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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.
“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).
“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.
“So now if you are going to deal kindly and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, let me know, that I may turn to the right hand or the left.” Gen. 24:49
Abraham’s servant has now spoken his business, explaining his desire to take Rebekah back to Isaac to be his wife. He has journeyed long, he is tired and hungry, but everything is hanging on what Laban is about to say, thus the servant’s words here may seem a bit curt.
What he is essentially saying is “Let me know your decision now, because your answer will determine my next steps.” Now we know Abraham had told his servant that he would be free from the oath if the woman would not follow him; but Rebekah is not necessarily the only choice; it could be any woman from Abraham’s family.
Utilizing the concept that the default direction in scripture is always east, Rashi’s commentary notes that Lot lived to the north, while Ishmael lived to the south. Thus when the servant said “that I may turn to the right hand or the left” he may well have been saying that he needed to move on to other prospects for Isaac.
“So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. “The LORD has greatly blessed my master, so that he has become rich; and He has given him flocks and herds, and silver and gold, and servants and maids, and camels and donkeys. “Now Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master in her old age, and he has given him all that he has. “My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; but you shall go to my father’s house and to my relatives, and take a wife for my son.’ “I said to my master, ‘Suppose the woman does not follow me.’ “He said to me, ‘The LORD, before whom I have walked, will send His angel with you to make your journey successful, and you will take a wife for my son from my relatives and from my father’s house; then you will be free from my oath, when you come to my relatives; and if they do not give her to you, you will be free from my oath.’” Gen. 24:34-41
While some things are only mentioned in passing in scripture, or even only alluded to, the initial conversation between Abraham and his servant, and it’s retelling, are both captured in full detail. We must ask ourselves if there is something critical about this passage that it is essentially here twice, since we know the scriptures are typically efficient and non-repetitive.
At the beginning of Genesis 24, Abraham charges his eldest servant to find a wife for Isaac. The entire oath is recorded in 24:2-9. Once the servant arrives and finds Rebekah, he and those traveling with him are offered to rest a while before their return journey. To explain his presence to Rebekah’s family, the servant essentially recounts the charge and the oath made with Abraham. A close reading of the text indicates subtle differences however, which I explore here.
In the opening, the servant expounds upon Abraham’s blessings, giving details. Obviously it would not have been necessary for Abraham to go into detail with his servant, as he lived with him.
In the sworn statement, Abraham makes reference to The LORD God concerning the promise, but the servant keeps in anonymous; only that he ‘swore’, but not to whom.
Abraham had charged the servant to go to “my country and relatives”. The servant used the term “my father’s house”. Perhaps this was a tactic to remind Laban that they are all, in fact, family. It is worth noting that in Genesis 12:1 Abraham was called to leave all three:
“Now the LORD said to Abram,
“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;”
The servant mentions both ways to freedom from his oath, either by success or the family not permitting the woman to come. Abraham only mentions the latter, but refers instead to it as “If the woman is not willing to follow you”. This is fascinating because on one hand it appears Rebekah has no choice (v. 51), yet ultimately she is asked (v. 58).
Regarding Isaac, we note that the servant made no reference to Abraham’s prohibition on bringing the son to that land, though Abraham mentions it twice. Apparently the servant did not think that was critical information, or else moot now that he was already in the middle of fulfilling the oath.
Lastly, I find it fascinating that Isaac is not mentioned by name at all throughout this entire exchange. In fact, Rebekah does not find out the name of her husband-to-be until they are face to face for the first time.
Wouldn’t Laban and the rest of the family be curious to meet this future husband? Aren’t they wondering why he is not here himself? Why doesn’t this arouse suspicion? Perhaps they are all taken aback by the display of wealth and generosity of gifts, so much so that they do not even think to ask these things.
“So the servant placed his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master, and swore to him concerning this matter.” Gen. 24:9
The phrase “place your hand under my thigh” is awkward to speak, and is most likely referring to the male organ or testicles. Today we take oaths on a sacred object, such as a bible. Jews may swear on a t’fillin or a Torah scroll (Plaut).
According to Rashi, the fact that God asked Abraham to circumcise himself, or perhaps the importance of the seed of Abraham and the promises it held for the future, made the organ the most significant object to place hands on.
Conversely, for the servant, an oath taken in such a manner may mean the curse of sterility if the oath is not kept. (Plaut)
“Now Abraham was old, advanced in age; and the LORD had blessed Abraham in every way. Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his household, who had charge of all that he owned, “Please place your hand under my thigh…”” Gen. 24:1-2
Genesis chapters 23 and 24 are largely comprised of Abraham getting specific affairs in order before his death, namely, securing a family burial site, and finding a suitable bride for his son Isaac.
As Abraham is known as a man who does many things himself (such as making preparations for the journey to Moriah on his own in Gen. 22:3, even though servants could have done this for him; see also Gen. 18), it may seem odd that he is entrusting a servant with the momentous task of finding a bride for Isaac.
We note of course Abraham is advanced in age (v. 1), and quite possibly on his deathbed. Although we read about Abraham taking another wife in Genesis 25, we must remember that there is often overlap between chapters and that the narrative does not always flow chronologically (consider the accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 for example.) Additionally, there is a good chance that Abraham has already passed away by the time the servant returns, as we see in Gen. 24:65 that the servant now refers to Isaac as his master. (Oxford)
Although it is awkward to speak of, the phrase “place your hand under my thigh” is most likely referring to the male organ or testicles. Today we take oaths on a sacred object, such as a bible. Jews may swear on a t’fillin or a Torah scroll (Plaut). According to Rashi, the fact that God asked Abraham to circumcise himself, or perhaps the importance of the seed of Abraham and the promises it held for the future, made the male organ the most significant object to place hands on.