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“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).