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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 26

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter is remarkable in that the history of Isaac followed in a number of particulars that of Abraham.

(1) There was a famine similar to the one that prompted Abraham to go down into Egypt. However, Isaac, heeding the warning of God, remained in Canaan, in Gerar, which was under the jurisdiction of Abimelech, the Philistine king (Genesis 26:1-5).

(2) Isaac, with similar motivation to that of Abraham passed the word around that Rebekah was his sister. This time, however, Abimelech, knowing of the experience with Abraham and Sarah, looked into the relationship himself, and observing Isaac fondling Rebekah, he confronted Isaac and demanded the truth as well as an explanation from Isaac. Apparently, at the same time he also ordered Isaac out of the vicinity of Gerar (Genesis 26:27), and gave strict laws against anyone’s molesting either Rebekah or Isaac (Genesis 26:6-11).

(3) Isaac then, at some distance from Abimelech’s capital, engaged in agriculture, reaping harvests of a hundred fold, and being prospered exceedingly. Again, Abimelech ordered him to move; and Isaac moved further down the valley of Gerar (Genesis 26:12-17).

(4) The famine then being over, Isaac returned to his home at Beer-lahairoi, near Beersheba, and digged again the water wells which Abraham had digged, the same having, in the meanwhile, been stopped up, presumably by the Philistines. Considerable strife ensued over the water wells, but Isaac diplomatically resolved the difficulties (Genesis 26:18-22).

(5) God appeared to Isaac at Beersheba, where Isaac built an altar, presumably offered sacrifices, and worshipped Jehovah. He also digged another water well (Genesis 26:23-25).

(6) King Abimelech, however, was apparently apprehensive with regard to the growth and power of Isaac, and doubtless feared that hostilities might eventually come about. Acting in the same manner as another King Abimelech (presumably) had acted toward Abraham, he at once went to Beersheba and concluded a treaty with Isaac (Genesis 26:26-33). Thus, history repeated itself, however, not without important variations.

(7) The final paragraph of the chapter relates the marriage of Esau with Canaanite women, much to the displeasure of his mother Rebekah (Genesis 26:34-35).

Verses 1-5

“And there was a famine in the land, besides the first famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went unto Abimelech the king of the Philistines, unto Gerar. And Jehovah appeared unto him, and said, Go not down into Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell thee of: sojourn in this land, and I will be with thee; for unto thee, and unto thy seed, will I give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I sware unto Abraham thy father; and I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these lands; and in thy seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed; because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”

Help from commentaries is almost non-available for this section of Genesis. What one finds generally, are the contentions of the various schools of Biblical exegetes disputing over whether these three verses or that half a verse belong to “P” or to “J” or if possibly some editor or redactor did not combine them, or if maybe some “unknown source” might account for them! Since the period of medieval history during which the wisest (?), greatest (?), and most respected religious scholars (?) on earth were disputing the profound question of how many angels can stand on the point of a needle, nothing has ever appeared in that same category of human arrogance, conceit and ignorance until the present era, hopefully now coming to an end, when men with the most impressive academic credentials are squandering their talents in useless and preposterous discussions of the “sources” of Genesis. This not only matches but exceeds the silly nonsense of that medieval fad, and we might add that the mighty scholars of that earlier period never did determine how many angels could stand on the point of a needle, nor will the present generation of their moral disciples ever succeed in isolating and identifying their library of “alleged sources.” The reason for the impossibility lies in the truth that one cannot harmonize and classify the imaginations of men, either in the medieval period, or currently. Such intellectual “doodling” with the Holy Bible deserves no attention whatever, and we shall give it as little as possible.

“There was a famine in the land” Note that this famine, coming nearly a hundred years after the one in Abraham’s day, was in the same weather pattern that meteorologists have frequently mentioned, and which even insurance companies take into consideration, “The hundred year flood plain” of a river system is definable. The same is true of drought patterns, a drought apparently having been the cause of the famine mentioned here.

“Isaac went unto Abimelech” Since some eighty or more years had passed since Abraham had solved a similar problem by going into Egypt, it appears that Isaac decided to do the same thing, but God intervened in a special appearance to Isaac, in which the Abrahamic covenant was repeated and reaffirmed to Isaac. Genesis 26:1, here, announced that Isaac went unto Abimelech, but that was not “on the way” to Egypt from Beersheba, and so we must understand Genesis 26:2-5 as a parenthesis explaining why Isaac went to Abimelech (Genesis 26:1) and dwelt in Gerar (Genesis 26:5). God forbade him to go to Egypt and also promised to be with him and protect him in Canaan.

“I will establish the oath” This is an exceedingly important passage. Here the great Abrahamic promise of the “seed” who should bless all nations of the earth was repeated, and Isaac was identified as the person through whom God’s eternal purposes would continue to be unfolded.

“As the stars of heaven” We noted earlier that “dust of the earth,” “sands of the seashore,” and “stars of heaven” are all metaphors of the “seed of Abraham.”

“Will I give all these lands” The physical Israel would indeed drive the pagan Canaanites out of Canaan and “inherit” or receive the land as a gift from God, such a thing actually happening in the conquest of Canaan by Joshua. This is the land promise.

“In thy seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed” This is the promise of the Messiah and cannot be referred to anything else. It is fanciful to suppose that racial Jews, more than any other race, have “blessed all nations of the earth.” See discussion of The Seed Singular and the five definite Scriptural applications of the word, as used in the Bible, under Genesis 15:5; Genesis 21:14, above. In this passage also, the actual meaning that “all nations shall be blessed,” rather than “bless themselves,” as falsely alleged, is undeniable.

“So far as the record goes, this (in these 5 verses) is the first appearance of God to Isaac since he was on Mount Moriah.”(F1)

Leupold’s comment with reference to the promise of Messiah here is as follows:

“That One Great Descendant is here primarily under consideration, “the Seed,” the Christ. We also hold that in the light of Genesis 3:15, men like Isaac would have interpreted this word as a specific reference to One, a fact almost universally denied in our day, but yet true.”(F2)

“Because Abraham obeyed” Those who fancy that Abraham was saved by “faith only” should read this verse. God’s fulfillment of his promise to Abraham was here said to have been “because,” that is, as a result of, Abraham’s OBEDIENCE. The sequence here is not that God saved Abraham, and then Abraham obeyed because God saved him, but that Abraham obeyed, and because he did so, God saved him and fulfilled his promise.

Verses 6-11

“And Isaac dwelt in Gerar: and the men of the place asked him of his wife; and he said, She is my sister: for he feared to say, My wife; lest, said he, the men of the place should kill me for Rebekah; because she was fair to look upon. And it came to pass when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out at a window, and saw, and behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife. And Abimelech called Isaac, and said, Behold, of a surety she is thy wife: and how saidest thou, She is my sister? And Isaac said unto him, Because I said, Lest I die because of her. And Abimelech said, What is this that thou hast done unto us? one of the people might easily have lain with thy wife, and thou wouldest have brought guiltiness upon us. And Abimelech charged all the people, saying, He that toucheth this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.”

See the chapter introduction for the perspective on this event. This is the third event in which one of the patriarchs passed his wife off as his sister, but the circumstances are so widely different, and the details of each so necessary in context, that all efforts to make these events “doublets” or “triplets” of a single happening are unworthy of consideration.

In fact, the events of this episode presuppose and prove the similar happening in the days of Abraham, scores of years earlier. Note that Abimelech is suspicious of Isaac’s allegation that Rebekah was his sister, that he investigated personally, that he discovered them in the process of lovemaking, etc. All of that says that Abimelech knew of the earlier event in the times of Abraham, and that he acted accordingly. In a similar way, it is virtually certain also that Isaac, remembering the rich rewards Abraham harvested by two such deceptions during his career, and remembering that God had just reassured him that he would be taken care of in Canaan, decided to practice the deception himself! Admittedly, Isaac does not appear in his best role here. To allege that these are simply variants of “an old folk story,”(F3) is comparable in every way to the proposition that World War I and World War II, as found in our histories, are merely variants of the old struggle between Rome and the Huns! After all, were not the forces of Kaiser Wilhelm called “Huns”!

Another, somewhat humorous, thought that comes to mind here is that Rebekah, at the time, a woman approaching sixty, and with two grown sons at home looking after affairs that Isaac could not have brought with him on this trip, might not have been as beautiful and seductive in appearance as Isaac seems to have thought. At least, nobody bothered her. Again, the concern of Abimelech, remembering, either personally, or from the court records the case of Sarah, acted merely out of caution. Isaac continued to live in the vicinity of Gerar. That this is a variant of what happened to Abraham is impossible.

“Abimelech” This was a dynastic title of early Philistine kings, leaving it unclear whether or not he was the same monarch who took Sarah. The time lapse makes it highly probable that the two were different kings.

“The Philistines” We appreciate the rejection by Willis of the knee-jerk charges by the critics that “Philistines” in this passage is an anachronism, declaring that, “There is no reason why”(F4) the Philistine ancestors of masses of those Philistines who became so powerful in the twelfth century B.C., were not already living in southwest Canaan in the times of the patriarchs. The Bible indeed affirms that they were there, speaks repeatedly of one of their kings, as in the narrative here, leaving no doubt whatever of the truth. “Groups of those people (Philistines) existed in southwestern Palestine for centuries before the arrival of the main body of them in the first quarter of the twelfth century B.C.”(F5) In this connection, however, we should keep in mind that the Bible does not need corroboration of the spade of the archeologist. We have no confidence that archeologists will ever be able either to dig up all the evidence, or to interpret it accurately if they should accidentally do so.

Verses 12-17


“And Isaac sowed in that land, and found in the same year a hundred fold: and Jehovah blessed him. And the man waxed great, and grew more and more until he became very great: And he had possessions of flocks, and possessions of herds, and a great household: and the Philistines envied him. Now all the wells which his father’s servants had digged in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines had stopped, and filled with earth. And Abimelech said unto Isaac, Go from us; for thou art much mightier than we. And Isaac departed thence, and encamped in the valley of Gerar, and dwelt there.”

“And Isaac sowed in that land” “This is the first mention of seed-sowing in the Bible.”(F6) If the famine mentioned earlier was due to drought, which is likely, the abundant rains that followed in the next year would have made such an abundance. With increases of such dimensions as these, Jehovah did indeed bless Isaac. Significantly, his wealth, compared even to that of Abraham, seems to have been multiplied fantastically. Even a king and his people became envious of him, that being always one of the consequences of growing wealthy or powerful.

“The Philistines had stopped” This verse (Genesis 26:15) appears to be anticipative, one of the characteristics of Genesis, which occurs over and over, indicating its unity, integrity, and singleness of authorship. This paragraph relates Isaac’s removal to the valley of Gerar, the abundant crops mentioned having been reaped in the nearer vicinity of the city of Gerar, the Philistine capital. The wells which Abraham had digged were in the area of Beer-lahairoi and Beersheba, perhaps also being in the valley of Gerar approaching that area; and as the next episode will deal with the wells in the Gerar valley area, the fact of their having been stopped up by the envious Philistines is related here somewhat out of context.

“And Isaac departed thence, and encamped in the valley of Gerar, and dwelt there” How long he stayed in that place is not stated; but the next scene finds him again near the home he left when he went unto Abimelech (Genesis 26:1). This place was, “three hours southeast of Gaza, the same as the modern Joorf-el-Gerar.”(F7)

Verses 18-22

“And Isaac digged again the wells of water, which they had digged in the days of Abraham his father; for the Philistines had stopped them after the death of Abraham; and he called their names after the names by which his father had called them. And Isaac’s servants digged in the valley, and found there a well of springing water. And the herdsmen of Gerar strove with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, The water is ours: and he called the name of the well Esek, because they contended with him. And they digged another well, and they strove for that also; and he called the name of it Sitnah. And he removed from thence, and digged another well; and for that they strove not; and he called the name of it Rehoboth; and he said, For now Jehovah hath made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.”

This passage shows that Abraham’s territory had encompassed the whole of the valley of Gerar, from three hours’ journey southerly from Gerar, all the way to Beersheba, and that his well-digging activities had thus extended some distance northward from the Beersheba area.

One of the big things in the chapter is the friendly and peaceful nature of Isaac, who exhibited many of the graces and much of the meekness of the Lord Jesus Christ. Abimelech I had given Abraham the right to live in his whole domain, and the envious Philistines were acting illegally by trying to prevent Isaac’s use of their country. When disputes arose, Isaac resolved them by yielding and moving to another place, trusting Jehovah, rather than taking things into his own hands and engaging in armed conflict.

The names of the wells in this passage: Esek, Sitnah, and Rehoboth were so named because of the circumstances prevailing when Isaac’s servants digged them. Morris gave their meanings as, “The Quarrel Well,” “The Hatred Well,” and the “Well of Ample Room.”(F8) Aalders gave their meanings as: “Dispute,” “Opposition,” and “Room.”(F9) Unger defined their meanings as, “Contention,” “Enmity,” and “Room.”(F10) Perhaps the general idea would be that they meant “Strife, Animosity, and Peace!”

Verses 23-25

“And he went up from thence to Beersheba. And Jehovah appeared unto him the same night, and said, I am the God of Abraham thy father: fear not, for I am with thee, and will bless thee, and multiply thy seed for my servant Abraham’s sake. And he builded an altar there, and called upon the name of Jehovah, and pitched his tent there: and there Isaac’s servants digged a well.”

Perhaps out of fear of the continued hostility of the Philistines, Isaac gave ground and went all the way to Beersheba. That he did the right thing in this was at once confirmed by a reassuring appearance of Jehovah to the patriarch the very same night he arrived there. The “Fear not!” from God Himself might indicate that fear had encroached upon Isaac’s peace of mind.

With this vision, Isaac knew that all was well, He at once “pitched his tent” there, an idiom meaning that he established his residence there, just as Abraham had done following the treaty with Abimelech I.

“And he builded an altar there, and called upon the name of Jehovah” One should certainly reject the false notion that, “Isaac is the real founder of the Beersheba sanctuary.”(F11) Long previously, “Abraham built an altar at Beersheba,”(F12) and everything that Isaac might have known about altar-building he learned from his father Abraham. Only the evil purposes of critics can be served by the allegation that Isaac founded “the sanctuary” at Beersheba. What “sanctuary”? In fact, the very necessity that Isaac found for building an altar probably resulted from the envious hatred of the Philistines who had filled up the water wells of Abraham with dirt. Would they not also have destroyed the altar which Abraham had built there? There are some things so self-evident that the Bible did not need to record them. What Isaac did, then, was to rebuild the altar his father had erected there on the occasion of the sacrifices marking the treaty with Abimelech I.

At this place in the narrative, a totally unexpected thing took place, when Abimelech with his chief advisor and the general of his military force arrived seeking to execute a treaty of peace. Several things had led to this. The strife between Isaac’s men and the servants of Abimelech was of long standing, and had been resolved only when Isaac withdrew farther south to the Beersheba region, and even then, not concluded, only diminished. Also, Isaac’s tremendous wealth, provisions, and manpower were of such great dimensions that Abimelech decided that the security of his own land required that the treaty between Abimelech I and Abraham, should at once be renewed between him (Abimelech II) and Isaac.

Verses 26-33

“Then Abimelech went to him from Gerar, and Ahazzah his friend, and Phicol the captain of his host. And Isaac said unto them, Wherefore are ye come unto me, seeing ye hate me, and have sent me from you? And they said, We saw plainly that Jehovah was with thee: and we said, Let there now be an oath betwixt us and thee, and let us make a covenant with thee, that thou wilt do us no hurt, as we have not touched thee, and as we have done unto thee nothing but good, and have sent thee away in peace: thou art now the blessed of Jehovah. And he made them a feast, and they did eat and drink. And they rose up betimes in the morning, and sware one to another: and Isaac sent them away, and they departed from him in peace. And it came to pass the same day, that Isaac’s servants came and told him concerning the well which they had digged, and said unto him, We have found water. And he called it Shibah: therefore the name of the city is Beersheba unto this day.”

There are many scholarly opinions relative to the names of Abimelech and Phicol, as to whether or not these were the same individuals mentioned nearly a century earlier in the history of Abraham, some supposing them to be dynastic names or titular names, and some asserting that they are the same individuals, making this a variant of the same “folk tale,” etc., etc. We shall pass all such opinions by, for it makes no difference at all. Two kings named Abimelech, separated by eighty or a hundred years poses no problem. How about two kings named George in British history, or two presidents of the U.S.A. named Adams? And as for General Phicol he could quite easily have been General Phicol III, for all we know. This writer was once a guest chaplain in the U.S.A.F. in Japan, quartered for awhile in Nagoya. This was in October of 1952, some 92 years after the Civil War. One can only imagine the shocking surprise, therefore, when over the hotel sound system came the booming announcement: “General Ulysses S. Grant, General Ulysses S. Grant, line one, please, line one, please!” He was Ulysses S. Grant III, commandant of the great military unit where we were located. If scholars are looking for “problems” in Genesis, they should look elsewhere. For sake of identification, we shall refer to this Abimelech as Abimelech II.

“Ahazzah his friend” “Friend of the King” was a title for the King’s advisor, and his presence here represents an accretion to the royal bureaucracy, indicating a substantially later date than that of the visit of Abimelech I, also indicating the importance of this mission to procure a treaty with Isaac. The king brought along the head of his state department.

“Wherefore come ye to me” Isaac was surprised, and spoke of Abimelech’s having “sent him” away, making mention also of the obvious hatred of Abimelech and the Philistines for Isaac.

“We saw plainly that Jehovah was with thee” Abimelech II meant by this: “It’s clear that God loves you, and we have decided to do so also!” Their mention of this twice, both at the beginning and the end of their plea for a treaty shows that, “They did not think it safe to be on bad terms with a man who so manifestly stood in God’s favor.”(F13)

“Let there now be an oath between us … let us make a covenant” King Abimelech II reinforced this appeal by pointing out that no actual harm had been done to either Rebekah or Isaac, and that they had never done unto them “anything but good.”

Isaac at once accepted the peaceful overtures and made a feast and kept the royal party over night. The next morning the treaty, or covenant, was mutually sworn to and ratified with whatever formalities might have been appropriate for those times and that place and occasion.

Isaac’s sending them away, although expressed similarly, was a far different thing to Abimelech II’s sending Isaac away, mentioned earlier. This was “in peace” and was no doubt accompanied by all of the formal expressions of peace and good will which the occasion demanded.

Such a progression of events must have been supremely satisfying to Isaac. Under pressure, and perhaps even fear, he moved to Beersheba. God appeared to him in a comforting and encouraging vision that same night. Then Abimelech II unexpectedly visited him, requesting a treaty of peace. The treaty was celebrated with a great feast. The king departed in peace. The servants who had been digging a well, came that very day and reported that they had found water. It was an occasion to be memorialized. And therefore, Isaac called the well Shibah (Sheba), “Therefore the name of the city is Beersheba unto this day.” Like other wells Abraham had digged, this new well was named by one of the names that Isaac’s father had used for a well. As Keil expressed it:

“As this treaty made on oath between Abimelech and Isaac was only a renewal of the covenant made before with Abraham (and Abimelech I), so the name Beersheba was renewed by the well Sheba. The reality of this occurrence is supported by the fact that the two wells are still in existence!”(F14)

In view of the overwhelming internal evidence in this passage of its integrity and trustworthiness, it is amazing that anyone could think of it merely as an idle tale that somehow got adopted into the Holy Bible. Any “careful scrutiny” of this chapter “will establish the authenticity of the incidents related.”(F15)

This chapter establishes the position of the Chosen People in a legal and treaty-protected situation, under the peace-loving guidance of Isaac whose vast resources would eventually pass into the hands of Jacob the father of the Twelve Tribes.

Verses 34-35

“And when Esau was forty years old he took to wife Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite: and they were a grief of mind unto Isaac and to Rebekah.”

These verses actually belong to the succeeding chapter, but we shall treat them here where they are found in the sacred text. Abraham had introduced polygamy into the traditions of the Chosen People, and his posterity would not fail to continue it. Esau, a grandson, was the first to follow in Abraham’s footsteps; but Jacob also would not fail to do likewise. One contributing factor in this was doubtless the vast wealth inherited by his sons from Isaac. It is remarkable that Isaac refrained from taking other wives. This was due, perhaps, first of all to his great and sincere love for Rebekah, and also possibly, to the fact of his having known firsthand the horrors of a polygamous household. One thing, however, that Isaac failed to see was that parental partiality is also freighted with the most terrible dangers and consequences. He and Rebekah immediately “chose up sides” between their two sons, initiating another train of sorrows.

It is certain that both Rebekah and Isaac hated the prospect of the union of their son with the pagan daughters of the Canaanites, and they could not possibly have approved it. Leupold’s comment on the grief of Isaac and Rebekah over Esau’s pagan wives is this:

“Grief of mind i.e., “bitterness of spirit,” resulted from these marriages. The corrupt heathenish ways of those wives would have been the source of this.(F16)

However, we feel sure that something far more important than cultural differences entered into the bitterness of Isaac and Rebekah, and that was the pagan gods that thereby found their way back into the affections of the chosen race. This would eventually be the undoing and dismantling of Israel. And it is strange that this prophecy of that eventual development in Israel would have appeared right here in the pagan marriages of Esau. Yes, it is true that Esau was not “of the covenant,” but he and Jacob were still brothers, and the same contamination eventually appeared in the family of Jacob also.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 26". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/genesis-26.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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