Text: Gen 21:22-32
Why did Abraham make a covenant with Abimelech? What was the main issue of this passage? The main issue is the dispute over the well that Abraham dug at Beersheba. Abraham was not dwelling in Gerar (Philistine territory); he was dwelling beyond Gerar, on the border of the Negev desert, in a place called Beersheba.
We read that “Abraham reproved Abimelech because of a well of water, which Abimelech’s servants had violently taken away”, Gen 21:25. Disputes over water are common in desert territory. But here we see the violent nature of the Philistines. Later on, in Isaac’s time (Gen 26:15) we find that the Philistines stopped the wells that Abraham had dug, and had ‘filled them with earth’. Now that is surprising. Why should they fill the wells with earth? After all, water is so precious in Southern Palestine. It is cruel to fill up wells with earth. The Philistines didn’t want water to be drunk from those wells.
According to Abraham, in Gen 20:11, there was no fear of God in Gerar. When Abimelech’s servants snatched Abraham’s well, Abraham did not keep quiet, and move away like his son did (in Gen 26). Rather, Abraham protested. Abraham also pays a price for the well that he dug, Gen 21:27. He gave Abimelech sheep and oxen for the well. He wanted to established his right to the well that he himself had dug. He bound Abimelech to an oath and a covenant, which was sealed by ‘seven ewe lambs’. Abimelech asks about the seven ewe lambs, Gen 21:29, and Abraham replies that they are a witness that he (Abraham) had dug the well. In other words, ‘This well is mine,’ says Abraham. ‘Your servants have no right to capture this well.’
Abimelech received the seven ewe lambs, Gen 21:30, in token of his having accepted the covenant made at Beersheba. He, the ruler of the Philistines, acknowledged that Abraham had dug the well and the well belonged rightfully to Abraham and his descendants.
We need not give much cognizance to the words of Abimelech. Remember that Abraham had prayed for Abimelech, in Gen 20:17, and God had healed Abimelech – and his wife and his maidservants (whose wombs God had closed up), Gen 20:18.
Abimelech’s words in Gen 21:23 are not to be trusted, because he says – ‘according to the kindness that I have done to thee’. What kindness? Abimelech had snatched away Sarah in Gen 20:2b. In fact, God had showed kindness to Abimelech in answer to Abraham’s prayer, Gen 20:17. Even though Abimelech acknowledged that ‘God is with thee in all that thou doest’, Gen 21:22, it seems that violence and deceit are inherent in the Philistines. In Gen 21:26, Abimelech says, ‘I know not who has done this thing!’ – which is a lie.
What was the struggle about? Was it over a physical well? Abraham was fighting for spiritual values (embodied by the well). We know from John 4:14 that the well speaks of the Holy Spirit. The Philistines know nothing of the Spirit and spiritual values. They are earthly-minded. They are ‘uncircumcised Philistines’ (the term used by David), the arch-enemies of God’s people. They are people of the flesh who fight with the people of the Spirit. They are led by the soul, and not the Spirit. Abraham wants to protect the well – keep it safe from Philistine depredation. There are spiritual values – a spiritual vision, a heavenly vision, the things of the Spirit – which are more important than mere Bible knowledge, or even knowledge of creeds and doctrines. Many debate continually regarding doctrine, and try to prove their point through logic and argument. The Calvinists belong to this breed of ‘christians’. The Reformed and the Presbyterian (and other denominations too) make much about doctrine, without knowing the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. For them, the born-again experience (John 3:3, 5, 7) is equated with knowledge of doctrine. It is possible to have the ‘letter’ and not the ‘Spirit’. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life, 2 Cor 3:6.
Abraham bound Abimelech to a covenant that he (and his men) would not touch Abraham’s well at Beersheba. Abraham paid a great price to protect the well, even though he had dug the well himself, and the well was rightfully his. Alas, in Isaac’s time, it is apparent that the well had been stopped with earth. In Gen 26:32, Isaac’s servants who have been involved in opening up the wells of Abraham (Gen 26:15, 18, 20, 21, 22), also opened up the well at Beersheba (Gen 26:32), removing the earth that the Philistines had put it. It is not stated explicitly in Gen 26:32, but from the context we gather that the Philistines were hostile to Abraham’s wells and stopped them up with earth so that they could not flow.
Remember Abraham built altars and dug wells. Isaac made it a point to reopen those wells. Isaac had to struggle with the Philistines to protect the wells – some like Esek and Sitnah were captured by the Philistines, but the well at Rehoboth was safe (because the Philistines strove not for it). However, Isaac went up to Beersheba, built an altar there, called upon God in prayer, pitched his tent and ‘digged a well’ – most probably, the well of Abraham which resulted in the covenant of Beersheba (Gen 21).
So many are involved in theological debates over doctrine, but the most important thing is to be ‘born of the Spirit’; to receive the ‘well of water within’, John 4.14. What is important is to have the flow of the Spirit in one’s life – what some call the ‘anointing’. Otherwise, God’s Word remains mere letter. The Word opens up to the Spirit – through revelation, the opening of the heart. Are we fighting for these spiritual values? Or are we letting the Philistines get the upper hand in our Christian life? Alas, all over the world, the Philistines dominate the churches. It is the Spirit who gives life and peace, (Rom 8:6), ‘rivers of living water’, peace ruling in the heart. It is a divine experience, consequent to the new birth (regeneration). Only those born of the Spirit, and led by the Spirit, can understand the deeper truths of God’s Word. Otherwise, they are merely living in Philistine land – where there is all ‘show’ and no substance, all ‘words’ but no water – much activity, much head-knowledge, much religiosity, but , alas, no LIFE!