Dare to plant a tamarisk tree
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.