The prepared text for this morning’s sermon at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church is below. Perhaps it is fitting that this passage about a burial ground is a text about real estate since I’m looking for houses to buy. The sermon audio is available at this link. In the text, the abbreviation ANE stands for Ancient Near East. More about this section of Genesis is available at this link.
These days there are many real estate gurus who will teach you how to find off-market properties, what you need to know about things like zoning and taxes, how to take care of the seller’s problems as you negotiate a fair price for the property so that everyone wins, and all the rest. Today I’m going to try to be your real estate guru for the Ancient Near East in the time of Abraham. Now Abraham wasn’t looking to buy a house or a field, he simply needed a cave to use as a tomb because Sarah had died. So he went to the people of the land and asked them to sell him a property for a burial ground. As your real estate guru let me clarify that when Abraham says, “give me property among you for a burying place” he is asking them to sell him a property for a burial ground. The Hittites responded the way that they were expected to answer him in that culture—especially seeing as how Abraham was in mourning. The Hittites didn’t want to be seen as taking advantage of his grief by selling him a property for a burial ground for a lot of money. So they offered to let him bury Sarah in any of their tombs at no charge. And in that culture, Abraham was expected to refuse their generous gesture and insist on paying for a burial ground. Thus he stood up and took a bow as he politely refused it. Apparently Abraham had already identified an off-market property nearby that would meet his needs. He didn’t want to buy the whole property, he was only looking to purchase the cave at the end of the field for a burial ground. It was common in those days to enlist a mediator to go between the parties to arrange for such a sale so Abraham asked them to entreat Ephron who was the owner of that field. And Abraham offered to pay its full price from the start. Of course, Ephron was then obliged to go through this same charade as he offered to give both the field and the cave at the end of it to this grieving old man for a burial ground without charge and Abraham politely refused him and renewed his offer to pay full price but now it was an offer to pay full price for both the field and the cave at the end of it. And as is typical in these kinds of negotiations, Ephron floated a price for the land. He made it sound like it was no big deal, he’d just as soon give it to Abraham as to sell it to him. But the value Ephron put on that land was higher than it was actually worth. He expected Abraham to counter and they would go back and forth until they met somewhere in the middle. Thus with that introduction to ANE real estate customs, let’s read it:
- When believers buy real estate as an act of faith that we will inherit the earth when Christ finishes ushering in the kingdom of God, we buy that real estate subject to the laws and obligations of its current earthly government.
- Abraham was a sojourner and foreigner in the land of Canaan and bought this burial ground from Ephron as an act of faith that his descendants would inherit the land, but his act of faith also meant he would have new obligations to the current Hittite political system. When Abraham approached the elders of the Hittites about buying a burial ground, he began by saying that he was a sojourner and a foreigner among them. This is actually the first and only time that Abraham publicly declared that he was a stranger and exile in the land (cf. Heb 11:13). He was making a statement of faith in the presence of his Hittite neighbors and buying that burial ground was an act of faith. If Abraham had accepted their generous gestures of a free burial ground then he would be accepting that land as a gift from the Hittites instead of as a gift from God who promised it to him. But by buying that burial ground, Abraham was making an act of faith similar to the altars for YHWH that he built in different parts of the Promised Land. Nevertheless, Abraham did this act within the existing political structure of his day. As they did in those days, Abraham did these negotiations with the elders at the gates as witnesses and the Hittites deeded the land over to Abraham. Now it has been said that in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. And as you may have guessed, owning that land meant that Abraham owed property taxes. As your ANE real estate guru allow me to explain that we believe Ephron refused to sell Abraham just the cave at the end of the field because the taxes attached to a parcel of land only transferred to the buyer if they bought the whole property. Thus Abraham’s act of faith that he would inherit the land came with new obligations to the existing political structure of his day.
- As Christians we also are strangers and exiles on the earth who will inherit the earth, but we too have to deal with present political realities when we buy land as an act of faith. I don’t know if many Christians stop to think about it, but home and land ownership can be an act of faith. It certainly isn’t necessary. The field that Abraham bought as a burial ground was the only piece of the Promised Land that he owned during his long lifetime. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never owned a house – they lived in tents in the land of promise as exiles in a foreign land (cf. Heb 11:9). But you can buy a house or land as an act of faith that one day we will inherit the earth. There are lots of things that you can do as an act of faith. Just know that while a Christian’s citizenship is in heaven, we will still have obligations to the government where we live on earth. If you own your own home, you will have to pay property taxes, abide by zoning regulations, follow building codes, and all the rest. The only piece of land you might ever buy might be a burial plot. Even then, most cemeteries have rules about what you can and can’t do. Christians seek to follow these kinds of rules and want to meet our obligations but we also look forward to a regime change when the kingdom of heaven will completely take over the management of such things. (Speaking of that…)
- We don’t mourn without hope because we believe in the resurrection of the dead.
- Abraham mourned Sarah’s death but he didn’t mourn without hope. Today’s passage comes right after the sacrifice of Isaac. The sacrifice of Isaac is a story that shows how Abraham believes in the resurrection of the dead. It is a story that is really about how Jesus Christ would die and on the third day rise from the dead and that repentance and forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all nations beginning from Jerusalem. We explored that last Sunday. So Abraham believes in the resurrection of the dead. Indeed, that’s why he wanted a burial ground. Excuse the graphic picture, but if he left her body out to decompose then it would become food for vultures and other similar birds and even other animals (cf. Gen 15:11). That would be a disgrace to her. God’s curse and judgment has been described in such ways in Scripture. But Sarah was a believer. She wasn’t under God’s wrath and curse. So Abraham wanted a burial ground in which to lay her body so that it would await the final resurrection. And it is important to notice that Abraham, who is a type pointing to Jesus Christ, wept. His grief was real just as Jesus’ grief at the tomb of Lazarus was real. And this cave that Abraham bought would become the burial ground for Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, and Jacob. It is the burial ground of all of these patriarchs and matriarchs who are waiting with us for the resurrection of the dead.
- The reason for our hope is that Jesus died for our sins on the cursed cross, already experienced that resurrection of the dead on the third day, and has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Thus we too mourn and weep with hope today. Already, Jesus has triumphed over the tomb. Already, He is Lord. Already, He is making all things new. Already, we are in the new creation and we have the Holy Spirit as a down payment on our coming inheritance. When Paul uses the language of the Holy Spirit as a down payment or guarantee (2 Cor 5:5), he has in mind the subject of real estate. The Holy Spirit that God has put in us is the first installment or down payment on the Promised Land. Nevertheless, the current political realities and the continuing existence of burial grounds make us cry, “Come Lord Jesus.” Indeed, it is thought that this cave that Abraham bought is today beneath a synagogue and mosque. “Come Lord Jesus!”