If you are looking for a good biblical role model for a happy, loving marriage, I would not suggest turning to the story of Abraham and Sarah. As they struggled through the sorrows of a childless marriage, Abraham nagged Sarah about it until she agreed to let him try to get a baby with her servant. Twice she ended up in the harem of foreign kings when Abraham feared admitting that she was his wife. Twice her shame and bitterness over Abraham’s liaison with Hagar drove her beyond the breaking point so that she chased Hagar away. After she finally bore a child in her old age, she watched in horror as Abraham took her beloved son away with the intention of sacrificing him. Sarah did not enjoy a perennially happy and supportive marriage.
Nevertheless, in this world, love is not the alignment of two ideal persons. Love happens between two very imperfect individuals. The truth is that despite his many failures in their marriage, Abraham and Sarah had traveled through life together as partners for well over 50 years. Abraham loved Sarah, and when she died, it broke his heart.
Genesis 23:2 puts it succinctly and bluntly, “Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.”
This is the first time that Scripture gives us a close-up look at the pain of grief. It is also the first time Scripture gives us the picture of a grown man crying. These two matters meet in Abraham: Grief and tears. Abraham’s heart breaks, and it trickles out through his eyes.
Psalm 139 tells us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Tears are a part of the way we are formed, so, according to God, our tears are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” They play an important role in the health of our body and soul.
Bill Donahue comments, “What is more elemental to the human soul than the shedding of tears? It separates us from all other living things. Animals don’t sob uncontrollably at the loss of a fellow member of the species or mourn their dead for days. To weep is to express the soul of humanity. It’s how we communicate love and grieve loss. We weep at the sight of a vacant seat at the table. We mourn the cool, unrumpled side of the bed once occupied by one who gave us unbridled warmth and love. Every song, every smell, every piece of clothing, every familiar pathway reminds us of the loss, reminds us of the tender hand we once grasped or the lips we once tasted. Lovers, family, friends—to love them is more than we can bear. Tears flow freely at the mention of a name or a glance at a photograph.” (In the Company of Jesus, p. 165)
Abraham’s tears are a model to all of us. In the face of grief, it is right for us to cry.
Apparently, tears are but a portion of what grief involves. Layman’s Bible Commentary points out, “Abraham mourns and weeps, indicating that, in addition to crying, he goes through the traditional mourning customs of his day: tearing clothes, cutting his beard, spreading dust on his head, and fasting. This is all done in the presence of the dead body.”
It is not healthy when we try to contain a broken heart merely within the confines of one’s ribcage. It is most healing to our body and soul if the tearing of our heart breaks froth in overt ways: the tearing of one’s clothes, the cutting of one’s beard, the spreading of dust on one’s head. When your heart breaks, find a way to let the breaking come out. We grieve best when we find a way to let our grief be released physically.
There is one other piece to Abraham’s grief: The rest of Genesis 23 describes the negotiations Abraham goes through to purchase a burial plot—at an exorbitant rate—for Sarah. For over 50 years, Abraham and Sarah had wandered through that land as aliens, never feeling the need to purchase any acreage in the land God had promised to give to them—until now, with the compulsion to buy a burial plot! For Abraham, the purchase of this land is of great importance, for it enables him to honor and memorialize the woman he loved.
We grieve best when we find fitting ways to honor and memorialize our loved one.
Let’s face it: the death of a beloved child is always a grievous and horrible tragedy. To think that God would call a person to kill their beloved child intentionally is completely horrible and ugly.
The ancient Moabites and Ammonites worshiped a god, Chemosh, who demanded such a despicable thing from his followers. The very name, Chemosh, meant “Destroyer” or “Subduer.” The Moabites built great statues of Chemosh with an oven in his belly. The doors to his belly would be opened, and parents were required to throw their baby into his burning belly.
Sadly, we might expect the followers of a god named “Destroyer” or “Subduer” to demand such a heartless act from his subjects. But the God we meet through Abraham has been given the names El Roi (the God who sees me) and El Shaddai (the God who nourishes). Moreover, the child born to Abraham and Hagar was given the name Ishmael, meaning “God hears.” The God of Abraham is not a heartless god but a God who sees and who hears and who nourishes because he cares for us. Could the God of Abraham ever demand the death of a beloved child?
Yet Genesis 22 begins with the words, “After these things God tested Abraham.” Then God said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
How are we to make sense of this? Is God really going to demand that Abraham kill his own beloved son? What is God testing in Abraham? Is God finding out whether Abraham will blindly obey a horribly ungodly demand? Or is God testing whether Abraham will rightly discern the character of God and the ways of God?
Abraham had previously faced and passed a similar test. When God revealed to Abraham (in Genesis 18) his plan to judge Sodom and Gomorrah for their evils, Abraham carried on a lengthy argument with God on behalf of the potential innocent citizens there, saying to God, “Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Abraham discerned correctly that God is righteous and would judge in keeping with his righteousness. Where is Abraham’s argument with God in Genesis 22 when it comes to the potential murder of his own innocent son?
To blindly obey an ungodly demand that is contradictory to the character of God and the ways of God is not the way to pass a test of faith. As the chapter progresses, Abraham is in grave danger of flunking this test (and I hate to consider the trauma this caused Isaac). But we find indications in this chapter that Abraham rightly discerned the true character of God. In verse 5, Abraham promised the servants that he and Isaac would worship then the two of them would return. He didn’t believe their trip up the mountain would end with the death of Isaac. In verse 8, Abraham declares, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering.” He recognized that the character of God is to provide what is good for his people rather than to demand what is evil from them.
Indeed, verse 14 looks ahead to the greatest provision God would make for his beloved children: “So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide;’ as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’” The true gift from God that would save Isaac’s life and our lives for eternity had not yet been provided, but on that mountain, many years later, it would be provided.
The ram in the thicket rescued Isaac that day, yet some decades later, Isaac still died. But God had a plan to provide a permanent solution to the tragedy of death, and God ordained that it would take place on that particular mountain. Many years after Isaac carried the wood for the offering up that mountain, Jesus took the wood for the sacrifice upon his own shoulders and walked up the very same hill—the mountain about which it had been repeated for so long, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to the wood, then the cross was lifted into place. Three hours later, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “It is finished!” Then he breathed his last, and he died to overcome death for all who trust in him.
God does not want us to blindly obey demands that are contradictory to his character. What God wants is for us to know God’s true character and to act in accordance with his true character—and the key characteristic of God is that he loves us so much that he laid down his life for us on the very mountain where it was said, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
Life is fleeting. James 4:14 tells us, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” Psalm 102:11 laments, “My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass.” 2 Samuel 14:14 puts it this way, “We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up.”
Genesis 21 offers a picture of the fleeing and precarious nature of our lives. The chapter begins with the birth of Isaac. By verse 8, Isaac is weaned. Many of us can testify as to how quickly our babies grow. As the song says, “Turn around and you’re tiny; turn around and you’re grown; turn around and you’re a young wife with babes of your own.”
In verse 10, Abraham’s son Ishmael is kicked out of the home. Family conflict forces estrangement. The next time we hear about Ishmael in Genesis is after Abraham dies and Ishmael helps Isaac bury their father. Estrangement cut their relationship short and revealed another way in which life and relationships are precarious.
In verse 25, Abraham complains to Abimelech that some of Abimelech’s servants have seized a well that Abraham dug and depended on. The injustice of stealing Abraham’s well threatens Abraham’s ability to care for his herds and flocks, and endangers his very livelihood. With no source of water, life is extremely precarious. Injustices exacerbate the perilous nature of life.
In verses 24 and 27 Abraham makes covenants with Abimelech, but the report of the seized well by some of Abimelech’s servants leaves us wondering how trustworthy Abimelech actually is. Cutting a covenant with someone whose integrity is suspect leaves us again in the precariousness of life.
How are we to handle life when we face the fact that we are but a “mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes”?
Genesis 21 points us to two vital truths—two grounds for hope in the midst of our fleeting lives:
1: Abraham “called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God.” To call on the name of the Lord is to call out for (to ask for) something that God has, that we do not have, and that we want to receive from God. What does God have which we want? What Abraham stresses here is that God is El Olam, the “eternal God.” God has stability beyond the confines of time. God has staying power, and Abraham wants to anchor himself in that stability.
Abraham is over one hundred years of age. It is obvious that he is on the downward slope of life. He has just watched one son weaned and his other son driven away. He has watched the water supply that is vital to his family’s survival stolen then restored. He is face-to-face with the fleeting nature of life. He seeks to connect himself to Someone who is longer-lasting than the span of one life. He longs to belong to the One who is everlasting.
In the book Chasing Fireflies, Charles Martin tells of a young boy who is found near the railroad tracks where the woman who had kidnapped him years before threw him out of her car before driving into the path of an oncoming train. The boy is taken to a foster home while a search if made for his real parents. After a woman looks him over for a mark that would have identified him as her son, the boy, who does not speak, writes out his question: “Who was that lady today?”
“‘She’s a momma…looking for her son.’
“‘Did she think I was him?’
“He wrote without looking at the page. ‘Am I?’
“His question pressed me against the railing. Men [and women] spend their lives asking Who am I when the real question is Whose am I? I don’t think you can answer the first until you’ve settled the second. First horse, then cart. Identity does not grow out of action until it has taken root in belonging.” (p. 233)
Abraham knew that he belonged to El Olam, the Eternal God. Knowing that gave his life stability and hope even amidst the fleeting nature of life.
2: Abraham “planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba.” Tamarisk trees are common in the Negev today. They were planted in the desert by the Bedouin for their shade and for the soft branches which the herds eat. These long-living trees can reach 30 feet in height and can produce as many as 500,000 seeds. In planting a tamarisk tree, Abraham wasn’t looking at the moment; he was looking ahead. He was investing in the future. He was investing in that which is long-lasting.
When Anne Frank hid for two years in some concealed rooms behind a bookcase in the building where her father worked, she kept a diary. In that diary she looked ahead to the future. She wrote, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world…. Where there’s hope, there’s life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again…. Those who have courage and faith shall never perish in misery.” Though she had no idea at the time the impact her diary would make upon the world, Anne Frank was investing in the future. Her diary was a “tamarisk tree” that has given encouragement and strength to thousands upon thousands of people for over 70 years so far.
Though our lives may be fleeting, we can keep investing in the future. As Anne Frank pointed out, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Ask God to help you to know what “tamarisk tree” you might plant.