Genesis 23 announces the end of Sarah. Her life (in the Hebrew Masoretic text) was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years. [this is an unusual verbal construct] The symbolism of the years is uncertain. Note it is (10x10) + (3x3x3). Based on the threefold breaks in the Hebrew: ten squared implies completeness, four is a symbol for all the earth, five represents Torah (4x5), plus the remaining seven (7) is the number of perfection.
With Sarah dead, Abraham (a sojourner and alien in their land) reminds us of our situation on this earth. We do not “belong” to the place where we are living. The phrase ‘folk of the land’ is used to describe the Sons of Het (called Hittites of Canaan). Abraham owns no land among them, though this is the land God promised to him and his. He asks for a place to bury his wife (his intent is ownership, but he carefully words), which the Hittites refuse in a roundabout way. They use a title of honor, “Prince/Great One of God,” and invite him to use a prime burial spot in their tombs, but he would use it as a guest, not an owner. If Abraham owns land he has a foothold in that territory and his status changes. Abraham cleverly seeks out a seller, one Efron son of Tzohar, and asks title to a cave at Makhpela. The chance to make a sale entices Efron, who offers not only the cave but also adjoining field as a gift. “Take it!” he says, pointing out that it is said before all the people. But this is oriental negotiating and Abraham knows it. The free offer is not real, it is an act of respect which Abraham must refuse, which he does. The next response from Efron is almost comical to our ears: My Lord, hear me! A piece of land worth four hundred silver weight, what is that between me and you! You may bury your dead! So Abraham pays the exorbitant price (for cave and field) and establishes himself in the Promised Land. The location, mentioned twice in the narrative, is Hebron. This will again be identified by name when Joshua’s spies enter the land after the Exodus. Jewish claims on the land date to Abraham’s purchase. It is also where David reigned at the beginning of his rule in Judah.
In our culture, the “plain reading” of these negotiations have a different feel. For us, Ephron is a person who identifies what he is doing as charity. You know the type, “Let me tell you how generous I am…I do not anyone to know I donated one thousand dollars, though, it would not be humble.” The offer to give it away as a gift but then articulate the cost to ourselves is not a great virtue. We must be careful not to focus on ourselves.
Abraham’s purchase fulfils God’s promise. At least it is a beginning. He now owns a piece of the land. He has become a person of the land. In later days the expansion of the holdings will take place. It is a type of the Kingdom, where already Jesus reigns among us, but the reign is contained and the territory is small. Someday, “the expansion”; He will come to reign as King of all the Earth.
Another interesting angle. The purchase was made possible by a death. Sarah’s death opens the door to land. Always we see hovering in the background the mystery of death and life, ends and beginnings. Abraham loses his beloved wife (whereas he escaped losing his son) for the sake of his son(s and daughters). In a spiritual reading of the text we see the story of Jesus: whose death purchases the people of the earth for God. He is the means for God to lay claim to the land and begin the expansion. Worth thinking about as we cling to life (literal and figurative) because we cannot trust God is at work among us.