The Word of God does not waste words on unimportant information. With this in mind, we need to ask ourselves, why is Genesis 23, containing 20 verses, inserted into the divine record? The chapter is the only record in Scripture which details a woman’s death. The chapter introduces us to the “years of the life of Sarah”; they were 127 years (v1). Sarah was 65 years old when she left Haran, which means that her sojourn in the land of promise was 62 years.

Sarah’s life was a mixture of highs and lows. With Abraham, she had separated herself from a worldly environment when she left Ur of the Chaldees. However, when she gave Hagar to Abraham, she adopted worldly solutions in order to secure the promised seed. Finally, however, she came to realise the need to “cast out the bondwoman and her son”. She accepted, in every way, the role of a wife, in subjecting herself to her husband, “calling him lord” in her heart. Despite all the trials that she endured, over time, Sarah developed a personal conviction in God’s promises: “through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed…” (Heb 11:11). These were the years of Sarah’s life. Sarah was not just a mother to Isaac. She was a mother to Israel, for Isaiah says, “Look…unto Sarah that bare you” (Isa 51:2). She is a mother to all sisters in Christ, “whose daughters ye are” (1 Pet 3:6); she is “the mother of us all” (Gal 4:26). She is a “mother of nations” (Gen 17:16).

When Abraham initially entered the land, we are told that “the Canaanite was then in the land” (Gen 12:6). By the time of Sarah’s death, nothing had changed, and Abraham presented himself “before the people of the land”, namely, the sons of Heth (Gen 23:12). Heth was the son of Canaan, Ham’s son (Gen 10:15), from whom developed the Canaanite nations and in particular the Hittite people. The land of the Hittites was one of the territories promised to Abraham: “In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates: The Kenites, and the Kenizzites, and the Kadmonites, and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Rephaims, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” (Gen 15:18-21). We note that when this promise was made, Abraham was told that it would not be realised in his lifetime. He would die in a good old age and be buried (Gen 15:15). Standing before a Hittite, requesting a parcel of land to bury his wife, would be a strong reminder that he, too, must die before he would receive the promises.

The times of the Gentiles

Sarah’s prominence in the biblical record is highlighted by the apostle Paul when he identifies her (without naming her) with the New Covenant (Gal 4:22-31). Therefore, her life must be considered in the light of this.

In Galatians, the apostle Paul argued that there would be more children born during the desolate period of the married wife, echoing the words of Isaiah, “more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife” (Isa 54:1). For 90 years Sarah was desolate, unable to bare children to Abraham. Finally, Isaac was conceived as a child of promise (Rom 9:9) and was born during Sarah’s married, yet desolate state. But where would the children come from? Isaiah explains, “thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles” (v3). Sarah was now dead; she couldn’t be more desolate, and, yet, Sarah would become a “mother of nations”. Sarah was not just a mother in Israel; she would enlarge her tent and the Gentiles would become part of the “Israel of God”.

Genesis 23 is not simply a record about the death and burial of Sarah—the message is far more comprehensive. There is significance in the fact that the spirit chose to sandwich this event between chapters 22 and 24. Chapter 22 is all about the sacrifice of Isaac—an only son that is to be sacrificed by his father. Chapter 24 is all about seeking a bride for Isaac and bringing that bride home to her bridegroom. Chapter 23 bridges these two records by representing the period between the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ and the consummation of the marriage of the bridegroom. Consider the emphasis throughout the chapter of the Gentile nature of the land: it is “the land of Canaan”, a phrase occurring twice (v2,19); and, the Hittites are the “people of the land”, again occurring twice (v7,12). These were the “times of the Gentiles”, when the land continued to be trodden down of the Gentiles. The iniquity of the Amorite was not yet full, and Abraham was “a stranger and sojourner” in the land (v4). The spirit picks this up in the letter to the Hebrews—Abraham along with others, “confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Heb 11:13).

When the circumstances of this chapter are reviewed, we find that it links Sarah with her seed in a most remarkable way. We have a parallel with the words of Isaiah 53:9—“he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death”. While applying to the Lord Jesus Christ, they also apply to the mother of the seed, Sarah. She too made her grave with the wicked, being buried in Hittite land. She, too, made her grave with the rich in her death. The apostle expands upon this in the letter to the Hebrews: “Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed…therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky for multitude…” (Heb 11:11- 12). In point of fact, verses 13-16 of Hebrews 11 interrupt the context referring to Abraham (v8-9 and v17). Following the reference to Sarah, it is as though the spirit wants to make a particular point: “These all died in faith” (v13). Sarah was one of these faithful, “rich in faith” ( James 2:5). In the words of the Lord Jesus Christ, they had “passed from death unto life” ( John 5:24). Sarah was dead—but she had already experienced a resurrection by giving birth to a son in her old age (Rom 4:19). She had died in faith of the resurrection from the dead, knowing that one day “all that are in the graves shall hear his voice” ( John 5:28).

At the time of Sarah’s death, Isaac would have been 37 years old. We are told that he married Rebekah when he was 40 years old (Gen 25:20) and was dwelling in the south (Gen 24:62). This means that Isaac mourned for his mother three years and was only comforted when he married Rebekah (Gen 24:67). He brought Rebekah into his mother’s tent—a bride, not of Abraham’s seed, coming within the confines of the tent of the New Covenant (Isa 54:3). A similar reference was made much earlier in the biblical record when Noah prophesied that Japheth, the father of the Gentile peoples, would “dwell in the tents of Shem” (Gen 9:26-27).

The burial place of Sarah was located in the field of Ephron, “in the cave of Machpelah before Mamre: the same is Hebron in the land of Canaan” (Gen 23:17,19). Abraham himself was eventually buried there (Gen 25:9), as was Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah (Gen 49:30-31). Hebron signifies association or fellowship. It lies at the heart of the promises and is the silent residence of all those who are in fellowship with the Hope of Israel. As a stranger and a sojourner, Abraham’s focus was upon something more permanent; “he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb 11:10). Paul says that he saw it “afar off” (11:13)—an obvious allusion to the sacrifice of Isaac, when travelling to the mountains of Moriah, Abraham “saw the place afar off” (Gen 22:4). On that occasion, Abraham rejoiced to see Christ’s day, “and he saw it and was glad” ( John 8:56), but the same vision would dominate his mind as he stood alongside Sarah’s burial site. God’s work would be through the seed of the woman. This was true of Sarah, who “through faith…received strength to conceive seed” (Heb 11:11).

When Abraham purchased the field of Ephron, we are told that he made it sure (v17). This might be thought of as a standard procedure, making sure the deeds were all in order. On this occasion, we are reminded of Jeremiah, who purchased his uncle’s field ( Jer 32:9-18). It was impossible for Jeremiah to take possession of the land. He was in prison and the Babylonians occupied the land. What purpose did it serve to buy the land? It was a demonstration of Jeremiah’s conviction that he would one day inherit the land when God’s purpose was finally realised, and Jeremiah had faith that this would eventually happen. Jeremiah bore testimony to his faith by subscribing the evidence, sealing it and taking witnesses (v10). In a similar manner, Abraham was securing his inheritance. Though he knew he must first die, he had been promised the land and the promise was made sure in Sarah’s death and burial.

Sarah’s burial place was “in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre: the same is Hebron in the land of Canaan” (v19). Many years later the iniquity of the Amorites was fulfilled, and the times of the Gentiles came to an end. God poured out His judgments upon the Canaanite nations in preparation for the seed of Abraham to take possession of the land. At that time a Gentile who had become an Israelite indeed, Caleb the son of Jephunneh, was given Hebron for his inheritance. He was 40 years old when Moses promised him the land ( Josh 14:6-13). He was eager to secure his inheritance. Later, when he stood before Joshua, he was 85 years old (v10). He requested the portion occupied by the Anakim—the giants that had put fear into the hearts of Israel, when the spies searched the land (Josh 14:12). His resolve had never waned: “Hebron therefore became the inheritance of Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenezite unto this day, because that he wholly followed the Lord God of Israel.” ( Josh 14:14).

Abraham’s faith was possible because he could see afar off. Sarah’s faith was developed because she judged God faithful to His word. Caleb’s faith was strong because he wholly followed Yahweh. These are the real giants; individuals whose lives are examples of strength and courage, rather than causing us to fear.

What are we doing to secure our inheritance?