When we consider the patriarchs, we may find it easy to think about Abraham and Jacob. After all, the story of Israel and thus the story of God’s plan of salvation for all of mankind really begins with Abraham. God’s promise is first made to Abraham. We may remember some of the details of Abraham’s life – he lied about his wife – told the locals that she was his sister. He was visited by the three men and told that his ninety-year-old wife would bear a son. We all know that God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars and that all nations would be bless in him. We even know a song about old Abraham. “Father Abraham had seven sons. . .”
Jacob’s life is, again, an epic (of Biblical proportions?). Jacob, with his two wives and their two handmaids, gives birth to twelve sons, one of whom, Joseph, is sold into slavery and who rises from the ranks to be something like a prime minister over Egypt. We remember Jacob as the man who wrestled with God and was given the new name “Israel.” We remember Jacob as the man who saw the Stairway to Heaven.
Isaac is the middle patriarch and so may be a little less memorable. What we remember about Isaac is more of what happened to him rather than what he did. We know Isaac was almost sacrificed on the altar by his father Abraham. We know of his marrying Rebecca. We know that Rebecca and Jacob conspired (successfully) to deceive Isaac and to rob his favored son, Esau, of his blessing.
But what Isaac actually did with his life, of that we know little.
Our passage this morning does actually speak of Isaac’s life, of his own doings, but we may be ready on first reading to dismiss this account of Isaac’s life in Gerar as a meaningless detail. After all, none of us – I will bet – have ever heard a sermon or a lesson based on this passage, and nothing in this passage seems to figure in to the grand narrative that runs all the way through the bible.
In fact, if we were writing the Reader’s Digest Condensed version of the Bible (that has actually been done, by the way) we might be tempted to edit out these few verses that make up our lesson this morning.
But today, let’s pause, take a breath and consider that, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “All scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. . .” II Timothy 3: 16.
If we do that, I suggest that we will find here an important lesson about the nature of evil and the role of every Christian in every place and generation.
Isaac “moved away from” Gerar (v. 17) and went instead to the Valley of Gerar and “settled there.”
And then Isaac set about to opening the wells that his father had dug and which the Philistines had “stopped up.”
One question we might have at this point is why would anybody stop up a well?
We don’t know exactly where Gerar or the Valley of Gerar was located, but we do know the geography and climate of Palestine and we know that it is not at all like the climate of West Virginia. When we look at a satellite photo of West Virginia, the whole of the land looks green. It is covered with forest and grass because of the abundant rainfall we enjoy here.
But when we look at a satellite view of Palestine, we don’t see green. We see instead brown earth. It’s a desert. How important might a well be in such a place.
We know, moreover, that the people who existed in that place and time lived as herdsmen.
These wells were a source of life. They were necessary for survival. As soon as they were reopened the locals were fighting Isaac for the use of them, claiming that the reopened wells belonged to them and not to Isaac.
Why would the Philistines stop up these wells, these sources of life, these first basics upon which all economy, all wealth and all flourishing was based.
They were finally harming themselves. If the wells operated, there would be production, there would be livestock and wealth and abundance for trading.
The scripture gives us a direct answer to that question. The Philistines stopped the wells because they were envious of Isaac.
Genesis 26: 18
Isaac reopens the wells dug by his father.
Why would anyone stop up a well? Especially in the desert? Especially if they were herdsmen? Especially if the wells were such that they would fight over them when they were reopened?
The account does not allow for the idea that the wells were stopped because they were no longer useful and would have otherwise been dangerous. These wells were appropriated as soon as they were reopened!
The stopping up of the wells in the desert at Gerar is emblematic of evil. It is a deliberate limiting of God’s grace – his good provision of necessary resources. The stopping of the well’s is an act of impoverishment and an act of power.
The opening of the wells – in Abraham’s day – was also an act of power. This was a creative use of power.
Andy Crouch: “this power was not like the slave owner’s: it was not a finite quantity that had to be hoarded but a multiplying resource, like life itself.’ Loc 306
We might imagine that the wells were stopped by those who wished to limit the power of others. Zero-sum mentality – if they (Gerar’s herdsmen) have power – access to water and therefore the ability to generate wealth – to prosper and to flourish – then that must necessarily limit our own power.
Thus, even though the Philistines were not going to use the wells for their own purposes, they stopped them up to keep others from prosperity.
It is the task of every generation to reopen the old wells that have been stopped. It is the task of every person who bears the image of God to use power creatively and generously. To restore the resources that God through the generation before had made available to people on the earth.
“Power is the means of creating something out of this rich and recalcitrant world.” Crouch, Loc 312
What in our day are the wells that have been stopped?
Not so much physical resources, but spiritual resources