Sermon:  Natural Allies by the Rev. Lee Woofenden


Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 17, 2004
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Genesis 21:22-34 The treaty of Beersheba

At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his forces said to Abraham, "God is with you in everything you do. Now swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants. Show to me and the country where you are living as a foreigner the same kindness I have shown to you."

Abraham said, "I swear it."

Then Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelechís servants had seized. But Abimelech said, "I donít know who has done this. You did not tell me, and I heard about it only today."

So Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a treaty. Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs from the flock, and Abimelech asked Abraham, "What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs you have set apart by themselves?"

He replied, "Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well." So that place was called Beersheba, because the two men swore an oath there.

After the treaty had been made at Beersheba, Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his forces returned to the land of the Philistines.

Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called upon the name of the Lord, the Eternal God. And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time.

Luke 6:12-19 Jesus calls his twelve apostles

During those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there, and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by unclean spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.

Arcana Coelestia #2723.2 The meaning of Beersheba

"Beersheba" means merely human rational ideas that are allied with religious teachings. And because they are allied with them, thus making those teachings understandable to the human mind, Beersheba is called "a city." A city stands for an entire religious perspective, seen as a whole.

So Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a treaty. (Genesis 21:27)

Relations would not always be so good between the Hebrews and the Philistines. Later on in the Bible story, during the time of the Judges and the Kings, the Philistines would become one of Israelís most stubborn enemies--an enemy that was never entirely overcome. But here in Genesis 21, in the first explicit mention of the Philistines after the genealogical tables of Genesis 10, relations are generally cordial, if a bit strained, between Abraham and Abimelech, the Philistine king. And Abrahamís son Isaac had similar relations with Abimelech: though there was conflict over wells, and a fear on Abimelechís part that Isaacís clan would overrun his land, the two managed to resolve the issues peacefully, and Abimelech ultimately made a treaty with Isaac similar to the one he had made with his father Abraham.

Of course, we are interested in these events not just because the story is a good read with strong characters and an engaging plot line, but because the characters and events in the story are telling about our own inner experience, and about the inner life of the Lord.

It is a recurring theme in Swedenborgís interpretation of various historical events in the Bible that the Lord would not have bothered to put all these stories, with their numerous and specific details, into his Word if they did not have some deeper significance. Other than a general moral lesson about getting along with our enemies, what does it really matter to us today, in the twenty-first century, what happened between two obscure Middle Eastern clan leaders in the twentieth century before Christ?

If these stories are truly a part of Godís Word, they must be written in such a way as to be far more powerful than mere human history or moral tales. We read in Isaiah 55:8-9:

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the Lord. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts."

This should make it clear that the things that God says in his Word are far higher than mere human compositions. And if the Bible is truly the Word of God, then it must have far greater and deeper meanings than any human literature. This is precisely what our teachings tell us about the Bible: it has higher and deeper meanings hidden within it that no one would ever be aware of if God had not seen fit to reveal their existence to us in these times.

And God does not say things nor reveal to us their meaning without some specific purpose in mind, as he points out in the continuation of that passage from Isaiah:

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire, and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

Yes, Godís Word not only has higher and deeper meanings than any human composition, but those meanings always have a purpose. And that purpose is to "water" our minds and our lives, making us bud and flourish spiritually, so that we, also, may accomplish the Lordís purposes both here on earth, and in eternity.

With this in mind, letís take a closer look at the story of Abrahamís treaty with Abimelech in Beersheba.

It is not a coincidence that water, which is mentioned in the passage from Isaiah about the words of the Lord, is also the focal point of conflict between Abimelech and both Abraham and his son Isaac. Water is fundamental to life on earth. It covers over three-quarters of the earthís surface. Life originally emerged from the water, and without its constant presence, the abundant life on this earth would die out. This is true even though water has no nutritional value whatsoever! It is simply the universal medium and carrier of all the processes of life. As babies, almost 80% our body is composed of water. This drops to 65% by the time we are one year old, and as adults, 50% to 65% of our body is composed of water. Clearly, this substance is fundamental to our lives!

The spiritual analog, or correspondent, of water is equally fundamental to human life. It is truth, the universal medium of spiritual life. Truth by itself does not, in fact, nourish the human spirit. No, our spirit is nourished by the food of love and kindness. Yet we are virtually swimming in a sea of truth of all kinds: facts, ideas, rational systems, understanding, learning, intelligence, and sometimes even wisdom. Though we are nourished by Godís love and by our love for one another, that love would have no effectiveness at all if it were not carried on a continuous stream of truth flowing through our minds and our lives.

And just as Abimelechís people quarreled with both Abrahamís and Isaacís people about wells of water, arenít our conflicts, both inwardly and interpersonally, often about the truth of the matter? Inwardly, donít we struggle to decide what we really believe, and what we donít believe? And when we come into conflict with others, doesnít it regularly involve, among other things, who is right and who is wrong? Whose conflicting ideas and perspectives are the truth, and whose are not?

We see this clearly in political campaigns in which one candidate says one thing, the other says the opposite, and each claims to have the truth. And internationally, though the conflicts among nations, as among most politicians, generally boil down to issues of money and power, and who will have them, those conflicts can also be seen as clashes of cultural and even religious perspectives, each asserting itself against all comers as the truth.

Abraham and Abimelech had clashing ideas. Abimelech saw the land on which he was living as belonging to him and his nation. But Abraham believed that God had promised this entire land to him and his descendants. Each had his own view of things, his own "truth." And those conflicting ideas were expressed outwardly in their conflicts over water.

In Abrahamís day, at least, that conflict was brought to a peaceful resolution. And this gets at the heart of this storyís spiritual meaning.

We have, in fact, been following not just one, but two levels of deeper meaning in our current series on the book of Genesis. Those two are the "heavenly meaning," about the Lordís inner life and process during his life on earth, and the "spiritual meaning," about our own inner spiritual process of rebirth, or "regeneration." (There is a third, the "internal historical," which is about the spiritual process of the human race as a whole, but we are largely passing over that level of meaning in this series.) Though each of these deeper meanings of the Bible story exists independently on its own level, the various levels of meaning do parallel each other. In particular, the Lordís inner process is the perfect template and pattern, and our inner story is an imperfect shadow and copy of that perfect divine life.

What does the story of the treaty of Beersheba mean on these deeper levels? And does it really have more relevance to us today than the story of a treaty between two clan leaders who lived four thousand years ago?

In several of the recent sermons in this series, we have been focusing on the divine rationality and human rationality. Abraham as a character represents the Lord himself, or the divine love. Both Sarah his wife and Isaac his son represent the truth, or rational side of the Lord, and of us as well. So the stories in this part of Genesis revolve around the developing intellectual and rational capabilities in the Lord as a young boy--and in us as we grow out of early childhood and into the later years of childhood and adolescence, when we move from the simple, almost instinctual, heart-centered life of infancy into a time when our life focuses more on learning and intellectual growth.

As we explored the stories of Isaac and Ishmael in earlier stories, we discovered in the spiritual meaning a conflict between our first headstrong, self-assured, and rather combative notions of right and wrong, represented by Ishmael, and the growing sense of a higher, more thoughtful, and more compassionate rationality represented by Isaac. In the Lordís life, this involved looking to the divine wisdom within for his guide and inspiration, rather than adopting the views of the religious teachers of his day. For us, in parallel fashion, it involves being guided by a spiritually enlightened rationality rather than by limited and faulty human notions of right and wrong.

Our story for today continues that theme, only with a different outcome--at least, for the time being. Ishmael was ultimately banished from Abrahamís household. But in our story for today, as well as the parallel story of Isaac and Abimelech in Genesis 26, the story ends, not with a breach and separation, but with a treaty and peaceful coexistence.

What does this mean in the Lordís life, and in ours? Both the Lord Jesus and we, in our spiritual life, must come to a time when we set aside the notion, represented by Ishmael, that "I am right and you are wrong, so it is okay for me to attack and condemn you." Of Ishmael it is said, "He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyoneís hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers" (Genesis 16:11-12). There is no room for this kind of combative, condemnatory "rationality" in our developing spiritual lives. And where we see this in various religious leaders and believers in the world around us--whether they are Christians, Muslims, Jews or of any other faith--we know that we are encountering people who have a long way to go in their spiritual life.

Abrahamís treaty with Abimelech in Beersheba represents a new development in the inner struggle between the worldís view of things and a more spiritual view of things.

To understand the meaning of Abimelech and the Philistines, it helps to know that they lived along the southern Mediterranean coastline of Palestine. The Mediterranean Sea is simply called "the sea" or "the coast" in the Bible story. And seas, in general, represent the gathering together of our experience in memory, just as the waters of the streams and rivers all flow into the sea, and are gathered there. Being at the lowest level--sea level--seas also represent natural and worldly ideas and information. Further, the South also represents our intellectual capabilities.

So Abimelech, living by the sea, in the southern part of the land, represents all the intellectual and rational capabilities we develop from our life in the world, among human beings and human ideas. For the Lord, this would especially mean all of the religious knowledge he gained during his boyhood as he studied the Scriptures and conversed with the religious leaders of his day. For us, Abimelech and the Philistines represent all of our worldly learning and ideas, and especially the various human philosophies and perspectives about life and its meaning.

In contrast to the sea, a well represents a higher and more living source of truth and understanding. Specifically, a well represents spiritual truth, or the Word of the Lord.

What, then, is the conflict here? And how is it resolved?

"Beersheba," Swedenborg tells us, "represents merely human rational ideas that are allied with religious teachings." In the Lordís life, the treaty of Beersheba meant that he could use all he had learned from religious leaders, and make it a part of his ministry to the people. And in the Gospel story, we find him very effectively using his thorough knowledge of the Scriptures and of Jewish customs in preaching his own higher message.

In our own, lives, this story represents a time when we realize that we do not have to set aside everything we have learned of human ideas and knowledge. On the contrary, all of the things we have learned and experienced can become "natural allies" to our spiritual life, giving rational help, support, and illustration to our growing spiritual perspective on life.

As we move forward in the stories of Abraham and Isaac, we will flesh out this natural alliance between human and spiritual rationality, and see how it strengthens us in the early development of our spiritual life. For now, it is sufficient to know that the Lord does not require us to throw away anything we have learned in this life. Nothing we have learned, experienced, or done is useless; it all contributes to the angel that we are becoming. Amen.

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Music: God Grant Us Peace
©Bruce DeBoer - Used with Permission



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