Grace Orientation: Blessing to Others. Genesis 21:22
This passage at the end of the chapter is one of those interesting little passages in the Scripture that is sandwiched in between two major events in the life of Abraham. In verses 1-21 we read about the birth of Isaac and then how God is going to protect the home environment of Isaac by removing Hagar and Ishmael from that environment, so that there is not going to be this sibling rivalry inside the home and it will be clear that Isaac is the designated heir. Then when we turn to chapter twenty-two as a preview of coming attractions we see Abraham's final exam, the episode where God tells Abraham to take his only son, which is a foreshadowing of the unique person of the only-begotten Lord Jesus Christ, the MONOGENES [monogenhj]—the Septuagint uses that same word to refer to the only son, Isaac—and Abraham is to take Isaac up to the mountain of Moriah is to sacrifice him to God. The mountain of Moriah is exactly the same place as where Calvary is and all of this is a foreshadowing of the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the whole event there dealing with Isaac is a picture of many different things but it is a well-known episode in Abraham's life that is referenced in the New Testament several times. But sandwiched in between the birth of Isaac and the sacrifice of Isaac is this little episode having to do with Abimelech and his military commander Phichol.
As we look at this our eyes just have a tendency to jump from the birth of Isaac to the sacrifice of Isaac and it seems like an enigmatic little episode and we don't know why it is there. When we get to something like that is Scripture sometimes what we have to do is just pull back off the reins a little bit and stop and ask why this is here. God the Holy Spirit has an economic use of language, He doesn't just tell us things that happen for no reason. This episode is sandwiched into this location for a reason.
Genesis 21:22, "And it came to pass at that time, that Abimelech and Phichol the chief captain of his army spoke to Abraham, saying, God is with you in all that you do." The opening phrase is based on the qal imperfect of the Hebrew verb hayah. The next word that is there is the word that means time plus the preposition which means "at that time." So what the Holy Spirit wants us to note is, "It came to pass at that time." At what time? At the time of the birth of Isaac and after Ishmael and Hagar had been removed from the home, which secured the safety and the peace of the home. The word "peace" is a key concept underlying this passage. What God is doing here is providing security and a peaceful environment for the upbringing of the seed.
But there are some other interesting things that are going on here that have some fairly interesting implications for us. "…Abimelech and Phichol the chief captain of his army spoke to Abraham." So there is an emphasis on the surrounding context. This happens at the birth of Isaac and that is a reminder of the basic theme of the first twenty-one verses which is the faithfulness of God in fulfilling His covenant. Don't forget the idea that a covenant is basically a contract, a legal document that binds two people or two parties. All the covenants in the Old Testament, with the exception of one [Mosaic covenant] are unconditional covenants. (The Mosaic covenant was also a temporary covenant, it was given to Israel for a limited time period and was ultimately fulfilled by the Lord Jesus Christ—Romans 10:14) God legally binds Himself to His creatures. He structures His relationship with creatures according to contracts. That has some interesting implications, one of which is that God recognizes that the structure for relationships is based upon law. We live in a strange time right now where people don't understand the importance of law and that law has its root, not in society, but in the revelation of God. And when we start making culture or people or creatures the source of law or absolutes or rules, then there is always going to be a breakdown in society. Biblically speaking, all relationships are grounded in universal absolutes that flow form the character of God, and this is enunciated and articulated by God in he form of these legal contracts.
We have talked about peace so far—God wants a peaceful and secure environment in the home for the upbringing of Isaac—and there is the background of covenant, we have the initial fulfillment of the covenant in the promised seed at the beginning of chapter 21, we have a vindication of the covenant is chapter 22, and sandwiched in between we have a parity covenant between Abimelech and Abraham. A parity covenant is a contract between two equals, whereas God's covenants with man are not parity covenants because God is superior and He is the one who grants these covenants to man. So everything that is happening between verse 22 and 34 is related to this covenant/contract that Abimelech comes to Abraham for.
What is interesting here is that as Abimelech comes to Abraham he only knows two things about Abraham. He comes to Abraham and says: "God is with you in all that you do." In other words, "I know that God is blessing you." That is the first thing that Abimelech knew about Abraham. In verses 23 we see he knows something else about Abraham. "Now therefore swear unto me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son's son: but according to the kindness that I have done to you, thou shall do to me, and to the land wherein you have sojourned." The other things he knows about Abraham is that he is a liar. He is deceptive. He came in with Sarah in chapter 20 and said that she was his sister and didn't tell Abimelech that she was his wife. This didn't bode well for the long term friendship between Abimelech and Abraham. You can't build a relationship on deception and lies. So here is this unbelieving Philistine, and he says: "Two things I know about you: God is blessing you and I can't trust you."
Interesting implications there. One of the criticisms that you and I always get as Christians is that we are hypocrites, because the unbeliever doesn't understand grace. We are not hypocrites; we are sinners. No matter what happens over the course of our lives, how mature we are, you and I still have a sin nature that is every bit now as it was the day we were saved, and we have grown and matured due to the grace of God and the Spirit of God, we have a control over the power of the sin nature that hopefully it just doesn't let itself show quite as much as it used to. But every now and then you and I know both know that it does, and when unbelievers look at us and see that they want to put that under the category of hypocrisy. We have to make it clear; it is not hypocrisy, we're just saved by the grace of God not because of what we are or what we do but because of who Jesus Christ is and what He did on the cross.
Abimelech recognizes that God blesses Abraham and he has a relationship with God, and also that Abraham is not the most trustworthy. So he comes to Abraham and he is going to request of Abraham in verse 23 that Abraham enter into a contract with him so that on the basis of this legal agreement there can be an ongoing relationship of peace between Abimelech's descendants and Abraham's descendants. And all of this is going to be marked, when we come to the end of this episode, by the fact that Abraham is going to name this place where they enter into this contract. He is going to call it Beersheba. The word "Beersheba" is actually a play on words. The word shaba [oath] is a paronomasia, a pun. The second part is a word that is a homonym, i.e. it sounds like another Hebrew word shibah, which is the word for seven. (You know it when you say the word sabbath) Unless you have a context someone may not know which word you are saying, seven or oath. So looking down the notes in our Bibles we note that some will say the well of the sevens and others will say it is the well of the oath. They are both right! In the Bible names often have what scholars refer to as a popular etymology. This is typical of the names of places and people in the Old Testament. The actual etymology of the word isn't what it is said to mean but it sounds like it. It is a play on words so that when you say it, it reminds you of something else. The Gospel of John is filled with these kinds of things and that comes from his Hebrew background. So when you say the word Beersheba it means the well of the oath, but it sounds like sevens.
What happens here is that there is going to be an oath that is sworn, the meaning of the word shaba, and the word "oath" occurs three times in the text, and then the word "seven" occurs three times in the text. There are seven ewes that are brought, and three times it references the seven ewe lambs that are brought by Abraham and given as a gift to Abimelech as a sign of this parity covenant that they are entering into, and that will be a witness down through the generations that Abraham has rights to this well at Beersheba. The third thing that is mentioned three times in this section is Beersheba. So Beersheba is mentioned three times, the oath is mentioned three times, and seven is mentioned three times. Do we get the emphasis in the passage? The focus is on this idea of covenant and faithfulness. And covenant is related to law. The presenting problem or issue here is that there is a conflict between Abimelech who is an unbeliever in the land and Abraham who is a believer in the land, and what divides peace between them in their relationship with one another is a covenant.
In order to provide peace for Abraham and Isaac in the land there has to be a covenant that is entered into. There is a hostility between Abimelech and Abraham because of Abraham's sin nature, and what is going to allow these human beings to live together in peace is going to be a covenant. And what allows man to have peace with God is a covenant. The covenant is based upon law and that is related to justification, and then the application of justification is then reconciliation—Romans 5:1, "Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." You can't have peace and stability in human relationships without it being grounded in law, whether it has to do with God or whether it has to do with man. The point that is showing in Genesis 21 is that in order to provide a peaceful environment for the upbringing of the seed and within the broader community of the neighbors of Abraham there had to be a covenant that provided it. So then Abraham wouldn't have to worry about the Philistines and living in that environment.
Abimelech isn't a Canaanite, he is a non-Canaanite dweller in the land. If you were a Jew going into the land, what are you told to do? Annihilate all the Canaanites. But not the Philistines, they were not a part of the Canaanites. They were to live at peace and in harmony with the non-Canaanite neighbors. The basis for that peace is going to be legal covenants. God is teaching the importance of law and the importance of contracts. This is brought out in Abimelech's speech because he uses the word "kindness," and that word in the Hebrew is chesed which doesn't simply means kindness, it means faithful, loyal love. Ultimately it is faithfulness to a contract. So what Abimelech is saying is, Deal with me in a faithful way, according to law and according to a contract, in the same way that I have dealt with you.
Genesis 21:24, "And Abraham said, I will swear." Part of what is happening here as well is that there is a testimony of Abraham to the non-believing Gentiles around him. We have to remember that as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ whatever happens in our life happens to give us an opportunity to be a testimony, both to unbelievers as well as to the angels. 1 Timothy 1:16 emphasizes the fact that we can be a legal witness to our neighbors and friends. "Yet for this cause I found mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might demonstrate his perfect patience, as an example to those who believe in him for eternal life." Ephesians 3:10 relates this to the angelic realm, "To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known through the church the manifold wisdom of God." So what is happening in Abraham's life fits this same pattern, that he can be a testimony to the grace of God and to the covenant faithfulness of God in his relationships with other human beings.
But Abraham, after responding to Abimelech, has another problem. He has a problem with Abimelech. Genesis 21:25, "And Abraham rebuked Abimelech because of a well of water, which Abimelech's servants had violently taken away." The Hebrew word used here for "rebuked" is yakach, and in the hiphil perfect means to decide, adjudge or adjudicate, or to demonstrate in a courtroom. In the hiphil it has the idea of making a formal, legal complaint. Again, everything that is going on here in terms of these words is enforcing this concept of a legal context to this episode, and that is what God wants us to pay attention to: the importance of a covenant, the importance of law as the structure for all human relationships, whether with God or with man.
What we see here is that Abimelech and Abraham aren't just primitive Bedouins, they understand that the basis for all their relationships is law, and it is contractual, and they are entering into contracts with one another. So it shows us that what God is emphasizing is the priority of law. The other thing that is clear here is that on the basis of this legal contract there is a guarantee of private ownership of property for Abraham. So the Bible recognizes not only the legitimacy of accumulating wealth but also the legitimacy of private property, and that private property is the key to stability in society, and by application, the hey to the accumulation of wealth and the provision of security for one's posterity down through the generations. You can't get that security in an environment where you have property taxes, and God never authorized property taxes in the Mosaic law. Property taxes destroy wealth and prevent the accumulation of wealth, which is what occurs generationally down through the ages. Property taxes destroy private ownership of property.
Then we see Abimelech's response in verse 26. Abraham's complaint was that Abimelech's servants had come and taken the well, and stolen the property from him. "And Abimelech said, I wot not who hath done this thing: neither did you tell me, neither yet heard I of it, until today." So he is going to make things right and legitimize Abraham's ownership of the well.
Genesis 21:27, there is going to be the transfer of property (wealth): "And Abraham took sheep and oxen, and gave them unto Abimelech; and both of them made a covenant." So the transfer of property seals the contractual arrangement.
Genesis 21:28, "And Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock by themselves." The ewe lambs are important because it is the ewe lambs that are necessary for propagation of the flock. So this speaks of the future fertility and blessing for Abimelech as a result of his entering into a contractual relationship with Abraham. Se we have the sealing of this legal contract that is going to be in effect, and should be in effect, down through the ages. It also emphasizes the fact that believers should live in harmony and at peace around them, even unbelievers, and by virtue of their presence can be a source of blessing by association.
Abimelech responds in verse 29, "And Abimelech said to Abraham, What mean these seven ewe lambs which you have set by themselves?" Verse 30, "And he said, For these seven ewe lambs shall you take of my hand, that they may be a witness to me, that I have dug this well." By virtue of the fact that Abimelech received these seven lambs it is a sign that he has recognized the legitimate property rights of Abraham for the well.
Genesis 21:31, "Wherefore he called that place Beersheba; because there they swore both of them." Beersheba becomes a significant place in the history of Israel down through the ages. Every time the name was said it would be a reminder of this contract. Beersheba literally means the well of the seven because of the lambs, but because of the oath that is there, there is this word play, so it is the well of the oath or the well of the covenant.
Genesis 21:32, "Thus they made a covenant at Beersheba: then Abimelech rose up, and Phichol the chief captain of his army, and they returned into the land of the Philistines." Because of this covenant now, whatever problems there were due to the sin natures of those servants of Abimelech who were encroaching on Abraham's well, and because of Abraham's sin nature and his tendency to be deceptive, there can now be social harmony and peace and stability. And that is the function of law.
Genesis 21:33, "And Abraham planted a grove in Beersheba, and called there on the name of the LORD, the everlasting God." This is a sign of the covenant. The presence of the tree, drinking in the water from the well, would be an ongoing sign that the covenant was entered into there. The name for God, El Olam, is an allusion to the fact that law is ultimately grounded in the character of God and is therefore eternal, universal and unchanging, and that is the ultimate ground for covenant.
Genesis 21:34, "And Abraham sojourned in the Philistines' land many days." Why? Because now that there is this contractual relationship there is peace and stability and security in a tumultuous world, and in this secure environment he can raise up Isaac who is the promised seed and who will be the source of blessing for future generations.