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“Then Abimelech came to him from Gerar with his adviser Ahuzzath and Phicol the commander of his army. Isaac said to them, “Why have you come to me, since you hate me and have sent me away from you?” They said, “We see plainly that the LORD has been with you; so we said, ‘Let there now be an oath between us, even between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you, 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.’” Then he made them a feast, and they ate and drank. In the morning they arose early and exchanged oaths; then Isaac sent them away and they departed from him in peace. Now it came about on the same day, that Isaac’s servants came in and told him about the well which they had dug, and said to him, “We have found water.” So he called it Shibah; therefore the name of the city is Beersheba to this day.” Gen. 26:26-33
Genesis 26 with Isaac contains many of the same narrative elements as Genesis 20-21 with Abraham, including a treaty with King Abimelech. There are some notable differences as well, some of which may not be picked up on due to common translations, or perhaps predispositions.
First we see Abimelech brings his advisor as well, which may have made for a less intimidating visit than just the king and the commander of his army.
Abimelech refers to previous oath, as some translations read “let the oath between us/ourselves now be between us and you”. Common translations seem to imply that Abimelech makes no reference to the covenant with Abraham, as if it were disregarded. On one hand it is understandable to assume this considering what happened with Abraham’s wells getting stopped up after his death, but, as we learned in the covenant with Abraham, not even the king knows everything his subjects are doing:
“And Abimelech said “I do not know who has done this thing; you did not tell me, nor did I hear of it until today.”” Gen. 21:26
Abimelech is not only recognizing the previous oath, but making it more bold by adding a curse for whoever violates the oath, by the phrase “that you will do us no harm”, which was not part of the covenant with Abraham.
It is easy from a plain reading to assume that Abimelech is not a follower of God. I would disagree based upon his interactions with Abraham and Isaac, noting that he shows both a fear and respect for God by not taking Rebekah after what happened with Sarah. Additionally because he has had an interaction with God and now adds a threat of retribution to whoever (be it his own subjects or Isaac’s camp) violates the oath for harm, it appears he intends to uphold it as he placed himself knowingly under the possibility of divine punishment.
“Then he went up from there to Beersheba.
The LORD appeared to him the same night and said,
“I am the God of your father Abraham;
Do not fear, for I am with you.
I will bless you, and multiply your descendants,
For the sake of My servant Abraham.”
So he built an altar there and called upon the name of the LORD, and pitched his tent there; and there Isaac’s servants dug a well.” Gen. 26:23-25
The LORD sometimes speaks at odd moments in scripture, seemingly inserting Himself almost at random in certain passages. With all the trials Isaac was going through – having moved due to famine, then being mistreated in Gerar repeatedly, Isaac was likely wondering if God was with him.
A significant element of the Genesis 26 narrative is encapsulated in these verses: that God is with Isaac, just as God was with Abraham. Isaac was not merely getting hand-me-down faith; he also had a direct relationship with God. As the rabbis say, He is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. He is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There is a difference.
God wants us to have our own personal relationship with Him. I believe this is why Isaac’s re-digging of Abraham’s old wells proved fruitless. It was as if Isaac re-dug those wells of his father, and named them the same names as his father almost in formulaic fashion, as if that was what he thought he was supposed to do. The digging of a well to get to the life-sustaining water hiding below is symbolic of how we reach out to our creator, and so Isaac was finding out that God doesn’t necessarily want us to try to get to Him the same way those before us did. Once Isaac understands this, he builds his first altar, and digs yet another new well. (v. 25)
In this case we see Isaac does not make any progress until he starts digging his own wells. Once Isaac begins doing things a new way, King Abimelech comes to him and says, as if prophetically, “you are now blessed of the LORD” (v.29).
“But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of flowing water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with the herdsmen of Isaac, saying, “The water is ours!” So he named the well Esek, because they contended with him. Then they dug another well, and they quarreled over it too, so he named it Sitnah. He moved away from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he named it Rehoboth, for he said, “At last the LORD has made room for us, and we will be fruitful in the land.”” Gen. 26:19-22
This is one of many narrative portions of scripture that if we merely read at face value, we only glean historical, seemingly anecdotal information about the life is Isaac. We must always ask ourselves what lesson we can learn from the text and how we can apply it to our own lives.
Consider how frustrated Isaac likely already was at the fact that the Philistines stopped up his father’s wells. Abimelech asked him to leave Gerar proper, and now while trying to make his own space, he and his servants go through all the effort to dig a well, only to have the Philistines commandeer it. And then it happens a second time!
The land of Canaan was given to Abraham and Isaac by God, and yet Isaac can’t seem to claim any of it for himself. Likewise it was probably frustrating for Abraham that, although the land was his in the eyes of God, he had to buy a cave to bury Sarah, including a field he didn’t want, for an exorbitant price!
What we must glean from this part of scripture is that at times, life will seem unfair; we will be wronged on occasion, and often our efforts will seem to be in vain. Isaac shows us great character through the ordeal however, most notably his being slow to anger, and his perseverance.
We should take note that many of the hurdles Isaac faces in this story are extremely similar to those of Abraham, up to and including issues over wells with Abimelech. God may at times bring us through similar ordeals to see if we handle them differently and with better character than our fathers, or than we ourselves have in the past.
This is what the story of Isaac is about; Improving our reactions to life’s challenges. This becomes clear when, after all this strife with the Philistines in Gerar, Abimelech eventually comes to make a covenant with Isaac. It is true this was done with Abraham as well, however what is important to note is the tone of each of these covenants:
Abraham hears Abimelech out, then decides to complain about the issues with the wells, stubbornly insists that Abimelech recognize that the wells were his, then they part ways. (Gen. 21:22-32). It is as if he agrees to peace, but he is not really at peace about it.
Contrast this with Isaac, who had even more trouble over the wells, and in addition probably felt his father’s reputation slighted over stopping the old wells up (v. 15). When Abimelech and his entourage show up to make a peace covenant with Isaac, there is a distinct feeling of goodwill that was lacking from the covenant with Abraham. Not only does Isaac not complain about his treatment – he makes them a feast (a custom Abraham decided to skip) and we are told in v. 31 that Abimelech left “in peace”, something also missing from the covenant with Abraham.
This story teaches us about spiritual maturity, personal growth and improvement in our relationships. The blessing from this? Consider v. 32:
“Now it came about on the same day, that Isaac’s servants came in and told him about the well which they had dug, and said to him, “We have found water.”
“Then Isaac dug again the wells of water which 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 same names which his father had given them.” Gen. 26:18
At first read, it appears that Isaac is merely reacting to the Philistines stopping up of the wells Abraham dug, re-digging them to honor his father’s name. However, if we step back and see the overarching theme of this chapter, the story is largely a repeat episode of portions of Genesis 20 and 21, substituting Isaac for Abraham. The general motif is that of cycles repeating themselves. In fact, if God hadn’t stopped Isaac in Gerar, Isaac would have went on to Egypt to escape the famine per his initial plan, and instead we would likely see a repeat of Genesis 12 with Pharaoh.
The obvious cycle is the ruse of Isaac portraying Rebekah as his sister, something Abraham did with his wife Sarah, twice. Thankfully Isaac suffered less of a backlash. However the cycle continues, with Isaac not only re-digging Abraham’s wells, but giving them the same names as before.
No matter how righteous a man is, in each generation mistakes and missteps are made. When we speak of ‘breaking the cycle’, we refer to a life in which we do not make the same mistakes as those before us.
In addition, God also wants us to come to Him individually; we may inherit the teachings of our fathers, and the traditions of the faith, however the relationship aspect between ourselves and God is unique; it is not something our parents can give us, no matter how hard they try. At times God may take us through a very similar ordeal to what someone before us went through in hopes that we handle it differently, hoping for not only growth in our character, but flexibility in our obedience to His will.
Though Isaac was raised by Abraham – the Father of faith himself, Isaac still had to establish his own trust and obedience to God, and I believe it was God’s desire for Isaac to find his own way, not merely re-trace the steps of Abraham. In this way, the wells represent something much more; they are a picture of our access to the living water that is God and Christ.
We see this theme of the wells through the end of the chapter. Isaac is never able to use the same wells as Abraham; he digs additional wells and there is contention; after a well is dug that is not contended over, Isaac exclaims “At last the Lord has made room for us” (v. 22) after which God appears to Isaac and reassures Isaac that He is with him. The chapter ends after Isaac makes peace with king Abimelech, and on the same day, Isaac’s servants inform him they have found water (v. 32).
As Martin Buber points out, God is referred to as “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” This is not the same as “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” as it implies that each of us need to find our way to God.
“Then Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you are too powerful for us.” And Isaac departed from there and camped in the valley of Gerar, and settled there.” Gen. 26:16-17
The Philistines envied Isaac (v. 14), and so this is not a reference to Isaac being a threat to Abimelech, but rather jealousy, and so the king is telling Isaac to move out of Gerar. Isaac had become quite successful in his short time in Gerar and was living in abundance. Ramban tells us this is likely because Abimelech was embarrassed by Isaac’s superior wealth.
“Now all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines stopped up by filling them with earth.” Gen. 26:15
We tend to read this verse as if the Philistines intentionally filled Abraham’s old wells to spite Abraham and possibly Isaac. We recall Abimelech’s oath with Abraham:
“Now it came about at that time that Abimelech and Phicol, the commander of his army, spoke to Abraham, saying, “God is with you in all that you do; now therefore, swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my offspring or with my posterity, but according to the kindness that I have shown to you, you shall show to me and to the land in which you have sojourned.”” Gen. 21:22-23
A few verses later (26:18) we also see Isaac re-digging the wells Abraham had dug. All of this seems to point to and justify that the Philistines are just being vindictive, however I do not believe this is the case.
First consider that although Abraham used to live here in Gerar, Isaac did not live here this entire time but rather came recently to escape a famine (26:1). Second we consider that Abraham is dead. Together this tells us that no one was using Abraham’s wells for some period of time. Third, just as it takes effort to dig a well, it takes effort to fill a well.
If the wells were just sitting there not being used, our initial conclusion may be that they had no good reason to fill them up, other than to spite Abraham in his death and erase any vestiges of his time in Gerar. And so we fall into the same trap of misjudging the motives of our perceived enemies as both Abraham and Isaac did regarding their wives.
However Rashi points out the most plausible explanation: the Philistines likely stopped up the wells to prevent any invading army from having a water source.
As for Isaac re-digging the wells, it is entirely possible that Isaac feels the Philistines are dishonoring his father’s name, however one of the lessons Isaac learns through this ordeal is that just because something was Abraham’s, it is still in Gerar and still the property of the Philistines because Abraham too was just a sojourner there. And though both Abraham and Isaac had quarrels over wells in Gerar, when Abimelech comes to make a peace covenant with each of them, Abraham chooses to complain about the wells (Gen. 21:25), but Isaac does not (Gen. 26:26-33).
“Now Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. And the LORD blessed him, and the man became rich, and continued to grow richer until he became very wealthy; for he had possessions of flocks and herds and a great household, so that the Philistines envied him.” Gen. 26:12-14
Abraham had received plenty of good things, including oxen, donkeys, and servants, from both Pharaoh (Gen. 12) and Abimelech (Gen. 20). The only thing Isaac receives is the king’s protection, however Isaac still goes on to amass a multitude of these things on his own. As Robert Alter points out, Abraham had many blessings given to him, but Isaac’s were the fruit of his own labor. They were also blessings from God of course, for staying and sojourning in Gerar (v. 3).
To the Jewish reader, it may seem odd that Isaac “counted his blessings” with the crop he reaped, as Bereshis Rabbah 64:6 says not to look for blessings in things that can be counted, but rather things that are hidden. Thus Rashi says the field was estimated for purposes of tithing to the poor.
Rashi also notes in the original Hebrew v. 12 reads “in that land… in that year…” which was written to underscore that it was not the best land to farm, and not a particularly good crop year, yet we see Isaac’s blessings still overflowed.
The Jewish Study Bible notes that the reference to the Philistines in v. 14 is likely anachronistic, as they did not arrive in Canaan until 1200 B.C.
“Abimelech said, “What is this you have done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.” So Abimelech charged all the people, saying, “He who touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.”” Gen. 26:10-11
Rashi points out that the original Hebrew indicates the text implies “the one among the people” as opposed to just “one of the people”, whereby it infers it was Abimelech himself that had considered laying with Rebekah.
Abimelech seems to take seriously the threat of divine punishment for the act of adultery, which is likely because God spoke to him in a dream when he took Sarah from Abraham, and did threaten him and all his people (Gen. 20:3)
The end result of discovering the true relationship between Isaac and Rebekah after this confrontation is protection and favor for Isaac and his wife. In Genesis 12 with Abraham and Pharoah, Abraham and Sarah were safely escorted out of the land. In Genesis 20 with Abimelech, Abraham was given land, silver and much property.
It is an amazing picture of God’s grace, as both Abraham and Isaac lied, and after the truth became known, God chose to bless them in various ways despite their actions.
“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.
“Now there was a famine in the land, besides the previous famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham. So Isaac went to Gerar, to Abimelech king of the Philistines. The LORD appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land of which I shall tell you.” Gen. 26:1-2
The famine and the encounter with Abimelech are just the first two of many parallels between the Isaac and Abraham narratives. And just as with Abraham, Isaac was going to head to Egypt due to the famine, by way of Gerar.
We may make the assumption that God did not want Isaac to go to Egypt due to what transpired between Abraham and Pharaoh regarding Sarah, that perhaps the people of Egypt are more wicked than Gerar. However The second time that Abraham was not honest about Sarah being his wife, the same thing happened here, in Gerar, with king Abimelech, in very similar fashion.
Despite this, it appears God was alright with Isaac going to Gerar. Gerar is still within the land of Canaan, the area that would become known as the Promised Land.
Previously in Genesis 24, Abraham calls upon his oldest servant to go and find a wife for Isaac. The servant then asks “Suppose the woman is not willing to follow me to this land; should I take your son back to the land from where you came?” (Gen. 24:5)
Abraham’s response explains much:
Then Abraham said to him, “Beware that you do not take my son back there! “The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and who swore to me, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give this land,’ He will send His angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there. “But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this my oath; only do not take my son back there.” (Gen. 24:6-8)
Abraham was so adamant about Isaac not going, that he would rather his son be without a wife, despite having a great promise from God concerning the number of his descendants. This appears to be less about preventing Isaac from going to Egypt and more about Isaac staying in Canaan. Abraham’s point is that his journey led up to this: he is now in Canaan, the land promised to him and his descendants; thus he wants Isaac to establish himself here thoroughly, and does not want him to leave.
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 64:3) explains that an offering to God must stay in the temple courtyard, and thus, because Isaac was an offering to God, he must stay within the bounds of the Promised Land.