Abraham and Isaac building a well

After Abimeleh issued orders to the citizens that nobody should harm Isaac or his family, Isaac had a very successful year with his crops (despite a famine in the land). Because God had blessed Isaac – he reaped a hundred times what he had sown. Isaac became rich and his fortune continued to grow until he became very wealthy with large flocks, herds, and many servants.

Celebrate site of Abraham's well in Beersheba - circa 1930The Philistines living in the area began to envy Isaac and despite Abimelek’s orders to not harm his family, they filled his wells with earth (the same wells that his father had constructed). Isaac’s wealth and power threatened King Abimelek too and he told Isaac,

“Leave us for you have become much more powerful than we are.”

As requested, Isaac moved away and settled in the Valley of Gerar.

In Gerar, Isaac reconstructed the wells that his father had dug and gave them the same names as his father had christened them.  During the reconstruction of the old wells, Isaac discovered new sources of water. The ranchers of Gerar began to quarrel with Isaac over one of the new water sources so Isaac named it Esek (meaning “quarrel”). Isaac dug another well and when the herders once again quarreled with him over the water, he named the well Sitnah (meaning “opposition”). Isaac moved on and dug another well. When nobody quarreled with him over the water, he named the well Rehoboth (meaning “wide open spaces”) saying, “God has given us room and we will flourish in this land.”

From Gerar, Isaac went to Beersheba where God appeared to him and said,

“I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid for I am with you. I will bless you and increase the number of your descendants for the sake of your father.”

Isaac built an alter in Beersheba, pitched his tend, and dug another well.

What the story means to us today

Follow God’s lead and you will be rewarded

Jealousy and envy are common human emotions that typically derive from feelings of inferiority. However, dominating the natives of the land did not seem to be Isaac’s motive and thus, the Philistine’s envy towards Isaac was unfounded. Isaac simply followed God’s lead, acted as he knew God desired, and reaped the rewards for this faithfulness. The same applies to us today. Follow God’s lead and you will be rewarded.

Additional thoughts and considerations

Similarities in Abimelech’s relationship with Abraham and Isaac

Celebrate site of Abraham's well in Beersheba - circa 1960Abimelech (the king of the Philistines) had a favorable prior relationship with Isaac’s father, Abraham. Abraham had also accumulated much wealth and power and Abimelech recognized God was with Abraham in everything he did, likely because of Abraham’s demonstrated peacefulness and fortunate prosperity. Contrary to how Abimelech initially reacted to Isaac’s good fortune, Abimelech struck a respectful agreement with Abraham with the promise to be truthful and deal with each other in good faith.

Seeing Abraham’s son reach an even higher level of success than Abraham likely alarmed Abimelech. Having reached a prior agreement with Abraham, Abimelech may have been unwilling or afraid (given the obvious preference God showed towards Abraham and his descendants) to reach the same agreement with Isaac – at least at this point in time…

God’s divine appearances confirm the Abrahamic covenant

God had also appeared to Abraham near Beersheba where Abraham built an altar to commemorate the event. God’s appearance to Isaac in a similar manner continues God’s pattern of divine appearance in order to confirm the covenant he made with Abraham.

The renaming of Abraham’s wells

It is interesting to note that the Bible specifically mentions Isaac assigning the same name to the wells as his father. It is possible that this was a “renaming” of the family-owned wells. It is likely that the Philistines had renamed Abraham’s wells, obliterating the traces of their origin out of spite. Isaac’s naming of the wells restored their heritage by giving them the same name as Abraham had called them before.

Perseverance and faith demonstrated in Isaac’s actions

Isaac was successful but still not without his own set of problems. First, the Philistines filled the wells that his father had dug. In response, Isaac opened them up and dug additional wells. Then the people of Gerar claimed ownership of the new wells that Isaac dug. Despite the conflict, Isaac strives ahead, naming the wells after each particular dispute. Finally, Isaac is ultimately driven from his home. Throughout all of the conflict, Isaac appears to have handled the struggles with faith and maturity. In the end, God confirms what we should already know – despite hard times and trouble, “God is with you everywhere you go”.

Isaac’s passive nature leads to reward

Many believe the Bible portrays Isaac as passive and not as competitive as his father. For instance, Isaac avoided conflicts with the Philistines and settled where the water was not contested by the native residents. Although passivity and non-competitiveness are frowned upon in modern-day societies, it may be worthy to note that God bestowed more blessings on Isaac than his father, Abraham.

The science and history behind the story

The Valley of Gerar

Celebrate site of Abraham's well in Beersheba - circa 2012The Valley of Gerar was a dry river bed (a “wadi”) which contained flowing water during the rainy season but was dry at other times. Its location was likely a superior source of water given the natural water table under the floor of the valley.

Shepherds in modern-day Middle East

Modern-day shepherds in the Middle East can face obstacles similar to the ones that Isaac faced. Modern-day herders in Syria typically rent land for their herds and live in the location for a year or two while “grazing their stock”. If the land proves profitable, landlords may refuse to renew the lease for the herder, opting to keep the prosperous land for their own use. This forces the shepherd to move on in search of the proverbial “greener pastures”. Water disputes in the Middle East still occur today just as they did in Isaac’s day.

The three wells – Esek, Sitnah, and Rehoboth

The location of the Esek well is still unknown. The Sitnah well could be located in Wadi Shutein or in the modern-day Shutneh valley (near the Valley of Gerar). Ruins have been found in the area, on the northern hills between Ruhaibeh and Hkulasa.

The Rehoboth well is likely in the Wadi Ruhaibeh, about three hours south of Elusa and twenty miles southwest of Beersheba where two roads from Gaza and Hebron intersect. Extensive ruins have been found in the area, including ancient wells. A modern day account of one well in the area that has been proposed as the Rehoboth well describes the well as:

“Nearly filled with rubbish, its site being marked by a piece of fallen masonry, apparently the roof of a cupola, and strongly put together with flat, brick-shaped stones and cement.”

Notes on Biblical translation

Philistine jealousy more intense than it appears

The Hebrew verb translated as “became jealous” refers to an intense jealousy, one that is so strong it will likely lead to hostile actions.  It describes a much more passionate form of jealousy than we would recognize today.

The battle over the wells

Ancient workers building wellsThe quarrels that are described in the Bible likely give the impression of herders arguing amongst themselves in the fields. This is not quite an accurate assessment of the situation. The Hebrew word used to describe the quarrel between Isaac and the Gerar herders typically describes a conflict that leads to, or has already resulted in legal actions.

Bible Text

NIV

12 Isaac planted crops in that land and the same year reaped a hundredfold, because the LORD blessed him. 13 The man became rich, and his wealth continued to grow until he became very wealthy. 14 He had so many flocks and herds and servants that the Philistines envied him. 15 So all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the time of his father Abraham, the Philistines stopped up, filling them with earth.

16 Then Abimelek said to Isaac, “Move away from us; you have become too powerful for us.”

17 So Isaac moved away from there and encamped in the Valley of Gerar, where he settled. 18 Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them.

19 Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and discovered a well of fresh water there. 20 But the herders of Gerar quarreled with those of Isaac and said, “The water is ours!” So he named the well Esek, because they disputed with him. 21 Then they dug another well, but they quarreled over that one also; so he named it Sitnah. 22 He moved on from there and dug another well, and no one quarreled over it. He named it Rehoboth, f saying, “Now the LORD has given us room and we will flourish in the land.”

23 From there he went up to Beersheba. 24 That night the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.”

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

Ancient well in the Middle EastThe Message

12–15 Isaac planted crops in that land and took in a huge harvest. GOD blessed him. The man got richer and richer by the day until he was very wealthy. He accumulated flocks and herds and many, many servants, so much so that the Philistines began to envy him. They got back at him by throwing dirt and debris into all the wells that his father’s servants had dug back in the days of his father Abraham, clogging up all the wells.

16 Finally, Abimelech told Isaac: “Leave. You’ve become far too big for us.”

17–18 So Isaac left. He camped in the valley of Gerar and settled down there. Isaac dug again the wells which were dug in the days of his father Abraham but had been clogged up by the Philistines after Abraham’s death. And he renamed them, using the original names his father had given them.

19–24 One day, as Isaac’s servants were digging in the valley, they came on a well of spring water. The shepherds of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s shepherds, claiming, “This water is ours.” So Isaac named the well Esek (Quarrel) because they quarreled over it. They dug another well and there was a difference over that one also, so he named it Sitnah (Accusation). He went on from there and dug yet another well. But there was no fighting over this one so he named it Rehoboth (Wide-Open Spaces), saying, “Now GOD has given us plenty of space to spread out in the land.” From there he went up to Beer-sheba. That very night GOD appeared to him and said,

I am the God of Abraham your father;

don’t fear a thing because I’m with you.

I’ll bless you and make your children flourish

because of Abraham my servant.

25 Isaac built an altar there and prayed, calling on GOD by name. He pitched his tent and his servants started digging another well.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

The NET Bible

26:12 When Isaac planted in that land, he reaped in the same year a hundred times what he had sown, because the LORD blessed him. 26:13 The man became wealthy. His influence continued to grow until he became very prominent. 26:14 He had so many sheep and cattle and such a great household of servants that the Philistines became jealous of him. 26:15 So the Philistines took dirt and filled up all the wells that his father’s servants had dug back in the days of his father Abraham.

26:16 Then Abimelech said to Isaac, “Leave us and go elsewhere, for you have become much more powerful than we are.” 26:17 So Isaac left there and settled in the Gerar Valley. 26:18 Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug back in the days of his father Abraham, for the Philistines had stopped them up after Abraham died. Isaac gave these wells the same names his father had given them.

26:19 When Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and discovered a well with fresh flowing water there, 26:20 the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water belongs to us!” So Isaac named the well Esek because they argued with him about it. 26:21 His servants dug another well, but they quarreled over it too, so Isaac named it Sitnah. 26:22 Then he moved away from there and dug another well. They did not quarrel over it, so Isaac named it Rehoboth, saying, “For now the LORD has made room for us, and we will prosper in the land.”

26:23 From there Isaac went up to Beer Sheba. 26:24 The LORD appeared to him that night and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you. I will bless you and multiply your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.” 26:25 Then Isaac built an altar there and worshiped the LORD. He pitched his tent there, and his servants dug a well.

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

King James Version

12 Then Isaac sowed in that land, and received in the same year an hundredfold: and the LORD blessed him. 13 And the man waxed great, and went forward, and grew until he became very great: 14 For he had possession of flocks, and possession of herds, and great store of servants: and the Philistines envied him. 15 For all the wells which his father’s servants had digged in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines had stopped them, and filled them with earth. 16 And Abimelech said unto Isaac, Go from us; for thou art much mightier than we.

17 And Isaac departed thence, and pitched his tent in the valley of Gerar, and dwelt there. 18 And Isaac digged again the wells of water, which they had digged in the days of Abraham his father; for the Philistines had stopped them after the death of Abraham: and he called their names after the names by which his father had called them. 19 And Isaac’s servants digged in the valley, and found there a well of springing water. 20 And the herdmen of Gerar did strive with Isaac’s herdmen, saying, The water is ours: and he called the name of the well Esek; because they strove with him. 21 And they digged another well, and strove for that also: and he called the name of it Sitnah. 22 And he removed from thence, and digged another well; and for that they strove not: and he called the name of it Rehoboth; and he said, For now the LORD hath made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land. 23 And he went up from thence to Beer-sheba. 24 And the LORD appeared unto him the same night, and said, I am the God of Abraham thy father: fear not, for I am with thee, and will bless thee, and multiply thy seed for my servant Abraham’s sake. 25 And he builded an altar there, and called upon the name of the LORD, and pitched his tent there: and there Isaac’s servants digged a well.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database, Our Work in Palestine (1873)
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