Isaac returned to his semi-nomadic mode of life and brought his flocks into the valley of Gerar on the edge of the Negev. As he went, he reopened the wells of his father Abraham. The Philistines had filled in Abraham’s wells as an exercise of their sovereignty, perhaps to discourage semi-nomadic shepherds and herdsman like Isaac from grazing on their territory.
Isaac reopened the wells. The Torah uses four short etiologies to describe how Isaac named four wells. He named one well “Contention” because after he dug it, the herdsmen of Gerar came out and contended with his shepherds. They said, “The water is ours!” He dug a second well and named it “Hostility” because of a dispute with the same herdsmen. He moved further into the Negev, away from Gerar, and dug a third well. He named it “Broad Places” because he had finally escaped the Philistines and had ample space.
It seems as if Isaac named the wells without any thought as to what they had been called in his father’s day, but the Torah says, “He gave them the same names which his father had given them.” This becomes clear in the story about the well of Shibah (Beersheba). He camped at Beersheba (Well of the Oath); he swore a covenantal oath (shevu’ah, ×©×‘×¢×”) with the Philistine King. That same day his servants reported a well they had dug. He named it Beersheba, Well of the Oath—the same name Abraham had given it a generation earlier when he made a treaty with the previous Abimelech and Phicol.
The story of Isaac reopening Abraham’s wells indicates that Isaac is the legitimate heir to the Abrahamic legacy. Like Abraham, Isaac sojourned as a stranger in a strange land, without land and water rights.
On another level, the story illustrates the value of returning to the original sources. Isaac could have dug new wells. Instead he chose to restore Abraham’s wells. He could have chosen new names. Instead he chose to use the same names that Abraham had given them.
In a similar way, the biblical path of faith is not one of innovation and novelty. Instead, we find our spirits satisfied drinking from the wells of faith from which our fathers drank. When the Master offered the woman at the well the living water of salvation, he spoke not of literal water, but of salvation—yet He offered that living water to her at Jacob’s well.
The journey into Messianic Judaism is much like Isaac’s journey back to the wells of his father Abraham. These original sources have been filled in and concealed by time and hostile Philistines. The Sabbath has been lost. The holy days have been forgotten. The Torah itself has been, as it were, filled in with earth. We need not dig new wells or create new names. If we will only make the effort to open these original wells up again, we will find that they are as deep and filled with living water as when our fathers first drank from them.
This article originally appeared on First Fruits of Zion and is reposted with permission.