At the end of Genesis 21 Abraham plants a tree, calls on the name of the Lord, and gives the Lord a new nickname. He does these things as an act of worship in response to the events of the chapter, which contains three seemingly loosely related stories of the life of Abraham. At first glance the stories don’t seem to have all that much of a common theme to them, except that the first two deal with two women and two sons and the last two stories deal with two wells, tying the stories together in theme. And to get at that theme this morning I want to tell you these three stories in full, so that you can appreciate what drive Abraham to worship in such a curious way of planting a tree and giving God a new name.
The first story is that of a disregarded wife Think of Sarah’s walk with God. At nearly 60 years old, at the time of life when most women are slowing down and enjoying their grandchildren, her husband tells her that he was no longer going to worship the gods of his fathers, because he believes that a new God, the most high God, has spoken to him and made him some pretty astounding promises. God has promised her husband Abraham that his name will be great, and that he will be the founder of a great nation. Oh, and that him that they must pack every thing they own, say goodbye to everyone they have known and move to an unknown land that would be revealed at a later date. And so she dutifully says goodbye to her friends, family and community, leaves the only house and land she has known, and follows her husband into this strange land.
Shortly after arriving in the land, her husband says something even more unsettling. He tells her that God has said that he will fulfill these promises through Abraham’s own offspring, which likely brought great pain to her, considering she has been barren for many years - what a thing to say! Is Abraham going to leave her? Find a new wife? And imagine how her worst fears must have been confirmed when a famine drove them to Egypt and Abraham, her husband of many decades turns to her and says, “You know how important my life is to God, it’s essential that I remain alive. Tell everyone hear that you’re my sister, so they will deal well with me.” Abraham’s lie resulted in her being taken into Pharaoh’s house as his wife. When the lie was found out, she was transferred back into Abraham’s “care”, and returned with him to the strange land. All the while Abraham continues to speak about this nation and these offspring that God is going to give him. A decade of Sarah’s life is spent hearing of these offspring of her husband, until, when she is 70 years old, she has had enough, and she gives her maidservant, Hagar, to her husband. “I’ve not been able to give you these children that you are so convinced that God will give to you. Here, take her and maybe your God will give us children through her.” No sooner does the maidservant become pregnant that Sarah realizes her mistake, and she lashes out at her husband for causing her to do such a thing, and begins to abuse her servant, only to have her run away and later return to the household. Sarah is powerless but to watch as her husband celebrates the birth of his son through Hagar, and for the next 13 years she watches as Hagar’s son Ismael grows into a man, groomed to be her husbands heir. At least Abraham has stopped talking to her about this promise of an offspring.
Imagine those 25 years for Sarah. Imagine her faith. Imagine her hurt. Imagine her loneliness. As i said, this is the time of life when most women her age are enjoying their grandchildren and secure in their husband, yet ever since her husband found God she has only known pain, confusion, and isolation. At the same time, she grown accustomed to the the life she is living - its not the life she dreamed of, but she’s survived.
Then on the eve of Ismael’s 13 birthday, the age at which he will become a man, Abraham comes into the tent and says, “God has spoken to me again. From now on, I am no longer to call you Sarai, but God has given me a new name to call you, Sarah. For he has told me that Ismael is not the son he has promised me, but that you Sarah, will have a son, and that he will be the promised one.” A little while later, this message is confirmed by there strangers who appear from nowhere, one of whom is revealed to be this God who has been speaking to Abraham. Sarah overhears the Lord say to Abraham, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And she laughs and says, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have this pleasure?” 13 The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15 But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”
Finally, after 25 years of God speaking to her husband, it is recorded that God speaks to Sarah directly - in the form of a rebuke! And you might think, however, finally the Lord has directly spoken of Sarah, finally Abraham will see her as a partner in this call, and the next thing we see, Abraham hits a low point spiritually and through the same deceit that he practiced 25 years before, lets Sarah once again be taken into the house of another man. What a life!
The second story is that of an discarded servant I’ve already told you the beginning of her tale - Hagar was an Egyptian maidservant, likely given to Sarah when she entered into Pharoah’s household, so she has been with this family for nearly the entire 25 years. She came with them to Canaan and served Sarah faithfully, until the day Sarah brought her into Abraham’s tent and it was told her that she was expected to bear a child to Abraham in the place of her barren mistress. So her nightmare began, for after she conceived, Sarah turned against her, treating her very harshly and Hagar fled for her life into the wilderness. It was in the wilderness that she met the Lord, who heard her cry and told her that the son she bore would also be a great nation. She was to call the son, Ismael, which means, God hears, and she was to return to Abraham and Sarah, and raise her son in Abraham’s household. She was the other woman in the family for those 13 years, both mom and servant. Her only hope was the promise that her son would not be a servant like her, but would be strong and free like a wild donkey. However, just at the point that her son was to enter into manhood as the heir of Abraham, suddenly her world fell apart once again. Her mistress Sarah was to have a son, and he was to be the true heir. and in this chapter we see the mistress cast her away and her son displaced. What will become of her? What will become of her son? 20 plus years of service and mistreatment at the hand of these people who claim to be God’s followers and now everything could be stripped from her. What a life!
The third story is that of a discouraged wanderer Abraham was 75 years old when he set out from the land of his fathers, with only the promise that God would direct him to the land of promise. Upon his arrival in the land of Canaan God reassured him, “This is the land I will give your offspring.” At one point, the Lord had him walk throughout the entire length and breadth of the land, telling him that every place that he walked would be given to him and his descendants. However, after 25 years, the word that is still used to describe Abraham, is sojourner, a “foreigner” or “resident alien” residing among a people or in a land not his or her own. He’s set up his tents in Shechem in the north, between Bethel and Ai, all the way down to the Negev in the south, to Egypt, back to Ai, then settles in Hebron, where he lived for the longest time, until after the destruction of the cities of the valley, after which he moved south again to the region of the Negev. In the embarrassing episode we looked at last week in which Abimelech the king of Gerar called out Abraham for his deceit, Abimelech in his generosity said to Abraham, “my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” Notice: my land. You’re still a stranger here. So Abraham set up camp outside of Gerar, and we ind in this chapter that he digs a well for his many herds and cattle. Negev is a very dry region, and these wells were life. And no sooner did Abraham dig a well and begin using it, when Abimelch’s servants learned about it, and seized it for themselves barring Abraham from using it. And so here is Abraham, 25 of trying to follow God into this land he has promised him, and he’s still a foreigner who doesn’t even own - not even some land, but even a well. What a life!
And so that’s where we’re at at the start of this chapter. 25 years since the Lord made these promises to Abraham, and while there has been some victories and precious moments along the way, for the most part it’s been a hard 25 years. Even more, if we were just looking at Abraham’s life from a worldly perspective right now, we might think, well maybe he should have just told the Lord, no. Maybe he should have stayed in Ur. Maybe his wife would have been happier, they’d have never messed up Hagar’s life, they’d be surrounded by friends and family in the land of their own, in the land of their kinsmen. God’s promises set everything in motion with this talk of a son and of a land, but its been 25 years, like that 90's song, “25 years and my life is still trying to get that great big hill of hope, for a destination. And I cry sometimes when I’m lying in bed, just to get it all out what’s in my head, and I scream from the top of my lungs, what’s going on?!?” You ever get to that place in your relationship with God?
Then chapter 21 happens. The tears of the disregarded wife turn into tears of laughter:
Gen. 21:1 The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised. 2 And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” 7 And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
You get it? As he said, as he promised, at the time of which God had spoken to him. The 25 years weren’t a delay. The 25 years brought Sarah and Abraham to the place in which this could only be a miracle from God. Look at him many times Abraham’s old age is mentioned. It was just the right time.
Chapter 21 happens and the fears of the displaced servant are relieved. She is driven out by Sarah, and Abraham doesn’t want her to leave, for after all the young man is his son, but God tells Abraham to let her go. And so Abraham waked up early in the morning and gives his son up, puts his son in God’s hands (remember that next week), and he sends Hagar and Ismael away into the wilderness. And her waterskin soon dries up in the heat of the desert and her son grows weary in the heat, and she set him under a small bush and goes off and weeps for she can’t bear to see her son die like this, and she’s crying and her son is crying and they are both going to die alone in the desert a lowly maidservant and her rejected son,
17 And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” 19 Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. 20 And God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
The boy is saved, the woman is free. The Lord has heard.
Chapter 21 happens and the exhausted wanderer secures a well of life. As Abraham is celebrating the birth of his son Isaac, he is listed by Abimelech, the Canaanite king who dealt with him so graciously the chapter before. And Abimelech comes with a message,
“God is with you in all that you do. Now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my descendants or with my posterity, but as I have dealt kindly with you, so you will deal with me and with the land where you have sojourned.” 24 And Abraham said, “I will swear.”
And so Abraham makes a peace covenant with Abimelech yet he also uses this occasion to bring up the well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized, and so, after they make the covenant, Abraham sets aside seven ewe lambs as a witness that he dug this well. Abimelech accepts the payment, and they call that place Beersheba, because there both of them swore an oath and then Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army rose up and returned to the land of the Philistines. And so 25 years after receiving the call of God to leave everything behind, Abraham has secured a well in the land and peace with his neighbour. It’s a small start, but its something of his own. And so they call that place Beersheba, because there both of them swore an oath and then Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army rose up and returned to the land of the Philistines.
And so now we get to this act of worship in verse 33. “Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.”
What’s the significance of the tree? Abraham has made alters before to the Lord, but here he plants a tree. What’s the difference between a tree and an altar?
“The tamarisk tree is what we would call a salt cedar in America. It is of the same family and has the same leaf and color of bark. The tree itself can get much bigger in the Middle East … real big trees. It is an extremely slow-growing tree and has to be cared for in order to do well. Very few grow in wilderness settings; they are usually around communities where families plant them on their property. To a Bedouin or a Jew, you don’t plant a tamarisk for yourself, you plant it for the generations to come.” http://acts242study.com/tamarisk-tree/
The planting of the tree is significant here at the end of these long 25 years that Abraham has tried to follow God and sought out his promises. Just like a tree, it has taken decades before God’s promises have grown to maturity and fruition, and Abraham is just learning to trust God’s timing.
You can see this also in the name Abraham gives God. El-Olam. Elmer Town explains this name for God:
Olam means time, or age. With a tiny change in the vowel signs in Hebrew, the ancient rabbis spelled it alam, “hidden”, underscoring the mysterious nature of God. God's everlasting or timeless nature— without beginning or end—is one of the most profound mysteries of His nature...
He is the God of eternity. In view of eternity 25 years of wandering is nothing. 1John 2
I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake, because you know the Father. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.
One who worships El Olam
- Knows that God works in decades, not days; Millenia, not minutes. God is not a microwave, He’s a slow cooker.
- Rejoices at small tastes of the promise, knowing that our full inheritance awaits in eternity Chapter 21 is not the fulfillment of the promises God made to Abraham about a son and about a land, the fulfillment of the son would be another 2000 years, for Jesus to be miraculously born, and the land we are still waiting for today until we receive the full inheritance of all the land when God returns to reign on earth. So these are small tastes of promises yet to be fulfilled. Yet the one who worships El Olam rejoices in these small tastes.
- Knows that until our sojourn is complete, more tests of our faith await us. Chapter 21 sets us up for the major test of Abraham’s life in chapter 22. Yet isn’t it like God to give Abraham a season of joy and reassurance before setting this test before him? This is why its so important to celebrate and remember those small tastes of promise, because it may be that a time of testing will soon come, and maybe having that tree planted will be a reminder, that El Olam has a larger, more encompassing plan than I can see in this moment.