The intergenerational faith of Abraham (Genesis 23)

The intergenerational faith of Abraham (Genesis 23)
Gustave Doré, Abraham ensevelit Sara (Gén., XXIII, 1-20). Old Book Illustrations.

These are my notes (lightly edited) for a sermon I preached at my church on Sunday 17 September 2023, under the supervision of the elders and the minister.

It is the fruit of an assignment I had worked on for the Law in the Narratives elective as part of my M.Litt degree. Dr Matthew Colvin was my instructor in that course, and he guided me in finding relevant sources to analyse this interesting little episode from Genesis. This passage had never really loomed large in my imagination before, but after giving some time to detailed study of it, I found that there was far more going on in it than I’d considered.

Shortly after this assignment was done, it came to pass that my minister needed pulpit supply in a few weeks and he asked me if I was willing to preach in our church. I had already done the exegetical work on this passage, so I thought I’d try to work it into a sermon.

I was very pleased to see my studies already being used by the Lord to bless and edify his people, which is why I am studying in the first place.

Sermon text: Genesis 23.

The covenant-keeping God

The Lord our God is a faithful God. He keeps covenant and mercy with those that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations (Deut. 7:9). God has promised us, the body of Christ, that he will be our God, and we will be his people. He binds himself to us in covenant. The church is the heir of many great and precious promises which are bought for us with the blood of Christ.

The church is not just a monogenerational entity—it isn’t some kind of body that lasts for one generation and then fizzles out—but the covenant extends from generation to generation. We are in union with the same Christ that the early church was, the medieval church was, the church of the early modern era, the church of recent days. We are one church. We have, as it says in The Church’s One Foundation, “a mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won”. We have inherited many great blessings from those past generations.

And in Christ, we have union with the church of future generations also. The church of Christ that we are members of right now is the same church that will be in the world in the year AD 3000, 5000, 10000.

As we remember that God keeps covenant and mercy to those that love him and keep his commandments, even unto a thousand generations, we should make it our aim to leave an inheritance for the church of future generations. We should want them to stand on our shoulders and go above and beyond us in our mission, to bring the obedience of faith to all the nations. We do not want to inherit as many blessings as we have, and leave fewer than those for the saints of the future.

Let us consider faithful Abraham. The Scripture says that Abraham is the father of those who walk in his footsteps of faith (Rom. 4). We know that Abraham believed in God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. God made promises to Abraham, and Abraham believed them.

Abraham’s faith led him to some extraordinary moments in his lifetime, especially the moment where he very nearly killed his son Isaac as an offering on Mount Moriah. But Abraham’s faith also motivated him in some of the most ordinary moments of his life. Abraham’s faith was active even when he was trying to buy a burial plot for his dead wife Sarah.

The death and burial of Sarah

Sarah died at 127 years old. Sarah and Abraham have lived a remarkable life. They’ve seen God’s kindness time and time again through many trials. She lived long enough to see her promised son Isaac born. She’s seen Isaac is established as the true heir of Abraham. She’s just started to see the first little fulfilment of God’s promises, but her role is now complete. The first generation of the covenant is starting to pass away.

It says, “Abraham rose from beside his dead wife”: literally, Abraham stood, Abraham was established. That’s what this is about: Abraham wants to be established in the promised land.

Abraham now needs to bury Sarah somewhere.

This is the first time we see someone buried in Scripture. Burial represents confidence in the resurrection of the dead. Abraham expects that Sarah’s body will one day be raised up from the dead in the future resurrection. This isn’t something that was made up later by Christians, but this was the hope that even the fathers had. They believed that God raises the dead, and that one day he would raise the dead (cf. Acts 26:6-8).

This is what we say this in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in… the resurrection of the body”. Not “I believe in the immortality of the soul”, or “I believe in going to heaven when I die”, but “I believe in the resurrection of the body”. The Lord Jesus is going to come and raise up our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body, and that is a hope that even Abraham had all those millennia ago.

Burial is a powerful statement about our Christian hope that our mortal bodies will at last be raised to life again immortal.

Abraham insists upon a purchase

So Abraham wants to bury Sarah, but there’s a problem: He says, “ I am a foreigner and stranger among you” (Gen. 23:4). Abraham and his household have been dwelling in the promised land in tents, but he doesn’t yet possess any of it. He doesn’t have any land to bury her in. He somehow needs to get a foothold in the land.

So it’s very important to Abraham that he doesn’t just get to use someone else’s land, but he needs to purchase a plot of land for money. However, the Hittites offer Abraham a completely free option:

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 (Gen. 23:6)

The Hittites clearly respect and like Abraham, and they’re obviously willing to do him a favour. But Abraham still insists upon a purchase. Why?

The problem is this: if Abraham accepts the favour, even though relations between the Hittites and Abraham are good at the moment, it would mean that Abraham’s descendants will always be dependent upon the Hittites if they need to use or access this plot of land. The lesson here is the age-old lesson: there is no such thing as a free lunch. There might be some strings attached.

But if Abraham is willing to make a sacrifice, he’ll actually have ownership of the land, and then he can bequeath that land to his descendants. It means that two or three generations from now, the Hittites can’t change their mind and take it back. He’ll be helping his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren long after he’s gone.

This land is not my home yet

Notice how Abraham thinks here. We tend to say, “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through, I can’t take anything with me.”

But Abraham doesn’t think that way. He says, in effect, “This land is not my home yet—but God has promised to me and to my descendants that we will inherit it. How can I give my descendants a leg up? How can I set them up so that they are better off than I was in my own lifetime?”

None of us can take our earthly goods with us to heaven when we die, but future generations of Christ’s church can benefit from your earthly goods. Your own Christian children, grandchildren, great grandchildren certainly can benefit from your earthly goods! Every Lord’s Day, we sit here in this building, which was left to us by previous generations of faithful Christians. Imagine if they didn’t make that investment, because they couldn’t take this building with them to heaven when they died.

And not only our money and property, but are we leaving a legacy in terms of our godly example? Do we have institutions that will benefit and bless future generations of Christians?

This is the intergenerational faith of Abraham: he is thinking not just about himself or his own soul, but he is careful to leave a blessing to God’s people in the future.

The transaction

So Abraham doesn’t want a freebie, and he makes it very clear to these Hittites that he wants to buy a plot of land.

Abraham says he wants a cave that belongs to Ephron son of Zohar, and he asks if he can get a hearing with him. Then Ephron upsells him:

No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the sight of the sons of my people I give it to you. Bury your dead. (Gen. 23:11)

Abraham asked for just the cave, Ephron realises that he can probably sell the whole field to him. (Perhaps once Abraham mentioned that he was willing to pay full price, Ephron’s eyes lit up.)

Then Ephron names his price: 400 shekels of silver. He says, “What is that between you and me?” It turns out that 400 shekels is an obscene amount of money: to compare, David spent fifty shekels on the plot of land for the temple (2 Sam. 24:24); Jeremiah spent 17 shekels for his cousin’s field (Jer. 32:9). Ephron probably realises that Abraham will pay just about anything to get this field (and he’s right), and Abraham’s not in a position to negotiate the price down.

Abraham is extremely wealthy, and he can afford it, but still, why would you accept such an inflated price for the field?

Remember what Jesus says about the kingdom of heaven? The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure in a field, and it is so valuable that you’ll sell everything you have to buy the field just to get the rights to that treasure (Matt. 13:44). It’s worth everything you have just to get. There’s something similar going on here. For Abraham, it’s worth any amount of money to buy part of the promised land for the sake of his descendants. He needs to make sure that they aren’t dependent on the Hittites to bury their dead in the future. It’s a high price, but it’s a price worth paying.

Abraham is established in the land

So Abraham measures out the 400 shekels to Ephron, they shake hands, and the land is sold to Abraham.

Notice as well how public this transaction is: this is in the gate of the city, which is where you would do public transactions in front of witnesses. The point here is that Abraham doesn’t want there to be any question down the track about what happened with this field. He’s crossing every t and dotting every i to make sure that everyone knows that this field belongs to Abraham and his descendants. Even the manner in which Abraham conducts the transaction is motivated by his concern for his dependents.

It says that, “The land is deeded to Abraham”: literally, the land is made to stand for Abraham. The transaction is firmly established.

If some future generation of Hittites ever questions the ownership of this land, the sons of Abraham can always point back to this: our father Abraham bought it for full price, and he did it in public before witnesses, and so it belongs to us. No ambiguities or uncertainties. It is fully established.

And at last, Abraham buries Sarah in the cave of the Machpelah. When the Israelites come back to the land in the days of Joshua, their great matriarch Sarah is already there, as it were, waiting for them.

We learn later in Genesis that Abraham himself is buried in this same cave, and then Isaac, and then Jacob’s wife Leah, and then Jacob himself, and then Jacob’s sons are buried there. At least four generations of Abraham’s family were buried there. Abraham secure a real, tangible blessing for his descendants while they waited to inherit the whole land. They continued on as strangers and sojourners in the land of Canaan after this point, and there were many trials for them ahead, but they now had a foothold in the land of promise.

Faithful in ordinary things

Abraham’s faith drove him to achieve some really wonderful things throughout his lifetime, but we see here that Abraham’s faith was also just as active in ordinary moments like this, when he’s making decisions about where to bury his wife and whether or not to purchase the land or accept a favour. The Holy Spirit has recorded this to encourage us, the sons of Abraham, that our faith in God’s promises should be active when we make very ordinary decisions.

Most of your life is not especially glorious. Most of your life is not about great battles with kings, or sacrificing your son on a mountain, or seeing miracles before your eyes. Most of your life is very ordinary. We can see from Abraham that even in a very earthy and practical decision like this, he is thinking intergenerationally, because he is mindful of God’s covenant promises.

So when we’re doing maintenance on our buildings here, we aren’t just concerned about having a nice property for ourselves, but we are trying to provide something to future generations, so that they have a good base of operations for worship and mission.

Consider also the children in our congregation. Are those of us that are older than them able to serve and support them, so that they grow up ready to advance God’s kingdom for the next seventy or eighty years? What can you teach them? How can you encourage them?

Likewise, the children have a responsibility here: many of you are still living under your parents’ roof, and their job for now is to raise you up to be godly men and women, but a time will come that you take the legacy that’s been given to you, and you will have to use it wisely. It is such a grief to Christian parents when their children grow up and spurn the Christian legacy that they’ve been given. Don’t do that! Gratefully receive what your parents and older Christians have blessed you with, and make it your aim to improve upon that for your successors.

Some of you are young, but no longer living with your parents—what about you? You have a lot of decisions to make: What should I study at university? Where should I work? Who should I marry? Where should I live? In many of these decisions, you might be tempted to think about yourself and your own fulfilment, but do not forget God’s mercy to a thousand generations. Do not forget that you have a role in passing on blessings to the next generation. Don’t make decisions about your marriage or your career that make things easy for you but are a burden to the next generation.

The future is of course in God’s hands, and none of us can control the future. But we should walk by faith as we make our decisions, and trust God, that he would establish our works, and that he would bear good fruit from them in future generations.

The world is our inheritance

Abraham believed God’s promise, that his offspring would be the heirs, not just of the land of Canaan, but of the whole world. Abraham knew by faith that his great descendant, Christ, would inherit the whole world, from sea to sea, from the river to the ends of the earth.

And we have much more assurance of this than even Abraham did! God has not spared his Son, but he has delivered him up for us all: how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? That is what God has promised us. That is what we are required to believe.

Abraham had almost nothing to hang onto, except God’s promise, and yet he believed this with full confidence. He believed that what God promised, he was able to perform. Meanwhile, we have thousands of years of evidence that God is faithful to his promises, we have the Son of God raised from the dead, we have the gospel spread to all parts of the world: and we doubt! Why is that? Why do we doubt God’s promises? We have no excuse to have less faith than Abraham. We have no excuse to doubt that God will do what he has promised.

Will we have made it easier or harder for our children to be faithful to Christ in future generations? Will we have left them a godly example? Will we have preserved good Christian institutions for them? Most importantly, will we have invested in the health and strength of the Church? If we have faith that Christ and his people are being given all things, is our faith active alongside our works, like faithful Abraham?

May God give us grace to believe with all our hearts his great and precious promises, and might we be used by God to give a great inheritance to those who are to come after us.