Genesis 23:1-20 tells a strange episode in the life of Abraham: the negotiation and purchase of a grave site – the cave of Machpelah – for his wife, Sarah. Coming between the climactic tale of (almost) sacrificing Isaac on Mount Moriah (Gen 22:1-24) and the procuring of a wife for Isaac (Gen 24:1-67), the narrative of Genesis 23 seems out-of-place and awkward. It can be difficult to see any point to this chapter beyond Abraham’s bereavement of his dear wife.
Consider, however, who ends up buried in this tomb: both Sarah (Gen 23:19) and Abraham himself (Gen 25:9-10). Also, Isaac, Isaac’s beloved wife Rebekah, Jacob, and Jacob’s unloved wife Leah (Gen 49:29-30, 49: 31-32, 50:12-13).
Notice specifically that Rachel, the wife whom Jacob loved most, was not buried there (Gen 35:19-20).
Why is this tomb given such emphasis in the narratives of Genesis? I have some suggestions:
- It was the only piece of land Abraham ever owned, even though he was promised all of Canaan (Gen 17:8). Thus, it was a bit of a deposit or foretaste on the promise.
- Abraham refused to receive it as a gift from any man (just read how extensive the negotiations were in Gen 23:6-16). He was fully committed to owning it legally, publicly, and personally.
- This foretaste of the promise for Abraham and the next few generations came only as each person died. They did not enjoy it in their lives; only in their deaths.
- As they died in faith, these men and women received part, but not all, of what was promised to them (Heb 11:13-14).
- They would only receive the full promise along with us (Heb 11:39-40).
- Those buried in this tomb were those who were to become ancestors of the son of promise. Remember that it was Leah, not Rachel, buried in the cave. Leah was the woman who gave birth to Judah, from whom came David and Jesus.
In short, knowing who would be buried in the tomb at Machpelah is the key to understanding why it gets so much press in Genesis 23. Abraham’s investment in the tomb represents his faith in God’s promise to send a Son who would crush Satan (Gen 3:15) and enable God’s people to live with him forever in close companionship (the point of the “Promised Land” of Canaan – see Gen 17:7-8, overturning the fall in Gen 3:23-24).
The only real estate Abraham ever owned was that tomb. His descendant Jesus didn’t even own his own tomb (Matt 27:59-60), but he fulfilled every promise (2 Cor 1:20) and brought us into eternal fellowship with God (Eph 2:13-16).