Summary: How do we live our faith during the long periods of ordinary life between our mountaintop spiritual experiences?
The Life of Abraham, Part 15: The Way of the Philistines
In the last lesson we saw the expulsion of Ishmael and his mother from Abraham’s family and their harrowing exodus into the wilderness which nearly proved fatal. As the boy was dying, God heard the boy’s cries and sent an angel to show his mother a well at Beer Sheba which being translated means “well of the oath”. There God had saved Ishmael and fulfilled His oath to his covenant partner Abraham to care for the boy and his mother. We also noted that the story now leaves them behind, other than an occasional glimpse that God remained faithful to His promises both to Hagar and to Abraham.
We also learned of the ingenious allegory Paul made of this story to show the superiority of the covenant of grace in Jesus Christ to that of Sinai, although the Sinai covenant was based on grace in reality. Judaism had distorted the Sinai covenant into one of salvation by human efforts and works rather than its true centering in the grace and working of the LORD to Israel, We learned that Sinai’s commands came after the grace shown to Israel and was never the means of obtaining the covenant. In like manner, we learned that the New Testament imperatives of how we should live are based upon what Christ has done for us. We were warned not to slip into the same legalism as Judaism lest we be ensnared and lose our freedom. Salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Even this faith is a gift of God.
Exposition of the Text
In many ways, today’s text seems to be an anticlimax. It seems like a recording of a covenant between Abimelech and Abraham concerning use of the land and water. But if we look into the context of the writing of the Book of Genesis which was at the end of Moses’ life, we begin to see a little light in this text. The children of Israel were forbidden to make any treaties with any of the nations of Canaan but to thoroughly exterminate them. Yet they would make one with the Gibeonites who had tricked them. Later on, they would make others with city states that proved too powerful for them. These treaties became snares to them and caused them nothing but trouble. They became the means of temptation to go after other gods and to engage in immoral and even murderous practices in worshiping these strange gods.
In this text, the LORD has already promised Abraham that his descendants will eventually possess the land. He also promised to look after Abraham and his safety. So with what we have studies so far, we are now presented with an offer on the part of Abimelech and his chief general Phicol to make a covenant treaty. The text seems to call them Philistines. The Philistines of Moses’ day were sea people who had recently settled on the coast of Palestine related in some way to the Greeks. But there does not seem to have been any settlement of them in the time of Abraham. And this aread of Israel was towards the wilderness, not the coast. However, the meanings of words in a language change over time. Over the more than 400 years between the time of Abraham and Moses, the descriptive names may have changed reference.
Whatever, the origin of his clan, Abimelech was head of one of the tribes of the land which would have been slated for destruction when their iniquity was full. We have already met Abimelech before in the narrative in the last detour Abraham took before the birth of Isaac. Abimelech, even though he was a pagan in the land turned out to be more honorable than Abraham. He expresses the desire to cut a covenant. He had been previously deceived by Abraham and wanted assurances that Abraham would not deceive him again. He expected honorable conduct from Abraham at the same level as his conduct to Abraham. Abraham said he was willing to do this.
But first Abraham lodges a complaint. He had dug a well at Beer Sheba, the same well apparently that the angel of God had revealed to Hagar which saved their lives. Abimelech’s men had seized it. As this was a very dry land with frequent droughts, water rights were jealously guarded. Abimelech told Abraham that this was the first he had heard of it. This time Abraham who was the wronged party in this case provided the trespass offering as a witness. He did not provide the king’s ransom that Abimelech had paid over the taking of Sarah into his harem but offered him seven ewes. He gave them as proof of Abraham’s ownership of the well and insisted that Abimelech take them. There the two of them made an oath concerning the well and named it Beer Sheba, the well of the oath. Interestingly enough, this would be the second oath made there. As we mentioned before, the angel of God promised Hagar that the boy would live and showed her this very well.