November 28, 2010
There are many familiar stories in Genesis 24-27, but have you heard the one about Isaac and the wells? I hadn’t, or at least I don’t remember it. In between the birth of Jacob and Esau and the story of Jacob’s supplanting his older twin, lies this unfamiliar take of Isaac’s time in Gerar, where he went due to a famine.
Well, the beginning is familiar enough. This is yet another story which begins with a man in a foreign land pretending that his wife is his sister for fear of the other men. Like father like son, eh?
But the story tells of how Isaac came to prosper and so was expelled from the land and later made peace with Abimelech, King of the Philistines (26:12-33). This story is illustrated through the accessibility of wells. No, seriously.
At first we are told that the Philistines blocked up all the wells dug by Abraham’s servants in previous times. Why? Water is a precious thing in these Middle Eastern locations wouldn’t you just use them for yourself? Is this about blocking something else? Wiping out the memory of someone’s presence? Perhaps.
Isaac digs these wells again, after he has been expelled by Abimelech, and his servants find new spring water but the herders of Gerar claim that it is theirs. So Isaac calls that well “contention”. Then his servants dig another and again it is quarreled over, so he calls it “enmity”. Finally, they find a third well, so it is called “broad places” or “room”, because “now the Lord has made room for us.”
All this water-finding doesn’t go unnoticed. Soon Abimelech turns up with his advisors to swear oaths with Isaac. He says ‘We see plainly that the Lord has been with you’ and he wants to make peace with this man who finds springs in dry places and whose seed comes back a hundredfold (26:12). Isaac agrees, they feast and rise in the morning to make oaths. Just as they finish Isaac’s come and tell him “we have found water” and so he calls this well something like the Hebrew word for “oath”.
Now, yes, this is a story about power and access to natural resources on one level. But I don’t think that’s why it stood out for me. The story of finding water in dry places, and this being both a source of contention and sign of power seems to work on many levels.
Digging well’s is not easy. There were no giant drills, no clever technology to survey what lay underground. How would you even know where to start? Is it all trail and error? This is a laborious task to say the least, but necessary for one’s very survival. So this is what Isaac did when he left Gerar; he looked for life elsewhere.
Nothing happens between Isaac’s exile from Gerar and the king himself turning up to swear oaths with him except this finding of water. Were these life-giving springs a sign of God’s favour? Did the Philistines see the water flowing wherever Isaac when and rethink their policy?
I like the idea that with labour but also with favour we find water in the dry places. That our own effort and God’s steadfast love, as the psalms so wonderfully put it, combine to produce springs from the desert place. I like that these wells can become symbols of God’s presence with us. When we find water in times of dryness, when we find hope in times of dispondency, when we look for life where others see death, the world sees God with us.
So, there is always water to be found. Will we start digging?