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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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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 Abraham journeyed from there toward the land of the Negev, and settled between Kadesh and Shur; then he sojourned in Gerar.” Gen. 20:1
It is interesting that Abraham heads to Gerar, as thus far Abraham has avoided cities. Rashi suggested Abraham moved from where he was because of what happened with Lot and his daughters, assuming the matter became well-known. But Kadesh and Shur were large cities, and Gerar was large enough to have its own king.
Rabbi Sforno says Abraham moved here so that he could spread the word of God. Josephus wrote that Abraham excelled at spreading the word that God was the one true God and he was prepared to debate about it to convince others.
Perhaps having seen the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham became less concerned with quiet country life and more concerned with ensuring the large cities had enough righteous people in them to spare them from destruction, and hoped he could be a positive influence to some in the cities.