A Dialogue Across the Ages
Like his father Abraham, Isaac is driven by famine to take refuge in the city of Gerar, in the western Negev northwest of Be’er Sheva. The abundance of water for their large herds is what spurs them to relocate, and it is over water that both of the patriarchs contend with the locals. In the first instance, Abraham accuses the ruler of Gerar, Abimelech, that servants of the latter stripped him of a well that he had dug. Abimelech professes to be ignorant of the theft and willing to make amends; whereupon he and Abraham strike a pact. A gift of seven ewes by Abraham will serve to legally establish his claim of ownership of the well. Indeed, according to the biblical account, the pact gives rise to the name of Be’er Sheva, “the well of seven.” At the time, the dominion of Gerar must have stretched eastward to Be’er Sheva, which appears to have had no ruler of its own (21:22-32).
But the pact did not outlive its signatories. One generation later, the inhabitants of Gerar, now identified as Philistines, had refilled the wells dug by Abraham. As Isaac grew in wealth, partly from agriculture, tensions mounted and Abimelech’s namesake asked Isaac to leave “for you have become far too big for us” (26:16). We are told that Isaac obliged him by moving to the wadi of Gerar, where he re-excavated the wells of his father. To fortify his claim. Isaac called them by the names bestowed upon them by his father. To no avail, the shepherds from Gerar fought with Isaac’s shepherds over the water and Isaac was forced to move on. Before he left, though, “He named the well Esek (contention) because they contended with him” (26:20).
Another move still brought no improvement in Isaac’s lot. The next well he dug was also enveloped in bitter dispute, preserved in the harsh name Sitnah (accusation) by which Isaac referred to it. The quarreling subsided only with the third well. To signal the cessation of hostilities, Isaac named the well Rehoboth because “Now at last the Lord has granted us ample space (i.e., hirhib, a verb form of Rehoboth), to increase in the land” (26:22). Clearly, the name of each well was meant to convey the circumstances surrounding its use. Then as now, water was a precious natural resource.
Nahmanides deemed the face value of this minor narrative as too prosaic for inclusion in the Torah. A mystic who had fled Aragon for Palestine, where he wrote his biblical commentary after his public disputation with the Church in 1263, he was convinced the tale bore a hidden meaning. The clue is the phrase in 26:19 be’er mayim hayyim (literally: a well of living water) which Nahmanides takes to be an allusion to God’s Temple, “the Fount of living waters” (Jeremiah 17:13). Seen through this lens, the story can now be read as a cryptic prophecy of what would befall the temples to be built by the descendents of Isaac in the distant future.
Thus, the name Esek (contention) refers to the strife that periodically swirled about the First Temple until the gentiles finally destroyed it (in 586 B.C.E.). The name Sitnah (accusation), a harsher term than Esek, calls to mind the fierce resistance of the Samaritans to the construction of the Second Temple by the former inhabitants of Judah upon their return from exile. In the early days of the Ahasuerus, the Samaritans even fired off an official accusation (sitnah) to the Persian authorities to frustrate the project (Ezra 4:6). And in fact the Second Temple was a frequent bone of contention until the gentiles finally razed it (in 70 C.E.), bringing about a far worse exile.
For Nahmanides (the victim of a resurgent effort by the Church to convert the Jews) the third well of Isaac, Rehoboth, pointed to the re-establishment of the Third Temple by God directly. Hence, the absence of bloodshed, the expansion of borders and the demographic increase. In the final analysis, I believe, that Nahmanides’ radical reinterpretation of a most ordinary text springs less from his mystical bent than from the precariousness of his existential situation. Till 1967, at least, an oppressive sense of powerlessness was the usual seedbed of Jewish messianism.
Some three centuries later, Solomon Ephraim ben Aaron of Luntshitz, who died in 1619, neutralized Nahmanides’ messianic thrust. A member of the Ashkenazi rabbinic elite and the most renowned preacher of his day, he agreed that the story of Isaac’s wells dealt with the future and not the past, but its esoteric message delivered an internal critique of Jewish divisiveness rather than an indictment of gentile animosity. Jews bear sole responsibility for the destruction of the temples. Thus, Luntshitz notes that in the case of Esek, the first well, the feud is specifically between the herdsmen of Gerar and Isaac; that is, flawed leadership on both sides was unable to resolve the conflict. Luntshitz finds this analogous to the division of the kingdom after Solomon into two warring states which culminated in the demise of both.
By the second well, the Torah downplays the role of the shepherds. The antipathy now seems to be more diffuse and widespread, a situation that corresponds to the endemic hatred of Jew for Jew which, according to the Talmud, brought down the Second Temple. During the First, only the royal houses battled each other over matters of dominion. By the Second, unrestrained and unprovoked animus poisoned the entire body politic.
The Third Temple, to be built by the Messiah, would fare better because it would be accompanied by Jewish unity. The enlarged borders are a function of social harmony, not conquest. Without it, even the most expansive territory will not yield internal peace and prosperity. To make his point, Luntshitz quotes a Talmudic gem on married life: “When our love was passionate we could sleep on the edge of a sword. Now that it no longer is, a bed of sixty cubits will not do” (BT Sanhendrin 7a; Klee Yakar, ad loc.).
The growing dimensions of internal discord prompted Luntshitz to reject Nahmanides’ reading. Several times in his exposition he hinted at his dismay. Inevitably, we are creatures of context. What joined the two exegetes was not a shared vision but a shared text. Diverse life experiences converged on a common text to generate a dialogue across the ages, harnessing creativity to continuity.