Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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When we live at peace with our neighbors God can bless us so we can be a blessing to them.

Genesis(102) (Part of the Origins(100) series)
by Marc Webb(75) on January 2, 2022 (Sunday Morning(343))

God's Plan(20), Harmony(1), Worship(26)

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

In an illustration from Preaching Today called “Fred Rogers Created Rather Than Complained” we read this moving tribute to him by Jonathon Merritt taken from a May 18, 2011 Q Ideas article called "Restoration in the Land of Make-Believe." Here are excerpts from that article.

Jonathon Merritt recounts how Rogers chose to reform society through his gentle and persistent influence on a children's television show. “In 1965, a thin, soft-spoken man sauntered into Pittsburgh's WQED, the nation's first public television station, to pitch a show targeting young children. The concept was simple enough: convey life lessons to young children with the help of puppets, songs and frank conversations. It doesn't sound like much. That is, until you realize that the man was Fred Rogers, and the program was Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. But Rogers was more than a great neighbor or good host; he was a restorer. According to Gabe Lyons in The Next Christians, a "restorer" is someone who views the world as it "ought to be." Faced with the world's brokenness, restorers are "provoked, not offended." They work to make the world a better place by "creating, not criticizing" and by "being countercultural, not relevant." Using this definition, Rogers may be one of the greatest American restorers of the 20th century. Rogers got into television because he "hated" the medium and faced with the decision to either sour on television itself or work to restore the medium, he chose the latter. Fourteen years later, he would create one of the most beloved American television shows of all time, and one that would shape entire generations of children. Rogers was a devout Christian that almost never explicitly talked about his faith on the air, but the way his show infused society with beauty and grace was near-biblical …. "You've made this day a special day by just your being you," he'd famously sign off. "There is no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are." In many ways, the lasting legacy of Fred Rogers will not be the greater emotional stability of generations of children or even a reinvigoration of imagination. It will be his example of how to restore the world through impassioned creativity and craftsmanship. For nearly four decades, Rogers entered our homes and entered our hearts. And each day without fail, he left our collective neighborhoods better and made our days a little bit more beautiful.

We have been studying Abraham, who has been led by God to the Promised Land for the express purpose of taking ownership of it. Along the way he has had many interactions with the people native to that area. Being a neighbor has not been easy for Abraham and I am sure we all have stories of hard times dealing with our neighbors. But God had blessed Abraham in order to be a blessing to his neighbors and we will see that played out this morning. Everyone that Abraham came in contact with were pagan peoples and he was still called by God to be a blessing to them. We can learn a lot from Abraham in how we should interact with those around us that do not know God.

Today we are going to see a second interaction between Abraham and Abimelech which goes a lot smoother than the last one because this time Abraham is treating his neighbor with respect. We can imagine that he is trying to make his neighborhood a better place by creating and restoring friendships instead of criticizing and deceiving. We will see him return to life as a peacemaker as we saw with Lot earlier in Genesis. Worshiping the one true God was countercultural to the way the Canaanites and other peoples in that land would have been living but Abraham wanted to live in peace and harmony with them. The only reason he was able to live in peace with his neighbors was because he had been blessed by God. We see these words in Genesis 12:2-3: “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

We’ve talked before about being in the world but not of it. That doesn’t mean we can be disrespectful to those who don’t believe the way we do or criticize them and look down on them. We are called to show the love of Christ to all people and this should especially be true to those who are far away from God. How can we reach the world for Jesus when we are pushing them farther and farther away from Him? We can’t and that is the problem that we have not only individually but also as the church. In Romans 12:14, we are commanded to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” And in Romans 12:17-18 we are commanded to, “Never repay evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all people. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all people.” This is what we will see Abraham doing in our scripture this morning and it brings us to our big idea: “When we live at peace with our neighbors God can bless us so we can be a blessing to them.”

Before we look at how God blessed Abraham and how Abraham was a blessing to those around him, let’s pray: Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for your Word given to us to show us how to live on this earth. Give us ears to hear from your Holy Spirit this morning so we can live the way you want us to as we interact with our neighbors especially those who don’t know you as their Lord and Savior. Open our hearts and minds to what you want us to learn that we can share it with those we come in contact with this week. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Our scripture is found in Genesis 21:22-34. There are four points this morning. The first point is Confrontation which is found in verses 22-24. This is what God’s Word says, “At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his forces said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything you do. Now swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants. Show to me and the country where you now reside as a foreigner the same kindness I have shown to you.” Abraham said, “I swear it.”

This is the second time we have seen Abimelech. In Genesis 20:1 we saw that Abraham and Sarah were living in Gerar where Abimelech was the king. Abraham and Sarah deceive the king by telling him that Sarah is his sister and the king takes Sarah into his house probably to be one of his concubines. But God intervenes and Sarah is delivered before Abimelech can touch her. Abimelech is not happy with Abraham’s deception and in the end Abraham prays for God to heal Abimelech and his wives and slave girls so they could have children again. We notice that Abraham was not a very good neighbor in that story. He deceived his neighbors and indirectly caused them to incur God’s wrath. That first encounter sets the stage for this one. ​​ 

“At this time” refers to a time after Isaac has been weaned and Hagar and Ishmael were sent away. Abraham and Sarah have probably been living in the area of Beersheba for a number of years. Abimelech approaches Abraham with the commander of his military forces, Philcol. Bringing his military commander with him could indicate a couple of things. First, Abraham may have been a person of some status. He may have had a political or even military presence in the area. Remember back in Genesis 14, Abraham had defeated the four kings with 318 trained men to get Lot back. Abraham probably has an entourage of substantial size and power at his disposal. Abimelech probably considered him a force to be reckoned with, especially with a powerful God on his side. Also, Beersheba was only twenty-five miles from Gerar so maybe there were tensions in the area and Philcol was there in case hostilities broke out. Later in the story we will see that it was possible there were ongoing problems on the border between Abimelech’s men and Abraham’s men.

Abimelech realizes that Abraham is doing well. His herds and flocks are prospering which dominates a lot of land and he now has a son with Sarah in his old age. He would have been seen as being richly blessed. Abimelech realizes this blessing because he says “God is with you in everything you do.” Abimelech has seen firsthand God’s blessing on Abraham and now has seen his continued blessing in the subsequent years since their last encounter. The sentiment that “God is with you” will also be noticed later in Genesis with Isaac and this same Abimelech, with Jacob and Laban and with Joseph and Potiphar in Egypt. This begs a question of all of us. Do people in your neighborhood or in your sphere of influence see your life and say: “God is with you in everything you do.” If not, we need to examine our lives and our interactions with our neighbors because they should be able to notice God’s work in our daily lives. That brings us to our first next step this morning, which is to “live my life in such a way that my neighbors see God at work in my daily life.”

Abimelech realizes that it is in his best interest for his people to live peacefully with Abraham and his people but is not sure if he can trust Abraham on the basis of their previous encounter. He is hoping that Abraham will treat him now the way he treated Abraham before. Ross states, “It is interesting that the two things that Abimelech knew about Abraham was that God was with him and that he could not altogether be trusted.” We may wonder who the superior party is, Abimelech or Abraham? Abimelech acts like Abraham is as he asks for a favor instead of demanding terms. In the previous encounter Abimelech being the king was the superior party who treated Abraham fairly. But now based on what happened before the roles seem reversed. Even though he is the king and commands an army he knows that a powerful God is at work in Abraham’s life. He is asking Abraham to show him the same “loyalty” in a covenant relationship that he showed previously.

Abimelech’s suggestion of an alliance of friendship with Abraham would not only be binding for the present but for their children and descendants as well. Abimelech is hoping that by brokering peace now it will bring lasting peace for his land in the future. Abraham’s response is short. The meaning is “I give you my word”, literally, “I, I swear.” The use of a second pronoun reinforces the certainty of Abraham’s pledge. Here the emphasis is solely on Abraham’s act of swearing but later on we will see that they both mutually swear an oath to live in peace and harmony with each other for generations to come. There is no confrontation or deception with Abimelech who doesn’t believe the same way Abraham does, there is only acceptance. I like what Hamilton says, “That God is with Abraham does not mean that he has a two to one majority over Abimelech. It means that others’ expectations of Abraham now increase.” This is why God has blessed Abraham. So that Abraham will be a blessing to those in his neighborhood around him. He needs to be more respectful, more helpful, more humble, more of a restorer than those around him. Especially those around him that do not know God and are far away from him. This is what it means to be a neighbor in the places God has put us. (Big Idea).

The second point is Complaint and we see this in verses 25-27. This is what God’s word says, “Then Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized. But Abimelech said, “I don’t know who has done this. You did not tell me, and I heard about it only today.” So Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a treaty.”

Abraham swears to deal honestly from now on with Abimelech and his people. But before formally ratifying the treaty, Abraham lodges a formal, legal complaint. It seems that Abimelech’s servants had illegally and violently seized one of Abraham’s wells. Wells were important in a desert climate where water was the difference between the life and death of Abraham’s flocks and herds and the life and death of him and his family as well. Abraham’s claim to the water relied on two factors. One, that Abraham had dug the well and, two, that it was Abimelech who invited Abraham to reside anywhere in the land in the first place (20:15) giving Abraham the right to local pasturage and use of the well’s water.

The Hebrew suggests that Abraham had made this complaint several times with nothing being done about it. Here were the makings of a feud between the two men that had the capability to explode and cause irreparable damage to Abraham’s witness and to his relationship with Abimelech and the people in that region. There needed to be respect and restoration and this was a good test of their relationship in whether this vital resource could be negotiated fairly. We see how this negotiation plays out. They both brought their complaints to each other. They both listened respectfully to what the other had to say and were allowed to respond. Abraham was gauging Abimelech’s response to see if he knew anything about the seizure but seems convinced because he gives Abimelech sheep and cattle in order to formalize the treaty.

The gift of sheep and cattle was to cement their relationship. The act of seizing the well will not be allowed to cause potential unrest. We notice a number of things about this encounter. First, it is Abraham who gives Abimelech the animals, meaning that Abraham was the inferior party even though it was Abimelech who proposed the treaty. The gift was also given to cement a peace treaty between the two men. Abraham takes the higher ground in that he wasn’t going to let the dispute over the well cause hostilities to escalate. Second, this is another example of a “cutting of the covenant” that we saw between God and Abraham in chapter 15. “Cutting the covenant” was a ritual of cutting sacrificial animals in two and placing them in rows so that the two parties involved in the treaty could walk between the animal parts. This signified that whoever broke the covenant could be “cut” in two just as the animals were. Thirdly, we also notice that in neighborly fashion the two parties talk about the offense, give their explanations which are accepted and finalize the treaty to the satisfaction of both parties. The covenant ensured that disputes of this kind would not be repeated by their children and their descendants which would keep peace in the land for generations to come. Similar steps when used wisely today can produce harmony in the place of discord and cooperation where previously there was only confrontation. That brings us to our second next step which is to “strive for harmony and cooperation when conflicts arise with my neighbors.”

The third point is Committed and we see this in verses 28-30. This is what God’s Word says, “Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs from the flock, and Abimelech asked Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs you have set apart by themselves?” He replied, “Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well.”

Abraham wanted to show Abimelech that he was committed to the truth and to dealing honestly with his neighbors. Abraham in addition to giving the sheep and cattle also set apart seven ewe lambs for Abimelech. This must have been a strange act to do in that time because Abimelech questions it. He was probably a little wary of Abraham’s motives because he had been deceived before and it may not have been normal for people to be overly generous within a covenant. These were not for sacrifice but a gift to Abimelech. Abraham wanted something from Abimelech but it was only what he deserved and nothing more. Abraham had dug the well that Abimelech’s servants had seized and the proof was the seven ewe lambs. The lambs would have been vital to propagating his herd and the generous number of seven would have reflected how important the well was to Abraham and his descendants. Abimelech knew that this gift would put him under obligation to accept Abraham’s version of events surrounding the seizing of the well. Being able to supply this number of ewe lambs speaks to Abraham’s wealth and strength of bargaining position. ​​ 

The seven lambs were set aside as a “witness” that Abraham had dug the well and had the rights of ownership to it. It reminds me of someone giving a reward for a lost wallet. When the wallet is returned to the rightful owner the person who returned it might get a reward showing how valuable the returned item is. Just like the well was valuable to Abraham, so is the wallet to the owner. Only the owner of the wallet would be willing to give a reward for its return. The reward would be proof that the wallet really was theirs just like the seven ewes was the proof that Abraham had dug the well and it was his. Only Abraham would be willing to give this valuable gift to get the well back. In accepting this gift, Abimelech was legally acknowledging that Abraham had dug the well, releasing any rights to it and conceding that Abraham was in fact the legitimate owner of the well. This would also hold Abimelech to side with Abraham in any future altercations involving this well. Ross says, “By securing the right to the well Abraham was securing the continued enjoyment of God’s blessing to him, represented by the well. Abimelech gains a pact with Abraham to ensure the future stability between them.”

The last point is Commemoration and we see this in verses 31-34. This is what God’s Word says, “So that place was called Beersheba, because the two men swore an oath there. After the treaty had been made at Beersheba, Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his forces returned to the land of the Philistines. Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the LORD, the Eternal God. ​​ And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time.”

There is commemoration taking place in a couple of different ways here First, calling the place, Beersheba, where the two men swore the oath to each other. The Hebrew word “to swear” means “to bind by seven things” and the words “swear and “seven” are very similar. Beersheba means “Well of the Sevens” or “Well of the Oath” which fits the story of what happened there exactly. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that this event caused the place to be named Beersheba. Most commentators believe the city was already named but this event gave it more significance. Beersheba now becomes a place commemorating the treaty. Abraham has prospered under God’s blessing and has agreed to a peace treaty with Abimelech at Beersheba that will bring a peaceful coexistence allowing Abraham to serve God in the Land of Promise. This commemorative naming also preserved for future generations the record of how the property was secured. Once the treaty had been sworn, Abimelech and Philcol returned to their own land, the land of the Philistines. It seems that Abraham was living on the outskirts of the land ruled by Abimelech, but was close enough that Abimelech felt the need to make a peace treaty with Abraham.

The second way that we see commemoration taking place is Abraham planting a tamarisk tree. In the OT, trees were a symbol of life and blessing from God. Abraham has built altars but this is the first time we see him planting a tree. The tamarisk tree grew in sandy soil and was deciduous. It could grow up to twenty feet high and provide much needed shade in the desert. Also, its branches provided grazing for animals. Its leaves excreted salt, its bark was used for tanning and its wood for building and making charcoal. It was considered a holy tree and had purifying qualities. Planting a tree would have had as much significance as building an altar. This tree was a witness to what God had done for him in showing favor with Abimelech. He had been blessed by God and was showing the fruit of being a blessing to his neighbors as God had promised. Trees played an important part in Abraham’s life in the Promised Land. He stopped by a tree in Shechem (12:6), he built an altar by a tree at Mamre (13:18), he lived near trees (14:13) and entertained Yahweh under a tree (18:1). By planting this tree it reinforced his claim to the land. In some interpretations, the word “tamarisk” means “a strip of ground” meaning Abraham didn’t just plant a tree but actually laid out a plot of land. This would make sense in light of verse 34 that he settled down in the land for a long time. This tree was the proof of Abraham’s faith in God for his prosperity and security and the security of his descendants.

Thirdly, we see Abraham calling on the name of the Lord in worship. He is commemorating the way that God has orchestrated this treaty so that Abraham could be a blessing to those in his neighborhood. Now, Abraham legally owns a well in the land of promise and there will be peace and harmony in this land for his children and his children’s children. When Abraham called on the name of the Lord he called him, “El-Olam” or “the everlasting One.” This name for God is used only here in Genesis. God was revealing himself to Abraham in every event that took place in the Promised Land. Abraham knew that everything else would pass away but God would endure for eternity. He knew that God would never change so could cling to the promise that his descendants would one day possess this land just as he was possessing it now. Wenham states, “that after so many delays the promises of land and descendants at last seem on their way to fulfillment.” But now came the responsibility to use this land for the honor and glory of the Lord. This anticipates a peaceful coexistence that the Israelites should have with other tribes who would respond to the message of peace and desire to share in God’s blessing. By living peacefully with its neighbors, the Israelites could more readily become the channel of blessing they were intended to be.

Think about your own life. Can you look back and see God’s sovereign hand at work in your life to get you where you are today? I definitely can. That should cause us to worship our Sovereign Lord. That should cause us to call upon the name of the Lord in praise and worship. That brings us to our third next step which is to “call on the name of the Lord in worship for his sovereign hand at work in my life.”

Finally, we see that Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time, maybe for as much as ten to fifteen years. It was probably a great time of peace and happiness for Abraham. Tranquil old age was a sign of God’s blessing. This was going to be Abraham’s neighborhood for a long time and God had blessed him and would continue to bless him so he could be a blessing to those around him. We may ask what was the author’s point in including this story? Walton in his commentary says, “It has to do with covenant roots. Gradually Abraham is establishing roots in the land – digging wells and planting trees. Additionally as relationships are established with the peoples in the land the blessing is taking root. Finally, Abraham’s relationship with God is taking root as land and family become established.”

So how can we be good neighbors that would make not only Fred Rogers proud but more importantly our Heavenly Father proud? We can live into the example of Abraham. First, believers should agree to the request for peaceful relationships. Second, believers should try to restore peace when it is disrupted. Third, believers should strive to ensure that peaceful relationships continue into the future. Fourth, believers must use their peaceful, prosperous life to serve God. God brings us peace and harmony so we can be a blessing to those we come in contact with where we live, work, and play.

The question that again comes to mind after studying this passage is, “Does the world see God in our everyday life?” First, for God’s purpose to be fulfilled through us, the world should see God in us. As Christians we need to be aware that the people in our neighborhoods who don’t know Jesus are watching us to see if we are different than everyone else. They are watching what we say and do and our attitudes toward them. How do we react when mistreated? Do we grumble and complain like everyone else? They are watching us at work, in restaurants and across the street in our yards. Do we work hard or take shortcuts? Are we honest even in the smallest matters? They are watching and they should be able to tell that we are ambassadors of God and followers of Jesus without us saying a word. And when we do open our mouths and witness to the blessing and goodness of God we need to be careful that our words match our actions and vice versa. If we don’t the world will see us as hypocrites and they won’t be able to see God in us at all

Second, for God’s purpose to be fulfilled through us, we have to be walking with God. In spite of Abraham’s past deception, Abimelech recognized God in his life. Why? Because Abraham was a friend of God and walked in daily communion with God. He wasn’t perfect, but he had a reality with God and God’s gracious hand was on him. Abimelech could sense that in spite of Abraham’s previous failure in the incident with Sarah, he was a man who walked with God. As God faithfully provides us protection and our daily needs, and as we walk with Him and give Him the credit for His care for us, as Abraham did, He uses us in the ordinary matters of life to bear witness to a world that desperately needs to turn to Him. When we are faithfully walking with God our neighbors see it and will know that we have something they lack.

If you know the Savior, walking with Him and enjoying His faithful provision, God wants to use the ordinary events in your life to fulfill His purpose of blessing all the nations through the Seed of Abraham, the Lord Jesus Christ. What a privilege to be used by the Eternal God as we live our ordinary lives on this earth!

As Gene and Roxey come to lead us in a final hymn, let’s pray: Lord God, I pray that your Holy Spirit would continually indwell us as we strive to be the kind of neighbors you want us to be in this world that you have placed us in. As we share the good news of Jesus Christ, help us to live in such a way that our neighbors see God at work in our daily lives, help us to strive for harmony and cooperation when conflicts arise with our neighbors and let us remember to call on your name in worship for your sovereign hand at work in our lives. In Jesus’ name, Amen.