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“Then Abimelech came to him from Gerar with his adviser Ahuzzath and Phicol the commander of his army. Isaac said to them, “Why have you come to me, since you hate me and have sent me away from you?” They said, “We see plainly that the LORD has been with you; so we said, ‘Let there now be an oath between us, even between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you, that you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good and have sent you away in peace. You are now the blessed of the LORD.’” Then he made them a feast, and they ate and drank. In the morning they arose early and exchanged oaths; then Isaac sent them away and they departed from him in peace. Now it came about on the same day, that Isaac’s servants came in and told him about the well which they had dug, and said to him, “We have found water.” So he called it Shibah; therefore the name of the city is Beersheba to this day.” Gen. 26:26-33
Genesis 26 with Isaac contains many of the same narrative elements as Genesis 20-21 with Abraham, including a treaty with King Abimelech. There are some notable differences as well, some of which may not be picked up on due to common translations, or perhaps predispositions.
First we see Abimelech brings his advisor as well, which may have made for a less intimidating visit than just the king and the commander of his army.
Abimelech refers to previous oath, as some translations read “let the oath between us/ourselves now be between us and you”. Common translations seem to imply that Abimelech makes no reference to the covenant with Abraham, as if it were disregarded. On one hand it is understandable to assume this considering what happened with Abraham’s wells getting stopped up after his death, but, as we learned in the covenant with Abraham, not even the king knows everything his subjects are doing:
“And Abimelech said “I do not know who has done this thing; you did not tell me, nor did I hear of it until today.”” Gen. 21:26
Abimelech is not only recognizing the previous oath, but making it more bold by adding a curse for whoever violates the oath, by the phrase “that you will do us no harm”, which was not part of the covenant with Abraham.
It is easy from a plain reading to assume that Abimelech is not a follower of God. I would disagree based upon his interactions with Abraham and Isaac, noting that he shows both a fear and respect for God by not taking Rebekah after what happened with Sarah. Additionally because he has had an interaction with God and now adds a threat of retribution to whoever (be it his own subjects or Isaac’s camp) violates the oath for harm, it appears he intends to uphold it as he placed himself knowingly under the possibility of divine punishment.
“But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of flowing water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with the herdsmen of Isaac, saying, “The water is ours!” So he named the well Esek, because they contended with him. Then they dug another well, and they quarreled over it too, so he named it Sitnah. He moved away from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he named it Rehoboth, for he said, “At last the LORD has made room for us, and we will be fruitful in the land.”” Gen. 26:19-22
This is one of many narrative portions of scripture that if we merely read at face value, we only glean historical, seemingly anecdotal information about the life is Isaac. We must always ask ourselves what lesson we can learn from the text and how we can apply it to our own lives.
Consider how frustrated Isaac likely already was at the fact that the Philistines stopped up his father’s wells. Abimelech asked him to leave Gerar proper, and now while trying to make his own space, he and his servants go through all the effort to dig a well, only to have the Philistines commandeer it. And then it happens a second time!
The land of Canaan was given to Abraham and Isaac by God, and yet Isaac can’t seem to claim any of it for himself. Likewise it was probably frustrating for Abraham that, although the land was his in the eyes of God, he had to buy a cave to bury Sarah, including a field he didn’t want, for an exorbitant price!
What we must glean from this part of scripture is that at times, life will seem unfair; we will be wronged on occasion, and often our efforts will seem to be in vain. Isaac shows us great character through the ordeal however, most notably his being slow to anger, and his perseverance.
We should take note that many of the hurdles Isaac faces in this story are extremely similar to those of Abraham, up to and including issues over wells with Abimelech. God may at times bring us through similar ordeals to see if we handle them differently and with better character than our fathers, or than we ourselves have in the past.
This is what the story of Isaac is about; Improving our reactions to life’s challenges. This becomes clear when, after all this strife with the Philistines in Gerar, Abimelech eventually comes to make a covenant with Isaac. It is true this was done with Abraham as well, however what is important to note is the tone of each of these covenants:
Abraham hears Abimelech out, then decides to complain about the issues with the wells, stubbornly insists that Abimelech recognize that the wells were his, then they part ways. (Gen. 21:22-32). It is as if he agrees to peace, but he is not really at peace about it.
Contrast this with Isaac, who had even more trouble over the wells, and in addition probably felt his father’s reputation slighted over stopping the old wells up (v. 15). When Abimelech and his entourage show up to make a peace covenant with Isaac, there is a distinct feeling of goodwill that was lacking from the covenant with Abraham. Not only does Isaac not complain about his treatment – he makes them a feast (a custom Abraham decided to skip) and we are told in v. 31 that Abimelech left “in peace”, something also missing from the covenant with Abraham.
This story teaches us about spiritual maturity, personal growth and improvement in our relationships. The blessing from this? Consider v. 32:
“Now it came about on the same day, that Isaac’s servants came in and told him about the well which they had dug, and said to him, “We have found water.”
“Then Isaac dug again the wells of water which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham, for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham; and he gave them the same names which his father had given them.” Gen. 26:18
At first read, it appears that Isaac is merely reacting to the Philistines stopping up of the wells Abraham dug, re-digging them to honor his father’s name. However, if we step back and see the overarching theme of this chapter, the story is largely a repeat episode of portions of Genesis 20 and 21, substituting Isaac for Abraham. The general motif is that of cycles repeating themselves. In fact, if God hadn’t stopped Isaac in Gerar, Isaac would have went on to Egypt to escape the famine per his initial plan, and instead we would likely see a repeat of Genesis 12 with Pharaoh.
The obvious cycle is the ruse of Isaac portraying Rebekah as his sister, something Abraham did with his wife Sarah, twice. Thankfully Isaac suffered less of a backlash. However the cycle continues, with Isaac not only re-digging Abraham’s wells, but giving them the same names as before.
No matter how righteous a man is, in each generation mistakes and missteps are made. When we speak of ‘breaking the cycle’, we refer to a life in which we do not make the same mistakes as those before us.
In addition, God also wants us to come to Him individually; we may inherit the teachings of our fathers, and the traditions of the faith, however the relationship aspect between ourselves and God is unique; it is not something our parents can give us, no matter how hard they try. At times God may take us through a very similar ordeal to what someone before us went through in hopes that we handle it differently, hoping for not only growth in our character, but flexibility in our obedience to His will.
Though Isaac was raised by Abraham – the Father of faith himself, Isaac still had to establish his own trust and obedience to God, and I believe it was God’s desire for Isaac to find his own way, not merely re-trace the steps of Abraham. In this way, the wells represent something much more; they are a picture of our access to the living water that is God and Christ.
We see this theme of the wells through the end of the chapter. Isaac is never able to use the same wells as Abraham; he digs additional wells and there is contention; after a well is dug that is not contended over, Isaac exclaims “At last the Lord has made room for us” (v. 22) after which God appears to Isaac and reassures Isaac that He is with him. The chapter ends after Isaac makes peace with king Abimelech, and on the same day, Isaac’s servants inform him they have found water (v. 32).
As Martin Buber points out, God is referred to as “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” This is not the same as “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” as it implies that each of us need to find our way to God.
“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).
“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.
“At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his forces said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything you do. Now swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants. Show to me and the country where you are living as an alien the same kindness I have shown to you.” Abraham said, “I swear it.” Then Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized. But Abimelech said, “I don’t know who has done this. You did not tell me, and I heard about it only today.” So Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a treaty. Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs from the flock, and Abimelech asked Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs you have set apart by themselves?” He replied, “Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well.” So that place was called Beersheba, because the two men swore an oath there.” Gen. 21:22-31
Certainly Abimelech had no small impression of Abraham (and his God) in Genesis 20 when God threatened Abimelech’s life pending Abraham’s prayers (Gen. 20:7). And so Abimilech wanted a covenant with Abraham because ‘God was with Abraham’ (rabbi Sforno). Even though Abimelech was a king, he had a healthy fear and respect for Abraham. This is not the only time in the scriptures a man of God will hold a conversation with a king and have his words heeded though the man has no actual authority. This shows us the power and influence of God in Abraham’s life.
Abimelech is coming to Abraham to make a pact; thus Abraham has the upper hand in negotiations – he can refuse to make the pact, or add stipulations to it. Abimelech starts off by stating how Abraham was treated well in his land, when in fact there was at least one incident where he was not. Unlike God, earthly kings simply cannot know all the happenings in their land – even things done by his own servants.
Abraham chooses to offer sheep to Abimelech to prove that the well that was seized was in fact his. Abraham never told Abimelech about the well he dug that was taken from him when it happened. Since Abraham did not, he now is able to get his well back. If he had raised the issue prior, we cannot be sure how Abimelech would have reacted, for it has been some years since their encounter over Sarah (Isaac had since been born and was weaned.)
This shows us there is a time to hold our tongues from speaking against those whom we have grievances; The time may come when settlement may come about on our terms and in our favor. God knows all and certainly has the ability to repay.
“God was with the lad, and he grew; and he lived in the wilderness and became an archer. He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt. ” Gen.21:20-21
We are given a hint about Ishmael’s future as he lay dying under a tree, and Hagar sits down ‘about a bowshot’ away (Gen. 21:16). We see he becomes an archer. Ishmael’s future was spoken of by God in Genesis 16:11-12.
The fact that Ishmael got a wife from Egypt says more about Hagar, however, who chose the wife for him. This calls into question how Hagar felt about Abraham’s beliefs, which he surely made known to his household (Gen. 14:14; 17:23). Perhaps being sent away left her disenchanted with the Hebrew people so she sought an Egyptian wife for Ishmael.
Hagar has had two experiences with God that we know of: God spoke with Hagar when she fled from Sarah (Gen. 16), and again when Sarah sent her away (Gen. 21). Hagar also had God’s promise that Ishmael would not die but become a great nation, and so far he has survived as God said. Her concern that Ishmael would die shows her lack of faith.
So is she turning her back on God by seeking an Egyptian wife for Ishmael, or did she simply see no benefit to have Ishmael marry a Hebrew woman?
““Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the skin with water and gave the lad a drink.” Gen. 21:18-19
Ishmael is about to die, and suddenly Hagar turns and sees a well. This was not a miracle well that magically appeared, but rather a well that was present the whole time, it just was not seen by Hagar until this moment. We may think, how did they not see a well when they are dying of thirst in a desert?
While most common translations use the phrase “she saw a well”, at least one translation uses the phrase “she perceived a well”, so perhaps this speaks to our spiritual condition at times. The Midrash teaches that God always provides what we need; it is us who must be ready to open our eyes to see it.
“God heard the lad crying; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter with you, Hagar? Do not fear, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is.” Gen. 21:17
Ishmael’s name means ‘God hears’ or ‘God hearkens’, and so God hears Ishmael’s cry as he lay dying. We note that God heard Ishmael’s cry over Hagar’s weeping. Hagar had left the teenage Ishmael under a tree to die after they ran out of water in the desert. Rashi speculated that Ishmael likely fell ill, causing them to run out of water prematurely due to the need to sustain Ishmael. This comes from the assumption that Abraham certainly would have provided them with enough provisions under normal circumstances when he sent them off.
What is fascinating is how this verse ends, which may get glossed over: “God has heard the voice of the lad where he is“. Many translations use this phrase, and one even reads “in his present state.” What are we to make of this, if anything? Though it would be easy to dismiss these words, they are written down but initially seem to add no value or clarification to the text, which should cause us to ask why they are there if they could have just as easily been omitted.
In the context we see the boy is perishing in the desert, and needs water to survive. After God hears his cry, Hagar perceives a well and is able to provide him a drink, allowing him to live and eventually thrive.
Does this speak to our spiritual condition? Are we perishing in the desert, and only after we cry out to God are we shown the well from which we must drink?
Some would say this is reading into the text. To those I would say, if there is a lesson to be gleaned or a truth to be recognized, why not learn the lesson or recognize the truth? When we do not read scripture in this way, how much are we missing? There are hundreds of passages like this which serve to remind us of our sorry state; to remind us of our need for salvation; to point us to a well of living water which sustains our spirit indefinitely: Jesus the Messiah.
“When the water in the skin was used up, she left the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him, about a bowshot away, for she said, “Do not let me see the boy die.” And she sat opposite him, and lifted up her voice and wept.” Gen. 21:15-16
This may strike us as odd behavior upon reading, and it should cause us to pause; it is not normal behavior. Hagar runs out of water, then puts Ishmael (now over 16 years old) under a tree. She leaves him there because she does not want to see him die. If our child is dying, we comfort them until their last breath, do we not? R’ Hirsch explains that this shows Hagar’s selfishness, she could not trouble herself to comfort the boy in his dying moments. After all, we see it was Ishmael’s cry (v. 17), rather than Hagar’s weeping, that God heard. Hence Ishmael’s name holds true – as his name means “God hears”, or “The LORD will hear”.
This turn of events to save Ishmael ultimately comes about due to what was already ordained by God: His promise to Abraham concerning his descendants; to make them into a great nation. This promise applied to both Isaac and Ishmael. So in this way, Hagar was able to be comforted by God’s promise to Abraham concerning the fate of her son. Today, we still reap the benefits of the promises God made to Abraham.