On Burials and Bargains

Upon the surface, Genesis 23 seems rather curious in its choice of emphases. In the terse space of a single verse it records Sarah's death and Abraham's mourning (Gen. 23.2). The remaining twenty-odd verses (Gen. 23.3-20) of the chapter summarize Abraham's efforts -- admittedly intriguing but seemingly less significant -- to secure a proper place of sepulture for his deceased wife. "It is remarkable," Calvin comments, "that Moses, who relates the death of Sarah in a single word, uses so many in describing her burial."

Nevertheless, the Reformer, far from judging said account of Abraham's efforts "superfluous," finds in it critical fodder for reflection on two matters: human burial practices and the equally common if less grave (no pun intended) human art of haggling over prices.

To note the latter first, Calvin draws some significance from Abraham's careful and repeated insistence upon paying "full price" (Gen. 23.9) for a burial plot for Sarah. There is, Calvin believes, theological significance in Abraham's refusal to receive said plot as a gift: Abraham knows that this plot constitutes one piece of the land promised to him by God, and he will not receive from the hand of a heathen that which God ultimately intends to deliver to him. But Abraham also, to Calvin's thinking, exemplifies a properly moral approach to financial transactions more generally in his insistence upon paying "full price" for this land. Abraham essentially refuses, on moral grounds, a bargain -- and so Calvin implies (to our great discomfort I'm sure) should we in our own financial affairs.

Calvin assumes that all items should be bought and sold for their actual, inherent worth, utterly regardless of issues like supply, demand, or concern for profit margin. This conviction informs rather harsh words on his part for both retailers and consumers and their intuitive stance towards the other: "Where is there one to be found, who, in buying, and in other business, does not eagerly pursue his own advantage at another's cost? For while the seller sets the price at twice the worth of a thing, that he may extort as much as possible from the buyer, and the buyer, in return, by shuffling, attempts to reduce it to a low price, there is no end of bargaining." Thus "avarice" trumps "equity and justice."

Needless to say, perhaps, such morally loaded thinking about the practice of purchasing spells likely disaster for capitalist economies (no matter the notable efforts of some to enlist Calvin as an early modern champion for the same). It also likely stands to dampen considerably our enthusiasm for whatever bargains we (naively) believe we have bagged at whatever recent sale. On a more positive note, it might provide much-needed moral dimension to our outrage at inflated medical costs or bewilderment at fluctuating petrol prices.

Moving on. Calvin's comments on human burial practices are relatively surprising in light of his notorious insistence some years later that he himself be buried in an unmarked grave. One might anticipate Calvin taking a dour view of all ritual and custom whatsoever connected with burial of the dead. And, to be sure, Calvin does take a jab at both pagans and "papists" for their efforts "to outdo each other in various superstitions" and "ceremonies" attached to burial of their deceased. But the most basic (and ceremonial) act of burial itself -- an act Calvin perceives as "common" to every culture and civilization -- testifies not, in Calvin's judgment, to "foolish curiosity," "the desire of fruitless consolation," or universal "superstition," but rather to "the natural sense with which God has imbued the minds of men; a sense he has never suffered to perish, in order that men might be witnesses to themselves of a future life."

Calvin, in other words, believes that humankind's innate inclination to place their dead six feet (or so) under reflects some deeply imbedded, inherent, universal recognition of an "hour... coming when all who are in the tombs will hear [Christ's] voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment" (John 5. 28-29). Thus, while Calvin warns his readers against overly elaborate burial rituals, he will not let burial per se be stripped of its fundamental religious significance. "It cannot be denied that religion carries along with the care of burial." Burial is, in biblical-theological terms, a type (to which resurrection answers as the antitype). Every concrete act of placing a body in the ground, Calvin judges, witnesses to some future moment when that body will rise from the ground.

But Abraham's peculiar approach to burying his wife contains further religious significance in light of the peculiar promises that God has made to him. Abraham, it must be remembered, has been promised the land he currently traverses as a stranger as a permanent possession for his posterity (cf. Gen. 17.8). Abraham's insistence upon burying his wife in that land, and his concomitant refusal to see her buried indiscriminately among the heathen occupying that land, testifies to Abraham's faith and conviction of her share in that exclusive promise. Calvin discovers particular significance in this regard from the fact that Abraham proved far more concerned to secure a place of burial for Sarah (and ultimately himself) in the Promised Land than he did a place for them to dwell while Sarah was living (see Heb. 11.9).

Calvin writes: "[Abraham] bought a cave, in order that he might possess for himself and his family, a holy and pure sepulcher. He did not desire to have a foot of earth whereon to fix his tent; he only took care about his grave; and he especially wished to have his own domestic tomb in that land, which had been promised him for an inheritance, for the purpose of bearing testimony to posterity, that the promise of God was not extinguished, either by his own death, or by that of his family; but that it then rather began to flourish; and that they who were deprived of the light of the sun, and of the vital air, yet always remained joint-partakers of the promised inheritance. For while they themselves were silent and speechless, the sepulcher cried aloud, that death formed no obstacle to their entering on the possesses of it."

In sum, then, Abraham's care regarding Sarah's burial reflected Abraham's understanding that such provided concrete witness to two realities: first, that Sarah would rise again; and second, that Sarah was an heir of the land in which she was interred.

Of course, if Calvin's reading of Abraham's thinking (or rather, faith) on the matter of Sarah's burial is correct, Gen. 23 assumes much significance for how we approach burial in our own time and place. Much like Abraham and his family in Gen. 23, we are currently subject to death but anticipate resurrection from the same (cf. 1 Cor. 15.12-57) and we are heirs of a rather concrete piece of terrestrial real estate ("Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." Matt. 5.5; cf. 2 Peter 3.13). Much like Abraham, then, our own approach to burying loved ones (or, for that matter, planning for our own burials) should reflect our faith in and longing for these two concrete promises of God.

To put the matter another way, we should, if Calvin is correct, approach burial with acute sensitivity to the message burial (or, alternatively, the lack thereof) communicates to others. Burial is fundamentally an act of witness and confession (both to God and others). Elaborate tombstones arguably testify to an over-investment in the riches and honors of this present world. Contempt for burial whatsoever (cremation?) likewise communicates, in its own discrete way, a failure in expectation for the resurrection and eternal possession that God has promised his people. A modest burial sends just the right message: this body, even in death, constitutes (together with the soul) one with whom God is decidedly not finished; one who stands (together with God's people) to possess the very land in which he or she now rests in all its transformed beauty and glory.