To set the stage, we have just left the scene in which Ishmael and Hagar were expelled by Abraham, and wandered, parched, hungry, and to the point of near death in the desert, before finally being saved by the presence of an angel, and more importantly, a well.
The scene has suddenly shifted back to Gerar (though we have no idea of how much time may have passed), where we find Abimelech and his general in a meeting with Abraham, with Abimelech offering Abraham, in effect, a non-aggression pact.
Why this, and why now?
It is clear that Abimelech has seen enough of Abraham’s power and abilities – to the point where he has now concluded that Abraham is a coequal, having G-d on his side.
It is not surprising that a scene such as this has analogies to situations to this day, in which one country will arrive at the point where it decides that a new regime, or another country, is powerful or legitimate enough to be formally ‘recognized’ as an equal, and representative in its own right (or at least, a formidable risk to be avoided).
In turn, we are in the midst of the formalities that must have accompanied such an event. As seen in the verses below, Abraham accepts the offer by providing Abimelech with a flock of animals, although with a caveat. Abraham is concerned about a well that Abimelech’s people have seized from Abraham’s. Before Abraham finally agrees to the pact, he needs to first address the matter of that well.
As an interesting aside, we note that both the previous scene with Ishmael, and the current scene with Abraham, both revolve around the topic of water and a well. As we see in our story, and remains true to this day (and most certainly will always be true), the access to water and its sources has been a key thread that will always weave its way through the history of man.
In turn, and as a symbol of their deal, Abraham first offers the flock to Abimelech, but in nearly the same breath, then seems to set aside seven ewes from that flock, which he will hold in abeyance until the matter of the well is resolved.
We pick up the scene with Genesis chapter 21, verse 29, where Abimelech is questioning Abraham as to that holdback provision.
29 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What are these seven ewes which you have set by themselves?”
30 And he [Abraham] said, “Because you are to take these seven ewes from me, that it may serve me as witness that I have dug this well.”
31 Therefore that place was called Beer-sheba because there the two of them took an oath.
32 They entered into a covenant at Beer-sheba; Abimelech arose, and Phicol, general of his legion, and they returned to the land of the Philistines.
So it seems the seven ewes are symbolic, to the point where Abimelech’s acceptance of them will serve to confirm the fact that the well belongs to Abraham.
According to Louis Ginzberg (Legends of the Bible), midrash provides us with at least a couple interesting twists to this story, including to answer the question of why seven ewes, and why the need to deal with the well at all?
As for why seven, midrash suggests that the seven sheep correspond to Abimelech’s acceptance of the 7 Noachide laws, which are said to be binding upon all men, namely (according to a cursory google search):
1. Murder is forbidden.
2. Theft is forbidden.
3. Incestuous and adulterous relations are forbidden.
4. Eating the flesh of a living animal is forbidden.
5. Idolatry is forbidden.
6. Cursing the name of HaShem is forbidden.
7. Mankind is commanded to establish courts of justice.
These, in turn, provide the foundation for what later became the three rules of Barney Fife, which he would use to introduce new prisoners to what he termed their stay at “the rock”, the first of which was stated as “first rule – obey all rules!”.
As for why hold back the ewes at all, Ginzberg and midrash tell us that Abraham’s reproval of Abimelech – corresponds with the premise that “correction leads to love”, and in turn, “there is no peace without correction” . In other words, it seems, that in order to achieve a meaningful and lasting peace, someone needs to give, and something needs to change, if even symbolically. The pact between Abimelech and Abraham was not intended to merely commemorate the status quo, without something tangible being done (confirmation of the well’s ownership, as demonstrated by the seven ewes). Are we weird people or what?
But we digress. Back to our reason for being here – Rashi. What might be troubling our sage about this scene and these verses? His words:
THAT IT MAY SERVE ME – that this act may serve me
AS WITNESS – is a feminine form for “testimony”, i.e., a female witness as in “and the monument shall be witness”
THAT I DUG [THIS] WELL – the shepherds of Abimelech were quarreling over it with the shepherds of Abraham, and saying “we dug it”. The shepherds said among themselves, “whoever will appear at the well, and the water will rise to greet him, it is his”. And the waters rose to great Abraham.
So it seems that “it may serve me” teaches us that this act, of setting aside seven ewes, will serve the purpose of confirming for all that the well is Abraham’s. Doesn’t seem debatable. Let’s move on.
Similarly, Rashi’s reference to the feminine form of testimony seems more directed to a grammar lesson (as he is wont to do) than deep meaning. Basically, he tells us that the possible confusion between the masculine and feminine verb forms that occur in these verses should not be taken to mean that Abraham addressed Abimelech himself, or in turn, that he said to him “so that you shall serve me as a witness”.
And finally, the reference to shepherds quarreling is classic Rashi – out of left field, and seemingly out of place – to the point where we begin licking our proverbial lamb chops. First, the quarreling of shepherds reminds us of the quarrel between the shepherds of Lot and Abraham, leading to the separation of their clans, with Lot hightailing it into Sodom (bad move in retrospect). In this case, the groups don’t part ways, but rather, they instead agree that one or the other has created, and therefore will own, a particular well. And they do so by letting the water decide – relying on the fact that the water apparently rises to meet Abraham as he approaches, and does not rise to meet Abimelech, thereby confirming that it belongs to Abraham.
Our first (and as far as I know, only) hygroscopic forefather.
Our study group has been off more than on this summer, but will resume on Thursday of this week, with our final lay led session before the Rabbi returns for a few weeks (before taking off again, for something called the High Holy Days).