After Isaac settled in Beersheba, King Abimelech arrived from Gerar to visit him. Abimelech brought with him Ahuzzath, his personal advisor, and Phicol, the commander of his forces (possibly the same commander that was recorded as dealing with Isaac’s father, Abraham).
Isaac asked them, “Why have you come to visit me at my home since previously you were hostile towards me and sent me away?”
They answered, “We saw clearly that God was with you so we thought a sworn agreement should be made between us. Let us make a treaty with you and agree that you will do us no harm just as we did not harm you. We always treated you well and sent you away peacefully… and after we sent you away, you were blessed by God.”
Isaac made a feast for his visitors and they ate and drank together. Early the next morning, the two groups swore an oath of peace to each other. Then Isaac sent them peacefully on their way.
That day, Isaac’s servants came to him and told him about a new well they had dug. “We have found water!” they exclaimed. Isaac named the well “Shibah” (meaning “oath”) and to this day, the name of the town has been Beersheba (meaning “oath well”).
What the story means to us today
Follow God’s lead
It is clear Abimelech recognized Isaac was divinely blessed by God. This was the primary motive for his offer to form a treaty with Isaac (although Abimelech may have felt fear of Isaac too). Abimelech’s actions provide concrete evidence that God fulfilled his promise to bless Isaac if he remained in the land during the famine and not travel to Egypt. The same holds true today. Follow God’s will and you will be blessed.
Additional thoughts and considerations
The reason for the treaty
Abimelech’s journey to see Isaac was expressly to form a treaty with him. It is important to note Abimelech’s motive to reach such an accord. Abimelech had formed a similar pact with Abraham (Isaac’s father) but appears to have done so solely due to Abraham’s power (Abraham possessed considerable wealth). Abimelech’s motive for a treaty with Isaac was likely different (although certainly influenced by his previous treaty with Abraham). In Isaac’s instance, Abimelech recognized that Isaac was favored by God and thus, likely feared offending God whom he saw as protective over Isaac.
It is also worthy to note that Isaac initially questioned Abimelech’s intentions, complaining that previously, they “hated him” and sent him away. “No”, said Abimelech, “we sent you away in peace” allowing Isaac to maintain possession of all his belongings and stock and take them with him. Regardless of Abimelech’s motive, Isaac accepted the offer of friendship, as God would prefer we live peaceably with all men, and fortune shined upon Isaac that very day when his servants announced they had found still more water.
Wasn’t Isaac already in “Beersheba” before the treaty and new name for the area?
This story tells us that the area (Shibah) obtained the name Beersheba after the treaty between Isaac and Abimelech was forged, seemingly a conflict in the timeline of events (a previous biblical story tell us Isaac had already settled in a place named “Beersheba”). Various translations have attempted to clarify this by varying the first word in the critical sentence. Some translations begin the story with “Then Abimelech came from Gerar” implying a distinct timeline while others begin with “Meanwhile Abimelech came to Gerar” creating a more flexible timeline and allowing for the events to occur simultaneously. Essentially we are splitting hairs over a miniscule fact in the story that really bears no impact on the outcome. In the end, we can assume that (1) Isaac settled in Shibah, (2) Abimelech made a treaty with Isaac (likely granting him authority to permanently settle there), and (3) the area was named Beersheba.
Shibah and Beersheba – who named them?
The name Shibah means, or at least sounds like, the Hebrew word meaning “oath”. Following suit, the name “Beersheba” literally means “oath well” or “well of the oath”. According to Genesis 21:31, Abraham gave Beer Sheba its name when he made a similar treaty with the Philistines. Because of these parallels, some scholars see this story as a “doublet”, or two versions of the same story. It is unlikely that there was a translation error although the original version of the story (likely passed verbally through many generations) could have been told as a “like father like son” type of tale. Regardless, we must assume that Abraham named the place Beer Sheba, Isaac dug a well and named it Shibah, and later generations came to associate the name Beersheba with Isaac (even though Abraham may have named it first).
The science and history behind the story
Having completed a covenant contract, the participants would then sit down to eat a covenant meal together. This meal was more than a sign of accepting the fact of the contract. Eating together had a profound meaning for the ancient Israelites since it was a symbol and confirmation of fellowship and mutual social obligations. By this very act, the participants were tied to one another by a bond of friendship, in effect, becoming brothers since only families ate together.
The covenant meal complete, the two parties would often create a memorial to serve as a reminder to them and future generations that they had cut covenant together. This memorial could be a pile of rocks, pillars, or plants (trees). In Isaac’s instance, the discovery of new water presented an excellent opportunity to memorialize the pact between Isaac and Abimelech.
The city of Beersheba
The city of Beersheba has been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries and humans have settled in the area at least as far back as 7,000 BC. It is presently the largest city in the Negev desert of southern Israel.
That it is associated with Abraham and Isaac is well proven – of the seven wells dug by Isaac, three of the four have been identified. The Tel Be’er Sheva (“Be’er” being the Hebrew word for “well” and “sheva” meaning “oath”) archaeological site is believed to have been the biblical Beersheba. It lies a couple of miles east of modern-day Beersheba. The site dates back to at least 1,000 BC.
Notes on Biblical translation
Some translate this Hebrew word as “councilor” or “advisor”. The original Hebrew term does not necessarily designate an official position and thus, the “advisor” in this case, could simply be a close, personal friend of Abimelech.
Oath or curse
Although often translated as “oath” or “covenant”, the Hebrew word for “oath” (alah) literally means “curse”. This contradictory meaning seems odd to modern-day readers but in ancient times, the agreement specified not only the requirements of the contract, but included blessings *and* curses for obedience and failure to uphold the oath respectively.
26 Meanwhile, Abimelek had come to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his personal adviser and Phicol the commander of his forces. 27 Isaac asked them, “Why have you come to me, since you were hostile to me and sent me away?”
28 They answered, “We saw clearly that the LORD was with you; so we said, ‘There ought to be a sworn agreement between us’—between us and you. Let us make a treaty with you 29 that you will do us no harm, just as we did not harm you but always treated you well and sent you away peacefully. And now you are blessed by the LORD.”
30 Isaac then made a feast for them, and they ate and drank. 31 Early the next morning the men swore an oath to each other. Then Isaac sent them on their way, and they went away peacefully.
32 That day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well they had dug. They said, “We’ve found water!” 33 He called it Shibah, and to this day the name of the town has been Beersheba.
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
26–27 Then Abimelech came to him from Gerar with Ahuzzath his advisor and Phicol the head of his troops. Isaac asked them, “Why did you come to me? You hate me; you threw me out of your country.”
28–29 They said, “We’ve realized that GOD is on your side. We’d like to make a deal between us—a covenant that we maintain friendly relations. We haven’t bothered you in the past; we treated you kindly and let you leave us in peace. So—GOD’s blessing be with you!”
30–31 Isaac laid out a feast and they ate and drank together. Early in the morning they exchanged oaths. Then Isaac said good-bye and they parted as friends.
32–33 Later that same day, Isaac’s servants came to him with news about the well they had been digging, “We’ve struck water!” Isaac named the well Sheba (Oath), and that’s the name of the city, Beer-sheba (Oath-Well), to this day.
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
The NET Bible
26:26 Now Abimelech had come to him from Gerar along with Ahuzzah his friend and Phicol the commander of his army. 26:27 Isaac asked them, “Why have you come to me? You hate me and sent me away from you.” 26:28 They replied, “We could plainly see that the LORD is with you. So we decided there should be a pact between us—between us and you. Allow us to make a treaty with you 26:29 so that you will not do us any harm, just as we have not harmed you, but have always treated you well before sending you away in peace. Now you are blessed by the LORD.”
26:30 So Isaac held a feast for them and they celebrated. 26:31 Early in the morning the men made a treaty with each other. Isaac sent them off; they separated on good terms.
26:32 That day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well they had dug. “We’ve found water,” they reported. 26:33 So he named it Shibah; that is why the name of the city has been Beer Sheba to this day.
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
King James Version
25 And he builded an altar there, and called upon the name of the LORD, and pitched his tent there: and there Isaac’s servants digged a well. 26 Then Abimelech went to him from Gerar, and Ahuzzath one of his friends, and Phichol the chief captain of his army. 27 And Isaac said unto them, Wherefore come ye to me, seeing ye hate me, and have sent me away from you? 28 And they said, We saw certainly that the LORD was with thee: and we said, Let there be now an oath betwixt us, even betwixt us and thee, and let us make a covenant with thee; 29 That thou wilt do us no hurt, as we have not touched thee, and as we have done unto thee nothing but good, and have sent thee away in peace: thou art now the blessed of the LORD. 30 And he made them a feast, and they did eat and drink. 31 And they rose up betimes in the morning, and sware one to another: and Isaac sent them away, and they departed from him in peace. 32 And it came to pass the same day, that Isaac’s servants came, and told him concerning the well which they had digged, and said unto him, We have found water. 33 And he called it Shebah: therefore the name of the city is Beer-sheba unto this day.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.