Genesis 23. The Death and Burial of Sarah.

Key Notes: Burial customs. Biblical grieving. The work of grieving. Stoicism is not Christianity.

It is surprising to see a whole chapter  devoted  mainly  to the burial  of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. We will see an typical land-sale executed to purchase a burial site. No teaching material emerges at a glance but it opens the topic of grieving.

23:1–2 Sarah died in Hebron at the age of 127. Abraham went into her tent to weep and mourn for her.

23:3–4 When he emerged, he met the assembled Hittites and asked for a burial site for her. Burial by the Hebrews  was done quickly and without embalming.

23:5–7 The Hittites said that they would not withhold any of their burial sites from such an outstanding man.

23:8–9 Abraham reiterated his request and specified the cave of Machpelah owned by Ephron as his preferred site.

23:10–16 Ephron offered the field free, but when Abraham insisted, he set the price at 400 shekels of silver and the purchase was made. Abraham bowed twice to the Hittites.

23:17:20 The field and the cave became the permanent burial place for Abraham’s family.

It was important to purchase the site so that it could not be used by others for their burials or simply desecrated. The cave  in Machpelah is important as the eventual  resting place of Abraham himself as well as Sarah. In the future, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah, and Joseph would also be buried there. Although the land had been promised to Abraham and his offspring, this is the only ground they would own in Canaan for the next 400 years. The patriarchs would remain strangers and pilgrims in or away from the Promised Land. Heb.11:9–13

Commentators have noted the careful politeness with which the transaction was made, but no one is likely to show irritation at a time of mourning. Nevertheless, Christians are reminded that courtesy is a virtue. First Pet. 3:8 says we should be tender hearted and courteous. (KJV)

What shall we say about burial? Customs in Western culture are changing, so that cremation is becoming more common. It was rarely done in the Old Testament. (I Sam.31:8–13). The Persians exposed their dead to the carrion birds..The Asian Indians have practiced cremation for centuries. There seems no reason to resist cremation unless it is necessarily identified with Hinduism or Buddhism. As ground for burials becomes limited modern societies are seeking other methods of disposal of the dead. Scripture is not specific on the question.

Space for burial in NT Testament times was managed by burial or storing a valued body in a
cave,  excavation or stone coffin until the flesh decayed, and then saving the bones in a smaller box. (A bone box thought to belong to James, Jesus’ brother, was recently in the news. (See several articles in Bibl. Arch. Rev. 2009.)  Thus tombs could be reused and Joseph’s “new tomb”is explained. (Jn.19:41)

The passage also gives us the  opportunity to think about the work of grieving. We are inclined to weep for the young and celebrate the death of the elderly. Certainly we do not grieve the dead as those who have no hope (I Thes.4:13), but that has led some not to grieve at all. The widow is unfairly expected to be radiant at her husband’s wake but she is more likely to be in emotional shock. We should not be ashamed to grieve or try to stifle it. Children are admonished not to cry, I think, because crying is contagious. Stoicism—the stiff upper lip, hiding our emotions--is not Christianity.

Aged Abraham wept over his dead wife. The Psalms pour the laments of people like David, as well as the  Hebrews as a people. In New Testament times, open mourning aided by professionals was a normal part of ceremony for the deceased. There was weeping for slaughtered babies in Bethlehem (Matt.2:18),  for a dead girl (Mk.5:38), for Lazarus (Jn.11:33) and for Jesus Himself. (Jn.20:13). Jesus wept at the grave of his good friend Lazarus. (Jn.11:35). C.S.Lewis wrote extensively on grief from his own experience (“A Grief Observed”) and that of a relative.(“A Severe Mercy.”) "A Grief Observed" is a candid confession of a soul in great distress, passing from virtual  blasphemy to recovered faith. There is no philosophizing in Lewis' memoir but the working through of painful emotions.

We need to recognize that grief may have nothing to do with a death. I grieved when my children left home for college. I was in great pain over leaving the city where I worked in my career and taught in the church for fifty years. Grief over relatives that have left the faith,  or national disasters,  or personal troubles such as divorce,  infertility, or financial failure need to be acknowledged. A miscarriage may cause serious grief. We may feel sad without understanding the reason, or grieve over issues we have nothing to do with. Some grieve for years over an injustice done—a doctor who failed the patient, for example—or an insult. We have the help of counselors, self-help groups and physicians to work through issues some of which may take months to resolve, but not years. If such grieving goes on for more than a year, we should look for revenge--or depression--as the motive.

“Cast your burden on the Lord and He will sustain you.” (Psa.55:22)
"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weaknesses, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words." (Rom.8:26)