The death of Sarah gives us a glimpse into the way people in Abraham’s time dealt with grieving. The Torah tells us quite a bit more about Abraham than it does about Sarah, but we can see that she led a life of strength in spite of dealing with decades of heartbreaking disappointment. As bad as childlessness is for a modern woman, it was even more an identity crisis for a woman in Sarah’s time. Yet she bore it with a quiet strength.
More than a thousand years after her lifetime, we find a reference to her example in the book of Isaiah. “Look to Sarah who bore you,” said the author of Isaiah 51:2 to a group of discouraged exiles in Babylon. These were people displaced, having been forcibly marched over a thousand miles from their home in Judah to a new place of exile in Babylon. They were now wondering if God and the promises of the covenant were even real. Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem and the temple. The promise of Zion seemed lost. Why would the author bring up Sarah?
Who better understands perseverance when hope seems lost than a woman who longs to be a mother, even more so one who has been assured she will be a mother, and who waits long year after year with no child? Sarah waited twenty five years from the time God promised a child (Genesis 12:4, “Abram was seventy five years old”) until the child was born (Gen 21:5, “Abraham was a hundred years old”). Sarah was apparently a formidable woman. She laughed at God, and though she was fearful when she realized God was aware of her laughter in Genesis 18. Kings wanted her in their harem. And her death at 127 years old was a great emotional loss for Abraham.
His grieving was active and purposeful. He went in to grieve and weep. He got up to secure a burial place for her. Whatever Abraham’s failings (three wives, etc.), we see nonetheless that he loved her.
Death of Sarah (1-2), negotiations with the Hittite leaders in Hebron (3-9), negotiations with Ephron for the cave of Machpelah (10-16).
This first patriarchal death is treated in detail and signifies the importance of mourning and burial rites. We get a peek into the way people in Abraham’s day went about the grieving process. וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ vayavō ‘Avraham lispōd leSarah velivkōtah, “And Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.” This could mean he went into the place where her body was lying or it could simply mean he sat in some place to mourn. The act of mourning and weeping is what is important in the description. He does not let this loss pass without taking time to grieve. Afterwards we read: וַיָּקָם אַבְרָהָם מֵעַל פְּנֵי מֵתוֹ vayaqam ‘Avraham mei’al penei meitō, “And Abraham rose before his departed.” He “rose” because his posture in mourning was sitting. Modern Jewish custom is based on this passage and also Job 2:8 and 2:13 where Job sat and his friends came and sat with him for seven days.
After grieving, Abraham wants a place to bury Sarah, a place which will be a memorial to her. To do this, he must first negotiate with the leaders of the town. As a resident alien he normally has no rights to purchase land. He will pay an exorbitant price to be made an exception. He refuses a gift because he wants the burial cave perpetually for his clan and gifts could often be legally dismissed later, whereas a bill of sale carried legal weight (Walton). The cave Abraham purchased (its traditional location) in Hebron is the second holiest site in modern Judaism (Sarna).
The story calls the people of this place in Canaan “Hittites,” which is historically difficult since their empire was far north in upper Syria. But more than one tradition mentions groups of Hittites in Canaan and some Hittite pottery has been found in the Canaanite period in the land (Sarna). Furthermore, there is a tradition of a different people with a name similar to the Hittites, from Genesis 10:15, the sons of Heth (kheit, Walton). The “Hittites” in Genesis do not have Hittite names, but Semitic ones, and perhaps could be a different people group (Walton).
There is another element to this story as well. It is one of several examples of Abraham gaining certain land rights in various places in Canaan. These are a sort of foreshadowing of Israel’s later possession of the land in keeping with the covenant (Walton).
GENESIS 23:17 – 24:9
God is the Lord of heaven and the people of promise will represent him among the families of the earth. To an ancient like Abraham, “Lord of heaven” signifies a god who is more than a local deity. As Abraham’s servant will be traveling out of Canaan and up into Syria, the aging patriarch wants it known that all these lands under heaven are God’s territory. The servant will carry God with him wherever he goes on this quest for a wife for Isaac.
As to choosing a wife from among Abraham’s clan, rather than from among the local Canaanite people, Abraham’s reasoning is sound. It is not that the clan of Terah, Abraham’s father, is more righteous or godly. The danger is not that Abraham’s descendants will become morally corrupt if they marry into local Canaanite stock. The danger is assimilation.
Assimilation is the process whereby a group of people lose their purpose and distinctiveness by simply fitting in to the surrounding culture. In one generation, certainly two, a people can be wiped out by assimilation. Marrying into the local Canaanite culture will put Isaac and Isaac’s future children in the position of being closely tied to the culture and society of Canaan. Every social temptation will be to forget about belonging to Abraham’s offspring and instead be absorbed into the families and ways of the land.
By choosing a wife from the old clan, the clan of his father, Abraham is maintaining a distinctiveness for his son. This is why in Judaism the norm is for Jews to marry Jews or for non-Jewish spouses to convert. The Jewish tribe is a small island in a sea of Gentiles and Gentileness can easily erase it in a deluge. To go on through the ages, remaining the people of the promise representing the Lord of Heaven is a charge to remain distinct. If the people of promise cease to exist, because they all marry out of their Jewishness, then the covenant will fail.
Jewish perseverance against the tide of cultural assimilation is one of history’s most fascinating results. Who would guess that a small people in number could stay culturally bound and do so even in a dispersion among Gentile lands? Is the God of the Bible real? Does he show himself in the world? We have to look at the Jewish people and say, “Here is a sign.”
Legal contract on the cave of Machpelah (17-20), Abraham sends a servant to get a wife for Isaac (24:1-9).
Chapter 23 closes with legal language, similar to written contracts, detailing the contents of the sale (Sarna). Abraham met the condition of land sale to a resident alien, namely that he used it as a burial site. Many other contracts from the time specify, as this one does, that the trees are included in the sale. The contents of these verses make us wonder what kind of source material was available to the author. Is it possible that there were written records available, perhaps stored in Hebron, which the author could access?
Chapter 24 begins a new part of the story, preparing the next generation to maintain its place in God’s promise. Abraham does not want Isaac to take a wife from among the local people. While this could simply be a matter of prejudice on Abraham’s part, a better reason comes to mind, one having to do with the nature of being the covenant people. While the covenant was one-sided, with God making unconditional promises, we have already seen that both God and Abraham have an expectation that the people of promise will be examples in the world of justice and righteousness. At the very least, it will be crucial for the covenant people to be distinctive and to preserve their distinctness for the long term survival of the covenant.
A Canaanite wife will encourage assimilation, with Isaac likely raising children who will fit into Canaanite culture and cease to be distinctive (much like assimilation issues for Jews in our time). Though Abraham’s relatives are not followers of the Lord, still their shared culture will help Isaac’s family remain distinct in Canaan. To reinforce the case that Abraham’s choice is about remaining a distinct people and true to the covenant, he insists that Isaac and his family must dwell in Canaan, the land promised by the Lord.
Abraham’s requirement, that the servant put his hand under Abraham’s thigh, is a euphemism for grasping the genital and swearing the oath. The most likely reason for having his servant grasp his genitals is that the circumcision is the only existing symbol of the covenant. Sarna notes that Abraham describes the Lord as “God of heaven.” This is a way of describing God that, in ancient terms, refers to his universal kingship over all the lands under heaven (as opposed to conceptions of deities as local in their power). The servant will be traveling to another land and Abraham clearly believes God’s kingship is not only in Canaan.
Sometimes in life there are extraordinary events that can only be answered prayers. These stand out all the more because of the hundreds of unanswered ones that precede them. The business of heaven sometimes plays out before us in unexpected ways.
Abraham’s servant prays and asks for a sign, a very specific sign, that the young woman who shows hospitality to him and his camels should be the one. אֹתָהּ הֹכַחְתָּ ōtah hōchachta, “Let her be the one you have appointed.”
Apparently a small amount of hospitality was expected. It would be normal in the nomadic culture for a woman in this situation to offer a man some water. But three things happen that make this sign extraordinary. The first is that the one who offers the water is a young, unmarried woman — exactly what the servant came to seek. The second is that she works far beyond expectation, bringing up as much as 250 gallons of water for his ten camels. Some hospitality this!
The third part of the sign is even more remarkable: she is one of Abraham’s relatives.
We can’t always expect prayers to work out so remarkably well. But as we live our lives trusting and hoping. sometimes life will surprise us.
The servant’s prayer (10-14), the servant’s prayer answered in Rebekah (15-26).
Abraham’s servant journeys to Aram Naharaim, a territory name meaning “Syria between the two rivers.” The rivers in question are the Euphrates and Habur.
Travelers and nomads wandering through the territory of others generally needed permission from a local to use water (Walton, NIV Application Commentary). This cultural feature is the basis of the amazing story which follows.
Seeking a sign from God, the servant of Abraham has a remarkable encounter, one that modern readers are not likely to pick up on. The key bit of information that makes the scene sensational has to do with the amount of water a camel needs after a long journey. Rebekah, a total stranger to Abraham’s servant, welcomes him by an extravagant act of hospitality: watering ten camels while he watches. Ten camels may drink as much as 250 gallons of water (Walton, NIV Application Commentary).
Rebekah will do this with a single jug walked back and forth and poured from the shoulder. Many commentators suggest that the motive of this sign is to find a woman of valor, who is hospitable and hard-working. His prayer is exceeded, since he meets a relative of Abraham’s who is beautiful and a virgin.
The servant returns her generosity with expensive gifts even before knowing her identity. Meeting a bride to be at a well becomes a stock scene in biblical literature (Robert Alter, Art of Biblical Narrative). The usual pattern is a journey, meeting the girl at a well, drawing water, running to announce or greet the traveler, and a feast announcing the match. Similar scenes occur with Jacob and Moses and to some degree Yeshua and the woman at the well in John 4 is a variation.
What if God does not care? What if he does not see? What if he forgets? Abraham’s servant experiences in a powerful way a faithfulness and and a reminder from heaven that God is still working and will not stop.
אֲשֶׁר לֹא־עָזַב חַסְדּוֹ וַאֲמִתּוֹ asher lō-‘azav chasdō va’amitō, “who does not abandon his lovingkindness nor his faithfulness.” The servant uses two key words to describe God’s faithful love: chesed and emmet (חֶסֶד and אֶמֶת). Chesed (lovingkindness, loyal love, devotion) can have many connotations. God shows chesed in being a benefactor to his children, giving for our true good. In this case, God has given a wife with admirable qualities for Abraham’s son, a wife worthy of the purpose of Abraham’s family and the building of the next generation. God answered the servant’s prayer with a sign and led him right to Rebekah.
Emmet is faithfulness, following though on what has been promised. Abraham’s life experience has involved two seemingly opposed tendencies. On the one hand, he has had to wait a long time in ways that tested his faith. On the other hand, at times, punctuating the discouraging decades with moments of gladness, God has acted or spoken or in some way shown Abraham his continuing presence.
Abraham’s servant sees all this and his prayer is one we could adapt to use in our lives: “Blessed be the God of Abraham, who has not abandoned his loyal love and faithfulness!”
Another character in the story, a character who becomes the villain, also sees perceptively what is happening. Laban agrees to the match between Rebekah and Isaac because he perceives that a god, the God of Abraham, is behind this turn of events. כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה ka’asher diber Adonai, “as Adonai has spoken.” The relentless will of God is moving on the earth, as Laban can see, and there is no resisting it. God has spoken here not in words, but in events. Though Laban will eventually try to turn all of this to his profit (the coming story with Jacob) he nonetheless recognizes the divine hand.
God has acted in chesed and emmet, loyal love and faithfulness. This pair of words is a theme in the Psalms, particularly Psalm 40 and 57. And it becomes a theme in the Gospel, in John 1:14, “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The pair of words, grace and truth, is charis and aleithia, Greek cognates for chesed and emmet. The author of the Gospel sees Yeshua as the culmination of the theme of God’s work through the family of Abraham to unfailingly bring good to human beings from heaven.
The Lord’s grace and truth (27), Laban prepares hospitality for the servant (28-33), the servant’s story (34-49), Laban and Bethuel give Rebekah as betrothed (50-52).
Even something as seemingly small as finding a wife for Isaac is related to the covenant. Abraham’s motives in seeking a wife outside of Canaan have been about the covenant: that his clan should remain distinct as a people and not assimilate. Now Abraham’s servant speaks and behind his words the narrator is making a point about God’s loyalty to covenant.
The Lord of Heaven does not abandon loyal adherence (chesed) nor faithfulness (emet) to his promises. The same pair of words is used in several Psalms (40 and 57) as well as in John 1:14, where it is translated “grace and truth” in most versions (charis and aletheia).
By providing for the further fruitfulness of Abraham’s clan, God has shown his covenant grace and loyalty. Abraham’s clan will continue to be distinct in Canaan, not assimilating into the population ad culture there. Laban takes charge and seems to have a more prominent role than his father, Bethuel. The narrative emphasizes that Abraham’s wealth is the main motive for Laban in agreeing to the match. Laban’s final words are ironic. He does not know the Lord, but he is right that all has happened according to the Lord’s will.
Unknowingly the nations of the world are drawn toward the culmination of things God has planned. Rebekah’s family in Syria does not know the God of Abraham and they have not been part of the promises expressed in theophanies. Yet as they bless their maiden who will journey down to Canaan and marry Isaac, they unwittingly echo the blessings God has spoken over Abraham’s offspring.
“Our sister, may you become thousands of ten thousands,” אֲחֹתֵנוּ אַתְּ הֲיִי לְאַלְפֵי רְבָבָה, ‘achōteinu ‘at hayi le’alfei revavah. As God had said to Abraham, “Look at the stars, so will your offspring be.” From the tiny beginning of Abraham, the nation of Israel will grow and influence the world. Rebekah’s family may simply be expressing a common, culturally appropriate wish for their young maiden, but in this case their blessing will come true.
“And may your offspring possess the gate of his despiser,” וְיִירַשׁ זַרְעֵךְ אֵת שַׁעַר שֹׂנְאָיו vayiyrash zar’eich et sha’ar sōn’av. The last part of the family’s blessing for Rebekah is nearly identical to God’s blessing over Abraham after the binding of Isaac, “Your offspring will possess the gate of his enemies” (22:17). The author represents Rebekah’s family as unknowingly echoing the promise. The purposeful message here is that God’s plans are not limited in scope to Israel. History will proceed with the inevitable influence of Jewish thought on the world in spite of hatred directed toward Israel. And many among the nations will benefit from the Abrahamic promise.
There is a certain inevitability to God’s plans that is not thwarted by human free will. How does this irresistible undertow of grace pull us out deeper? How do the worst attempts of evil succumb to the invisible tide of divine love bringing us to western shores? The author of Genesis isn’t quite being that philosophical, yet the very idea that the promise spreads from Abraham’s people to all others contains wondrous thoughts.
The bride price and gifts (53), negotiating to leave without delay (54-58), Rebekah is sent off with a powerful blessing (59-61), Isaac walking (meditating?) in the field sees Rebekah (62-63), Rebekah sees Isaac (64-65), Isaac takes Rebekah as wife (66-67).
The custom of paying the family of the young woman a bride price in the form of gifts are referred to in ancient Akkadian texts (Sarna). The gifts compensate the bride’s family for losing her (see Exod 22:16, the mohar). Laban wants a ceremony of ten days before Rebekah leaves, but the servant is eager to return quickly to serve Abraham faithfully. The nurse is someone obviously dear to Rebekah and is named in 35:8 as Deborah.
The blessing is a variation of the very one the Lord spoke over Abraham after the binding of Isaac (Gen 22:16-18). Rebekah’s family, in their blessing spoken over her, unwittingly affirm the covenant blessings promised to Abraham’s line, continuing a theme in Genesis in which outsiders affirm the covenant. Vs. 63 has had a variety of interpretations.
The word rendered variously walk/meditate/turn/relax (lashu’ach) is used only once in the Bible and its meaning is unknown. This verse is famously interpreted in rabbinic texts as evidence that the Patriarchs prayed the ma’ariv (evening prayer). Rebekah’s veil was put on to signal that she was a bride. Sarna recounts evidence that veils were worn as part of the marriage ceremony. Isaac takes her into his mother’s tent, signifying that Rebekah is the new matriarch.
Isaac’s love for Rebekah is described in undeniably emotional terms, a rare window into the feelings of the characters.
The purpose of closing out the lives of people in Genesis with genealogies is to show that God kept all his promises. Unlike the experience we have in life with nearly anything else, the Bible tells us we will ultimately not be disappointed with God’s follow through on things he has pledged to do. In our early years we are anxious, we strive for some place in the universe and worry about getting what we need. As we mature, hopefully we grow in trust and we begin looking more retrospectively and seeing faithfulness.
“You shall be the father of a multitude of nations,” God said to Abraham (17:4). We think of Abraham, rightly so, as the patriarch of Israel. But through Hagar and Keturah he fathered other nations too. 25:6 mentions concubines, perhaps meaning Hagar and Keturah, or perhaps suggesting there were more women in Abraham’s life as well. Many desert tribes came from Abraham and also nations, such as Midian.
Abraham lived to old age, blessed in many ways just as God had said. God did all he promised for him and more. And then we read the note that he was “gathered to his kin.” This expression could mean “buried where his ancestors were laid,” except for the fact that Abraham’s grave was nowhere near his ancestors. Or it could mean simply “he left the land of the living and joined his kin in death.”
But the expression carries with is a hopeful note, seemingly intended as a positive statement and not sad one. Therefore it seems to have been a vague impression people had, before there was a knowledge of specifics about what the afterlife might hold, that something good was in store for at least some people after death. It is doubtful this could have been the notion of Sheol (Hades, the underworld, etc.) where people only halfway lived on as shades (ghosts) who were no longer fully human. This verse about being “gathered to his kin” comes from the Priestly source of the Torah, and as we know from the theology of Leviticus, the priests of Israel expected that where God was there was life, even afterlife.
The sons of Keturah (1-6), the death and burial of Abraham (7-11).
Abraham lived thirty-five years after Isaac’s marriage but the events of those years are unrecorded (Sarna). The Abraham stories begin and end with genealogies (11:10-32 and 25:1-18). The purpose of the closing genealogy is to show how all God’s promises to Abraham were kept. Sarna lists evidences that the genealogy is ancient (for example, it does not use the term “Arab,” which came into use in the 9th century BCE).
Abraham becomes the father of many nations, as promised, because through Hagar and Keturah, many tribes of Arabic peoples started under God’s blessing. Did Abraham take Keturah as wife or concubine (vs. 1 says wife, but vs. 6 refers to “concubines”)? Did he take her before Sarah’s death or after? The problem with assuming he took her after is his age. He was already concerned that he was too old to sire children, yet he had six sons with Keturah. It may be that Keturah became his concubine long before Sarah died.
The best known nation to come from Keturah is Midian, a people with whom Israel will have enmity in the future. Ashurrim in vs. 3 is not the famed Assyria, but another, much smaller people, with the same name (Sarna).
In the death of Abraham, the phrase “gathered to his kin” is of interest. The phrase is used also of Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Aaron, and Moses. Sarna argues it is not about burial or interment of bones in a patriarchal tomb because neither Abraham, Aaron, nor Moses was interred with his ancestors. The idiom, though non-specific, reflects an early belief in afterlife. Abraham dies old and content, as God had promised (15:15) and the blessing goes on to Isaac (vs. 11).
So many stories are untold in the Bible, with only vague hints left to suggest something larger to us. Already we are surprised to find that Ishmael’s line is treated in Genesis almost like the chosen line of Isaac. Alone of all the “other” family lines of the Bible, we read that Ishmael was “gathered to his kin.” As was the case with this note about Abraham in vs. 8, the expression probably carries with it a hopeful view of life beyond death. Genesis says this only about Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob.
But there is another surprise in the summation story of Ishmael’s line. One of the subgroups of Ishmaelites apparently had a long history of close ties with Israel, becoming temple servants and returning with the people of Judah from exile in Babylon.
One of Ishmael’s sons is נָפִישׁ Naphish. Apparently when Reuben and Gad were settling in the land across the Jordan river (where the modern nation of Jordan is today) they fought a number of people groups, including the people of Naphish (1 Chron 5:19). We hear nothing at this point about the aftermath and the close relationship the sons of Naphish will develop with Israel.
But in both Ezra and Nehemiah, when listing those who returned from exile, we find that the נְפִיסִים Nefisim were among them. There is apparently some discrepancy in spelling in the records because although the list in Nehemiah is supposed to be identical to the one in Ezra, there are three spellings in all for this people group: נְפִיסִים Nefisim (Ezra 2:50) and נְפוּשְׁסִים Nefushsim (Nehemiah 7:52, what the scribes received as the written form or Ketiv) and נְפִישְׁסִים Nefis’shim (margin of Nehemiah 7:52, what the scribes believed was a more correct form or Qere).
Consider that the list of returnees from Babylon includes Israelites and also people closely connected with Israel. Both Ezra and Nehemiah divide their list into Israelites, Levites, temple servants, and “servants of Solomon.” These last two groups are people who apparently developed a close tie with Israel and came to work on the temple, performing the daily labors needed to maintain the worship activities there. Given the confusion about spelling, it is not difficult to see that the נְפִיסִים are quite likely the descendants of Ishmael’s son Nafish and that they settled with Israel and became part of the broader Israelite nation.
The sons of Ishmael (12-16), the death of Ishmael (17-18).
Ishmael is unique, the only non-Israelite whose life span, death, and a notice of being gathered to his people occurs. Some of the peoples/sons of Ishmael are known from sources outside of the Bible. Some are mentioned later in the prophets (Tema, for example, is in Job 6:19; Isa 21:14; and Jer 25:23). The people of Naphish may have converted/assimilated into Israel by the return from exile (Ezra 2:50; Neh 7:52). The note in vs. 16 that Ishmael’s sons formed twelve tribes fulfills the promise to him in 17:20.