Chapter 26 tells the only story in Genesis that stars Isaac. Not much is written about Isaac as he appears mostly as an ancillary character in several stories about Abraham and Jacob. In this chapter, however, he is the main actor even though it recounts an event that is almost exactly like one his father experienced. Amazingly, Isaac faces two situations that Abraham also faced; responds in both cases just as Abraham responded; and as a result fails just as Abraham failed. In his faithlessness he even lies to a descendant of the same man – with the same name – that his father once lied to in the exact same way and about the exact same issue. The moral of Chapter 26 is that regardless of who you are or how godly your father was, taking matters into your own hands because you don’t trust God is never a good idea. The other lesson, however, is that as children of God we all fail but we cannot allow that failure to keep us from God.
There is no way to know when this story takes place. This chapter follows the stories of the births of Esau and Jacob and the sale of Esau’s birthright, so it presumably occurs after those events. But since the boys aren’t mentioned in any of the events surrounding the famine or Abimelech, it’s impossible to know if they are with Isaac or if they are old enough to be somewhere else or perhaps not yet born (if in fact the story is not placed chronologically).
Regardless of when it happens, the story begins with a famine. The author is careful to point out that this famine is not to be confused with the famine Abraham experienced shortly after coming to Canaan (12:10). Abraham is dead and Isaac now faces a famine of his own.
In a search for relief Isaac and his family move southwest into Gerar (also called the land of the Philistines) apparently on their way to Egypt. Gerar is located along the coast of the Mediterranean on the southwest side of Canaan, so it is likely that it endures the famine also. Gerar is not where Isaac goes to escape the famine; it is likely where he wants to pass through on his way to Egypt.
God changes Isaac’s plans by appearing to him and telling him not to go to Egypt. God tells him to stay where he is and that God will be with you and bless you, for to you and your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore to your father Abraham. Though a famine rages in the land God doesn’t want him to try to escape it, but stay where he is and trust God to bless him. God sent the famine and God will provide for Isaac in the midst of it.
It is interesting to compare how God interacts with Isaac here with what He did with Abraham in the same circumstances. He didn’t say anything – or at least anything recorded – to Abraham when famine came to Canaan and Abraham decided to go to Egypt. God seemed to let Abraham escape the trial. With Isaac, however, He explicitly tells him to stay and endure (assuming the famine does in fact affect Gerar) and that God will provide for him through it. It may well be that Abraham sinned by going to Egypt, but no condemnation is in the text and God does not rebuke him for it. It seems rather that God simply deals differently with the two men in the midst of the same situation, and that as long as both obey neither approach is inherently wrong. There needs to be room in our theology for God acting and leading differently with different people in similar situations and trials. Just as His ways are not our ways so our experiences with Him are not always the same as others’ and should not be forced upon them.
God finishes His promise to Isaac by saying that He will multiply Isaac’s descendants and be with Isaac because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws. It would be interesting to know if this makes Isaac think about his father’s faithfulness in almost sacrificing him. Nothing showed Abraham’s obedience more than that. And God’s promise about descendants echoes His words to Abraham on several occasions, but notably it echoes what he said on Moriah after the near-sacrifice (22:16-18). If Isaac ties God’s words to that event, it would seemingly make the promises even more poignant for him.
As a result of God’s appearance to him, Isaac and his family stay in Gerar.
After Isaac decides to stay in Gerar, some men in the area ask him about his wife – Rebekah. It is important to remember that the first description of Rebekah – when Abraham’s servant saw her carrying her jar to the well in Nahor – was that she was very beautiful (24:16). She shares with Sarah (say that three times fast) more than barrenness; just like her mother-in-law she has a striking physical appearance that men notice. We have no idea how old she is in this story, but apparently her beauty has not faded from her days as a girl drawing water.
To give Isaac credit, we should note that the men of the area actually approach him about Rebekah. What he is about to do he does in response to a real action rather than as a preventive measure like his father did. He apparently doesn’t – as Abraham did – go to his wife before traveling and get her to agree to the sister ruse. He simply reacts to what he thinks is a threat to his life. He still blatantly sins, but his action does not seem to be as premeditated as it was for Abraham.
He tells the men of the area that Rebekah is his sister, figuring that they might kill him if they think he is her husband. Just as we noted when we studied the two times Abraham tried this same plan, it is hard to understand Isaac’s end strategy. What does he think will happen if a man in the area decides to take Rebekah as his wife? Will he just walk away? If he’s worried about his life then he apparently won’t prevent someone from taking her, but then what will he do? Does he think there’s some way to get her back after she’s someone else’s wife? Or is he really willing to lose her just so he doesn’t have to fear for his safety? It just seems like this plan – just as it was for his father – is incredibly short-sighted.
There also is a problem for Isaac and Rebekah that Abraham and Sarah didn’t face. Isaac and Rebekah have two sons. When Abraham lied about Sarah – both to Pharaoh and to Abimelech – he and Sarah had no children (they had Ishmael when they were in Gerar, but he was easily – and honestly – explained as Hagar’s son). For Isaac and Rebekah, however, things aren’t that simple. It seems like it would be hard to explain the existence of two sons in the family when there’s no marriage. Perhaps they claim the boys are Isaac’s sons from a prior marriage or maybe from a concubine. It is impossible to know. We have no idea how they fit in the story since they aren’t mentioned, but their existence would at the very least cause the lie to become more complicated than it was for Isaac’s parents.
Something else about this that we can’t miss. What did God just say to him after he entered the land? Look back at verse 3. God actually told him to stay in Gerar and said, “I will be with you and bless you.” God TOLD him to STAY IN GERAR. God TOLD him that God would be with him and bless him. And yet at the first sign of trouble, Isaac acts as if God is nowhere around and has no ability to protect him at all. It’s as if God never appeared to him or reassured him. Even more, think about all that Isaac has witnessed in his life. He heard the angel call to his father when Abraham was about to kill him. He saw the ram God provided to be the sacrifice in his place. He saw God explicitly answer prayer by enabling Rebekah to conceive and give birth to twins. He’s seen God bless him since the death of his father. And he certainly knows the miracle his very existence represents! This is not a man unfamiliar with God’s faithfulness and power and yet he seemingly throws it all away at the first sign of danger. His short memory and blindness are amazing to observe.
Isaac continues to live in the land for a long time after claiming that Rebekah is his sister. It is notable that nothing happens to either of them on account of her beauty. No man attempts to take her for a wife. We can draw two conclusions from this. First – perhaps God protects her. Unlike with Sarah, it could be that He doesn’t allow anyone to take her for a wife. The second possibility, however, is that the long time proves that Isaac’s fears are unfounded. If no man approaches Rebekah, then perhaps the entire ruse is unnecessary and the danger he fears is perceived rather than actual. It is difficult to know which conclusion is correct, but regardless it seems like it would get very tiresome for both of them to continue the deception for so long.
Sure enough, they are eventually found out. Abimelech – the king in Gerar (referred to in the text as king of the Philistines) – happens to look out his window and see Isaac caressing Rebekah (the word in Hebrew can also be translated laughing which seems to be a play on Isaac’s name (“he laughs”) – the sense of the word implies an unguarded moment of intimacy between Isaac and Rebekah which would not occur between a brother and sister). As a result, he calls Isaac to him and asks why Isaac deceived them. He says – very appropriately – “What is this you have done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.”
[Note – this is likely not the same Abimelech who interacted with Abraham in the same situation (20:2). Abraham and Sarah traveled to Gerar shortly before Isaac was born, and if Abraham is dead when this story occurs it has likely been well over 75 years since their visit. The name Abimelech seems to be a title as much as a name (Ps 34 references Abimelech as the king before whom David feigned madness, yet I Sam 21:10-15 lists the king’s name as Achish), and so can refer to more than one king. The same reasoning applies to the name of Phicol (26) as the commander of the army.]
Just as with Abraham and the first Abimelech, the Abimelech of this story acts more righteously than the patriarch. He recognizes the great sin that Isaac almost brought on all the people through his deceit (it would be interesting to know if this king knows the story of Abraham and Sarah and their interaction with his predecessor). Isaac holds the same low opinion of the people of Gerar as Abraham did (20:11), but Abimelech shows that view to be unfounded with his understanding and condemnation of adultery. Abimelech’s words form a strong rebuke to the faithlessness of Isaac.
The end result of Abimelech’s discovery is that he issues an edict throughout the land that anyone who touches Isaac or Rebekah will pay with his life. The edict shows both God’s providence and mercy. He providentially works through the king to protect Isaac. And He mercifully uses Isaac’s sin to provoke the king to act. The shock of what Isaac almost allowed to happen causes the king to react forcefully and do exactly what God wants. Thus a merciful and sovereign God amazingly uses man’s faithlessness and deceit to enable his own protection.
Note too, that just as He did with Abraham under virtually identical circumstances (20:14), God blesses Isaac after this event. Isaac stays in the land and – apparently after the famine ends? – sows crops and reaps in the same year a hundredfold. On top of this, God specifically blesses him such that he grows even wealthier than he was, to the point that the surrounding Philistines envy and resent him. Remember that he already inherited all that Abraham owned, and Abraham was very rich in his own right. Now Isaac’s wealth seems to surpass that of his father as God continues to bless him. And He does this after Isaac showed no confidence at all in God’s provision. Man sins, God is merciful. Man sins, God is faithful.
Most of the rest of the chapter is given over to the continued interactions between Abimelech and Isaac. Abimelech and his people begin to fear and resent Isaac because of his great wealth and power. They even go so far as to stop up his wells. Isaac ends up leaving Gerar at Abimelech’s urging only to later enter into a nonaggression pact with the king. Throughout the story God protects and blesses Isaac even as the Philistine people try to sabotage him.
The chapter ends rather strangely. The last two verses mention – seemingly out of the blue – that Esau takes two wives when he is forty years old (same age as his father was when he married). The wives are Hittites, and Esau marries them with apparently no input from his parents at all (unlike what happened with his father). The names of the women are Judith and Basemath and they bring grief to Isaac and Rebekah. Thus a dysfunctional family just became even more dysfunctional and the older son just did the second big thing in his life that proves he is not in the line of promise.
Do you realize that though Isaac is mentioned among the big-time patriarchs, we don’t really see him doing all that many great things for God in Genesis (other than when he follows his dad up the mountain to be sacrificed)? In this chapter he blatantly fails and shows himself to be short-sighted and short-memoried. He’s not really a great man of God as much as he’s a witness to the mercy and strength of the great God of men (just like us). And he’s also an illustration of the GK Chesterton quote that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. He sins in a big way by lying and then keeps the lie going (remember that verse 8 says he lives in Gerar for a long time before his deception is found out), yet his life overall is characterized by belief, and God counts him as His own to the end.
Perhaps we can conclude from this event in Isaac’s life that our Christian walk is indeed filled with repentance and recovery. Just like Isaac, we frequently forget God’s promises and choose to take matters into our own hands because God doesn’t seem to know what’s best. Or we decide that God can’t be trusted with our happiness and so pursue it on our own. Then God causes us to open our eyes and see our sin and ourselves for what they are and get back in the fight and walk before Him again. We walk and fall and get up, and walk and fall and get up. The key is to not allow the falls to cause us to lose hope but instead to continue to repent and get up. This is not to say that we are content to stumble over the same obstacles throughout our lives, just that we come to understand that failure and repentance are simply marks of the believer’s life, and that we can’t allow our skinned knees to keep us from falling on them before God. Sin comes from us. Discouragement and hopelessness come from the Enemy. Repentance and restoration come from God.