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Genesis 26 - Commentary by Rev. John Schultz
Vs.1-6 of this chapter describe the revelation of God to Isaac personally. The occasion is a famine. We are reminded that there was another famine in Abraham's time, when Abraham went to Egypt. That must have been shortly after Abraham first entered Canaan, almost ninety years earlier. (Isaac is in his seventies now. His father was 75 when he arrived in Canaan and 100 years old when Isaac was born.) That is not a bad record for famines.
It is at this occasion that God warns Isaac not to go to Egypt. Isaac must have been familiar with the story of Abraham's sojourn in Egypt and with some of his less commendable behavior as we will see a little later on. This was not the first time Isaac heard the voice of God. He was present, even as the main character on the scene, when God stopped the hand of Abraham, who was about to slay his son. He knew in his body what it meant: "The LORD will provide." And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided."[ 1 ] We get the impression that up till this time his whole life had rested on this moment on the mountain of the LORD. He had lived a sacrificed life from then on. Not a perfect life, but a surrendered one.
There are several things we can find fault with in Isaac's character. He had preference for one of his sons above the other, which is a basic parental sin; and he indulged in comfort and good food. He does not show a burning vision, which we would expected from the son of God's promise. He knew his father's struggle of faith and toilsome pilgrimage only by hearsay. But this did not mean that his life was not based on the truth of God's revelation. Some people's lives seem flawless but for the foundation.
Isaac probably still lived at Beer Lahai Roi, the residence last mentioned in ch.25:11. When the famine strikes he moves to Gerar in Philistine country, where his father stayed when his mother was pregnant with him. It is there that God appears to him. The food situation was probably more favorable in Philistine country, as it was closer to the coast than it was farther interior.
Then the Lord appears to him again after half a century when about half of his life is gone. God warns him not to go down to Egypt. And the same blessing that was given to Abraham is bestowed upon him. The blessing is a confirmation of the oath God had made to Abraham. The mention of the oath is obviously meant to put a solid basis under Isaac's faith. God wants our spiritual life to be based not on our experiences, but on His promises - that is, on His Word.
There always remains the problem of the second generation Christian, if we may call Isaac that. Some of the joy of discovery, what C.S. Lewis called"Surprised by Joy," is often lacking in the child of the Christian family, even if the child believes. There is a special spark in those who, in Paul's words: (have been) "rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son he loves."[ 3 ] Or as Peter puts it: "(who have been) called out of darkness into his wonderful light."[ 4 ] Unless there is a personal encounter with the Living God, that spark will not be transferred from one generation to another. It can not be done artificially.
There was no fixed rule against going down to Egypt. Abraham did it, although he probably never asked the Lord about it. Later Jacob sought the Lord, and he was allowed to go. In ch. 46:3,4 the Lord says to him: "I am God, the God of your father," he said. "Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph's own hand will close your eyes." But here the road closed. If God is pragmatic about going to Egypt, we better not be dogmatic about it. There are rules that are obvious expressions of God's will and character, about which we need make no further inquiries. But life is full of crossroads where we have to stop and ask God for directions. It is to Isaac's credit that he did this.
God does not only tell Isaac where not to go but also where to go. "Live in the land where I tell you to live" is a word of positive guidance. If our life does not belong to us, our residence does not either. We should never make this our own choice. It may be possible to accept circumstances as indications of God's will and the Lord can keep us from making mistakes. But we should always be open to a call to go or stay. The important point is the surrender of our right to choose for ourselves.
God's blessing is added to God's choice for us. We read in the first place that God promises His own presence. The place God wants us to live is the place where God is with us. The two go together. In that is the key to happiness regardless of circumstances. That is Asaf's testimony: "Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds."[ 5 ]
The promise to Abraham is repeated, but we deduct from the mention of Abraham's obedience that the fulfillment of God's promises is not an automatic affair. There are several instances of Old Testament prophecies that have remained unfulfilled because they were never claimed and the commands were not obeyed. Obedience is the key to the enjoyment of the blessings. Abraham's example is given as a warning to Isaac.
Isaac must have been familiar with the words of the promise to Abraham. Undoubtedly, the story had been passed on orally. He was also very much aware of Abraham's obedience, having himself been the subject of it at one occasion. God's Word must have hit home in a dramatic fashion. If he had any plans to move to Egypt, which is a likely supposition, he decided to stay and obey. Human reasoning would have told him he acted foolishly, but obedience to God's will must have put his heart at ease.
The episode described in vs.7-11 is hard to understand. We know where Isaac learned the trick to let his wife pass as his sister. Abraham had tried it twice. Through its generations the family must have had a fear of death and a complete disregard for the honor of a woman, even the honor of one's own wife. If the theophany Isaac experienced had any effect upon his life, it evidently did not influence his moral judgment. Just as in the case of Abraham, no excuse can be found for this behavior; it is dishonest and despicable to the highest degree. So much for the sacrificed life!
We can never use this as an excuse for trying to get away with sin in our lives, but the episode does emphasize that holiness is not a product of our own character. If the overall appraisal of Isaac's life is that he was a hero of faith and that he was placed as such in God's Hall of Fame, it is not because of his strength of character but because of the moments of the divine touch that came upon him. Holiness and grace are inseparable. No one can take any credit for living a holy life, but everyone should live it. And we are held accountable if we don't.
As we indicated above, Isaac's deceit was inspired by his fear of death. He went to Gerar with the idea: "They are going to kill me!" Yet he would have had every reason to quote the verse in Hebrews, and say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?"[ 6 ]
In spite of Isaac's lie, nothing happens to Rebekah. The Philistines must have had a good memory. The legend of Abraham's deceit, which must have been ancient history by then, since it happened 70 or 80 years earlier, must have become part of the stories that still went around about this Hebrew family of Nomads. If our assumption is correct that people interpreted Abraham's lie as a ploy to destroy the Philistine nation with the use of the supernatural power he obviously possessed, the Philistines must have felt that they had learned their lesson. They refused to fall into the same trap with Isaac. So Isaac was perfectly safe, at the same time perpetuating the misconception about the character of God.
Vs.8 shows us two things:
1- how short our memory is when we lie. We have to remember our lies quite well, otherwise we are caught in inconsistencies.
2- how unwise it is to show affection in public. The king of Philistia caught Isaac caressing Rebekah. The KJV translates it with a term that would be rather funny in modern English: "Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife." One wonders what it was to be a sportsman in the olden days!
So Isaac is summoned to the royal palace. This time there was no divine revelation the king received in a dream, and the misconception about supernatural powers, which we presumed was present in Abraham's days, may have faded. But Isaac is made to understand that the Philistines are not falling into his trap, if there was any. A royal decree is issued making adultery with Rebekah a capital crime.
What starts the rumor about Isaac's hot-line with heaven are his agricultural exploits. Now we should remember two things; first that there had been a famine, or maybe there still was one, and secondly that Isaac was new at this. He had been a cattle farmer, a nomadic shepherd his whole life. Here he tries his luck on wheat, which evidently was normally sown in Philistea, and his harvest exceeds any normal results. It makes the Philistines jealous and afraid.
The Philistines first try harassment. They make the old wells that Abraham had dug, unusable. When that does not seem to have any effect to the point where it limits Isaac's growth in wealth, they expel him openly. We can read - "Move away from us; you have become too powerful for us," or as the KJV puts it: "thou art much mightier than we," as "your magic is too strong for us!"
The fact remains though, that the Lord blessed Isaac materially. He must have started out rich, by inheriting the bulk of his father's possessions. So what he acquired in the land of the Philistines was added to a wealth that was already considerable. In modern terms he became a multi-millionaire. God evidently wanted Isaac to know that He meant business when He promised him the possession of the land of Canaan.
As we mentioned before, this episode in Isaac's life in which the Philistines contested the rights to the water supply of the country is the most eventful one in his biography. When the question is asked "What did Isaac accomplish in his life?" The answer is: "He gave in when opposed, and moved somewhere else." His relationship with the Philistines was not a good and pleasant one. Even after the expulsion from the country, they continue to make life miserable for Isaac. There had been a agreement between Abraham and Abimelech before in which the right to several wells in the country had been guaranteed. This agreement is annulled here. We may presume that the Abimelech who lived in Abraham's time was not the same one who confronted Isaac. Both Abimelech and Phicol were probably titles rather than personal names.
It is impossible to determine whether the Philistines were aware of God's promise to Abraham and Isaac that they would possess the land. This would certainly explain their show of hostility. Obviously, Satan knew about the promise, which had been given to the patriarchs in an audible way. There is no doubt about it; he inspired opposition, whether the people understood the issue or not.
Isaac did have the problem that space was limited, and he was simply too rich. His inventory was too large for his storage space. But the fact that the Philistines fuss about the digging up of wells which they themselves had filled in, made no sense. Their harassment was clearly an effort to limit Isaac's spiritual powers. In how far Isaac has been able to analyze the situation correctly, we do not know. His attitude is admirable though. He does not fight evil with evil. Whenever a well his father dug, and to which he obviously had a right according to the treaty Abraham had made with the previous Abimelech, was filled in by the Philistines, he move away to the next place. "Esek" and "Sitnah" are testimonies to this attitude of non-violence.
Finally, his patience and endurance are rewarded when he arrives at "Rehoboth," where he recognizes the hand of the Lord, who has given him the space he needed. By the sound of it this was more a spiritual victory than a physical one. It is true that the harassment stops here, but although Isaac calls the place "Rehoboth," he does not stay there. Rehoboth is the place of discovery of God's faithfulness. From there he moves to Beersheba, the place where Abraham had secured the well by treaty with Abimelech some eighty years earlier. At this point the Lord appears to him for the second time. We do not know how much time has elapsed between the two appearances that are mentioned in this chapter. It could be several years.
The topic of God's revelation to Isaac is Abraham's faith, not the faith of Isaac himself. God says to him: "I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham." It is true that later God will call Himself "The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob"; but at this point it seems that Isaac has not distinguished himself by any acts of faith. But there is a deeper lesson to be learned than the fact that Isaac had not yet earned his wings. He is being blessed because of someone else. As Christian, we find ourselves in the same position. God blesses us in Jesus Christ, not because of what we are or what we have done, but because of Him. As Paul says: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ."[ 7 ]
As a response to this revelation Isaac does three things: He builds an altar, he pitches his tent and he digs a well. The sequence is important. This is the first time we read that Isaac builds an altar. It seems as if all of a sudden he realizes the richness of his heritage and enters into a personal relationship with God. So far religion had been for Isaac a thing that his father practiced. He had been dedicated to the Lord by his father, which had been a very impressive experience for him. He had been comforted by God after the death of his mother, in that the Lord gave him Rebekah. He had heard and heeded God's warning not to go to Egypt, and he had been blessed financially; but he had never built an altar to the Lord.
The building of an altar meant a recognition of his true condition. A man who builds an altar knows that he is a sinner and that his life has to be atoned for. He know that his relationship with God is built upon the blood that was shed on the altar. He lives by the grace of God.
The fact that God tells him: "Do not be afraid for I am with you," indicates that fear had been an important factor in Isaac's life. His moving away from well to well was motivated by fear for the harassment of the Philistines. God's presence had not been real enough for him to overcome his fears. We will see a little later how his attitude changes after he has built the altar and called upon the Name of the Lord.
Wherever Isaac had gone, he had pitched his tent, of course. How else would he have been able to live in it? But here the fact is mentioned as a deliberate act, executed in the presence of God. He does not live here because he had been chased away from his place of previous residence, but because he chooses to live where he has met God. And where God is there is water, more and better and longer lasting than at Rehoboth.
Somewhere at this point there is another meeting between Isaac and the Philistine dignitaries. It seems a repetition of the treaty Abraham made at the same place with Abimelech and Phicol in Ch. 21:22-34. But that meeting took place almost a century earlier. We can hardly presume that the longevity of the Philistines would have exceeded that of the patriarchs. So Abimelech must have been the Philistine title for the king of the country, Phicol for the commander-in-chief of the army and Ahuzzath for the prime minister.
I believe, though, that the same misunderstandings and superstitions that governed the first treaty were at the basis of this second one also. Isaac was feared because of his spiritual power. The Philistines were afraid that Isaac would make YHWY turn against them at one point or another. The treaty is meant to prevent this. But compared to the first treaty the atmosphere is quite different. Abraham seems to have been much more in control of the situation than Isaac. Isaac is also treated with less respect than his father was. There are reproaches and to some extent lies. For the Philistines to say that they always treated Isaac well is an overstatement.
Isaac reproaches that the Philistines were hostile to him. The KJV says: "Ye hate me." The harassment he experienced surely supports this statement. The answer seems typical for the spiritual world in which the Philistines lived. They want a treaty guaranteeing that Isaac will do them no harm. It is very doubtful that they anticipated a military attack by Isaac. Their fear was spiritual. It is true that Abraham accomplished a military feat of no mean significance in the victory over the Babylonian kings in Ch. 14. The memory of this will have lived on for centuries. But it could hardly be anticipated that Isaac would do a thing like that without help of his neighbors and without a strong provocation. No, the harm they talk about, must be the spiritual power he could exercise over them in the Name of YHWH.
According to vs.30 Isaac treats them royally. There is a state banquet to celebrate the reconciliation. It could very well be that Isaac misunderstood the intentions of the Philistines as completely as they did his. He may have taken their approach as a genuine desire to separate as friends without any basis of fear. Usually only evil people see evil intent in others. And Isaac may have been fearful, but he was not evil.
So the next morning the contract is signed in the form of an oral oath. This probably meant that the Name of YHWH was invoked, which for the Philistines must have been a real assurance that they would no longer have anything to fear from the side of Isaac.
That same day another well is dug. It could very well be that this was the same well that Abraham had dug before, but that had been covered over. In that case it could also be the famous place where Hagar had met the Lord, when she was sent away, shortly after Isaac birth. We read in Ch. 21:19 "Then God opened her [Hagar's] eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink."And later in the meeting of which Isaac's treaty with the Philistine delegation seems to be a replay, we read in vs.30 and 31 - "[Abraham] replied, 'Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well.' " "So that place was called Beersheba, because the two men swore an oath there." The fact that the same place would be baptized with the same name twice, or that two different place would be given the same name, sounds strange to our Western ears; but it is probably less amazing if we understand the ease with which Hebrews gave names to places on the basis of experiences that had had there. So we find two places called Massa and Meriba in the desert where the people of Israel spent forty years of wandering.
The chapter ends with a report on Esau's marriages. He marries two wives, both from the land of Canaan. Judith, the daughter of Beeri and Basemath, the daughter of Elon. Within the context of the local culture these were probably good marriages. The fact that the names of the fathers are mentioned must be an indication that they were reckoned among the good families in the country. But in doing this, Esau places himself outside the promise God had given to Abraham. He must have been aware of the circumstances of his father's marriage and why Abraham had sent his servant to get a wife for his father from the family in Haran. But Esau gives no indication that he understands the spiritual implications of his marriages, or if he does, he does not care.
We do not know exactly what was so terrible in the behavior of the girls, but we read in vs. 35 - "They were a source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah." In marrying these girls Esau may have taken the idolatrous customs of the country into his home. At the end of the next chapter the problem with the girls becomes a nice pretext for Rebekah to send away her favorite son Jacob, before he gets killed by Esau. We have very little to go by to pronounce a judgement upon Esau, but it is obvious that he knew nothing of a personal relationship with God as his father and grandfather had known. He must have known about their faith, but he did not care. This becomes even clearer in the next chapter where he comes out with a bad deal. Humanly speaking our sympathy must be with Esau, however much of a humanist he may have been. Christians are not always nice and lovable people!
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