22 At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do. 23 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.” 25 When Abraham reproved Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized, 26 Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this thing; you did not tell me, and I have not heard of it until today.” 27 So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant. 28 Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock apart. 29 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?” 30 He said, “These seven ewe lambs you will take from my hand, that this may be a witness for me that I dug this well.” 31 Therefore that place was called Beersheba, because there both of them swore an oath. 32 So they made a covenant at Beersheba. Then Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army rose up and returned to the land of the Philistines. 33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God. 34 And Abraham sojourned many days in the land of the Philistines.
I do not know if students are still assigned Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in school, but I hope so. I remember some classmates grumbling about having to read it when I was a student, but, for some reason, that novel touched me deeply and as I returned to it this week it did so again. It truly is an amazing story! Hester Prynne, living in Puritan New England in the 17th century, is punished and is forced to wear a scarlet “A” when she is found to be with child though she has no husband. In truth, she does have a husband though it was assumed he was lost at sea. When he returns and discovers her with a child, Pearl, he demands she tell nobody of their marriage and he commits himself to finding and bringing vengeance upon Pearl’s father, whose name Hester will not divulge. As it turns out the father is the minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, whose secret sin is slowly killing him. Roger Chillingsworth, Hester’s husband, is also a physician and he moves into the minister’s house to care for him not knowing that Arthur is the baby-daddy—not the term Hawthorne uses! Slowly it begins to dawn on Chillingsworth that Arthur is hiding something. One night Chillingsworth goes into Dimmesdale’s bed chamber and sees, etched in his flesh, a letter “A”! Long story short, Dimmesdale confesses his sin and dies, Chillingsworth, gutted by a desire for revenge, dies, and Hester and Pearl disappear. However, Hester, in time, returns to her little seaside cabin where she had been essentially exiled and, to everybody’s amazement, puts the scarlet letter back on. I am particularly touched by Hawthorne’s description of how Hester’s reputation and how people’s, especially women’s, view of her changes in these last years of her life. In short, Hester reclaims her name. Here is how Hawthorne puts it:
She had returned, therefore, and resumed,—of her own free will, for not the sternest magistrate of that iron period would have imposed it,—resumed the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale. Never afterwards did it quit her bosom. But, in the lapse of the toilsome, thoughtful, and self-devoted years that made up Hester’s life, the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too. And, as Hester Prynne had no selfish ends, nor lived in any measure for her own profit or enjoyment, people brought all their sorrows and perplexities, and besought her counsel, as one who had herself gone through a mighty trouble.
So the scarlet letter came, in time, to have a different meaning for people who saw Hester Prynne. Her selflessness and life of service changed it, changed her reputation we might say. As to what the letter came to mean, there might be a hint in chapter 12 of the book when, one night, as Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne stood on the scaffold in the middle of the town, a meteor lit up the sky and seemed to write the letter “A” across the heavens. The next morning one of Dimmesdale’s church members remarked about “the letter A, which we interpret to stand for Angel” since the governor, Governor Winthrop, had died that very night. Perhaps this is Hawthorne foreshadowing that the “A” on Hester Prynne would, in time, come to stand for “Angel” instead of for “Adulteress” (though it should be noted that Hawthorne never actually says in the novel what the “A” stands for).
I think I like the book because, among other things, it communicates a kind of hope. One who is tarnished because of past mistakes, one who is branded a sinner by everybody, can, in time, see their reputation redeemed, see their name restored. Indeed, we need not be bound forever to our past mistakes!
To at least one person, Abraham had a scarlet letter too. It was an “L” and it stood for “Liar.” The person who viewed him thus was Abimelech, king of Gerar. In Genesis 20 Abraham had lied to Abimelech by telling a half-truth. He had said that Sarah was his sister (she was his half-sister) without disclosing that she was also his wife. As a result, Abimelech took Sarah into his house and the judgment of God fell on the house. When, mercifully, Abimelech was delivered from this danger and judgment by returning Sarah, he came to see Abraham as a paradoxic, as somebody who simultaneously (1) was a liar but (2) had God on his side.
Therefore, when we read about Abimelech and Abraham’s next exchange at the end of Genesis 21, we need to view it as Abraham getting a chance to redeem his reputation, as Abraham getting a chance to see the meaning of his own scarlet letter changed. Gerhard von Rad argues that the “Abimelech is still filled with misgiving, he is not yet sure of Abraham’s loyalty (hesed) to him. Above all, he knows that Abraham is under the protection and blessing of his very powerful God, which makes him completely sinister to Abimelech, the one on the outside.”
This is true. So we ask: what does Abraham do to redeem his reputation, to reclaim his name before Abimelech. And in asking this we are asking this: how can we reclaim our name when we have ruined it through terrible choices? How can our reputation be restored? Are we doomed to wear our scarlet letter forever, or might we, on this side of heaven, come to have a name of substance and virtue once again?
Let your dealings with others reflect God’s dealings with you.
Our story has a few different components: (1) Abimelech asking for assurances that Abraham will deal honestly with him, (2) Abraham complaining about Abimelech’s men seizing one of his wells, and (3) Abraham’s worship. Through it all, we see a marked improvement in the way that Abraham dealt with Abimelech, a blueprint for how to reclaim your name. The first thing we notice is the way in which Abraham’s dealings with Abimelech now reflect God’s dealings with Abraham as opposed to his dealings contrasting with God’s dealings as they did in Genesis 20.
22 At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do. 23 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.” 25 When Abraham reproved Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized, 26 Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this thing; you did not tell me, and I have not heard of it until today.” 27 So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant. 28 Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock apart. 29 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?” 30 He said, “These seven ewe lambs you will take from my hand, that this may be a witness for me that I dug this well.” 31 Therefore that place was called Beersheba, because there both of them swore an oath. 32 So they made a covenant at Beersheba. Then Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army rose up and returned to the land of the Philistines.
Again, it must have been unsettling for Abimelech, a heathen, to see that a liar could also have God’s favor. This would indeed have made Abraham seem “completely sinister” to Abimelech, as von Rad memorably put it. But God, of course, did not sanction Abraham’s dishonesty. God is a God of honesty and truth. It is refreshing, then, to see that Abraham has now committed himself to living truthfully before those around him.
First, Abraham “swears” to be honest. It would be most helpful for us to see this as Abraham making a commitment to honesty and truth-telling. Do you have a reputation for dishonesty? Are you a person whose word cannot be trusted? Do people look at what you say with great skepticism? Then make a commitment before God that you will be honest. Perhaps it will take many many years before people come to see you as honest, but it will not happen at all if you do not determine to be so.
More than this commitment, however, Abraham cuts a covenant with Abimelech after complaining about the theft of his well. Abimelech, once again, is unaware that he has wronged Abraham and the men determine to make it right. “The two men made a covenant” (v.27). Abraham gives Abimelech “sheep and oxen” (v.27) and “set seven ewe lambs of the flock apart” as witness and evidence that the well belonged to Abraham.
What is most striking about this is that, unlike before, in Genesis 20, when Abraham acted with self-interest, duplicity, dishonesty, and half-truths, he is here acting toward Abimelech the same way that God has acted toward Abraham. Namely, he cuts a covenant with Abimelech.
What stands between Abraham’s dishonesty toward Abimelech in Genesis 20 and his honesty toward Abimelech in the end of Genesis 21? Simply this: God’s covenant faithfulness in the birth of Isaac in the beginning of Genesis 21.
It is as if Abraham, having come to see and know the covenant faithfulness of God begins to mirror that faithfulness in his dealing with others. God cuts a covenant with Abraham and now Abraham cuts a covenant with Abimelech.
We should treat others the way God treats us. Our word should be as true and trustworthy to others as God’s word is to us. In Matthew 16, Jesus says:
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
To take up our cross and follow Jesus means, at least in part, that we live the life of Jesus in this world, that we do what Jesus did. Jesus takes up a cross. We too should take up a cross. Jesus cuts a covenant in His dealings with us. We too should exhibit covenant-weight in our dealings with others.
Do you want to see your scarlet letter changed, redefined? Determine right now that you will live the life of Christ, that, like Abraham you will henceforth treat people with the same honesty with which God has treated you.
Let your relationship with God moves beyond vague generalities to a genuine closeness.
There is a further clue to what is happening in Abraham’s life in the way that he refers to God. Abimelech, like most of the heathen of that time, referred to God as Elohim. That was the common generic term for God by those who did not know him. Notice, however, after Abimelech leaves, how Abraham refers to God:
33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God.
Abraham refers to “the Lord, the Everlasting God.” This stands in stark contrast to Abimelech’s approach. Victor Hamilton states that in “Beer-sheba Abraham’s life is permeated by worship. Abimelech can refer to Abraham’s God as Elohim, but Abraham himself, when he calls on his God, calls upon Yahweh. Yahweh is further described as the eternal God, ‘el ‘olam.”
You will never build a name much less recover a name on a weak relationship with a God who is vague to you. You will build a name and rebuild a lost name if you will truly give yourself to the God who made you with sincerity and abandon.
Abimelech knows that there is a God and that he is powerful. Abimelech lives in fear.
But Abraham knows God and knows His name. Abraham is in a relationship with God and lives in freedom.
The god of wishy-washy generalities, the god of popular culture, “the man upstairs,” the god who truly is not God: he cannot change anybody or anything. And the great problem is that there are many people in churches with this very conception and view of God. God is barely real to them. They go to church, they do their duties, they even feel a somewhat-inspiring sense of the divine. But they do not know God’s name. They do not walk with him.
It is a dangerous thing to have enough church to convince yourself you know God but to not have enough God to actually see your life transformed. This is the Abraham of Genesis 20, the Abraham of dishonesty and fear and self-advancement. But to know God is to become the Abraham of Genesis 21: a person who is in an actual relationship with the maker of heaven and earth!
John Walton interestingly points out that, in scripture, “calling on the name of the Lord at times involves a proclamation of his reputation or attributes…That seems to be the case here.” Thus, when Abraham refers to “the everlasting God” he is touting God’s reputation and character. That is interesting because it tells us that on the basis of God’s reputation our own can be changed. To go deeper into who God is is to discover more and more of who we can become as His creation.
Keep your business in the same neighborhood as your worship.
I am also struck by Abraham’s immediate move to worship after conducting business with Abimelech.
33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God. 34 And Abraham sojourned many days in the land of the Philistines.
Walton has given some helpful background concerning the tamarisk tree:
The tamarisk grows in sandy soil It is deciduous and may reach over twenty feet in height, with small leaves that excrete salt. Its bark is used for tanning and its wood for building and making charcoal…In third-millennium incantations, the tamarisk was a holy tree with purifying qualities. Images ere made from its wood, and it was at times connected with cosmic stability. In this sense, planting a tree can have as much significance as building an altar.
There was very possibly, then, religious significance in the tree. Regardless of what role the tree itself played in Abraham’s act of worship, however, it certainly reminds us of Psalm 1’s vision of a righteous man:
1 Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
4 The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
Like the righteous man of Psalm 1, Abraham was becoming “like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season.” Indeed, our text reflects that fruit. And of these fruits is the fact that Abraham so quickly turned to worship after his dealings with Abimelech.
How wide is the gap between your work and your worship, between the living of your daily life and your worship of the living God? Abraham’s business was in the same neighborhood as his worship, so to speak. That is, he removed any gulf by planting the tree and worshiping where he and Abimelech had just recently struck a covenant agreement. For Abraham there was no secular/spiritual divide, to use our terminology. There was no separation in his life. Previously there had been, but not now. Now he was exhibiting the marks of a man of character, a man of God.
Would you reclaim a lost name? Would you have your scarlet letter redefined into something virtuous and good? Then decide that God will truly be Lord of every aspect of your life equally. Treat others as God has treated you. Grow in the knowledge of and in your relationship with the God of heaven and earth.
 Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter. The Complete Novels & Selected Tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Vol. 1. (New York, NY: The Modern Library, 1993), 623.
 Nathaniel Hawthorne, p.551.
 Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis. Revised Edition. The Old Testament Library. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1972), p.236.
 Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1995), p.94.
 John H. Walton, Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), p.497.
 John H. Walton, p.497.