Life-Study of Genesisby Witness Lee
Printed Copy: Available Online from Living Stream Ministry
Printed Copy: Available Online from Living Stream Ministry
In this message we come to Genesis 23, a chapter which records the death and burial of Sarah. When I was young, I did not see why this chapter was included in the book of Genesis. I could not understand why, when Abraham must have done many great things which are not recorded, twenty verses were used to describe how he spent his time, energy, money, and even his politeness to acquire a burying place. But the Bible does not waste any words. Since every word of the Bible is God's breath, Genesis 23 must be very significant. If we consider Genesis 1 and 2 as being important, we must also consider Genesis 23 as being important. Every Christian appreciates Genesis 1 because it gives a record of God's creation. We appreciate Genesis 1 not merely as a record of creation but also as a record of life. It speaks of God's image and dominion as related to the man created by God. We also appreciate Genesis 2 because it tells us of the tree of life. However, few of us appreciate a sepulcher. But Genesis 23 is focused on the matter of a burying place and gives us a detailed account of the purchase of a sepulcher. More details are included in this story than in any other record in the book of Genesis. While every other record is quite brief, this one gives a full and clear account of where the tomb was located, who owned it, how it was purchased, and the amount Abraham paid for it. This sepulcher is mentioned in a very significant way, for we are told that not only was Sarah buried there, but that Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah were buried there also. It is very significant that the names of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are the components of the divine title of God who is the God of resurrection (Matt. 22:32).
Genesis 23 is a window through which we can see the New Jerusalem. The New Jerusalem is not found in this chapter, but it can be seen through it. This chapter is like a telescope: through it we can see the eternal tabernacle that is far off in the future.
Genesis 21 gives us the record of the birth of Isaac. This was certainly worth mentioning. Following this, in the same chapter we are told that Abraham redeemed a well, planted a tamarisk tree, and called on the name of Jehovah, El Olam. As we have seen, in chapter twenty-two we have the offering of Isaac. Then, in chapter twenty-three, we have the death and burial of Sarah. These three chapters cover at least thirty-seven years. Although a great many things must have happened with Abraham during these thirty-seven years, only four things are mentioned: the birth of Isaac, the living in Beer-sheba, the offering of Isaac, and the death and burial of Sarah. These three chapters exclude many things which, according to our human concept, are important, but include a detailed record of the death and burial of Sarah. Because of this, we must pay close attention to Genesis 23.
At the end of chapter twenty-two, Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac were dwelling at Beer-sheba, undoubtedly living near the covenanted well and the tamarisk tree. This was a miniature of the church life, for the church life is always by a well of living water and a tamarisk tree. Suddenly, at the beginning of chapter twenty-three we are told of Sarah's death. Although Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac were living at Beer-sheba, she died and was buried in Hebron, the place of fellowship with God. Sarah went on from Beer-sheba to Hebron. In like manner, if the Lord delays His coming back, I would like to live in the church life and die in the fellowship with God.
According to the map, Hebron is between Beer-sheba on the south and Jerusalem on the north. It is on the way from Beer-sheba to Moriah, where Jerusalem is. If the Lord delays His coming back, I would like to be buried in a place which is on the way to the New Jerusalem. Where are you living today? We all must answer that we are living in Beer-sheba, in the church by the well of living water and the tamarisk tree. Our church life is today's Beer-sheba. Before the Lord comes back, some of the older ones may leave Beer-sheba, the church life, die in Hebron, and wait there for the New Jerusalem. Hebron is not only a place of fellowship with God; it is also a way to Jerusalem. The cave of Machpelah in Hebron is the gateway to the New Jerusalem. Perhaps some day we shall hear Sarah testify, "When I entered into the cave of Machpelah, I entered into the gate which leads into the New Jerusalem." Sarah was not simply buried in the cave of Machpelah; she is now sleeping there, waiting for the day when she will wake up and find herself in the New Jerusalem.
Sarah died at the age of one hundred twenty-seven (vv. 1-2). Although this may seem to be very old today, at that time it was an early age to die. Abraham lived one hundred seventy-five years (25:7), living thirty-eight years after Sarah died. Sarah should not have died at such an early age. Her death, thirty-seven years after Isaac's birth (17:1, 17; 21:5), was abnormal.
Abraham and Sarah were the best couple in the whole universe. They truly loved one another, never having any consideration of divorce or separation. When Abraham was robbed of his wife, it was a great loss to both Abraham and Isaac. Isaac was a dear son to his mother, and she undoubtedly loved him very much. At the age of thirty-seven, he was still unmarried and lived with his mother. When he did marry at the age of forty (25:20), the Bible even tells us that Isaac was married in his mother's tent (24:67). Suddenly, the love between Abraham and Sarah and between Sarah and Isaac was broken, for Sarah, the wife and mother, was taken away by an abnormal death. Because of this, Abraham suffered greatly.
If you read Abraham's history, you will see that God was always taking things away from him. Lot separated from him, Eliezer was rejected, Ishmael was cast out, and Isaac was offered to God on the altar. Then his dear wife was taken away in death. What trials and sufferings Abraham passed through! According to our natural concept, Abraham, one who was so good with God, should not have suffered all these things. In chapter twenty-two Isaac was offered to God and returned to Abraham in resurrection. Suddenly, while Abraham was enjoying a happy life with his wife Sarah and his son Isaac, Sarah, the factor of his happiness, was taken away. The happiness in this family was dependent upon Sarah, the wife and the mother. When Sarah died, the atmosphere, life, and happiness of this family were all taken away, and the family itself was gone. What a suffering that was to Abraham!
As God's called ones, we should not expect to have a happy life here on earth. We must follow the steps of Abraham looking for a better country, for a city with foundations (Heb. 11:10, 16). Our temporary life on earth is the life of a traveler. Due to this, Abraham paid little attention to his dwelling place and simply erected a tent. He was a sojourner, a stranger, who was looking for a permanent dwelling place.
Abraham lived for thirty-eight years without Sarah's help (25:8). In the Bible, the number thirty-eight is the number of sufferings, trials, and tests. The children of Israel suffered trials and tests in the wilderness for a period of thirty-eight years. As we have seen, Isaac was forty years old when he married. In the Bible, the number forty also means trials, temptations, and tests. We also have another number in this chapterfour hundredwhich is ten times forty. The first time the number four hundred is used in the Bible is in Genesis 15:13, where Abraham was told that his descendants would suffer affliction for four hundred years. Here in 23:16 we read that Abraham bought the sepulcher at the cost of four hundred shekels of silver. This indicates that it was a test, trial, and suffering.
As you read this chapter in the past, perhaps you did not have the feeling that Abraham was suffering. But notice two words in verse 2"mourn" and "weep." Abraham mourned and wept for Sarah because he had lost his happiness and his family life. The Hebrew words translated "mourn" and "weep" indicate much more than just mourning and weeping. Abraham suffered intensely at losing his wife in his old age; he was deeply hurt. His great suffering is indicated by the numbers thirty-eight, forty, and four hundred.
Abraham, one who had suffered the loss of his dear wife, had a very strong testimony. The Hittites addressed him as lord and called him "a mighty prince" (v. 6). The Hebrew words translated "mighty prince" may also be rendered "a prince of God." In Hebrew, the word for "mighty" is the word for God. Abraham expressed God as a prince of God and was respectable as a mighty prince. In his own eyes, he was a stranger, but in the eyes of the people, he was a mighty prince and a prince of God. He was truly a weighty man.
We all need to be weighty and have the same kind of testimony that Abraham had. In our neighborhoods, occupations, and schools, we must not be light and allow others to look down on us. We must be weighty, and others must estimate us very highly. Although we should not estimate ourselves so highly, we must be high in the eyes of others. I hope that the teachers in the junior high schools will say that the young brothers from the church who are students in their class are mighty princes. Young brothers, do not just pray boldly in the meetings. You must also be weighty in school. Simply having good behavior does not mean very much. We must have weight. Gold and diamonds are weighty, but popcorn and cotton candy are light. If you are gold or diamond, you will have weight. As God's called ones, we Christians should be so weighty that people are surprised and say, "Why is this young man so weighty? He is neither common nor abnormal. Although he is a normal young man, there is no lightness with him. He must be a prince."
We are weighty because we have God in us. The called ones need to call on the name of Jehovah, El Olam. The more Abraham called on this title of the divine Being, the more weighty he became. God is gold. If we call on Him, we shall become golden. The more we call on the golden God, the more of His golden element will be infused into our being. Consider the difference between wood and petrified wood. Wood is light, but petrified wood is weighty. It is even more weighty than stone, because weighty minerals have been wrought into it. We all were born light, but we have been reborn to be weighty. In addition to our rebirth, we have the process of transformation. The way in which wood becomes petrified is through the continuous flow of water. This flow of water carries away the element of wood and adds in its place the element of various minerals, transforming the wood into a weighty, precious stone.
It is insufficient for us merely to be good neighbors. We must be weighty children of God. As God's called ones, we are now under His infusion. We must be so strong and weighty that people will say that we are a mighty prince, a prince of God.
As a mighty prince, Abraham was respectable (v. 6). He respected others and received their respect in return. He was also wise (vv. 3-13). In this chapter we see that Abraham had a wise way of communing with people, speaking to them in a very tasteful and wise manner. Furthermore, Abraham was honest and did not take advantage of anyone (vv. 14-16). His intention was to purchase the sepulcher. When it was politely offered to him as a gift, Abraham, after learning that its value was four hundred shekels of silver, agreed to pay the full amount. He did not seize the opportunity to take advantage of others, and he did not bargain about the price. He gave Ephron the price he asked, paying the full amount, the full money. Likewise, we should not impress people with our scarcity; we must show our riches. This is our testimony. I feel badly about the low level of morality in today's Christianity. What a poor standard of behavior there is! We must express God showing that we, as the children of God, are weighty, respectable, and honest. We should be willing to suffer loss, but not to take advantage of others. Whether we lose or gain means nothing. If we lose, we shall still live; if we gain, we cannot live any longer. How we must learn to be honest and respectable, expressing God in a weighty manner.
Verse 6 speaks of the "choice" sepulcher, referring to the best sepulcher. When the Lord Jesus was on earth, He did not have a good dwelling place. But after He died, He was put into a very good burying place (Matt. 27:57-60). He lived in a poor home, but He was buried in a rich tomb. In the Bible, this is a principle. We should not live in a good home, but we should prepare the best tomb. Abraham paid more attention to the sepulcher than to the tent. Genesis does not say a word regarding how Abraham put up his tent, how much he paid for it, or exactly where he erected it. He pitched his tent like someone who goes camping in the mountains for a few days. Abraham, a true camper, was camping throughout his entire life. Although he did not care very much about the tent, he was very concerned for the sepulcher. In this chapter we find a full description in detail of the cave of Machpelah in the field of Ephron. Not even the Old Testament city of Jerusalem is described in such a detailed way.
Let us now consider the meaning of this. In the light of the New Testament, we can see that Abraham was called by God and realized that he was a stranger, a sojourner, looking for a permanent city and a better country (Heb. 11:9-10, 16). As he was looking for this better country, his dear wife suddenly died. But Abraham did not give up his faith. Neither did he say to Isaac, "Isaac, your mother and I have been looking for a city with foundations and for the better country which God has promised us. We have always had this expectation. Now your mother is dead. How will she ever get there? What should we do? Probably our God is not trustworthy and we should not believe in Him anymore." Abraham did not speak in this way. As we examine the record in Hebrews, we see that Abraham was not disappointed and did not lose his faith. Rather, he had strong faith in the God of resurrection, believing that his dear wife would be in that city and in that better country. This belief implies resurrection.
Genesis 23 is not a chapter on resurrection; it is a chapter on the gate into resurrection. In Genesis 23 Sarah did not enter into resurrection; she entered into the gate. According to Abraham's realization, Sarah's death was the entering into the gate of resurrection. Abraham did not take this matter lightly. Although he might have been somewhat light with his tent, he was not light concerning the burying place of his wife. His intention in purchasing the cave of Machpelah was not only to bury Sarah there, but also to bury himself there. The word Machpelah in Hebrew means double or doubling. Everyone who was buried in this cave was buried as one of a couple: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah (v. 19; 25:9; 49:29-32; 50:13). Deep within, Abraham was filled with the expectation that one day his wife would be in the city of foundations. This implies resurrection. Shortly before his death, Jacob charged his sons to bury him in the cave of Machpelah. Although in ancient times it was not a small thing to take Jacob from Egypt to Canaan to be buried, Jacob's sons did it for him (50:13). By this we can realize that, as he was about to die, Jacob did not consider death as a termination but as a station, as the gate into the better country.
Abraham was filled with the hope of resurrection. He might have even loved the dead body of his wife more than he loved Sarah when she was living. If Sarah could have spoken to Abraham, she might have said, "Abraham, why are you so good to me after I have died? When I was living you never prepared a good tent for me. Now that I am dead, you have paid so much money to buy a cave in which to bury me. Why did you buy a cave with a field and trees? What are you doing?" Abraham might have said, "Sarah, you must realize that you are not being buried here. You will just rest here. I have prepared the best bedroom for you in which you may rest as you wait for that day. If that day is far off, I will come to be one with you and we shall rest together. This is why I have purchased the field as well as the cave. Look at the life in the field. It is not a place of deathit is a place of life."
In the Bible, a field signifies the growth of life, that is, resurrection. This is true even today. If you do not believe in resurrection, I would ask you to consider a wheat field. Not long after the grains of wheat are planted, they rise up again. In 1936, I was preaching the gospel to a group of students at Ching-Hua University in China. One evening, after I had preached, a young student came up to me and, wanting me to explain the matter of resurrection, said, "I have no problem with Christianity, but I cannot believe in the resurrection. How can we, in our modern, scientific age, believe in such a superstitious thing as resurrection? How can a dead person be resurrected? Yet, this is one of the main teachings in the Bible." I said to him that this was easy to explain. Through the window of the room in which we were sitting we could see wheat fields. I said, "Look at the wheat fields. Do you see the wheat that is growing there? Can't you see resurrection in these fields? The seed is sown into the soil, dies, and eventually the wheat comes forth. This is resurrection." This simple illustration convinced him, and he was saved. Now he is one of the leading co-workers on the island of Taiwan.
A growing field signifies resurrection, but driftwood signifies death. Abraham did not put Sarah into a place of death, but into a place of life, a place full of resurrection. The cave in which she was buried was in the end of the field (v. 9), and there were many trees nearby (v. 17). Suppose the cave of Machpelah was surrounded by piles of driftwood. Whenever anyone saw this, he would immediately have had the sense that it was a place of death, a place of termination. But the cave of Machpelah is not the place of termination; it is a place full of the expectation of resurrection. It is on the way to resurrection. In this place, Sarah could restfully sleep as she waited for that day to come. If she could speak, she might say, "I am not waiting in a place of death. I am in a living place. Look at the field and the trees. Someday, I'll be in resurrection." Sarah's death did not disappoint Abraham in his search for a better country and for a city with foundations. On the contrary, it stirred up his expectation of the coming day. Therefore, he devoted much attention and spent a large amount of money to purchase the burying place for Sarah, himself, and his descendants. If we have the light from the New Testament, we shall realize that this indicates the expectation of resurrection. Once again I say that the sepulcher is the passageway, the gateway, into the expected city, the New Jerusalem. Hallelujah, the cave of Machpelah is on the way to Jerusalem!
We know that Genesis 23 indicates the expectation of resurrection because the Lord Jesus said that the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob is not the God of the dead but of the living (Matt. 22:31-32). In our eyes, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are dead, but in God's eyes, they are living.
Our forefather, Abraham, God's called one, did not care very much for the present, but he did pay attention to the future. The choice sepulcher was for the future. In principle, we also should not prepare a better home for the present but a gateway for the future. We are not here for today but for tomorrow. If the Lord delays His coming back, we all shall enter into this gateway. We should not pay too much attention to the present but rather to the future. We should live in a tent looking for the city which has foundations.
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