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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.”
“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.