A Grave for Sarah Gen 23:1-20


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Genesis 23:1-20

Genesis 23 effectively completes the narrative of the life of the life of Abraham. On my return from vacation, as I mentioned before, we will begin a series of sermons on the book of Acts. I’m not sure when we will return to complete Genesis.

Text Comments

v.1       Sarah is the first woman after Eve to have occupied the center stage in Genesis. She is the only woman in the Bible whose age at death is reported. She died when Isaac was 37 years of age, three years before his marriage to Rebekah.

v.2       The phrase “in the land of Canaan” reminds us that God has promised that land to Abraham and his descendants, even though he does not yet actually own any of that land.

v.3       Mourners sat on the ground.

v.4       “Alien and stranger” is a technical description of Abraham’s status in Canaan.  He was a resident alien, with some standing but limited rights. Ordinarily he was not entitled to buy land.

The term Abraham uses here for what the ESV translates as “burying place” is important. What he asks for literally is a “holding for a grave” or a “possession of a grave.” It is the same term used in 17:8 and 48:4 for the eternal “holding” or “possession” of the Promised Land by the descendants of Abraham. Abraham wanted to own the site! He wanted his descendants to inherit it from him.

v.6       They sidestepped Abraham’s request and assured him that they would be happy to have him use one of their tombs.

v.8       Etiquette required that Abraham not approach the landowner directly, but through the town council. [Sarna, 158]

v.9       The site is today covered by a mosque. It is the second most sacred site in Israel after the Western Wall.

v.11     What does this offer of the land for free mean? It is either a conventional fiction (a kind of typical oriental exaggeration that no one would take seriously and which really politely masked an offer to sell) or is an indication of an offer to give conditional use of the property precisely without granting ownership in perpetuity.

v.13     Abraham wants ownership, nothing else, at whatever price.

v.15     Interestingly, this same way of speaking in the course of a transaction can be found in the Near East still today. Some years ago a traveler reported this happening to him in Hebron itself. “In our excursions we had noticed a fine grey horse belonging to the Quarantine inspector. Mr. Blaine, my fellow-traveler, had appeared to wish to buy the animal. It now made its appearance in our tents. We inquired the price, and our astonishment may be conceived, when the…Turk offered us the animal as a present. Mr. Blaine declared that he by no means intended to take it as a present, when the Turk replied: ‘What then are [25 pounds sterling] between me and thee?'” [In Wenham, p. 129] The Turk was expecting money for the horse!

v.16     The phrase “according to the weights current among the merchants” is one of several technical terms in this episode that are also found in other ancient near eastern contracts.

v.18     The details of the property (the mention of trees is characteristic of ancient near eastern land transactions) and the mention of witnesses was all intended to attest to a fully secured contract. The land belonged now to Abraham free and clear.

v.20     The narrator reiterates the main point in his concluding statement.

Now, the burden of this text in the context of the history of God’s covenant with Abraham is obvious. God had promised the land to Abraham but still, now in his old age, the patriarch did not actually own any of its real estate. The term used in v. 4, “a holding or possession,” used elsewhere of the possession of the Promised Land itself, highlights the issue of land ownership. The tension of the narrative arises from Abraham’s determination to secure incontestable and permanent ownership of the piece of land in which was the cave that would become the family tomb. It was this property that will anchor Abraham and his descendants to the Promised Land. [Waltke, 316] We will read in Gen. 49:29-32 that not only Sarah, but Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah and Jacob were buried in this same tomb. In other words, the tomb and the property surrounding it became the surety, the guarantee for the entire Promised Land in due time.

But in that simple fact is found another lesson of great importance. This is the first narrative in the Bible describing preparations being made for the burial or entombment of a human body after death. It will not be the last as you know. In previous generations of the church, it would not have occurred to a minister to make a sermon out of that fact, but we live in revolutionary times and many things are being done today that Christians have never done before. One of the most consequential of those things is the cremation of their dead. Those of you who have been in the church for any length of time will know what is coming. But I don’t apologize for beating this drum. Cremation is a practice that is contrary to historic Christian practice, to the principles of our Christian faith, and to our witness in the world. It should never have been allowed a foothold in Christian practice and needs to be systematically and forcefully repudiated before any further damage is done. The more Christians who cremate their dead, the harder it will be to eradicate the practice, as so many will have done something they will not want to believe was a terrible mistake; they will defend the practice in order to defend themselves! Such is human nature.

I know that many Christians and many Christian ministers would immediately disagree. They don’t see the importance. What difference, they ask, does it make, really, if the body slowly rots in the ground or if we simply speed up the process by burning it up at the outset? There was an article recently in our denomination’s By-faith magazine deploring the disappearance of the funeral, the Christian service of the dead – a serious loss indeed! – but the writer, in an aside, made it clear that she didn’t think it important, once the funeral was over, what was done with the body.

If we had thought carefully about this fundamental change in practice; if we had carefully considered the arguments being advanced for cremation with Bible in hand; if we had considered and evaluated the reasons why the church never cremated her dead through all the ages of her history, it might be possible for Christians today confidently to argue that cremation is acceptable as a Christian practice. I don’t believe that we would have reached that conclusion, but at least we could say that we had seriously considered the issue. But we have not. We have simply sagged into the practice like the culture around us, embraced a completely new way of performing one of the most sacred and consequential of all human actions for strictly utilitarian reasons. It’s cheaper! We Christians have, all of a sudden, and in a highly public fashion, come to treat human beings as if they were disposable, as if their bodies were simply used containers to be burned with the rest of the trash.

I have not found, and I have looked, one substantial argument for cremation by a Christian writer; not one that seriously addresses the reasons why the church for so long has opposed the practice. Even among unbelievers, the practice of cremation is fraught with irony. People still want what is an entirely utilitarian practice to have some meaning, as if they had not already demonstrated that the human body completely lost its significance at death.

Some years ago there was a story in the English newspapers about Arthur Strange, who, as a young man, had played football (soccer) for his local club, Dorchester Town FC, and had remained a loyal supporter after his playing days were over. After his death and cremation his family, in accordance with his wishes, scattered his ashes in the center circle of the town’s football pitch. Some years later, however, a supermarket chain bought the football ground with the intention of building a new store on the site. Strange’s family agonized over what was to become of Arthur’s remains. Eventually some soil was taken from the old football pitch and arranged in a symbolic cross in the center of the football club’s new pitch. The club’s chaplain explained, “What people did not want was their relatives under the fish counter at Tesco’s.” If it matters where the ashes are, why was the body burned up in the first place? [J. Blanchard, Where Do We God From Here? 17] To most people, I fear, it doesn’t matter at all where the ashes are, or what becomes of them over time.

But Christians have never thought that; never! Abraham didn’t think that. He sought a grave for his wife and for his family and was willing to pay handsomely to acquire it. This chapter is not, to be sure, intended as a theological defense of burial or entombment as opposed to cremation. That burial or entombment is the appropriate disposition of a dead human body is assumed here, it is not argued. But it is hardly unimportant that Abraham, the exemplar of a faithful man, intended to bury his dead.

The primary significance of this history is what it is said to be in Hebrews 11:9, 13. Abraham and Sarah lived as pilgrims in the world. They were aliens in Canaan, resident aliens, but aliens nonetheless. They did not own the Promised Land. It was not yet theirs. More to the point, they did not yet possess the heavenly country of which Canaan was a sign and seal. They lived by faith in the eventual fulfillment of promises they never saw the fulfillment of in their own lifetimes. They knew what God had promised them would, in due time become theirs. They died in faith and so, the author of Hebrews tells us, are among those who will receive what was promised them – the better country, the better resurrection, the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. They saw the better country and greeted it from afar.

It was this faith that Abraham was demonstrating in his determination to purchase a holding in the Promised Land in which to bury his dead. He was embodying his faith that both the Promised Land itself and the heavenly country it represented would one day belong to him, his family, and his descendants by faith. By burying Sarah in the Promised Land he was practicing his faith! And ever since burial has been an act of Christian faith!

Now, perhaps we couldn’t make too much of Abraham’s example, perhaps we couldn’t argue, as I am about to argue, that is it an example we are intended to emulate, except for the fact that what Abraham did is done right through the Bible to the very end. The attention paid to the believing dead as an embodiment of Christian faith in their future life, is a prominent feature of the practice of the Christian faith in the Bible. Abraham buried Sarah and he buried her in such a way as to embody his faith.

That example needs to be pondered carefully in our day, because this historic, age-old custom of the Christian church, and then 2,000 years before that all the way back to Abraham, is falling away in our own time. It is a part of our faith and the practice of our faith that no one seems to care about or even to think about.

Cremation as a means of disposing of a human body has very rapidly become an acceptable method in America. Upwards of 40% of the dead are now cremated every year in the United States and the percentage continues to increase year by year. It is expected to be 50% ten years from now. That fact would not disturb me overmuchwhat the pagans do with their dead is the pagans business – but cremation is coming to be accepted  among Christians as proper, even, in some cases, as the preferred method of treating their own dead. We are told that it is cheaper, as it is, and that it is not right to burden the bereaved with a large bill for burial. We have been taught to worry that land for new cemeteries is simply not going to be available to us any longer, that existing cemeteries are filling up and that, therefore, we must find a different way of disposing of our dead (though I would think large, green spaces would be a god-send to environmentalists today). Some even like the idea of being able to scatter Uncle Henry over his favorite fishing hole or Aunt Mary in the rose garden she loved so much. Do you realize what hogwash this is? We are Christians. The Bible speaks to this issue clearly and emphatically, in a way the Christian church has had no difficulty understanding for thousands of years. It is not Christian thinking that lies behind the growing popularity of cremation; it is a resurgent paganism influencing a thoughtless church.

Now, having made that point so strongly, I must say something else.  And I want you to listen to me because people don’t always heed what I am about to say. I do not blame individual Christians who have, in the past, made the decision to cremate a relative, especially if the relative thought it was a good idea and asked to be cremated. Some relatives of mine were cremated! I blame the Christian ministry entirely. Christians can be forgiven for not having thought about this, for assuming that such a practice is proper, because their ministers have either been silent in regard to the issue or have actually encouraged them to consider the practice. Nor, do I want anyone to think that the cremation of a Christian somehow affects his or her future existence or blessing. Obviously many Christians have been burned to death on martyrs’ pyres or have been buried at sea or have decayed to nothing in deserts or on battlefields. Do you have any idea how many thousands, upon thousands of soldiers were pulverized into mud on the battlefields of the First World War, never to be recognized as human bodies again?  God is able to raise the dead! That is not the issue; that was never the issue. The issue is what is right for us to do; what practice is in keeping with our faith; what way of treating our dead conforms to what we believe as the followers of Jesus Christ.

Let me then give you briefly the reasons why burial or entombment is everywhere the Bible’s practice with respect to the dead.

  • First, the practice of burial has the support of Holy Scripture from beginning to end but cremation does not.

We may call this the exegetical argument against cremation. This is very striking and all the more because God’s people, throughout the entire course of the history covered in the Bible itself, were rubbing shoulders with cultures that practiced cremation. But the patriarchs buried their dead, so did Israel, and so did the church in the new epoch. Every statement, every single statement, regarding the dead in the Bible assumes the practice. Jesus Christ was buried and we were buried with him. Can you imagine the Lord having been cremated? Jesus said, “Those who are in their graves will rise to live…” Statements that characterize death as a sleep, and there are a number of them, assume burial. They are simply incompatible with cremation, which is not in fact or appearance “sleep,” but complete destruction.

Now, you will hear folk argue that, in fact, cremation does appear in the Bible and that, therefore, the practice does have biblical support. And cremation does occur in several instances. For example, Achan, whose sin at Jericho brought Israel to ruin at Ai, was stoned to death in the Valley of Achor, and his body burned. There cremation was clearly a sign of divine judgment. A similar instance of cremation as a sign of damnation is found in Josiah’s burning the bodies of the idolatrous priests on their altars (2 Kgs. 23:20). It is precisely that significance – fire as an emblem of hellfire – that makes cremation so inappropriate for God’s people when they die and why it is not used otherwise in biblical history.

The other instance is that of Saul, who after being killed in battle, was taken by his enemies to Beth Shan where his body was hung up on the city wall as a trophy of their conquest. The men of Jabesh Gilead, whom Saul had years before rescued from their enemies, went at risk to themselves, stole the body of Israel’s king – or what was left of that body after some days in the Near-eastern sun – burned it, and then carried the bones home where they were buried. Cremation in that case, if cremation it was, was not a preferred method of disposing of the human body, but a method of dealing with the necessity of its rot. But other scholars, following the Jewish Talmud, think that the fire referred to there at the end of 1 Samuel was not the burning of the body at all, but of spices in a ceremony of mourning the dead. In any case, what could be carried back for burial was carried back and buried.

If you interrogate Holy Scripture to learn how Christians ought to treat their dead, there is one answer given and one only: their bodies are to be buried or entombed. When Moses died before the face of God, it would have been an easy thing for God simply to have obliterated the great man’s body – Poof! After all, who would know? – but he did not: he buried him!

  • Second, the practice of burial attests to the biblical doctrine of man, the practice of cremation is an affront to that doctrine.

We may call this the theological argument against cremation. According to Holy Scripture, God created human beings as psycho-physical beings. We read in Psalm 139 that each and every human being, and so each and every human body is the distinct and special creation of God.

We can speak of the body, even the dead body, with personal pronouns:  he or she, because the body is the person. “They who are in their graves will hear his voice and rise to life” is how the Bible always speaks of the dead and buried. “He rested with his fathers,” “those that sleep,” and so on. This fact, that the body is the person is fundamental to the Christian understanding of the human being.

Indeed, it is not too much to say that cremation is an attack on the personhood of human beings in very much the same way that abortion is an attack on the personhood of human beings. In each case the attack comes at the most vulnerable point on the continuum of life: in the case of abortion on the person while still in the womb, invisible and unknown to us, in the case of cremation on the dead body. Is not our argument against abortion precisely that the baby in the womb is in fact a person; that we can use personal pronouns to speak of him or her and not the impersonal “it.” Hasn’t it been the argument of the pro-choice side, the pro-abortion side, that the fetus is an “it” not a person. And isn’t that precisely what we deny? The Bible speaks of babies in the womb with personal pronouns! But the Bible uses personal pronouns to speak of the dead human body; it too is a person. You see: it would be one thing to burn up what used to be our loved one; it is another altogether to burn up our loved one!

Cremation is an affront to the very idea that God created this person. Each human being is God’s own masterwork. To destroy by fire a human being God has made is never our place. He may destroy it by fire or in some other way, but we may not. Cremation is as different from the decay of the body in the grave as abortion is different from miscarriage.

  • Third, the practice of burial attests the Christian hope of resurrection, the practice of cremation is an affront to that hope.

We may call this the eschatological argument against cremation. The personhood of the body, its value and significance, is confirmed by the Bible’s doctrine that it is the self-same body that will be raised alive on the day of resurrection. This point is emphasized repeatedly in Holy Scripture and in the creeds of the church and represents one of the most distinctive of Christian beliefs among the religions and philosophies of mankind. This hope of resurrection for the self-same body that died is given expression in the Bible’s habit of referring to the dead as “sleeping.” If you are sleeping, you are going to wake up at some point. The point is made even in cases where it would seem to us that no body any longer exists to be raised to life again. At the last day, so we read in Rev. 20, “the sea shall give up its dead.” But what can be left of a body that was buried at sea a thousand years ago? And yet, that’s the way the Scripture always speaks!

But contemporary Christians seem to be paying no attention to this. Too many believers seem to think our hope is the immortality of the soul rather than the resurrection of the body. They stand over the open casket and comfort themselves that that is no longer Uncle Joe, for Uncle Joe is in heaven. Well, to be sure, if Uncle Joe was a faithful follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, his soul is in heaven upon his death. But his body remains Uncle Joe, that body and no other will rise on the last day, and Paul is careful to say in very striking language in 2 Cor. 5 that the life of the soul even in heaven is by no means the full salvation that Christ has achieved for us. No, Paul says, the soul groans, even in heaven it groans, longing to be clothed with its immortal body. The believer’s hope in the Bible is not heaven at the time of death – that is an interim blessing, a temporary blessing – the hope in the New Testament is always the resurrection of the body at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

It is very important to remember that the religions that practice cremation as an article of faith, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, do so in the service of a principle that elevates the spiritual – the soul – over the physical – the body.  Salvation in those religions is conceived of as the deliverance of the spiritual part of man from the physical part. This is the very point that G.K. Chesterton made with such a flourish in a debate about cremation he had with George Bernard Shaw. He said that if cremation were to be done, at least it ought to mean something. But in modern western practice, so unserious and so superficial, it has been stripped of any meaning. He contended against Shaw that if one wanted to return to paganism, thinking it for some reason a better idea to destroy the body by fire than to lay it in a grave, then at least one should make the destruction magnificent.  He wrote a poem to this effect, meant to point out the absurdity of turning this most sacred moment in human life into an empty, unceremonial, and unsymbolic act of mere convenience.

If I had been a heathen,

I’d have piled my pyre on high

And in a great red whirlwind

Gone roaring to the sky.

But Higgins is a heathen,

And a richer man than I;

And they put him in an oven,

Just as if he were a pie.

That is exactly what Christianity cannot allow to be done. Our bodies will rise again just as our Savior’s did after he died for us on the cross and was buried. The salvation Christ procured for us is the salvation of our whole man, leading to the transformation of our whole man, body and soul, that very same body and soul which first began life in the womb of our mother. That is what burial bears witness to and what cremation does not and cannot

  • Fourth, burial has the unqualified support of the entire history of Christianity in the world, cremation has always been rejected as an unacceptable practice for Christians.

We may call this the historical argument against cremation. The unbelieving emperor, Julian the Apostate, who sought to restore paganism to first place among the religions of the Empire, thought that Christianity’s triumph was due principally to three things: the Christians’ benevolence to the poor, their honesty, and their treatment of the dead. In other words, they embodied before the world a new hope that the rest of mankind did not have. Their practice was to wash the body, sometimes to embalm it, to wrap it in linen and then, in the presence of ministers, family, and friends, to commit the body to the grave with prayer and singing. It was a powerful testimony to their reverence for life and their hope of eternal life and especially the resurrection of the body. They did not fear cremation or other ways in which the body might be destroyed: it was the fate of the martyrs, after all. They knew that God, who made the body in the first place, could restore bodies which had been cremated or some other way destroyed. But they did not make the mistake of supposing that the manner of disposing of human bodies was therefore immaterial.

For nearly 2,000 years, and for the 2,000 years before that, this has been the Christian Church’s universal custom.  For what reasons now do we overturn that tradition, rooted as it clearly is in the practices that are illustrated and commended to us in Holy Scripture and expressing as it so powerfully does the very same hope in the resurrection that Abraham expressed in his purchase of a burial plot in Hebron? And why should we do this in our day when the culture has lost all hope of eternal life and desperately needs to see Christians acting on that hope?

There is plenty of land and many ways to make burial grounds go much further than they have in the past. And, while it is certainly responsible to think about how much money should be spent for a casket and burial, let us make sure that we are not, in that concern, masking a worldliness that quibbles over several thousands for the burial of a human being but does not hesitate to spend many thousands more for a new automobile. These are not the real questions.

Can we cremate our loved ones to the glory of God? That is the only important question. Can we be true to our Christian faith and cremate our loved ones when they have died? How we treat our dead cannot help but express our deepest beliefs concerning life and death. It is an act too fraught with judgment concerning what human beings are and what a human body is not to convey such judgment. It certainly has for a long time in Christianity and it certainly does in other religions. Cremation is popular in the United States for reasons that have nothing to do with the Christian faith!

Abraham went to the pains he did to embody his faith that all the promises that God had made to him and to his family would come to pass in due time. Sarah would set her feet, again, those same feet, on the Promised Land. The Scripture teaches us to do the same.  It is the Bible’s way, the Christian way to see the better country and welcome it from afar.

May it be the happy lot of each of us to be able to walk through the quiet of a cemetery and see the place where we will lie, where, in Christ, we will rest in peace, and consider what it will be like on the great day to stand to our feet again and welcome to the earth the King of Kings.

And now we commit our brother, our sister to the grave; earth to earth, dust to dust in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Do you have any idea how many millions of times those words have been said over an open grave?

God my Redeemer lives,

And often from the skies

Looks down and watches all my dust

Till he shall bid it rise.