From my understanding of the verse in Genesis (23:2), Abraham was not present at the time of his wife Sarah’s death:
Sarah died in Kiriat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to bewail her.
Where did Abraham come from, and why wasn’t he with Sarah in her final moments?
You are correct in your analysis. There is much discussion among the commentaries about the passing of Sarah and the whereabouts of her husband at the time.
Let us examine Abraham’s whereabouts before Sarah’s passing:
Earlier, in the previous chapter, we read about the binding of Isaac. Then we read the following (22:19), “Abraham then returned to his attendants, and they rose and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham settled in Beersheba.”
The well-known commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, explains that this is where Abraham was coming from when he came to eulogize Sarah. Abraham had settled temporarily in Beersheba following the binding of Isaac, and then, upon receiving word of Sarah’s death, he returned to Hebron.
Rabbi Yitzchak bar Yehudah, author of the Paneach Raza commentary, explains that, following the ordeal the binding of Isaac, Abraham decided to settle in Beersheba permanently. He sent a message for Sarah to join him, and only then learned that she had died, so he returned to bury her.
Rabbi Judah HaChassid says that Abraham was not living in Hebron at that time because he thought that when Sarah heard the story of the binding of Isaac she would think he had gone crazy. Abraham thought: Who would believe that G‑d had commanded that Isaac be sacrificed and then “changed His mind.” And if G‑d had such a request, why would He retract it? According to this explanation, Abraham assumed that she would never let him near her son again. Therefore, he sent Isaac to live with his mother, and he lived in Beersheba. Only after he heard of her passing did he go to Hebron.
He Lived in Hebron
There are some commentaries that maintain that Abraham was also living in Hebron.
“And Abraham came...” does not refer to Abraham’s coming from a different city, rather, that he came to Sarah’s tent or that he “came” (i.e. proceeded, prepared or undertook) to eulogize Sara. He would later move to Beersheba.
They Both Lived in Beersheba
There are some commentaries that explain that the couple was living in Beersheba together; however, there were reasons why Sarah was in Hebron when she passed away:
- Prior to the binding of Isaac, Abraham asked Sarah to go to Hebron so that she wouldn’t know about the ordeal of the binding of Isaac.
- Sara fell ill and she was taken to Hebron for the better air.
- Upon being told the purpose of their trip, Sarah followed Abraham and Isaac toward Jerusalem, making it as far as Hebron where she died.
- The couple planned to relocate to Hebron, and Abraham sent Sarah ahead of him to look for a suitable home, and she passed away in the interim.
- Alternatively, he sent her there to purchase the Cave of the Patriarchs (the Cave of Machpelah) from Ephron the Hittite; however, she died before she had the chance.