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. – Genesis 21:22-34 ESV
During the time in which Sarah gave birth to Isaac, Abraham was living in land provided to him by Abimelech, the king of Gerar. Abimelech had issued this generous land grant to Abraham as part of the restitution package he had paid for having mistakenly taken Sarah into his harem. Despite the fact that Abraham had deceived him, claiming Sarah to be his wife, Abimelech wanted to make things right in order to forestall any judgment from God for his actions.
Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him. And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” – Genesis 20:14-15 ESV
Having accepted this generous offer, Abraham had settled somewhere within within the boundaries of Abimelech’s domain. In time, the king took notice of Abraham’s apparent success. This stranger from Ur of the Chaldees was actually prospering and experiencing significant growth. His family and flocks were expanding, and Abimelech began to have second thoughts about his decision to award Abraham with some of his most valuable real estate.
So, the king and his military commander made a surprise visit to Abraham, where this pagan monarch made a rather startling acknowledgement.
“God is obviously with you, helping you in everything you do…” – Genesis 21:22 NLT
Abimelech could sense that Abraham had the blessing of whatever God he worshiped. And the king feared that this unknown deity might continue to reward Abraham with further growth, creating a potential point of conflict over the land. This confession on the part of Abimelech further illustrates God’s commitment to keep His covenant promise to Abraham.
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” – Genesis 12:2 ESV
“And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:8 ESV
God was faithfully and methodically keeping His promise to Abraham, and Abimelech couldn’t help but notice. And his reaction is similar to that of Pharaoh when he later discovered the remarkable growth of the Israelites living in Egypt. The book of Exodus records that, when the descendants of Abraham first arrived in Egypt, they were only 70 in number. But “the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7 ESV). And Pharaoh, viewing their rapid expansion as a threat to his domain, took steps to mitigate the problem.
“Look, the people of Israel now outnumber us and are stronger than we are. We must make a plan to keep them from growing even more. If we don’t, and if war breaks out, they will join our enemies and fight against us. Then they will escape from the country.” – Exodus 1:9-10 NLT
One can almost sense that Abimelech shared Pharaoh’s concern. While Abraham had only fathered two sons, he had many servants and at least 318 trained fighting men who had been born into his household (Genesis 14:14). All of these individuals would have done their part in expanding the size of Abraham’s “family.” But, unlike Pharaoh, Abimelech sought to make a non-aggression treaty with Abraham.
“Swear to me in God’s name that you will never deceive me, my children, or any of my descendants. I have been loyal to you, so now swear that you will be loyal to me and to this country where you are living as a foreigner.” – Genesis 21:23 NLT
Abimelech seemed to know that Abraham was under some form of divine favor and was reticent to oppose him. So, he proposed that they make a bilateral covenant between them. He had been gracious enough to allow Abraham to live in his land, and now he was asking that Abraham return the favor by promising to remain loyal to their relationship. And Abraham agreed to the proposal.
But, as part of the negotiations, Abraham lodged a complaint. In a land where water was the key to survival, a dispute arose between the servants of Abimelech and the servants of Abraham over water rights. The servants of Abimelech had unlawfully seized a well that had been dug by Abraham’s servants on land that belonged to their master. So, Abraham decided to bring this matter to Abimelech’s attention. But the king was slightly irritated that he was just now hearing about this problem.
“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” Abimelech answered. “I have no idea who is responsible. You have never complained about this before.” – Genesis 21:26 NLT
Abimelech claimed ignorance, and he wondered why Abraham had not mentioned this problem before. But it would appear that Abraham was taking advantage of the king’s desire to sign a peace treaty between them. Sensing that Abimelech was attempting to avoid conflict, Abraham offered to settle the matter by purchasing the land on which the well was located. Up to this point, Abraham had been living on land that actually belonged to Abimelech. But this situation provided a means by which Abraham could actually gain property rights that would ensure use of the well for generations to come.
Abraham and Abimelech “cut a covenant” with the sacrifice of sheep, goats, and cattle. The carcasses of these slain animals were divided in half and separated with a pathway passing between them. Then Abraham and Abimelech would have walked together from one end to the other, signifying their commitment to keep their end of the agreement or suffer a similar fate. This was often referred to as a blood covenant.
But once the treaty was sealed, Abimelech was surprised when Abraham “also took seven additional female lambs and set them off by themselves” (Genesis 21:28 NLT). When Abimelech questioned the nature of this gift, Abraham answered, “Please accept these seven lambs to show your agreement that I dug this well” (Genesis 21:30 NLT). In a sense, Abraham was adding a rider to their agreement, committing Abimelech to support his ownership of the well.
The treaty signed and the addendum approved, Abraham “named the place Beersheba (which means “well of the oath”), because that was where they had sworn the oath” (Genesis 21:31 NLT).
Moses states that, upon the ratification of the treaty, King Abimelech and his military commander returned to the land of the Philistines. Since the Philistines did not arrive in the land of Canaan until 800 years after this event, it seems likely that Moses was using this name to refer to a geographic region and not a particular people group. His readers would have been very familiar with the land the Philistines would eventually occupy, so they would have been able to understand the exact location to which Moses referred. King Abimelech returned to the east, leaving Abraham to occupy the region around Beersheba.
Moses wraps up his telling of this event by describing Abraham’s ceremonial planting of a tamarisk tree. According to Thomas L. Constable, “This tree was an appropriate symbol of the enduring grace of the faithful God whom Abraham recognized as “the Everlasting God” (El Olam). Abraham now owned a small part of the land God had promised him” (Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Genesis). An evergreen tree that was recognized for its longevity even in arid climates, the tamarisk would serve as a long-term reminder to Abraham and his descendants. It was a living altar at which Abraham called upon the name of the Eternal God. And it was there at Beersheba that Abraham “lived as a foreigner in Philistine country for a long time” (Genesis 21:34 NLT). He remained a sojourner and a stranger in the land, but God graciously provided him with a source of sustenance and a reminder of His faithfulness.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.