22 At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do. 23 Now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my descendants or with my posterity, but as I have dealt kindly with you, so you will deal with me and with the land where you have sojourned.” 24 And Abraham said, “I will swear.”
25 When Abraham reproved Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized, 26 Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this thing; you did not tell me, and I have not heard of it until today.” 27 So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant. 28 Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock apart. 29 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?” 30 He said, “These seven ewe lambs you will take from my hand, that this may be a witness for me that I dug this well.” 31 Therefore that place was called Beersheba, because there both of them swore an oath. 32 So they made a covenant at Beersheba. Then Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army rose up and returned to the land of the Philistines. 33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God. 34 And Abraham sojourned many days in the land of the Philistines.
In our chapter for this morning Abraham had one descendent according to God’s promise. Around 600 years after the events recorded in this chapter there were hundreds and hundreds of thousands. All of them, led by Moses, sat on the edge of the Promised Land awaiting God’s command to enter. As they did, certain questions filled their minds: 1) Who is our God 2) Who are we? 3) How did we get here? 4) What does God want from us? 5) Where is God taking us? In order to answer these questions (and more), God inspired Moses to compile and share the first five books of the bible (including Genesis) with the Israelites.
Throughout our time in Genesis we’ve already seen the beginnings of the answers to several of those questions. Interestingly, in Genesis 21 we find a few more pieces to each one of them. In particular, we find further clarification with regard to who God is (#1)—“the Everlasting God, who the Israelites are (#2)—Abraham and Isaac’s children, how they got there (#3)—Abraham entered the Promised Land (Beersheba) as a sojourner, what God wants from His people (#4)—to be a light to the world, and where God was taking them (#5)—into full possession of the land He’d promised Abraham.
In other words—and here’s the key—many of the answers to the questions ringing in the Israelites ears as they awaited entry into the Promised Land and first received Genesis, were directly tied to the two main covenant promises God made to Abraham. That is, as we’ve seen, God promised Abraham countless descendents and a land for them to dwell in. The people who first received Genesis were the fulfillment of the first promise and the land before them was the fulfillment of the second. In our passage for this morning, then, we trace the beginning of the family of the promise into the beginning of the land of the promise.
The main points of this sermon, the main ways to pray, and the main takeaways for us, are: 1) God is eternally greater than you could ever imagine and 2) God means His people to be a light to the world. Let’s pray for God’s help in appreciating and applying both.
THE REASON FOR THE STORY
If you’ve heard the sermons over the past several weeks you’ve noticed that I’ve begun each with a “provocative” question. I didn’t plan that. In fact, it wasn’t until last week that I even really realized I was doing it. That said, this week’s text lends itself once again to such an introduction. So here’s your question for the week: Why are the stories in the bible in the bible? What I mean is this: there are countless things that happened to Abraham, to the Israelites, and certainly to the rest of the world that are not included in the bible. So why are the things that are in there, in there? How did God decide which ones He wanted included and which ones left out?
This is an important question to ask in general, but it is of particular importance for us today in light of the less-than-obvious reason for the inclusion of the story in our passage. That is, while the reason for the inclusion of some passages—like ones that tell the story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—is self-evident, others, like the one we have this morning, is not so clear. Why, then, did God choose to include this one?
I’d like to begin this sermon by answering that question on two levels—high up and close up.
On the highest level God chose to inspire the inclusion of the stories He did because they are the most critical to telling the larger story of redemption. In other words, the individual stories that are in the bible are in the bible because they are essential the elements in telling of God’s creation of the world, mankind’s fall into sin, God’s work to rescue a people from sin in Jesus, and the fulfillment of all things in the new heavens and earth. The bible is made up of a bunch of smaller stories that are meant to tell one Great Story of God with us and God for us in Jesus!
The obvious question before us today, then, is how this story made that cut. And that leads to the close up answer of why God included this specific story.
There are probably three main reasons for the inclusion of this passage. First, it sets the stage for the monumental event of the next chapter—God’s command to Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. The story in our passage for this morning gets us to the right place and time for the story in the next chapter. Second, it provided a kind of mini-example for Israel. That is, what Abraham did with Abimelech, Israel was to do with the world around them—be a light, display God’s blessing, make peace, and invite them into the covenant. God would fill the OT with positive and negative examples of this for Israel (and us) to learn from. And third, it explains how Abraham first came to dwell in the Promised Land (in that way it’s kind of like the story of Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery as an explanation of how the Israelites ended up in Egypt) and, in particular, came to the land of the Philistines (who would be a major thorn in the side of the Israelites for many years). In other words, even though it does so subtly, this chapter is critical in setting up significant events of the future.
With that, let’s get to the story itself and its main pieces: God’s great power and blessing, the conflict that arises between Abraham and Abimelech, and the covenant solution the two men devise.
GOD’S GREAT POWER AND BLESSING (22-23)
Throughout Genesis we’ve seen amazing displays of the power and blessing of God (creation, Flood, confusing languages at Babel, plagues, etc). In Abraham’s life in particular we’ve seen God sovereignly pour out blessing upon blessing—miraculously at times. Our passage for this morning opens up with a pagan king, Abimelech, recognizing that power and blessing of God in His dealing with Abraham.
The Nations Notice (22)
In chapter 20 Abraham met Abimelech, the king of Gerar. In the course of that meeting, for a second time he told a king that Sarah was his sister (the first was with Pharaoh of Egypt). For a second time a king took Sarah to be his wife. For a second time God miraculously rescued the pair from their shenanigans by condemning the king through calamity. And for a second time, in spite of their folly, Abraham and Sarah came out better than they started.
From Abimelech’s perspective he was visited and threatened by God. That is, he was promised death if he didn’t release Sarah immediately. What’s more, through Abraham’s prayers Abimelech watched as God healed him and his whole household—him from an unknown illness and his household (wife and female servants) from the barrenness God had inflicted upon them.
In other words, in all of this, Abimelech had a front row seat for God’s display of His power and the favor He’d placed upon Abraham. Thus, in v.22 we read, “At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do.” The point of all of this is that God’s power and blessing through Abraham was such that Abimelech couldn’t miss either.
Before moving on, I want to draw your attention to two important things that this passage presents. First, it’s become a (tragic) part of Christian culture to take a line like the one in this passage (“God is with you in all that you do”) and pretend that this is a promise for all Christians. We’re really good at throwing things like this on coffee mugs, t-shirts, and social media posts, feeling warm and fuzzy because of them, and making a few dollars off of them. In reality, however, this was a specific observation by one man about another man. It is not a promise to anyone, much less everyone. What’s more, this was an observation made by a pagan king, which means we don’t even know if it’s true (pagan kings weren’t generally known for their sound doctrine). Narrative stories like this only tell us what was said, not whether or not it was true. Let’s be careful in how we read the bible, Grace.
With that being said, however, God is with you in all that you do! We don’t learn that from this passage, but we do learn it from many other passages like 1 Corinthians 3:16, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”. Be encouraged by that great news (though not because Genesis 21:22 teaches it).
The second important thing that this passage presents is a question: What might it look like today for God to be with us in such a way that people—unbelievers—take notice? For Abraham it was miracles, physical provision, a child from a barren wife, and divine visions among his enemies. Perhaps God will work in you in similar ways in order to get the attention of the people in your life. He is the same God today as He was then (more on that later).
More than likely, however, it will not look quite like that for you. It will probably look a bit less dramatic. What, then, might it look like? More often than not it looks like a Holy Spirit empowered calm in the midst of chaos; it looks like generosity in the midst of greed; it looks like service in the midst of selfishness; it looks like love in the midst of hate; it looks like kindness in the face of derision; it looks like confidence in the midst of fear; it looks like forgiveness in the midst of bitterness; it looks like a willingness to give your life away in the midst of those looking to take it; it looks like humility in the midst of pride; it looks like hospitality in the midst of isolation; it looks like quiet listening in the midst of loud talking; it looks like unity in the midst of division; it looks like truth in the midst of lies; it looks like clarity in the midst of confusion; it looks like sympathy in the midst your enemy’s pain; and it looks like a life and message of hope in the midst of lives and messages of fear. Those things are likely what the power and blessing of God will look like in you and what will make the world take notice. Those things are what it means to follow Jesus. How can we help you grow in them?
The Nations Want In (23)
Again, then, Abimelech noticed God’s great power and blessing on display in Abraham. Thus, it’s easy for us to understand why Abimelech wanted in on the blessing and shelter from the power. And so he pleaded with Abraham,
23 Now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my descendants or with my posterity, but as I have dealt kindly with you, so you will deal with me and with the land where you have sojourned.” 24 And Abraham said, “I will swear.”
Think about that for a minute. Who was Abraham to command this kind of plea from a king and his highest military officer? He didn’t even have a home. He barely had a clan. He was a wanderer. And yet he is understood to be above this king.
Grace, Abraham wasn’t anything. By himself he wouldn’t even have been able to get an audience with the king, much less rule over him. The only thing that allowed Abraham to function as he did was that God was with him. And that’s the main point of all of this. God’s power and blessing, not anything in Abraham (or any of God’s people), are what allow us any measure of victory in this world. Find rest and hope and courage in that, Grace. God in you is greater than everything else in this world combined! That means there is no situation so dire that God can’t redeem it through you, no person so lost that God can’t save them through you, and no relationship so broken that God can’t mend it through you. Amen?!
Back to the text…As we saw earlier, at the mighty hand of God Abimelech’s house had been dealt a significant blow (sickness and barrenness) and narrowly avoided an even more significant one (death) due to Abraham’s false dealings. Therefore, he asked Abraham not to do so ever again. What’s more, Abimelech asked Abraham in the name of God to treat him with, his house, and his future generations, the same kindness and charity that he had shown to Abraham. And to this Abraham agreed.
Thus, in this we find a clear picture of how God meant the Israelites (Deuteronomy 20:10), as well as you and me, to function in this world. God means us to know Him, receive His blessing, share His blessing with the world, and offer the world the chance to not merely share in our blessing, but to have their own in Jesus. God means us to be a light in the darkness for the good of the darkness!
Grace, once again, would you take a minute to press this God-defined and God-prescribed rhythm against the rhythm of your own life? You were created by God to feast on God, receive His blessing, share His blessing, and offer the people around you the chance to gain God’s blessing for themselves. Is this what you’ve given your life to? Is this what makes up your entire life? Are these things the very heartbeat of your understanding of who you are and what you’re meant to do? Is this your understanding of the Great Commission Jesus gave you? If not, how can we help you do so more and more?
A CONFLICT ARISES AND RESOLVES (25-34)
Well, with the ink on their agreement still wet, Abraham confronted Abimelech with a problem, and therein a new opportunity to test their friendship.
New Conflict (25-26)
By the grace of God, it’s hard for most of us to imagine life in the time of Abraham. Since moving to Minnesota we’ve always had a well. What we haven’t had, however, is the feeling of vulnerability surrounding our well that the people of Abraham’s day did. Should something happen to our well, the worst case scenario for us is inconvenience (we’d need to go to one of your houses for a while or purchase water from the store). In Abraham’s day the literal life and death of people and animals were often at stake. I say all of that only to say that the conflict we read about in v.25 is truly significant. To take someone’s well was to put them in serious danger.
25 When Abraham reproved Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized…
We’re not sure why the servants of Abimelech “seized” Abraham’s well, but we do know that this was a big deal. There are several stories in the bible about similar seizures (including this same well many years later) and the problems that arose. What we are sure of is that this needed to be addressed. The only question was whether it would lead to further conflict (people went to war over this kind of thing back then) or if the relationship between Abraham and Abimelech was strong enough to work it out. We find out in the coming verses.
26 Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this thing; you did not tell me, and I have not heard of it until today.”
So far, so good. Rather than deny it or immediately turn to conflict, Abimelech admitted that he didn’t know about the well-theft and therein that he certainly didn’t sanction it. His claim of ignorance and innocence is very similar to his claim when confronted about Sarah. Rather than leading to greater conflict or turmoil, then, as we’re about to see, this problem and reproof led to greater peace. More specifically, it led to a new solution; and the new solution to a new covenant, a new home, and a new name.
New Solution (27-34)
How would these men move past this conflict? With a new covenant between them. Look at vs.27-30.
1. The Covenant (27-30)
27 So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant. 28 Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock apart. 29 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?” 30 He said, “These seven ewe lambs you will take from my hand, that this may be a witness for me that I dug this well.”
Upon hearing Abimelech’s response, as a display of his trust and friendship, Abraham gave a gift to Abimelech. What’s more, Abraham set apart another gift as a covenant sign and a sign of his own honesty. In essence, in providing the seven ewe lambs, Abraham was offering the covenant seal and purchasing his own well from Abimelech. Peace was more important to Abraham than profit. And in all of this, the text says, the two men made a covenant—an agreement to treat one another fairly and to coexist peacefully and perpetually. In this Abraham turned his God-given blessing into blessing, just as he’d been commanded.
2. Abraham’s New Home (31-32, 34)
In response the men gave the land a new name.
31 Therefore that place was called Beersheba, because there both of them swore an oath. 32 So they made a covenant at Beersheba. Then Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army rose up and returned to the land of the Philistines… 34 And Abraham sojourned many days in the land of the Philistines.
Together the men named the place of the covenant “Beersheba,” which means “well of seven” or “well of the oath,” and went their separate ways. For this reason Abraham was able to dwell—albeit as a sojourner—in the Promised Land. This new name was meant to tell the story of the land for generations to come. Perpetual peace is also the point of the tree-planting in v. 33 and the heart of Abimelech’s plea for Abraham to treat even his descendants well in v.23. And it was also a type of down payment or foreshadowing of the fullness of God’s promise. That Abimelech and Phicol left and went home, then, indicated that the matter was settled and peace prevailed.
3. God’s New Name (33)
Finally, through all of this another aspect of God’s character was revealed in the new name given to him by Abraham. We’ve already seen a number of names for God—some given by Himself and some by others. We’ve seen that He is God (Elohim 1:1), LORD (Yahweh ), LORD GOD (Adonai, 15:2), God Who Sees (El Roi, 16:13), and God Almighty, (El Shaddai). Here we’re given another name of God.
33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.
Grace, rest well in the fact that God is not merely greater than you could ever imagine. He’s not merely all powerful, all benevolent, all wise, and all good. He is eternally those things. Those things are not only here now, but they will never end. God will never run out of those things. They will never even diminish one iota. He is El Olam, Everlasting God. Oh what a great God!
At the end of all of this God’s power and blessing were on display through Abraham. Because of this (1) Abraham was able to invite his neighbors into a covenant of blessing in the name of the Most High and (2) his neighbors eagerly accepted. Likewise, once again, in all of that we find a simple picture of the way God means us to function in this world. We are meant to cling to God, therein bear all of the fruits of the Spirit of God, and therein be a light to the whole world, drawing them into the covenant blessing of God in Jesus Christ. May we do this in the name and by the power of the Everlasting God.