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B'resheet/Genesis 29:2 And he looked and behold: a well in the field ... and the stone over the mouth of the well was large.
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Ya'akov has just arrived at Padan Aram, where he has been sent by his father to make contact with his mother's family and find a wife. As he approaches the city, he sees a field with a well and, around the well, flocks of sheep waiting for water. A number of men, presumably shepherds, are standing around and waiting with the sheep. Ya'akov goes up to them, asks who they are and where they are from and, on finding out that they are from Haran - his destination - asks about Laban his uncle and family contact. A conversation ensues, during which Rachel, Ya'akov's cousin, brings her flock of sheep to the well for water. When Ya'akov discovers who Rachel is, he removes the stone from the mouth of the well so that Rachel can water her flock, and explains that he is her cousin, the son of her aunt Rivka. She rushes to get her father, Laban, who in turn runs out to greet Ya'akov and takes him home to meet the rest of the family. The exact disposition of Laban's flock of sheep during all this is unclear, but perhaps having fetched her father, Rachel resumed her normal shepherding role, at least until the end of the day.
Nahum Sarna provides the historical background to the narrative, commenting that wells were often owned or controlled by a closed group, who levied a charge or fee on others outside the group who would have to pay for water or access to the well. The closure was effected by means of a heavy stone, rolled over or placed on the mouth of the well. The stone was deliberately chosen to be beyond the capability of one man to move so that it would require the well owners to be present. At the same time, the cover provided protection from dust and filth and prevented contamination or spoiling by other parties.
This background is picked up with various levels of inflection by the older commentators. TheRashbam, for example, is fairly neutral and suggests that "the stone prevented individual shepherds from consuming the water or to stop people or debris falling into the well", while the Radak adds, "the stone could only be removed if all the shepherds gathered and lifted it together". Hirsch, on the other hand, offers a less charitable perspective: "normally a well cover is made to be removed as easily as possible; this shows the Aramean character: no-one trusted anyone else. The cover is made as heavy as possible so that no one person alone, but only by their combined effort could the well be used." While the biblical narrative also starts in a matter-of-fact way - "When all the flocks were gathered there, the stone would be rolled from the mouth of the well and the sheep watered; then the stone would be put back in its place on the mouth of the well" (v. 3, JPS), the conversation of the shepherds goes some way to supporting Hirsch's view: Ya'akov tells the shepherds, "It is still broad daylight, too early to round up the animals; water the flock and take them to pasture" (v. 7, JPS) and they reply, "We cannot, until all the flocks are rounded up; then the stone is rolled off the mouth of the well and we water the sheep" (v. 8, JPS), perhaps indicating the presence of a control group.
Alone among the older Jewish commentators,Nachmanides points out that Ya'akov performs a miracle in order to roll away the heavy stone single-handedly in order to water Rachel's sheep (v. 10). If he didn't perform the miracle with the stone, he certainly seemed to do so as far as the shepherds were concerned since they play no further part in the narrative, silenced by the apparent display of strength. Nachmanides suggests that Ya'akov, who has after all just walked all the way from Canaan, is experiencing the words later to be spoken by the prophet: "they who wait for the L-RD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint" (Isaiah 40:31, ESV). There is also the obvious connection to the stone at Bethel - the immediately previous narrative block - which Ya'akov first slept on, then stood upright and anointed with oil. His first spiritual encounter with a stone may have given him supernatural strength to call upon when dealing with the second!
Stones are used throughout the Bible narrative as standing stones, to remember critical events. For example, Joshua is told, "Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan" (Joshua 4:3, ESV), to be a memorial of crossing the Jordan. In the early years of Saul's reign as king over Israel, he has led an all-day pursuit of the Philistines and in the evening all the people are faint from exhaustion, so start slaughtering animals from the spoil that they have captured. They are in so much haste that they neglect to pour out the blood, so when Saul hears about this he orders, "Roll a large stone here to me" (1 Samuel 14:33) and then tells the people only to slaughter the animals on the stone and not to sin by eating the blood. The text then adds, "Thus Saul set up an altar to the L-RD; it was the first altar he erected to the L-RD" (v. 35, JPS).
Stones were also routinely used to seal the mouths of tombs; set in tracks or channels, they were rolled across the entrance of the tomb to prevent unauthorised access. Heavy and probably awkward or irregular in shape, a stone would need several strong people to roll - or in some cases lift - it out of the way. When Yeshua came to the tomb of Lazarus, John tells us that, "Then Yeshua, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it" (John 11:38, ESV). Before Lazarus could come out of the tomb, the way needed to be cleared, so "Yeshua said, 'Take the stone away'" (v. 39). Who was He talking to? Who would need to move the stone? Not Martha or Mary, for they would not have been able to move the heavy stone. The text simply says, "So they took away the stone" (v. 41); a group or team of men would be needed to roll or lift the stone.
After Yeshua's crucifixion, the Jewish leaders were worried that His ministry might be perpetuated by His disciples, so they went to Pilate and said, "Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while He was still alive, 'After three days I will rise.' Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest His disciples go and steal Him away and tell the people, 'He has risen from the dead,' and the last fraud will be worse than the first" (Matthew 27:63-64, ESV). The request was necessary because normal tradition was that once a body was buried, it was not touched again. In this case, following Roman execution, even though Pilate had allowed Joseph of Arimathea to take the body at nightfall and bury it, there were obviously political issues still at work. While he would not allocate any Roman resources, Pilate responded by giving the leaders permission to seal and guard the tomb: "'You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.' So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard" (v. 65, ESV). This was not without precedent, for when the king of Persia had been manipulated into throwing Daniel into the lions' den, "a stone was brought and laid on the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet and with the signet of his lords, that nothing might be changed concerning Daniel" (Daniel 6:7, ESV), to prevent any escape or fraud.
On the first day of the week, when the women returned to rewrap the body and pack it with spices, "they found the stone rolled away from the tomb" (Luke 24:2). They had been worried about who would roll it away for them, so that they could have access, but "then they looked up and saw that the stone, even though it was huge, had been rolled back already" (Mark 16:4, CJB). Given the size of the stone - huge - they were not a little surprised. Matthew's narrative explains: "And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it" (Matthew 28:2, ESV). In spite of the seals and the proportions of the stone, it had been supernaturally rolled away as a sign of the resurrection of Yeshua. The surprise would have been great enough if the women had returned to find a sealed but empty tomb; by rolling the stone away, G-d pointed back to Yeshua's raising of Lazarus only weeks earlier. The first encounter with a stone pointed the way for the second.
Jewish tradition records that Rivka had taught Ya'akov to recognise a woman that he would meet at a well, looking like her (his mother) would be his future partner1. When we see the empty tomb, we too should recognise our partner - our Messiah - and be prepared for miracles to occur!
1. - Cited by the Ba'al HaTurim from a commentary on the Torah - Peirush HaRokeach - by Rabbi Eleazar Rokeach of Worms (1176-1238)
2. - Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?, Faber & Faber 1975, 0571032591
Further Study: Matthew 28:11-15
Application: Have you, like the lawyer Frank Morison, seen the evidence and asked the question, "Who moved the Stone?"2? Have you had an encounter with the risen Yeshua and know His supernatural power in your life?
04Dec11 06:48 Batyah: Thanks for asking that question, I needed to be reminded of His power. So much going on that some things get put on the back burner. No matter how much of His power we have experienced we need more and it is nice to be reminded through a study or question.
© Jonathan Allen, 2011
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