In the television show Survivor, fire means life. But in the Book of Genesis, water is the element that saves your life. Wells found in the wilderness save the lives of Hagar and Ishmael, wells are the community meeting place where both Isaac’s and Jacob’s wives were found, and wells mark a territorial claim to a plot of land. To have a well demonstrates that the land is capable of sustaining life; you can live there.
One of the lesser-known stories of the bible, one of the very few where Isaac is more than a passive actor, is the story of Abraham’s wells. This is a story of Isaac’s success against all odds, of a compromise with the Philistines, and setting one of the borders of the future land of Israel. It also happens to involve quite a lot of wells.
Let’s grab some shovels and dig in!
(This post is part of a continuing series of chronological commentaries on Genesis, starting at the very beginning. Previous entries on Isaac include his name pun, his near sacrifice by his father, where Isaac went next, finding a bride, making peace with Ishmael, and and a wider look on Isaac in relation to his father. This story takes place before Isaac is tricked by his wife Rebecca and son Jacob into giving his blessing to the wrong son.)
In the Time of Abraham
Before we look at Isaac’s actions, let us rewind the story back to Genesis 21. Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines, camped at Beersheba, and signed a peace treaty with Abimelech. I have posted about this chapter before, both Abraham’s initial meeting with Abimelech, as well as his peace treaty.
I love the wording when Abraham talks about a well that Abimelech’s people had seized. Take a look:
Then Abraham complained to Abimelek about a well of water that Abimelek’s servants had seized. But Abimelek said, “I don’t know who has done this. You did not tell me, and I heard about it only today.”
I love this passage because it shows that the authors of Genesis had a sense of humor. The line, “You did not tell me, and I heard about it only today.” is funny because not only has Abimelech just heard about these all-important wells, but so did we the reader. Today we might say that the narrator of Genesis “hung a lampshade” on it, sort of a little wink that no, this wasn’t mentioned before.
This situation is easily resolved. Abimelech agrees to admit that Abraham dug the well, in exchange for a few lambs, and all is well… for now.
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.
The naming and then re-naming of Beersheba is an important element to this story, but worthy of a follow-up post. Abraham has essentially bought the right to use this land and staked his claim on it in the form of a well. It’s also a recognition between two regional powers (Abraham and Abimelech) that there is a something of Abraham’s here, perhaps even a border to his lands. Abraham eventually departs, but his son will be back.
Isaac Makes Way for Philistines
Five chapters later, a famine again comes to Israel and Isaac retreats south to Gerar to wait it out. I have written about the connections between these stories before (here, here, and here), but this time around let’s focus not on Isaac’s actions with his wife (he claims she is his sister), but rather how successful he was in this new land:
Isaac planted crops in that land and the same year reaped a hundredfold, because the Lord blessed him. The man became rich, and his wealth continued to grow until he became very wealthy. He had so many flocks and herds and servants that the Philistines envied him.
Thanks to God, Isaac was successful in his new environment. Isaac may not have started from scratch, but recall that this event may have been before Abraham’s death and so he may not yet have come into his inheritance. Before long, he was a regional power with many animals and servants and the envy of his neighbors, just like his father had been in Canaan before him.
The Philistines resented Isaac and feared for his encroachment on his territory. Isaac had a lot of people to support and the best way to say “maybe you should move” might be to cut off his water supply:
So all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the time of his father Abraham, the Philistines stopped up, filling them with earth. Then Abimelek said to Isaac, “Move away from us; you have become too powerful for us.”
I don’t know the impact of filling a well– I suspect it is somewhat less permanent than salting the earth— but the intent was the same. They wanted to make the land unusable. What makes this worse is that these wells were the embodiment of the peace treaty that Abraham had signed years before. Isaac knows that he is in the right. What would Abraham do in this situation? Would he go war with Abimelech? Isaac chose a different path. He knew that the two nations could live together in peace, if they each had room to grow. So, he backs off.
So Isaac moved away from there and encamped in the Valley of Gerar, where he settled. Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them.
The narrative is becoming confusing because we were in “Gerar” and now we are in the “Valley of Gerar”. Looking at the rabbinical sources, Rashi was content to say that the “Vally of Gerar” was far enough away that this was meaningful. Just looking at the text, I’m not so sure. Isaac may have backed off, but I wonder if he made a point of not going too far away, not even outside the same valley where the town of Gerar sat. Isaac did not even move beyond the wells that his father had dug, which were now filled.
This isn’t good enough for the Philistines; they want him to move farther. So Isaac picks up and moves , even digs a well, but then the Philistines are back and he’s on the road again. This happens three times. Isaac is a very patient man.
Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and discovered a well of fresh water there. But the herders of Gerar quarreled with those of Isaac and said, “The water is ours!” So he named the well Esek, because they disputed with him. Then they dug another well, but they quarreled over that one also; so he named it Sitnah. He moved on from there and dug another well, and no one quarreled over it. He named it Rehoboth, saying, “Now the Lord has given us room and we will flourish in the land.”
Eventually, Isaac moved to a place where he could live in peace. God had given him room. It is clear from this text that the Philistines were testing him, antagonizing him. Isaac took the moral high ground and gave way each time. In the end, he may even have moved beyond his father’s old claim because there were no more wells to re-open, only new ones to dig. Isaac had found a place to live until the famine was over.
Second Treaty of Beersheba
No sooner is Isaac happy with these arrangements than he returns to Beersheba, the site of his father’s treaty with Abimelech. This was not just any land where his father’s servants had dug a well, that was the location where Abraham’s covenant with Abimelech was cemented. Whether Isaac knew it or not, it was also quite near where Hagar and Ishmael were rescued by an angel even more years ago. That land at least would be his.
From there he went up to Beersheba. That night the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.” Isaac built an altar there and called on the name of the Lord. There he pitched his tent, and there his servants dug a well.
Unlike those previous places, Isaac didn’t just dig a well. He built an altar and then dig a well. Beersheba would not just be a place for people to live, but a place for people to thrive under the watchful eye of their God. Building an altar must have made his claim all the more serious, something even Abimelech must have understood. And, some time later, Abimelech makes the journey to Beersheba and they negotiate their new peace. Isaac may have lost some land, but reclaiming Beersheba may have allowed him to save face.
This story ends with a bizarre coda, almost a textual afterthought:
That day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well they had dug. They said, “We’ve found water!” He called it Shibah, and to this day the name of the town has been Beersheba.
Again, I will look at this more closely in a subsequent post. But Beersheba had already been named by Abraham, for a completely different reason, and Isaac’s servants had dug a well there only a few lines before. It’s strange.
Victor or Coward?
One of the challenges I have in understanding this story is simply how we should judge Isaac for his actions. Throughout the tale, the Genesis narrator makes no judgements. God makes no judgements. And yet we have one of the patriarchs of Israel fleeing from hostile forces three times before he finally finds a place where he can rest. That is hardly a winning record, even if he was able to reclaim Beersheba in the end.
Was Isaac a coward? Is this story supposed to cement a picture of Isaac in readers’ minds of a man of inaction? He was passive with his father when he was about to be sacrificed, passive when his father had to find a bride for him, and how he is passive again by letting Philistines walk all over him. The fact that he became wealthy and managed to reclaim Beersheba is meaningless against the humiliation of being pushed off of the land under his feet three times.
Or are we supposed to read in Isaac a statesman who knew the horrors of war and knew that a little compromise would take him a long way? Sure, the Philistines were antagonizing him– probably deliberately. But he turned the other cheek and kept his eye on the big prize: Beersheba and peace. And, if that was his goal, Isaac achieved everything. He should be a hero.
Which view of Isaac is correct? I am not sure. But it does give us something challenging to think about.
Epilogue – The Future of Gerar
Gerar will only enter our story one more time, and not until the Second Book of Chronicles. In the intervening years, Cushites had apparently established a beachhead in Gerar (despite being quite far from their home in southern Egypt) and began a war against King Asa of Judah. But Asa had been a successful king and had used his many years of peace and prosperity to fortify his kingdom and prepare. When battle came, the Cushites were defeated:
The Lord struck down the Cushites before Asa and Judah. The Cushites fled, and Asa and his army pursued them as far as Gerar. Such a great number of Cushites fell that they could not recover; they were crushed before the Lord and his forces. The men of Judah carried off a large amount of plunder. They destroyed all the villages around Gerar, for the terror of the Lord had fallen on them. They looted all these villages, since there was much plunder there. They also attacked the camps of the herders and carried off droves of sheep and goats and camels. Then they returned to Jerusalem.
2 Chronicles 14:12-15
This is the last time Gerar appears in the bible, though there are no mentions of Isaac’s wells or any connection to the story of Abraham in this passage. Reading carefully, I am also unsure whether the territory was Cushite and filled with Cushite people, or only occupied by Cushites but still retaining their original Philistine population. In the latter case, it hardly seems fair that Judah would crush them so thoroughly. Were these herders really the people nipping at Israel’s borders? Probably not. But, I suppose, that is the way war went in the ancient world.
Up next will be a special post, possibly a very brief one on the future of Isaac’s wells that didn’t quite fit this time. From there, back to the story of Jacob!
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