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?