Genesis 26:1–33

Genesis 26:1–33

This pericope appears to be a flashback. The events of Genesis 26 likely occur in the two decades of Rebekah’s barrenness, for it is inconceivable that Isaac’s lie that Rebekah was his sister would have gone undetected by the men of Gerar for “a long time” (Gen 26:8): had there been two kids running around in Isaac’s camp, the game would have been up. In addition, in 25:11, God is shown blessing Isaac, yet that blessing is only a promise in 26:3, later fulfilled in 26:12. So this pericope is a flashback. But why? And why two discrete episodes in this flashing-back pericope (26:1–11 and 26:12–35)?

God instructs Isaac quite specifically that he is not to go to Egypt, but to stay in “this land” (26:1, 3). Since he decreed that Isaac dwell in Gerar (26:3), it would have been appropriate for Isaac to expect God to protect him, especially since God also explicitly promised to be with the patriarch (26:3). Later, even foreigners—Abimelech and Phicol—acknowledge this fact (26:28). And notice that that promise of divine presence, blessing, and land is to “you and to your descendants” (26:3). The word “descendants” (zera‘) echoes four times in God’s utterance to Isaac in 26:3–4. Isaac is assured of divine protection, at least until such descendants are produced.

Promised blessing—unambiguous and unequivocal.

But it appears that the patriarch does not put much stock in divine promises. In 26:7–11, Isaac passes off his wife, Rebekah, as his sister, fearing for the safety of his own life, even willing to jeopardize the welfare of his spouse. After the divine promise of presence grounded in a divine oath (26:3), one must conclude that Isaac’s fear was unjustified. Remember, this episode occurs before the couple had children. Surely, Isaac’s life was secure in light of God’s fourfold affirmation that Isaac would produce descendants.

Promised blessing—unambiguous and unequivocal. Deception manifests distrust in God.

So in the first episode we have a man not trusting God and his word. In response to fear and threats to his own life, he falls apart.

The second episode (26:12–33) of this pericope begins with a description of God’s blessing of Isaac (26:12–14): Not only does he reap a hundredfold—an incredible harvest in any season anywhere, and this was in the patriarch’s first year of sowing—but he also grows rich, richer, and even more rich (26:13). No wonder he was being envied by those outside his camp (26:14). And that envy spurs action—inimical action intended to endanger Isaac and his people: his opponents sabotage Isaac’s wells or take them away from him (26:15, 18–20). No water meant no survival in the Middle East.

Promised blessing—unambiguous and unequivocal. Deception manifests distrust in God. Blessing leads to opposition.

However, surprisingly (particularly after the first episode), in response to each of the instances of oppression, Isaac refuses to retaliate, instead moving away and digging wells elsewhere (26:17–18, 21, 22). It is not that Isaac was incapable of responding: even his enemies acknowledged that he was “too powerful for us” (26:16). Besides, if Isaac’s “great household” (26:14) was anything like that of his father Abraham, who had raised a homegrown army of 318 soldiers with which he successfully waged wars (Genesis 14), he could surely have fought off any kind of oppression. Indeed, it appears that Abimelech was actually afraid of Isaac (26:29).

Promised blessing—unambiguous and unequivocal. Deception manifests distrust in God. Blessing leads to opposition. No retaliation.

Apparently, by the time of this second episode of this pericope, Isaac had learnt his lesson: God was trustworthy and could be relied upon to protect and secure Isaac’s blessings even from fierce opposition. Hence, the patriarch refrains from retaliation; in fact, he makes peace with his enemies (26:26–31). And why not? In 26:3, God promised to be with Isaac in the future; in 26:24, God assures Isaac that he is with the patriarch in the present; in 26:28, Abimelech recognizes that God has been with Isaac in the past.

Promised blessing—unambiguous and unequivocal. Deception manifests distrust in God. When blessing leads to opposition, not retaliating, but rather reconciling, manifests trust in God.

Ultimately this pericope—a two-sided coin, one negative, one positive—exhorts us to trust God that he will secure his blessings to us without our having to fear any loss thereof. So, stating this in the positive (and in fewer words), we have:

God’s promised blessings are sure and obviate any attempt to secure them by deception or retaliation against opposition—instead reconciliation is called for.

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