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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Genesis 26

 

 

Introduction

ISAAC (Genesis 25:19 to Genesis 27:46).

After the heart warming record of the obtaining of a suitable wife for Isaac as a result of the direct activity of Yahweh little is told us about him. This is because during his lifetime important covenants and theophanies were few and therefore there was no recording in writing.

The family tribe over which he presided continued to be strong (Genesis 26:16) and he clashed with Abimelech at Gerar but that is almost all we know about him apart from the birth of his children and his part in the continuation of the chosen line. But he did continue Abraham’s policy of allying his family with the family of Abraham’s father Terah and was upset when Esau departed from it (Genesis 28:9). More dangerously (and with less justification) he also continued the policy of describing his wife as his sister. He seems to be a mirror image of his father but without his effectiveness and personality.

But his importance is that he was part of the fulfilling of God’s purposes. He was not charismatic, he was not outstanding, but he was chosen by God and was a necessary part of the chain that led up to Moses, then to David and finally to Jesus Christ. What Abraham began he had to hold on to and continue. And this he did, without fuss and without bravado. He was there when God wanted him.

We too may feel that we are not important, but if we are His and responsive to His words we too are an important part of the chain that leads to the fulfilling of His purposes. Isaac should be an encouragement to us all.

However, Isaac is seen later as an important member of those to whom the covenant was given (2 Kings 13:23; 1 Chronicles 6:16; Psalms 105:9). In Amos 7:9; Amos 7:16 Isaac is used as another name to designate Israel.


Verse 1

‘And there was famine in the land beside the first famine that was on the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Abimelech, king of the Philistines, to Gerar.’

The writer knows of the extreme famine in the time of Abraham that drove him into Egypt (Genesis 12:10-20). Now the rains fail once more and another extreme famine arrives and this drives Isaac from where he is to Gerar. As a young man he had been acquainted with Gerar, although the Abimelech he knew then may have been an ancestor of the present one. It is probable that Abimelech was a throne name taken by all the kings who ruled over the Philistine conclave at Gerar (compare introduction to Psalms 34) which was probably a large trading post of not too great strength, as shown by the fact that they were continually wary of Abraham and Isaac.

But why did Isaac go to Gerar and not make for nearby Egypt which regularly provided sanctuary at times such as this? Egypt had jurisdiction over Palestine and recognised responsibilities towards it. The answer is now given. Had it not been for the theophany he would have done so.


Verses 2-5

‘And Yahweh appeared to him and said, “Do not go down into Egypt. Dwell in the land which I will tell you of. Sojourn in this land and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and to your seed I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. And I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and will give to your seed all these lands. And in your seed will all the nations of the world be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes and my laws.”.’

“Yahweh appeared to him”. This is the first theophany experienced by Isaac. We do not know what form these theophanies took, nor how Yahweh spoke, but the experience must have been awe-inspiring, unlike the usual run of their experiences in worship. It is this theophany, with its ensuing promises, that results in the recording in writing of this episode.

“Do not go down into Egypt.” A warning is given of the dangers of that arrogant land. We are already aware of what happened when Abraham went there in a similar situation. Once was forgivable, but not a second time.

“Dwell in the place which I will tell you of.” This compares with Genesis 12:1. Yahweh wants Isaac to feel that he too is a part of these promises.

“Sojourn in this land and I will be with you and will bless you.” The patriarchs owned no land (except for Machpelah). They were sojourners. They lived on land owned or controlled by others, seeking water, trading, offering services in return for the use of land for grazing and the sowing of grain, usually living near cities but not actually in them. Thus were they a self-contained community separated from the evils around them. Yahweh says they are to remain so, and thus they will experience His presence and His blessing, being ‘in the world but not of the world’.

The promises are then renewed. The land will one day be theirs. Their seed will be multiplied as the stars. The whole world will be blessed through them. The oath Yahweh made to Abraham stands firm, because Abraham was worthy.

“Because Abraham kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes and my laws.” Yahweh puts his seal on Abraham’s obedience and on their tribal customs forged in association with Him. The description signifies overall obedience to cultic requirements and moral demands. Abraham had been true to his understanding of Yahweh, acting in justice and in mercy, therefore would Yahweh be true to him. He who had been chosen by Yahweh had revealed his worthiness in his obedience to Yahweh.

This renewal of the covenant after so long a time must have been a great blessing to Isaac. He had been used to learning of his father’s experiences, but now he had experienced Yahweh for himself. Perhaps it took his mind back to his experience in the land of Moriah (Genesis 22).

Genesis 26:6

‘And Isaac dwelt in Gerar.’

He was obedient to Yahweh’s instruction, which is placed firmly within history.

Genesis 26:7

‘And the men of the place asked him about his wife, and he said, “She is my sister”. For he feared to say ‘my wife’ lest (thought he) the men of the place should kill me for Rebekah, because she was fair to look on.’

As in so much Isaac imitates his father. He remembers how his father constantly used this subterfuge and it seemed such a good idea. But to the reader there comes a feeling of trepidation and a sense that we have been here before.

“She is my sister.” There is a half truth in the statement for they are cousins, and she is therefore a close blood relation and relationships were not then so cut and dried. But it shows lack of faith in Yahweh and is inexcusable. But when men are afraid they will do strange things, and Rebekah was very beautiful with a beauty not common among townsfolk (and perhaps they did not even appreciate it).

Genesis 26:8-9

‘And it happened, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech, king of the Philistines, looked out at a window and saw, and lo, Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife. And Abimelech called Isaac and said, “See, of a certainty she is your wife. And how did you say ‘she is my sister?’ And Isaac said to him, “Because I said, ‘lest I die for her’.”

The whole truth now comes out, but only ‘after a long time’. Isaac was possibly living for a time in a building which was by the king’s house, and was not aware that it was possible for someone to see into his rooms from one of the windows. Alternately it may be that the king’s house looked out over an open space where the tents of Isaac were pitched. In that case the king may have seen the silhouette of what was happening in a lighted tent. Either way the king spots Isaac making love to his wife and immediately realises the truth. Subsequently he calls for Isaac and rightly rebukes him.

Genesis 26:10

‘And Abimelech said, “What is this you have done to us? One of my people might lightly have lain with your wife and you would have brought guilt on us”.’

Unconsciously Abimelech’s words support Isaac’s worst fears. He recognises the propensity of his menfolk to treat a visiting woman casually. And he also confirms the danger Isaac might have been in. To take a man’s wife is to incur guilt, but how different it is if that man is dead. Who then will care about the guilt? Yet his rebuke is justified for Isaac had unthinkingly put temptation in men’s way.

Genesis 26:11

‘And Abimelech charged all the people saying, “He who touches this man or his wife will surely be put to death.” ’

So Isaac’s fears are allayed, for now they enjoy the protection of the king’s command, a proof that Yahweh is keeping His word and protecting them. As He had said, “I will be with you”, and He was.

Is This Story a Duplicate?

Those who delight in seeing duplicate narratives everywhere where there is a coincidence, and have a bias against anything that seems like a coincidence when it comes to ancient records, try to tell us that this story is simply a duplicate of Genesis 12:10-20 and Genesis 20:1-13, but on careful examination there is no essential where the stories are similar, apart from those which are totally explicable and likely.

It is true that each depicts men as licentious, but then that has ever been the case. In those days a woman’s virtue was ever at risk, especially a ‘foreign’ woman, if she was not closely watched and guarded. And they all depict the profession that a wife is a sister. But as this is in fact stated to be Abraham’s regular policy it would clearly happen again and again. The only other ‘coincidence’ is explained by the fact that Abimelech is a throne name (or a family name) and therefore passes from one generation to another. Thus the similarities are easily explained and happened often.

What is striking is the differences. In Genesis 12:10-20 we have a situation well known in those days of servants of Pharaohs ever seeking beautiful women to satisfy him, something they did regularly, and the account is accurate in the way it presents how Sarah is brought into one of his households. But she escapes because of Yahweh sending a plague. In Genesis 20:1-13 we have a petty king misusing his authority to take possession of a beautiful ‘foreign’ woman for his pleasure. He probably did it regularly, but this time it did not work because he was dealing with Yahweh, who gave him a vivid and unpleasant dream. In this third episode with Isaac no attempt at all is made on the woman and no supernatural activity is recorded, although we can see Yahweh’s hand behind events. The one common factor of any importance is thus the activity of Yahweh.

With regard to duplicate names, history is littered with them, for names tended to be passed on in families within a generation. And as we have suggested throne names were automatically passed on.

We can consider how in Egyptian inscriptions Khnumhotep, the governor of Menat-Khufu has certain privileges under Amenemhet, and how in the next generation another Khnumhotep, governor of Menat-Khufu has the same privileges under another Amenehmhet, and it is clear that these cannot be duplicates. Or how Tuthmosis campaigned into Northern Syria, left a victory stela by the Euphrates and hunted elephants at Niy, and so did Tuthmosis his grandson.

So once we have discounted man’s constant propensity to evil where women are concerned (especially if they are vulnerable foreigners), and their being ever on the watch for such opportunities, and the patriarchal practise of continually representing wives as sisters because of this propensity, what should surprise us is how totally different the stories are. The only really common feature is the protecting power of Yahweh and even this is exercised in different ways. Thus we have every grounds for accepting that the events happened each time as described. (The fact is that the patriarchal policy appeared to work most of the time for we only know of three occasions over a period of more than a hundred years when it did not).


Verses 2-11

The First Theophany - Promise of Blessing and Prosperity to Him and to The World (Genesis 26:2-14).


Verses 12-33

Isaac and Abimelech - a Story of Wells (Genesis 26:12-33).

Genesis 26:12

‘And Isaac sowed in that land and found in that same year a hundredfold, and Yahweh blessed him. And the man became great (in riches) and grew more and more until he was very wealthy. And he had possessions of flocks, and possessions of herds and a large household, and the Philistines envied him.’

Isaac was now settled in Gerar and the famine had long passed. Good relations had been established with the local king and he began to sow seed in expectation of a considerable stay. And the seed prospered. We know today that this was particularly fertile land and it produced ‘a hundredfold’. Moreover ‘Yahweh blessed him’. Everything he touched seemed to flourish. His flocks expanded, his herds grew, and he added more and more servants to his ‘household’, his family tribe who were responsible for maintaining his wealth.

But there is always one problem with wealth. It produces envy in the heart of others, and that is what happened here. And so he was asked to move on. His wealth, and the demands it made on local amenities, was causing a problem for the inhabitants.

Genesis 26:15

‘(Now all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines had stopped them and filled them with earth).’

This very illuminating explanatory comment demonstrates both the attitude of these Philistine traders to relatively powerful semi-nomadic peoples and the reason why, when Abraham had prospered in this vicinity without it causing too much trouble, Isaac was unable to do so.

The wells of Abraham had been filled in. And why? Because when Isaac moved to Beer-lahai-roi on the death of Abraham, the Philistines decided they did not want anyone else to move in and filled in the surplus wells, which would have attracted roving semi-nomads like flies. But this was now why Isaac, with his great expansion, was proving to be such a burden on the local economy. They did not have sufficient water for him and themselves.

Genesis 26:16

‘And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Leave us. For you are much mightier than we.” ’

You are much mightier than we.’ Possibly in numbers, especially of sheep and cattle, thus consuming much water.

The water shortage was causing problems. So the Philistines no doubt held a council. The result was that they decided to ask Isaac to move on. They no doubt recognised that he was fairly amenable (would they have dared to ask the same of Abraham?) and it is possible that it was they who pointed out to him where the previous wells had been and suggested he reopened them. And fortunately Isaac recognised the truth of what they were saying.

Genesis 26:17-18

‘And Isaac departed from there and encamped in the valley of Gerar, and dwelt there. And Isaac dug again the wells of water which they had dug in the days of 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.’

This passage demonstrates how closely Isaac and his household had been living with the Philistines until they had become too large for the place. But now they move to a local valley and camp there. And they redig the wells first discovered by his father and call them by the previous names given by his father. This would not be quite as easy as it sounds for they had to be rediscovered. But local memory would no doubt assist in the matter.

This serves to demonstrate how traditions tend to stick to places over considerable numbers of years, for it was obviously fairly clearly remembered what names had been attached to what places. This information would no doubt be gathered from locals and confirmed by reference to their own covenant records and memories.

Genesis 26:19-20

‘And Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, and the herdmen of Gerar strove with Isaac’s herdmen saying, “The water is ours.” And he called the name of the well Esek (contention) because they contended with him.’

Genesis 26:18 is now expanded on. He digs the first well that was Abraham’s. But the inhabitants claim it as theirs. And it says much for Isaac’s equable temperament that he allows them possession, for he could fairly have pointed out that he and his men had dug it and that it had once been ceded to his father. It is clear that Abraham had also called the well Esek (Genesis 26:18) so that it had been a bone of contention even then. But Abraham’s response was probably different. (There are some people you do not argue with).

Genesis 26:21

‘And they dug another well, and they strove for that also. And he called the name of it Sitnah (enmity).’

The same thing is repeated, and Abraham had also clearly called this well Sitnah showing that he too had experienced enmity when he dug it.

But what a different person Isaac is from Abraham. When they sought to wrest a well from Abraham he went straight to the king and demanded it back (Genesis 21:25). But Isaac is more peaceable and cedes the wells to the inhabitants (possibly for a good price). Abraham was ‘the stronger’, but was not Isaac the more Christlike? He had a strength of which Abraham knew nothing. And it made for friends rather than enemies.

Genesis 26:22-23

‘And he removed from there and dug another well, and for that they did not strive. And he called the name of it Rehoboth (broad places, room), and he said, “For now Yahweh has made room for us and we will be fruitful in the land.” And he went up from there to Beersheba.’

Isaac continues redigging the wells that his father had dug and this time there was no contention. Perhaps the inhabitants were impressed by his peaceable behaviour and felt ready to welcome him now as a neighbour. And he called it Reheboth (broad places), because there was now room for both him and them.

His faith in Yahweh shines out. He had been sure all along that Yahweh would make a place for him and now he has been proved right. And this proves to him that Yahweh will bless him in this place.

Following the comment in Genesis 26:18 we must see this too as a name first given by Abraham, but what a different interpretation Abraham probably put on it. There is no suggestion that Abraham ever peacefully yielded a well that he had dug. He made room for himself. Different men behave in different ways because they are different, and they have different strengths, and different weaknesses requisite in different times.

“And he went up from there to Beersheba.” Note that Isaac already knows it as Beersheba before he goes there. This was naturally Isaac’s next move for he knew that his father had dug a well at Beersheba, and had called it Beersheba. With the wealth and herds he had it was necessary to have more than one well.

Genesis 26:24

‘And Yahweh appeared to him the same night and said, “I am the God of Abraham your father. Do not be afraid, for I am with you, and will bless you and multiply your seed for my servant Abraham’s sake.” '

Once again Isaac has an awe-inspiring numinous experience of God in which the covenant is renewed, and which explains why these events were put in writing.

The grounds for the renewing of the covenant is that he is the son of Abraham. He shares in the blessing of Abraham. Abraham was the one chosen by God as His vehicle of blessing to the world, and Isaac as his seed carries on that purpose. He will thus enjoy God’s blessing and will see his descendants multiplied. We too will enjoy blessing from the God of Abraham if we are Abraham’s children through faith in Christ.

This thought is central to the book of Genesis. It is not too much to say it was why it was written. It is a proclamation of God’s covenant with the world through Abraham and the guarantee of His future blessing. We may enjoy the stories but what was important was the covenants.

Genesis 26:25

‘And he built an altar there and called on the name of Yahweh, and pitched his tent there and there Isaac’s servants dug for a well.’

“He built an altar there and called on the name of Yahweh.” In other words he established Beersheba as the centre of worship for his people where they could regularly worship Yahweh and offer sacrifices, with Isaac himself being the priest. As we know already, this was the very place where Abraham too had established the worship of God. In all things, both good and bad, Isaac follows in the steps of his father.

“He pitched his tent there.” In other words he established it as his base camp, and naturally began to look for the well that his father had previously dug and called Beersheba. Without the well the camp could not be permanent.

Genesis 26:26

‘Then Abimelech went to him from Gerar, and Ahuzzoth his friend, and Phicol the captain of his host.’

It was at Beersheba that the previous Abimelech had made a covenant under oath with Abraham. This may be the same Abimelech, in which case he was very old, but far more likely it is his son or grandson.

Abraham had won their confidence as a result of the incident with Sarah and the revelation that he was a prophet, and by his fighting strength and willingness to stand up for himself. Isaac has won it by his amenable disposition and his continual willingness not to use his strength but to be neighbourly and even beneficent. In the end his policy has worked.

“Ahuzzoth his friend.” His personal counsellor and adviser, and possibly scribe. ‘Phicol the captain of his host.’ Phicol was probably the title by which they called their warleader at any time (as the Assyrians called theirs Tartan (2 Kings 18:17), although he might have been the grandson of the previous Phicol given the same name (something commonly done in those days). The presence of the general demonstrates the seriousness of the visit. This is an official deputation.

Genesis 26:27

‘And Isaac said to them, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you are not friendly with me and have sent me away from you?” ’

Isaac may be amenable but it did not mean he could not be hurt. He clearly felt his friendship had been betrayed. Now he was puzzled as to why they were approaching him. Because of his friendly nature he did not consider that they were safeguarding their backs.

Genesis 26:28-29

‘And they said, “We have seen plainly that Yahweh was with you, and we said, Let there now be an oath between us, even between us and you, and let us make a covenant with you that you will do us no hurt, as we have not touched you, and as we have done to you nothing but good, and have sent you away in peace. You are now the blessed of Yahweh.” ’

Their appreciation of Isaac’s fighting strength is clear from the fact that they approach him voluntarily and peacefully. They have watched him prosper and seen him establish the cultic centre for Yahweh at Beersheba, clearly with a view to permanent settlement. They recognise he is a man of peace but they want to ensure that things remain peaceable.

“Yahweh is with you”. They recognised that his God Yahweh was effective and powerful. This was seen as proved by his growing prosperity and by his ability to find springs. ‘You are now the blessed of Yahweh’, as a result of establishing an altar and cultic centre to Yahweh. They were aware of the power of Isaac’s God. Indeed they were presumably aware of the previous history from Abraham’s time. Their connections go back a long way. They remembered Yahweh the God of Abraham and they see He is now Isaac’s God and effective on his behalf.

The result is that they want a treaty sealed by an oath, just as they had had with Abraham, a treaty of peace and mutual recognition. Isaac may not be Abraham but he is still to be feared because he is the chosen of Yahweh, and like Abraham has a private army.

Genesis 26:30-31

‘And he made them a feast, and they ate and drank. And they rose up early in the morning and swore to one another, and Isaac sent them away, and they departed from him in peace.’

The show of hospitality was an indication of friendly reception and peaceful intention and they ate and drank and rested in the camp. Then the solemn oath was sworn and they returned to their city with the peaceful settlement agreed between the parties. No doubt this was to Isaac the peacemaker’s satisfaction. Isaac’s methods had proved fruitful.

Genesis 26:32-33

‘And it happened the same day that Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well which they had dug, and said to him, “We have found water.” And he called it Shibah, therefore the name of the city is Beersheba to this day.’

The good news comes that they have rediscovered the Well of Sheba (seven) which had previously been so named Beer-sheba (the well of seven) by Abraham, and as his custom was Isaac renames it Shibah (the feminine of seven), thus ‘beer Shibah’ after Beersheba. This second giving of the same name followed Isaac’s stated policy (Genesis 26:18).

“We have found water.” The constant search for sources of water was a feature of life in Palestine. To find a good reliable source of water was like manna from Heaven.


Verse 34-35

The Blessing of Esau and Jacob (Genesis 26:34 to Genesis 27:45).

This passage was recorded in writing because it records the blessings given to Jacob and Esau which were in the nature of a binding covenant that could not be changed. They thus testified to the will of Isaac as declared in those blessings. Such a solemn blessing, made with death in view, was often looked on as most sacred and irreversible (compare Deuteronomy 23). That is how Isaac clearly saw it (Genesis 27:33).

Genesis 26:34-35

‘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 bitterness of spirit to Isaac and Rebekah.’

Esau further demonstrates his contempt for his status when he marries two Hittite women. The tradition of marrying within the family meant little to him, and his acts brought great grief to Isaac and Rebekah. But as the eldest son he would have been expected to marry within the family. In the writer’s eyes this introductory sentence is a silent commentary on why Esau loses his firstborn’s blessing.

“When Esau was forty years old.” Again a round number indicating full maturity. If we take the numbers literally this would make Isaac about one hundred years old. But Isaac also married at forty. This would suggest that this round number is used to indicate marriageable age.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 26:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/genesis-26.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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