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“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.”

Life indeed.

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“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.

“When the men of the place asked about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” for he was afraid to say, “my wife,” thinking, “the men of the place might kill me on account of Rebekah, for she is beautiful.””  Gen. 26:7

This is the third time we see this ruse in scripture:  first with Abraham and Sarah involving Pharaoh in Genesis 12; then with Abraham a second time, this time involving King Abimilech in Genesis 20; and here with Isaac and Rebekah, again with King Abimilech.

I see the repetition of this recurring theme being recorded as having two possible explanations, of which both may be true.

1 – On one hand it lends to the credence that it was an actual concern; that men would be willing to kill another man in order to take his wife as their own.  This raises a question however, as it infers that such a man would have a stronger conviction about committing adultery than taking someone’s life.  Perhaps this is why in the New Testament contains this interesting passage:

“For He who said, “DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY,” also said, “DO NOT COMMIT MURDER.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.”   James 2:11

2 – The repetition of the story however, also reinforces the likelihood that neither Abraham nor Isaac were very good at judging the motives of others.  Perhaps in their cases, it was not a valid concern, and their lives may not have been in danger.  In the case of Pharaoh, it becomes fairly clear that Pharaoh would not have taken Sarah in the first place if Abraham had been honest about their relationship:

“Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her and go.”  Gen. 12:19

I explored the incident between Pharaoh and Abraham much more thoroughly in a previous post.

Additionally, what the repetition of this theme helps us to see is the character of those involved.  Isaac had a choice: handle the situation with honesty, or do the same thing his father did, and he chose the latter.  What may be more surprising in this case, however, is the integrity of character shown by Abimilech.

What is important to ultimately glean from the text in my opinion, is that those of us who believe in God often misjudge the moral standing of those we assume do not believe in God.  In doing so, our distrust of others translates into a lack of faith.  Our actions that follow may then be skewed by our perception of those we judge.

In the case of Pharaoh with Sarah, and the case of Abimilech with Rebekah, the actions of Abraham and Isaac nearly caused Pharaoh and Abimilech to sin, but God in His mercy prevented them from such guilt because He knew they were both innocent in the circumstances.  Further, God then saw to it that both Abraham and Isaac were called out on their dishonesty.

“Sojourn in this land and I will be with you and bless you, for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore to your father Abraham.  “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws.”  Thus Isaac lived in Gerar.  Gen. 26:3-6

Isaac was heading to Egypt via Gerar when God told him to stay in Gerar, that by doing so God would be with him, bless him, and establish the oath made to Abraham.  The oath included multiplying their descendants and giving them the lands.  God had called Abraham from Haran to Canaan, so Isaac was already where God wanted him to be.

Gerar may not have been the ideal destination for escaping the famine, but it was sufficient; and as we see, God did bless Isaac and he prospered there greatly.  So much so, in fact, that King Abimilech sent him away from Gerar proper, telling Isaac “you are too powerful for us.” (v. 16)  Some rabbis believe that Isaac ultimately had more wealth than the king, and Abimilech was embarrassed.

Isaac’s role as a patriarch was an interesting one, largely representing a transition between Abraham and Jacob.  Abraham was mostly nomadic, and Jacob was for the most part settled, but Isaac is a bit of both; semi-nomadic then later settled.  Just as God accomplishes His will in each of us individually, His larger plan looms.  One could argue that it began with Abraham’s father Terah, who ultimately left Ur and ended up in Haran.

In many ways, Isaac’s job was to stay where he was at and watch God’s blessings unfold before him.  There is something to be said of contentment here.  All too often we want to race forward with our lives, but in our hurrying we fail to see that sometimes we just need to accept our current circumstances and resist our desire to “move on” to the next chapter of our lives too quickly.  When we race forward like this, it is much like hurrying through the previous chapter of a book, only to realize in a few chapters we must have missed something crucial because now the story isn’t quite making sense.

Through Isaac’s obedience to stay in Gerar for a time, he likely gained much more than God’s material blessings.  Things like patience by learning to wait on God; Trust, by seeing that God’s promises were coming to pass in time;  Contentment by staying in Gerar and not merely pressing on to Egypt, and quite possibly humility, in seeing that God’s plan for him worked out better than the plan he had for himself.  In Isaac’s dealings with Abimilech, we even see more of a willingness to reconcile with others than in the case of Abraham (compare Gen. 20:24-32 to Gen. 26:30-31)

In Isaac, God is cultivating positive traits beyond those of Abraham which will be further carried and refined through Jacob.

“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.

Genesis 26 sums up much about the life of Isaac, the patriarch with the least narrative devoted to him.  At first read it seems a repeat of many of the events in Abraham’s life in Genesis 20 and 21, however there are differences, however minute, and those differences are important.

It is a chapter about coming to God in our own way, not merely rediscovering the faith of our father.  Although surprisingly little is written about Isaac, we can glean much about who he is on a personal level from his actions and reactions, and his dealings with others.  He appears to be a fairly quiet man, yet seems to want to live vicariously through his burly soon Esau.  He trusts more in his senses than his intuition.  He is more of a peacemaker than his father Abraham, yet he is naive.

Most scholars believe that Isaac is essentially the generational link between Abraham and Jacob, and as such his primary role is to establish himself in Canaan, and keep the tradition of the faith intact.  I would take this a step further, that God was refining the line of Abraham until all the necessary qualities would be in place for the man to be born who would become Israel.

“Now these are the records of the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham became the father of Isaac; and Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife.  Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD answered him and Rebekah his wife conceived.”  Gen. 25:19-21

We read here that Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, and later in verse 26 that he was sixty years old when Jacob and Esau were born, thus Rebekah was barren for twenty years.  This is not the first encounter of barrenness in scripture, as Sarah was barren as well, for at least 25 years (we know Abraham was 75 when he left Haran (Gen. 12:4) and it was already known Sarah was barren before that (Gen. 11:30).

And so we see an increase in blessing and less of a wait for fulfillment;  Through Sarah came one child, through Rebekah came twins after a shorter wait.  The fulfillment of the abundance of Abraham’s offspring is now beginning;  just as Abraham was only able to physically acquire one small plot of all the land promised to him, so too he only sees one of the children that the people of the Covenant would come through.

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