20 September 2015
As patriarchs go, Isaac is not really all that impressive. If you read through the narratives that are attached to his name—Genesis 18:1 through 28:9—more than half of them are really stories that feature either Isaac’s father Abraham, Isaac’s cousin Lot, or Isaac’s sons Jacob and Esau. Isaac gets second—or third—billing in most of these stories, and even then he’s more like a piece of furniture on the set than a central character in the scene. About the only place in what Old Testament scholars used to call the “Isaac cycle” where Isaac really is the central character is this chapter, Genesis 26.
And even here, in this story of Isaac in Gerar, we’re not seeing him in anything like a favorable light, at least not at first. Six chapters before, in Genesis 20, Abraham dragged his wife and concubines, his sons and his flocks down to Gerar, and there the native Philistines began to look lustfully at Sarah and murderously at Abraham. So Abraham concocted this questionable scheme to pass Sarah off as his sister, which might have worked out except a) he hadn’t counted on Abimelech the king deciding to take Sarah into his harem and have his way with her, and b) nobody seems to have asked Sarah what she thought about the idea. Fortunately, God intervened, and the whole thing worked out like the plot of a half-hour sitcom, and Abraham moved on to greener pastures. But here we are, six chapters later, Abraham now dead and Isaac at the head of the clan, and where does he land but Gerar, and what does he do when he gets there but try to pass off Rebekah as his sibling? Ah, but even if Isaac hasn’t learned anything over the last six, old Abimelech has. Ho, ho, he must have said, I’ve seen this ploy before. Hands off the woman, and shame on the man!
All of which brings us to this morning’s Old Testament text. Isaac and Rebekah and their entourage have left Abimelech’s court with Abimelech’s reproof still ringing in their ears, and moved out into the valley, where he comes upon wells dug by his father Abraham. Filled in and covered over, long forgotten, they are now re-excavated by Isaac and restored to their former purpose of watering the patriarchal flock. But things don’t go well—if you’ll pardon the pun. Before the first skin of water can make it to the well-rim, the Philistine inhabitants of Gerar come running to object: That’s not your water; it’s ours, and we’ll not share. A quarrel ensues, with Isaac defending his ancestral rights and the Philistines arguing that possession is nine-tenths of the law. In the end, whether because of their superior logic or superior force, the Philistines win and Isaac moves on. And that’s the story.
Or is it? Like most great stories, the texture and nuance of the details are the vehicles for meaning. And here, perhaps the most meaningful details are the personal and place names that dot the telling of the tale. Names in Hebrew have their own little grammar, so that each name is a kind of statement. Take, for instance, the name of the Philistine king of Gerar, Abimelech. The name means, “my father is king,” and in all probability, the “father” in question is Abimelech’s god, Baal. Abimelech is a religious man—albeit not religiously devoted to the God of Abraham and Isaac—and here, at least, he behaves like it. He has ethics and morals, something that Isaac seems to lack. Or Isaac himself: his name means “he laughed.” His mother Sarah, says the text of Genesis 18, burst out in derisive laughter at the news that she would bear a child, and so, in the irony that so dominates the biblical text, the child is the butt of the joke. Throughout his life, Isaac is ignored or played for a fool. Every time he introduces himself, his name announces that someone is laughing, and all too often it seems the someone is God.
Even here, it seems as though Isaac is still getting pushed around. He reclaims the wells of Gerar that his father dug, and restores their Abrahamic names. But it isn’t long before the Philistines are shoving Isaac and his entourage aside, asserting their own claims, staking out their own interests in the water Isaac has brought to the surface. Not enterprising enough to redig the wells, they are only too happy to retake them once they’re dug. So Isaac does what Isaac always does—he backs down, backs away, backs off. He won’t compete for what is rightly his, earned by the sweat of his brow. He surrenders. But before he goes he does one last thing: he gives the wells of Gerar new names.
The first well Isaac renamed Esek, which means something like “quarrel” or “argument”—I say “something like” because this is the only occasion in the Hebrew Scriptures where the word occurs, so we’re not altogether sure of its exact meaning. Isaac’s use of it here seems to suggest that there was something unique about this quarrel, something unprecedented about this fight. Perhaps the unique and unprecedented thing was that Isaac was abandoning without a fight something that he—and perhaps you and I—assumed was his by birthright.
The second well he names “Sitnah,” which is easier to decipher. It comes from the word satan, which means “to accuse.” You may hear in the verb the overtones of the noun “Satan” which means not “devil” as we often think, but “accuser.” The well-name here means “accusation.” It seems to stand as a symbol that someone has accused someone else—but who? Is it Isaac who accuses the Philistines of stealing what is rightfully his, or the Philistine who accuse Isaac and his band of being foreign interlopers, johnnies-come-lately arrived from afar to usurp land and water and livelihood? Maybe in the “quarrel” between the two communities there are enough “accusations” thrown around to cover everyone who proposes to drink from the contended wells.
You wouldn’t know this about me, but whenever I read the narratives of the Bible, my mind goes wandering for metaphorical connections between the world of the biblical story, and the world of our story. In this case, I don’t have to wander far; the connection is right in front of me, a nearly-constant part of the ever-churning news cycle. Ferguson, MO. Macallan, TX. Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston. Greek coast guard sailors disabling rafts overloaded with Syrian refugees, so that they drift helplessly in the Aegean Sea. Hungarian army squad hosing Syrian migrants with water cannon at the Serbian-Hungarian border. Assaults against police officers on the streets and in squad cars. Assaults by police on an innocent ex-professional tennis player in a hotel lobby. Everywhere you look in our world, the faultlines that divide race from race, haves from have-nots, hopeful from hopeless are cracking, and the old orders seem to fracture beneath the weight of change. It is no longer enough to assert the ancestral right of ownership and privilege; at every point those rights are being contended.
The near-automatic response of the privileged in our society is to withdraw into self-protection and self-defense—build bigger fences, buy bigger guns, recruit bigger armies. You hear the political rhetoric pouring from media outlets; you know what I mean. And, if the truth is told, I understand that rhetoric, and the self-protectiveness that gives rise to it. I don’t like the idea that things to which I have assumed I’m entitled might be taken away from me, or that I might have to share them, or that someone else might reap the benefit of my labor or my birthright. If pushed into a corner, I’m likely to sound just as defensive as the next guy. But I can’t help wondering: is that really the only option?
It wasn’t the only option for Isaac. The text tells us that, instead of arming his entourage and standing his ground in defense of his wells, Isaac
“moved on from there and dug another well. And they did not quarrel over it, so he called it Rehoboth, saying, ‘now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.’” (Gen 26:22)
“Rehoboth” is another of those special place-names, a name that speaks volumes to those who can hear. Rehoboth means “space” or “room”—literally, a “broad place.” the verb from which the name comes means “to open wide” or “broaden.” The name of the prostitute who guides the Israelite spies safely out of Jericho and enables Joshua and the army to capture the city—Rahab—comes from this same root. Rahab opened wide the land to Joshua and Israel, made room in first her house and then her country for the foreigner and the stranger. As a result, Rahab is honored wherever the story of Israel is told. No less interesting to me, the name “Rehoboth” seems to echo down through the history of the church. I can’t think of a single congregation named “Esek Baptist” or “Sitnah Presbyterian.” But I know a Rehoboth church in every place I’ve ever lived.
Isaac, it seems, knew something the rest of us find too easy to forget. Isaac knew that there are times—maybe even most of the time—when quarrel and accusation lead finally to nowhere, and the best part of wisdom is to move on. Isaac knew that sometimes old wells only draw up old water, and in those times its best to dig new wells where the water is fresh and clear and unclouded by the animosities of the past. Isaac knew that sometimes a new well can be a place where past and present, Philistine and patriarch, black and white, refugee and refuge-holder can meet and drink and be fruitful in the land. And that, it seems to me, is something worth knowing.
The other day, Pat and I were cooking dinner while the national news was playing on TV—ok, ok, Pat was preparing dinner and I was constructively standing around doing nothing—when a report aired about Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton, NJ. It seems that shortly after the Charleston shootings at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, the congregation had posted on its church marquee the slogan, “Black Lives Matter.” There was, to say the least, a lot of reaction. Some in the community were delighted at the support of the surging hashtag movement. Some were irritated that the congregation was inserting itself into a social debate. Some argued that the marquee ought instead to read, “all lives matter,” because, after all, doesn’t God love everyone? Rather than remove or change the slogan, however, the congregation’s leadership decided to invite the community into its fellowship hall for a common meal and meaningful conversation. It wasn’t an easy evening, but they got through it—and such important things were said that they decided to have another… and another… and according to their website, A Conversation On Race will continue at Trinity all the way through Thanksgiving. I don’t know about you, but I think Trinity Church has found a broad place and dug a new well where people can meet and drink new water. I think they’ve found Rehoboth. And I think that, across this land of ours, in every town and maybe in every congregation that cares about land and town and people in them, it’s time to start the same kind of broadening, deepening, refreshing conversations that will be Rehoboths, too. I think its time to see if the Lord can make us fruitful there.
Here’s a poem I wrote not long ago with this text in mind. At least at first, the figure speaking is Isaac. Somehow, though, as the poem goes along, there seem to be other voices in the conversation, and at least one of them is mine. See what you think. You can follow along in the bulletin insert, if you like:
The Wells of Gerar
They were my father’s wells, and though their names
are lost, I knew them once when I was young.
Come my turn to wander there, I found them
stopped and dry, as though never dug.
I dug other wells, not deep, but all my own.
What is a well? Is it just a hole
where water rises, and stretched skins descend?
Is it not a meeting of those above the soil
and those below, some who will thirst again
and some whose thirst has left on us a scar,
who seek from us naught but our remembrance?
Father! I remembered at Gerar!
But others there had memories of their own
some joyful, some oppressed with iron hand,
the bullet and the lash, the weeping eye,
the blood that moistens, baptizes the land.
These lives must matter, though they are not mine,
These thirsts be quenched, even if my throat is dry,
These truths be honored, even if contended;
These are family, at the edge of enmity.
But just beyond the range of human eye
if not beyond the yearning of the heart
is there not a broader place with room
for gathering all lives and thirsts and arts?
Shall we go and dwell there, our Rehoboth,
stand alongside those we lately fought,
and dig new wells and draw up hope and water
to wash away the blood and ease the drought?
I don’t know about you, but I think it’s time to move on from the contended, self-protective wells where we draw only the waters of bitterness. I think it’s time to move on to a new place, to dig new wells, to draw up hope and water that washes us clean and makes us new. I think it’s time to strike out for Rehoboth. Are you coming?