“It came about, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out through a window, and saw, and behold, Isaac was caressing his wife Rebekah. Then Abimelech called Isaac and said, “Behold, certainly she is your wife! How then did you say, ‘She is my sister’?” And Isaac said to him, “Because I said, ‘I might die on account of her.’”” Gen. 26:8-9
Robert Alter and others state what Abimilech saw was a sexual playfulness of sorts. Obviously at the least he saw something that indicated to him that Isaac and Rebekah were not merely brother and sister. But Abimelech is the king; why did he care at this point, since it had “been a long time” (v.8)?
But Abimelech did care – enough to meet Isaac face to face to get to the bottom of this. I believe there are several things going on here. For some context we need to go back to the interaction between Abimelech and God when the same scenario happened with Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 20.
First it is worth noting that unlike with Sarah, Abimelech did not have Rebekah taken away upon thinking she was not married, thus Isaac did not have to go through the personal strain Abraham did having his wife taken from him.
Recall that God threatened Abimelech, and his people, with death if he did not let Sarah go, because she was another man’s wife (Gen. 20:3-7). Abimelech did take Sarah initially, though he does not do this with Rebekah. It is quite apparent from Abimelech’s interaction with God that Abimilech likey feared God to some extent already, at and the very least had learned his lesson and did not take Rebekah right away.
As king, Abimelech had a responsibility to keep his people safe, and had his own personal moral convictions about the act of adultery. Isaac repeated the lie of Abraham about the identify of his wife, which now caused a conflict with Abimelech’s responsibilities and morals. After all, the commandments tell us not to covet another man’s wife, but say nothing about a man’s sister.
Ultimately it comes down to this: Isaac lied to save himself because he felt the people in Gerar did not fear God enough, or did not have enough moral standing to the extent they would kill a man in order to take his wife. This lie however, created the potential for worse things to take place. For one, the people of Gerar (including the king) could have lusted after, or slept with Rebekah, though she was married. Worse, the king was so taken aback by Isaac being sexual with Rebekah that he confronted him. Thankfully he gave Isaac the chance to explain himself, otherwise there would be the possibility that the people of Gerar would have put Isaac to death, thinking he was committing incest! This may be one reason why we are called to “Avoid the appearance of evil.” (I Thessalonians 5:22)
Lastly, if someone from Gerar had slept with Rebekah, there is a strong chance that God would have taken action against the king and the people, as He did before with both Pharaoh and Abimelech in Genesis 12 and 20. Ultimately this would have been Isaac’s fault, as his lie to protect himself precipitated the entire situation.
Would it have been okay for one man to be untruthful to save himself if many others perish or are afflicted as a result? And so this confrontation was critical, as the truth needed to come out to neutralize the situation and prevent further damage, as well as ensure reputations were kept intact. And so we see both wisdom and strong morals exemplified, from a king who was unlikely to be seen as spiritually mature.