Debts and Death Dues

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January is a scary month—if only because the December bills begin to pile up in the mail box. Debt haunts us and then hunts us down. Here's a lesson from Abraham.

How odd that the first piece of the promised land that Abraham ever owned was a burial plot for Sarah. The Almighty had promised to give him all of Canaan as an inheritance, but when Sarah died, he was still a pilgrim, a nomad, a tent-dweller without a stake in the ground to mark his turf.

Genesis 23 describes the negotiations between Abraham and the owner of the cave in which the patriarch wanted to bury his wife. This is, apparently, the first mention of metal (silver) being exchanged for goods and services, and a reference to the custom of using a go-between or a mediator to negotiate a transaction. Abraham goes to the Hittites and asks, “…intercede with Ephron son of Zohar on my behalf so he will sell me the cave at Machpelah, which belongs to him and is at the end of his field. Ask him to sell it to me for the full price as a burial site among you” (23:8, 9).

Such was Abraham’s reputation among the Canaanites that Ephron would have given the cave to Abraham for free, but he insisted on paying the full price.

That was curious. I thought perhaps Abraham might be reluctant to take anything from a pagan and end up being beholden to someone who did not acknowledge the true God. But here is what Matthew Henry says about the episode:

Abraham rendered honour and respect to the princes of Heth, although of the ungodly Canaanites. The religion of the Bible enjoins to pay due respect to all in authority, without flattering their persons, or countenancing their crimes if they are unworthy characters. And the noble generosity of these Canaanites shames and condemns the closeness, selfishness, and ill-humour of many that call themselves Israelites. It was not in pride that Abraham refused the gift, because he scorned to be beholden to Ephron; but in justice and in prudence. Abraham was able to pay for the field, and therefore would not take advantage of Ephron's generosity. Honesty, as well as honour, forbids us to take advantage of our neighbour's liberality, and to impose, upon those who give freely.

It struck me that Abraham was practicing the New Testament instruction given to us by Jesus to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21) and to what Paul would later say in reference to our attitude toward our elected representatives: “Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, expect the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:7, 8).

Abraham showed his respect to the Hittites for their consideration and generosity though they did not believe as he did (23:7, 12). And, because he had the means to do so, he paid the debt that he owed even to those he could have taken advantage of (23:16). He could have thrown his weight around—after all God had divinely decreed that all this land belonged to him anyway, regardless of his “camping out” lifestyle. He could have saved himself four hundred shekels of silver (about 10 pounds of silver, or 4.5 kilograms), or about 2,500.00 US dollars at today’s market value.

Simple lessons, but valuable lessons, particularly in today’s climate of disrespect toward those who don't share common values with us, and “looking after Number 1-ship” that is so common in our society.

Paul reminds us that the only debt we should be carrying is the love that we owe—first to the Lord who loved us long before we ever loved Him, and then that which we owe to our fellow man expressed by doing them no harm (1 John 4:10, 11).

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