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Why didn't Abraham just bury Sarah somewhere in the wilderness outside of the Hittite territory?

Genesis 23:16 Abraham agreed to Ephron’s terms and weighed out for him the price he had named in the hearing of the Hittites: four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weight current among the merchants.

Why did Abraham bother spending the money? What was wrong with just burying his wife somewhere in the wilderness for free?

Later, Jacob buried Deborah.

Genesis 35:6 Jacob and all the people with him came to Luz (that is, Bethel) in the land of Canaan. 7There he built an altar, and he called the place El Bethel, because it was there that God revealed himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother.

8Now Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died and was buried under the oak outside Bethel. So it was named Allon Bakuth.

Jacob buried Rachel.

Genesis 35:19 So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).

What is the significance of Abraham's burial site? I'm only interested in significant effects no later than the time of Jesus.

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  • I modified the question.
    – Tony Chan
    Feb 17 at 15:37
  • Thanks for raising the issue so that I could clarify my question.
    – Tony Chan
    Feb 17 at 15:42
  • +1 I'm surprised it has not been asked before. Some pointers: gotquestions.org "no significance" answer. Just a warning: this can turn into heated issue between Israeli vs. Palestinian narrative (such as this article). So you may want to frame it narrower, from a Christian perspective. Feb 17 at 15:47
  • I amended the question. Thanks for the warning. I had no idea.
    – Tony Chan
    Feb 17 at 16:04
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    The cave is where Lot escaped to from Zoar
    – R. Emery
    Feb 18 at 6:57
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Stephen, as reported by Luke, in Acts, and the writer to the Hebrews, make it clear why this transaction means so much in regard to what was promised to Abraham, in the context of what he appeared to receive.

Stephen states that 'the God of glory appeared to ... Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia' and as a result Abraham removed to Canaan, wherein :

he gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on: [KJV]

and promised to him to give it unto possession [literal]

επηγγειλατο αυτω δουναι εις κατασχεσιν αυτην [TR]

[Acts 7:5 KJV and TR, undisputed]

The promise was unto possession. But Abraham never possessed any of it and had to pay for a space in which to bury his wife.

Of Abraham, the writer to the Hebrews says, Hebrews 11:8-13 :

By faith Abraham ... went out not knowing whither he went ... By faith he sojourned in the land of promise as in a strange country ... These all died in faith not having received the promises but having seen them afar off ... confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims upon earth.

The promise, what it actually was, is made clear by Paul :

... for the promise that he should be the heir of the world was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. [Romans 4:13 KJV]

God was promising, throughout Abraham's life (look to the north, the south, the east and the west, to thee and to thy seed shall I give it) the whole earth for a possession. As far as Abraham could see to the horizon (about fifteen miles, at best) was not the promise. What God was promising was 'the north, the south, the east and the west'.

The inheritance, as is made clear in the New Testament, was a new earth : under new heavens.

And to thy seed (singular) is the promise, through Abraham and through David to Jesus Christ :

Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. [Galatians 3:16 KJV]

Thus Abraham bought a grave in which to bury Sarah for he did not (and would never) gain possession of even a foot's breadth of land in Canaan.

For the promise was the world to come.

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The answer to this requires looking beyond traditional interpretations, and considering more recent understanding of Genesis, in particular incorporating a Hebraic viewpoint. This answer is provided for consideration, but may not necessary be accepted by all. I’m sure there will be other views to consider.

Nevertheless.....

After Babel, Genesis 10, the people of the earth were divided up into the nations. In Deuteronomy 32 (Moses’s commentary of this event.), we see that these nations had allocated boundaries. But more, the nations had ‘assigned’ over them the sons of god.

DEUT 32:8 When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.

Now, this is the ESV version. Other versions will differ. The King James Version will have ‘children of Israel’ in place of ‘sons of god’. Reason [briefly] the KJ uses Masoretic Text as its source, the ESV uses the Dead Sea scrolls as its source (and the Septuagint as backing). Hence one reason for a differing interpretation. But, this to one side ...

God gave away the nations, but He needed one for his purpose. And, Abraham was chosen to be the father of that nation. And, the allocated boundaries for God nation was Canaan.

In Genesis 23, the passage you selected, Abraham was in the land (wilderness) of another god (under a ‘son of god). He was in a land which had been allowed, by God, to another nation. Abraham needed to bury some of his party on this land. The people of that land offered it to him - but - (and this is crucial, but I won’t fully explain here), God was to be Abraham’s only source. Not some ‘other’ god. Hence Abraham needed to pay what was due, and not accept provision from a different source. We see examples of this exact principle later in Abraham’s life. Example Abraham refusing to accept the spoils of victory after a battle from those other kings.

Now, to summarise, obviously being buried in the land allocated to you by your God/god is the desired resting place. And further, the site that relates to your ancestors. These help prioritise and value the final resting place. So for the children of Israel, Canaan is that land. But as in the case of Abraham in the land of the Hitites, this is not always possible. And these territorial issues are still ‘real’ today', fuelled by both ‘spiritual’ influence and sentiment.

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There is some background cultural context to understand here.

First in the conversation with the Hittites, Abraham says he wants his own burial site (v4). Then they offer to let him use one of theirs (v6), then Abraham presses that he wants buy his own site in verse 9. Then Ephron arises and says he will give to him, but here it is actually unclear if he wants to sell or if it is a gift. Abraham doesn't want a gift as it would make him indebted to Ephron. He wants a clear transfer of ownership with no strings attached, so the land could belong to him and his descendents.

Here is the WBC commentary:

Ephron’s response is almost as warm as the remarks made earlier by his colleagues, the Hittites (v 6). Three times he offers to “give” to Abraham the cave and the land. At least he makes no mention of payment. This may simply be a matter of oriental courtesy—offering to give when really he is proposing a sale. Or he may simply be reiterating the former offer that Abraham can use his grave but implying that he does not intend to sell the land in perpetuity. Land merely “given” is land on loan. A gift, as opposed to a sale, places the recipient under obligation to the donor. So if Abraham accepted the cave and land as a free gift from Ephron, he could find himself indebted to him in other ways. Ephron’s remarks are ambiguous: it is not clear whether he is ready to sell or merely to “give” the land to Abraham. However, the narrative does emphasize the public nature of his response: “Ephron … answered Abraham out loud before the Hittites before all those entering the gateway of the city.” According to Reviv (IEJ 27 [1977] 190–91), “those entering the gateway of the city” is a technical term (Akk. amilû ša bābi) for the elders of the city, who conducted legal affairs in the city gate. And Ephron himself draws attention to the public character of his offer, “Before all my people I give it to you.”

Wenham, G. J. (1994). Genesis 16–50 (Vol. 2, p. 128). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

Second, That plot of land then becomes significant to the Israelite community that existed when this book was written because the patriarchs -- the founders of the nation -- are buried there and thus it is the land of their forefathers, and so they can claim it as their homeland even if technically it is just a burial plot. It was land which they bought for a fair price and belongs to Abraham's descendents by inheritance. So it is a toe-hold for them and helps justify the conquest as planned in Exodus and executed in Joshua.

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One significance is that it served as an intergenerational family burial site:

Genesis 49:29Then Jacob instructed them, “I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite. 30The cave is in the field of Machpelah near Mamre, in the land of Canaan. This is the field Abraham purchased from Ephron the Hittite as a burial site. 31There Abraham and his wife Sarah are buried, there Isaac and his wife Rebekah are buried, and there I buried Leah. 32The field and the cave that is in it were purchased from the Hittites.”

Another significance is to remind the Goshen Israelites of the unfinished business with the bones of Joseph:

Genesis 50:24 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” 25And Joseph made the Israelites swear an oath and said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place.”

The 3rd significance is that it served as a reminder to the Israelites in Egypt. God had promised Abraham's descendants to give them the land of the Hittites. Even as they were living in Goshen, they knew they had a permanent property in Machpelah. It was a kind of initial deposit symbolism. There would be more to come. One day, they would take possession of all the land of the Hittites.

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