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By Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri*

Text: Genesis 26: 17-32 (NRSV)

Isaac and Abimelech

17 So Isaac departed from there and camped in the valley of Gerar and settled there. 18 Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham; for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham; and he gave them the names that his father had given them. 19 But when Isaac's servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, 20the herders of Gerar quarrelled with Isaac's herders, saying, The water is ours.” So he called the well Esek, because they contended with him. 21 Then they dug another well, and they quarrelled over that one also; so he called it Sitnah. 22 He moved 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.”

23 From there he went up to Beer-sheba. 24 And that very night the Lord appeared to him and said, I am the God of your father Abraham; do not be afraid, for I am with you and will bless you and make your offspring numerous for my servant Abraham's sake.” 25 So he built an altar there, called on the name of the Lord, and pitched his tent there. And there Isaac's servants dug a well.

26 Then Abimelech went to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his adviser and Phicol the commander of his army. 27 Isaac said to them, Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?” 28 They said, We see plainly that the Lord has been with you; so we say, let there be an oath between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you 29 so that you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good and have sent you away in peace. You are now the blessed of the Lord.” 30 So he made them a feast, and they ate and drank. 31 In the morning they rose early and exchanged oaths; and Isaac set them on their way, and they departed from him in peace. 32 That same day Isaac's servants came and told him about the well that they had dug, and said to him, We have found water!” 33 He called it Shibah; therefore, the name of the city is Beer-sheba to this day.


The context of this passage is Genesis 21:22-32 where Abimelechs predecessor had made a covenant with Abraham, Isaacs father. After the death of Abraham, Abimelech did not honour the agreement and ended up deporting Isaac. It was within Isaacs rights to protest by quoting the previous agreement which he inherited from his father. But he chose peace and submitted to the deportation without protest. Isaac moved to the valley of Gerar, where he settled. This was the land of the Philistines. Abimelech was king of the Philistines. It is possible that the Abimelech that Abraham dealt with was different from the one who was in conflict with Isaac. When Isaac moved to the Valley of Gerar he reopened two wells that his father Abraham had dug and gave them the same names. In this way he was claiming the land that belonged to his father. But this did not bring peace. There was still conflict between his servants who dug the wells and the Philistines who inhabited the land. Again, Isaac refused to enter into conflict. For the sake of seeking peace, he kept on moving away from places where there was conflict over water. At the new location, his servants dug a new well which had fresh water. This time the Philistines did not claim the well. It was necessary for Isaac to find water because he had many herds and flocks. Water meant survival for both people and the animals. His actions of consistently choosing peace even when provoked to fight is the key message of this passage. It was this choice that attracted the attention of his opposition, King Abimelech, to come and seek peace with him despite their past conflict over his wife, Rebecca, and the water sources which had previously belonged to his father, Abraham. Isaac could have refused to deal with them again. After all, they did not respect the oath that was made with his father. He chose peace again and made fresh agreements.

One is tempted to assume that fights over water are things of the past because civilizations grow around water sources. That is not the case. In fact, it is argued that The next world war will be fought over water.” One can dismiss this statement as a cliché. However, I will give two examples from the African region where it is shown that water has the potential to cause war between countries. 

The first example is the conflict between my own country, Malawi, and Tanzania over Lake Malawi/Lake Nyasa which is well captured in an article written by retired Brigadier General Marcel R D Chirwa and Dr Colin Robinson. In this article it becomes clear that the conflict is very much alive but it has its roots in the drawing of borders between the British who colonised what they called Nyasaland and the Germans who colonised Tanganyika. In the 1890 Heligoland Treaty, the border between what is now Malawi and Tanzania is at the shore of Lake Malawi on the eastern side, thus claiming the whole of Lake Malawi as part of Malawi. After political independence of the two countries, Tanzania sought the international legal rule to change the border to the median line of the Lake in 1967-68. 

As explained by Chirwa and Robinson,

            Yet Tanzanias challenge to the treaty was not actively pursued as government policy, and it effectively lapsed. Instead, in line with the Cairo Declaration, Tanzania recognised the general continuing validity of African borders as they had been at independence. Tanzanias first president, Julius Nyerere, conceded the boundary.”

Things changed when in 2011, the then-president of Malawi Mbingu wa Mtalika hired international companies to explore the possibility of mining oil in Lake Malawi. The exploration was met with fierce opposition from Tanzania as they sighted their 1968 claim over part of Lake Malawi. The case went back to international court. By the time Bingu died and new leaders came in place, the case was not pursued by both sides in favour of working together peacefully in other projects of mutual interest. However, as long as there is no treaty for peace, the Lake Malawi claims from Malawi and Tanzania have potential for future conflict.

The second example is a conflict between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt over control of the Blue Nile River and the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.  Ethiopia has built the dam in order to generate hydropower for itself as well as selling to neighbouring countries of Sudan and Egypt. It suffices to say that both Egypt and Sudan have issued threats ranging from destroying the dam to supporting the armed opposition in Ethiopia to force change of government and bring one that will stop the construction of the dam. As of now the building of the dam has continued and water has been filled to level 4. International mediation has not worked because there are too many players with their own biases. The two superpowers, the United States of America and Russia have been open about supporting opposite sides of the conflict. This too increases the chances of making the 3rd World War to be about water and to seek ways of preventing such a war.

Thoughts and questions for discussion:

Going back to Genesis 26:17-32 and in the context of how water conflicts have been handled in the Malawi-Tanzania conflict and the Ethiopian, Sudan, and Egypt, what lessons can be learnt about:

Moral leadership

Choosing peace even when you have a right to demand justice

The role of outsiders to assist in negotiations for peace

How to pursue what is rightly yours in the struggle for water justice

Which side would Jesus support and why? 

In this context, what does it mean to conclude by saying: Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 2:5.


On 22 March 2024, we celebrated the UN World Water Day. This year its theme is Water for Peace.”  What an amazing ambassador of peace we see in Isaac in the above biblical story! We need more Isaacs in our society today, who can use water for peace! 

*Prof. Dr. Isabel Apawo Phiri is a notable Malawian theologian recognized for her contributions to gender justice, HIV/AIDS, and African theology. She has served as the Deputy General Secretary for the World Council of Churches since 2012 - 2022. She is currently the Vice Chancellor of the University of Blantyre Synod in Malawi.  Phiri’s work extends beyond academia into influential ecclesiastical roles, advocating for life-affirming practices within churches in Africa and challenging life-denying cultural norms. Her leadership and scholarly contributions continue to impact theological discourse and church practices, particularly in the context of African Christianity.

Additional resources:

"Lake Malawi or Lake Nyasa? Malawi–Tanzania Border Dispute Slips Into Limbo" (10 May 2023)

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam