“and [Isaac] grew richer and richer until he was very wealthy: he acquired flocks and herds, and a large household, so that the Philistines envied him. And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth. And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us.” So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the wadi of Gerar, where he settled. Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them. But when Isaac’s servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” He named that well Esek., “contention.” because they contended with him. And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah.– harassment.” He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehovot, saying, “Now at last the Eternal has granted us ample space(breadth)” to increase in the land.”” (Genesis 26:13ff)
The stories in the life of Isaac often parallel those of his father Abraham. There is a famine in the early story of Abraham, and a famine in the early life of Isaac. In both cases they left the land of Israel – Abraham went down to Egypt, Isaac to Gerar in Philistine controlled territory, having been explicitly told by God NOT to go to Egypt. Isaac encounters an Abimelech, King of Gerar and lies about the relationship he has with Rebecca, calling her his sister rather than his wife, (something Abraham had also done, both in Egypt and in Gerar)
Abraham also has an encounter with an Abimelech, the king of Gerar, over the issue of the ownership of wells, just as Isaac does in the narrative here. The digging and ownership of wells is of importance in both their lives. Both father and son have issues with the large size of their flocks and herds and the resources needed to sustain them, and both father and son react most of the time by removing themselves from conflict – Abraham with his nephew Lot, Isaac with the herdsmen of Gerar. Both have two sons, and have what might be called fraught relationships with them and with the passing of the legacy of covenant. Abraham sends Ishmael away from him and involves Isaac in whatever the mysterious event of the akeidah, never seeing him again afterwards. Isaac is tricked by Jacob pretending to be Esau, passes on the covenant apparently unaware the recipient is not Esau (or at least there is ambiguity in his mind), and Jacob is sent away, never to see his father again.
Yet there is more to Isaac’s life than his simply repeating the leitmotif’s of his father, and echoing the experiences of that great Ivri, crosser of boundaries.
Isaac – often seen as the least significant of the patriarchs, the son of a famous father and the father of a famous son. Yet his is a story with much to teach us. A man who never leaves the Land despite many trials. The only one to be described as being in love with his wife. A man who has to deal with complexity and ambiguity in navigating his life, and with fewer certainties. A man who has survived the terrible trauma of his father’s apparent attempt on his life – or at least a seeming willingness to do so.
The story told above – of the re-digging of the Abrahamic wells and the negotiations that ensue – resonated particularly for me this year as we watch the COP 26 conference and the postures and positions on display.
In the Abrahamic parallel we are told: “At that time Abimelech, with Phicol the commander of his army, said to Abraham, “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 as I have dealt loyally with you, you will deal with me and with the land where you have resided as an alien.” And Abraham said, “I swear it.” When Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized, Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this; you did not tell me, and I have not heard of it until today.” So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant. Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs of the flock. And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?” He said, “These seven ewe lambs you shall accept from my hand, in order that you may be a witness for me that I dug this well.” Therefore that place was called Beer-sheba; (well of seven or well of oath) because there both of them swore an oath. When they had made a covenant at Beer-sheba, Abimelech, with Phicol the commander of his army, left and returned to the land of the Philistines. [Abraham] planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the Eternal, the Everlasting God. And Abraham resided as an alien many days in the land of the Philistines. (Gen 21:22-34)
In this narrative we are confronted with the need for trust between the various powers or participants to the agreement who are involved – without that trust nothing “agreed” can be said to really be agreed. We are confronted too with the issues of ownership of resources, of the fair sharing of such resources, with the actions of the people who reside on the land and those of people who control resources but do not “belong” to the land on which they are situated. Abraham and Abimelech appear able to make a treaty with a reasonable level of success – though we are never told why the servants of Abimelech had seized Abraham’s well in the first place.
By the time of Isaac, the wells had not only been taken back but actively stopped up – a strange phenomenon given the preciousness of the resource. Does this somewhat aggressive action date from unresolved issues from the time of Abraham? Is it to prevent others coming in from outside to use the water improperly? We can only speculate. But the continuing quarrelling and harassment that Isaac faces when trying to reclaim his father’s property shows us that the matter has not only not been resolved, but that there is ongoing acrimony and anger ready to erupt into violence.
Isaac does not go to the King as his father had done, he simply moves away and tries to settle elsewhere near a “family well”, and eventually he digs and finds what may be a new watersource, one that is not contested, and understands that now he has found a place to settle down.
Yet strangely, the next verse tells us that he moves on the BeerSheba, where he encounters God and receives the covenant promise, then builds an altar and worships, then pitches his tent and only then digs a well…
Abimelech and the Philistines come to find him to make a treaty with him, and responding to his challenge about their hostility to him which has forced him to move on, tell him that they now see that God is with him. (26:28) They make their own treaty with him, and leave. Only then do Isaac’s servants come to tell him that they have found water, which he names “Sheba” (oath) and again we have a story about the naming of Beer Sheba.
What comes down to us from these narratives is how the trust and the treaties need to be ongoing, that having been made once is not enough – they must be kept in good repair. We see that was accepted once may not be acceptable going forward. We see that pressure on resources will not only not go away, but will engender resentment and anger if not addressed fairly and regularly. We see that the actions of one (or more) rich and powerful agent (s) can be hugely detrimental to others with less power but with a real stake in the issue. And this power differential cannot be allowed to continue.
If we want to have a fairer world, a world where there is access to resources by all who need them, a world where there is trust and where people work to keep that trust alive and responsive, then we need to ensure that we are part of the solution, able to see the realities and to ensure that our leadership both acknowledge and respond in a timely and appropriate manner to those realities.
Watching the COP26 and seeing the posturing, the lobbying, the arrogance of the more powerful countries and the despair of those less powerful, we can see we have a long way to go to make a fairer and more sustainable world. The time is short, but this is no reason not to continue to involve ourselves and our values. Isaac eventually finds a place where there is space for everyone to have their own needs met without treading on the needs of others. It is a goal worth aspiring to.