Naming Conflict in the Desert (Part 1)

I’m excited to kick-off this new blog which weaves together several strands of my past. One strand has to do with my work experience in restorative justice where since the mid-90’s I have worked with victims and offenders of crime, and managed volunteer-based programs in this field. Another strand has to do with my involvements in churches that draw from Anabaptist peacemaking traditions. These connections have opened up doors for me to do mediation and workshop work for churches and to write articles on conflict and communication with biblical themes.

The narratives of the Bible, of course, are full of conflicts and therefore full of insights to be learned about handling conflict. For me this is a bit like going deeper into a mountainside mine shaft and discovering new veins of rich ore. One thing is clear from these narratives: conflict is a normal part of human life. But it is also clear that the reality of conflict does not have to have the final say in things. There is a larger, overarching narrative running throughout the Bible that shows how conflict itself can be transformed into greater good.

The Well

There’s a small story in Genesis about squabbles over wells and springs in the desert. Abraham has already died, and Isaac is re-digging some wells that Abraham’s men had originally dug, often through limestone. Why is he re-digging them? A rival neighboring group, early ancestors of the Philistines, were claiming the same borderlands for their own grazing territory. Threatened by Isaac’s prosperity, they tried to intimidate Isaac’s group from sharing this land. To do this, they plugged up numerous wells with dirt and stones to make the wells useable. But Isaac was not intimidated; he proceeded to re-open the wells for his growing number of flocks and herds.

One significant feature of this story in Genesis 26 is that of naming the wells. Once Isaac had reopened the wells for normal use, he gave the wells the same names that his father Abraham had given before. To name anything in the ancient world was no small matter. Naming something implied a vital relationship between the namer and the named. It also implied a vital connection between the name and the very essence of the named object or person. A name represented the true nature of the thing or person named. And so for Isaac to give the same names to these re-stored wells was in effective way to say, “I’m re-establishing my father’s past in my present.”

wellAs to be expected, this sparked a higher-pitched conflict between the two groups. After one episode of digging out a well, the Philistine herdsman said, “This water is ours!” At that point Isaac could have added to the escalation, saying, “No, I’m afraid this water is ours!” and pushed the matter toward a violent confrontation. But he chose another path. He simply named the well Esek, which means Dispute or Quarrel, and left it at that. He then dug up another well and a dispute arose over that one, too, and so he named it Sitnah, which means Opposition or Accusation. Each time, Isaac and his herdsmen moved on to another spot and dug another well. The third time we learn that “no one quarreled over it,” and thus Isaac named this well Rehoboth, which means Room or Open Space.

A number of discussion areas can flow from this story, and there is still more of the story to be told. The following blog entries will unpack more insights about conflict and resolution topics arising from this passage. For now I will simply note how naming things for what they are, even when the true nature of something is tense and conflictual, is itself an important step in conflict transformation. Without true naming, we tend to get caught up in the heat of emotions and remain stuck in cycles of reactiveness, either holding negative energies within ourselves or lashing out toward the other in ways that complicate the problem. But naming problems straight on is an important first step in being more cool-headed about how we respond to hard situations so that problems do not get worse, but, in fact, get better. Only then will we get to that necessary spot where our minds can have more Room and Open Space to function freely.

To read Part 2 in this series… click here.


Contacting Ted Lewis

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