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Genesis 21 records a dispute over a well between Abraham and Abimelech:

At that time Abimelech and Phicol, the commander of his army, said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do. Now swear to me right here in God’s name that you will not deceive me, my children, or my descendants. Show me, and the land where you are staying, the same loyalty that I have shown you.”

Abraham said, “I swear to do this.” But Abraham lodged a complaint against Abimelech concerning a well that Abimelech’s servants had seized. “I do not know who has done this thing,” Abimelech replied. “Moreover, you did not tell me. I did not hear about it until today.”

Abraham took some sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelech. The two of them made a treaty. Then Abraham set seven ewe lambs apart from the flock by themselves. Abimelech asked Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?” He replied, “You must take these seven ewe lambs from my hand as legal proof that I dug this well.” That is why he named that place Beer Sheba, because the two of them swore an oath there.

In the passage, Abimilech does not deny or dispute Abraham's ownership of the well or his water rights, but simply states that he did not know there was a problem. Why then, does Abraham immediately offer cattle for the purchase of the well if his ownership is undisputed? Or is this even payment, as the text says these were "legal proof"? I know that sandals were often used as legal proof of contracts, but cattle were very valuable and this seems like an expensive proof. Furthermore, a sandal is a non-perishable good, while the cattle may become sick or die, so this seems like a poor token for this purpose, so the idea that this is not payment seems unlikely.

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Luke 17:3 Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.

Greetings James, your last question:

But, why do this if Abimelech doesn't even dispute his ownership of the well?

This fella Abimelech is the king that took in Abraham's wife as part of his harem. Remember, {Chapter 20} Abraham deceived the king by telling his wife to go along with the story that Sarah was his sister? (She really was a half sister) This king knew Abraham to be deceptive and this is why he says, "Now swear to me right here in God’s name that you will not deceive me, my children, or my descendants."

Because of Abraham's past deception with this king, perhaps he felt he better make sure that he had a written form of water rights for future reference? As we read a few chapters over, (26) we find that this king comes to visit Isaac who now has his own wells, and tells Isaac to leave (Verse 16) because the folks living around him, the Philistines are not happy that Isaac is 'so blessed' - Genesis 26:12.

So Isaac leaves that area and goes to the Gerar valley and re-opens some wells that his dad's servants had dug. Some shepherds come along and don't like this either so Isaac names that well 'argument' and then moves on digs another well for his flocks but there was a fight over that one too so he names that one 'opposition' and digs another well. No one bothers him any more for awhile so he names that well, 'room enough'.

Proverbs 16:7 ¶ When a man's ways please the LORD, He maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.

Isaac them moves his flock to Beersheba where he has a visit from the Mamre, (Messenger of God) Who tells him that he will be blessed. Next thing we read, in verse 26, the king comes to visit Isaac and brings the same army captian (Phicol) that he brought with him when he made the original treaty with his dad, Abraham.

Isaac quickly surmises that this is not a very friendly visit since the king had sent him away from the land before where he had the conflict over the water rights. The king has a change of heart and now wants to make a treaty with Isaac because he plainly see's that where ever goes, the blessing follows. Isaac feeds them a feast 'fit for a king' before they sign the treaty. They take an oath between the both of them and there is peace in the land so Isaac names that most recent well, 'Oath'. The blessing had now been passed down from Abraham to his son Isaac and upheld the claim of righteousness. Isaac had staked a claim to the land by digging the well called 'Oath'.

Isaac had every right to fight the Philistines when they had filled in his well with the dirt but he didn't. He was a man of peace. Back then, in that culture, when someone filled in your well, that was a declaration of war because water was very sparse, especially in that area because it was along the edge of the desert. Isaac took this opportunity to turn this whole conflict into a celebration of peace between him, the king and the Philistines who would certainly find out that he now had a water right certificate from the king.

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Most translations say the seven ewes were presented "as a witness". The NET translates this as "legal proof", which would suggest evidence.

Abraham didn't intend the livestock as a purchase price, but as a witness to convince the judge that he was the rightful owner. In contrast to the servants of Abimelech who had seized the well without any investment of their own, he now had the credibility of this additional investment on his side. It was not a great deal of money to a wealthy man like Abraham.

When I first read this years ago, it seemed almost like a bribe, which in our culture would impugn Abraham. It had the opposite effect in that culture, where it was, rather, more like earnest money, a wager or a kind of (voluntary) real estate tax. The money (livestock) was a witness, to speak for him, that Abraham had already invested a great deal to dig the well, and he was quite ready to spend more to establish his deed and title with the local government.

Abraham was ready to sue to defend his rights and property in a civilized, peaceful way.

I don't think Abraham took his ownership of the ground and well for granted, despite his faith that God would give him all the land of Canaan. As one NT writer explains,

"By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country" [Hebrews 11:9].

This attitude of the Patriarchs as aliens or pilgrims is reinforced by Gen 28:4. He didn't think he really owned anything in Canaan, tho he had a claim on the well. He believed himself a stranger and an alien, not an established lord. This would account for his willingness to even, in a sense, "purchase" the land he had already claimed and the well he had dug.

Another thought: perhaps Abraham didn't want anything given to him here, just as he had earlier refused the spoils of Sodom [14:22ff] "lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich’", which I see as an attitude of fierce independence, or dependence on God alone, or both.

  • But, why do this if Abimelech doesn't even dispute his ownership of the well? I would understand this as a good-faith gesture if he actually protested the ownership, but since he doesn't... – James Shewey Feb 3 '16 at 19:38
  • Thanks for this question, James. I really had to think a while. I appreciate all the great questions on this site immensely. (I rolled my previous comment, now deleted, into the answer.) – C. Kelly Feb 4 '16 at 15:11
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It seems that Abraham wants to emphasize that he desires Abimelech's and the Canaanites goodwill. The well symbolizes Abraham's stay in a new land, a land to which he was a stranger previously and whose customs and laws he is not familiar with. The ewes signify his willingness to learn and to conduct himself in a manner acceptable to them. The seizing of the well is seen as a rite of initiation.

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    Do you have any sources for this? Especially that last bit - "The seizing of the well is seen as a rite of initiation" I am very interested in that. – James Shewey Feb 10 '16 at 8:19

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