The Death of a Princess

Genesis 23

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
July 2015

One of the values of expository teaching is that you go through each chapter of the Bible.  All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable.  That means there is something in this chapter that God wants us to see.  There is a message in this chapter for all of us.  Genesis 23 is a chapter that does not look that exciting. It is a chapter that we might have a tendency to skip.

This chapter shows us a very different side to the patriarch.  Abraham becomes a widow.  He gets emotional in this chapter.  He sheds some tears in this chapter.  He is also very business-like.  We see Abraham the business man in this chapter.  Abraham knew how to do business.  He buys some real estate.

Nothing miraculous or supernatural takes place in this chapter.  Hundred year old women do not give birth, like one did in Genesis 21.  Hundred year old women do not give birth. This chapter seems a little uneventful and rather gloomy. Abraham buys a burial plot for his dead wife.

This chapter is not as dramatic as the last one.  Fire does not fall from heaven and wipe out any cities.  God does not speak to Abraham in this chapter.  No angel appears in this chapter.  No one gets an angelic message in this chapter, like they did in the last chapter. We do not learn a new name for God in this chapter, like we did in the last one (Jehovah Jireh).

There are not a lot of types in this chapter which foreshadow the coming of Jesus, like there were in the last chapter. There is no great ethical test in this chapter which puts the promise of God and the command of God at odds but there is a test in this chapter.

Last week, we looked at the tests of Abraham which culminated in Abraham’s greatest test, the offering up of Isaac on the altar.  Today, we encounter one more test, the death of Sarah.  In the last chapter, Abraham almost lost his only son and now he loses his wife.  I call this section “The Death of a Princess” because the name Sarah means princess in Hebrew, although she did not get that name until she was ninety.  Her name before that was Sarai (noble woman).

It was not easy for Abraham.  Genesis tells us his reaction. He mourned and wept for Sarah (23:2).  These are the first recorded tears in the Bible.  The first time in the Bible that someone cries, it is a man, not a woman.  Women are more emotional than men but here we see Abraham crying.  When some spouses die, there might be tears of joy.  The fool is gone.  These were tears of sorrow.  Abraham lost a wife and Isaac lost a mother.

Why was this so hard for Abraham?   He loved Sarah.  They had been married for over a century. Sarah was Abraham his best friend.  She was his lifelong partner.  Abraham may have been the friend of God but Sarah was the friend of Abraham. They went through a lot together.

How old was she when she died? She was 127 (23:1).  We live to be 60 or 70 today.  She lived to be 127 which is twice as long as some of us live today.  Abraham lived another forty years after she died and remarried.  Sarah happens to be the only time in the Bible that a woman’s age at death is recorded.  The Bible says that Adam lived to be 930 years old and then he died (5:5).  It doesn’t tell us how long Eve lived but we are told how long Sarah lived.

It is also amazing to think about this.  Abraham knew her for 127 years. He knew her all of his life.  They were close.  She was his half-sister.  They had the same father but a different mother (20:12).  He was older, so he knew Sarah her entire life.

The Legacy of Sarah

Let’s talk about Sarah’s life.  She is described as one of the heroes of the faith.  She is in the Faith Hall of Fame in Hebrews 11.  Let’s review some of the things that we learn about the matriarch Sarah from the Book of Genesis.  What was her legacy?  How was Sarah, the first Jewish matriarch, a role model for women today?

1. Sarah had real struggles.

What were some of her struggles?  She was not married to the perfect man.  Abraham had some faults.  He said, “If you really love me, you will lie for me”.  Abraham would put his wife in danger before he would put himself in danger.  She did not have the perfect marriage.  Abraham and Sarah had some struggles.  She was given away twice to another man in marriage while she was still married to Abraham.

In addition, she struggled with infertility. The one thing that she wanted more than anything else was to have a child.  She had this longing for children and it was unfulfilled for most of her life.  She finally got one but not until she was ninety.  She spent most of her life without any children and, in that day, this meant that a stigma was placed on her.  She felt inferior to other women who had children.  Other women looked down on her, which was hard.

2. Sarah had incredible blessings.

She was blessed by God.  How was she blessed if she was cursed with barrenness?  She was married.  Her husband was extremely wealthy.  She lived a long time.  She is blessed with longevity.  She was very attractive physically, even when she was old.  Kings would kill to have her.  Her husband had a unique relationship with God.  God made a covenant with him.

God appeared to him.  He spoke to him.  He experienced visions and dreams which the ordinary person did not experience.  She also saw God work incredible miracles in her own life.  She became the oldest mother in history.  She gave birth miraculously to a child at the age of ninety.

3. She was a good wife and mother.

Sarah followed her husband when he made that long journey to an unknown land.  She gave up some of her own dreams here.  She may not have wanted to take this big step of faith but she followed her husband in that journey.

She was a good cook.  She helped entertain the three heavenly guests in Genesis 18 with a big meal.  She was a good mother to Isaac.  She was very protective of him, more protective than Abraham was.  She is described in the NT as a role model to women.

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.

For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear” (I Peter 3:1-6 NIV).

That is an interesting passage.  It tells women to seek inner beauty, rather than outward beauty and to be more like Sarah but Sarah was not only beautiful on the inside, she was also beautiful on the outside.  The NT sees her as an example of submission and respect to her husband.  She called him “lord” but she was also a very strong woman.  She was not afraid to tell Abraham what he thought he should do in certain situations.  Sometimes she was right (Genesis 21) and sometimes wrong (Genesis 16).

Sarah was not perfect.  She had her faults, just like Abraham had faults.  When God told Abraham that Sarah would have a son in her old age, she laughed.  She laughed at the promise of God.  She mistreated her slave Hagar so bad that Hagar ran away.  She couldn’t take it anymore.  The lesson here is that if you are married, your spouse is not perfect.  They will have faults, flaws and shortcomings but, if you are married to them, you already knew that.  Abraham loved her, in spite of her faults.

Sarah dies unexpectedly in this chapter and Abraham has to find a way to bury her.  The last few chapters, Abraham has been in Beersheba but now he has moved to Hebron and that is where Sarah is buried.  He did not take her back to Ur to bury her.  He did not have time to do that.  The Jews believed in quick burial, even for the worst of criminals (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).  Abraham buried Sarah the same day that she died.  This chapter tells us how he found a tomb for her.

Abraham was a foreigner.  We are all US citizens and proud of our citizenship.  Abraham was not a citizen and did not own any property in Hebron.  He lived in a tent and moved around from place to place.  Genesis 23 tells us how he got a tomb for his wife.  It tells us who he bought it from (Ephron the Hittite), where he bought it (Hebron), how much he paid for it (four hundred shekels)[1], what currency he used (silver).  Paper money did not exist yet.

It also tells us how he bought it.  Eyewitnesses were present.  Abraham haggled over the price, like they do in that part of the world today.  He had to negotiate the price.  Abraham said he needed a burial plot.  He was told he could borrow one.  He said that he wanted to buy one.  He said that he wanted to buy the Cave of Machpelah.  They said if you buy one, you have to buy the field that does with it.  Abraham went ahead and bought the field, although he only needed the cave.

This purchase was important for two reasons.  One, it became the family graveyard.  All of the patriarchs are buried in this tomb. It was not just where Sarah was buried.  It was where Abraham, Isaac (35:27-29), Jacob (50:13), Leah (49:31) and Rebekah (49:31) were buried.  It is called the Cave of Machpelah or the Cave of the Patriarchs.

Two, this graveyard was the only land that Abraham owned his entire life.  It was only piece of land that Abraham owns in the land that God promised him.  It was the first piece of property owned by a Jew in the land later called Israel.  The irony is that he had to pay for it, even though God said that the land was his.  In fact, he had to pay a lot for it, namely four hundred shekels.  Burials today are not cheap.  Some things never change.

It is also ironic that the only land that Abraham purchased is not even owned by Jews today. It is in Hebron.  Hebron is about 20 miles south of Jerusalem.  It is a Palestinian city today.  It is in the West Bank.  This tomb still exists to this day. It is a Sunni Muslim area.  It is a Hamas stronghold and the Muslims have built a huge mosque built over this tomb.  It is heavi;y guarded.

It is called the Ibrihimi Mosque.  Abraham would be horrified that a Muslim mosque would be built over his tomb and that Jews do not even have access to it, except for ten days out of the year.  Jews today cannot even come and pray to the site where their forefathers and foremothers are buried[2].

The Quran says, “Abrahim was not a Jew nor a Christian but a Muslim” (Surah 3:67) but the truth is that Abraham was the father of the Jews.  His grandson was Jacob whose name was changed to Israel and Jacob had twelve sons which became the twelve tribes of Israel.

Abraham did not worship Allah.  He worshiped Jehovah or Yahweh.  Muhammad was not born until six hundred years after the time of Christ which was almost three thousand years after the time of Abraham.  What lessons can we learn from this chapter?  There are four lessons we can learn.

Lessons from Sarah’s Death

1. The reality of death

The first lesson is that death is universal.  Everyone dies. Some die young and some die old but we all die.  The wicked die and the righteous die.  Some die a violent death like Abel did.  Other die peacefully, like Sarah died but we all die.  The Bible says “It is appointed unto man once to die”

Ecclesiastes 7:2 “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.”  Solomon said that it is better to go to a funeral than a party.  It is better to go to a funeral than a wedding.  Why?  There is something we can learn from a funeral.  It teaches us some things.

Death is educational.  It reminds us of our own mortality.  It tells us that one day we will be laying in a tomb.  It gives us a chance to prepare for that day.  Death is the destiny of all of us.  Are we saved?  Are we sure that we are saved and ready to stand before God.  We all know that death is inevitable but not all of us live like it.  We think we are invincible, especially when we are younger.

2. The biblical practice of burial

Abraham did not burn the body of Sarah.  He did not cremate Sarah.  He buried her body in a tomb.  In fact, the phrase “bury my dead” or “bury your dead” occurs seven times in this chapter (23:4, 6 [2], 8, 11, 14, 15).  Pagans burn their dead.  Jews bury their dead.

The universal biblical custom is burial, not cremation. That is significant. This happens to be the first burial in the Bible.  Sarah was the first one to be buried in Genesis 23. Abraham was the second on in the Bible to be buried.  He is buried in Genesis 25.

Now, there is no command in the Bible that says that you can’t cremate anyone.  Many do it for financial reasons.  It is much cheaper. It is not forbidden but cremation is not a biblical practice.  It has pagan roots.  The Greeks practiced cremation.

Of course, it is not a problem for God.  God can raise the dead just as easily if a body is cremated but, from the Jewish point of view, cremation is disrespectful to the body.  It destroys the body, rather than burying it.

3. The importance of mourning

Abraham mourned and wept.  Abraham was not the only one who mourned for Sarah.  Isaac did too.  Apparently, Isaac was close to his mother.  Apparently, she was a very good mother.  She was very protective of Isaac.  She protected him from Ishmael.

He was attached to his mother.  Maybe she liked him because she was the only parent who did not try to kill him.  He really did not get over the death of his mother until he got married and that was three years later (24:66). Isaac would have been thirty-seven years old at this time.  How do we know? Sarah died at the age of 127 and she was ninety when Isaac was born.

It is proper to mourn the death of loved ones.  It is the appropriate response.  Grief is normal and natural after the loss of a loved one.  It is healthy.  There is such a thing as “Good Grief”.

Solomon said, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot… a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2,4)

Many of us, especially men, do not like to show our emotions.  Stoicism is not Christian.  Jesus was not a Stoic.  He cried in public.  He cried over the death of Lazarus (John 11:35) and over the city of Jerusalem.  Luke 19:41 says,  “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it.” When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him in the other room (45:1-2).

The Apostle Paul said, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (I Thessalonians 4:13 NIV).  He did not say that we were not supposed to sorrow or grieve for people.  He said that we do not need to sorrow like the rest of mankind.

The Baptist preacher Vance Havner, who wrote forty books, met someone after his wife died.  He said to him, “I’m sorry to hear you lost your wife.” Dr. Havner smiled and replied, “Son, when you know where something is, you haven’t lost it.”

4. The benefit of a good testimony

Abraham lived in Hebron as a visitor, not a citizen but he had a good testimony there.  He had friends there.  He was respectful to them.  He was polite and courteous.  He bowed down to the ground (23:12).  He did not have a great testimony in other places (e.g., Beersheba).  In fact, he was kicked out of Egypt. He had to leave in disgrace but he was well respected in Hebron.  They called him “a prince of God” (23:6).

Does this describe us?  We have a good reputation with those around us.  Proverbs 22:1 says. “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.”  Do we have a good testimony at work?  Do we have a good testimony in our community and with our neighbors?  The Apostle Paul said, “I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man” (Acts 24:16 NIV).

What Paul did, we should strive to do.  We should live with a clear conscience. That means that we do not break God’s laws and we do not break man’s laws. It means that we do not have to worry about having the IRS, FBI or local sheriff tracking us down.  It also means that we are not living in disobedience to any known command of Scripture.  We are not perfect but we have a clear conscience before God AND man.  This is very important.




[1] Pharaoh gave Abraham a thousand pieces of silver to Abraham when he returned Sarah (20:16).

[2] There are two entrances to the mosque: one for Muslims and one for Jews and tourists.  The Tombs of the Patriarchs is located in the Muslim section, which is ironic because none of the Patriarchs were Muslim.  They were all Jewish.


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