Diffusing Conflict in the Desert (Part 3)

By choosing a pathway that was neither Fight or Flight, Isaac had chosen what is often called a Third Way for dealing with conflict. Third Way responses to conflict involve direct and open communication where both parties involved can meet, discuss matters civilly,  listen well and understand each other, increase trust, and thereby reach some mutual agreements for the future. It operates on the highest plane of resolving conflicts. Openness itself to Third Way processes is a way to diffuse conflict. This positive scenario certainly did not happen at the start of our narrative about water use, but it does come into play by the end of the narrative.

When we rewind the Genesis 26 narrative to what led up to the quarrels over the wells, we read that the Philistines plugged up Abraham’s line of wells because they were envious of Isaac’s increasing prosperity. They may have perceived that there were limited resources to be shared by all, or it may be that there truly was a limit of farming and grazing resources for two groups to share. Whatever the case, the Philistines made a passive-aggressive response: they blocked up the wells and made them unusable. This was also a form of communication, indirect as it was. “Back off!” In some ways this blockage is a picture of how good communication was also blocked. The reactive action obstructed a safe platform for dealing with past issues. These kinds of responses have a way of notching up a problem to higher levels of tension.


Nevertheless, Abimelech did make an effort to communicate with Isaac. Abimelech was the Philistine king in this watershed area known today as the Gaza Strip. If bio-regions are defined by the descending flow of water, this region stretched inland from the coast up the Gerar Valley toward present day Beersheba. We do know that at the outset of Isaac’s story there is a drought that led him into this water-rich area near the Mediterranean Sea. Unlike his father, he did not go all the way into Egypt (Genesis 12:10f). He stayed near the coast and associated with the Philistines. But when Isaac’s successes led to a competition for natural resources, Abimelech initiated some direct communication with him. “Move away from us,” he said. “You have become too powerful for us.” Whether this was a civil dialogue or a curt monologue, we don’t know, but we do know from other narratives that Abimelech was open to direct, face-to-face communication.

Isaac’s response at this point was his first act of yielding which set the precedent for how he would yield later over the well-ownership quarrels. Gradually he traversed over some 25 miles in a southeasterly direction up the Gerar watershed, hoping to find ‘room’ for his flocks and herds, and peace for himself and the Philistines. Eventually he came to Beersheba (or what he soon names as Beersheba, more on this later). Significantly, this area is on the other side of the Gerar watershed, and is itself an intersection point for other watersheds. Moreover, this area was on top of a rich resource of subterranean water soon to be tapped. All of Isaac’s yielding was going to be paid off.

gerarmapAnd who should then show up at this spot in the narrative but Abimelech and his top advisors. Isaac, for good reason, is at first wary. “Why have you come to me, since you were hostile to me and sent me away?” Given the recent history, it was obvious that mistrust had grown between the two groups. What motives did the Philistines have now for coming all this way? But Abimelech soon sets the mood in a relaxed direction by diffusing the tensions. He affirms the physical blessing that Isaac’s God must be promoting, and then he affirms the need for a sworn agreement to keep things positive between the two groups. “Let us make a treaty with you.” Isaac is both relieved and thrilled. In fact, he made a feast for everyone that lasted into nighttime. In the morning both parties swore an oath to each other. “Then Isaac sent them on their way, and they left him in peace.”

To Abimelech’s credit, he himself took the higher road of a Third Way response to the whole situation. He wisely uses bridge-building statements at the front-end to widen the way toward better resolution. Such statements are always helpful to diffuse the power of past animosities. The peacemaking effort crescendos in a way that is well illustrated by the shared feast. Note how Abimelech’s initiative, however, is not done in a vacuum. His higher-road effort is itself a follow-up to Isaac’s earlier high-road response to conflict. Unlike a vicious circle of violence that spirals downward, what we are seeing here is a virtuous circle of goodness where the best in one party prompts the best in another party. And as if that was not enough goodness for Isaac to take in for one day, there was more in store for him.

To read Part 4 in this series… click here.

Contacting Ted Lewis

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