God does bless the faithful and reward the obedient. These blessings are not like wages that are earned or awards that are merited…This is the way it also works when our heavenly Father rewards our obedience. God does not owe us anything for our obedience because we owe our obedience to God. Yet God does freely choose to reward our obedience to the extent that His doing so works to His glory and for our good.
The events recorded in Genesis 21:22-34 give us some insights into some political principles, principles about the relationship of the individual to civil government. In this passage, Abraham is living the life of a spiritually faithful pilgrim and also at the same time prospering in terms of material blessings and wealth. He here establishes a relationship with the pagan king Abimelech and then chooses to dwell within his domain for an extended period of time. We will examine this phenomenon and the lessons that we can learn from it under three headings: providential blessings, political freedom and property rights.
First, the providential blessings. The pagan ruler Abimelech met with Abraham along with Philcol, the commander of Abimelech’s army. The very first words which this pagan king spoke to Abraham in this meeting were, “God is with you in all that you do.” This is truly a striking and significant statement. Abimelech had observed enough about Abraham’s life to conclude that God was with Abraham in all of Abraham’s endeavors. Abimelech had seen concrete evidence that God blessed whatever Abraham did. God was the wind that filled Abraham’s sails. God caused the road of life to rise to meet Abraham and to take him over obstacles. God caused the wind to be at Abraham’s back and not in his face. Everyone who encountered Abraham would have noticed the vast flocks and herds that this man had come to possess over the years even though he was a nomad who owned no land, even though he was a foreigner who had immigrated to Canaan as an adult with limited possessions, even though he remained an alien in the land who had no civic rights.
Abimelech had also had his own enlightening encounter with Abraham. In Genesis 20:13, Abraham had told Abimelech about his faith in the living and true God. Abraham had shared with Abimelech that God had called him to leave the house of his father, a house located in a prosperous walled city in a civilized Mesopotamia. Abraham obeyed as an act of faith, and that was why Abraham was then living in tents as a nomad in Canaan.
Abraham had also candidly confessed to Abimelech a weak point in his faith. Abraham felt vulnerable in a foreign land because of the unusual beauty of his wife Sarah. He used a deception for his protection instead of trusting God to protect him and Sarah from powerful evil men. Abraham deceived strangers about his marriage to Sarah, and that deception had resulted in Abimelech’s taking Sarah into his harem. Even though Abraham’s faith in God was mixed with some unbelief and even though Abraham had sinfully deceived Abimelech, God remained faithful to Abraham and blessed him.
God informed Abimelech that Abraham was God’s prophet. God afflicted Abimelech’s household for taking Sarah into his harem, even though he had done it in ignorance. Abraham prayed for Abimelech, and God spared Abimelech’s life and healed the affliction of his household. From this earlier encounter with Abraham, Abimelech had his own special insight into God’s blessing Abraham in everything that Abraham did.
This experience was not unique to Abraham. Another Abimelech would later say to Abraham’s son Isaac, “We have certainly seen that the LORD is with you” (Genesis 26:28). After that, Laban would say to Jacob, Isaac’s son, “Please stay, if I have found favor in your eyes, for I have learned by experience that the LORD has blessed me for your sake” (Genesis 30:27). After that, Jacob’s son Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, and here is what we read in Genesis 39:3: “And his master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD made all he did to prosper in his hand.” This basic principle continues under the new covenant. In Mark 10:29-30, Jesus said,
“Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time — houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions — and in the age to come, eternal life.
We see this promise of blessings in this life as well as in the life to come, promises of material blessings as well as spiritual blessings, with the acknowledgment that this life also includes persecution for those who are faithful to Jesus.
God does bless the faithful and reward the obedient. These blessings are not like wages that are earned or awards that are merited. Our obedience to God is like the obedience of a good child to a good father. The father does not owe the child anything for his or her obedience, but the father can freely choose to reward obedience when he believes that doing so serves a good purpose. This is the way it also works when our heavenly Father rewards our obedience. God does not owe us anything for our obedience because we owe our obedience to God. Yet God does freely choose to reward our obedience to the extent that His doing so works to His glory and for our good.
One implication from God’s providential blessings upon Abraham is that a righteous civil order will allow different people to have varying degrees of prosperity in this life. Some saints bear fruit a hunderdfold, others sixty and still others thirty. God in general rewards according to works, and this implies different outcomes for different people. In addition, even among those with identical acts of obedience, material blessings can vary because God also rewards to the extent that the reward works to His glory and His people’s good. The converse of this is that God also in general chastens the sins of His children on earth. God’s providence also touches the lives of the wicked. God can restrain the evil of the wicked to protect them from financial ruin and can even allow the wicked to prosper at times. Divine providence is a mysterious doctrine in which God controls history for His own purposes in a miraculous way that establishes human free agency and personal responsibility. In God’s providential workings, people have differing financial outcomes in life just as surely as two plus two equals four.
We should be grateful that we live in a society that has allowed people to obtain different levels of financial prosperity through just means and has allowed people to assist one another through voluntary acts of charity. We need to be wary of those who claim that a society is truly just only to the extent that the state guarantees everyone an equal financial outcome in life. This Marxist maxim contradicts the concept of divine providence and the practice of charity. It has no place for anyone such as Abraham. Realizing this egalitarian goal is possible only if the state has unlimited power to exercise coercive control over its subjects. State enforcement of equal outcomes in life contradicts the very notion of individual political freedom. Divine providence mysteriously establishes human free agency and personal responsibility, but its secular imitation reduces the masses to an egalitarian slavery to the state.
Second, political freedom. Abraham owned no land and was sojourning as an alien in the territory ruled by the pagan king Abimelech. Thus Abraham had no political or civic rights. Yet, as we learn in Genesis chapter 20, Abimelech had reason to have a respectful fear of the God of Abraham, the living and true God who recognized Abraham as His prophet. It is no surprise that in chapter 20, Abimelech had told Abraham that he was free to dwell anywhere within Abimelech’s domain, anywhere that seemed good to him. Now here in chapter 21, Abimelech and the commander of his army come to Abraham and ask Abraham to make a covenant with them. Abimelech asks Abraham to swear by God that he will never deal falsely with Abimelech. Abimelech goes on to point out the kindness with which he had treated Abraham and asks Abraham always to treat him kindly as well. What Abimelech was requesting was basically a non-aggression pact in which both parties agree not to do each other any harm, to live and let live. Abimelech wanted this to be a perpetual covenant that would continue over the generations.
We may wonder why a king with a nation and an army would want a non-aggression pact with a wandering nomad. Perhaps the reason was that Abimelech knew that God was with Abraham in all that Abraham did, and that Abimelech had learned that Abraham had servants trained for warfare and that God had already granted Abraham a military victory over a powerful coalition of four kings. The situation was such that Abimelech was the one making the initiative and seeking this covenant.
This covenant provided Abraham with a degree of political freedom. Abraham was living in the territory ruled by Abimelech, and this had its advantages. A good civil government provides social stability through the punishment of domestic crime and the prevention of foreign invasion. Yet civil government can also become tyrannical through confiscatory taxation and excessive regulation. Abraham did not have to worry about such tyranny as long as he was living under the protection of a civil government that had committed itself to not dealing falsely with him and to treating him with loving and merciful kindness. In addition, Abraham still had his servants trained for warfare. He had his own means of protection and security beyond any police protection provided by the state. The text says nothing about Abimelech’s trying to disarm Abraham. No wonder Abraham ending up dwelling there for a lengthy time.
This political blessing that Abraham here experienced is something that we should pray for today as well: a civil government that provides both a stable society and the freedom for us to live our own lives in obedience to God’s law. This is a blessing that America has often provided through its federal system of limited government, but we are seeing this blessing chipped away as younger generations abandon their commitment to Christian values. Their loss of faith in Christ leaves a void in their lives, and many fill this void with a religious commitment to civil government. They look to civil government to bring in a new order that has moral values that are contrary to the law of God. They look to civil government to use the state’s coercive power to remake society from the bottom up in their own image. They want to remove constitutional checks and balances in order to empower the state as their savior. This sort of development can only lead to a loss of our political freedom to live our lives according to Christian values and can only lead to the persecution of the faithful. We need to pray for God to bless our nation with a spiritual awakening and to prepare us to stand firm in the escalating battle for the heart and soul of our culture.
Third, property rights. Before Abraham finalized this non-aggression pact with Abimelech, Abraham brought up a complaint that he had. Before I give the specifics of the complaint, let me give you a little background. Abraham was pasturing his flocks and herds in a dry climate that had vegetation for the animals to feed upon but little water for the animals to drink. The key to making this land into productive pasture was to have wells where the animals could be watered. Abraham was turning an otherwise uselessly dry wilderness into a profitable pasture for his flocks and herds. He was subduing the earth by arranging resources so that they would provide an environment that is conducive to life rather than hostile to life. Abraham was bringing the garden to the wilderness.
The key was digging water wells. Digging a water well is a trial and error enterprise. Some may be able to recognize places where water is probably located deep in the ground, but one is never sure of success until water is found in the depths of the earth. We don’t know how many dry holes Abraham’s servants had to dig before they established this viable well. Yet after Abraham’s well was operational, some of Abimelech’s servants seized the well. Before finalizing the covenant, Abraham brought up this complaint with Abimelech. Abimelech responded by claiming that he was unaware of the event and by acknowledging Abraham’s right to the water, even though Abraham did not own any land. Abimelech ensured Abraham a limited scope of property protection even though he was an alien sojourner.
This is very significant. What would Abraham have done if Abimelech had not provided this protection from these coercive seizures? Abraham’s son Isaac later encountered this very problem. Isaac had the persistence to continue digging wells until he was allowed to keep the third one that he dug (Genesis 26:18-22). He had to expend three times the effort because of this disregard for property rights. A less persistent man would not have invested the time and effort to dig another well or to improve the land in any other way. What is the point of digging a series of dry holes until one finds water if someone else is going to seize the well as soon as it becomes operational? There is no point at all. That is why the property rights implied by God’s command not to steal are so very important. Societies that do not recognize property rights are as a rule afflicted with poverty. When a nation is experiencing chronic famines, you will find more often than not that either that nation is disrupted by internal strife such as a civil war or that nation has little protection for property rights. To the degree that societies do recognize property rights, they tend to grow in prosperity over time. The reason is simple. People invest in and improve what they securely own. People do not invest in and improve what can be taken away from them at any time. In fact, where there are no property rights, improving something only makes it more likely that someone else will take it away.
We are reminded of the importance of property rights by some recent tragic events in our own nation. We have some local governments today that appear to no longer respect property rights. They have turned the blind eye and have allowed mobs to loot and destroy businesses. They have restrained police from enforcing the law and protecting property. Some local governments have compounded the problem by efforts to deny private citizens the right to protect their property themselves. If these cities continue not to enforce property rights, they are going to become economic wildernesses. Who in his right mind would build a business where there is no police protection against looting and arson? We have come to a point in our history where we need to know a politician’s attitude toward the sixth commandment, you shall not steal, before we vote for him.
Let’s take one last look at our passage and see how this episode in the life of Abraham concluded. When Abraham and Abimelech made their covenant, Abraham gave sheep and oxen to Abimelech. Abraham didn’t give these as payments for anything. They were gifts whose purpose was to attest to the covenant which they had made that day. When Abraham gave these sheep and oxen to Abimelech, Abraham set seven ewe lambs apart. Abimelech asked about the purpose of these seven sheep set apart from the others. Abraham replied that these seven were meant as a witness to the agreement that they had made about the well that Abraham had dug there at that very place. They called the place Beersheba, “beer” being the Hebrew word for well and “sheba” being related to both the Hebrew word for swearing an oath and the Hebrew word for seven. The name Beersheba was a play on words with a double meaning. Beersheba was the location of the well where Abraham and Abimelech had sworn an oath that was attested by a gift of seven sheep.
Abraham planted a tamarisk tree there at Beersheba. This was a tree characterized by long life, hard wood and evergreen leaves. This was Abraham’s tree planted by water and Abraham’s tree whose leaf does not wither. In the first Psalm, such a tree symbolizes the man who delights in the law of God and who prospers in whatever he does. This is the man who like Abraham keeps covenant with God and the man whom like Abraham God blesses. Abraham planted this tree as a memorial to these truths.
Abraham also began calling on the name of the LORD at Beersheba. Abraham probably built an altar there, and this became a place where he publicly worshipped God. Calling on God’s name means to worship God as God has revealed Himself through His names. The name that Abraham especially remembered at Beersheba was the Everlasting God. God lives forever, and thus God ever lives to keep His promises.
We close this episode in Abraham’s life with Abraham’s planting a tree known for its long life, with Abraham’s calling on the name of the Everlasting God and with Abraham’s staying in this happy situation for many days.
Dr. Grover Gunn is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of MacDonald PCA in Collins, MS.