We have tarried for several days in the story of Abraham. It is now time to press forward and enter the story of Isaac. While it is possible to detect Exodus-related themes in some of the intervening narratives, the next major expression of these themes is found in Genesis 26. Once again, my thoughts here have been very much helped by James Jordan’s treatment of the passage.
In Genesis 26, we once again find a story in which one of the patriarchs seeks to deceive a foreign ruler by pretending that his wife is really his sister. We have already encountered and commented upon two such stories within Abraham’s life – the first with Pharaoh in Egypt and the second with Abimelech in Gerar.
Despite the similarities between these stories, there are significant differences and, more importantly, developments between them to be observed. For instance, in the Pharaoh story the woman is the one who is primarily attacked: the seed isn’t really in view. In the first Abimelech story, while the woman is once again attacked, it is the threat to the promised seed that is most in view and the opening of the wombs plays an important part in the story. In this, the third of these related narratives, the children, Esau and Jacob, have already been born. There is a threat to the woman and to the seed, but most of the wider story focuses upon the disputes over the wells. A further difference can be seen in the fact that, while Sarah is taken by the ruler in the other two narratives of this kind, Abimelech doesn’t take Rebekah, as the ruse is discovered before anyone does anything to her.
Isaac and Rebekah among the Philistines
The narrative of Genesis 26 begins with a famine, which leads Isaac to go to Gerar and Abimelech, king of the Philistines, probably a different Abimelech from the one with whom Abraham made a covenant (21:32), Abimelech being a dynastic title, like Pharaoh, rather than a personal name. YHWH appears to him, instructing him to dwell in the land that he shows him, rather than heading down to Egypt. YHWH declares that he will fulfil his oath sworn to Abraham for Isaac, because Abraham ‘obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws’ (v.5). It is worth remembering that Isaac witnessed this oath made to his father Abraham in 22:16-18, as he was also on the mount in Moriah. This appearance of YHWH, occurring within the inclusio of v.1b and v.6 has Abraham at its very heart. Within the entirety of this chapter, Abraham will remain a very important figure, as a crucial theme is the realization and recovery of Abraham’s legacy.
In Gerar, Isaac uses the same ploy as his father Abraham, pretending that Rebekah is his sister. The need for such deception may seem unclear to us. However, the impression that one gets from ancient literature and later from this passage is that women – even married women – were seen as fair game in many cultures and that wives were often taken from their husbands by more powerful men. Isaac’s chief concern seems to be his own safety (v.9). As in previous examples, this action should not be attributed to mere cowardly self-interest. Isaac was the leader and protector of a large group of people, quite probably numbering in the thousands, including his two sons, Esau and Jacob. If he was killed on account of Rebekah, all of their lives could be put in jeopardy. However, if he pretended to be her brother, he could use delaying tactics or some other ploy to prevent her being taken, while not being seen as so direct an obstacle.
They are discovered, however, when Abimelech, looking through a window, sees Isaac playing (literally ‘isaac-ing’) with his wife (v.8). Whether Abimelech was spying on Isaac and Rebekah, we don’t know, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he were. Abimelech promptly accuses Isaac of dealing falsely with him. By not telling the Philistines that Rebekah was his wife, he could have brought guilt on them if one of the people were to lie with her (v.10). The injustice of this accusation should be immediately apparent: it implies that the Philistines were the sort of people who would just sleep with a woman without seeking consent either from her or her brother or protector, and that anyone not married (and probably many who were) was fair game.
There are echoes of Eden here. Rebekah is ‘beautiful to behold’ (v.7), the accent upon the relationship between the senses and her beauty recalling Genesis 3:6. After discovering the true identity of Rebekah, Abimelech declares of the person who touches her ‘dying he shall die’ (26:11, cf. 2:17). On various occasions in Scripture there is a connection between the woman and the garden and the source of water within it. Adam, as the one charged with guarding and keeping the garden (2:15), was especially charged with guarding his wife, a task that Adam failed in. Isaac has the same vocation. Once again we see the cast lined up: the man who must guard and keep the woman and the seed of promise, and the serpent figure who lies, accuses, and threatens (over history serpents become dragons who don’t merely lie and accuse, but also threaten with violence), seeking to gain power over the woman.
By this point we also have an attenuated exodus pattern: famine and divine instruction drives the patriarch into a foreign country (once again, we should remember that the Philistines are associated with the Egyptians in Genesis – 10:13-14) where there is a perceived threat to the woman and false accusation is made by the ruler. It is important to notice that Edenic patterns and Exodus patterns are closely related. The pattern continues in the narrative that follows.
Conflict over the Wells
In verses 12-16 we see Isaac prospering in the land of the Philistines. He seems to be settled enough to engage in the growing of crops, an activity that his father Abraham was never recorded doing (although see 18:5-6). The hundredfold increase of Isaac’s crops contrast with the famine from which he has just escaped. The growing of crops and the planting of gardens and vineyards is a sign of a greater degree of settlement and is associated with the fuller blessings of the land. Many of the later feasts of Israel would develop around such practices. Isaac prospers exceedingly (he ‘began to prosper, and continued prospering until he became very prosperous’), gaining an immense number of servants, huge flocks and herds, and enjoying a bounteous harvest.
Once again we see a development here in the exodus theme here. The story of Abraham with Pharaoh involves Abraham leaving the land of Egypt with the many goods and persons given to him by one who is now hostile to him – spoils. The story of Abraham and Abimelech involves Abraham staying in the land and enjoying a generally positive relationship with Abimelech, who gives him many gifts. Here, however, nothing is given to Isaac by Abimelech, but he enjoys miraculous fruitfulness from the hand of YHWH.
By this point, the Philistines were beginning to envy him. They had already killed the wells that Abraham had dug in his day (v.15), and seemed to have shifted in their attitude. Here we find an Abimelech who did not know Abraham, much as at the beginning of Exodus we encounter a Pharaoh ‘who did not know Joseph’ (Exodus 1:8). A similar shifting of attitude towards the prospering people of God can also be seen in the story of Jacob with Laban (Genesis 31:2). Isaac and his people have multiplied so much that they are mightier than the people of the land, making the Philistines fearful (v.16, cf. Exodus 1:9), so much so that they are told to leave. This prospering in the foreign land (though not this time at the expense of the people of the land) and departure continues the exodus pattern that we have already observed here.
Throughout this chapter we see Isaac following in the footsteps of Abraham his father, being blessed on his account, and continuing his legacy. Here we see Isaac restoring the work of his father, which had been destroyed by the Philistines. He digs the wells of his father again and gives them their original names, reviving the abandoned heritage of Abraham’s labours. The repetition of the scenes and themes of Abraham’s life that we see in this chapter, and the repeated references to Abraham, serves to demonstrate the relationship and continuity that exists between the two generations of covenant-bearers and also the progressive development of the patterns of the covenant as one generation succeeds another.
Isaac’s servants dig and find a well in the wadi, which Gerar’s herdsmen claim as their own (vv.18-19). Isaac names the well Esek, or ‘quarrel’. Isaac’s servants then dig another well, which the herdsmen of Gerar quarrel over again, naming it Sitnah or ‘enmity’ or ‘accusation’. Once again, this recalls themes of Genesis, with the enmity (although a different word in the Hebrew from that in Genesis 3:15) established between the woman and the serpent, and between their respective seeds (the relationship between Sitnah and Satan’s name as the ‘accuser’ should also be noted). Finally, at the third attempt, they dig a well that does not lead to a quarrel and call it Reheboth or ‘spaciousness’. Within this section of the passage we see departure from the land, struggles over water in the dry places, moving from place to place, finally leading a location where they find room and a place to settle and be fruitful. All of this continues the Exodus pattern previously observed.
The Oath and Covenant with Abimelech
Isaac then departs for Beersheba where he has a night vision. YHWH declares that he is with Isaac and will multiply and bless him for the sake of Abraham. Isaac then builds an altar, proclaims the name of YHWH, and his servants dig a well.
In 21:25-33, Abraham had a similar experience. He had a dispute with the herdsmen of Gerar over wells, makes a covenant with Abimelech, and names the name of the place of the well Beersheba. He then travels from there to sacrifice Isaac, before returning to Beersheba again afterwards (22:19). Once again, Isaac is following in the path of Abraham his father, and knowing Abraham’s blessing as a result.
At this point Abimelech, one of his close counsellors, Ahuzzath, and Phichol, the commander of his army, come out to meet Isaac. They have recognized that YHWH is with Isaac and desire to make a covenant with him (vv.28-29). The impression given is that it is not only Isaac with whom they are interested in coming into relationship, but also YHWH, whom Isaac represents. They establish a covenant between them and swear an oath, much as Abraham’s Abimelech had made an oath and covenant there earlier (21:31). That very same day, Isaac’s servants discover water in the well that they have been digging (26:32). Isaac then names the place Sheba, after the name given to it by his father (21:31; cf. 26:18).
We should connect the discovery of water with the establishment of the covenant with Abimelech and his people. The Garden of Eden was a source of water (2:10) and the woman, as the mother of the living (cf. 3:20) is symbolically associated with this: as I have already remarked women are related to wells of water. The threat upon the woman and the water sources is replaced by a situation where the life of the Garden and the woman as the womb of the world flow out into the whole creation. As Scripture develops, the water becomes increasingly associated with the gift of the Spirit, as wells and springs are opened in the wilderness, and barren places are made fruitful (cf. Isaiah 35:7; 41:18).
This movement from barrenness to fruitfulness recurs in Genesis (the chief wives of the patriarchs are all initially characterized by barrenness – 11:30; 25:21; 29:31). The development from the attack of various accusing ‘satan’ figures upon the women and the wells to spaciousness, fruitfulness, and the sharing of covenant life with the nations is a crucial theme of the book, where even dry wells of the sons of Abraham can yield life to the world (cf. Joseph is drawn out of a dry well in 37:24).
As noted at various points, this chapter is one in which Isaac clearly walks in the footsteps of his father, Abraham. He is blessed on Abraham’s account and devotes himself to recovering, restoring, developing, and fulfilling Abraham’s legacy. The exodus experience that he undergoes is one that takes a more mature form than those of Abraham, as a greater degree of fruitfulness is involved, and the life of the covenant, represented by the wells, is more expansive: not only are Abraham’s well restored, but further wells are dug besides.
Within Genesis 26 we once again see threats posed to the sources of the life of the covenant, to the woman and the wells. However, these threats are overcome, not through violence, but through patience and perseverance. The life of the covenant then begins to flow out into the wider world, as YHWH begins to fulfil his purpose to bless the nations through Abraham and his seed.