attested. The Heb. is. Let him give it me in the midst of you (that is, in a general assembly of the people), for a possession and a buryingplace.

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) And Ephron dwelt among . . . —Again a mistranslation. The Heb. is, Ephron was sitting in the midst of the Hittites. At these assemblies held at the gate of the city every free-born citizen had a right to be present, and matters were settled by common consent. As Ephron was the owner of the cave, his approval was necessary, and this Abraham treats as a favour, and requests that Ephron’s fellow-citizens will intercede in his behalf.

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.—Only the cave had! been mentioned, but for its quiet possession the land around was necessary. In the thrice repeated “give I it thee,” there is the same courtly idea as in Genesis 23:6, that they were not buying and selling, but making mutual presents.

And Abraham bowed down himself before the people of the land.
(12) Abraham bowed down.—This obeisance on the patriarch’s part is the Oriental method of returning thanks for the granting of a request; and so in Genesis 23:7. The next step is to fix the price.

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 give it, I pray thee, hear me.—Heb., But if thou wilt, I pray thee, hear me. It expresses simply a strong desire that Ephron will listen to and grant his next request.

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) The land is worth . . . —Our version misses the courtliness of Ephron’s answer, who only fixes the price indirectly, saying, “Land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that betwixt me and thee?” The money amounts to about £50, no mean price, considering the high value of silver in those days.

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) Abraham weighed . . . current money with the merchant.—Shekel literally means weight, and money was not coined until long afterwards. In the last clause, by inserting money our version antedates facts. According to the Hebrew, it was the silver that was current with the merchants. The metal was probably made into small bars, marked by the refiner to indicate their quality: and Abraham weighed out to Ephron about 200 ounces of silver in bars of the quality usual in trade.

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) Before Mamre.—That is, opposite to it. The Haram wherein the bodies of Abraham and Sarah lie, is situated on the eastern side of the valley, so that Abraham’s oak-grove must have been on its western slope. The old Christian tradition, which places it at Ramet-el-Chalil, does not agree with this description, and is, moreover, too far away. The remains pointed out there as those of Abraham’s house, are the ruins of a heathen temple. But it is useless to look for any remains of the abode of a nomad dwelling in tents, especially after the site has been occupied by a great city. Moreover, Hebron itself has changed its position. For Benjamin of Tudela, who visited it nearly seven centuries ago, says that the old Hebron was on the heights, but had been abandoned, and that the new city lay in the valley.

The field, and the cave . . . —It is interesting to compare this document, so legally exact and full, with the numerous tablets of terra-cotta now in our museums, and which record with equal exactness the daily business transactions of the people of Ur-Chasdim, whence Abraham had migrated.

Unto Abraham for a possession in the presence of the children of Heth, before all that went in at the gate of his city.
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 unto Abraham.—For the difficulties connected with St. Stephen’s apparent confusion of this transaction with that recorded in Genesis 33:19, see Note on Acts 7:16.

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