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.
It then says that Abimelech returned home with Philcol. He then planted a tamarisk tree there as a sign of ownership and then followed this up by worshiping the LORD the eternal God. This is the first time God is referred to as the Eternal God. The word “olam” in Hebrew had been used to describe an everlasting covenant or an everlasting possession, but this is the first time that it is applied to Yahweh. So this title serves as another revelation to Abraham of the attributes of the LORD. Of course, only one who is everlasting can make a covenant that is everlasting. And an everlasting covenant has further implications for Abraham as well. Jesus would later refer to the God or Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as being the God of the living and not of the dead.
The text then says that Abraham stayed in the area for quite some time.
We like Abraham live as pilgrims in the land. The iniquity of this world is not yet full. It is not yet the time in which the earth will be purged in the judgment of fire and recreated in its final perfect and redeemed form. We are called by Jesus in his High Priestly prayer in John 17 not to escape the world, but rather he asks for the Father’s protection of His people in this world. So what kind of treaties can and should we make with the inhabitants of the land to get along? This is certainly a difficult and thorny question.
I think that one thing for sure is while we give to Caesar that which rightfully belongs to Caesar, we must not give him anything that is exclusively reserved for God. Because the government is of God and accountable to God, whatever we give to Caesar is actually given to God. This is why we must pay taxes, live blameless lives, and give honor to whom honor is due. In this we are actually honoring God in what we do. But there is a dividing line. The second part of what Jesus says is that what belongs to God directly is not to be given to anyone else. In the days of the early Christians, the Caesars demanded more than their rightful honor and respect, the wanted more than taxes. They wanted to be worshiped as lord and god. We must respectfully decline such demands, even if it means our lives. For many of the early Christians, this was exactly the case. And as more Christians were martyred in the last hundred years than ever before, we must realize that this possibility exists even today for us who live in the land called the USA.
Abraham planted a tamarisk tree at the well. In some religions of Abraham’s day, the tree itself would be worshiped. It was OK for Abraham to plant a tree which served as a shelter from the heat of the sun for the purpose of worshiping the LORD, so long as the church building itself was not worshiped. This can become a form of idolatry on our part, when we worship the works of our own hands. When we make a god out of our church building or we start worshiping our worship, we have committed idolatry as severe as the ancients. Maybe this is why the LORD prohibited family altars to be made of dressed stone. They had to be made of unworked stone, found exactly as God made them. When tools are formed and polished temples raised, then the urge to worship the work of humans hands are too great a temptation.
This certainly became a snare to Israel in both Solomon’s time and especially in the time of Jesus. The Temple was known as Herod’s Temple as though it belonged to him. Judaism so worshiped the Temple in Jerusalem that they murdered Jesus who is the true Temple. The Lord soon had the Romans remove the snare when the second temple was destroyed just a few years after the long renovation started under Herod was finished.
The Lord desires worship that flows simply from the heart. This sincerity of worship is far more important than pompous ritual. Let us simply out of gratitude and praise worship the Lord with a pure conscience and worry less about the building and form.