Genesis 26:18 And Yitz’khak re-dug the wells of water that they had dug in the days of Avraham his father
This is one phrase from the verse “And Yitz’khak re-dug the wells of water that they had dug in the days of Avraham his father, [which] the Philistines had stopped up after the death of Avraham; and he called them [by] the names his father had called them”, which in turn in but one verse from the narrative block that makes the whole of this aliyah, 26:13-22. Yitz’khak has done what neither his father or his two sons did: he successfully farmed the Land of the Promise. In spite of famine conditions – “a famine came over the land, not the same as the first famine, which taken place when Avraham was alive” (B’resheet 26:1, CJB) he planted crops and achieved a phenomenal yield: “a hundred times as much as he had sowed” (26:12, CJB). Then, because of envy, he is asked to move away from Gerar in the Philistine territory. Then follows three episodes of digging wells and contention about their ownership, ending when the last well is not contested. Before considering the larger significance of Yitz’khak’s actions in this verse, let’s take a look in more detail at what is going on in this phrase and verse.
The first thing to note is that the verb וַיָּשָׁב – the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root שׁוּב, with a vav-conversive construction to render past tense consecutive action – almost always translated by some variant of ‘turn’, ‘return’ or ‘repent’ is here used to give the idea of repeating an action that had been done before. Although the modern translator and commentator Richard Elliott Friedman offers, “And Yitz’khak went back and dug the water wells that they had dug in the days of his father Avraham”, this is opposed by Avigdor Bonchek who explains Rashi’s commentary: “The word can mean ‘and he returned,’ implying that after Yitz’khak left Gerar he then returned to dig up the wells. But Rashi rejects this interpretation. He says the word וַיָּשָׁב means ‘to do again’ – here, ‘to dig again.’ Since Yitz’khak did the digging before he left Gerar, he had no need to return there. Rather, while still in Gerar, ‘he re-dug the wells of water that they [had] dug in the days of Avraham.’”
The second thing is that וַיַּחְפֹּר Yitz’khak re-dug the wells that חַפְרוּ the workmen of Avraham his father had dug. The significance isn’t in the suggestion that Yitz’khak personally dug the wells, with his own fair hands, whereas Avraham had his workmen do the digging for him, because the very next verse tells us that “Yitz’khak’s workmen were digging in the wadi” (v. 19). What is going on here? Why would Yitz’khak need to re-dig the same wells? The answer is found a couple of verses back: “The Philistines stopped up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth” (v. 15, NJPS). So now we need to ask whether Yitz’khak had been forbidden to dig wells. Rabbi Hirsch has the answer to this: “That digging a well was something permitted, and the ground and well in common land, became the property of the one who had dug it, we can take for granted from a son of Avraham; moreover, we find confirmation of this, above in 21:30, for there Avraham only demanded official recognition that he had dug the well.” Hirsch is referring to Avraham’s dispute about wells with a previous king Abimelech, where Avraham gives the king seven ewes as part of an oath ceremony, saying, “You are to accept these seven ewes from me as proof that I dug this well” (21:30, NJPS).
So if well-digging is a permitted activity, why on earth would the Philistines go round blocking them up again? Leon Kass explains that, “[Yitz’khak] has as yet no firm possession in the land. The wells that Avraham had dug during his sojourn there the Philistines had filled in with earth, not only blocking their life-giving water but also effacing Avraham’s tacit claim to the land.” James McKeown sets this episode in the context of the larger story: “Throughout this dispute, Yitz’khak is the innocent party whose wells are either seized of filled in by his enemies. Since the wells are deliberately sabotaged, this is not a question of one group depriving the other of essential supplies of water; it is an example of wanton vandalism motivated by jealousy.” The act of digging a well establishes ownership of the well itself and the immediately surrounding margin of land where the well is situated. We saw in the last parasha the way that the elders of Hebron tried to prevent Avraham buying just one field and a cave to use as a grave-site for Sarah. The Philistines are trying to prevent anyone in general and Yitz’khak in particular, form gaining ownership of and of their land, especially having control over access to water – a precious commodity in a climate and geography like Israel.
Now we understand why Yitz’khak re-dug the well that his father had dug some years ago. The Radak is brief: “to take possession of them again.” Then, in the same way as HaShem brought all the animals to Adam so that he might demonstrate his ‘control’ over them by naming them, Yitz’khak names the wells, as the Rashbam explains, “so that no-one else would be able to contest their ownership.” It’s a question of proprietary rights, Bruce Waltke adds; “Yitz’khak aims to make his ownership incontestable.” More, to demonstrate that this is not a new claim, but simply reclaiming something that already belonged to him, and that the Philistines ought to have known and respected, Terence Fretheim confirms, “[Yitz’khak] gave them their old names as a sign of renewed ownership.”
Nechama Leibowitz takes the stopping-up of the wells into the spiritual realm by asking, “What did the Philistines mean by doing this? Surely they were cutting off their nose to spite their face and withholding benefits from both themselves and their cattle. But in addition, to stopping the wells up, they filled them with earth so that no-one would be able to know that there had been a well on that spot and that no water should flow again from there. Why did they wish the land to be desolate? The conduct of the Philistines can only be understood if we take these wells to signify the wells of the true faith which the Patriarchs caused to flow and which the forces of desolation and idolatry stopped up.” The patriarchs were obeying the call of HaShem, the One True G-d, the creator of heaven and earth. Their presence and actions in the Land flew directly in the faces of not only the people then occupying the Land, but also the demonic powers behind the idols and false religions being practiced there. By obscuring the wells, the people try to erase not only the patriarchs as people, but also their witness to HaShem: that there is any alternative to the idolatry and false gods.
Today we live in times that were described by the prophet Amos, “A time is coming — declares my L-rd G-D — when I will send a famine upon the land: not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of the L-RD” (Amos 8:11, NJPS). Biblical literacy is plunging as the Bible is being forced out of schools, out of the public square and away from the media and entertainment. Even many churches are suffering from severe Bible poverty as sermons and teaching programs are moving from exegetical content to popular exhortation that sometimes has little to do with the Bible. The false gods of secularism, humanism and paganism are trying to obscure the witness of the people of G-d, to block up the wells, stop the flow of living water and to obscure the existence of the well. Yeshua is our source of living water; He told the woman at the well in Samaria, “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14, ESV) and the crowds in Jerusalem at Sukkot, “Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (7:38, ESV).
The prophet Jeremiah brought the L-rd’s word about these times when he said: “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13, ESV). Too often people are digging for water in the wrong place: in a place of their own choosing, where they think best. They find only stale and stagnant water that does not quench the thirst, muddy water that sticks in the throat or contaminated water that introduces toxins to the body and soul. We need to re-dig the ancient wells of truth and clear the earth and blockages that the world has used to prevent access and hide the well. Jeremiah challenged the people of Benjamin and Judah, “Thus says the L-RD: Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16, ESV). Where is rest to be found? Yeshua tells us the answer: “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30, ESV).
So, here’s the challenge for us today: What are you missing in your life and where are you digging to find it? We need to re-dig the wells that were dug in Avraham’s day; the well of faith; the well of obedience to the One True G-d, the G-d of Israel; the well of patience and endurance. Get out your spade today and start digging.