Taming Conflict in the Desert (Part 2)

Two out of three times. That seems pretty normal for how often interpersonal problems impact us in our daily dealings with other people. As we learned in the previous segment, Isaac re-opened three wells that his father had once used, and the first two efforts led to quarreling with the neighboring Philistines. He named those wells Dispute and Opposition, but his third well was called Room because it led to no quarreling. In some respects, Isaac chose to not remain in an intractable situation. He was smart enough to yield and bend to the initial situation in a way that allowed him to still be empowered and dignified.


One thing we can learn from this is that conflict is an inevitable part of human life. It happens by virtue of people, in their limitations, rubbing up against each other. The rubbing of different or even clashing needs creates a friction, and friction is close to the original meaning of conflict in Latin: to strike together. But how people respond to conflict is another matter. There is some choice and freedom for how we respond to a moment of friction. Most often we are not aware of our response style; we just react mindlessly from a place of feeling threatened or perhaps due to a ‘touchy’ emotion that has a previous history. At a most basic level, our responses fall into two main categories, just as it is with animals: fight or flight. The real issue, then, is whether we have the capacity to tame these instinctual animal responses.

DesertWellIsaac’s response to the clash of interests over water for sheep and goats, however, is more mindful than mindless. We learned in the first segment that naming the wells was one way for Isaac to not be overcome by the conflict, but to overcome the conflict with a good response. Next we see that he could move on without escalating the conflict to a higher level. We often talk about how people can choose their battles carefully. In this case, Isaac may have had the manpower to assert his rights over any well that he restored. He could have held his ground and forced the matter to a face-off. But he chose a higher path by yielding to the negative force of the conflict. Working with that energy instead of against that energy, Isaac, like a Tai Chi martial arts master, redirected both this negative force and his positive follow-up in a way that reduced tensions.

Gelassenheit is a German word that Mennonites and other Anabaptists have often used in this area of yielding. While the word has taken on theological and pietistic usages, such as ‘self-surrender to God’s will,’ the word also has a strong precedent in responses to relational conflict. Contemporary words like ‘composure, calmness and coolness’ all capture a core understanding of gelassenheit. In this light, Isaac’s version of gelassenheit is not a weak or passive matter. It involves an inner moral vision that requires courage and compassion. It is one of those paradoxical virtues where the ‘letting go’ turns into a greater ‘taking on’. Isaac has enough moral imagination to see beyond the immediate realm of wanting to assert his rights and get what he wants. Perhaps he inherited some of this from his father Abraham who refused to quarrel and modeled a similar act of yielding with Lot (Genesis 13). Isaac wants a future of relational peace and harmony; he therefore responds to conflict in a way that raises his odds for living into a better future. As we will see in a later segment in this series, Isaac will meet again with Abimelech (the leader of the Philistines who previously brokered peace with Abraham), and the two of them will confirm new terms of peace.

Had not Isaac chosen this empowering pathway of yielding, by naming the conflict and by moving on from it, he would never have found the third well which he named Rehoboth. It was there that he said, “Now the Lord has given us room, and we will flourish in the land.” While the ‘us’ and ‘we’ may refer just to Isaac’s tribe, it is possible, given the context, that these pronouns referred to both groups. If so, Isaac holds to a higher vision of co-existence. Perhaps these lessons gain a greater poignancy when we learn that the word Palestine is a Greek derivative from the word Philistine. Issues of co-existence are still relevant today in that same geographical area. In fact, the three wells can be tracked along a trajectory moving from the modern city of Gaza toward the Israeli city of Beersheba. In the next couple of blogs we will learn more about Beersheba, the place where Isaac finally settled and where his sons Esau and Jacob grew up.


To read Part 3 in this series… click here.

Contacting Ted Lewis

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