Abraham’s Dispute with Abimelech (Genesis 20:1-16; 21:22-34)
When Abraham and Sarah entered the country of King Abimelech, Abimelech inadvertently violated the rules of hospitality, and as restitution awarded Abraham free grazing rights to whatever land he wanted (Gen. 20:1-16). Subsequently, a dispute erupted over a certain well of water that Abraham had originally dug but Abimelech’s servants later seized (Gen. 21:25). Seemingly unaware of the situation, when Abimelech heard of the complaint he entered into a sworn agreement initiated by Abraham, a treaty that publicly acknowledged Abraham’s right to the well and therefore his continued business activity in the region (Gen. 21:27-31).
Elsewhere we have seen Abraham give up what was rightfully his to keep (Gen. 14:22-24). Yet here, Abraham doggedly protects what is his. The narrator does not imply that Abraham is again wavering in faith, for the account concludes with worship (Gen. 21:33). Rather, he is a model of a wise and hard-working person who conducts his business openly and makes fair use of appropriate legal protections. In the business of shepherding, access to water was essential. Abraham could not have continued to provide for his animals, workers, and family without it. The fact of Abraham’s protection of water rights is therefore important, as well as the means by which he secured those rights.
Like Abraham, people in every kind of work have to discern when to act generously to benefit others, and when to protect resources and rights for the benefit of themselves or their organizations. There is no set of rules and regulations that can lead us to a mechanical answer. In all situations, we are stewards of God’s resources, though it may not always be clear whether God’s purposes are better served by giving away resources or by protecting them. But Abraham’s example highlights an aspect that is easy to forget. The decision is not only a matter of who is in the right, but also of how the decision will affect our relationships with those around us. In the earlier case of dividing the land with Lot, Abraham’s willing surrender of first choice to Lot laid the ground work for a good long-term working relationship. In the present case of his demanding access to the well according to his treaty rights, Abraham ensured the resources needed to keep his enterprise functioning. In addition, it seems that Abraham’s forcefulness actually improved relationships between himself and Abimelech. Remember that the dispute between them arose because Abraham didn’t assert his position when first encountering Abimelech (Gen. 20).