Then Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham—the Philistines had stopped them up after Abraham’s death. He gave them the same names that his father had given them. Then Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found a well of living water there. (Genesis 26:18-19, TLV)
I’m reading through Genesis this year from a family systems perspective. Abraham and his family take up most of the narrative of Genesis. We’ve seen already (in my blogs about Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel) how the earlier stories in Genesis already set the stage and provide the terminology for the family drama that unfolds after Abraham shows up at the end of in chapter 11.
Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9; read the week of Nov. 8 this year) focuses on Isaac. He has come through the Akedah (being bound as an offering in Gen. 22), and has married the chosen bride, Rebekah, who has borne him two sons, Esau and Jacob. He has also endured the death of his parents, Sarah in Gen. 23 and Abraham in Gen. 25. After all this, Hashem appears to Isaac and reiterates the covenant promises that he had first made to Abraham. It’s a new generation, and Isaac is ready to go.The very next event in his life, however, is a replay of an event in Abraham’s life—two in fact. Isaac has to seek refuge from famine among the Philistines, just as Abraham sought refuge, first in Egypt (Gen. 12:10ff), and then among those same Philistines (Gen. 20:1ff). In both cases, Abraham deceives the locals into thinking Sarah is his sister, not his wife, out of fear that they’ll kill him if they know he’s her husband. Isaac ends up pulling the same trick, only to be rebuked by Abimelech the Philistine king (Gen. 26:9-10).
Isaac inherits a precious legacy from Abraham, and some baggage as well. So, the question is, can he hang on to the legacy and lose the baggage? Can he find a way to be his own man without completely detaching from that legacy? Can he emerge from the shadow of his larger-than-life father without losing touch with what is great about him? Family therapist and rabbi Edwin Friedman, whom I’ve cited a couple of times in recent blogs, provides a term to describe the process Isaac will take: differentiation, “the capacity to be an ‘I’ while remaining connected” (Generation to Generation, p. 27). Because remaining connected and part of the family is essential to differentiation, Rabbi Friedman insists, “The concept should not be confused with autonomy or narcissism” (two very popular dysfunctions of our day). Let’s see how this all works.
After Isaac gets chewed out by Abimelech, he sets out on his own again. His servants seek out water sources to keep his flocks and herds and household alive in this arid place. The servants eventually find, not just any source of water, but living water, mayim chayim. When you dig an ordinary well, you have to draw the water out with a bucket, but living water springs up on its own. Mayim chayim is the kind of water the Torah requires for purification from tazria (so-called “leprosy”), bodily discharges, or corpse defilement (Lev. 14:5-6, 50; 15:13; Num. 19:17). Why living water? Because impurity in Torah is not just physical, but spiritual, and living water implies spiritual life and renewal, as the Prophets reveal (e.g. Isaiah 44:3, 58:11; Jer. 2:13; Zech. 14:8).
Messiah Yeshua also speaks of this living water, and himself as its source:
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his belly will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Ruach. (John 7:37b-39a)
Living water. The first appearance of the phrase in Scripture comes in this incident in the life of Isaac. He is the one who will bear the legacy of Abraham in his own generation and pass it on to the next. In the logic of the great generation-to-generation tale of Genesis, it’s essential that before Isaac’s servants discover the living water, he must reopen the wells of Abraham. And not only reopen them, but, as we read, “He gave them the same names that his father had given them.” The living water is new and so it differentiates Isaac from his father. But Isaac also remains connected to his father by restoring his wells and the names he gave them.
Differentiation is particularly difficult for the offspring of a great parent. The son or daughter looks at a super-talented, powerful, charismatic, or successful parent and despairs of being able to follow up that act with one of their own. This set-up can lead to a failure to differentiate, so that the new generation just lives in the shadow, or rests on the laurels, of the old, and never makes its own mark. Or it can lead to a disconnected differentiation in which the new generation seeks to distinguish itself by rebelling or refusing to cooperate in some way or another. As Rabbi Friedman points out, this isn’t genuine differentiation at all, because the disconnected offspring is still defining himself or herself in contrast with the family, instead of as an “I”.
In spiritual terms, each generation has to find God anew, to drink on its own of the Spirit that gave life to preceding generations. We can’t just rest on the legacy of our fathers and mothers. But we also can’t ignore it. Today’s dominant culture emphasizes autonomy, self, and discontinuity. Scripture emphasizes connection, community, and continuity. Before you move forward, you must make sure you’ve connected with what’s gone before.
There’s another lesson here. The Philistines in Isaac’s story didn’t stop up Abraham’s wells just to play a nasty trick, but to deprive Abraham’s line of the life source, without which they’d never get established in the land. So Isaac has to struggle, first to reopen Abraham’s wells, reconnecting with his father’s legacy, and then to uncover his own source of living water.
Both the struggle itself and the sequence here are relevant, particularly to the Messianic Jewish community today.
We can’t live without the life-giving waters of the Ruach. I don’t just mean that we have to have the right wording about the Ruach in our Statement of Faith. No, the life of our community can be sustained only as we recognize our immediate, ongoing, daily need for God’s living presence and actually drink of the Spirit. And this practice entails a struggle, the battle to clear out the obstructions that block the old well, and fight off the current distractions that keep us from seeking the new well.
This story also reminds us that we find the waters of the Ruach alongside the wells of our forefathers. In fact, the sequence is that we first dig again the old wells, and then find the new, living water. To put that concretely, the life of our Messianic Jewish community as a Jewish people-movement for Messiah Yeshua depends on sustained connection with Jewish tradition. We’ve often tried as a movement to differentiate ourselves by disconnecting from the Jewish family. But in the long haul that’s unhealthy and actually a false differentiation. When you define yourself by what you’re not, you never reach maturity.
The LORD calls himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, revealing that he is the God of continuity. He is new and fresh every day by his Spirit, and also alive within the proven paths established by our forebears. If Messianic Judaism is to fulfill its unique calling as a Jewish, and not just a generic, movement for Messiah Yeshua, it must meet both challenges—to reopen the old wells of Abraham and to draw upon the living water.