Written by Paul J. Bucknell on January, 14, 2019
Genesis 23 Living by Promise
An examination of how in extreme times of testing we can live by faith, triumphing over the responses of bitterness and despair.
And after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field at Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. So the field and the cave that is in it, were deeded over to Abraham for a burial site by the sons of Heth (Genesis 23:19-20).
Strong Christians live by promise, relying on the Lord’s words. Life will not go as smoothly as we might wish or plan. There are reasons for that. The evil one persistently plots to shipwreck God’s people, but God also uses such trying times to bring us through a special faith training class. Our focus here is not to discuss the reason for our troubles in our sin-sick world, but on how we are to endure these crisis times.
Importance of Faith
Faith is a key component of the Christian’s DNA. We come to know God by faith in Jesus and His work for us on the cross. This is a fundamental truth of the gospel and the Scriptures, but what we sometimes forget or disregard is the fact that we also need to live by faith. God hasn’t changed the basic ways He works with His people through the ages. Genesis 23 provides an excellent example of how faith might work out in times of grief. The Lord, interestingly, uses this whole chapter to focus us on this one event when Abraham’s wife, Sarah, died at 127 years-old.
Our first response should be to identify with Abraham’s pain and join him in the loss of his longtime companion, leaving him alone with the promises of God. Sarah is no longer there to share life with him. Though promised the whole land of Canaan, this incident serves as a sharp reminder that he still had not received the land. God promised the land to Abraham if he would leave his old land and go to where He showed him, now known as Israel, but the promises were still unfulfilled. Although wealthy, Abraham was a shepherd and moved from place to place. He had no land to call his own, and even his miraculously-born son had no wife. Not being a grandparent, he had no descendants being far removed from his family and relatives.
The Challenges to Our Faith
The challenge comes obvious when Abraham needs to buy a plot of land to bury his wife. In the past, he had to face the lack of sons to carry on his family name (Genesis 15), but now he is forced to focus on the missing promised land. Having no property, Abraham had to buy a tiny piece of land to give a resting place for the bones of his precious wife, Sarah.
This is probably not the way Abraham and Sarah originally understood God’s promises. Yahweh promised, “I am the LORD who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it’” (Genesis 15:7). Where is the Lord’s promise?
I can imagine the evil one mocking him, “Well, do you have enough money to buy the whole land?” Do you see how this could be a sore spot for Abraham? There’s no way he could buy the whole land of Canaan. If this small plot of land cost 400 shekels of silver, how much would the whole land cost? It was obvious that this would not be possible, especially as many hostile nations were living in the land. Satan regularly insinuates, especially in desperate times like these, that God is not faithful to His promises. Abraham did right to buy the property for his wife, but the purchase proved to be a test. This grieving time would be a great opportunity for the evil one to provoke Abraham. “What did the Lord promise?” “Are you sure that is what He said?” “He didn’t fulfill His promises, did He?”
I admit that we do not read of Abraham’s doubt as we earlier did in Genesis 15 regarding his descendants. We don’t see any doubt here but assume Abraham hasn’t changed that much, and this incident became a challenge to his faith. This whole chapter points us to the unfulfilled promise of the land. This passage verifies he had no land had to buy the little plot to bury his wife. Abraham is asking; we are asking, “Where is Abraham’s promised land?” This question is meant to come to the foreground of our thoughts as we read Genesis 23.
Disappointment and Expectations
To be honest, our expectations are not always met either, at least in the terms we think or dream of their fulfillment. Abraham only owned a tiny plot of land to be buried! These were challenging times for Abraham, a time of testing.
Faith means we live in light of God’s promises. This is true with our faith in the way God saves us (Eph 2:8-9) but also in the practical details of life. These life issues easily form thresholds for our faith to walk through. We can walk away, or we can, like Abraham, walk up Mount Moriah with our only son. I can hear—maybe because I have many times heard him tempt me this way—Satan laugh at Abraham, “You’re a fool. Look what you got in the end. You even had to buy the plot of ground for your wife. Forget God; it’s all an illusion. There’s no promised land.”
These desperate times become easy entry points for bitterness and despair to enter. We need to stand guard. Satan tempts us by using the unfulfilled promises to instigate disappointment with God, treating Him as if He has been unfaithful. Abraham had now a foothold in the land, but that is very different from being given the whole land.
God’s people often face trials and testings. These trials testing our faith are not uncommon (James 1:2-6). What thoughts fill your minds at such testing times? These suggested doubts can swirl about our minds, at times. Can you think of such a time when you faced such testings in your life? We will face such times and ought not to be too surprised when they come. Some embittered Christians end up blaming God for everything that disappoints them in life. Others leave God. But God inserts these chapters here to remind us that He was proud of how Abraham twice chose to live by faith. Let’s note how Abraham handled things.
Abraham, in Genesis 24, sent out a servant to search for a wife for Isaac in the very next chapter. He took the practical step of faith to look for a wife, not from that accursed land but as God directed him. Abraham in faith sent out his servant. The servant, not having as much faith as Abraham, points to its impossibility by saying, “Suppose the woman will not be willing to follow me to this land; should I take your son back to the land from where you came” (Gen 24:5)? Notwithstanding, Abraham “did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God” (Rom 4:20) and sent out his servant to find that wife for Isaac. Abraham would live by faith by making the next hard decision before him consistent with what God had earlier indicated to him.
“Yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what He had promised, He was able also to perform” (Rom 4:20-21).
What is the next step for you? It might be a time of grieving, but, when that is past, pursue a life of faith even if it looks ridiculous to others or vain in your sight. That is how faith works. We live according to the spiritual insight into who God is, what He has said, what He wants. Faith is not belief in illusions but in what is real, but those things seem invisible or not real to others.
Are you facing any disappointments? Work through them. Don’t worry if you don’t know how it will work out. We can be open with others to say, “I am not sure how it will specifically work out” but add the words of faith, “But I know God will watch over all my needs and concerns.”
God works this way at times. He brings us down to where we are broken and realize it can only happen if God makes it happen. This is the way God trains us by faith alone. By God alone.
We know how the story goes on, and God miraculously answers Abraham’s prayer of a wife for Isaac (Genesis 24) and through this one son all the promised descendants come. We also have all the necessary details on how God will give his descendants the whole land of Canaan. In Genesis 15:14-16, God hinted that it would not take place in his lifetime. The Lord had other objectives to first accomplish for the people in that land. Again, this is all told in the Old Testament historical books, the story of the Exodus, Joshua, and King David.
Abraham would never see all the land in his possession even though the land was promised to him. Sometimes the promises that we hope in never happen in our lifetime either. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t. Don’t insist on it. Rather, let your faith steer you.
“By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb 11:8-10).
Right now, I can think of several promises God seeded into my hopes regarding revival. I hope they happen in my lifetime and that I can take part in them or see them, but through passages like this, I no longer insist on the timing and am more open as to how God might fulfill these promises. Maybe God wants these promises to happen through my sons or through someone I’m training in the ministry. That’s okay, but the Lord wants my faith to latch onto these promises, keep them alive in prayer, and live in light of them. Meanwhile, like Abraham, I take the next obvious step before me.
So to conclude, God’s people, at times, experience bitter life experiences. We are not excluded from such difficult times. Satan will try to convince us that God has not been faithful. This scene can and will be repeated but with you as one of the characters, not Abraham. The evil one tempts us with extra difficult temptations, usually at the worst of times much like how Satan tempted Job (Job 1-3). The evil one tries to persuade us to leave our God and drop our hope in God’s promises. But we persistently, step-by-step, pursue Him by taking the Lord at His Word. They might not look like big steps, but they are. Follow through and trust the Lord to fulfill all His promises and blessings in His time and ways. God finished Abraham’s story not only to put in place God’s true eternal redemptive plan through Jesus but to encourage us to live by faith as Abraham did.