Isaac’s Political Acumen

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Isaac unstopped the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped-up after Abraham’s death; and Isaac gave them the same names that his father had given them. And Isaac’s servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water. The herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” He named that well “Contention” because they contended with him. And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it “Hindrance.” He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it, so he called it “Spaciousness” saying, “Now at last the Lord has granted us ample space to increase in the land. (Gen. 26:18-22)

I understand the idea behind giving a positive name to a location or to a well. For through such naming, a person wishes to spread praise or thanks to God for goodness in his life. He spreads this praise for thanks to God by giving a permanent name to a location which recalls the goodness he received. This explains Abraham naming the well Beer-Sheva, Hagar naming the well Beer-Lchai-Roi, and Jacob naming that place where God revealed Himself, Bet-El. But why would Isaac name wells after the negative encounters? And why did the shepherds of Gerar ultimately abandon striving with Isaac’s servants?

I believe these two matters are related, which also reveals Isaac's political acumen. Isaac sought to be relieved of the robbery of his wells. His strategy was to publicize the wrongdoing of Gerar’s shepherds. After the shepherds’ 2nd robbery, they saw Isaac repeatedly publicizing their negative behavior through naming the wells after their behavior; they did not desire this bad reputation. Therefore they desisted from their crooked ways. This is why we learn that the 3rd well experienced no contention, to tell us that Isaac’s strategy was successful. Isaac knew that as societies are built upon cooperation, and that their growth is due to exports, a bad reputation will deter commerce abroad. Appealing directly to their goal of enriching themselves (robbing the wells), Isaac proclaimed their evil ways through naming the wells, thereby forcing the shepherds to abandon robbery, and maintaining good relations with others, for their own greed.