There is a picture showing a mountain of skulls. At first glance all the skulls seem to be the same, but when you look closely you notice some writing on each skull. One says, “doctor,” another “teacher,” another “secretary,” another “technician,” another “salesman,” and still others were labeled “foreman,” “driver,” “captain,” “lawyer,” and “judge.” There were hundreds of skulls in the painting, each one representing a different occupation.
The artist seemed to be saying that death is the great leveler. No matter what your position in this life may be, you will eventually die. Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief - they all die sooner or later. In one sense, this is certainly true. You will eventually die. No one escapes death forever no matter how much we may try or how hard we exercise or how carefully we avoid catastrophe.
Yet there is another side to the truth.
While death comes eventually to all men, death does not erase all the distinctions between men.
From the standpoint of the Christian faith, it is at death that the real differences among men become apparent. I speak not of the artificial differences of money, power, fame and worldly achievement. Those truly will all perish with the grave.
The Bible does not record many deathbed scenes. The OT generally tells us that so-and-so lived so many years and then he died. We generally don’t know when or where or how death took place, so in most cases we don’t know about any last words that may have been spoken.
In the NT we have even less information. We are not told how most of the chief characters—including the great apostle Paul—died. That’s understandable since the gospel is a message about life. The writers weren’t interested in telling how people died. We know how Jesus died, and Judas, and Stephen, and one or two others, but that’s about it. The NT says very little about death and a great deal about life.
In light of that it is fascinating to consider that an entire chapter of Genesis is taken up with the report of Sarah’s death and burial. Genesis 23 tells how Abraham purchased a cave as a burial place for his wife Sarah. When reading this chapter, one has the almost irresistible urge to say “So what?” Why go into so much detail about the purchase of a burial cave? Why should we care how much Abraham paid?
The answer is, this is important because it teaches us great truth about the biblical view of death and the promises of God. Let’s begin with a brief survey of the biblical teaching regarding death.
1. Three Facts About Death
A. We will all die someday.
This is a fundamental truth that few of us like to face. Hebrews 9: 27 “It is appointed unto man once to die.” All of us have many appointments we keep every week. We have places to go, things to do, people to see. Sometimes we may be late for an appointment or we may miss it altogether. Sometimes we even forget we have an appointment. Things like that happen in a fallen world. But there is one appointment you will never miss — your appointment with death.
B. Death is the end of this life, but not the end of your personal existence.
Everyone will live forever somewhere. Do you remember the story Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19 - 31)? When the rich man died, he went to hell while Lazarus went to Abraham’s side (a symbol for heaven).
Some people think that when we die, that’s it. We simply vanish into the empty nothingness of the universe. But if the Bible is true, then all of us will exist forever somewhere. Death is the end of this life, not the end of our existence.
C. The real differences among people are seen at the moment of death.
As a pastor my job requires me to conduct funerals. Most are for people from or connected with the church, but sometimes I will conduct the funeral of someone I hardly know, or perhaps have never met at all. Did that person go to heaven? Only the Lord knows the answer.
Sometimes I preach the gospel to rows of rough-looking people who seemed frightened to be there. Afterwards the parking area is scattered with cigarette butts as if everyone lit up at the same time to calm their collective nerves.
But then I think of many other funerals I have done across the years. Without fail, whenever the time comes to bury a Christian, along with the sorrow comes an enormous amount of joy. There is triumph as the people of God trust the promises of God even as they lay their loved one to rest.
There is a difference. It is the difference Jesus Christ makes. Nowhere is that difference more clearly seen than at the moment of death.
With that as background we turn to this fascinating story –
2. Why Abraham Purchased a Field v. 1, 2
It begins with an account of Sarah’s death and Abraham’s grief. We are told 2 things here but they are significant. Sarah was 127 years old when she died, which means that she had lived approximately 37 years after Isaac was born. Abraham wept when Sarah died. I appreciate this fact because it is sometimes suggested that Christians should not weep at the death of a loved one.
The message is often - “Real men don’t cry.” I don’t believe that. Abraham wept at the death of his wife, Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. You and I should weep when our loved ones die.
A Slice of Ancient Life v. 3 - 9
After 42 years in Canaan, Abraham still don’t own any part of the Promised Land. He calls himself an “alien and a stranger” because after all those years that’s how he felt. Most of us take things like home ownership for granted. Either we own a home or hope to someday. Not Abraham. He is an old man now, having lived through so many crisis situations. He had left prosperity in Ur of the Chaldees for an unknown future. 42 years later what does he have that he can call his own? The clothes on his back and not much else. He doesn’t even own a burial plot. That’s why he’s got to haggle with the Hittites.
Hebrews 11: 9 “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.” If there were any sceptics around when Sarah died, I’m sure they could be heard laughing in the distance. Ever since Ur Abraham had followed his God, and where had it got him? Not even a place to bury his wife. So now he bargains with the Hittites.
At first the Hittites offered to give Abraham their choicest cave as a gift since he was “a mighty prince.” But Abraham refused, partly because he understood that in Middle Eastern terms, the offer might simply have been expected with the proper response being, “Oh no, let me pay for it.” More than that, Abraham wanted a plot of land he owned so that he could lay Sarah to rest in peace and dignity.
This is more than just sentiment to Abraham. Burying his wife was also a statement of his faith that someday his descendants would possess the land. God had promised it and though the fulfillment lay in the distant future, Abraham is fully convinced that God would keep his word.
Let Make a Deal v. 10 - 20
These verses describe the negotiations between Ephron, leader of the Hittites and Abraham the man of God. If you have ever been to the Holy Land and done any shopping, you understand exactly what is happening here. In an ever-so-polite way, Abraham and Ephron are haggling over the price of the land. When Ephron offers to give it to him, he doesn’t really mean it. He needs to buy his “gift.”
But we also see here the principle of cultural adaptation. Abraham is living in a pagan culture. If he is going to do business, he must respect their practices. Now that doesn’t mean he can compromise his values, but it does mean that wherever possible, he will become “Jew to the Jews, a Greek to the Greeks,” and a Hittite to the Hittites. So he not only bows down, he also enters into this game of negotiations. He had to do it so that Ephron would know that he respected him.
Lock, Stock and Barrel
Something else is happening here at a deeper level. The writer of Genesis wants to stress that Abraham bought the land legally. It was his—lock, stock and barrel. The last few verses read almost like an offer to purchase—giving the exact location of the cave (in Machpelah near Mamre), the agreed-upon price (400 shekels of silver), the precise dimensions of the property (the cave, the field, and the trees in the field), and the witnesses (all the Hittites who watched this transaction. Only then does Abraham bury Sarah. Even then there is a final statement of location, this time mentioning Hebron and Canaan, and a final statement that the Hittites had deeded the land to Abraham as a burial site.
Living by faith and taking care of business are not mutually exclusive. If “the devil is in the details,” then the course of wisdom would be not to sign anything until we’ve checked and re-checked the details and run the devil out of there.
3. How Death Can Be a Testimony
Having said all that, one still wonders why so much space is taken up with the story of this transaction. Why was this so important to Abraham and later to Moses who wrote Genesis 400 years later?
The answer is that Sarah lived and died in faith. Although she left Ur at Abraham’s side, she never possessed the Promised Land. She—like Abraham—was still a “stranger” and an “alien” at the moment of her death. What will happen now?
When Abraham purchased the cave of Machpelah for a tomb, he was making a statement of faith to all who were there. He did not take Sarah back to their former home in Ur but buried her in the land God had given him and his descendants.
In fact, by the time you get to the end of Genesis, Abraham’s tomb is very full. Sarah is buried there, along with Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah and Leah. Then Jacob’s body was brought back from Egypt and buried there as well. Why? Certainly it was because the members of the family wanted to be together in death as in life. But more than that, Abraham and his descendants were proclaiming their faith that someday God would give them the land he had promised.
Death does not exhaust the promises of God! That’s why Paul could say, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” 1 Corinthians 15: 55.
Jesus has taken the sting out of death and given us victory over the grave. Abraham’s tomb is still full to this day but Jesus’ tomb has been empty for 2000 years.
Abraham and Us
In many ways we stand exactly where Abraham stood 4000 years ago. The people of God still die one by one. I still do funerals every year for people I know and love. Like Abraham, we too have not received the fulfillment of everything God has promised for us. And the point of Genesis 23 is still true today. We die, but the promises of God live on after us.
For all the wonderful things that we have experienced at the hand of the Lord, we still must pass through the valley of the shadow of death. Our hope is this. That He who has seen us this far will not abandon us when we need him most. He will be with us when we must cross the dark Jordan. He will personally escort to the mansions of heaven.
Cheer up, child of God. Smile through your tears. Death is the worst that can happen to us. The best is yet to come.