Esek, Sitnah, and Rehoboth: What Ever Happened to Isaac’s Wells?

The Landing of the Pilgrims by Henri Bacon (1877)In 1643, a group of British colonists from Plymouth journeyed west to find a new home. It had been a generation since the founding of Plymouth colony and the world was changing rapidly. The colonists had seen war and hardship, they saw their hard-fought religious idealism of the New World diluted by a rapidly growing Massachusetts Bay colony to the north, and back in England the country was in the early throws of a civil war. It was in this climate that this group of colonists were inspired by the story of Isaac and his wells. God had “made room” for them and, like Isaac and the subsequent Israelites, they could be “fruitful” (Genesis 26:22) in the land. Today, this town is known as Rehoboth, Massachusetts.

Throughout history, the story of Isaac finding room has resonated by settlers of all stripes. In 1845, mixed Protestant missionaries founded a town of Rehoboth in pre-colonial Namibia. In 1873, a group of Methodists founded a resort town of Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. There are other towns with similar stories in New Mexico, Ohio, Alabama, and Maryland. It was also the name for a US Navy ship during World War I, historic buildings in New York and Maryland, and there’s even an asteroid. This is a story that has resonated down through the generations.

These stories had meaning which we carry to this day. But what ever happened to those wells? Read on for more.

Rehoboth in the Bible

The Negev Desert is nearly 5,000 square miles of rugged beauty in southern Israel.
The Negev Desert is nearly 5,000 square miles of rugged beauty in southern Israel.

Just to recap: right before he negotiated a peace with Abimelech, Isaac and his men dug three wells. Two of these wells remained in hostile territory, but the third marked the point at which Isaac and his neighbors had reached an accommodation:

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.”
Genesis 26:19-22

These three wells– Esek, Sitnah, and Rehoboth– were called out by name in the bible, and yet only the name Rehoboth appears again. That is perhaps understandable: the first two of these wells were built in hostile territory and the Philistines were not shy about closing the wells of foreign tribes. The third would quickly fall back into Philistine hands when Jacob and his extended family were exiled to Egypt.

Despite that, a place called Rehoboth is mentioned twice more in the bible: once earlier in the story and once later. While these almost certainly referred to some other place– and probably two other places– I’ll leave that for you to decide. The earlier reference is from Genesis 10 as the descendants of Noah are described:

Cush was the father of Nimrod, who became a mighty warrior on the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; that is why it is said, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.” The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon, Uruk, Akkad and Kalneh, in Shinar. From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah—which is the great city.
Genesis 10:8-12

Nimrod is one of those great figures of Genesis where the text seems to assume we know all about him. He appears again in Jewish legends, but not in the bible. This passage describes his founding of cities in Assyria, modern Iraq, including one called Rehoboth Ir. Assryia is very far from the Negev desert where Isaac’s story takes place and is not likely to be connected to that story other than using the same Hebrew word.

A second Rehoboth is named later in the bible, in a section of the Book of Chronicles that describes the kings of Edom, the descendants of Esau. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it type of reference:

When Samlah died, Shaul from Rehoboth on the river succeeded him as king.
1 Chronicles 1:48

While the previous reference was almost certainly not of the same place, there is some promise here. Edomite territory was quite near the Negev, and Esau’s kinsmen could have controlled that territory after his brother Jacob’s kinsmen were exiled to Egypt. Esau and his line would also have respect for their patriarch’s well digging. The only fact which brings me pause is the mention of the river. “Rehoboth on the river” sounds a bit like how you would name a place when you already knew of a place with the same name somewhere else. I also question whether there could have been a river near Isaac’s camp– wouldn’t that have precluded his need to build a well?

On the other hand, it also is unlikely to be related to the Rehoboth built by Nimrod. It seems unlikely that a king of Edom could come from such a far away place. But if he did, it would be a great story! Too bad, it is not a story that the bible chooses to tell us.

Rehoboth Today: Rehovot

Rehovot Mall in Rehovot, Israel. Probably a better place to meet women in the modern era than a well. (Source: Wikimedia commons)
Rehovot Mall in Rehovot, Israel. Probably a better place to meet women in the modern era than a well. (Source: Wikimedia commons)

If you look on a map of Israel today, you might think that this whole discussion of Rehoboth is academic. Look! There it is, still marked plain as day. And you would be half right: there is a city of Rehovot in Israel today, and in Hebrew it shares the same spelling as our well in the bible. Rehovot is a city with a population of over one hundred thousand, located just south of Tel Aviv, practically a suburb. I have never traveled there, so I can’t say much about it. Looking at the city’s website– always an unbiased source– it claims to be a city of Science and Culture, and there is a famous science center there. Browsing around even further, it’s major attraction appears to be its very large shopping mall. But this modern city was only named for the well which would have been quite a ways south. It was founded in 1890 by Jews from Poland and Yemen.

As for the rest, the bible– and archeology– remain silent. I have found many references to different sites in Israel that were purported to be one or more of the wells, but none of them hold up to scrutiny. One of these places, now called Rehuibeh, was a popular choice for Rehoboth in the past but modern archeological consensus appears to be that it was actually settled in the Roman period, much later. I think the most important legacy of the wells is not in whether we have a place we can go to today, but rather in all the different ways and all the different places inspired by this story enough to share a name. I cannot think of many places in the bible that have inspired more settlers than this story of Isaac finding a place to live.

Up next: Issac’s blessings to Jacob and Esau

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One thought on “Esek, Sitnah, and Rehoboth: What Ever Happened to Isaac’s Wells?”

  1. This week’s torah portion covered Genesis 26 and the locale of Beersheba, the well where peace was established. Interestingly the battle of the light horse men at Beersheba during the second world war was fundamentally important in Israel being granted status as an Israeli state, after generations of facing adversaries and hardship (as the names of the former wells suggests). It was a pivotal battle for the wells, between the Turk/German alliance and the Australians.

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