Sarah lived 127 years, Moses writes here, and she died in Hebron, in the promised land of Canaan, that had not yet been given to the people of God. Sarah was not perfect, as we have seen, and neither was her husband. But she had been Abraham’s faithful companion and wife for at least 100 years, ever since they were married in Ur of the Chaldeans and her name was Sarai. She had been with Abraham in all of the great moments of their lives, and in all of the failures. And she was the miracle mother at 91 of the child of promise, Isaac, who was now around 37 years old. Centuries later, Isaiah the prophet would write this to the people of God: “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you;” (Isaiah 51:1-2)
Now Sarah, the matriarch from which Israel came, was dead. And Abraham does what any husband would do when his wife dies. He mourns for her. He weeps over the loss of his faithful companion, the wife of his youth and his old age, the mother of his son Isaac. Death is the enemy that will one day be finally and forever defeated, but not yet. Paul wrote that it will be after this mortality puts on immortality on that day when we are all changed in the twinkling of an eye that the saying shall come to pass that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” But death still stings today, doesn’t it? Every marriage, every family, every loving friendship will ultimately suffer loss. It is simply the reality of life before the second coming of Christ. But as Paul says, we who believe, “do not mourn as those who have no hope.”
After Abraham mourned, he rose up and went presumably to the gate of Hebron where he found the people who lived there, the Hittites. With the 62-year old promise of God perhaps ringing in his ears, “to this offspring I will give this land,” Abraham speaks to the men in the gate. Notice he does not tell them that the land they are occupying is really his and his descendants and they might as well go ahead and give it to him. No. Abraham simply asks them for a place to bury his dead wife. They may have been surprised that this man from far away was not taking his wife back to her ancestral home to bury her. They didn’t know what Abraham knew, that this land was his home and the home of his descendants, though they held not one deed to one square inch of it. Not yet.
That’s when the bargaining begins. I have bought souvenirs from street vendors and street marketplaces in several countries, and one tactic is universal. If you offer $5 for a carved wooden elephant, you may only be able to get that price, after several minutes of bargaining, if you also buy a carved wooden giraffe and lion and maybe a rhino and pay $5 each for them as well. In other words, “upselling” was not invented by Americans. It happens everywhere and has been going on for a long time. At least as far back as Hebron, circa 1914 B.C. Because Ephron does it with Abraham when he is asked about the purchase of a cave to bury his wife. First the game. Ephron says to Abraham, “No, my Lord, I give you the field and I give you the cave that is in it.” Ephron has no intention of giving this foreigner anything, but notice what he did? He added the field into the deal. Abraham didn’t ask for the field, just the cave. He is not looking to build a cemetery or a park, just bury his wife. But he doesn’t argue. He simply bows again and asks permission to be heard once more. He then asks for the price of the field. Ephron, he says, name your price and I will give you that price, and I will bury my dead.
With the upsell of a field as well as the cave accepted, Ephron asks for what most believe to be a highly inflated price tag. He says maybe with a heavy sigh for effect, Oh, that field is only worth 400 shekels of silver, and what’s that between you and me? The man in Kenya with the carved elephant, when I offered him $5 for it would put his hand on his chest and say, “Oh, my friend, you hurt my heart! This elephant, and I love this one, I have spent hours and hours carving it. Not $5, but $50. My friend.” And so it would go. Well, back in Hebron, Ephron has Abraham on the hook and starts reeling him in. The price of 400 shekels, or 6 ½ pounds of silver in that day would be an enormous, even outrageous sum. But notice that Abraham did not argue. He knew God as Jehovah Jireh, the Lord who provides, didn’t he? He accepted the price graciously, and the price was weighed out in the hearing of the Hittites.
Allen Ross writes, “The only portion of the Promised Land that Abraham ever received, he bought—and that was a grave.” What is important about this transaction beyond a place to bury his beloved bride? This purchase forever tied the descendants to the land. Sarah will be joined by Abraham in the same burial cave, and then Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah.
The writer of Hebrews said, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”
It is one of the most familiar stories in the Bible and would stand alone as a literary masterpiece. It is a simple story on one level of a test given, accepted, and passed. On another level, it is an astounding study of obedience and faith. And God’s provision.
“After these things God tested Abraham.”
Up until this point in Genesis 22, we have seen Abraham fail, and we have seen him grow in faith. All of it was preparation for this moment. We can know for certain that God tests his people, each one of us, and he knows perfectly how to prepare us for those tests, each one that he gives. Every father and mother know that their three-year-old son or daughter is not ready to mow and weed-eat the yard. But they also know that they can’t wait until that child is 10 before they ask them to do anything that even resembles work. Even a three-year old can pick up sticks and clean up the toys in the yard before it is mowed. Obedience, the linchpin of discipleship, starts very early. Abraham has learned to listen to God and follow his commands. This test, though, is the greatest one of his life.
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…and offer him as a burnt offering.”
Don’t get this twisted. Don’t listen to modern criticism of Genesis. This story is not about an abusive and sadistic heavenly father, and it is not about child sacrifice. It is a story about God testing the faithfulness of his people. When God does that in Scripture, as he does here with Abraham, and as he will do with Moses in the wilderness more than once, he often calls them to obey him in ways they cannot understand. We are not offered the option of obeying God only when we completely understand his ways and his future plans for us. If that were true, none of us would ever obey. God said in Isaiah 55, “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Choosing when you will obey God and when you will disobey God is refusing to believe that his ways and his thoughts are perfect.
God tests his people and that is for our good and for God’s glory. Faith is revealed and strengthened. And note this! When God tests our faith, he often asks us to give up something that we love. Really love. Notice the offering plates are not passed on Sundays so you can put something in you don’t care about. “Here’s my old coonskin hat I used to wear when I pretended to be Daniel Boone; I just don’t love it anymore.” No! We are tested every Sunday to see whether we trust God to be our provider.
Sometimes God asks us to give something up completely. A career that we loved but has become an idol. A talent that we love but has stolen our affection for God. A habit that we love but has consumed us to the point that we cannot imagine life without it. Any sacrifice of obedience is difficult, but the rewards cannot be fully measured without seeing heaven and what awaits us there.
God tested Abraham’s faithfulness and showed him just how much he could trust the Lord to provide in any and every circumstance. It is true for you and me, as well.
Wait, what? In his 90’s? You have to read Genesis 20 and 21 to see this transformation take place. There are two encounters between Abraham and Abimilech. In the first one, Abraham lied and put his wife and future son of promise in jeopardy, while Abimilech, the pagan king, displayed a stronger sense of right and wrong. I think a life verse for Abraham at this point, if it had been written yet, would be Psalm 119:71. “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” Abraham had learned from his afflictions and his own self-made suffering, and the second encounter with Abimilech is totally different from the first one. Abraham was just 99 in the first one, and he matured a lot when he hit the century mark. My wife is praying it doesn’t take me quite that long.
The second encounter starts with Abimilech acknowledging that he sees the handprints of God all over Abraham’s life. He says to him, “God is with you in all that you do.” May we each grow in humility to the point that we can say that to others in Christ, and may we grow in humility to the point that others see the handprints of God in our own lives as well!
Abimilech then asks Abraham to make a deal with him. He says, “As I have dealt kindly with you, so you will deal with me.” Abraham agrees. This is a business transaction that takes place between two men who have enterprises for which they are responsible. A basic business agreement must be built on trust. That trust allows each party to do what they are supposed to do, and it also allows for discussion when there is a breach of the agreement. And that breach happens pretty fast, as Abraham talked to Abimilech about a well. It was a deep problem, that well. You know, two men were digging one once upside down and one of them fell out. Ok, sorry. But the business ran into a snag because Abimilech’s men seized one of Abraham’s wells.
Notice how Abraham dealt with it. He went and talked to Abimilech. He didn’t try to hurt the men who took the well. He didn’t pack up his things and move away. He didn’t sit in his tent and pout. He didn’t go on social media and tell his followers how much he had been wronged. He went straight to Abimilech, so they could work it out. Abraham reproved him, which can be translated “correct” or “convince.”
Trust between two parties cuts both ways, so we have to take notice of how Abimilech received the reproof. He did not argue. He did not turn the accusation into an accusation of his own. He did not run away. He simply acknowledged that he did not know who did it, and he did not know it had happened until that very moment. No attempt to deny, just asking for grace and time to resolve a matter he had just heard about. Then Abraham does an amazing thing. He gives sheep and oxen to Abimilech, and the two make a covenant together. Since covenants were normally sealed by blood, the idea may be that those animals were sacrificed, and then Abraham gave seven ewe lambs to Abimilech, a living reminder of the covenant that they had made. Whenever you see these lambs I gave you, remember that well was dug by me. Abimilech went back to his land and Abraham worshiped God.
God was working on Abraham, had been for a long time, and adversity polished his character and his faith. It is the same for you and me. Frederick Buechner wrote this: “We believe in God,… we have faith—because certain things happened to us once and go on happening. We work and goof off, we love and dream, we have wonderful times and awful times, are cruelly hurt and hurt others cruelly, get mad and bored and scared stiff and ache with desire, do all such human things as these, and if our faith is not mainly just window dressing or a rabbit’s foot or fire insurance, it is because it grows out of precisely this kind of rich human compost. The God of biblical faith is the God who meets us at those moments in which for better or worse we are being most human, most ourselves, and if we lose touch with those moments, if we don’t stop from time to time to notice what is happening to us and around us and inside us, we run the tragic risk of losing touch with God too.”
Good news. Whether we are 9 or 99, God is working, meeting us right where we are, calling us forward to where he knows we will be.
As the song used to go, “Second verse, same as the first.” Abraham and Sarah lied to the people of Egypt in Genesis 12, and Pharoah took her into his house. The same thing happens again in Genesis 20, this time in Gerar, and Abimilech takes her into his house, presumably to make her a part of his harem. *Sigh* You read this and you have to say, “Again, Abraham? What will it take for you to stop with the lying to protect your own skin?”
Have you ever had someone say that to you? “When will you finally get sick enough of that (insert trap sin here) and how it hurts you and others, that you will finally nail it to the cross?” Maybe you have heard that. Maybe you have said it to yourself! That takes me back to my junior year in high school…
“Hey, Fox! What are you readin’?”
I knew that voice. It was coming from two seats behind me in History Class. It belonged to a kid in our high school that everyone avoided because he was considered an oddball. I slowly turned, my mind spinning with anticipation of what I was about to do. My eyes fixed on my opponent. Actually, he wasn’t trying to pick a fight; Rick was just asking an innocent question, but in that nerdish way of his that provoked so many in the school to tease him.
“Why don’t you see for yourself?” I said, as I hurled the paperback I was reading. The missile found its desired target: Rick’s pimply face. The same face that was red with acne now turned beet red with rage.
Rick stood up beside his desk, his over-large Adam’s apple moving up and down like a yo-yo, in sync with his breaths. He was angry and embarrassed by my attack. In all of the wisdom that I could muster as a tender young scholar of 17, I leaped to my feet and began to shadow box in front of Rick.
“You want a piece of me, Rick?” I taunted. “You want some of this?” I punched at him playfully, my fists pulling up just inches short of his face.
Rick was tall and as skinny as a toothpick, but his reach was at least a foot longer than mine. While I was floating like a butterfly, he decided to sting like a bee. Rick sent one true jab right to the center of my face. It was a direct hit to the mouth, exactly where I deserved it, and the fight was over just that quick. I was stunned as I reached up to my two front teeth and found they were not hanging out in their usual location.
You see, I had just gotten my braces off about a week earlier. Rick had undone in one second what my orthodontist (and my Dad’s wallet, bless his soul) had taken 2 and ½ years to accomplish.
Not only that, but I was immediately sent to the principal’s office, paddled, and sent home for three days’ suspension for fighting in class. Talk about adding insult to injury!
Two root canals, two crowns, and thousands of dollars later, I was talking to my grandmother about the incident. I will never forget her counsel that day.
“Mark, you don’t know anything about that boy. For all you know, his father beats him every day when he gets home from work. For all you know, that boy cries himself to sleep every night because of the suffering that you know nothing about. That boy needs a friend, and you just piled on to his misery. You got what you deserved.”
My grandmother loved me enough to tell me the truth. She was a true friend in every sense of that word. The Bible says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” Even though Nana’s words hurt just about as much as Rick’s punch to the kisser, her counsel that day turned my anger to repentance, and my thoughts of revenge to remorse.
I need all the friends like that I can find.