Blessings to Go Around
Scriptures: Genesis 26:1-33
As I said in the eNews this week, all conflict is based on a zero-sum view of reality: if I gain, you lose; if you win, I lose.
This starts early. Lately I have the chance to watch my two older grandchildren—ages 4 and 2—interact with each other. It is not always pretty. The four year-old will gather up all the toy planes we have, take them over to a chair, and protect them with his body so the two year-old cannot take any of them. Of course there is plenty of toy planes for both of them, and they are intended to be shared, but not in that four year-olds mind. The two year-old, for his part, will bide his time playing with other toys until the four year-old gets distracted by something. Then the two year-old runs in, grab one of the planes, and runs away. I don’t think he even wants it. He just wants to establish his right to it. Or maybe he just wants to hear his brother scream. I don’t know.
We saw the same thing two weeks ago in our scripture reading about Sarah. Sarah says to Abraham, “The son of this slave woman [Hagar] shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” There was actually plenty of inheritance for both of them. God had promised to bless both of these sons of Abraham, but in Sarah’s mind there was not enough blessing to go around.
So now we come to the story of Isaac. The conflict between Isaac and the Philistines is over water, which is a big deal in the Middle East. But as in the case of my grandchildren the conflict is really over something else. It’s over dominance. Verse 14 says, “He [Isaac] had possessions of flocks and herds, so that the Philistines envied him.” So the Philistines tried to drive him away.
But look at how Isaac reacts to this situation. When Isaac’s servants dig a well and find water, the Philistines come and claim it. What does Isaac do? He moves on and digs another well. Talk about spineless! Doesn’t Isaac have the backbone to stand up for his rights? Apparently not. So he moves on and digs another well, the Philistines come and claim that one, too. So Isaac and his servants move on to dig a third well.
Talk about appeasement. Doesn’t Isaac know that letting your enemies get away with stuff like that emboldens them to become even more greedy and oppressive?
But here is the surprise: when Isaac and his servants dig the third well, there is no more conflict. Verse 22: “He [Isaac] moved on from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth saying, ‘Now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.’” And sure enough, Isaac prospered, so much so that in the next paragraph Abimelech, the king of the Philistines, and Phicol, his army commander, make a peace treaty with Isaac.
At this point Isaac is the more powerful; Isaac has the upper hand. At this point any smart geopolitical strategist would say to Isaac, “Don’t make a treaty with these Philistines. Remember what they did to your father? They filled up his wells with dirt.” The smart advisors would tell Isaac to make no any treaty with the likes of Abimelech.
But Isaac does. Why? We aren’t told, but maybe he remembers the words God spoke to him in our first scripture reading—the same promise God made to his father Abraham:
I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and will give to your offspring all these lands; and all the nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves through your offspring.
For God it is not a zero-sum game. God is capable of blessing Isaac abundantly and at the same time blessing all the other nations through him.
So Isaac makes the treaty, and here is the next surprise. It works. Despite the conflict in the past, this time the peace agreement works. After this peace treaty is concluded, there is peace between the Israelites and the Philistines for 700 years. There is no more mention of conflict between the Israelites and the Philistines anywhere in the rest of Genesis or anywhere else in the Bible until we come to the time of the Judges 700 years later.
But this scripture is not just about foreign relations; it is about any conflict there may be in your life. When my own children were young, they argued with each other just like my grandchildren do. One day my two older children were arguing about who got to sit in the back seat of my brother-in-law’s new Volvo station wagon. His new Volvo had a rear-facing seat in the back, and my children thought that was so cool, they both wanted to sit there, but there was room only for one. So they fought over who got to be one sitting in the rear-facing seat. Finally my brother-in-law said he would flip a coin. Unfortunately flipping a coin reinforces the zero-sum view of reality. It may settle a dispute, but it reinforces the sense that one person wins and the other loses, thereby sowing the seeds of resentment. But my brother-in-law gave it a new twist. He took out a quarter and said to my daughter, “Call it heads or tail. If you are right you get to sit in the seat, but your brother gets the coin. And if you are wrong, he gets to sit in the seat, and you get the coin.”
Suddenly it was no longer a zero-sum situation. They both could win.
The lesson in our scripture this morning is that God has enough blessing to go around, if you search for it. There was enough water for everyone, if they searched for it. It was possible for both sides to prosper on the land, if they let go of their fears and resentments long enough to work at it.
Whatever the conflict you are having in your life, there may be a way for both of you to win, if you look hard enough for it.
This is where counselors can sometimes help. If people are having conflict, and they can’t see a way out of it, I encourage them to work with a counselor. Because a good well-trained counselor can help you reframe a situation, looking at it from a new angle that does not add up to a zero-sum, that does not end up with a winner and a loser but helps both people grow in the process. Sometimes the very act of making concessions, as Isaac did, can help both parties end up with more than they had before.
There is an old middle-eastern story about an Arab sheik dying and leaving his camel herd to his three children. The eldest was to get half the herd, the middle child was to get one-third of the herd, and the youngest was to get one-ninth of the herd. That in itself sounds unfair, and you might think that such an uneven distribution between the children would itself cause conflict. But that was not the problem. In that culture the children accepted the division specified by their father. The problem was that the sheik left only 17 camels, which could not be divided according to the sheik’s percentages: one-half, one-third, and one ninth. So the children quarreled with each other over who got an extra camel, and their conflict affected the whole village. Finally, an elderly woman brought her one camel to the children and said, “Here, take my one camel and add it to the herd. That will make 18 camels.” So she gave them camel, which meant that the camels could now be divided. The oldest child got nine camels, which was half. The middle child got six, which was one-third, and the youngest got two camels, which was one-ninth. That totaled 17. Then elderly woman came and got her camel and went home.
Sometimes it does not have to be a zero-sum game. Sometimes there is enough blessing to go around, if we only work hard enough to figure it out.