Abraham (Genesis 21b)

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Patriarchs

  • Following the story with Hagar, Abraham has another encounter with Abimelech.
  • The foreign king says to Abraham, “God is with you in everything you do.”  Some scholars translate this as "in everything you are doing."
  • It suggests that Abraham's entire life expresses the blessings of God. 
  • Scholars think the king was being very sincere regarding this statement.  It implies that Abraham was a force to be reckoned with. Abraham was respected as the leader and representative of the entire nation of Israel.
  • Abimelech asks Abraham to swear “that you won’t do anything underhanded to me or any of my family for as long as you live here.”
  • He wants Abraham to treat him and his land as well as the king has treated Abraham.
  • Here Abimelech could only be referring to the lavish gifts that he had already given to Abraham following the ruse with Sarah, when Abraham said she was his sister instead of his wife and tricked the king.
  • And perhaps his request to not deal falsely with him may have been motivated, in part, by that previous deception. 
  • But it is clear that what he really wants with Abraham is a legal covenant.
  • Abraham agrees, saying, “I swear it.”
  • However, Abraham continues the conversation with Abimelech by complaining about a well that Abimelech's servants had seized. 
  • He uses a very strong word here that has the sense of stealing it by force - a forceful tearing away of an object from its owner.
  • Abimelech says, “I have no idea who did this; you never told me about it; this is the first I’ve heard of it.”
  • But he doesn’t tell Abraham any way of settling this grievance. 
  • So Abraham takes the initiative. 
  • He takes sheep and cattle to give to Abimelech to make a treaty. 
  • An exchange of gifts was customary when treaties or covenants were being made.  Presumably, this was something like a non-aggression pact, and both were agreeing to behave in a friendly manner towards each other. 
  • Yet it does not seem to resolve the dispute over the well, for Abraham is impelled to go a step further and separate seven ewe lambs from the gifts. 
  • Abimelech asks, “What does this mean? These seven sheep you’ve set aside.”
  • Abraham says they are a special gift to him and that, in fact, Abimelech has to accept them.  In so doing, however, he testifies that Abraham is really the rightful owner of the well. 
  • Abraham replies, “It means that when you accept these seven sheep, you take it as proof that I dug this well, and that it’s my well.”
  • Were Abimelech not to accept it at this point, it would mean that he did not acknowledge Abraham's right to the well, and what good was a promise to live peacefully in the land if he did not have any water rights?  So this was a major issue for Abraham. 
  • And in this case, it wasn't the gift itself; it was the giving of the gift that was the witness to the fact.
  • The acceptance of the lambs became a public and legal act that bound Abimelech with respect to Abraham. 
  • Abimelech does accept them, and Abraham wins the dispute.
  • The place where the well was located was called Beersheba.  This word can mean, "well of seven" or "well of the oath."
  • This would become the new home of Abraham. 
  • With the treaty signed and completed, Abimelech and his commander-in-chief left and went home to the land of the Philistines.
  • This story serves to exalt Abraham as a patriarch in light of his encounter with an important king and the commander of his army.  This king had to petition Abraham, which was a sure sign of God's blessings and favor upon him.  Furthermore, Abraham emerged from this dispute as the clear victor. 
  • Out of gratitude to God, Abraham plants a tamarisk tree and worships God at that spot, calling upon Him as Lord, the eternal God. 
  • Many scholars see this tree-planting episode in the same vein as the altar building. 
  • Both expressed his devotion to God and were symbols of the life and blessing of God. 
  • Through the words and actions of Abimelech, God has reassured Abraham of a promising future.
  • This treaty presupposes that there will be many descendants of Abraham.  By granting Abraham rights to this well, Abimelech has virtually guaranteed him the ability to live there permanently and peacefully. 
  • So through this very basic interaction with his neighbor over one of the most basic of human needs—the need for water, Abraham is assured of his own future and God's continuing care of his needs. 
  • And it says that Abraham stayed there for a very long time.  Peace, stability, and tranquility are also evidence of God's blessings.

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