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“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son.” Gen. 22:13
Matthew Henry, in his Commentary, notes that just as Abraham was tested to ensure he loved God more than his father (Gen. 12), now God wanted to ensure Abraham loved him more than his own son Isaac. Now that Abraham has proven this, the sacrifice of Isaac can be called off, and the ram offered instead.
Abraham’s story embodies here what Jesus said about being willing to hate our families (by comparison of our love for Him). That is the necessary level to strive for, and Abraham was able to prove that to God.
God ultimately provides a substitute sacrifice as Abraham sees a ram caught in a thicket. Gesenius’s Lexicon (Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testamament Scriptures) defines the word ‘thicket’ here as “branches, interwoven“1. The late pastor Adrian Rogers noted that this scene prefigured the crown of thorns upon the head of Jesus the Messiah, the ultimate substitutionary sacrifice, prior to His crucifixion.
I believe God introduced the concept of the substitutionary sacrifice here to guide His people, the Jews, into understanding what He would do with the Christ. Another similar example would be in Genesis 41 – how Joseph was somehow both under Pharaoh, but was in full power, just as Pharaoh was. This is a picture of how Jesus can be considered co-equal with God as the Christian faith believes. After all, it was written of Joseph that he was paraded around Egypt with shouts of “bow the knee!”, and of Christ it is written in Philippians 2:10 “every knee will bow”.
The rams horn (the shofar) in Jewish tradition is related to this story. Additionally, the liturgy for the second day of Rosh Hashanah includes the reading of Genesis 22, the Binding of Isaac, as this story is known.
Blue Letter Bible. “Dictionary and Word Search for cĕbak (Strong’s 5442)”. Blue Letter Bible. 1996-2010. 2 Oct 2010. < http:// www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H5442&t=KJV >
“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.
After Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her sight. And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done me be upon you. I gave my maid into your arms, but when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her sight. May the LORD judge between you and me.” But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight.” So Sarai treated her harshly, and she fled from her presence. Gen. 16:3-6
After Hagar the Egyptian saw that she was pregnant, she despised Sarai. The general opinion of antiquity seems to be that though Hagar was the servant, once she realized she had accomplished what Sarai could not, providing a son, she likely had an heir of superiority over Sarai and looked down upon her. When Abram tells Sarai she must deal with the situation, Sarai decides to treat Hagar harshly.
Friedman’s commentary points out that this is a precursor to a role-reversal in the future: That of Pharaoh and the Egyptians and their harsh treatment of the Israelites. The Hebrew word used here for Hagar’s affliction, inah, is the same word used in Exodus 1:11 describing the hard slave labor of the Israelites under Pharaoh. A reason cited for treating them harshly? They multiplied, (Ex. 1:7) just as Hagar did.
I cannot say for certain whether the similarities between Sarai’s treatment of Hagar and Egypt’s treatment of Israel was divinely planned by God as an eye-for-an-eye punishment of sorts, or just curious happenstance. But it is interesting to consider nonetheless.
“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.” Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him; and they escorted him away, with his wife and all that belonged to him.” Gen. 12:19-20
With such few details in the narrative it is easy to either overlook Pharaoh’s character, especially if we are more concerned with Abram and Sarai. However it really is difficult to ignore this event considering the context and expected outcome, which does not happen. We have Abram, who decides to sojourn to Egypt on account of the famine in Canaan. Abram has a concern about the Egyptians with respect to his wife’s beauty to the point where he is afraid the Egyptians will kill him. Abram was correct in that his wife’s beauty was so highly regarded that Pharaoh’s official’s took her to him, and essentially gave Abram payment for Sarai.
So far Abram’s judgment of the Egyptians seems correct. They did find his wife beautiful, and they did take her, but have spared his life. However God intervenes and sends plagues upon both Pharaoh and his house. Considering that Pharaoh is a very powerful man, and probably does not know the God of Abram, what would we expect to happen at this point, if we did not know the outcome of this story? It would not be unreasonable to think that Pharaoh, who seems to have made the connection between Sarai and the plagues, would drive her away at the very least, or worse have her killed. Even if the fear of God were upon him and he let Sarai go safely, what is his concern with Abram at all at this point? In his eyes, Abram had done him wrong by deceiving him and had received material wealth in return! Most certainly we would expect Pharaoh would have him killed or maybe thrown into prison. But this is not what happens.
Instead Pharaoh calls Abram to have a face to face conversation. Pharaoh is showing a great deal of restraint; he is one of the most powerful people in the world at the time confronting the man who deceived him. But yet Abram and Sarai walk away from the incident unharmed. Not only unharmed, but even protected by the men that would likely wish to harm them (Pharaoh’s men), and to top it all off, their possessions are all still in hand. Surely Pharaoh would have demanded back the multitude of sheep, oxen, donkeys and servants he gave Abram! But Pharaoh did not.
Was the hand of God against Pharaoh? Yes. Did Abram misjudge Pharaoh’s character? Yes. Look at the words of Pharaoh’s questions to Abram: “Why did you not tell me she was your wife?” “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.” There is a certain restrained poise to his words; it is as if he is speaking to Abram as a person showing his reasonableness, not a powerful ruler. It would seem that, though Pharaoh may have desired a beautiful woman such as Sarai at his side, he was not willing to cross the boundary of adultery, much less kill Abram as Abram feared. It is almost as if his words to Abram are humbly showing Abram that he has in fact misjudged his character. You can almost feel the regret of Abram, as he realizes the trouble he has brought upon Pharaoh and his house, not to mention troubling God to intervene because of his actions, realizing this may have all been for naught. Perhaps he should have just told the truth, but instead he allowed his fear, combined with his preconceived notions about Pharaoh and the Egyptians (and perhaps even pride about his wife’s beauty) to dictate his actions.
This portion of scripture is as much about God’s intervention to protect Sarai as it is about judging our perceived enemies motives.