The Stranger’s Grave

Genesis 23 starts off with a small story, almost incidental, that never caught my attention until a few days ago.  Abraham’s wife Sarah, the “mother of nations” (Genesis 17:16)  who conceived Abraham’s miracle child Isaac, died at 127 years old.  Doubtless this was heartbreaking for Abraham–he had followed the Lord for years now with this woman at his side. She had been his faithful companion through many trials, and together they had enjoyed the promises of God.  But finally God called to this faithful woman, and she went where we all eventually go.

After Abraham was done mourning for her, “Abraham stood up from before his dead, and spake unto the sons of Heth, saying, I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a buryingplace with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight” (Genesis 23:3-4).  Abraham was not a native of the land, and so he has to buy land to use as a grave for Sarah.  Under these circumstances it is not so odd that Abraham would call himself a sojourner/תושב (tōshav)–someone who temporarily lives in a country without becoming a naturalized citizen.  After all, Abraham had already sojourned in Egypt, Gerar, and Philistia before coming to live in Hebron.  But it strikes me as interesting that Abraham calls himself “a stranger and a sojourner”.

For one thing, the word stranger/גר (gār) or the idea of being a stranger/מגור (mägur) is frequently associated with God’s prophetic covenant to make Abraham and his seed into a great nation and to give them the promised land.

  • And [God] said to Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs (Gen 15:13)
  • And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Caanan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God (Genesis 17:8)
  • See also Genesis 28:4, 37:1

But more to the point, stranger often carried the negative connotation of  not belonging or being unwanted in a place.  Often the Old Testament depicts strangers in a negative light, describing them as separate from God, his law, and his people (Psalm 54:3, Joel 3:17, for examples).  The New Testament uses the word stranger to refer to us being separated from God before Christ brought salvation: “ye were without Christ, being…strangers from the covenants of promise” (Ephesians 2:12).  As unsaved sinners, we were not Abrahamic strangers who were blessed with God’s promises; we were strangers separated from God’s promises and condemned.

This is the typical view of strangers, in the Old Testament especially.  So when I heard this story about Abraham, a stranger, having to purchase a place to bury his wife, it immediately got me thinking.

There is a price associated with the death of a sinner separated from God.   Romans 6:23 tells us that “the wages of sin is death.”  When we die as strangers, men and women estranged from God, there is a price to pay.  It always costs something to bury a stranger.

It is also noteworthy that this episode happens among “the children of Heth.”  The name Heth/חת means terror, and comes from the Hebrew word chathath/חתת which means to break down with fearto break in pieces; this word is often associated with the judgement of God on the wicked (e.g., Isaiah 8:9).  We pay a price when we die as a stranger separated from God.  We become judged by God.  We become broken like a “potters’ vessel that is broken in pieces [chathath/חתת]” (Isaiah 30:14).  The wages of our sin is death.  It always costs something to bury a stranger.

But there is hope.  The Bible tells us that when Jesus died on the cross, by God’s grace he tasted death for every man (Hebrews 2:9).  If we talk about people being strangers separated from God, Jesus Christ is the furthest thing from a stranger!  He was God’s only begotten Son, a man never separated from God by sin.  He had constant fellowship with the Father, was empowered by the Spirit, and walked as the incarnation of the living God!  When it comes to God, Jesus was no stranger—but he paid the price for us who are strangers.

When we look at where Abraham purchases Sarah’s grave, we see that he bought two things: a field and a cave (Genesis 23:27).  The cave immediately conjures the image of the tomb hewn out of a rock where Jesus was buried.  In the same way that Sarah was laid in a stone tomb, so Jesus was laid in a stone tomb and resurrected three days later.

But it gets more interesting.  Abraham did not buy just a cave, but a field.  Whenever Jesus died on the cross, scripture tells us that Judas felt remorse and attempted to return the money he had been paid to betray Jesus (Matthew 27:3-4).  When the Jewish leaders would not accept the money, Judas threw it down and left to hang himself (27:5).  Because it was blood money, the temple leaders refused to put the silver pieces back in the treasury; but instead, “they took counsel, and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in” (Matthew 27:7).

The blood money of Jesus bought a field to bury strangers in!  Abraham no longer has to pay for his own field!  The blood of Jesus can pay the cost to bury strangers!  And notice what kind of field that they used to bury strangers in: the potter’s field.  A potter’s field was a place where a potter would throw out his broken and useless pottery.  In the same way that Abraham payed his money in front of the sons of Heth—-a name that symbolizes judgement, terror, and breaking in pieces—-so Jesus’ blood money purchased a field of pottery that was broken in pieces.  It doesn’t matter how broken we are; it doesn’t matter even if the judgement of God has broken us in pieces.  Jesus has payed the price before the sons of Heth: he has purchased the field of broken vessels.

We are all strangers from God, broken vessels in a broken field.  Without Jesus we will be like Abraham, having to pay our own price to the sons of Heth—-God’s judgement and destruction.  It always costs something to bury a stranger, but the blood of Jesus pays the price!

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