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“Isaac said, “Behold now, I am old and I do not know the day of my death.””
~ Gen. 27:2
Isaac would have been about 123 years old at this point. Certainly his health was beginning to fail; his eyesight was already going if not gone completely, and the text tells us he had to rise up to eat, which may indicate he was bedridden to some extent – we do not know for sure.
Ever since the flood had occurred, life spans began to reduce rapidly. A Midrash tells us that children do not necessarily expect to reach the age their parents did, which was likely part of Isaac’s concern. Abraham lived to 175 years, however Sarah only lived to 127. In reality, Isaac lived another 57 years and died at age 180 (Gen. 35:28-29)
“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.
“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.
“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.
“Now these are the records of the generations of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s maid, bore to Abraham; and these are the names of the sons of Ishmael, by their names, in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael, and Kedar and Adbeel and Mibsam and Mishma and Dumah and Massa, Hadad and Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedemah. These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages, and by their camps; twelve princes according to their tribes.” Gen. 25:12-16
Because of Isaac being the promised child, and the significance that his birth and near-sacrifice represents to both Judaism and Christianity, Ishmael tends to be cast in a negative light. His mother Hagar was an Egyptian, a maidservant of Abraham’s and was not his original wife. Ishmael is viewed as the progenitor of the Arabs, and the Arabs are seen as being at odds with the Jews, who are recognized as God’s chosen people.
All of this means we don’t offer much credence to Ishmael, and we often are blinded to any virtuous or spiritual thing with regards to Hagar or Ishmael. Consider that:
- Ishmael, just as Isaac, was named by God before birth.
- After Hagar fled from Sarah, God told her to go back and submit, and she was obedient. In Genesis 16:10 Hagar received a promise from God, that her descendants would be too numerous to count. This echos the promise given to Sarah concerning her descendants.
- Ishmael, just as Isaac, had a brush with death. In Genesis 21, Sarah sent Hagar and Ishmael away, and upon running out of water, Hagar thought Ishmael would not survive.
- God visited Hagar a second time to reassure her. How many in scripture get one visitation, let alone two?
- God heard Ishmael’s cry as he lay dying, and promised to make a great nation of him, and He does – there are twelve princes of Ishmael before there are twelve tribes of Israel.
In short, many of the same promises of God were made to both Hagar and Ishmael as well as to Abraham, Sarah and Isaac. In part, God’s promise to Abraham to make him many nations was a promise God was willing to fulfill even if not only through Sarah.
It is important to view Hagar and Ishmael as significant people in the story of Abraham; to learn lessons from them as to God’s promises, God’s favor, and God seeing our plight and hearing our cries. We must not simply reduce their story to “That’s where the Arabs/Muslims come from” which unfortunately happens much today.
“These are all the years of Abraham’s life that he lived, one hundred and seventy-five years. Abraham breathed his last and died in a ripe old age, an old man and satisfied with life; and he was gathered to his people.” Gen. 25:7-8
Just as with Sarah, we see some redundancy in the language used mentioning their death, drawing us instead to their abundance of life. In this case, it tells us of the “life” that Abraham “lived”, and goes on to inform us he was satisfied with life. Jesus the Messiah told us He came that we might have life and have it abundantly, and I believe some of the patriarchs (and matriarchs) of the faith embodied this.
Although Abraham lived 175 years, we only know part of the story of his life; the most significant of which happens within only a 25 year period. Genesis chapter 12 introduces us to an already 75-year-old Abraham (Gen. 12:4), and the long awaited birth of Isaac happens at age 100 (Gen. 21:5). Things like this should be a reminder that we do not know the whole story, it is not all recorded either in the bible or the Talmud.
These verses are likely not chronological, but rather the death of Abraham is probably mentioned earlier in the scriptures for sake of a concrete ending, allowing the narrative to move on.
Last we see that Abraham was ‘gathered to his people’. This phrase is used multiple times in the scriptures, but what exactly does it mean here?
As Abraham just bought a family tomb (the Cave of Macpelah, where only Sarah is buried thus far), it cannot simply mean he will be buried with those who went on before him. As for Abraham’s close family, we know of his nephew Lot, his father Terah, and his brothers Nahor and Haran. If this is speaking of Abraham going to be with those who died before him, this may cause us to pause, as Abraham was obviously the one following God most closely; Terah was an idolator, and Lot picked up what he could from Abraham but it did not stop him from making bad decisions in his lifetime. If we envision a spiritual afterlife, I would say many of us would not necessarily picture Abraham in the presence of these family members, yet it says ‘gathered to his people’.
Verses like this should challenge our understanding of what we think happens when people pass on, based on their beliefs and actions in this life.
“Now Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah.” Gen. 25:1
Although most see no real issue with Abraham taking a wife at this point (Sarah having passed away, and Hagar having been sent away with God’s approval quite some time ago), many Jewish scholars (including Rashi) believe that Keturah is actually Hagar.
Keturah’s name is similar to the Hebrew word qetoret, which means incense (or to burn incense) or possibly sacrifice . This alludes to beautiful deeds, or answered prayer. The belief is that Hagar, after having been sent away from Abraham dabbled in idolatry but repenting of it, and ultimately stayed chaste and otherwise became righteous. Some also believe that Keturah’s name was derived from an incense trade route.
We have virtually no background information on Keturah, so nothing in the scriptures specifically contradicts the idea that Keturah and Hagar could be one and the same; the only obvious difference is in name – but a name change, either by God, in a legal sense or even as a term of endearment – is not an impossibility, as we see many other such examples in the scriptures.
For those who have not heard this theory before, it is generally not understood why such a theory would even exist, or perhaps wishful thinking; however it would make sense that the hope that Father Abraham could always, through the lens of history, be looked at as one of the most righteous men of faith, there is cause not to want to view him as an adulterer. After all, Hagar technically did become Abraham’s second wife (Gen. 16:3) so as long as she is alive, Abraham cannot re-marry according to the law, even though it may be acceptable in the local culture.
It is worth noting that in 25:6 a reference is made to the “sons of [Abraham’s] concubines”; however many agree this is a mistranslation, and that the term is technically singular (i.e. concubine) and would better have been rendered ‘concubinage’ or similar.