Old Abraham: Conviction and Compromise, Part 1

Jun 20, 2019 5:19 PM

 The Burial of Sarah

Gustave Dore’

Let’stalk about convictions. Not any particular ones, but the subject of personal convictions in general.

Everyone needs a set of convictions by which to live. Convictions are not merely strong opinions, let alone decisions or mere preferences of the moment.  They are fundamental beliefs that some things are true and will always be true, that some things are right and will always be right. New information can and often should change our opinions. A conviction, however, is formed over time, is tested, and once it takes hold it cannot change without changing the person. Convictions are part of one’s character.

In general, a healthy individual has few convictions that are stable and broadly applicable to the variable circumstances of life. Too many convictions make a person rigid, inflexible, and fanatical. A person without convictions, or whose convictions are defined by the ever-shifting sands of modern morality, is adrift in the world and (to borrow an expressionfrom the Apostle Paul) “tossed by every wind of doctrine.” A person with corrupt convictions is a menace to himself and to others. But a soul with morally sound convictions is a blessing to the world.

But are there times with a person of convictions should compromise with a world that does not recognize his convictions, have regard for his religious beliefs,or agree with his moral standards? Two stories from the later life of Abraham give us a clear demonstration of how to discern when compromise is okay, and when on the other hand conviction is not up for negotiation. We’ll look at one today, and another one tomorrow.

Genesis 23: Abraham buys a burial plot

The situation is that Abraham’s beloved wife Sarah, the mother of the son God had promised to him, has died. At this time Abraham is living in the southern region of Canaan near the city of Arba, later (and still today) known as Hebron. Yahweh, God Most High, has promised that this land and the whole expanse of Canaan has been given to Abraham and his descendants. Yet to this day he lives as a nomad, as a squatter on open land. He holds no earthly deed to any real estate in the land God has promised him.

Now with the death of Sarah, Abraham has a new problem. He needs a place to bury her. In her burial he needs to honor her faithful life, and he also needs to give testimony to the promise of God and to his ultimate hope in posterity and even life after death.

Up to this point Abraham has never invested a penny in real estate. All his money has gone into stock—livestock, that is. But now he goes to his neighbors and bids to purchase some land that would be a suitable tomb for Sarah and eventually for himself and his heirs. He selects the Cave of Machpelah, owned by one Ephron the son of Zohar.

The people of that region are called Hittites—literally it says, “sons of Heth.” It is possible that these were a tribe of Semitic Amorites who lived in that area and happened to have a similar name to the Hittites. It is not out of the question, however, that the people Abraham was dealing with were foreign colonists who were in control of that territory. Archeological evidence is lacking, but we do know that the Indo-Aryan Hittites whose empire was based in central Asia Minor (Turkey) were continual competitors with Egypt for political and commercial dominance of Canaan. In any case, from the long view of history all those who occupied that area were there only for a short time. There was always someone new to come forward to claim ownership of the land.

With this in mind Abraham insisted on purchasing free and clear title to a place that would be a family burial plot. Abraham was much respected by his neighbors and the owner of the land offered simply to donate the land, but Abraham declined. He wanted to pay the full price they might demand so that no one could come back later and say that Abraham had cheated them, or that they were his benefactors. The negotiations are illuminating as to the business customs of the time. He bought it for 400 shekels of silver (approx. 2000 troy ounces). Who knows what a shekel of silver (the “dollar” of that day) could buy?

So here is the question: In view of the promise of God, is this not a compromise of faith and principle? After all, God has given Abraham all this land. Why does not Abraham simply claim it?

The short answer—provided by theological hindsight—is that it was not the time for him to take possession of the land. Conquest and possession was not Abraham’s God-given mission. When God made his covenant with Abraham he specifically told him that his descendants (400 years away) would return to lay claim, “For the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (See Genesis 15:13-21.) How much of that did Abraham understand? We cannot know for sure, but his actions show that he thought of himself as a hopeful sojourner, not an owner. Though he fought when he had to in defense of his kin, Abraham was a man of peace and his mission was of peace.

When Abraham bought a burial plot, it looked like a compromise, and admission that what God had given him did not truly belong to him, and that his faith was only a dream—perhaps even a fraud. In fact, however, Abraham was practicing his faith. As much for his descendants’ sake as for his own, he accepts the temporary dominance of the world over his possession and buys from the pagans the recognition that he rightfully owns at least a piece of it.

In later years his son Isaac, also a peace-loving man, followed his father’s example, negotiating the rights to water wells that his father had dug.

There is a pseudo-spirituality that can take one of two directions. It may be hyperactive, naming and claiming “by faith” everything in the world that the believer wants or thinks he needs. Or it may instead be totally passive, expecting that the whole world will be laid in his lap with no effort whatever on his part.

But the true child of God lives by faith a kind of life in the present day that will not be revealed until the Age to Come. The only way the world will see this life is to see us live it. It is a life of hope, of certainty for things that are not yet seen, but will one day be revealed.

In the meanwhile, we do live in the world and have to deal with the world. It is not a compromise of principle to provide for your family by ethical and honest means. Jesus gave a clear word on this when approached about paying the half-shekel tax (Matthew 17:24-27). This tax was not one of the “traditions of men” Jesus condemned, nor was it an imposition by a distant imperial government (Caesar). It was commanded in the Law of Moses (Exodus 30:13; 38:26). Jesus, using a parable, explained to Peter that he personally was exempt from the tax, but would pay it “in order not to be a stumbling block to them.” Projecting this principle back to Abraham, assuming he really did have the right to claim that burial cave according to the promise of a God the local “Hittites” did not believe in, he was still right not to exercise the claim for the sake of not creating a stumbling block to them.

There comes a time, however, when a situational compromise is impossible without compromising faith and conscience. Sometimes we simply must make a stand and trust God for the results. We’ll look at that in tomorrow’s post.