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“Then Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you are too powerful for us.” And Isaac departed from there and camped in the valley of Gerar, and settled there.” Gen. 26:16-17
The Philistines envied Isaac (v. 14), and so this is not a reference to Isaac being a threat to Abimelech, but rather jealousy, and so the king is telling Isaac to move out of Gerar. Isaac had become quite successful in his short time in Gerar and was living in abundance. Ramban tells us this is likely because Abimelech was embarrassed by Isaac’s superior wealth.
“Now all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines stopped up by filling them with earth.” Gen. 26:15
We tend to read this verse as if the Philistines intentionally filled Abraham’s old wells to spite Abraham and possibly Isaac. We recall Abimelech’s oath with Abraham:
“Now it came about at that time that Abimelech and Phicol, the commander of his army, spoke to Abraham, saying, “God is with you in all that you do; now therefore, swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my offspring or with my posterity, but according to the kindness that I have shown to you, you shall show to me and to the land in which you have sojourned.”” Gen. 21:22-23
A few verses later (26:18) we also see Isaac re-digging the wells Abraham had dug. All of this seems to point to and justify that the Philistines are just being vindictive, however I do not believe this is the case.
First consider that although Abraham used to live here in Gerar, Isaac did not live here this entire time but rather came recently to escape a famine (26:1). Second we consider that Abraham is dead. Together this tells us that no one was using Abraham’s wells for some period of time. Third, just as it takes effort to dig a well, it takes effort to fill a well.
If the wells were just sitting there not being used, our initial conclusion may be that they had no good reason to fill them up, other than to spite Abraham in his death and erase any vestiges of his time in Gerar. And so we fall into the same trap of misjudging the motives of our perceived enemies as both Abraham and Isaac did regarding their wives.
However Rashi points out the most plausible explanation: the Philistines likely stopped up the wells to prevent any invading army from having a water source.
As for Isaac re-digging the wells, it is entirely possible that Isaac feels the Philistines are dishonoring his father’s name, however one of the lessons Isaac learns through this ordeal is that just because something was Abraham’s, it is still in Gerar and still the property of the Philistines because Abraham too was just a sojourner there. And though both Abraham and Isaac had quarrels over wells in Gerar, when Abimelech comes to make a peace covenant with each of them, Abraham chooses to complain about the wells (Gen. 21:25), but Isaac does not (Gen. 26:26-33).
“Now Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. And the LORD blessed him, and the man became rich, and continued to grow richer until he became very wealthy; for he had possessions of flocks and herds and a great household, so that the Philistines envied him.” Gen. 26:12-14
Abraham had received plenty of good things, including oxen, donkeys, and servants, from both Pharaoh (Gen. 12) and Abimelech (Gen. 20). The only thing Isaac receives is the king’s protection, however Isaac still goes on to amass a multitude of these things on his own. As Robert Alter points out, Abraham had many blessings given to him, but Isaac’s were the fruit of his own labor. They were also blessings from God of course, for staying and sojourning in Gerar (v. 3).
To the Jewish reader, it may seem odd that Isaac “counted his blessings” with the crop he reaped, as Bereshis Rabbah 64:6 says not to look for blessings in things that can be counted, but rather things that are hidden. Thus Rashi says the field was estimated for purposes of tithing to the poor.
Rashi also notes in the original Hebrew v. 12 reads “in that land… in that year…” which was written to underscore that it was not the best land to farm, and not a particularly good crop year, yet we see Isaac’s blessings still overflowed.
The Jewish Study Bible notes that the reference to the Philistines in v. 14 is likely anachronistic, as they did not arrive in Canaan until 1200 B.C.
“He replied, “Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well.” So that place was called Beersheba,d because the two men swore an oath there. After the treaty had been made at Beersheba, Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his forces returned to the land of the Philistines. Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called upon the name of the LORD, the Eternal God. And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time.” Gen. 21:30-33
The majority of narrative for this portion of scripture is over until we move on to Abraham’s next trial – the binding of Isaac. Some final notes on the last few verses of Genesis 21:
Verses 30-31 – Beersheba seems to mean the “Well of Seven” (referring to the seven sheep) , or the “Well of Oath”. (Plaut) Beersheba is at the edge of the desert, and here Abraham transitions from a nomadic lifestyle to a more settled lifestyle (Louis Isaac Rabinowitz, Jerusalem Post, Nov. 3 1969, pg. 13s)
Verse 32 – A reference is made to “the land of the Philistines”, however it appears the Philistines were not living there until the 12th century BC – long after our narrative takes place – even after the time of Moses, the purported writer of Genesis. Modern scholars have no problem with a theory of multiple authorship of the Torah, and as such see this as a later insertion into the text. (Plaut)
Verse 33 – Abraham plants a “Tamarisk” tree. Due to the Hebrew used, it is uncertain what kind of actual tree was planted.