Commentary on Genesis 26

Last updated: September 25, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech king of the Philistines. 2And the LORD appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. 3Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. 4I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, 5because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”

6So Isaac settled in Gerar. 7When the men of the place asked him about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” for he feared to say, “My wife,” thinking, “lest the men of the place should kill me because of Rebekah,” because she was attractive in appearance. 8When he had been there a long time, Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out of a window and saw Isaac laughing with Rebekah his wife. 9So Abimelech called Isaac and said, “Behold, she is your wife. How then could you say, ‘She is my sister’?” Isaac said to him, “Because I thought, ‘Lest I die because of her.'” 10Abimelech said, “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.” 11So Abimelech warned all the people, saying, “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.”

12And Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. The LORD blessed him, 13and the man became rich, and gained more and more until he became very wealthy. 14He had possessions of flocks and herds and many servants, so that the Philistines envied him. 15(Now the Philistines had stopped and filled with earth all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father.) 16And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you are much mightier than we.”

17So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the Valley of Gerar and settled there. 18And Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Abraham his father, which the Philistines had stopped after the death of Abraham. And he gave them the names that his father had given them. 19But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, 20the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” So he called the name of the well Esek, because they contended with him. 21Then they dug another well, and they quarreled over that also, so he called its name Sitnah. 22And he moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it. So he called its name Rehoboth, saying, “For now the LORD has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.”

23From there he went up to Beersheba. 24And the LORD appeared to him the same night and said, “I am the God of Abraham your father. Fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham’s sake.” 25So 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.

26When Abimelech went to him from Gerar with Ahuzzath his adviser and Phicol the commander of his army, 27Isaac said to them, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?” 28They said, “We see plainly that the LORD has been with you. So we said, let there be a sworn pact between us, between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you, 29that 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.” 30So he made them a feast, and they ate and drank. 31In the morning they rose early and exchanged oaths. And Isaac sent them on their way, and they departed from him in peace. 32That same day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well that they had dug and said to him, “We have found water.” 33He called it Shibah; therefore the name of the city is Beersheba to this day.

34When Esau was forty years old, he took Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite to be his wife, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite, 35and they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah.

Notes

1 Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech king of the Philistines.

Isaac, like his father Abraham (12:10), intended to ride out the famine in Egypt (v 2). Exodus 13:17 observes that a short route between Canaan and Egypt passed through the land of the Philistines. Gerar (20:1-2) would have been a good stopping point on the journey in light of the covenant between Abimelech and Abraham (21:22-34). However, the Abimelech of this passage is probably not the Abimelech of Abraham’s time because 75 years have passed. Rather we should think of Abimelech (meaning “my father is king”) as a throne name for the rulers of Gerar.

2-5 And the LORD appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”

This is a reaffirmation of the covenant promises. Initially Abraham had been told to go to the promised land. Here Isaac is told to stay in the promised land. Abraham’s fidelity guarantees the fulfillment of the covenant.

6 So Isaac settled in Gerar.

Isaac obeys God’s command. However, the ensuing wife/sister episode shows he may not have taken God’s promise to be with him to heart (v 3).

7 When the men of the place asked him about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” for he feared to say, “My wife,” thinking, “lest the men of the place should kill me because of Rebekah,” because she was attractive in appearance.

It is probable that this episode took place before the birth of Jacob and Esau for neither son is mentioned and the presence of children would have made it more difficult for Rebekah to be passed off as Isaac’s sister. Isaac’s reasoning parallels Abraham’s reasoning in 12:11-13.

8 When he had been there a long time, Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out of a window and saw Isaac laughing with Rebekah his wife.

Isaac had been in Gerar for a long time and his wife was never taken by another man, suggesting his fears were more imagined than real. The Hebrew word translated “laughing” (metsahek) in the ESV is a play on the name Isaac (yitshak).1 Something more intimate than laughing is implied by the fact that the Abimelech could discern the couple were husband and wife (v 9).

10 Abimelech said, “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.”

Abimelech is not merely worried about being guilty but also of the punishment that could be meted out for that guilt.2

12-14 And Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. The LORD blessed him, and the man became rich, and gained more and more until he became very wealthy. He had possessions of flocks and herds and many servants, so that the Philistines envied him.

Isaac is blessed even in a time of famine. Paradoxically this causes his neighbors to envy him.

15 (Now the Philistines had stopped and filled with earth all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father.)

The Philistines were forbidden to abuse Isaac physically (v 11) so they attempt to drive him out with harassment.

These wells are mentioned again in verse 18. The background to the situation is provided by 21:25, 30. The digging of wells or cisterns, usually in the dry beds of rivers, streams, and brooks, was essential to the pastoralist’s survival. Because the winter floods would silt them up and obliterate them, the wells were frequently lined with stone, or the cisterns were actually hewn out of rock. They would have to be cleaned out after the floods subsided. The Philistines spitefully and deliberately refilled them with dirt.3

16 And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you are much mightier than we.”

Isaac’s prosperity, not his deception, causes Abimelech to ask him to leave.

18 And Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Abraham his father, which the Philistines had stopped after the death of Abraham. And he gave them the names that his father had given them.

[Isaac] moves his family and belongings beyond the recognized urban limits of Gerar to the same region in which his father had once made a prolonged stay (21:34). Abraham’s sojourn could not have been accomplished without the digging and maintenance of several wells. In order to establish clear proprietary rights, each well would be given an identifying name. Since Abraham’s death the Philistines had blocked them up. Isaac now restores them and revives their original names so as to make his ownership incontestable.4

19-20 But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” So he called the name of the well Esek, because they contended with him.

A well of this type was especially valuable; when originally excavated, it would have been lined with stone. Since a memory of its existence has not been preserved, it is ownerless and ought to belong to the finder. Nevertheless, the shepherds of Gerar lay claim to it. Significantly, they do not assert this on behalf of the king, which shows that the well was situated in a region beyond the limits of royal domain.5

The name “Esek” means “contention.”6

21 Then they dug another well, and they quarreled over that also, so he called its name Sitnah.

In Ezra 4:6 the term “Sitnah” denotes a formal accusation lodged against someone. A verb based on the root means “to show hostility.”7

22 And he moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it. So he called its name Rehoboth, saying, “For now the LORD has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.”

Rehoboth (meaning “wide, broad, spacious”)8 has been identified with modern Ruheibeh, about 19 miles southwest of Beersheba. There are still several very ancient wells in the area.9

24 And the LORD appeared to him the same night and said, “I am the God of Abraham your father. Fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham’s sake.”

The legacy of the promises received by Isaac is “for the sake of my servant Abraham” (cp. “David,” 1 Kgs 11:32; 2 Kgs 20:6). That the blessing was achieved vicariously by the merit of Abraham misunderstands the point of this attribution. The efficacy of the blessing did not rely on the merit of Abraham but rather was on account of the divine commitment made to Abraham and his descendants.10

25 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.

This verse refers to the process of digging a well, not its completion, which is reported in verse 32.

26-27 When Abimelech went to him from Gerar with Ahuzzath his adviser and Phicol the commander of his army, Isaac said to them, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?”

The king brought along his chief civilian and military officers. Due to the time interval between the accounts, the Phicol of this verse can not be the same Phicol as in 21:22, 32. As in the case of Abimelech, the name must have been passed on.

32-33 That same day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well that they had dug and said to him, “We have found water.” He called it Shibah; therefore the name of the city is Beersheba to this day.

The coincidence [that same day] is highly significant. It indicates a causal relationship between the name Beer-sheba and the oath-taking ceremony just completed. One would expect, then, that the well would be called shevuah, which is the Hebrew term for oath, rather than sheva (Shibah), which means “seven.” The anomaly proves that the present story presupposes a knowledge of the earlier one involving Abraham and Abimelech, as recounted in 21:22-34. There the number seven predominates. Moreover, the names Abraham and Abimelech occur in the present chapter seven times each, just as they do in the first story. Accordingly, our narrative about Isaac entails implicit word play on shivah and shevuah that is intelligible only in the context of the earlier narrative. This leads to the conclusion that verse 33 is not intended to suggest that Isaac first coined and applied the name Beer-sheba but, rather, that he endowed the name previously given by Abraham with new, contemporary meaning and that he gave it currency. As verse 18 notes, Isaac made a practice of giving the wells “the same names that his father had given them.”11

34-35 When Esau was forty years old, he took Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite to be his wife, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite, and they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah.

The information given here lends intelligibility to Rebekah’s stratagem for saving Jacob from Esau’s anger, as told in 27:42-46. At the same time, the passage reinforces the idea of Esau’s unworthiness to be Isaac’s heir, for he commits a threefold offense: breaking with social convention by contracting the marriage himself rather than leaving the initiative to his parents; abandoning the established practice of endogamy by marrying outside the kinship group; and violating the honor of his clan by intermarrying with the native women.12

The narrative accounts naming Esau’s wives in 26:34-35 and 28:9 vary in name and descent from the genealogical listing of his wives in 36:2-3, generating a host of speculative reconstructions from antiquity to the present. First, the two narrative passages show that Esau married (1) Judith, daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and (2) Basemath, daughter of Elon the Hittite (26:34), after which he hoped to mitigate his father’s displeasure by marrying within the family, his cousin, namely, (3) Mahalath, the sister of Nebaioth (Ishmael’s firstborn son, 25:13) and daughter of Ishmael. Second, Esau’s genealogy (36:2-3) also names three wives, but their names and lineages appear to reflect another tradition: (1) Adah, daughter of Elon the Hittite, (2) Oholibamah, daughter of Anah and granddaughter of Zibeon the Hivite (36:2), and (3) Basemath, daughter of Ishmael, sister of Nebaioth (36:3). The names “Judith,” “Mahalath,” and “Oholibamah” occur in only one of the two versions. “Basemath” is the only name to occur in both accounts, but each attributes to her a different ancestry (Elon the Hittite or Ishmael).

Scholars often attribute the two groups of names to two different traditions that have been preserved by the Priestly writer or later redactor. Three important factors that sometimes occurred in assigning names may help explain how the two sets of appellatives may give an accurate picture of the wives’ names and derivations. A person could bear two names (e.g., Reuel/Jethro), and a person could undergo a name change (e.g., Jacob/Israel; Joseph/Zaphenath-Paneah). Also multiple persons could bear the same name (e.g., Anah, 36:20, 24). In light of the foregoing, it is possible that the sets of names include reference to the same women under two different names and/or a fourth wife but with the same name. Since the women named “Basemath” bear two different derivations (Hittite/Ishmaelite), it is reasonable to posit that they are two different people with the same name. On the other hand, Mahalath (28:9) and Basemath (36:2) are both Ishmaelites. All in all, the problem remains unsolved until more information is discovered that bears on the solution.13

Bibliography

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1B. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

1Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 184.

2Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 197.

3Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 185.

4Ibid., 186.

5Ibid.

6Ibid.

7Ibid.

8Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 411.

9Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 186.

10Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 411.

11Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 188.

12Ibid., 189.

13Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 416.

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