Genesis 26 – Isaac’s Wife/Sister and Wells
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 7, 2006
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. It was a busy week for me grading final exams and papers. I let my theology students write on any topic in the history of theology, so I had papers ranging from early Mennonite theology to modern feminist theology. I also helped one of our Moravian students write his Credo, which is a pastor’s statement of beliefs and how those beliefs shape his or her approach to ministry. I think it was a good learning experience for both of us. One of the issues students have to grapple with in a Credo is their understanding of Scripture as revelation.
We have been dealing with that same question all year in our study of Genesis. There are people who claim that they read the whole Bible as the literal word of God, but we have seen that does not really work with Genesis. We have to recognize that parts of Genesis are folklore. They are stories told to teach important theological lessons. Even in the time of Jesus, biblical scholars freely added interpretative details to their commentaries on Genesis. If we get hung up on debates over whether Genesis records historical facts, we actually miss the revelation of God’s word through these stories. We need to let the stories themselves speak to us even as we dig deeper into their meaning today.
I mention this today because the stories of Isaac in Gen. 26 are not very inspiring. Both of these stories in Gen. 26 are very similar to stories we read about Abraham, and some scholars believe that these were originally Abraham stories that were transferred to Isaac. Other scholars think that the opposite was true. These were originally Isaac stories that were eventually attached to his more famous father. We cannot know for sure, but these stories are a reminder that sacred history takes place within secular history. The patriarchs may have been great prophets who spoke with God, but they also had to get along with their neighbors. Since many of the themes of Gen. 26 have already been discussed, we’ll be a bit cursory this morning.
Going to Gerar: Like the Abraham story, Isaac’s journey south was caused by a famine in Canaan. This is a reminder that life in Canaan was not easy. On several occasions, the Israelites were forced to look for food in Egypt or elsewhere. It’s hard not to wonder what Isaac thought when the LORD renewed his promise that Canaan would be the homeland of his descendents as he was leaving Canaan in order to find food. I think I would have asked whether it wouldn’t be possible to have a promised land less prone to famine.
The renewal of the promise was important for three reasons. First of all, it connects the story of Isaac directly to the covenant with Abraham. The LORD will be Isaac’s God, just as he was Abraham’s God, and the promises made to Abraham will continue with Isaac. We allude to this in our Moravian baptismal liturgy when we proclaim that the promises of God are to us and to our children. Biblical faith is an historical faith that endures through the passing of time. The second reason the renewal of the promise is important is so the reader knows that Isaac will only be sojourning in the south. His true home is Canaan. And the third reason this important is because it shows us that Isaac was also a prophet who heard the voice of God and obeyed.
Abimelech In Gen. 26, we meet King Abimelech again, and once again a patriarch tells the king that his wife is really his sister. You may remember Abimelech from an earlier lesson in which he deals with Abraham. We may well wonder, though, why Abimelech trusted Isaac after what he went through with Abraham. After all, Abraham had told the king that his wife Sarah was really his sister and let him take her into his harem. So why trust Isaac when he said that Rebekah was his sister rather than his wife?
One explanation for Abimelech’s lack of learning is that this king is actually the son of the original Abimelech. It is not uncommon for kings to have the same name as their fathers. There is no reason for the storyteller to relate the dynastic history of Gerar. Another explanation is that the first encounter with Abraham was 75 years earlier, and King Abimelech just forgot about it. He was probably forgetting a lot of things by then. A third explanation is that there are simply three versions of one original story. One version tells of Abraham and Abimelech; another of Isaac and Abimelech; and the third version is of Abraham and Pharaoh.
Wife-Sister Again: Whatever the reason for having three versions of a story about a matriarch being passed off as a sister, it is clear that this was a significant story. Unfortunately, it is impossible today to determine just why this wife-sister motif was so important. We can note, though, there are some unique features of the Isaac version that make it interesting.
The most significant difference between the story of Isaac claiming that his wife was his sister and similar stories with Abraham is that Rebekah was not taken from him. You may remember that Sarah was actually taken as a wife or concubine to Pharaoh and Abimelech, but that was not the case with Rebekah. Maybe she wasn’t as attractive as her mother-in-law, or maybe she was protected by God. We don’t know. All we are told is that Isaac’s deception was revealed after they had lived “a long time” in Gerar. The king saw him fondling or caressing Rebekah in a way that a brother should never caress a sister. Abimelech was angry at the deception, and he was angry about what could have been the result. He accuses Isaac of putting the city at risk because one of the men might have committed adultery with Rebekah.
It is interesting that there appeared to be no concern that one of the men might have taken advantage sexually of an unmarried woman sojourning in Gerar, but the king was very concerned about adultery. This is another reminder that women in the ancient world belonged to men. Adultery was seen as a violation of property rights, not a matter of sexual morality. Once again, we are told nothing about the woman’s feelings in all this. Isaac had placed her at great risk rather than risking himself to protect her. Despite his evident affection for her, this is hardly the view of love given to us in the New Testament where a man should love his wife in the same way that Christ loved the church, giving up his own life for her sake.
It is Abimelech who protects Rebekah, but it is not for her sake that he acts. He is afraid that the whole city will suffer if one of the men commits a crime. This may reflect Abimelech’s memory of the last time this happened, but most likely it is a reflection an ancient notion of guilt. Intention did not matter; only the actions themselves. And the guilt was applied to the whole community, not just the individual who had sinned. We see this same point of view in many of the Greek tragedies, such as Oedipus Rex, by the way.
Isaac’s Wells After Abimelech ordered that Rebekah not be touched by any man, things went well for Isaac. Unlike Abraham, though, Isaac was not bribed by the king. He grew wealthy and powerful in Gerar because his crops did well. This is the first indication that the patriarchs were farmers as well as herdsmen, by the way. It is also an indication of just how long Isaac spent in the land of the Philistines. He had time to plant and harvest and grow wealthy. We could turn this chapter of Genesis into a story of the prosperity gospel: since Isaac was obedient, God made him prosper. But we have to remember that Isaac was also obedient when there was famine in the land. Prosperity is not proof that God has blessed someone.
The focus of this story is on how Isaac dealt with his prosperity in Gerar. His neighbors were threatened by his success. We still see this today, don’t we? Rather than celebrating the success of businesses owned by immigrants, we feel threatened or jealous. We assume that someone else’s success harms us. At times, this may be the case. For instance, major retailers sometimes come into a community and depress prices so that the smaller businesses close. Sometimes individuals and businesses are competing for limited resources.
In many parts of the world, water is one of those limited resources. So, we should not be too surprised that there was conflict between Isaac and the families in Gerar over water rights and wells. We had a very similar story earlier when Abraham and Abimelech fought over wells that Abraham had dug. In this version, Isaac gives into the demands of his neighbors and moves rather than fight. He dug several wells until he found room to live in peace with his neighbors. He named the last well he dug Rehoboth, which means ‘breathing room.” There are different ways to interpret this story. Some view Isaac as very weak and passive. Rather than defend himself, he just moves on. Many people have connected this passivity to his ordeal on Moriah.
But we could view Isaac as a particularly strong character who knows that perpetual violence and conflict is no way to live with neighbors. It is unlikely that a weak and passive person would prosper in the ancient world the way Isaac did. He took action when he had to find food during the famine, and he took action in digging his wells. But he did not use violence to settle his dispute with Abimelech. It could be that Isaac was good and wise rather than weak. After all, he was a sojourner in the land of the Philistines. He was a guest rather than master, and he wanted to live in peace with his neighbors.
What would have been accomplished had he responded violently to the provocations of the Philistines? At best, it would have been perpetual warfare. We have seen that half-a-century of warfare in the Middle East has not produced peace or security for the Israelis or Palestinians. Perhaps the example of Isaac finding room to live with his neighbors is a better example of wise policy than our American Westerns are.
Blessing: In the end, Isaac settles in Beersheba, and we have yet another explanation of the name of that very important Israelite shrine. The story of Isaac and Abimelech ends with the king seeking out the son of Abraham and blessing him. It is a rather strange tale in context since Isaac has progressively moved away from Gerar. No reason is given for Abimelech deciding that Isaac was blessed by his God and worthy of praise. This may have originally been the end of the story of Rebekah as his sister, or there may have been another story that was lost. We know that something must have happened since the king came with army and chief of staff, which must have been quite frightening for Isaac.
Abimelech decided that Isaac’s prosperity in the midst of adversity are evidence of God’s blessing. The key point is that Isaac was rewarded for taking the necessary steps to live in peace with his neighbors. He came to Gerar in the midst of famine but was able to prosper in peace. This peace was sealed with oaths and a feast. Perhaps some of our leaders should learn that compromise is not a bad thing; in fact, it is a biblical concept.
Overview of Jacob Saga: Last week we discussed the prelude to the Jacob and Esau saga. We will be spending several weeks examining the story of Jacob in some detail, and it might be helpful to have an overview of that saga since it is one of the longest sections of Genesis (ch. 25-36). First of all, we should note that in many ways, it is Jacob, not Abraham who is the central figure in Genesis. Though Abraham was the great ancestor of faith who first answered the call of God, the tribes of Israel would be named for Jacob. Jacob experiences the most significant change of name in the Bible, going from Jacob (heel-grabber) to Israel, the one who strives with God. Jacob’s story is a story of striving and conflict. Unlike Isaac who moved repeatedly in order to avoid violence, Jacob struggles with everyone he encounters in the world. He struggles with Esau, his mother, his father, Laban, his wives, and even God himself. God will change his name to Israel, and it is a fitting name for Jacob the scrapper. Israel will be the name of the tribes who descended from Jacob. They will strive with God all well.
The Jacob saga is made up of many different stories that probably came from a variety of sources that scholars refer to as J, E, and P, but the final version as we have it is a masterpiece of literature. It has been carefully assembled so that the sum of the parts is greater than the parts alone. There is a careful symmetry in the story. It begins with the conflict with Esau and Jacob’s flight from his family, and it ends with the reconciliation with Esau and Jacob’s return to Canaan with his own family. So we have an odyssey here. The main character leaves his home, but cannot return until he has completed his quest.
When he returns he is both different and the same. During his odyssey, Jacob has two significant religious experiences. The first is his famous vision at Bethel when he sees the stairway to heaven. The second is his encounter with God at Peniel when he receives a new name as well as a limp. Each religious experience marks a significant transition in Jacob’s life while affirming that Jacob has been chosen by the LORD. In the middle of Jacob’s odyssey is his time in exile in Haran when he labored for Laban. The climax of his story is the birth of his 12 sons as the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham.
It appears that the Jacob stories originated in the North, with the 10 northern tribes of Israel. The Abraham and Isaac stories are more closely associated with the southern kingdom of Judah. We can tell this in part from the place names. Beersheba is the key shrine for the Abraham stories, while Bethel is the main shrine in the north. We don’t have time to go into the whole history of Israel here, but it is helpful to remember that there were twelve tribes of Israel. The most important tribe was Judah, and that tribe established a separate kingdom after the death of Solomon. It is from Judah that we get the words Judaism, Jew, and Judea. Judah lasted longer as a kingdom than Israel did, and it was in Judah that the Old Testament as we know it was written. Most of the time when we think of Israel, we are thinking of Judah.
The ten northern tribes disappeared after the destruction of the kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 721, but they were very important. The kingdom of Israel was different from Judah. In many ways, it was wealthier and more powerful, but it was also less stable. The prophets played a key role in the politics of the north, occasionally even anointing warriors to overthrow the king. The north was never as unified as Judah was, and its holy places were destroyed. The Samaritans were the descendents of Israel and maintained some of the old religion of the Israelites. As we can see in the New Testament, there was conflict between Jews and Samaritans for centuries. Some of that conflict is reflected in the Jacob saga. The complexity of the Jacob saga and the moral ambiguity of its main character reflect the complexity and ambiguity of human society itself. One reason Jacob is so compelling is that he is so much like us. His struggles with God mirror our own struggles with God. And in the final analysis, the major religious point of the Jacob saga appears to be profoundly simple. God chose Jacob despite his flaws rather than because of his strengths. And that may be the message for us as well. We are chosen for reasons we cannot fathom and despite our unworthiness. Though we struggle, God remains faithful to us. Next week we’ll look at Gen. 27.