Commentary on Genesis 21:22-34

Last updated: August 1, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

22At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do. 23Now 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.” 24And Abraham said, “I will swear.”

25When Abraham reproved Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized, 26Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this thing; you did not tell me, and I have not heard of it until today.” 27So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant. 28Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock apart. 29And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?” 30He said, “These seven ewe lambs you will take from my hand, that this may be a witness for me that I dug this well.” 31Therefore that place was called Beersheba, because there both of them swore an oath. 32So 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. 33Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God. 34And Abraham sojourned many days in the land of the Philistines.

Notes

22 At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do.

Abimelech was introduced in chapter 20. That Abimelech was accompanied by the commander of his army suggests that Abraham was a force to be reckoned with (ch. 14). The king knew God was with Abraham through the events of chapter 20.

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.”

“Swear to me” is the first allusion to the name Beersheba. After Abraham’s behavior in chapter 20 Abimelech wants to be dealt with honestly. Abimelech’s past kind dealings with Abraham are recorded in 20:14-16.

25-26 When Abraham reproved Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized, 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.”

In ch. 20 Abimelech was unaware that Sarah was married and here he is unaware of his servants’ deeds.

27 So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant.

Later laws forbade the Israelites from making treaties with the Canaanites (Exodus 23:33; Deuteronomy 7:2).

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.”

The seven ewe lambs were in addition to the sheep and oxen mentioned in verse 27. In addition to the general treaty Abraham wants to secure the use of the well.

31 Therefore that place was called Beersheba, because there both of them swore an oath.

Beersheba can mean either “well of oath” or “well of seven.”1 The ambiguity is useful in this account where both the oath and the seven ewe lambs play a role.

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.

That Abimlech and Phicol returned to the land of the Philistines suggests that Abraham possessed the well and the region around it.2

33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.

The tree is probably linked to the act of worship but could also memorialize the pact.3 The name “Everlasting God” highlights the fact that the “everlasting covenant” (17:7-8) is being established in the birth of the heir (21:1-7) and the partial possession of the promised land.

34 And Abraham sojourned many days in the land of the Philistines.

Outside of the Bible, the first reference to the Philistines is in the records of Pharaoh Ramesses III (1182-1151 BCE).4

In light of what is known of the history of the Philistines, the references to them in the Abraham and Isaac narratives are generally regarded as anachronistic. Yet this conclusion itself raises serious difficulties. An anachronism is a chronological misplacing of events, institutions, concepts, objects, proper names, or place-names. That which is put in the wrong historical time frame must accurately reflect the time from which it is retrojected or into which it is projected. However, the picture of the Philistines in Genesis does not correspond to the realities of the later period.

Unlike the depiction of the Philistines in Judges and Kings, these of the patriarchal period do not inhabit the Shephelah but are situated inland in the south. There is no pentapolis with seranim but a king of a single city who acts alone. The king has a Semitic name. Relationships between this people and the patriarchs are governed by formal treaties of friendship, whereas the later Philistines are inveterate enemies of Israel. Unless the Narrator had some particular reason for consciously falsifying history – and no such is forthcoming, especially since the ethnic identity of Abimelech and his subjects is of no significance for the understanding of the story – the references to the Philistines in the patriarchal narratives cannot be anachronisms. No later Israelite writer could possibly be so ignorant of the elementary facts of the history of his people as to perpetrate such a series of blunders, and to no purpose whatsoever.

Accordingly, the “Philistines” of patriarchal times may have belonged to a much earlier, minor wave of Aegean invaders who founded a small city-state in Gerar long before the large-scale invasions of the Levant, which led to the occupation of the Canaanite coast. The Narrator may be using a generic term for the sea peoples. At any rate, the Philistines of patriarchal times adopted Canaanite culture and lost their separate identity.5

Bibliography

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

Walton, John H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary 2. Thomas Nelson, 1994.

1Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 281.

2Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 94.

3Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 149.

4Walton, Genesis, 498.

5Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 390.

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