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B'resheet/Genesis 21:33 And he planted a tamarisk [tree] in Be'er Sheva and there he called on the name of the L-rd, the G-d of the universe.
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Is a tamarisk tree, an orchard, an inn or a court of law? The verb at the start of the verse, - the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root , to plant, with a vav-conversive, here translated "and he planted" - ought to answer the question clearly enough.Ibn Ezra is quite definite: "This must indeed be a tree, since he 'planted' it." Well, perhaps. Resh Lakish said that "it teaches that [Abraham] made an orchard and planted in it all kinds of choice fruits" (b. Sotah 10a). In B'resheet Rabbah 54.6, Rabbi Judah agrees, connecting it to the root , to ask, adding that it means "ask for whatever you wish, figs, grapes, or pomegranates", but Rabbi Nehemiah differs: it "means an inn, the word connoting, ask whatever you desire, meat, wine, or eggs." The third option is proposed by Rabbi Azariah, it really "means a court of law" offering as proof the verse, "Saul was then in Gibeah, sitting under the tamarisk tree on the height, spear in hand, with all his courtiers in attendance upon him (1 Samuel 22:6, NJPS)."
Supporting Rabbi Nehemiah's idea, the Midrash tells the story that "Avraham used to receive wayfarers, and after they had eaten and drunk he would say to them, 'Now say Grace.' When they asked what to say, he would reply, 'Blessed be the Everlasting God, of whose bounty we have eaten', thus proclaiming - or calling upon - the name ofHaShem" (ibid.). Rabbi Hirsch explains that, "by practising ready friendly hospitality Avraham used the opportunity to lead them from thanking him to thanking G-d, to teach them in a practical way to recognise in this practice of brotherly love the happy and happiness-bringing effect of the worship of One Unique G-d."
What sort of a tree is a tamarisk? Davidson says that it is "a middle sized prickly tree", matching the description of grey-green needles mentioned by modern garden centres, while Nahum Sarna suggests, "a tall, shady tree that grows deep roots, requires little water and is particularly suitable to the sandy soils of the northern Negeb area." Gordon Wenham gives a little more detail - "a stately tree that can reach thirty feet in height, common throughout the Negeb", adding that the Tanakh "sees trees, especially evergreens, as symbolic of the life and blessing of G-d."FootNote(1) A tamarisk can take twenty or more years to reach maturity and full height.
Other commentators provide a variety of reasons why Avraham planted a tamarisk tree. TheRadak, for example, suggests that he planted it "near the well, showing that it was indisputably in his possession." In the same vein, the Ralbag proposes that it was "in order to provide shade for the well." The Rashbam is not content with one tree; Avraham, as he would have it, planted "a 'grove' of trees where he could pray." Gunther Plaut reports that "similar tree-planting ceremonies survive in later Jewish tradition. Later they are called 'a planting of joy'. At Betar it was the custom when a boy was born to plant a cedar tree and when a girl was born to plant a pine tree. When they married, the trees were cut down and the wedding canopy made of the branches (b. Gittin 57a)." Bruce Waltke observes that, "the planting of this tree probably served as a landmark of G-d's grace, a pledge that Avraham will stay in the Land and perhaps a symbol of G-d's shading presence."2
In parashat Lech L'cha we read of Avraham pitching his tent between Bethel and Ai, building an altar and calling on the name of HaShem, before moving on down towards the Negeb (B'resheet 12:8). After his sojourn in Egypt, he returned to "the site of the altar that he had built there at first" and there again he "invoked the L-RD by name" (13.4, NJPS) before parting company with Lot. Both of these "calling on the name" events took place at altar sites, whereas our text records Avraham "calling on the name" at a well, after he has planted a tree.Maimonides suggests that on the earlier occasions, Avraham's actions are essentially private, whereas here, Avraham is deliberately intending to propagate the religion of monotheism (Guide 2.13 and 3.29). His confidence levels have risen since he first arrived in the Land, so that instead of just building an altar, making a sacrifice, calling on the name of HaShem and then moving on, he now feels able to settle for a longer time. He is now a man of substance, has just concluded a covenant with a local king and had his ownership of the well - a valuable natural resource - affirmed. When he calls on the name of HaShem, people will listen and pay attention.
Perhaps the verse that follows our text offers an important clue to what is going on here: "Avraham resided in the land of the Philistines a long time" (21.34, NJPS). Avraham stayed for a long time because he intended to stay for a long time; he planted a tree that would take up to twenty years to reach maturity because he saw himself staying that long. Although only a sojourner - a temporary resident with no permanent land rights - Avraham was making an investment: in the local people, whom he could employ to supplement his household; in the local economy, which would certainly be improved by supplying and trading with a major household; in the local ecology, that would benefit from one careful farming enterprise rather than ever-changing nomadic travellers; and in the local monarchy and aristocracy, who would all appreciate having a steady, long-term, rich neighbour and friend. Planting a tree sends a signal of Avraham's long-term intentions to all of these people: I will be here for a good long while.
Most importantly, when Avraham plants the tamarisk tree, he calls upon or proclaims the name of HaShem. He makes sure that everyone knows that his wealth, his success, his status, all depend on HaShem. This is a declaration that G-d in control, that it is worth making that investment because G-d will continue to prosper him, that G-d will increase his flocks and herds, that he is confident that G-d has given him a future in the Land. As the Psalmist will later say of David: "His glory is great through Your salvation; splendor and majesty You bestow on him. For You make him most blessed forever; You make him glad with the joy of Your presence. For the king trusts in the L-RD, and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved" (Psalm 21:5-6, ESV). Until HaShem says the word, Avraham will not be moved!
So part of the proclamation of HaShem as the Most High is that - as theSforno comments - "that the Almighty is the G-d who not only directs time, but preceded and created it, a concept contrary to that of early and later scholars of the nations." More precisely, Nachmanides points out as he translates as "the G-d of eternity", He is "the One who controls time."
Centuries and generations later, when Israel has failed to walk in the ways of the L-rd, so that Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians have reduced the kingdom of Judah to a vassal state and taken many of its officials, aristocracy, prophets and artisans away to exile in Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah writes a letter to the exiled community to counter their ideas about coming home soon. He says to them: "Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there, do not decrease. And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the L-RD in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper" (Jeremiah 29:5-7, NJPS). Jeremiah makes it clear that their current situation is not an accident, but a deliberate move of HaShem, and calls on upon the people to make an investment in the land and the people where the L-rd has placed them: in exile, but also in the centre of G-d's plan; where - for the moment - they need to be.
But how long, the people ask, will we be in exile? How do we know that the investment is sound? Jeremiah's words answer that question: "Thus says the L-rd: When Babylon's seventy years are over, I will take note of you, and I will fulfill to you My promise of favor -- to bring you back to this place" (v. 10, NJPS) - much longer than Avraham stayed at Be'er Sheva, at least two generations. In the meantime, G-d assures them of His plans for them, the same sort of plans He had and then executed for Avraham. In the years it took for the tamarisk tree to reach maturity, Avraham's wife Sarah had died, he had acquired enough precious metal wealth to buy a permanent land-holding for her burial place at an extortionate price, and Avraham himself had grown old: "the L-RD had blessed Abraham in all things" (B'resheet 24:1, ESV). In the same way, during their years of exile, HaShem promised His people, "When you call Me, and come and pray to Me, I will give heed to you. You will search for Me and find Me, if only you seek Me wholeheartedly. I will be at hand for you -- declares the L-RD -- and I will restore your fortunes" (Jeremiah 29:12-14, NJPS).
Lest the people should lose heart, G-d has given a specific time that He alone knows and has determined when He will restore the exile and return the Jewish people to their land. Yeshua tells the disciples a parable about a man who went away on a journey, leaving his servants in charge of his affairs until he returned. The man particularly commands the door-keeper to watch, "Stay alert, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming ... So watch in case, coming suddenly, he finds you asleep" (Mark 13:35-36, TLV). To increase the disciples' confidence that He Himself would be returning, He tells them, "Of that day and hour no-one knows, not even the angels in heaven nor the Son, except the Father alone" (Matthew 24:36, TLV). Do you hear that? G-d the Father does know and has already, since ages past, determined both that Yeshua will return and exactly when, which is why Rav Sha'ul can say, "It is already time for you to awaken from sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first came to trust" (Romans 13:11, TLV).
In this age, we are in exile - "as in a foreign land, living in tents" (Hebrews 11:9, ESV) - and like Avraham, we too are called upon to make an investment: to plant a tree and call upon the name of the L-rd, declaring Him as the Master of Time, the one who manages and controls time, the one who will soon return to claim His kingdom and settle accounts. Whether, as the Midrash would have it, through growing fruit or offering hospitality, or by talking about the life and ministry of Yeshua, we make the same public statement as Avraham. Yeshua is our well, this our tree and we are not going anywhere! We proclaim to you the L-rd Most High.
1. - Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16-50, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1994), page 94.
2. - Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), page 300.
Further Study: Isaiah 56:1-2; Luke 21:25-28; 1 Thessalonians 5:6-8
Application: How and where can you "plant a tree" to proclaim the kingdom of G-d and to share the news about Yeshua's soon return so that all the people can see? Ask the Master Gardner what "tree" He wants you to plant and where, to the best advantage for His kingdom.
Comment - 08:21 06Nov22 Joshua VanTine: Thank you for this. May the Eternal One help us to plant with confidence at this time.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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