Abraham vs Abimelech Part II: The Peace at Beer-sheba

Some chapters are just action-packed: Genesis 21 is one of those. This chapter includes the birth of Isaac, the casting out of Ishmael and Hagar, and now a peace treaty between Abraham and Abimelech. You might remember that Abimelech had tried to take Sarah as a bride, only a chapter ago.

This story is a brief return, or perhaps a deliberate contrast, with the Abraham of Genesis 14. In that story, Abraham was a war-lord, a king in all but name. Abraham went to war against a host of Caananite kingdoms to rescue his nephew. Now, he’s suing for peace. Read on.

Well of Isaac (Beersheba, Israel)
Well of Isaac in Beer-sheba (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The story is short enough that it hardly needs to be summarized:

And it came to pass at that time, that Abimelech and Phicol the captain of his host spoke unto Abraham, saying: ‘God is with thee in all that thou doest. Now therefore swear unto me here by God that thou wilt not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son’s son; but according to the kindness that I have done unto thee, thou shalt do unto me, and to the land wherein thou hast sojourned.’ And Abraham said: ‘I will swear.’ And Abraham reproved Abimelech because of the well of water, which Abimelech’s servants had violently taken away. And Abimelech said: ‘I know not who hath done this thing; neither didst thou tell me, neither yet heard I of it, but to-day.’ And Abraham took sheep and oxen, and gave them unto Abimelech; and they two made a covenant. And Abraham set seven ewe-lambs of the flock by themselves. And Abimelech said unto Abraham: ‘What mean these seven ewe-lambs which thou hast set by themselves?’  And he said: ‘Verily, these seven ewe-lambs shalt thou take of my hand, that it may be a witness unto me, that I have digged this well.’ Wherefore that place was called Beer-sheba; because there they swore both of them. So they made a covenant at Beer-sheba; and Abimelech rose up, and Phicol the captain of his host, and they returned into the land of the Philistines. And Abraham planted a tamarisk-tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God. And Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines many days.

Genesis 21:22-34

It’s been at least two years since Abimelech’s accidental and ill-fated courting of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. We know this because she was not yet pregnant when the original story took place, and now Isaac is weaned. The next date given in Genesis is thirty years or so later, so there is plenty of wiggle-room for when this story could take place. However long it’s been, Abimelech is still smarting from his humiliation at Abraham’s (and God’s) hand in Genesis 20.

The interesting thing to me is hidden right at the top: Abimelech arrives at Abraham’s camp to propose this treaty of friendship. Why? It doesn’t say. He was just passing through and “Hey! Look, there’s Abraham still sojourning in my land! Let’s chat him up and offer him a peace treaty.” But– shocker– Abimelech is surprised to discover that Abraham was actually angry. One of his wells had been destroyed by Abimelech’s men. In the desert, one can only imagine the value of a well– this may have been an act of war.

Do you buy it as a coincidence? I don’t. For one thing, Abimelech is armed. Phicol, the “captain of his host” is there, the general of his army. It doesn’t say, but you can imagine that where the general is, the army couldn’t have been far behind. My guess is that Abimelech knew all about the wells and was trying to play dumb, laughing it off between “friends”. Better that than risk Abraham’s military might, or further humiliation at the hands of Abraham’s god.

Map - Location of Beersheba
Map - Location of Beersheba

Whatever the reason, Abimelech proposes a treaty and Abraham accepts. Abraham provides Abimelech animals (sheep, oxen, and lambs), and they seal the deal. A tree is planted in memory of the occasion and they call the place Beer-sheba. This final act is beautiful, but the story isn’t over yet.

To be continued in Genesis 26:

Abraham vs Abimelech Part III: Like Father, Like Son


Things I Noticed:

  • Even though it is Abimelech that is in the wrong, Abraham is the one to gift Abimelech the animals. Why? He didn’t need to. It seems very clear that Abimelech had the weaker hand– and yet, Abraham is more than just a war-lord: he’s a peace-lord. He accepts the treaty even though it is not to his advantage, even though he comes off as weak by taking nothing in return. Is this a softer side of Abraham, the family man? Was he weaker because of age? This is the wisdom of a man that knows that human life is more important than personal honor.
  • The treaty that Abimelech offers for Abraham in the land of the Philistines is three-generations,  the number of generations until the Exodus. When Moses leads his people out of Egypt, God commands him to avoid the land of the Philistines. (Much later, in Samuel and elsewhere the Philistines are one of the main enemies of Israel.)

And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said: ‘Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt.’

Exodus 13:17


Up next: Finally! The binding of Isaac.


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