Week 3

Lack of access to water and sanitation is a severe problem for Palestinians. In a reflection from our 2011 series on "Water, Conflict and Just Peace", Fr Afrayem Elorshalimy from the Coptic Orthodox Church writes about wells and water as sources of dispute in the Bible, and on the realization that land and water are a gift of God for all of us.
Week 3

A simple well provides very limited water to the shepherds of Um Al Khayr, sometimes as little as 20 litres per day for all purposes. Up to 200,000 Palestinians in similar rural communities have no access to running water at all. Photo: EAPPI

Wells of quarrel – space for peace

Reflection by Fr Afrayem Elorshalimy*

So Isaac departed from there and camped in the valley of Gerar and settled there. 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. But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, the herders of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herders, saying, ‘The water is ours.’ So he called the well Esek, because they contended with him. Then they dug another well and they quarreled over that one also; so he called it Sitnah. 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.’ (Genesis 26.17-22, NRSV)

Throughout history civilizations have flourished wherever there has been a source of water, whilst others have faded away or collapsed due to scarcity of water resources. People have fought and died for even small patches of water.

Since ancient times, water has been a source of quarrel between the competing inhabitants of the Holy Land. The book Genesis reveals such a quarrel between the ancient Israelites and the Philistines. Conflicts over water have continued ever since in this place.  Today, the share of water for a Palestinian is one fourth of an Israeli share, and one sixth of the share of an Israeli settler in the West Bank. Israel has confiscated over 85% of the water resources in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. One of the reports prepared by the section on Palestine and occupied Arab territories at the Arab League revealed that Israel robs about 650- 800 Million Cubic Meters of water annually from the West Bank which is being pumped into Israel proper, and its illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

And yet in the Bible, God promises plenty of water to quench the thirst of the thirsty (Isaiah: 41:17, Isaiah: 44:3,4). Nowadays, water has become increasingly important since we use it for cleaning our houses, cooking, bathing, and sanitation; also we use water to irrigate dry soil in agriculture so as to provide for food. Our industries use water more than any other liquid form; we take advantage of the swift water flows in rivers to generate electricity.

While Genesis tells of the struggles between ancient peoples over water, it also reflects God’s will that water is for all, not for one particular people over against another. Isaac moves from Ezek (“contention”) and< Sitnah (“quarrel, accusation”), the wells of dispute, to another place where he dug one more well which he called Rehoboth (“broad space”), a name that does not reflect his skills in finding water, nor his diplomatic or military abilities, but his recognition that land and water are the gift of God: “Now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.” There is room for both Philistine and Israelite to flourish in the land; God has provided water for both.

Wherever there is conflict over water today, and especially in the particular context of Israel and Palestine, the biblical narrative reminds us all that water is God’s gift, and never anyone’s property. God calls us to rename all our wells from Esek and Sitnah to Rehoboth, for “the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.” This call remains vital from the ancient Philistines and Israelites all the way through time to the present Israelis and Palestinians.

* Fr Afrayem Elorshalimy from the Coptic Orthodox Church was a monk at the St Bishoy Monastery in Egypt and then spent 14 years as a priest of the Coptic Church in Jerusalem. Since 2010 he is priest of the Coptic community in Dublin, Ireland.

Ideas for study and reflection

Organize a group of people from your church for a visit to a rural place nearby and identify a well there.


Organize a group visit to a slum in the city or on its outskirts and ask the local communities about the background of the well, bore well or water tap or any other source of drinking water. Please discuss the following:

  • Is this water source a place of conflict / a place of fellowship?
  • Is anyone denied access to water from this source? If so, then why?
  • How do the locals value this water source in their locality?

Questions for discussion

  1. Where is there unequal access to, or conflict over, water in your context?
  2. What are other gifts of God that people have turned into their private property?
  3. How does God call you in your context to move from Ezek and Sitnah to Rehoboth?

    What you can do

    To speak of access to water as a “human right” means that we hold our public authorities, on all levels of decision-making and implementation, responsible to prioritize the drinking water needs of the poorest and most vulnerable - and to ensure an accountable use of the available (water and financial) resources to this end.

    In preparation for World Water Day, consider writing to your government or local authorities. Speak to them of our shared responsibility to respect water as a gift of God as well as a human right. Ask for information about the actions they are taking to guarantee and implement the human right to water for all people, locally and internationally.


    Please note: Opinions expressed in Biblical reflections do not necessarily reflect EWN and WCC policy. This material may be reprinted freely, providing credit is given to the author.