Genesis 26

For the third – and thankfully last – time in Genesis we have a husband trying to pass his spouse off as his sister. (Abraham did this twice in Chapters 12 and 20 and Isaac does it here in verses seven through nine (with Isaac’s lie being found out in a more humorous way than Abraham’s were; compare verses eight and nine in this section with 12.17-18 and 20.3-7).) Isaac is rather short-changed amongst the tales of the Patriarchs, and so it is somewhat disappointing that in this sole chapter where he is given center stage the composition is for the most part a collection of recycled stories: there is the aforementioned business with Rebekah and Abimelech (also a returning character), strife over wells reminiscent of Abraham’s complaints to Abimelech followed by their negotiation in 21.22-32 (also, as here, presented as an etiology for Beer-Sheba as place name), but then there is too the positive repetition of the promise and the portrayal of a direct relating with the divine, and Isaac takes after his father in demonstrating both faith and tremendous generosity with others who might not always be friendly or fair (verses twenty-seven through thirty).

Nevertheless, even within this series of “second time arounds” the lessons of fortitude and constancy are communicated. As with Abraham and Lot being forced to part ways due to an overabundance of livestock between them (Chapter 13), Isaac is asked by Abimelech to remove himself with his household: verse sixteen: “And Abimelech said to Isaac, ‘Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us.’” This he does, settling in a new area where he naturally sets about digging wells (and let the symbolism of water not go unnoticed; see our comments to Genesis 21), only to have them be taken away in conflict, to which he responds by establishing another and shortly thereafter is deprived of it too (verses seventeen through twenty-one). Rather than fight though Isaac simply moves again, digs again, and this time is granted peace and opportunity (verse twenty-two).

The reader notes that only after this demonstration of grace, of what we might call “turning the other cheek”, does the narrative shift in Isaac’s favor. God/“God” appears to him in a dream of reassurance, Isaac “invoke[s] the LORD by name” (i.e. personal relationship) and constructs yet another well (verse twenty-five). Abimelech, who has heretofore been either a source of direct, or – via the people he rules and represents, indirect – contention arrives seeking reconciliation and the agreement to a treaty establishing equality and tolerance between their respective groups (verses twenty-six through twenty-nine). Thus although Isaac is perhaps only given to us in the text as a sort of truncated and condensed version of his remarkable father (and ends up paling before what his astonishing son Jacob is reported as doing), he still demonstrates some of the best qualities that these myths seek to impart; and all this of course is additionally set against the background of the famous “binding” of Chapter 22 where Isaac truly showed his mettle. To the ancient rabbinic interpreters every letter of the holy books were filled with significance; we may or may not agree on that, but what is certain is that even in chapters like this – essentially placed only to link the Abrahamic arc with the Jacobean one – there is much to learn and to re-learn on our own repeated visits.

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