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Abraham and Abimelech te Beersheba

Last held on the 3d of October 2004 at Hattem

Peaceful coexistence.

If I've to say in two words what this part of the Bible is about, I choose this: peaceful coexistence. What does that mean? The peaceful coexistence of people who have little in common, who have a different lifestyle. The coexistence of people, who are based on principles of life, which clash with each other. So there is all the fuel available for a fierce conflict, a struggle to the death. But both sides realize that they will suffer considerable damage. So they wisely and for the good of the people choose to make agreements and alliances, where it’s a matter of giving and taking and leaving each other alone.

Likewise, Abraham and Abimelech make a covenant. Indeed, they both have very different principles of life. Abraham serves the Lord, Yahweh. We would say the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus Christ. And Abimelech serves the heathen idols. But they make agreements to prevent violent conflicts with many victims and live side by side in peace.

The later collector of all the stories about Abraham, the editor-in-chief, who lived in the time of King David, recognized something of his own time in it. After all, in his time the Philistines dwelt in the land of Abimelech. That’s why he mentioned that after forming the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech, the latter returned to the land of the Philistines with his army chief Pichol. And that Abraham sojourned many days in the land of the Philistines. But Abraham could not possibly have known the Philistines. Then they, sea peoples, from the island of Crete, had not yet settled on the shores of Israel for a long time. That happened much later, resulting in constant violent clashes between Israel’s judges, such as Samson, with those Philistines. But in David’s reign, after years of conflict, the peoples achieved a certain peaceful coexistence. And that worked in David’s favour. Because of this, he became the king of Israel. The king par excellence, sign and symbol of the true kingship that proceeds from God Himself in the Lord Jesus Christ. The editor-in-chief, reverently collecting the old stories about Abraham, and at the same time living in the middle of his own time, saw a clear connection between them, inspired by the Holy Spirit. History repeats itself. Why? Because essentially, it’s about the ever-continuing history between the children of God and the children of this world. It’s a history of a fierce struggle with many victims on either side or one of peaceful coexistence. Sometimes the battle is unavoidable, and at that moment, it is God’s will, because otherwise his people will be destroyed, and his kingdom cannot come. There are plenty of examples of that struggle in the Bible. But sometimes, the time is more suitable for peaceful coexistence.

What is the time suitable for now? The descendants of Abraham, the current nation of Israel, also struggle with that. Namely when it comes to their attitude towards the Palestinians, essentially the descendants of the Philistines. It’s the same word in their languages. It keeps Israel divided. What do we want? Safety above all else with, if necessary, the fight or the peaceful coexistence with giving and taking, also giving and daring to take risks?

History repeats itself. In this time too. For it’s essentially the ever-lasting relationship between the church and the world. Abraham as the church. Abimelech as the world. There was a considerable time between Abraham and the editor who collected his stories and published them in a beautiful book like Genesis. There’s also a substantial time between the editor and us. But after all, it’s about the same things. How do we as Christians experience the world around us? How does the world see us? And how do we interact with each other? In a victim-making fight or peaceful coexistence?

In our history, Abimelech takes the initiative. He comes to Abraham with his army officer Pichol, and says: “God is with you in all that you do.” So Abimelech sees that God richly blessed Abraham. Abraham’s flock is expanding. So is the number of servants. His wealth and power are increasing. After a long wait, he now also has a son as heir. Isaac. In short, everything is going well for Abraham. He had not chosen the fertile plain as Lot. But he had gone the way of obedience to God and trust in God. And God has not disappointed him in it. The righteous man has prosperity. It’s in the bible so many times. Serving the Lord is rewarded. It’s not always like that. God’s children are also sometimes tested by adversity and, additionally, by seeing how the wicked have success. But that does not alter the fact that you can expect blessings from a faithful adherence to God’s will and promises. Eternal blessings, but often also earthly and temporary blessings. You will notice that God is with you. Also, the world around you will see it. The Lord demonstrates to the world His love and power in the lives of His children. Follow in this world, in your work, in your social contacts, faithfully the way of God and the Lord Jesus. You won’t regret it. You will find that the Lord is with you. Yes, others will notice it too. You gain appreciation, respect, awe, as Abraham got from Abimelech. Men realize that one cannot simply ignore you, as Abimelech could no longer do without Abraham. Have there not been times when the church had a respectable place and significant influence in our Dutch society? And that Christians occupy essential posts in all kinds of areas? It’s not the case anymore. But we must not lose hope that it will ever be like this again. And in the meantime, we must ask ourselves: why is it that churches and Christians have lost that appreciation and influence? Because when God is really with you, the world feels that you know a secret and a power, with which it has to take into account, deeming it wise to get on good terms with it, because otherwise, it might turn against her.

And so Abimelech asks Abraham: “Now, therefore, swear to me here by God, that you shall not deal deceitfully with me. Abimelech does not want to have Abraham as an enemy, who once attacked him with cunning, now that he has thus gained in power. I presume that Abimelech’s past experiences with Abraham and God play a big part in this request. For Abraham had not been fair to Abimelech but had pretended that Sarah was his sister. But Abraham’s God had sternly warned Abimelech in a dream not to take Sarah as his wife. We Christians, too, have a reputation in the world that we are not to be trusted, hypocritical, deceitful, and cowardly, not brave enough to stand up for the truth if that poses risks. How bad is that! We profane the name of God and Christ in this world. In everyday life in our society, let us be so open and honest that all distrust and suspicion disappear. Otherwise, peaceful coexistence of church and world is not possible. We also must be able to be held accountable for our faith by others. You believe, don’t you? Well, honesty, openness, love, faithfulness, wisdom are part of that. Just as Abimelech addresses Abraham on his faith: do swear to me here by God. Today’s government officials can also demand such an oath from us when we give testimony in court or accept political responsibility, a public office. Our faith is thus called upon when we are asked not to act deceitfully in this world. It’s important to take that very seriously. If the world recognizes the power and value of faith, which is the case when he demands an oath of us, we may well realize what sacred things we are dealing with.

On the other hand, behind Abimelech’s request is also the realization that it’s better not to have the God of Abraham against you. Because He has power over the minds and actions of people all over the world. Had He not reached Abimelech through a dream? And had He not frightened him? “You are a child of death because you are about to take another’s wife.” The world seems indifferent to God, but deep in human hearts, there may be far more awe and trepidation at Him than we think. We don’t have a weak God but a strong one. He’s the Lord of the church, but also the world. And He also exercises His dominion there in His own time and way. That’s comfort and encouragement for us, in our living and working in this world as Christians.

And Abimelech further asks: “According to the kindness I’ve shown you, you shall treat me and the land wherein you dwell as a guest”. Abimelech had opened up his land to Abraham, thus giving him hospitality, and now also demands the certainty of peaceful cohabitation in return. And so we are also guests in this world, looking forward to the complete fulfilment of all God’s promises in His Kingdom, the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the promises God first had given to Abraham. And then we may be grateful for the hospitality that this world offers us, even in this time, even though society is becoming more neutral. And the prevailing moral views increasingly clash with Christian morality. Just think of sexual morality, marital morality, the morality about the beginning and end of life, the vision of Sunday, we yet do live here still in great freedom as Christians. We are not prohibited from living our way of life. We are not discriminated against and oppressed. In this world, we can earn our living well, develop ourselves well. It can also be different. For instance: we are ostracized, driven from hearth and home. It’s a fierce war between church and world and not peaceful coexistence. Yes, the Kingdom of God is so at odds with the kingdoms of this world, and there are such opposing principles that it’s actually normal if the world is out for our downfall and death. Just as they also crucified the Lord Jesus and a servant is no more than his master. Then we must appreciate the hospitality and tolerance that the world shows us and answer with what Abimelech dares to ask Abraham. We then give others the space to live the way they want and not make it impossible. We don’t have to agree with their outlook on life and lifestyle. We don’t have to hide our own beliefs and opinions. But we do have to respect the other person and grant his freedom of thought. And we may look for forms and try to make agreements to live together as peacefully as possible on God’s earth. In that regard, Christians should be good citizens. For every fellow citizen, also for immigrants, Muslims and towards the government. I think that the Lord Jesus also stood in life that way. At a specific moment, they asked him a trick question: is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? They provoke Him to express an incendiary opinion. But He says: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” He does not want to be a revolutionary, does not want to overthrow the world order by force, but wants to conquer that world for himself with the gentle powers of his Word and Spirit. And in this style of living, we have to imitate Him.

Abimelech also thinks about the future. “Also treat my offspring and my descendants well”, he asks Abraham. All the more so since Abraham now also has a son and, therefore, a future. You don’t close covenants and peace for a while, but you assume mutual faithfulness forever, and you hope that it will be a blessing for posterity. Also, in the world outside Abraham, it’s not always just selfish enjoyment here and now, but people raise children, have their happiness in mind and thus build the future. How much more so we Christians to whom God has promised an extraordinary future. Do we take the necessary measures so that our children will have a share in that future, a much brighter future than the limited one in this world? In their upbringing? In making sure to the best of our ability that the church continues to exist in the world? Or are the children of this world wiser on this point than the children of the Kingdom? (Luc. 16:9)

But we continue. How does Abraham react to Abimelech’s invitation to peaceful coexistence? He responds positively. And Abraham said: ”I swear.” In the same way, we should also be constructive and peace-minded, prepared to make good agreements. However, Abraham does add something to it. 'But Abraham reproached Abimelech for a well of water, which Abimelech’s servants had appropriated, though Abraham had lat that dig.' Such a well is vital. It’s the source of life. In other words: as Christians, we also can claim a place in this world, opportunities to sustain our lives and that of our relatives, opportunities to live as we wish. We may also stand up for our rights. Jesus, too, was silent when there was no point in talking at all, showing that he was above the vile intrigue of the Jewish council, which had hired two false witnesses, but He did not remain silent. For example, when they captured him, He said: “As against a robber you went out with swords and sticks, while I only taught in the temple.” We also may protest if we are being wronged, if things are taken from us that we have built ourselves. When we conclude real peace, everything is discussed, and nothing remains. What one party has done to the other must be pronounced and made right. We as Christians often suffer enough in this world, injustice, oppression, lack of opportunities to live the way we want. That’s part of following the Lord Jesus. That pain has to be suffered. Those sacrifices have to be made. And drawing the sword as Peter did in the garden of Gethsemane is not the good intention, but we may, no, we must defend ourselves courageously with the sword of the word. Sharpen that sword. Stand up for your faith, stand up for the church, stand up for God. Fight for a recognized place of these things even in today’s world. The Lord wants that. Rise and fight the good fight. The struggle also for a rightful place of the church in this world. We don’t have to tolerate it if we are prevented from taking that place.

What is Abimelech’s response? And Abimelech said: ”I do not know who did this. Nor did you tell me. And I didn’t hear it until today either.” In other words: Sorry, I didn’t know; why didn’t you ring the bell sooner? What should we think of that now? Abimelech can mean what he says. But it can also be a diplomatic, even hypocritical manoeuvre.

In short, in the world, it’s not always the same. Some people respect you in your Christianity. They are giving you plenty of space to put your faith into practice. But some do their best to make that impossible. They're taking away from you the sources for it that you have tapped yourself. And the world does accuse the church of hypocrisy. Justly. I don’t retract one bit. Abraham also really was not fair to Abimelech when it came to Sarah. But is it such a pure matter when, the other way round, it comes to the world’s attitude towards the church? Reading what the Bible describes, I would not quite trust Abimelech’s elaborate apologies if I were in Abraham’s shoes. They look suspiciously like excuses. Would he really not have known what his servants were doing? In any case, the world has two faces: the kind face of Abimelech and the cruel face of his servants. And sometimes, the world has the Janus face of both at the same time. So let’s always keep our Christian eyes open.

What is Abraham’s reaction? On the one hand, he makes a covenant with Abimelech and gives him sheep and oxen to confirm it. On the other hand, he keeps seven lambs aside. If Abimelech also accepts it, then that implies the acknowledgement that the well is Abraham’s. Abraham is not greedy, even generous, but he does seek his justice and wants clarity about using the well because the source of life may not later become a source disturbing the peace and of violence. Thus Abraham shows his wisdom, received from God.

And so, the two make a covenant. And the place where that happens is from now on called Beersheba. Because to Hebrew ears that name sounds like: well of the oath. And also as: well of the seven. Abraham also plants a tamarisk tree. This tree functions as a long-lasting reminder. As in many places in the Netherlands, Wilhelmina-trees have been planted. The patriarchs lived there the longest. Abraham, but Isaac also was often there, and Jacob went from there to Egypt. And later, when all Israel was meant, the regular expression was often used: from Dan to Beersheba. The northernmost and southernmost place of the land of promise. As a result of this covenant between Abraham and Abimelech, God’s Kingdom is already descending in a sense. It’s gaining a foothold in this world. Beersheba is a kind of outpost of that Kingdom. And that will continue. Through Israel, as the people and land of God’s promises, and through Jesus Christ, through whom God has given visible shape to His promises of salvation and peace. That’s God’s history of salvation with this earth.

Beersheba was also a prominent place of sacrifice. And Abraham started that. For there, Abraham called on the name of the Lord the Eternal God. It’s to say: he fulfilled the worship there to this God. Thus it’s our task in this world to continue the service to God and the Lord Jesus Christ. And we may also ask the world for freedom for this, freedom of religion. Keep our praises going. Keep our prayers going. Keep the proclamation of the gospel going. Keep the service of the Lord going in churches and homes. Just keep your own identity, philosophy and lifestyle as the people of God and the children of Jesus Christ in this world. So be the glowing torch of God in this dark world. And don’t adapt to the world. Israel often will do that in later times, making alliances with neighbouring nations. It will also serve the idols of those nations. But Abraham does not. He does not take over the gods of Abimelech but calls on the name of the Lord. Let’s keep doing that too. Continue to serve the eternal God faithfully. Always erect glorious signs of life from Him in this world. That’s the way Christ is gaining a foothold in this world. That’s how the world will be won for to Him. And that’s also something the world can never take away from us if it’s right. That we give to God what is God’s. Just as the disciples, despite the persecution by the High Council, could not help but speak of what they had seen and heard, and as Paul exclaimed: Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel (1 Cor. 9:16).

And Abraham sojourned many days as a stranger in the land of the Philistines. We, too, will remain so in this world. Despite the peaceful coexistence: as strangers, visitors. We don’t really belong to this world. We’re focused on another world, on the new heaven and the new earth, to which the Lord Jesus has paved the way. We must not lose that secret of faith. Peaceful coexistence with the world must not mean being completely absorbed in this world, completely losing the alienation of the Christian faith. Because in the end, we have a different life purpose, a different life destiny. “By faith, Abraham dwelt in the land of promise, as in a strange land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, who were joint heirs of the same promise. For he expected the city with foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Hebr. 11 : 9 - 10

O God, we build like displaced people,
we live, and we remain strangers,
destined for higher civil rights.
Will us, O King of the tides,
prepare a home in the city
of which thou layest the foundation. (Dutch Christian Hymn)

Amen.

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