Genesis 23 – Remembering who we are in hard times

The Bible is full of stories that we hold dear and tell over and over again.  How we love to talk of Noah and the flood, or Abraham waiting for a son to be born, of David rising to become not only a king, but also a man after God’s own heart.  We love to imagine Elijah on Mount Carmel as he fights the prophets of Baal or David as he slays Goliath.  These are stories that capture our imagination.  We love telling them to our kids and our grandkids.  They are stories worthy of Scripture, so we think.

But then, there are other stories, stories like today’s.  Stories that aren’t so exciting.  They lack the speed of a NASCAR race and the adrenaline-inducing plot of an action movie.  In fact, for many of us, we simply look at the title of Genesis 23 and decide that it is time to skip on over to another more uplifting story.  The Death of Sarah just doesn’t sound very encouraging or uplifting, and if we are one of the few who starts to read chapter 23 we are even more puzzled by why Moses took the time to record a real estate transaction in the Bible.

I could give you a comparative study of the cost of land in the Scriptures by tracing the cost of land from Abraham and into 2 Samuel and 1Chronicles where David buys the threshing floor of Araunah (2Sam 24:24, 1Chr 21:25) and then to 1 Kings when Omri buys Samaria (1Ki 16:24) and finally into Jeremiah and the gospels (Jer 32:9, Matt 27:1-10) but aside from a small group of you who are interested in odd things like ancient land costs, I am not sure that such a lesson would build you up in the faith, nor encourage you with the gospel, even though this is the first land that Abe owns in Canaan.


My hope today is that even in a passage that seems odd and unworthy of being included in the Scriptures, that you will find a wonderful message of hope.  So far in Genesis, we have traced out the creation of all that is seen and unseen. We have learned about humanity’s original relationship with God, walking in the garden in the cool of the evening.  Speaking face to face with the Creator, enjoying fellowship with one another.  All of this came crashing down suddenly in Genesis 3 as Eve and then Adam chose to call God a liar and to believe the lie of the serpent.  Evil sets into our world first with the killing of a brother that only escalates in intensity so that God sends a flood to wipe evil humanity from the face of the earth.  Then God calls one man, Abraham to leave his homeland and come and follow him to a land he has never seen.  God promises to work through this man, to bless him, and increase his numbers and so make him a blessing to the world.  The only problem is that Abraham and his wife don’t have any kids.  They are the original DINKs – Double Income No Kids – except that they hate their predicament.  It isn’t all fun and games, eating out at the local field side grill, traveling to new and exotic places, shopping at Lamb’s End.  Those things just aren’t all they claim to be.  Abraham and Sarah just want a child, the child God has promised.  And after a long wait of more than 25 years, God finally grants them a son at the age of 100 for Abraham and 90 for Sarah.


They raise their son, they enjoy him and they celebrate him.  Their life has been wrapped up in anticipating God’s promises and now that they have a son, it is wrapped up in enjoying him and looking forward to the further promises of God – make us a great nation, let us see the Kings that are to come from our union (Gen 17).  These two people, Abraham and Sarah have been through a lot together.  And like any married couple that has gone through hardship, shared struggles, and rejoiced in blessings, they are deeply connected with one another.


So when chapter 23 in Genesis rolls around we are really entering into chapter 11 of Abraham’s life.  He is bankrupt.  His wife has died and now everything is lost.  He is in mourning.  He is lost in grief. And he does what anyone who has lost a spouse or dearly loved family member does – He weeps and he wails and he grieves deeply.  And that is as it should be.  Grief and mourning are merely the emotions that are expressed when one has loved and been loved by another, and they are no longer with us in this world.  Grief and mourning are natural parts of being human and facing the loss of those close to us and the process of grief takes time.


In the ancient world and in many other cultures around the world when a loved one dies, particularly a spouse, the one left mourns for a year, dressed in black.  There is an understanding that people don’t just get over deep relational losses quickly.  It takes time and it takes tears and it takes vocalizing the loss that is felt deep within the soul.  And so most cultures, except western European cultures, create space for one to mourn, for one’s identity is upset and it must be reclaimed.


And Abraham entered into that process fully and completely in his day as he grieved.  But Genesis 23 also reminds us that even in the midst of great loss, life goes on.  There are preparations to make, arrangements to conclude and things to be done.  Again Abraham sets out to accomplish each of these things in the midst of his sorrow, but like so many who are in the grieving process, as he goes through this part of his life, he has forgotten who he is.  His words strike me as words that only one grieving and in pain can declare.  I am a foreigner and I am needy and I must pay for what I need.  Isn’t that the basic gist of all of Abraham’s words: I am an alien and a stranger among you.  Sell me some propertyI will pay the price of the field (Gen 23:4, 13).  These are the words of a man in desperation.  But more than just words of need, they echo what so many have experienced as they go through difficulty:  I don’t belong; I need help. I will pay the cost; don’t give me a handout.  It is a natural inclination, when we are suffering to feel this way: alone, separate, needy and not wanting the pity of others.


But what I love about this story is the way that the Hittites reply to Abraham.  God uses them to remind Abe of his true identity.  He says, “I am a foreigner and an alien” they remind him that he is a mighty prince among us (Gen 23:6).  He says, “I am needy,they remind him that what he needs will be provided: Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs.  None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead (Gen 23:6) He declares, “I must pay.  Sell it to me for the full price as a burial site among you” (Gen 23:9).  They respond, first by declaring that a gift will given and only after Abraham insists that the cost be set, do they declare that the land will be costly.


So this morning, it seems to me that a focus on the words of Abraham and the words of Ephron would bring us more encouragement.  In each of these men’s respective words, we find a contrast between a grieving or hurting person’s self-image and his actual identity.  So often, like Abraham, when hardship strikes, we forget whom we are.  We begin to wallow in a sense of need and refuse to accept the gifts of others in order to help us.  I have seen it over and over as people in depression get trapped in a false identity that says they don’t belong.  Those who are emotionally hurting can’t see beyond their own needs to the gifts and provision that have been made.  This is especially keen for those who have lost loved ones, as their sense of worth and importance is shattered with the passing of a child or a parent or a spouse or a sibling.  No longer can one’s identity be tied to a relationship, which does not exist.


And that is where Ephron’s words are so powerful.  God uses this gentile, to remind Abraham of who he truly is.  He is a mighty prince; literally a prince of God is how the Hebrew reads.  That is Abraham’s true identity; he isn’t a stranger and an alien.  He is a loved child of the Eternal King.  And for the one struggling with identity and image in our world, they need to be reminded of this same truth.  The scriptures declare that our value isn’t found in whom we know, or what we do, or how we look, or what we have or whom we have lost, rather it is a matter of who we are.  And who are we?  This is Jesus’ answer: (John 15:15) I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his masters business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.


We are friends, but more than that we are beloved, for at another point in Jesus’ ministry he asks the question “Who are my brothers and mother?  Then he answers that question by pointing to his disciples and saying, (Matt. 12:49) “Here are my mother and my brothers.”  And since, Jesus is the Son of God that makes us princes and princesses of God, like Abraham. That is our true identity – the royal children of God.  We are not husbands and fathers, wives and mothers, or brothers and sisters and friends, that is not who we are, that is what we do, it is a functional way of describing our relationship with others.  Our true identity is that we are children of the King.  And we need to have that declared to us regularly and often if we are going to successful navigate our world and the periods of grief that are bound to come our way in life.


It is so easy to forget who we truly are.  Everything in our life is geared to make us think that our value and worth comes from what we do, what we make, who we know.  But God has established a lasting, unchanging, secure foundation upon which our identity must be found – in our relationship with him.  It is his declaration of who we are that counts.  We are children, he is Abba.  We are princes and princesses; he is King.  We are loved; he is our lover.  First and foremost, we need to remember this and believe it.


Oh the things that would change in the life of people if they understood the love of God for them – their identity as his beloved children.  Would the teenage girl need to sleep around to feel wanted?  Would the husband look at pornography if he believed he was the apple of God’s eye?  Would a boy pick on another to feel strong if he knew that God was his strength?  Would the sharp mouthed, sharp tongued person need to belittle others to feel good about themselves if they believed that God was their Father?  All of these behaviors and so many more from depression to suicide, to pride and arrogance envy and jealousy all stem from a failure to remember who we truly are.  We are children of God and we need to be reminded of it often.


And as a prince of God, as a child of the King, Abraham need to be reminded not only of who he is, but also that he isn’t needy, but in fact his needs will be met.  That is what Ephron does when he assures him that any tomb he needs will be provided, no one will deny him his request.  So often we live like Abraham, declaring ourselves needy and thinking that we haven’t been provided for, insisting that we must go out and secure our requirements.  But is that the gospel reality for God’s children, or is it a side effect of forgetting who we really are?


Abraham really is a pitiful sight here; we get the sense that he is begging the Hittites for this need.  Abraham needs a tomb, but Ephron reminds him that his needs will be met.  If indeed he is a prince of God, how could his needs not be met?  They will be provided for out of the royal treasury – for the earth is the Lords and everything in it.  But is this true for us?  Will our God meet our needs, or must we head out thinking it our job to make all the arrangements, begging for provision like Abraham? Again Jesus reminds us, like Ephron reminded Abraham, that our needs will be met.  All the resources of our father are available to us.  After speaking about the lilies of the field and birds of the air having their needs met by the Father, Jesus declares, Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32).  Our provision is grounded in our relationship with God.  He is our Father and so as his children we possess the Kingdom.  We need not beg.  Paul elaborates on this by declaring that we lack nothing in Christ for (Eph. 1:3) Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.


We are not unwelcome aliens in the world; we are God’s children living out God’s calling in our world with God’s resources at our disposal.  We aren’t needy; we are blessed and provided for.  Our Lord has ensured that we are never alone, but always bear in our bodies the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17) who will lead us and guide us. Though we don’t want suffering and pain, we can (Rom. 5:3-5) Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.


As a people provided for, we have a Spirit who gives us hope, not despair.  We grieve, but not as the world grieves. For the world grieves without hope, the Thessalonians letter declares (1Th 4:13); but we grieve with the hope of resurrection when all God’s children will once again be united in body and soul with our savior.  We anticipate the new heaven and the new earth.  We await the world where sin and suffering, pain and grief are wiped clean and there are no more crying and no more tears.  This is destiny because of our identity as children of God.  This reality has already been provided for us, we are simply waiting for it.


Paul is grounding his hope in the love of God which is another way of speaking about our identity as God’s children which he makes very clear a few chapters later when he declares, (Rom. 8:17-18) Now if we are children, then we are heirs heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.


In our suffering we must remember that God is providing for us through the Spirit both prayerful groans as well as spiritual strength to bear up under the struggles and trials of this world and he will never stop providing all that we need.  We simply must ask. We must ask for the perseverance we need.  We must ask him for the love we need.  We must ask him for the reminder of our relationship with him.  We simply must ask, he will provide.  How many of us can testify that in our brokenness, when we cried out to God, he has met us and provided for us?  This is the gospel promise.  He will carry us on eagle’s wings.


But there is a third set of interactions in the story.  Abraham says he must pay.  He must provide for his need and Ephron responds first by saying that there is no cost, and then by declaring that the cost will be quite significant.  And Abraham agrees to the cost.  It is here that the interactions of the story fail to bring out the fullness of the gospel message.  Had the story simply ended with Abraham accepting Ephron’s offer to give him the tomb and the land, then the gospel parallel would be quite plain.  But because Abraham insisted on paying, Ephron set a price.  Here is where the gospel disconnect occurs.  For one who has forgotten their identity in Christ, like Abraham, everything must be earned or purchased.[1]


The love of God must be earned.  The rewards of heaven must be earned. Forgiveness must be earned.  The security of salvation must be earned.  The care of others and the concern of friends must be earned.  Everything, simply everything must be earned for those who have forgotten who they really are.


But for one who understands the wonder of their relationship with the father, how can they ever stand and declare, I must pay or I have earned this.  The cost is simply outlandish and exorbitant for any of these things.  The promises of God can’t be bought.  Simon the sorcerer learned this when Peter rebuked him saying, “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money” (Acts 8:20).  It cannot be paid out of our own coffers.  It cannot be met in our own lives.  Rather, we simply accept the free offer of a piece of real estate in the Promised Land.  A room in the mansion of God.  We accept the identity God has given and the provision he has made for his children and we enter into a new life with a new name as children of the King.


I say all of this not as a way of diminishing the suffering that we experience when people die around us, or when hardships befall us, or when tribulations come.  I am not declaring that if you simply remembered who you are then all the pain will immediately disappear.  That would be false and a lie.  There are truly times when we must grieve, and cry and wail and when our pain will be deep and hard and heartfelt.  There are times when we will find ourselves feeling lost and alone, floating and wondering what we are going to do or how we are going to cope. That is real.


I say all this to remind us, and to remind those of us surrounding our grieving family and friends, that like Ephron, we might be able to speak a word of comfort into the heart of a hurting person by reminding them of who they truly are – God’s child and lavishly provided for and with a hope for the Promised Land.  This is our gospel hope.


[1] Four hundred shekels of silver is nothing to shake a stick at.  It is roughly 150 -1 oz silver coins, or $5000 in today’s money.  That is a lot of money. There are all sorts of things we could talk about in this passage, and in fact, I was rewriting my sermon this week because there is so much to discuss and I kept falling into a lecture mode instead of preaching good news.

About Scott Roberts

pastor of Hope in Christ Church, Bellingham, WA
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