Promise Past A Lifetime
Do you remember when your parents made promises to you, whether kept or unkept? And if they’re unkept, when will they be kept? Many of you know that Emily and Luca and I are headed to the States this week, and that’s because my parents promised me a free trip a while ago—as long we brought Luca.
Growing up, they usually promised me things like this. I remember my parents promising me a trip to Disneyland as a kid, if I’m a good boy That hasn’t happened yet. I even remember my dad promising me that I’ll be a professional basketball player, and now I realize that’s if I make the NBA (which I think could happen in a different lifetime).
In a similar way, our passage today hinges on a massive promise that was yet to be seen in full. If you look in chapter 22, we see that God confirms his promise to Abraham because he obeyed: “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice” (22:17-18).
But what we’ll see in our passage today is that this is a promise past a lifetime. There will be three big ideas that make this evident, and we will find the first evidence of this promise past a lifetime through Someone From Nahor’s Line.
A. Someone From Nahor’s Line (22:20-24)
“Now after these things it was told to Abraham, 'Behold, Milcah also has borne children to your brother Nahor.”
Up to this point, we’ve only heard about Abraham and his children. Now, the narrator suddenly brings to attention the children of Abraham’s brother, Nahor, and his wife Milcah (who we hear about in 11:29). But why?
“Uz his firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel the father of Aram, Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Bethuel.’ (Bethuel fathered Rebekah.) These eight Milcah bore to Nahor, Abraham's brother. Moreover, his concubine, whose name was Reumah, bore Tebah, Gaham, Tahash, and Maacah.” (I really wanted to include this in today’s Scripture reading until I remembered that we’re supposed to build up and encourage one another)
The name that is emphasized in this list of interesting names is Bethuel, who is the father of Rebekah (24:15). If you’ve read the storyline of Genesis, you’ll know that Rebekah is (at this point) Isaac’s future wife, through whom the promised multiplication of Abraham’s offspring as the stars and sand will come (22:17)—which is a hint to this promise past a lifetime. Abraham and Sarah, though recipients of the promise, will not see the fulfillment of this promise in their lifetime.
But one important question to consider is this: what’s so important about the rest of these names on here? First, we cannot miss that the inclusion of this genealogy—right after the promise in verses 17 and 18—shows that the book of Genesis is a literal account with historical legitimacy. The fact that the narrator includes the rest of Nahor’s line instead of just saying “Rebekah comes from one of Abraham’s brother’s sons” shows that this is a legitimate historical document that diligently traces the promised offspring of Abraham from Nahor’s line.
Moreover, the significance of these names come later on in the Old Testament, when they are listed among foreign nations like the Philistines and Arabians (Jeremiah 25:20-24) and even Chaldeans and Egyptians, all of whom would eventually be renowned enemies of Israel. While these people are outside the scope of God’s promises, they are still within the scope of God’s purposes.
Therefore, the historical significance of genealogies like this in the Bible are not to be overlooked. In fact, this is significant even for us today since they have much to contribute to the reliability of Scripture (and in turn, our confidence in the Scriptures and our defence of the faith).
Yet, the emphasis remains: Bethuel fathers Rebekah, through whom the promised offspring will come. Notice how Uz is the firstborn, which logically makes Bethuel the youngest. Remember the tension with Ishmael as firstborn, yet Isaac as the youngest is the chosen offspring? Later on, this will be the same tension with Isaac and Rebekah’s children, Esau and Jacob, where “the older will serve the younger" (Genesis 25:23; Romans 9:12-13) so "that God’s purpose of election might continue” (Romans 9:11). In the same way that God chose a nobody like Abram from Torah’s line (11:27), God chooses someone from Nahor’s line to bring about his promise.
While there are many important details in this text, the main importance is the mention of Bethuel as the father of Rebekah that foreshadows God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 22:17-18, which will exceed Abraham and Sarah’s lifetime as it’s passed down to Isaac. So the second big idea in our text, which is the second evidence of this promise past a lifetime, is The End of Sarah’s Life. The first observation under that is that Sarah Dies in the Land.
B. The End of Sarah’s Life
I. Sarah Dies In the Land (23:1-2a)
“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.”
About 37 years after the birth of her son, Isaac, Sarah dies. Many commentators have concluded that Sarah is the only woman in the Bible whose age was given on account of her death, which signifies her importance. Though a renowned matriarch and a recipient of the promise, Sarah doesn’t receive the full extent of God’s promise. She somewhat sees it—but from a far distance. God’s agenda is so big that this becomes for Sarah a promise past her lifetime.
But there’s a glimmer of hope in the midst of this tragedy, because she died in the land of Canaan. She bore the promised offspring to Abraham at an old age and she sets foot in the promised land—and her death in the land will eventually be the means by which Abraham takes possession of the land! Yet, the reality caves in: the renowned matriarch of faith is dead. The foreshadowed promise becomes an overshadowed promise for a moment due to Sarah’s death, as we see in our second observation: Abraham Weeps For His Wife.
II. Abraham Weeps For His Wife (23:2b)
“And Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.”
The narrator does not fail to recount Abraham’s response to the death of his beloved wife, which is what any loving husband of years and years in marriage would do—mourn and weep. Likely, he went in to her tent and mourned for her. The timeframe here is unknown, but people usually mourned their dead for days or weeks throughout the Old Testament (37:34; 50:10).
But we have to ask the question. Outside of mourning for his wife, does Abraham mourn the fact that the promise was past her lifetime? Or was he weeping because this was a reminder of his mortal fate and that God’s promise will also be past his own lifetime? We are not told exactly, but what we are told is how Abraham responds after his bereavement in verse 3 when Abraham Rises Up From His Dead.
III. Abraham Rises Up From His Dead (23:3a)
“And Abraham rose up from before his dead.”
Whether Abraham mourned for seven days or forty days, there was always a decisive end date to the days of mourning throughout the OT (Genesis 50:4; Deuteronomy 34:8).
When Sarah’s death day came, Abraham appropriately mourns for his wife—but the day also came when he decisively rises up from his dead to get on with God’s purposes for the rest of his days on earth, which has many implications for Christians dealing with the death of loved ones today.
So as we look at Abraham’s next steps, note that this narrative is focused, less on Sarah’s death, and more on her burial site. It’s less about Abraham losing a loved one in Sarah and more about Abraham gaining a piece of land in Canaan.
So our third big idea in this passage, which is the third evidence of this promise past a lifetime, is The Purchase of Abraham’s Land. And our first observation under that is Abraham Asks for Land to Bury Sarah.
C. The Purchase of Abraham’s Land
I. Abraham Asks For Land To Bury Sarah (23:3b-4)
“And [Abraham] said to the Hittites, ‘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.’”
Abraham acknowledges that he is a sojourner and foreigner among the Hittites, who were the people of the land (23:7). What’s interesting here is that the cultural norm and expectation for people back then would’ve been to bury their dead back home (Matthew 8:21), especially if they were on foreign land (Genesis 47:29-30; 50:5).
But here’s what is more interesting: instead of going back to “the land of his kindred, in Ur of the Chaldeans” (11:28), Abraham goes to his homeland in Canaan—by faith—to bury his wife! Though a sojourner and foreigner in this strange land, Abraham walks by faith and not by sight as he holds on to this promise past a lifetime.
Ironically, the people of the land respond to this stranger’s request in a strange way, which we see in our second observation when The Hittites Offer Their Best Tombs.
II. The Hittites Offer Their Best Tombs (23:5-6)
“The Hittites answered Abraham, ‘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.’”
Abraham, a sojourner and foreigner in the land, is greeted by the people of the land as royalty! Why is that?
Well, think back to Genesis 14 when Abraham rescued Lot by defeating the coalition of kings and pursuing them as far as Dan and north of Damascus (14:14-15). Abraham’s fame as the kryptonite of kings would’ve spread throughout the area, from Beersheba (south) all the way to Dan (north) and even north of Damascus (which was north of Dan)!
Not only was Abraham well-known, but the Hittites also refer to him as a prince of God. In the same way that Abraham was acknowledged by Melchizedek the king of Salem (14:19-20) and Abimelech the king of Gerar (21:22), the Hittites here acknowledge that the blessing of God is indeed with Abraham.
So the Hittites offer their best tombs to this mighty prince of God, and Abraham responds in our third observation when Abraham Requests Ephron’s Cave.
III. Abraham Requests Ephron’s Cave (23:7-9)
“Abraham rose and bowed to the Hittites, the people of the land. 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, 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.’”
Notice Abraham’s humility in his request. First, he bows down to the people of the land—even after they acknowledge him as a mighty prince of God. Second, his courteous tone expresses his dependence on the Hittites’ favour as opposed to demanding the property through his royal status. Third, he offers to pay the full price of the property at the front end of the deal!
Some of you here today have likely sold a house before, and wouldn’t it be good news if someone made an offer on it for the full price that you wanted as their first offer? On top of that, it would probably be better news if they entreated you like “hear me out, and please sell this to me for your full price.” And the best news would be if they bowed to you in the process…
Abraham’s head does not get big and act like a mighty prince here—instead, he acts humbly as a sojourner and foreigner. He doesn’t find his identity and worth in what people say about him, but rather trusts in who God is and what God has promised and said to him. So after Abraham requests Ephron’s cave, we come to our fourth observation when Ephron Offers His Field As A Gift.
IV. Ephron Offers His Field As A Gift (23:10-11)
“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.”
The first detail we must notice here is that Ephron was there the whole time. Ephron was sitting among the people at the city gate as they all witnessed this dialogue happen between Abraham and the elders of the city (this was how transactions of any kind happened back then—a specific example of this occurrence is found in Ruth 4:1-11 when Boaz redeems Ruth the Moabite).
Second, Ephron the Hittite was likely a prominent person in this people group. For one, Abraham refers to him as “the son of Zohar” (23:10) which hints on his renowned status. On top of that, he answers Abraham on his own without any help from a mediator (he may have been one of the elders at the city gate, though we’re not told exactly), which shows that he has power and authority to sell his property on his own.
With all these considered, we can now better understand the situation at hand and Ephron’s response in verse 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.’ Notice that he refers to Abraham as “my lord” like the Hittite elders did, and he asks Abraham to hear him in response (this seems to be negotiation terms). Then, Ephron proceeds to offer Abraham, not just the cave, but the whole field where the cave is located—and all of that as a gift (evidenced by the repetition of “I give”)!
You have to wonder: are the Hittites just a generous group of people? Or are there ulterior motives here considering that they see Abraham as a mighty prince of God?
There seems to be more evidence for the latter, but regardless: Ephron offers his field as a gift to Abraham “in the hearing of the Hittites"—that is, in front of the elders and all the people as witnesses at the city gate. Despite the generous offer, however, we will see in our fifth observation that Abraham Insists on Buying the Land.
V. Abraham Insists on Buying the Land (23:12-13)
“Then Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. 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.”
Notice that he politely bows again before the people, then specifically speaks to Ephron “in the hearing of the people” (the repetition of this language throughout this section emphasizes the presence of witnesses and their importance to legal transactions like this back then). Essentially, Abraham politely says to Ephron, “Please listen to me. I want to buy the field for its full price.”
Abraham doesn’t resist the offer of the whole field, but still insists on buying it. To Abraham, buying the whole field for its full price (likely a higher price) is a clear pre-cursor to burying Sarah—which is going to be important later on in the passage. But for now, we find out in our sixth observation that Ephron Finally Names His Price.
VI. Ephron Finally Names His Price (23:14-15)
“Ephron answered Abraham, ‘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.’”
We’re not sure how much the cave alone would’ve been worth, but Ephron gives his price for the whole field. Now, this might sound normal—until we see examples of land purchases later in Scripture when David buys land for fifty shekels of silver (2 Sam 24:24) and Jeremiah buys a field for seventeen shekels of silver (Jeremiah 32:9).
What makes me chuckle is Ephron’s question for Abraham: “What is 400 shekels of silver between you and me?” Today, that’s like owning a piece of land that’s worth $40,000 and saying “come on John, what’s $400,000 between you and me?”
Regardless of whether Ephron was a great salesman or whether he was actually generous in offering his luxurious land as a gift to let Abraham bury his dead, we see in our seventh observation that Abraham Listens and Purchases the Land.
VII. Abraham Listens and Purchases the Land (23:16)
“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.”
After numerous pleas to listen to each other back and forth, Abraham listens. Then, Abraham gives Ephron every piece of silver that he asked for according to the currency exchange rates at the time. Again, this happens “in the hearing of the Hittites,” which legitimizes this legal transaction.
Moreover, Abraham’s full and legitimate purchase of the land ensures that Ephron or the Hittites cannot revoke his rights or take credit for giving the land to him as a gift, in the same way that Abraham avoided that situation with the king of Sodom: “I have lifted my hand to the Lord, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich’” (14:22-23).
God promised to give possession of the land to Abraham, not Ephron or the Hittites. In purchasing the land above and beyond market value with the riches that God had blessed him with, Abraham exercises his faith in God’s promise past a lifetime and eliminates any strings attached with Ephron or the Hittites—which is made clear in our eight observation when Abraham Gets Possession of the Land.
VIII. Abraham Gets Possession of the Land (23:17-18)
“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 to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, before all who went in at the gate of his city.”
From the exact location of the field and its defined property line with the cave and the trees, the specificity of detail here demonstrates the clear transfer of ownership and deed of sale from Ephron to Abraham.
But there’s something much bigger going on here. Look back at the language of God's promise in chapter 22. God promises Abraham that his “offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies” (22:17b).
Here in chapter 23, this promise past a lifetime began its course when the field of Ephron “was made over to Abraham as a
in the presence of the Hittites [future enemies of his offspring], before all who went in at
of [their] city” (23:18), because this will become the burial site for Abraham and his offspring later on (25:9; 49:30; 50:13)—starting with Sarah in our ninth observation when Abraham Buries Sarah in His Land.
IX. Abraham Buries Sarah in His Land (23:19-20)
“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.”
While the emphasis in this passage was on Abraham purchasing the land and the promise past a lifetime starting its course, no evidence was given that the burial of Sarah was unimportant. When Abraham rose up from before his dead, he did so by faith in order to get possession of the land that God promised to give him—and in order that he might give his dead a proper burial!
One side note: this is the first burial ever mentioned in Scripture, and physical burials were consistently done for believers throughout the rest of Scripture. Now, I am not necessarily making a decisive statement against cremation or cause an ethical war between both sides because bodies decompose either way.
However, the physical process of burial cannot be separated from the hope of the resurrection. Those who are dead are asleep in their graves, and one day they are going to be awakened when God raises them from their graves (1 Thessalonians 4:14-16). Moreover, the baptism of the Christian is symbolized by being buried with Christ and raised to life with him (Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12).
Point being: the first burial recorded in Scripture suggests the importance of the process. Thus, the passage appropriately brings attention to the account of the matriarch’s proper burial—(that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan—in Abraham’s land. The primary importance of the passage is reinforced when the chapter ends in verse 20: “The field and the cave that is in it were made over to Abraham as property for a burying place by the Hittites. Yet, it’s important to note the ominous ending here: the only piece of land that Abraham would ever buy in the promised land was still tied to a grave.
And that’s our passage today. From someone in Nahor’s line to the end of Sarah’s life to the purchase of Abraham’s land, this is all indicative of the promise past a lifetime. It’s past Sarah’s lifetime, and it will eventually be past Abraham’s lifetime—yet they see it in part, but only in part. Because it wouldn’t be until hundreds of years later, generation after generation, when the promise would be seen in full—Jesus Christ, The Promise In Full.
D. Truths for Us Today
I. Jesus Christ, the Promise in Full
Abraham receives his offspring in Isaac, but it only finds its fulfillment through the offspring of Isaac and Rebekah from Nahor’s line—the true offspring of Abraham, Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:1). This Jesus would go on to live a perfect and sinless life in order to die on a cross for the sins of mankind. But the good news doesn’t stop there, because God would raise him from the dead in three days to defeat sin and death—the very thing that Abraham and Sarah couldn’t do.
But this is what Abraham looked to by faith because he believed that God gives life to the dead (Romans 4:17) and that God can raise his offspring from the dead, which is what Abraham believed when he offered up his only son, Isaac (Hebrews 11:19). Abraham rose up from his dead and walked by faith because Jesus would rise from the dead
“by the glory of the Father, [so that] we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
Abraham purchased that little piece of land as a seal of inheritance for his offspring to possess, and Jesus would go on to pay for the sins of his people and give them His Spirit as a seal of their inheritance in him until they acquire possession of it (Ephesians 1:13-14).
And that’s where we are today. Unlike Abraham, we already have Jesus Christ, the promise in full—yet like Abraham, we have not yet acquired full possession of our inheritance. That won’t happen until Jesus returns on the last day and raises up his people to eternal life with him, as he has promised.
God has given us his promise in full in Jesus Christ, but it will be even fuller yet when we see him face to face and dwell with him in the new heavens and the new earth for eternity. God has done so much for us in this lifetime by sending His Son, but he will do so much more for us at the resurrection when we’re finally with the Son.
While you and I might not be alive on this earth when Christ comes to restore all things and put the whole earth into the hands of his people (Matthew 5:5), but we act and live today in light of that promise being fully realized. So as we wait, we live as Abraham did. We acknowledge that we are Strangers and Exiles on the Earth.
II. Strangers and Exiles On The Earth
, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and
died in faith
” (Hebrews 11:13).
having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth
Abraham acknowledged that he was stranger to this earth, even when he was faced with the reality of death. But especially when he was faced with the reality of death! He grieved in hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13) because he believed that one day every tear will be wiped away and that there would be no more death. Not only would he see Sarah again, but he would see his God. Death is not the end of this story.
When we experience suffering in this life—even to the point of death, we can stand secure in the affliction because it’s only momentary. This is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory—though our outer selves waste away, our inner selves are being renewed each day that we take up our cross and follow Jesus. We must suffer with him—even to the point of death—to be glorified with him. Whether it’s the death of a loved one like Abraham with Sarah, or maybe you realize that you’re on the brink of death like Abraham, you rise up and walk by faith regardless. Because eternal life and eternal glory is ahead of us as we look to Christ.
When Abraham dealt with the people of the land, he didn’t act like a prince who had rights to anything in the land—because he was a stranger to the land. Are we living like kings and queens in this life today who have our heads held high? By the way, that’s possible even with a small or medium income because it’s a disposition—living like it’s your life. It’s not, you were bought with a price—so glorify God with your body and life (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
As Peter says, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evil doers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:11-12).
Living as sojourners and exiles means that we, like Abraham did with the Hittites, say no to the promises of the flesh and say yes to the future promises in Jesus who can truly satisfy, both our needs and wants. It means we act humbly and courteously at school or at work or in our community when we interact with unbelievers in hope that they might see Jesus through our good works and repent from their evil works.
Abraham acknowledged that he was a sojourner and a stranger—not just on Canaanite land but on the earth. Being strangers and exiles on this earth means that we hold everything on this earth loosely, whether that’s our time or our possessions—or even people we love. This means that we don’t just spend all our time doing things that we love with the people we love.
Get involved in the life of your church, even when it’s hard to do at times—whether it’s committing to things outside of Sunday mornings or going for coffee with someone you barely know. Get plugged into the community or your neighbours, which can be super hard at times.
This is not our home. This means that we don’t even treat our physical homes like our home for life. Even if you’ve literally bought a house, you don’t really own that home. In fact, Jesus called no place home on earth: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).
When he purchased a piece of land to guarantee his offspring’s homeland, Abraham knew that this physical homeland is still tied to the grave—“for he was looking forward to the city that has foundations [that is, the heavenly city], whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:9-10).
For us today, as strangers and exiles on this earth, I hope we can live in light of God’s future promises in our heavenly home—the whole earth will be our inheritance in Christ soon. I hope we can sing these words as our anthem, which we’ll sing shortly: Till he returns or calls me home, here in the power of Christ I stand.