This is the first of a series of three blog posts that will be appearing on the Think Theology website over the next few Thursdays. Feel free to read them – or indeed any of my other posts – there first/instead if you prefer!
If you are a reader of the Daily Bread Bible reading notes, you will shortly be reading my reflections on a few chapters in Genesis. (And if you’re not, well, feel free to buy a copy here or from your local Christian bookshop!)
When first presented with the passages I’m to write on, I often think ‘What on earth is there to say about that? The stories are so familiar, how could I ever find anything useful to say about them?’
Then as I read and study and explore them, I start to think ‘How on earth am I ever going to condense my thoughts about them into so few words? The stories are so rich, how could I pick just one thing to focus on?’
So since Matt has been nagging me to make a reappearance on this blog, and since there is still so much more to say, here are a couple of posts of the bits I couldn’t fit in – the deleted scenes as it were.
We start in Genesis 26.
Quick précis: There’s a famine, so Isaac moves to Gerar, and God says he will bless him there, and reiterates the blessing he gave to Abraham. Skip a few verses (we’ll come back to them in the next post), Isaac flourishes, the Philistines get jealous, but Abimelech has told them not to ‘molest’ (NIV) or touch (ESV) Isaac, so they just go around filling in all the wells Isaac’s father’s servants had dug years ago instead. Isaac moves away, opens up more of his father’s old wells that the Philistines had blocked up, and also digs a new well. He’s driven away from it and digs another. He’s driven away from that and digs a third, and seems at last to be able to stay there and settle down.
The first thing that struck me was the pettiness of the Philistines. Abraham lived in Gerar back in chapter 20, before Isaac was born. I don’t know how the ownership of wells worked in ancient times, but it seems likely that the Philistines had been using these wells since Abraham’s departure. Now there was a famine in the land, presumably due to a water shortage, and the Philistines, jealous of Isaac’s success…fill up the old wells. They were so jealous of the blessing of God on his people that they shut down the very means of their own flourishing.
Where do we see that today? Perhaps in Catholic adoption charities that were doing such wonderful work but were forced, under equalities legislation, to accept gay couples as adoptive parents or close. I’m sure you can think of other examples of charities, facilities and services that have been shut down by the communities they exist to bless for no reason other than that they are run by God’s people. In the UK at the moment we’re experiencing something of a respite from this as public funding cuts have led to an enormous reliance on Christian charities to fill the gap.
The Philistines’ other motivation, of course, was fear, as we see in v16. Isaac and his entourage had ‘become too powerful’ for them, so Abimelech asked them to move on.
So they did, out to the valleys, where they reopened some more of Abraham’s wells that the Philistines had filled (after Abraham’s death, for no apparent reason), and also dug around and found a new well, which the local herdsmen promptly claimed.
This is the next thing that struck me: that water had been there all the time. The herdsmen of Gerar could presumably have dug and found it any time they wanted, but they didn’t (nor had they opened up the other wells). How had people in a famine-struck land not hunted and hunted until they found this water?
It seems plausible to me, and consistent with the biblical narrative generally, that God miraculously provided this well. I could imagine that the local herdsmen had dug around everywhere they could think of, looked for the signs of plant life that suggested water beneath the surface, and used all their local and cultural knowledge and wisdom to try to find a way to water their crops, but failed. Then Isaac and his band of merry men come along, maybe pray, maybe just follow God’s promptings without even realising it, or maybe just dig randomly and – lo and behold! – God brings forth streams of water.
I don’t know exactly how it worked; we’re not told. What we are told is that Isaac’s guys shrugged their shoulders (OK, we’re not told that part) and dug another well, which the herdsmen of Gerar also ‘quarrelled over’. So they moved on again, and dug another well (see – either there was water all over the place and the locals were too lazy or dumb to dig for it, or God was providing it wherever his people happened to stop. Which sounds more likely?).
This post is getting too long, so I’ll pick up the main thought from this section next week, but here’s a mini point, a point-ette, if you will: all these wells that Isaac and co dug then moved away from – assuming the Philistines didn’t fill them in again – were they the firstfruits of the blessing God had given to Abraham, that ‘all peoples on earth would be blessed’ through him and his offspring? Wherever this son of Abraham went, springs of water were found, were opened, and blessed the nations. Well, well, well.