Genesis 21:22-34 and ch. 23 Like a Good Neighbor
Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class, originally broadcast April 2, 2006
Craig D. Atwood, Comenius Scholar
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. It’s good to be back with you this morning after my trip to Pennsylvania. I am grateful that Christy Clore, chaplain of Salem Academy and College, was able to give the lecture last week, and I hope you enjoyed learning about women in the Bible. I gave a lecture on the theology of Zinzendorf and its impact on social life in Bethlehem. It was basically a summary of my book Community of the Cross. It was a good trip, and I got to spend time with Dr. Arthur Freeman, my old mentor. My daughter Allyson went along. She lived in Bethlehem as a child. She was the only 3-old around who could correctly identify the portrait of Zinzendorf that hangs in the seminary.
We left the story of Abraham last time with the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. This week we’ll focus on the remainder of chapter 21 and look ahead to chapter 23. We’ll skip the binding of Isaac until next week. The stories we’ll look at today are related in that they all deal with the issue of being a good neighbor and a shrewd negotiator. In the first, Abraham and Abimelech resolve a dispute over a well, and in the second, Abraham negotiates to buy a cave from a Hittite landowner. Biblical commentators don’t see much religious meaning in these stories, but I think we’ll find that they do teach us something about living in the real world.
Read: Genesis 21:22-34
Life Goes On: This passage is closely connected to the earlier story about Abimelech taking Sarah as his wife. The story of Isaac’s birth seems like an interruption in the larger narrator, which is one bit of evidence for the theory that the author of Genesis was working with older narratives in constructing his epic of the patriarchs. That may be the case, but we still need to interpret the story as we have it. It seems likely that the author intentionally put the story of Isaac in the middle of these stories with Abimelech to make the point that life goes on. Even though the child of promise has been born and Abraham’s great dreams have been realized, he still has to live in the world. He may be the patriarch and father of many nations, but he still has to deal with his neighbors, water his flocks, and work out his problems.
This is a message that the wise person learns early in life. Sure, you won the blue ribbon in the spelling bee or you were king or queen of the prom, but you still have to mow the lawn and clean your room. By the way, I was chosen as king of a school dance once, back in 10th grade. I’ve often wondered whether the fact that the dance was held on April 1 had anything to do with my election. It was called the April’s Fools Dance, but that’s probably just a coincidence. It was fun to be king of the dance, but such happiness doesn’t last. Psychologists who study human happiness have concluded that it doesn’t really make you happy to have your dreams come true. The big events don’t change our lives that much. Most people who win the lottery find they are no happier a year later than they were before they won the prize. After the celebration, they still have to live in a complex world. The same was true of Abraham.
Two weeks ago we saw that Abraham threw a big feast to celebrate the weaning of Isaac, but shortly after Sarah tells him to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. The laughter died. Life went on. This week Abraham has to negotiate with King Abimelech about a well. It seems so trivial compared to the great story of salvation history, but the Bible is telling us that the great story is made up of many smaller stories. Abraham was not such a great prince that he didn’t have to be a good neighbor, too. The message is driven home doubly strong by the fact that the neighbor he has to deal with is the same man that he had deceived not long before.
Dealing with the Past: Another thing the wise person learns early in life is that you never fully escape the past. Things are not easily undone. The person you insulted one day may be the person deciding on whether you get a car loan another day. Someone I know used to be on a rescue squad. One day she responded to an auto accident. She recognized the victim as her daughter’s math teacher in high school. As she held the injured woman’s head in her hands, working to prevent her from being permanently paralyzed, she looked down and said, “I know you. You gave my daughter a D last quarter.” The look of fear in the teacher’s eyes was memorable. I remember when I moved back to Winston-Salem after years away at school. People would ask, “Are you the Craig Atwood that went to Reynolds High School?” I would respond, “Maybe. Tell me about him.” The past lives with us because our lives are defined by relationships, by history.
Oath: Abimelech asked Abraham to swear that he would not deal falsely with him. Why? It was because Abraham had already deceived Abimelech and nearly destroyed his kingdom. Abraham had proven untrustworthy, and now the king needed assurances that Abraham would be honest with him. Abimelech reminded Abraham that he was a resident alien, an immigrant in the land, who had benefited from the kindness of the king. Abraham swore to respond righteously to Abimelech’s kindness. Notice that he did not argue with Abimelech or get insulted over this request the way we might. Abraham was too mature to fight over this issue. He knew that he should reassure Abimelech so that they could live peacefully as neighbors. We can learn a lot from Abraham here about the need to swallow one’s pride and move forward.
The Well: Things did not go smoothly between Abimelech and Abraham, though. According to the story, there was a dispute over a well. We have to remember that in the Middle East, water is a precious resource. Wells were a focal point of social life, and the ownership of a well meant power, prestige, and production. A well meant that you could have a larger herd of sheep, which meant more wealth. It meant that your neighbors came to you for water. At times, a well was the difference between life and death. You may remember from Western movies that control of water rights was critical in the American West. There were small-scale wars fought over control of a creek or another source of water.
So, when we read that Abimelech’s servants had seized Abraham’s well, we should keep in mind that this was a major act of aggression against Abraham. This could have led to open warfare between the patriarch and the king, but Abraham did not let it go so far. He went straight to Abimelech to tell him the problem and work toward solution. He honored the agreement with he had made, and he gave the king a chance to make things right. The king, of course, denied everything. This lets us know that politicians have always been politicians. My men did what? I never knew that. Abimelech sounds like a White House Press secretary here, doesn’t he? If I find that anyone in my administration has been involved in this scandal, I will fire him, wink, wink.
Abraham knew that Abimelech was involved in the seizing of the well he had dug, but he didn’t fight over the well. The story does not go into great detail here, and there appear to be some additions to the text over time, which our translation for today has removed. But the long and the short of it is that Abraham gave Abimelech seven ewe lambs in exchange for the well. It appears that Abraham paid for his own well, which is unjust, but by doing so, he made Abimelech acknowledge publicly that the well belonged to Abraham. There are times today when it is wiser to give in on a minor point in order to win the major point. Seven lambs was not worth going to war over, but a well would have been. We see in this story, that pride is not a good justification for violence. Abraham was willing to suffer a little injustice and offence in order to maintain peaceful relationships with his neighbors. This is something that we can learn from today.
Beer-sheba: Abraham named the well Beersheba, which appears to have two meanings: well of the seven and well of the oath. We will see in a few weeks that Isaac also names this place Beersheba. Apparently this was an ancient Canaanite city, and several stories emerged about how it got its name. Today it is known as Bir es-Saba, which is about 30 miles from the famous biblical city of Hebron in the southern part of Israel. Long after the time of Abraham and Isaac, Beer-sheba was a major city of the Kingdom of Judah. There was a shrine there from ancient days, and according to Genesis, it was built by Abraham under a tamarisk tree. It is interesting that Abraham always settled down by these Near Eastern sacred oak trees. He called upon God under the name of El Olam, or God Everlasting.
In the days of the prophets, Beer-sheba was one of the most important shrines, but the shrine was destroyed when worship was centralized in Jerusalem. Beer-sheba, then was a city with a long history. Both meanings of the name (well of the seven and well of the oath) fit the stories we have read today, but perhaps now we can give a new meaning to Beersheba. When we here the word in church, we should think “good neighbor” or “sacrifice your pride for the sake of peace.” Beer-sheba was the well where Abraham chose the path of life and peace rather than war and violence; negotiation rather than threats and abuse.
The Cave of Machpelah: We are going to skip chapter 22 this week and go on to chapter 23 since it connects nicely to themes we’ve been discussing. And we want to have plenty of time to discuss the binding of Isaac next week. It is appropriate that we look at the story of Isaac as we enter into Holy Week and examine the passion of Christ each night in worship.
Chapter 23 deals with the death and burial of Sarah, who had lived to a ripe old age. Abraham had to make the same kind of decisions that many people must make in the midst of loss and grief. He had to arrange for a funeral and a place to bury his wife of many years. He was living among the Hittites at the time. The Hittite empire was to the north of Israel, in modern day Turkey, but apparently there were some Hittites living in Hebron, near Mamre, which we discussed in a previous lesson. According to archaeologists, this account in Gen. 23 agrees with Hittite legal tradition, so this story may be very ancient.
Negotiation: What I find interesting in this story is that it gives us an authentic glimpse into the business practices of the ancient Near East, which are not that different from today. Abraham goes to his neighbors, identified himself as a poor wanderer, and asked to buy some land to bury his wife. This is what we call ritual abasement or outward humility. It is important when you ask a favor to appear humble rather than arrogant. This is something that many Americans do not realize. Abraham did not demand that someone sell him land; he came as one in need. The Hittites, of course, knew that Abraham was more than a rootless nomad. He was a sheik, a mighty prince who had defeated kings and outwitted his foes. They tell him that he is welcome to bury his dead among them. They would be honored. No one would refuse. This is also part of the ritual of negotiation. Please, help yourself. You are like family!
Abraham was too smart to think that they were offering him a burial place for free, though. Abraham knew that the next step was to ask the Hittites who had honored him to assist him in negotiating for the land that he had already chosen. Notice the wisdom of Abraham. He had already checked the land out. He knew which cave he wanted, and he knew who owned it. He planned the negotiation in advance. Rather than just go to the owner privately, he made sure that this was a public discussion. That way he would not be cheated on the deal. That way, the men of the town would be witnesses to the bargain and everything was done in good faith. People are more honest when others are looking. Today, we have to hire expensive lawyers to make sure that all parties negotiate fairly. It was simpler in the days of small villages, but the principle is the same. I think this illustrates my favorite Arabic proverb: Trust God, but tie your camel. Having faith in God does not mean that you should be naïve in your worldly affairs.
Buying Land: So, Abraham tells Ephron that he will pay the price for the land, but Ephron protests. Sure, he says, it is worth 400 shekels, but what is that between friends? Bury your wife. We might think that Ephron is telling Abraham that he will give him the cave for free, but that’s not it at all. He is giving Abraham the price without making it sound too much like a crass business deal. All parties in the deal are being polite and engaging in the kind of social rituals that keep the world functioning. Too many people today do not realize that doing business is more than just buying and selling: it is a way to establish relationships and protect the social order. A business deal that leaves everyone angry and insulted is no good. So, what is 400 shekels among friends? Nothing – so long as you pay the money.
Machpelah: And Abraham paid what was expected, but which had not been demanded. And the deal was settled at the gates to the city where men conducted their business affairs. And along with the cave, Abraham received the surrounding lands. He buried Sarah according to the usual customs, but there is more to the story than this. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that the first time we hear of Abraham buying land in Canaan, it is a burial plot. For the first time in the story of Genesis, the people of God have land, but Abraham makes his claim on the land by the burial the matriarch Sarah. This will be where the other patriarchs are buried as well.
We Southern Moravians may view Machpelah like God’s Acre in Salem. It is a bit of the Promised Land. No matter how far we roam, we hope to bury our earthly shell in the sacred ground. Veterans understand this sentiment when it comes to Arlington Cemetery. Sacred ground. In this case, the purchase of Machpelah was also used to establish the latter Israelite claim to Canaan. It was where the ancestors were buried.
According to later Jewish tradition, Adam himself was buried at Machpelah near Hebron, connecting the story of Abraham with the story of creation itself. Centuries later, Christian pilgrims claimed that they had found the tomb of the patriarchs, and they built new shrines to honor them. With the shifting fortunes of war and politics, the tombs of the patriarchs came into the possession of the Muslims. Now there is a mosque over the legendary burial site. It is called the Tomb of Joseph because of the importance that the prince of Egypt has in Muslim history. It is bitterly ironic that the cave of Machpelah, which Abraham had negotiated for in peace, became one of the prizes of war and conquest, and a source of conflict today.
Conclusion: We’ve come to the end of our time. These stories of Abraham negotiating with Abimelech and the Hittites in the region of Hebron are not very inspirational for us today, perhaps. Biblical commentators have little to say about them. Some even go so far as to say that these stories have no theological purpose or meaning. Certainly they lack the depth and drama of other stories in Genesis, but I think there are things that we can learn from these simple tales.
First and foremost is that the father of faith was a wise and intelligent negotiator. Though he had proven himself as a warrior, he preferred to use peaceful means to settle his disputes. He was neither arrogance nor foolish in dealing with others. He knew the value of land and the laws of his society. Second, we learn that Abraham was willing to sacrifice some of his pride in order to secure peaceful relations with his neighbors, but he was not a doormat. Third, we saw that Abraham followed the social rituals of his society in order to live as a good neighbor. In addition to being faithful to God, Abraham knew how to live in the world. May the same be true of us.