Isaac Walks in His Father’s Steps (Genesis 26:1-35)
There is a world of difference between a rerun and an instant replay. A rerun is simply seeing the same thing over again. An instant replay is seeing something over, but not all of it. It is looking at certain events again, usually much more carefully. The critics have tended to view Genesis 26 as a rerun, and not a very good one at that. They, of course, are right in recognizing the similarities between Isaac’s experiences in this chapter and those in the life of Abraham in the previous chapters. However, they misinterpret the similarities in such a way as to suggest that they do little, if anything, to benefit us.215 Indeed, they even question the historicity of these events in the life of Isaac.216
I would like us to focus our attention on chapter 26 as though it were an instant replay. This is the only chapter in the book of Genesis devoted exclusively to Isaac. While he is mentioned in other chapters, he is not the focus of attention. Here Isaac’s life is summed up in the events described, all of which have a striking parallel in the life of his father Abraham. These similarities are, I believe, the key to rightly understanding and applying this passage to our own lives.
A Reiteration of
the Abrahamic Covenant
Early in the life of Abraham a famine set in motion a sequence of events which greatly shaped the life of the patriarch. Likewise, a famine occurred early in the record of the life of Isaac:
Now there was a famine in the land, besides the previous famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham. So Isaac went to Gerar, to Abimelech king of the Philistines (Genesis 26:1).
This famine is specified to be a different one than that which happened during the life of Abraham. Taking this at face value, we cannot agree with the critics, who see only one famine variously reported. In an attempt to preserve his wealth in the form of many cattle, Isaac went to Gerar to avoid the famine. While in Gerar, or perhaps even before, Isaac decided to go down to Egypt just as his father had done (Genesis 12:10ff.). This was not according to the plan which God had for Isaac, and so He appeared to him with this word of instruction and promise:
Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land and I will be with you and bless you, for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore to your father Abraham. And I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My Laws (Genesis 26:2b-5).217
In verse 3 God commanded Isaac to remain in Gerar for a time. In verse 2 I understand God to have promised Isaac that He would guide him to the land where he should go in God’s good time. The remainder of God’s revelation is a reiteration of the Abrahamic covenant. To us these words are not only familiar but almost redundant. Again and again we have seen God confirm and clarify His covenant with Abraham (cf. Genesis 13:14-17; 15:1, 18-21; 17:1-7ff.; 21:12; 22:17-18), but let us not overlook the fact that, so far as we are told, this is the first time God has spoken thus to Isaac. For him this was no dull recital but a thrilling assurance that what God had promised Abraham, He now promised his son. This is a covenant with Isaac.
Verse 5 reminds us that the blessings of the covenant are, to some degree, a result of Abraham’s faithfulness and obedience to God. Surely, even more so, the fulfillment of the covenantal promises is based upon God’s faithfulness to Abraham. Of this Isaac was a witness (cf. chapter 22). Implied in verse 5 is the necessity for Isaac to believe God’s promise, accept it as a personal relationship, and to live obediently, even as his father had. The first step in this life of obedience was to remain in Gerar, which Isaac did (verse 6).
It is significant that Moses, who recorded in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Law) the giving of the Law, used the terms “charge, commandments, statutes and laws” with regard to Abraham’s relationship with God. I agree with Leupold, who remarks:
By the use of these terms Moses, who purposes to use them all very frequently in his later books, indicates that “laws, commandments, charges, and statutes” are nothing new but were involved already in patriarchal religion.218
A Repetition of Abraham’s Sin
What? Again? I’m afraid so. Strange as it may seem, the same old sin of deception raises its ugly head for the third time in chapter 26. If nothing else proves it, this does—Isaac is a son of his father. Frightened concerning his own safety, Isaac succumbs to the temptation to pass off his wife as his sister. In doing this he was willing to risk Rebekah’s purity as the price for his personal protection.
The similarities between this sin of Isaac and that of his father Abraham are numerous. Both sinned in the presence of Abimelech, and both were rebuked by the ruler of the Philistines. Both had a beautiful wife and feared for their own safety, thinking that they might be killed so that someone could marry their wife. Both lied by saying that their wife was their sister. It would also appear that neither Abraham nor Isaac recognized the gravity of their sin or fully repented of it.
The differences between the sin of Abraham and that of Isaac cannot be overlooked. These differences verify the fact that two different deceptions took place in the land of the Philistines: one by Abraham and the other by his son. There seems to be little doubt that there are two different “Abimelechs” in these chapters of Genesis. Many years had passed since Abraham stood without adequate excuse before Abimelech. We would be on safe ground to assume that the term “Abimelech” is a title of office, like “Pharaoh,” rather than a given name. The same could be said for the term “Phicol.” Another consideration is that sons were often named after their grandfathers.219 Either of these possibilities would readily explain the fact that the names “Abimelech” and “Phicol” (cf. verse 26) are found in chapter 26 as well as in chapter 20.
Abraham’s policy of deception was just that: a policy established before he entered into any danger (Genesis 12:11-13; 20:13). From the very outset Abraham introduced Sarah as his sister. Isaac, however, waited until he was approached concerning Rebekah. At this point his confidence left him, and he resorted to a lie:
When the men of the place asked about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” for he was afraid to say, “My wife,” thinking “The men of the place might kill me on account of Rebekah, for she is beautiful” (Genesis 26:7).
We are not told what part Rebekah played in all of this. It is possible that she refused to actively cooperate, thus creating suspicions in the minds of the Philistines. Sarah was taken as a wife twice, but physical intimacy was divinely restrained. In the case of Rebekah, no one took her for a wife. God sharply warned Abimelech when he took Sarah, but here Abimelech learned of the deception by observing the conduct of Isaac with Rebekah. He did not treat her like a sister, but like a wife. There may well have been a hint of doubt already entertained by Abimelech and perhaps others of the Philistines, for when he saw Isaac caressing220 Rebekah he said, “… Behold, certainly she is your wife! …” (verse 9).221
Abimelech’s ethics appear to be based on a higher standard than Isaac’s. God had not spoken threateningly here to Abimelech as He had done when Sarah was taken into the Philistine ruler’s harem. Then Abimelech had been told that he was “as good as dead” (Genesis 20:3) if he so much as touched Sarah. There is no sword hanging proverbially over the head of Abimelech here. Nevertheless, he viewed the taking of a man’s wife as sin, and one of great consequence. Abimelech seemed to regard marital purity higher than Isaac did.
After discovering Isaac’s deception, Abimelech ordered that neither Isaac nor his wife was to be harmed (Genesis 26:11). Isaac was not instructed to leave, nor was he encouraged to stay. He was simply tolerated.
Return to the Place of Blessing
In verse 2 God had promised to guide Isaac to the place where he should dwell. Little did Isaac realize just how God was to lead him back to the place of His promise and presence. To a large degree it was by means of adversity and opposition.
On the surface, opposition seemed like the last thing which Isaac experienced. Staying on in Gerar after Abimelech had confronted him, Isaac harvested a bumper crop:
Now Isaac sowed in that land, and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. And the LORD blessed him, and the man became rich, and continued to grow richer until he became very wealthy; for he had possessions of flocks and herds and a great household, so that the Philistines envied him (Genesis 26:12-14).
In spite of Isaac’s deception, God poured out His blessings upon him. For reasons we shall discuss later, Abimelech failed to recognize Isaac’s prosperity as the blessing of God. All he knew was that Isaac was a powerful figure—one whom he did not want to contend with. Abimelech knew also that the Philistines were growing uneasy about Isaac’s presence in the land.
Isaac was rather threatening personally not only because of his prosperity and power but also because of his father Abraham:
Now all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines stopped up by filling them with earth (Genesis 26:15).
Digging a well was considered tantamount to a claim of ownership of the land on which it was located.222 It enabled a man to dwell there and to sustain herds. Rather than recognize this claim, the Philistines sought to wipe it out by filling up the wells dug by Abraham. Their desire to overthrow all claim on their land was so intense that they would rather fill in a well, an asset of great value in such an arid land, than to allow this claim to remain unchallenged.
The sentiments of the Philistines were concisely expressed in Abimelech’s terse suggestion that Isaac depart from Gerar (verse 16). Rather than fight for possession of this property, Isaac retreated. The meek would inherit this land, but in God’s good time.
It would seem that Isaac had developed a strategy by which he determined where he was to sojourn. Essentially, Isaac refused to stay where there was conflict and hostility. Being a man with many animals to tend, he must be at a place where water was available in abundance. He not only re-opened the wells once dug by his father, but he dug other wells also. If a well was dug that produced water and use of this well was not disputed, Isaac was inclined to stay at that place.
While Isaac may not have realized it for some time, it was the disputes over the ownership of the wells he dug or reopened that served to guide him in the direction of the land of promise. To Isaac these wells were a necessity for survival, but to the Philistines these were a claim to the land. Opposition was thus humanly explainable, but it was a divinely ordained means of guidance as well.
In the valley of Gerar Isaac dug a well that produced “living water,” that is, water that originated from a spring—running water, not simply water that was contained. The Philistine herdsmen disputed with the herdsmen of Isaac over it, so Isaac moved on. Another well was dug, and there was yet another dispute (verse 21). Finally a well was dug that brought about no opposition. I would imagine that this was due somewhat to the distance Isaac had traveled from the Philistines. This well was named “Rehoboth,” signifying the hope Isaac had that this was the place God had designated for him to stay.
The parallel between Isaac’s life and that of his father is again evident in this account of the disputes over the wells and Isaac’s response. Due to their prosperity Abraham and Isaac needed much room for their flocks and a source of water. Prosperity brought contention between Lot’s herdsmen and those of Abraham (Genesis 13:5ff.) just as it did between Isaac’s herdsmen and the herdsmen of Gerar. Isaac, like his father, chose to keep the peace by giving preference to the other party.
I have come to understand verses 23-25 as the key to the interpretation of chapter 26. Here a very strange thing happens. Up to this time Isaac’s decision as to where he should stay was based upon the finding of abundant water and the absence of hostilities. But now, having dug a well that was uncontested, we would have expected Isaac to dwell there. Instead we are told that he moved on to Beersheba, with no reason stated for this move: “Then he went up from there to Beersheba” (verse 23).
I believe that a significant change has occurred in Isaac’s thinking. Circumstances had previously shaped most of his decisions, but now something deeper and more noble seems to be giving direction in his life. Beersheba was the first place that Abraham had gone with Isaac after they came down from the “sacrifice” on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:19). Isaac knew that God had promised to give him the land promised to his father Abraham (26:3-5). I believe he had finally come to see that through all the opposition over the wells he had dug, God had been guiding him back to the land of promise, back to those places where Abraham had walked in fellowship with God. Personally, I believe that Isaac went up to Beersheba because he sensed on a spiritual level that this was where God wanted him to be. If God had previously been “driving” Isaac through opposition, now Isaac was willing to be led.
The decision was shown to be the right one, for God immediately spoke words of reassurance:
And the LORD appeared to him the same night and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham; Do not fear, for I am with you. I will bless you, and multiply your descendants, For the sake of My servant Abraham” (Genesis 26:24).
Verse 25 is of particular interest. Notice especially the order in which Isaac set up residence in Beersheba:
So he built an altar there, and called upon the name of the LORD, and pitched his tent there; and there Isaac’s servants dug a well (Genesis 26:25).
Previously the touchstone for knowing the will of God had been circumstances—in particular, Isaac stayed wherever he dug a well, found sufficient water, and was not opposed. Yet in this verse the sequence of events is reversed. First Isaac built an altar; then he worshipped, after which he pitched his tent. Finally, he dug a well.
There is a great lesson in faith and guidance here, I believe. The place for God’s people is the place of God’s presence. The place of intimacy, worship, and communion with God is the place to abide. There we should dwell, and there we may be assured of God’s provision for our needs. Material needs are thus considered last, while spiritual needs are primary. Is this not what our Lord referred to when He said:
But seek first His kingdom, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you (Matthew 6:33).
The Witness of Abimelech
From this point on everything seems to take on a different hue. Previously Isaac had been directed more providentially, but now that Isaac’s priorities have been rearranged, the blessings and guidance of God are far more evident in his life.
Abimelech, Ahuzzath, and Phicol all paid a state visit to Isaac. Isaac’s irritation as well as his curiosity can be seen in his interrogation: “… Why have you come to me, since you hate me, and have sent me away from you?” (Genesis 26:27)
Let’s face it, the situation was unusual. When he was in very close contact with Abimelech and the Philistines, the blessing of God on Isaac was present (cf. verse 12). The response of the people of the land was envy and animosity. They asked Isaac to leave their country. Now they were willing to come all this way simply to enter into a treaty with Isaac. What brought about this change of heart and mind?
Isaac’s conduct while with them was such that his testimony was far from sterling. He lied about his wife, passing her off as his sister. The Philistines could not imagine that his prosperity was the result of divine blessing, but rather they attributed it to just good luck. Now that Isaac’s priorities were changed and his life operating along spiritual guidelines, the blessing of God was evident. The covenant which God had made with Abraham was understood, at least in a practical way, to have passed on to his son. Abimelech realized that the hand of God was upon Isaac and that a favorable relationship with him was highly desirable:
And they said, “We see plainly that the LORD has been with you; so we said, ‘Let there now be an oath between us, even between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you, that you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good, and have sent you away in peace. You are now the blessed of the LORD’” (Genesis 26:28-29; emphasis mine).
The prosperity of a godly man can easily be seen to be the blessing of God. Now as opposed to previous times this is seen to be true of Isaac.
The Witness of the Well
Surely the right place for Isaac to be was Beersheba. First, God had spoken in such a way as to confirm the decision of Isaac, a divine witness to the wisdom of this move. Then, Abimelech and two of his officials witnessed in a backhanded fashion to the blessing of God in Beersheba. Finally, there is the witness of the well. The place where God wants us to be is also the place of provision:
Now it came about on the same day, that Isaac’s servants came in and told him about the well which they had dug, and said to him, ‘”We have found water.” So he called it Shibah; therefore the name of the city is Beersheba to this day (Genesis 26:32-33).
What was once Isaac’s first concern was now his last, but water was still essential for his survival with such large herds. God would not let His servant do without that which he needed to prosper, and so the efforts expended in digging the well were blessed and water was struck. Mark it well: the place of God’s presence is also the place of God’s provision.
Regret Due to Esau’s Marriages
Serving God does not guarantee a trouble-free life and one of rose-strewn paths. There were still heartaches for Isaac and Rebekah; Esau was the source of much of their sorrow and grief:
And when Esau was forty years old he married Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite; and they made life miserable for Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 26:34-35).
These verses help us to realize that even when we are rightly related to God, troubles will still be a part of our experience. These trials may be the result of our own sinfulness or that which is common to mankind. These verses provide the backdrop to the drama of chapter 27, which will be our next lesson.
This chapter underscores the two most common systems of guidance which are available to Christians of every age: living by principles or by providence. When we walk in accordance with the principles given in the Word of God, we walk closest to Him. When we walk by providence we shall still arrive where God wants us to be, but without the joy of being an active participant in the process. Instead, we are the passive object which God moves from point to point by circumstances. There is little joy or intimacy with God in this system.
Perhaps the most important lesson of this chapter is that which is taught by the most evident characteristic of the chapter. The one chapter which capsulizes the life of Isaac does so in a manner which shows that he walked in the footprints of his father Abraham. The liberal critics of the Bible note this similarity well, but they conclude from it that the chapter has little that is original or authentic, and so the chapter is largely passed by.
Hopefully this will not be the case for the serious Christian. I believe that God has much to teach us by observing that Isaac’s life was a replay of his father’s experiences with God. God made a covenant with Abraham; He confirmed it with Isaac. Abraham lied about his wife to Abimelech; Isaac repeated this sin before another Abimelech. Abimelech sought a treaty with Abraham, seeing that the hand of God’s blessing was upon him; so, years later, Abimelech did likewise with Isaac. The similarities seem to go on and on.
May I suggest to you that this should tell us something vital to our own Christian experience. There is a process, a long and extensive one, which God employs to bring a person first to Himself and then to maturity. It begins when that individual enters into a covenant relationship with God. For Abraham and Isaac the covenant was the Abrahamic covenant. For Christians today it is the new covenant instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ when He shed His blood on the cross of Calvary in order to provide for our forgiveness of sins and for our salvation:
And having taken some bread, when He had given thanks, He broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me,” And in the some way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 22:19-20).
Everyone must begin his relationship at this very place, the place of personal relationship with God through acceptance of the covenant He has offered. And from this beginning we embark upon a spiritual voyage that is, in many ways, very similar to that of previous saints. When we are able to look back over our lives from the vantage point of eternity, I suspect that we will be amazed how similar the path has been for us compared to that of others before and after us. There are no shortcuts in the sanctification process.
As parents this is a very significant truth. Our children must walk in our footsteps if they are to be a part of the kingdom of God. Our children must begin at the point we did. They must come to a personal relationship with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Then they must be allowed to make the same mistakes we did in order that they may come to a more mature faith and trust in the God who has called them.
If you are at all like me, you would prefer that your children not make the same mistakes you did, and I hope it is not necessary. I am simply pointing out the fact that Isaac did walk in a path nearly identical to that of his father. Let us be willing to allow our children to fail and to grow in the way God has purposed. Much as we would prefer it otherwise, our children cannot begin to relate to God on the level of our own walk. They must start at the beginning. That is the way it is.
Let me balance this somewhat by saying that the way we can best help our own children is by making certain that our footsteps are such that we would want our children to walk in them. If Isaac’s experience was, to some degree, a reflection of his father’s life, what a frightening thought that is. If our children’s lives are to mirror our own, what an awesome responsibility we have as parents to walk a path of obedience and submission to the will of God.
Finally, let me share with you a possible explanation for the way in which God dealt with the sins of Abraham and his son Isaac. I find myself disappointed and rather distraught by the thought that God did not come down on these men harder for their unchivalrous deception concerning their wives. I would have expected God to confront them sharply for their sin. If I had been an elder in their church, I would have strongly urged disciplinary action. Why, then, did God not respond more forcefully?
I think I am slowly beginning to understand the reason. Deception is sin, and God hates the lying tongue (cf. Proverbs 6:17). But lying here was a symptomatic sin and not the root sin. God did not smash the red warning light (deception) because He was concerned about getting to the root of the problem. The root sin, as I perceive it, was unbelief or lack of faith. In each case of deception, Abraham and Isaac lied out of fear (cf. 12:11-13; 20:11; 26:7). This fear was the product of an inadequate concept of God. They did not grasp the sovereignty or the omnipotence of God in such a way as to believe that God could protect them under any and every circumstance. Having solved the problem of too little faith, the sin of deception will not be an issue any longer.
It is my personal opinion that we sometimes become preoccupied with “symptom sins,” rushing about trying, as someone in our church said, to stomp them like roaches. While sin should always be taken seriously, many of our sins will be dealt with by an adequate conception of who God really is. The fundamental sin is that of unbelief, not only for those who are unsaved but also for those who are truly saved.
215 “This chapter finds little elucidation in various expositions. It is not touched upon in Understanding Genesis nor in Expositor’s Bible. By others it is rather a casual intrusion that does little to further the story or make any contribution to the development of thought after chapter 25.” Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), D. 211.
216 “It is sometimes wondered how it was that Isaac did exactly what his father before him had done, and the similarity of the circumstances has led some to think that this is only a variant of the former story. Would it not be truer to say that this episode is entirely consonant with what we know of human nature and its tendencies? What would be more natural than that Isaac should attempt to do what his father had done before him? Surely a little knowledge of human nature as distinct from abstract theory is sufficient to warrant a belief in the historical character of this narrative. Besides, assuming that it is a variant of the other story, we naturally ask which of them is the true version; they cannot both be true, for as they now are they do not refer to the same event. The names and circumstances are different in spite of similarities.” W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), p. 239.
217 Kidner says further, “The heaped-up terms (cf., e.g., Dt. 11:1) suggest the complete servant, responsible and biddable. They also dispel any idea that law and promise are in necessary conflict (cf. Jas. 2:22; Gal. 3:21)”. Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 153.
219 “Naming sons after grandfathers (‘papponymy’) was customary at various times. In a nearly contemporary example from Egypt the royal house and a provincial governing family retained this pattern side by side for four generations, so that Ammenemes I appointed Khnumhotep I, and his grandson Ammenemes II appointed Khnumhotep II. Alternating with them, Sesostris I and II appointed Nakht I and II, and certain negotiations were repeated as well.” Kidner, Genesis, p. 154, fn. 1.
220 The word used here, which is rendered “caressing” by the NASV, is interesting because its root is the same word from which the name Isaac is derived. Isaac (to laugh) was caressing (“sporting,” KJV) Rebekah. In Genesis 39:17 and Exodus 32:6 this word is employed by Moses to refer to “play,” which has rather obvious sexual overtones.
221 “The king’s mode of stating the case implies suspicions that he has held right along: ‘Look (here), she certainly is thy wife,’ a shade of thought caught by Meek when he renders: ‘So she really is your wife.’” Leupold, Genesis, II, p. 722.
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