Isaac And The Wells – What's That About?
The Significance Of Isaac And Abraham's Wells In The Bible
This week’s parsha contains the only story in the Torah when the patriarch Isaac takes center stage. No, it’s not the Akeidah (that was mostly about Abraham), and it’s not the story about the blessing of the firstborn (that story is really about Jacob and Esav).
It’s the time Isaac goes around digging wells! Three of them to be exact! Huh? This is the illustrious legacy of our great forefather Isaac? He dug a bunch of wells?
Why does the Torah waste its time telling us about this story? We know so much about Abraham and Jacob, you’d think that Isaac has more to teach us than how to find underground water sources. But what if the story of the wells is actually teaching us something fundamental about Isaac’s legacy?
Join Imu Shalev and David Block as they show us the deeper meaning behind the story of Isaac's wells. The challenges of wealth and success, and of living out God’s blessing are all wrapped up in this seemingly mundane character depiction of Isaac the well-digger.
David: Welcome to Parshat Toldot.
Where Are the Bible's Stories About Isaac?
In fact, the two stories that we normally associate with Isaac aren't really focused on Isaac.
The Binding of Isaac is primarily about Abraham, and the story of the switched blessings – the story that's most often talked about this week – is really focused on Jacob and Esav. So, who was Isaac? And what are supposed to know about him?
Immanuel: There's only one story in the Torah that features Isaac as the main character. It actually takes up a nice amount of air-time in our parsha, but because of the excitement of the blessings story, it's pretty easy to just gloss over.
Before we get there, let's take a look at our 20-second parsha recap:
- After years of being unable to conceive, Rebecca gives birth to twins.
- Esav sells his birthright to Jacob for some stew.
- There's a famine and Isaac goes to Gerar.
- He settles there and tries to dig a bunch of wells.
- Esav marries.
- Isaac wants to bless Esav, and then Jacob pretends to be Esav, and tricks his father.
- Jacob runs away because Esav vows to kill him… but before he does, Isaac makes him promise he won't marry a woman from Canaan.
David: Did you spot the Isaac story? The one story that focuses on Isaac is the story of the wells, and understanding it may give us the key to unlocking the mystery of who Isaac is.
Who Was Isaac in the Bible?
Immanuel: Here's what happened: After getting food during the famine, Isaac settles in Gerar – and something amazing happens. וַיִּזְרַע יִצְחָק בָּאָרֶץ הַהִוא – Isaac planted in that land, וַיִּמְצָא בַּשָּׁנָה הַהִוא מֵאָה שְׁעָרִים – and the land produced 100-fold… וַיְבָרְכֵהו יְהוָה – and God had blessed him.
And he continued to thrive: וַיִּגְדַּל הָאִישׁ; וַיֵּלֶךְ הָלוֹךְ וְגָדֵל, עַד כִּי-גָדַל מְאֹד – He became great, and he grew more and more until he became even greater! וַיְהִי-לוֹ מִקְנֵה-צֹאן וּמִקְנֵה בָקָר – and he had many flocks of sheep and herds of cattle, וַעֲבֻדָּה רַבָּה – and a great household.
But that didn't sit well with locals: וַיְקַנְאוּ אֹתוֹ פְּלִשְׁתִּים – the Philistines envied him. And because of that, Abimelech, King of Gerar, asks Isaac to leave. So he moves to the valley… and then we get our strange story of the wells.
Isaac Redigs Abraham's Wells
David: Apparently, Abraham had dug a few wells during his time, and the text tells us that since Abraham died, the locals had plugged them up.
So, Isaac tries to redig those wells. He digs the first, but the local shepherds fought with him about it. They said it was theirs. So וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם-הַבְּאֵר עֵשֶׂק, כִּי הִתְעַשְּׂקוּ עִמּוֹ – Isaac named the well "Contention" because they contended with him.
Isaac digs another well, but the locals try to claim that one too! וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמָהּ, שִׂטְנָה – so Isaac calls it "Sitnah," which seems to mean hatred.
Finally, וַיַּעְתֵּק מִשָּׁם, וַיַּחְפֹּר בְּאֵר אַחֶרֶת – he moved away from there and dug a third well. וְלֹא רָבוּ עָלֶיהָ – and it was uncontested! No one fought him for it! וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמָהּ רְחֹבוֹת and he named this well "Rechovot," which means expansion. וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי-עַתָּה הִרְחִיב יְהוָה לָנוּ וּפָרִינוּ בָאָרֶץ – because God has expanded the land for us so that we can be fruitful there. And that's the story.
Immanuel: There are a lot of questions we can ask, but let's focus on just two.
The first question is about the story itself. What happened between the second and third wells? The locals argued over the first well, argued over the second… and but then they just stopped by the third. Why? Did they just get lazy and give up? I mean, what changed??
And the second question is a more general one: Why is this the story God chooses to tell us about Isaac?? Who cares about these wells?
Exploring Isaac's Character Through the Wells He Dug
David: Let's explore together the character of Isaac and this strange story of the wells, this week on the Parsha Experiment.
Immanuel: Hi, I'm Imu Shalev.
David: And I'm David Block.
Immanuel: And well-come to the Parsha Experiment…. Get it? Wells??
The Story Behind Isaac's Wells
Immanuel: The truth is the story of the wells actually begins a few verses earlier – in a prophecy. Before Isaac landed in Gerar, it seems that he was actually on his way down to Egypt to get food – and God appears to him. God says: Don't go down to Egypt! Stay here, in Gerar – גּוּר בָּאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת! And וְאֶהְיֶה עִמְּךָ וַאֲבָרְכֶךָּ – and I'll be with you and bless you.
Then, God reiterates the covenant he made to Abraham: If you follow in my way, Isaac, I'll bless you with land and children. Great. So what happens next? וַיֵּשֶׁב יִצְחָק, בִּגְרָר – Isaac settles in Gerar. It seems like Isaac did exactly what God told him to do.
David: But that's not exactly true… look carefully again at what God told Isaac to do and at what he did. God said: גּוּר בָּאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת – sojourn, temporarily, in the land. Like a stopover. But Isaac did more than that: וַיֵּשֶׁב יִצְחָק – he settled. That implies permanence. He planted roots.
Immanuel: So here's our theory. A few weeks ago, when we discussed God's selection of Abraham, we spoke about the challenges that come along with promises of wealth and chosen-ness. If God is going to make your name great so that you can bring blessing to the world, how do you balance being a prince of God with the pride and arrogance at having been handed that destiny?
In Lecha Lecha, God told Abraham that he will get the land – but not quite yet. And the verse there is careful to tell us that when Abraham returned from Egypt with so much wealth that the land couldn't support both him and his nephew, Lot, וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי, וְהַפְּרִזִּי, אָז, יֹשֵׁב בָּאָרֶץ.
There were others in the land. Why do we have to know that? Abraham was wealthy. He had these great gifts from God that were ultimately meant to be used in his role to positively impact others.
But when you have so much, when you're put on a pedestal, it can easily have the opposite effect. You can rub others the wrong way. You can use the tools insensitively. Abraham saw that potential… so he doesn't settle down. He doesn't show off his wealth. He sojourns. He pitches tents.
David: And now, Isaac, the one who could continue Abraham's mission, is faced with a similar situation. When God appeared to Isaac in Gerar, God promised that He'll give him the land. The gift of land and wealth, they're meant to be tools to help Isaac in his mission to be a positive influence on others.
But something went wrong. Isaac settled down, and he became really wealthy, but his wealth and his great name weren't making a positive influence. They were having the opposite effect. וַיְקַנְאוּ אֹתוֹ, פְּלִשְׁתִּים. It made the people around him really jealous! So much so that Abimelech, king of Gerar, had to ask him to leave!
Immanuel: Now the wells make so much more sense.
The Symbolism of Isaac's Wells in the Bible
Immanuel: In Jewish law, one of the ways in which one shows ownership of land is by changing something in the land itself. Only an owner has the freedom to do what he wants with his land.
It's almost like the wells were a symbolic claim of ownership of land. Isaac digs wells to say. "It's my land!"
But he wasn't successful in claiming the land. The locals challenged him and said, "No, that's not yours – לָנוּ הַמָּיִם – it's our water! It's always been ours!"
David: Then something changed. Something so subtle that you could easily miss it.
The Significance of Isaac's Third Well
David: Isaac doesn't just dig a third well. He does something first: וַיַּעְתֵּק מִשָּׁם, וַיַּחְפֹּר בְּאֵר אַחֶרֶת – he removed himself from there, and then he dug another well. Who cares that he removed himself from there??? But does that remind you of anything?
There's only one other time that the word – ויעתק – appears in all of the Five Books of Moses. Right after God promises land and children to Abraham for the first time, it says, וַיַּעְתֵּק מִשָּׁם הָהָרָה – Abraham removed himself from there to a mountain.
Immanuel: You might say, "Who cares? That's a coincidence." But look at the situations of Abraham's story and Isaac's story – they seem to be identical too!
Right after God promises the land to his children, Abraham responded not by settling the land and planting roots – as we discussed in Lech Lecha. Instead, he traveled. He sojourned. He removed himself. He realized that the land isn't his yet. He hears the promise, but he doesn't grab.
And it seems that, maybe, by using the same word in our parsha, the text is telling us that Isaac got that message too. He no longer tries to plant roots. He moves away. He doesn't grab and fight them for that land. And that's what changed between the second the third well.וַיַּעְתֵּק מִשָּׁם. By removing himself from the land, He showed that the third well wasn't about marking his territory anymore.
David: And as soon as Isaac shows God that he realizes that, that he has corrected his וַיֵּשֶׁב, his permanent settling, there's no more struggling over that third well. And look at what he says. וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמָהּ, רְחֹבוֹת, – he calls the third well "Rechovot," expansion! וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי-עַתָּה הִרְחִיב יְהוָה לָנוּ, וּפָרִינוּ בָאָרֶץ – because NOW God has expanded the land so that I can be fruitful here.
It happened right then. When he showed God that he can have the gifts and not lose sight of their giver and of their purpose, then God is ready to fulfill His promises to him.
Immanuel: And as you continue reading, the seemingly boring details that follow all seem to be there in order to highlight this shift in Isaac's perspective.
What's the next thing Isaac does? וַיַּעַל מִשָּׁם, בְּאֵר שָׁבַע – he goes from there to Be'er Sheva. Who cares? Why is the verse telling us this travel log? But that's exactly the point… even after Isaac gets to Rechovot to the place of expansion, he voluntarily moves again. Because Isaac learned his lesson and shifted his perspective. He no longer claims land and settles down. He sojourns.
Isaac Receives God's Promise
David: And then God appears to him in another prophecy. See if you can spot the difference between this prophecy and the first prophecy to Isaac that we read earlier. אַל-תִּירָא, כִּי-אִתְּךָ אָנֹכִי, – do not fear, for I am with you. וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת-זַרְעֲךָ, בַּעֲבוּר אַבְרָהָם עַבְדִּי – I'll bless you and make your children great for my servant, Abraham. Did you spot the difference?
God mentions the promise of children… but land is entirely missing! It's almost like God's speaking here in negative space – in what God doesn't say. Isaac is able to recognize that the land is a tool to accomplish his mission, and when that happens, in a sense, it's like God gave him the land already.
Isaac already showed God that he can use the tool of land and wealth sensitively. So God doesn't need to mention it – and by leaving it out, perhaps, God is symbolically saying, Isaac you already earned it. You already got the point.
Immanuel: And if the "ויעתק" connection to Abraham from above wasn't compelling enough, look at what Isaac does right after this prophecy. וַיִּבֶן שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ – he builds an altar. Who else builds an altar after God promises him things? Abraham! After Abraham moved, as we saw, וַיִּבֶן-שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ – he built an altar.
And now back to Isaac: וַיִּקְרָא בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה – and he calls out in the name of God! We've seen that before, too. Abraham builds his altar, and then וַיִּקְרָא בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה – he calls out in the name of God.
We explained in Lech Lecha that calling out in God's name right after God promises that he'll make you great is the ultimate way of showing that you won't become conceited and focus only on yourself… it's not just about me, it all comes from God.
David: And it continues. After Isaac builds the altar and calls out in the name of God, וַיֶּט-שָׁם, אָהֳלוֹ – he pitches his tent. A tent is the best expression of temporary dwelling. He doesn't build a permanent house. He pitches a tent. And look what Abraham did, right before he built his altar: וַיֵּט אָהֳלֹה – he pitched his tent.
The Spiritual Meaning Behind Isaac's and Abraham's Wells
Immanuel: These parallels aren't coincidental. The text is begging us to recognize what's going on here. Isaac began by settling permanently, by taking the land. וישב instead of גור. But after he was kicked out of Gerar, after he couldn't hold onto his second well in a row, he realized something… he realized what Abraham, his father, realized too.
This is just our take on the parallels, but it seems like the text is telling us that it is inappropriate to flaunt our status as chosen people. Wealth is a powerful tool, but it should be used conservatively, to fulfill a Godly mission.
David: After Abraham passed away at the end of last week's parsha, the focus automatically shifts to the next generation. Abraham had a divine mission, and now Abraham's child, Isaac, has to continue that legacy of becoming a model nation.
God will bestow wealth, greatness, land and children to this new nation. And as we said, the promise of greatness and the prospect of chosen-ness are very hard to handle. God needed people who would be able to use these gifts properly – as tools, in the mission of spreading God's name and teaching righteousness and justice to the world.
After struggling for a bit in Gerar, Isaac showed God that he's up to the task. Like his father, he'll use his gifts with sensitivity – that's how you impact others.
And this story – one of overcoming the difficult challenge of being able to step out of one's own success and remember the larger picture – that's the story the Torah chooses to tell us about Isaac.