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The Sojourner with Roots

Date: Jul. 8, 2018

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Genesis 23:1-20

Key Verse: Genesis 23:19

Afterward Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah near Mamre (which is at Hebron) in the land of Canaan.

Growing up, my family moved around a lot because my dad was in the Army. I was born in 1979 in Missouri and by the time I was 18 months old, we moved to Germany. In 1984, we returned to the US and lived in Huntsville, Alabama for a few months. Then, we moved back to Missouri and then back to Germany in 1989. In 1992, we returned to the US and moved to Quincy, Illinois, my dad’s hometown. My parents settled there, and I stayed there until I completed high school in 1998. It was hard to grow up while moving around. I never had friends for longer than three years, as our whole lives would be uprooted. I would say that I never set down roots until moving to Chicago. I lived a kind of nomadic life, moving every few years. As we have been studying over the course of a number of months, Abraham was also very nomadic. He lived in tents and moved from place to place. He was reliant on the kindness of his neighbors for a place to stay and pasture and water for his flocks and herds. After many years of being nomadic, Abraham was in need of some land. Let’s see what that need was.

Abraham’s story begins in earnest in chapter 12, where the Lord called Abraham to follow him and go to the land he would show him. God promised Abraham children, although he had none. For twenty-five years, he wandered the land God showed him, Canaan, before his wife had a son, Isaac. Last week, we saw Abraham’s faith in God. God told Abraham to take his son Isaac and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. Isaac was to be the child of promise, but God told Abraham to sacrifice him. If he were to still be the child of promise, then, somehow, God would work to bring Isaac back. Abraham was just about to go through with the sacrifice, when an angel stopped him. God knew that Abraham did not withhold even his precious son, so Isaac was spared, and the Lord provided another sacrifice, a ram that was stuck in a thicket. It was a big test for Abraham and he passed it.

Now it was time for another test. “Sarah lived to be a hundred and twenty-seven years old. She died at Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her.” (1-2) Abraham’s beloved wife Sarah died at the age of one hundred twenty-seven or thirty-seven years after the birth of Isaac and sixty-two years since entering the land of Canaan. She lived a blessed life for many years with Abraham, but, as all things do, she died. She died at Kiriath Arba or Hebron. If you remember, Abraham had been living in the south at Beersheba, but Sarah died near Hebron, which is near where they were staying prior. When Sarah died, Abraham mourned and wept for her. They were married for nearly a century, and his first love was now gone.

After the appropriate time of mourning, Abraham had to find a place to bury his wife. “Then Abraham rose from beside his dead wife and spoke to the Hittites. He said, ‘I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.’” (3-4) Abraham chose to buy some land in Canaan for a burial site. This is significant. He could have chosen to go back to Aram, where his family was. It would have made a lot of sense to go there to bury his wife. People tend to bury their dead where they live, their home. Abraham left Aram sixty-two years prior with a promise from God to inherit the land of Canaan. In those sixty-two years, Abraham didn’t even own a blade of grass or pebble, but by attempting to purchase a burial site for Sarah, Abraham acknowledged that Canaan was now his home based on God’s promise and he wanted to be buried there. It was just as much an act of faith as sacrificing Isaac was in the last passage. If he were to be buried in Canaan, he would be trusting that God would fulfill his promise, because, if God didn’t, there would be a great risk to Abraham and Sarah’s remains. Their graves could be looted and confiscated if there were no people around there to protect and honor them.

The Hittites were living in the area at the time and Abraham approached them to bargain for some land. He starts off by calling himself a foreigner and stranger among them. This seems a little unusual because Abraham had been living in the area for sixty-two years. By modern standards, Abraham is neither a foreigner nor a stranger. But this was not modern times. Abraham had no land in the region which still made him a foreigner, and he used the term “stranger” to be humble before the Hittites. By assuming the title of stranger, Abraham is admitting he has no land of his own, even to bury his dead. In the culture at the time, the word stranger is different than just a foreigner. In later Jewish culture a stranger had less rights than a foreigner, by calling himself a stranger, Abraham was taking the lowest road when coming to the Hittites.

The Hittites responded, “Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead.” (6) The Hittites responded to Abraham with, what looks like, favorable words. Their words are polite. Whereas Abraham refers to himself as a stranger, they call Abraham a mighty price. In some translations, “mighty prince” is translated “prince of God”. They recognize Abraham’s power. They have heard and seen his exploits and seen God’s divine hand in his life. It is like Abimelek in chapter 21. He recognized that God was with everything Abraham does. Here, they saw Abraham’s wealth and power and referred to him as a mighty prince.

The Hittites, then offer freely any tomb in the land for burying Abraham’s dead. It seems like a very generous offer. Abraham wanted to purchase land for a tomb, but the Hittites were offering any tomb for free. It could be seen as a dream come true, but the offer might not be as good as it seems at first glance. Whereas a land purchase would mean that Abraham would own the property where he and his wife would be buried. It would be a legal transaction that could be enforced. As a gift, there would be no legal transaction performed and the gift could be rescinded at a later date. The tomb would be at the whim of whoever owned the property. Also, by joining someone else in a tomb, Abraham would be mixing his family with that of the Hittites. God did not promise Abraham that he would share the land but possess it.

Abraham did not stop here and accept the offer. “Then Abraham rose and bowed down before the people of the land, the Hittites.” (7) Again, Abraham humbled himself before the Hittites and bowed down before them and continued to talk to them. “If you are willing to let me bury my dead, then listen to me and intercede with Ephron son of Zohar on my behalf so he will sell me the cave of Machpelah, which belongs to him and is at the end of his field. Ask him to sell it to me for the full price as a burial site among you.” (8-9) The Hittites offer any tomb freely, but Abraham insists on buying the land. He wanted to purchase a cave that was on the edge of a field. He asked for their help to talk to the owner Ephron in order to purchase it. Abraham was not looking for a special price, however. Abraham wanted to pay the full price for the cave. Again, Abraham was looking to be above the board in regard to securing a burial site. He wanted to make sure that there was no reason for the Hittites or whoever to seize the tomb after the purchase.

Ephron, however, was among the people at the gate of the city. Now, it is not certain that Ephron was an esteemed member of the council or a member of the crowd, since he was seated among his people. Ephron replied, “No, my lord. Listen to me; I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead.” (11) This NIV translation uses the word “give”, but a footnote also mentions “sell”. Ephron appears to be very generous with the field and the cave, but Ephron’s generosity is merely a smokescreen. Abraham merely wanted the cave, but Ephron is now requesting that the field that surrounds the cave be included in whatever deal would be struck. Ephron could see the desperation in Abraham’s eyes. He need to find a place to bury Sarah quickly, and Ephron decided to take advantage of it.

Abraham did not get upset at Ephron’s dealings, but he remained humble. “Again Abraham bowed down before the people of the land and he said to Ephron in their hearing, ‘Listen to me, if you will. I will pay the price of the field. Accept it from me so I can bury my dead there.’” (12-13) Abraham agreed to pay the price of the field. He only wanted the cave but was willing to purchase the whole field. Abraham wanted to make sure that all his dealings were carried out with the greatest of respect, so that there could be no doubt to the legality of the ownership of the tombs that would be in the cave.

The negotiations continued as Ephron named a price. “Ephron answered Abraham, ‘Listen to me, my lord; the land is worth four hundred shekels of silver, but what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.’” (14-15) Again, Ephron calls Abraham “my lord”. He is using very flattering language to get what he wants, and he names a price of four hundred shekels of silver.  Four hundred shekels of silver is about ten pounds of silver. It is hard for us to tell if this is a good number or not. Land in Chicago is expensive, but ten pounds of silver is still an abstract amount to us. Hundreds of years later, the prophet Jeremiah also buys a field. I don’t know the difference in the sizes of the fields, but Jeremiah paid only seventeen shekels for his field. (Jeremiah 32:9) This makes Ephron’s offer seem to be really overpriced. Ephron was gouging Abraham because of his wealth and desperation. Ephron was sounding like he was being generous, but instead he was taking advantage of Abraham.

Instead of calling out Ephron for his dishonesty, Abraham agrees to the price and gives him four hundred shekels of silver for the field and the cave. Again, Abraham wants the transaction to be above the board. He wanted to make sure that no one would dispute his claim on the cave, so he paid even an excessive amount for the field. All the Hittites at the city gate were witnesses to the transaction. No one could grumble about how the situation was handled. Abraham did not cheat any of them or use his power and influence to gain a better price. He was humble before them all, so that no one could dispute that he bought the cave and field fully legally. The passage says that the field was deeded to Abraham, which means that there was some paperwork involved. There would be legal document showing that Abraham had purchased the field from Ephron.

“Afterward Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah near Mamre (which is at Hebron) in the land of Canaan. So the field and the cave in it were deeded to Abraham by the Hittites as a burial site.” (19-20) Abraham did not purchase the field to settle down in the region. He did so to bury his dead wife and later himself. As Genesis later shows, Sarah and Abraham would be buried together, along with Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah. The cave at Machpelah would become the family burial ground. It was the first plot of ground that Abraham and his descendants would own in the land. God had promised Abraham that his offspring would take control of the land, but the first land in control was a tomb.

Again, I find it significant that Abraham chose to bury Sarah in Canaan. It was an act of faith that showed that he trusted that God would still provide the land to his descendants. Abraham didn’t know the timetable of taking possession of the land. It wouldn’t happen for hundreds of years, but he still had faith and chose to put down roots with the tomb. To Abraham, it was as good as done, so he bought that land. God was with Abraham, but in this passage, we see that the Lord didn’t help Abraham get a more favorable deal. In fact, Abraham was swindled and charged a very high amount. There was no divine intervention in regard to the field, but Abraham’s purchase is still considered an act of faith. He chose to trust God’s promise and took whatever sacrifice was needed to ensure that he had roots through the tomb. It was important to make sure that Abraham and his descendants would not return to Aram, to the rest of his family. Because if he did, there would be a great temptation to stay and renounce God’s promise. By staying in Canaan and choosing to bury his wife, and eventually himself, Abraham acknowledged that God’s promise was true.

Hebrews chapter 11 speaks of Abraham, “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. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:9-10) Abraham was a sojourner, a traveler, a nomad. He lived in tents, which is the most temporary living structure, but he still made his home in Canaan. He set down roots through the burial site, but he was still a traveler. Since he owned the field, now, he could have settled down there and build himself a house, but he still lived in tents and moved around. According to Hebrews, Abraham really looked forward to the heavenly city. He needed to set down some roots in this world, but his true home was in heaven, the city of God. He was looking forward to it.

It reminds me a little of Jesus. Jesus was born in Bethlehem but grew up in Nazareth. He had a house and lived with his family, but when he began his ministry, he did not settle anywhere. Instead, he moved around and had no home of his own. He, too, knew that his home was not on this earth, but with his Father in heaven. Now, his mission required him to have some roots on this earth, but those roots were not a house, but the connections he made with the people he taught and saved. He stayed with his friends and followers. After the completion of his mission, Jesus returned to the Father. He returned home to prepare a place for all those who believe in him.

Likewise, this is not our home. We are but sojourners in this world. We are traveling through, not destined to stay all that long. Our home is in heaven, where Jesus is getting things ready for us. But just because this is not our home, does not mean that we can treat it with little respect. We are here for a while, and during the time we are here, we have to treat it like a home. There are necessities that we have to take care of. Some Christians want to sit isolated from the world, they live in fear of the world, but we have to live in the world for a time. We have to live in the world in a way that is above the board, blameless, like Abraham. He knew that he had to have a tie to the land. He needed a place to bury Sarah, so he dealt with the people fairly, even though he was not treated fairly. He was not afraid of the Hittites, but did what was necessary to ensure that this burial site would be secure. Abraham was an exemplary man of faith. His greatest concern was not getting the best deal but ensuring the security of his future family burial plot. He was willing to endure price gouging, not because he was bereaving and desperate, but because he trusted in God and wanted to keep a good relationship with them.

This world is not our home and we have to live in it with people, who call this world their home. The people to love the world live in the world. It is their home. We are just travelers, but we have to put down some roots and deal with the people of the world with the greatest respect. They are not our enemies. We are not in a battle over this world. We will move on from here and it is important to not fear the world, but also to deal well with the people who call the world home. These people have nothing more than the world, but we have a greater promise of a home in heaven.

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Amos 6:1-14

Key Verse: 6:8b

The Lord GOD has sworn by himself, declares the LORD, the God of hosts:

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