27 And Abraham took sheep and oxen, and gave them unto Abimelech; and both of them made a covenant.
28 And Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock by themselves.
29 And Abimelech said unto Abraham, What mean these seven ewe lambs which thou hast set by themselves?
30 And he said, For these seven ewe lambs shalt thou take of my hand, that they may be a witness unto me, that I have digged this well.
31 Wherefore he called that place Beer-sheba; because there they sware both of them.
Abraham brought to Abimelech’s attention that his own servants had taken one of Abraham’s wells by force. Abimelech had not been aware of the offense, but it had come from those that he was responsible for.
A well was an extremely valuable commodity at the time, and one could see how a disagreement about the ownership of it could cause a rift between two newly established friends. So Abraham immediately follows up his accusation with something designed to quell any negative feelings. He gives seven lambs to Abimelech as a testament that he really was the owner of the well. This is a very interesting gesture. Essentially Abraham is giving a small compensation to Abimelech for the inconvenience of having to give back to Abraham what was rightfully his!
This shows a great maturity in Abraham. It helps to prove his sincerity, because at the end of the day he would be out seven lambs whether Abimelech returned the well or not. It also shows that he is sensitive to the embarrassment Abimelech might feel in having his servants called out as thieves, and the offering of this gift makes clear that Abraham has no ill feelings towards Abimelech himself. It is a way of saying “I wanted you to know about this…but don’t worry, we’re still friends.”
25 And Abraham reproved Abimelech because of a well of water, which Abimelech’s servants had violently taken away.
26 And Abimelech said, I wot not who hath done this thing: neither didst thou tell me, neither yet heard I of it, but to day.
Previously we read how Abimelech asked Abraham to swear that he would always treat him in an honorable way and Abraham had readily agreed. And it is fascinating that Abraham did that, given that we learn in the very next verses that Abraham did not feel Abimelech had been honorable with him!
Abimelech’s servants had violently taken away one of Abraham’s wells, but Abraham had still been willing to make this pledge to the man. Presumably Abraham’s commitment to treat his fellowman with dignity was not based on how well that fellowman was treating him in return. Abraham’s commitment came from within, and he would be honorable even to those that did evil to him.
Though as Abraham found out, Abimelech was not aware that his servants had taken the well in the first place. They had certainly not done so at his behest. It does not say in the biblical record, but one would assume that Abimelech quickly made restitution.
22 And it came to pass at that time, that Abimelech and Phichol the chief captain of his host spake unto Abraham, saying, God is with thee in all that thou doest:
23 Now therefore swear unto me here by God that thou wilt not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son’s son: but according to the kindness that I have done unto thee, thou shalt do unto me, and to the land wherein thou hast sojourned.
24 And Abraham said, I will swear.
We like to assume that good conduct can be taken for granted. All people should already be decent human beings who don’t lie and cheat and steal from one another. We shouldn’t require a special pledge from someone that they won’t stab us in the back one day. Everything that Abimelech is asking Abraham to pledge are things that ought to go without saying.
We might even feel offended if someone felt it necessary to ask us for such a promise. We genuinely believe that we will always conduct ourselves towards others in an honorable way. And yet…we don’t. We stab each other in the back all the time. Even the people we are closest to: neighbors, family, even our own spouse, we betray their trust as soon as it is in our interest to do so. The willful harm we inflict on others is so ubiquitous that a common control question during a polygraph is “have you ever hurt someone that you care about?” The truthful answer is always “yes.”
To be frank, most of us are well-mannered and respectful only because it serves us well to be so. The fear of incurring anger, social shame, and criminal justice are what primarily deter us from inflicting harm. But once we have to choose between another or ourselves, our natural instinct is always to side with our own interest. Of course men and women can overcome this common selfish tendency, but only by deliberate effort.
So I believe this question from Abimelech was actually very sincere. It is a testament to the quality of their relationship that Abimelech felt he could cut past the façade and the formality and hold this question with Abraham in earnestness. Honestly and truly, will you deal honorably with me and my family, even when it isn’t to your own advantage? And Abraham sincerely replies, “yes.”