Of the 4 major characters we will discuss in this series, Isaac is the least well known. The Bible simply does not dwell on him as much as it does on Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. There are less chapters in Genesis about Isaac and the various details of his life. That said, today’s message is one of the few that focuses squarely and almost exclusively on Isaac and his family. I am calling it, “Isaac’s Wells”.
I. ISAAC PROSPERS IN GERAR (v1-17)
Isaac had spent most of his adult life living at Beer-lahai-roi - the well where God had appeared to Hagar many years earlier. However, after Esau and Jacob were grown, a severe famine struck the land. Isaac considered going to Egypt, but the LORD appeared to him and advised him to stay in the region of Canaan. So Isaac and Rebekah moved to a leading city in the land of Philistia named Gerar. This was, in fact, the same place that Isaac’s parents Abraham and Sarah had relocated following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
When they came to Gerar, Isaac repeated the misleading behavior of his father. Hoping to protect himself, he told the Philistines that Rebekah was his sister. After this deception had persisted for some time, the king saw Isaac and Rebekah being intimate with one another. He summoned Isaac, told him that he knew they were actually married, and asked Isaac why he was lying about it. Isaac explained that he was afraid for his life. The king was upset and charged his people to leave Rebekah alone.
While living in Gerar, Isaac had tremendous success farming. The LORD blessed him, and he became extremely wealthy. His flocks, herds, and household grew greatly. The Philistines became envious of Isaac’s prosperity. Apparently Isaac was using water from the same wells that his father Abraham had dug a generation earlier. Perhaps as an attempt to sabotage his success, the Philistines stopped them up by filling them with dirt. The king asked Isaac to move away, but he didn’t go very far. Isaac resettled in the Valley of Gerar nearby.
In this passage we read that the king of Gerar was called Abimelech. Could it be he was the same man who reigned during the life of Abraham (Genesis 20)? While it’s remotely possible, it isn’t likely as these 2 events took place at least 80 years apart. During the life of King David centuries later, the Philistine king of Gath is also referred to as Abimelech (Psalm 34). Many scholars believe that “Abimelech” was a title given to many or even all Philistine kings, similar to “Pharaoh” in Egypt, not a proper name.
II. QUARREL OVER THE WELLS (v18-25)
Isaac and his servants redug the wells that had been stopped up by the Philistines. He called them by the same names that his father Abraham had originally given them. When the local herdsman saw that these wells were once flowing again, they began to complain and grumble. They contended that this water belonged to them - not to Isaac and his servants. Apparently to keep the peace, Isaac let them have the disputed wells which he called Esek and Sitnah (meaning “strife”). He moved on to another location, dug another well that was his alone, and named it Rehoboth (meaning “open spaces”). Finally God had made room for him in the land.
Sometime later Isaac went up to Beersheba, perhaps to seek God at the same place where his father had worshiped decades earlier (Genesis 21:33). The LORD appeared to him that night and restated the covenant promises that He’d first made to Abraham. In so doing, God again revealed that Isaac was the chosen son through whom the Hebrew people would be descended. In response, Isaac built an altar there and called upon the name of the LORD. In the days that followed, he moved from the Valley of Gerar to Beersheba and dug another well.
The Bible specifically mentions 4 occasions upon which Abraham built an altar. These were located near or at Shechem, Bethel, Hebron, and on Mount Moriah. In contrast, the Bible only records one instance of Isaac building an altar - at Beersheba. Altars were used to make sacrifices to the LORD for religious purposes, and were often built to commemorate a special or life-changing encounter with God that took place there.
III. A COVENANT WITH ABIMELECH (v26-33)
Abimelech the king, along with an advisor and his military commander, came up from Gerar to meet with Isaac at Beersheba. Isaac was somewhat surprised by their visit, seeing that they had asked him to leave their country. The Philistines had seen how Isaac prospered and recognized that God was with him. So they proposed a treaty with Isaac, fearing that he might one day turn against them. Isaac accepted their offer of peace and an agreement was made. They held a feast to celebrate the accord, and then the king and his men returned to their home. A similar treaty had been made between the Philistines and Abraham.
That same day Isaac’s servants informed him that they had discovered water in the new well they’d been digging. This well may have been a restoration of the old one Abraham once dug there. Isaac named it Shiba, which means “oath”, to memorialize his agreement with Abimelech. The well of Shiba was the original well at Beersheba.
IV. ESAU’S MARRIAGES (v34-35)
It was during this time that Isaac’s eldest son Esau took wives from among the local Hittites. Esau was 40 years old when he married Judith, and then also married Basemath. These marriages brought grief to his parents Isaac and Rebekah because Esau had chosen to marry Canaanite women rather than those from his own country. Like Ishmael before him, Esau’s marriages to pagan wives were clear indicators that he was not the son of promise.
Isaac enjoyed tremendous success and prosperity. Those around him could have easily rejoiced in his good fortune and tried to emulate it for themselves. But rather than praising him for his hard work and honoring his great accomplishments, they instead chastised him and sought to destroy his name and estate. They were jealous of Isaac and felt threatened by his achievements, though he never expressed any ill-will toward them. Sadly, human nature often leads people to resent those who are successful rather aspiring to be like them. We’d rather tear others down than build ourselves up.
Water is a basic human need. Places where water is available and plentiful often develop into settlements which eventually become cities. This was especially true in ancient times, when water couldn’t be readily transported or moved long distances. The flowing water wells dug by Abraham, Isaac, and others throughout the arid Negev region of southern Canaan were critical to people living there. They depended on this water to survive.
In the gospels, we read about an occasion when Jesus came to Jerusalem for the annual Feast of Booths. On the last day of the feast, as He was teaching the crowds, Jesus referred to Himself as a well of living water (John 7:37-39). He invited those who were thirsty to come to Him for a drink. Jesus was using a metaphor to beckon the lost and needy to trust in Him for salvation and to receive the promise of the Holy Spirit to come.
As we wrap up, let me extend this same invitation. Did you know that the greatest human need is the forgiveness of sins? Our eternal destiny hinges on this issue. Only Jesus, the Son of God, has the power to dismiss your sins, pardon your guilt, and give you the hope of eternal life. He is a well of living water. He is a spring of life in a dry, sinful desert. Though death surrounds us, there is a fountain who is the King. Will you drink from Him today?