Beersheba — The Well and the Tree — Genesis 21:22-34

This short little paragraph speaks to the beauty of expositional preaching.  As a preacher who makes it his practice to systematically work through an entire book of Scripture, I found that my thought patterns in approaching today’s text track exactly along the same lines of those of a fellow expositor Brian Borgman.  I listened to his sermon and marveled at how our minds go down the same path.  My first decision is how big of a chunk to tackle in a given message.  So last week it made sense to contrast the Promised Seed Isaac with the Seed of the Flesh = Ishamel.  It is also obvious that Chap. 22 with the offering up of Isaac stands by itself.  So what do we make of this little section (21:22-34) in the middle?  Most expositors would just skip over it … but I can’t do that.  God has it here for a specific purpose.

1)  Land Promise — Remember Gen. 12:1-3 and the initial promise which consisted of a seed promise and a land promise.

Bruce Waltke: This second conflict with Abimelech creates a bracket around the Isaac birth narrative. Whereas the first conflict, Scene5 ( Genesis 20:1-18), concerned jeopardy of the seed, the second conflict, Scene7 ( Genesis 21:22-34), concerns jeopardy of the land (i.e, well rights).

2)  Participation in Blessing Via Abraham — You can also draw some interesting contrasts between the way in which Ishmael rejected co-existence with Abraham and Isaac by mocking Isaac – thereby alienating himself from the promised seed (even though God continued to show kindness in the form of common grace to Ishmael and his descendants); while Abimelech chose the opposite course of seeking a way to embrace the blessing of Abraham and come to a treaty of peaceful co-existence.  Here you have a Gentile king in a pagan land experiencing God’s grace via his association with Abraham.

3)  New Covenant Symbolism — From Paul’s commentary in Gal. 4 we know that the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael represents the transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant.  So it is not surprising that in this section we learn valuable lessons about the covenant motif.

So what lesson are we to draw from this section?

THE EVERLASTING GOD GUARANTEES THE POSSESSION OF THE PROMISED LAND USING THE COVENANT MOTIF

[motif = theme, dominant feature]

God sovereignly directing the whole event that happens here between Abraham and Abimelech

I.  (:22-32) GUARANTEE OF POSSESSION OF THE PROMISED LAND VIA NON AGGRESSION COVENANT WITH ABIMELECH —

SIGN = OWNERSHIP OF WATER WELL AT BEERSHEBA

A.  (:22-24) Covenant Addressing Abimelech’s Concern – Non Aggression Treaty

  1. (:22)  Motivation for the Covenant — God’s Favor Attracts Gentile Interest

Now it came about at that time, that Abimelech and Phicol, the commander of his army, spoke to Abraham, saying, ‘God is with you in all that you do;’

Both the political and military leaders of this Philistine kingdom take the initiative to approach Abraham at this crucial time in history

Ligon Duncan: at some point Abraham had moved his tents from Gerah down to Beersheba, which was about twenty-five miles to the southeast. And one gets the impression from this passage that Abimelech exercised control over a vast area south of Gerah as far as Beersheba.

Time of feast at Isaac’s weaning; were they guests at the feast??

Deffinbaugh: Abimelech sought a treaty with Abraham because he did not ever wish to go to battle against him. To fight Abraham was to attack Abraham’s God and to have to contend with Him. On the other hand, to have an alliance with Abraham was to have God on his side. No wonder Abimelech was so anxious to negotiate such a treaty.

But do you see the lesson this should have taught Abraham? Abraham had lied to Abimelech about Sarah because he thought that there would be no fear of God, and thus no protection of himself, in a land of pagans (cf. 20:11). God rebuked the unbelief of Abraham by this testimony from the lips of Abimelech.

Hughes: Abraham had risen from disgrace to having a positive witness for God.

How did Abimelech recognize God’s hand on Abraham?   General pattern of success:

  • Historical accounts of previous military victories
  • Protection of him and Sarah despite his duplicity – knew that Abraham was not a guy you should mess with; remember God’s pronouncement: “You are a dead man
  • Knew Abraham as a prophet of God
  • Increasing wealth and reputation of Abraham
  • Miraculous birth of promised son Isaac

Parunak: Statement: he recognizes God’s blessing on Abraham.

  • The appearance of God to him when he took Sarah

  • The healing that came when Abraham interceded for him

  • Now, the birth of a son under unnatural circumstances.

Duncan: He acknowledges God’s presence and God’s favor with Abraham. God is with you, Abimelech says to Abraham. That same fact would be noticed about Isaac. Abimelech would see him in Genesis 26, verse 28 and say, Isaac, God is with you, I can see it. It would be noted of Jacob in Genesis 30, verse 27, “God is with you.” And again it would be noted of Joseph in Genesis in 39, verse 3, “God is with you.”

  1. (:23)  Substance of the Covenant

a.  Negative Side of Oath

                     “now therefore, swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me, or with my offspring, or with my posterity;

Look at the position of power and prestige that Abraham occupies that the king Abimelech and his military powers would be in a position of entreating him for a peace pact.

Purpose of making such a covenant: designed to establish security and stability in their relationship.

b.  Positive Side of Oath

                   “but according to the kindness that I have shown to you, you shall show to me, and to the land in which you have sojourned.

Duncan: Technical word — God’s chesid, God’s covenant love, God’s covenant loyalty to His people, and Abimelech is asking that Abraham would show Him that kind of covenant loyalty.

MacArthur: A parity treaty formally struck between Abimelech and Abraham guaranteed the proper control and sharing of the region’s limited water resources and also assured the king of the patriarch’s fair and equitable treatment for years to come.

Parunak: Positively, Abraham is to return Abimelech’s kindness, his xesed. This term is used in the first instance to describe the reciprocal obligations inherent in close human relations, such as man and wife (Gen 20:13; Ruth 1:8), cousins (Gen 24:49), father and son (47:29), friends (David and Jonathan), or as here, host and guest (cf. also Jos 2:12,14). The fact that Abimelech asks for a promise of it here suggests that he realizes he may not always be in the position of host, and he wants to ensure that as Abraham becomes stronger, he treats Abimelech as Abimelech has treated him. Similar instances of a host requesting xesed of a guest who is in the ascendancy: Jos 2:12,14; Gen 19:19.

  1. (:24) Ratification of Covenant

And Abraham said, ‘I swear it.’

Parunak: There are either two separate covenants, or one with two parts.

B.  (:25-27) Threat to the Covenant Addressed – Property Rights of Contested Well

  1. (:25)  Specific Concern

But Abraham complained to Abimelech because of the well of water which the servants of Abimelech had seized.

Growth on Abraham’s part:  here Abraham takes a more direct and honest approach to dealing with a potential difficulty – did not shy away from confrontation

  1. (:26)  Denial of Culpability

And Abimelech said, ‘I do not know who has done this thing; neither did you tell me, nor did I hear of it until today.’

Reproaching Abraham for not having personally brought this to his attention earlier

Dismisses the concern as no issue at all – nothing stands between good relations between Abraham and Abimelech

Abimelech seems to always be getting into trouble for stuff he doesn’t do!

Deffinbaugh: Not only would Abimelech not take a wife that was not his, he would not even take a well that did not belong to him. How foolish the fears of Abraham seem after this incident!

Importance of gracious confrontation and dealing with issues; problem may just be one of perception or oversight; may be a simple solution

  1. (:27)  Ratification of the Covenant

And Abraham took sheep and oxen, and gave them to Abimelech; and the two of them made a covenant.

Blood sacrifice involved

Death of innocent substitute

Similar to the Abrahamic Covenant – seems very one-sided; almost unilateral

  • Abraham pledging to act kindly
  • Abraham bringing the gift of the animals for sacrifice

C.  (:28-32) Claim Established for Rightful Ownership of Well at Bathsheba

  1. (:28)  Special Payment

Then Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock by themselves.

Parunak: Abraham makes a special gift of seven ewe lambs as a sign of their agreement over the matter of the well.

  • The relevance of the sign is that the economy in this area is primarily pastoral, not agricultural. The function of a well is to water the flocks, not to irrigate the ground. With Abraham’s ewes among their flocks, bearing future generations, Abimelech’s servants will think twice before they try to displace him from the wells he has dug for his own flocks.

  • Why seven lambs? Not only for the sacred use of the number, but also because of a pun. Seven is sheba, and the verb “to swear” is shaba, with the cognate noun “oath” shebua. The very number of the lambs indicates the seriousness of the commitment they are undertaking.

  • We have here also an instance of the usefulness of symbols in commemorating important events. Compare wedding rings. Our memory is weak; symbols help make important things vivid to us. The greatest examples are the sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which remind us of our death and resurrection with Christ and of his sacrifice for us.

The name records this covenant. “Beer-sheba” means literally, “the well of seven,” and then through the pun, “the well of the oath.”

  1. (:29-30)  Significance of the 7 Ewe Lambs

  a.  (:29)  Question

                          “And Abimelech said to Abraham, ‘What do these seven ewe lambs mean, which you have set by themselves?’

Abraham had brought sheep and oxen … but these 7 ewe lambs are set aside as a special gift;

Ewe lamb – a young usually unweaned female sheep.  Contrast with feast to celebrate weaning of Isaac;

  b.  (:30)  Explanation

                “And he said, ‘You shall take these seven ewe lambs from my hand in order that it may be a witness to me, that I dug this well.’

  1. (:31-32a)  Significance of name Beersheba

Therefore he called that place Beersheba; because there the two of them took an oath. So they made a covenant at Beersheba;

45 miles SW of Jerusalem

Steven Cole: Here God shows Abraham that not only would the people of the land not take his wife, they wouldn’t even take his well. If he would walk with God, so that it was evident to others, Abraham had nothing to fear. Though he was surrounded by pagans who had no scruples about murdering and plundering a wealthy man’s belongings, Abraham could live securely because of God’s faithful protection, apart from any schemes on Abraham’s part

  1. (:32b)  Successful Completion of the Covenant

and Abimelech and Phicol, the commander of his army, arose and returned to the land of the Philistines.

Parunak: This is sometimes criticized as anachronistic, since the Philistines are not mentioned in secular historical documents until 1190. They were sea people from Crete and the Aegean isles who settled in the levant, and in fact gave it the name “Palestine.’ But there are records to trade with Crete in the patriarchal age (the Mari archives), and Cretan artifacts from this period at various archaeological sites, so we should understand Abimelech and his people as an earlier wave of settlers from the same ethnic stock that later settled the pentapolis of Gaza, Ekron, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Gath.

II.  (:33-34) GUARANTEE OF POSSESSION OF THE PROMISED LAND VIA GOD’S CHARACTER AS THE EVERLASTING GOD –

SIGN = PLANTING OF TAMARISK TREE AT BEERSHEBA

A.  (:33a) Memorial – Significance of the Planting of the Tree – Putting down roots

And Abraham planted a tamarisk tree at Beersheba,

Similar to a Christmas tree (cf. book that spoke against Christmas trees)

Hughes: symbol of fruitfulness and prosperity . . . also demonstrated his rootedness in the land

Constable: By planting a tree Abraham indicated his determination to stay in that region. Tamarisk trees ( Genesis 21:33) were long-lived and evergreen. [Note: MathewsGenesis 11:27-50:26 , p282.] This tree was an appropriate symbol of the enduring grace of the faithful God whom Abraham recognized as “the Everlasting God” (El Olam). Abraham now owned a small part of the land God had promised him.

Alan Carr: He is making an investment for the future. At his age, he might never cool himself under its shade, but Isaac will, and his grandchildren will. He is looking beyond himself to those who will follow and is making a difference for them while he can.

B.  (:33b) Testimony / Worship – Significance of the New Name of God

and there he called on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.

El olam – Unique reference in the Bible

Unchangeableness and dependability of God

Live for eternity

Have long term perspective

Hughes: the one whose will for man cannot be thwarted

Parunak: The distinctive feature of this action is public proclamation. It may be translated, “to make proclamation with the name of the Lord,” crying aloud while uttering the Lord’s name. As in ch. 4, the concept to be noted is “worship as witness.” It is the duty of God’s people to be known as such, to “Praise the LORD, call upon his name, declare his doings among the people, make mention that his name is exalted” (Isa 12:4).

Is. 40:28

C.  (:34) Peaceful Coexistence – Significance of Dwelling in the Land

And Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines for many days.

There are enemies in the Promised Land; but these enemies cannot deprive God’s elect from possession of the Promised Land

Duncan: The land around Beersheba would remain Abraham’s chief base for the rest of his sojourn in the land. And it would become the home base for Isaac as well at a later time.

CONCLUSION:

Duncan: Moses, the inspired writer, may have been called by God to remind the Israelites that even in this land of opposition, this strange land, this land of their dread and mortal enemies, the Philistines, that their father, Abraham, was ready to lift up his voice and worship God publicly, setting them and us this example. I will bless the Lord at all times. His praise shall continually be in my mouth. Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines even as David would hundreds of years later, and while he was there he worshiped God. May the Lord grant us grace to worship God no matter where He calls us to sojourn.