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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 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.
“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.
“Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his maids, so that they bore children. For the LORD had closed fast all the wombs of the household of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.” Gen. 20:16-17
Abraham prays for Abimelech as God said he would in v. 7. Rabbi Benno Jacob asked why this prayer was necessary, and says it was to ensure Abraham and Sarah were entirely vindicated. I would add that perhaps God wanted to give Abraham a chance to repent of his own action in the process, as Abraham may have been wondering “Why does God want me to pray for Abimelech? For he was innocent, and I was really the one who was in the wrong” And thus by God’s kindness we are led to repentance.
As with Pharaoh in Genesis 12, we see again that Abraham’s assessment of the moral state of the people was off. (see my previous posting A Word on Pharaoh ) Abraham said in v. 11 “surely there is no fear of God in this place...” But yet we see just a few verses earlier when Abimelech told his court about the dream he had that “all the men were greatly frightened.” (v. 8).
Many common translations inform us that “the LORD had closed fast all the wombs of the household of Abimelech” as punishment on Sarah’s account (v. 17). These translations may be lacking however, in that we see God healed Abimelech, who obviously has no womb, as well. The general opinion of antiquity seems to be that impotence was upon the men of the household.
“Abimelech then took sheep and oxen and male and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and restored his wife Sarah to him. Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; settle wherever you please.” To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; behold, it is your vindication before all who are with you, and before all men you are cleared.”” Gen. 20:14-16
Abraham is given land, 1000 pieces of silver, sheep and oxen, and servants, though God did not command Abimelech to do so, only to restore Sarah to him. Why does he do this? Unlike in Genesis 12, where the gifts were given to Abraham from Pharaoh as payment for Sarah, this time they are given after the fact when the deception is known.
The first reason is stated in v. 16: For vindication. The king of Gerar wants to fully exonerate himself by giving abundant restitution. He has just given Abraham land, so in the event Abraham decides to live in proximity, no one will be able to start the rumor mill about some event between the king and Sarah. However just as in the case of Pharaoh, it causes us to pause. Pharaoh and the king of Gerar are pagans; what do they care about Abraham’s welfare? Further, they were both deceived and would surely have the power to put Abraham to death, but they do not. Pharaoh even let Abraham keep all he had given him.
Certainly the main reason is a fear of Abraham’s God whom they did not know previously. This God had a power that was real, and it was obvious there was a hedge of protection around Abraham. God brought plagues upon both their households, and even threatened death to Abimelech. Further, God gave an additional stipulation aside from simply returning Sarah: Abraham was to pray for Abimelech so he would live (v. 7). Perhaps Abimelech added the gifts and land as a gesture of good faith in hopes Abraham would do just that.
Note that in v. 16 Abimelech refers to Abraham as Sarah’s brother, rather than her husband. We can only speculate if this was said in a sarcastic tone.
“…and it came about, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her, ‘This is the kindness which you will show to me: everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’ Gen. 20:13
The word used for God here is the plural “Elohim“, which could be translated as gods. This may actually be referring to Abraham leaving his father Terah (see Genesis 12:1-5) due to him being an idolator in we see in Joshua 24:2:
“Joshua said to all the people, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods.'””
Friedman notes that Abraham speaks in this manner because he is addressing a pagan king, and that Abimelech has not yet told Abraham that he had an encounter with the one true God.
We may be tempted to state that this is a reference to the Triune Godhead, comprised of God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, which is also a possibility, however the context would not seem to have the same significance as the other interpretations.
“Besides, she actually is my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife; and it came about, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her, ‘This is the kindness which you will show to me: everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’ Gen. 20:12-13
Abraham here defends his statement about Sarah to Abimelech, king of Gerar. Because Abraham is generally held in high esteem by both Jews and Christians, most hold that he was not lying, but rather simply de-emphasizing his marital relationship over the familial when he felt his life was in danger. In both cases the circumstances were precipitated by a combination of Sarah’s beauty along with a perceived lack of morals among the local people.
Genesis 20:12 is the only verse in scripture that supports Sarah being Abraham’s half-sister. We do not otherwise see a family lineage of Sarah. There is speculation that Sarah could actually be Iscah, Haran’s daughter (Abraham’s brother, see Gen. 11:29), which would technically make Sarah Abraham’s niece, a little closer to what Abraham was claiming. However it is only speculation based on Iscah’s name, which could mean ‘to gaze’ (on account of Sarah’s beauty). Rashi proposed that Sarah was Iscah because Iscah implies aristocracy, and Sarah is generally thought to mean ‘princess‘.
Marrying a half-sister may have been culturally acceptable in the Mesopotamian region where Abraham came from, but was likely not acceptable in Egypt or Gerar, thus the ruse was concocted and agreed to by Sarah, as we see in verse 13. Later, we see that the Levitical law has restrictions on closeness between certain blood relatives, including sisters, whether born from the father or mother (Lev. 18:9).
It is quite obvious from the narrative here that ultimately God considers the marital relationship to supersede any blood relationship, as He even threatens death to Abimelech if he does not return Sarah to Abraham. Genesis 2:24 reads “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” This illustrates marriage is to be considered the strongest of all relational bonds between humans.
“Now therefore, restore the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.” Gen. 20:7
This verse contains the first mention of the both the word “prophet” and “prayer” in scripture. God appears to be referring to Abraham’s status as a prophet to illustrate the manner of man with whom Abimelech is dealing. Similarly, the intercessory act of prayer would not be unlike the role of a prophet (see Jer. 7:16). Prophets are known for their prayers.
The proposed result of Abraham’s prayer for Abimelech is that “he may live”, as God had threatened death to him in verse 3. Even though Abimelech would likely not be in this situation if he were not mislead by Abraham about the nature of his relationship with Sarah, the guilt would apparently still fall upon Abimelech.
However harsh it may seem, God is making Himself known to this pagan king in quite a memorable way; for when Abimelech has a run-in with Abraham’s son Isaac in Genesis 26, Abimelech warns all the people not to touch Rebekah under penalty of death – for now he has the fear of God in him.
A possible lesson to be gleaned from both this story, and the similar story in Genesis 12 is to consider the repercussions of our words. In each case, Abraham isn’t completely truthful about the nature of his relationship with Sarah, and that compromise leads to plagues and punishments against other men who were tempted to sin with Sarah, albeit unknowingly. Since we do not always know the end of our untruthful words and actions, we should speak as truthfully as possible.