As we said, a famine hit the land and Isaac took Rebekah and went to the land of the Philistines, to Abim’elech the king. Israel has not had good luck with neighboring people over the centuries; the Philistines, like the Egyptians, take them in, then later they become enemies. This is not unusual, as even today national friendships are made and broken easily. But it is something to take note of when doing any type of bible study, the alliances and hostilities between nations forms the background of many of the sagas throughout the Old Testament. A solid knowledge of these can provide a helpful background to today’s conflicts as well. After WWII artificial nations were created when the Middle East was broken up in an effort to recreate the Israeli nation, but you can still see these people and their conflicts. Egypt, Persia, Babylon, Mesopotamia, while all but Egypt have passed the people still exist and their mutual love and hatred for each other shows through the centuries. Any attempt to bring peace to the region must come with an understanding of these ancient interrelationships. Western arrogance and ignorance has more to do with what is happening today than anything else. But, I digress.
Right off we find Isaac starting things off badly by lying to the Philistines about Rebekah, a lie that will cost him in the near future. The men of Gerar ask him about Rebekah, and putting more trust into his fear than into the promises of God, he tells them that Rebekah is his sister out of fear that they will kill him to take his wife. Now this opens up serious problems for the two, for now the people of Gerar see Rebekah as an available woman with whom to enter into relationship. Isaac and Rebekah don’t do a good job of hiding their true relationship either, Abim’elech looks out his window and sees them engaging in activities that are reserved for husband/wife not brother/sister. What these activities are is unclear from the terminology for παίζοντα can be interpreted as anything from children playing to dancing (a strictly marital activity) to amorous touching (petting), things falling short of actual intercourse. Abim’elech is angry at what he sees and calls Isaac to him and demands an explanation. When he hears Isaac’s reasoning he puts out an edict that no one is to touch Isaac or Rebekah under sentence of death.
Well, if you think that brought an end to the problems you would be wrong. Isaac goes back to tending his land and his flocks, growing in wealth and possessions, to such a point that the already angry Philistines grow even angrier at Isaac. As with any such relations bad things start to happen, finally Abim’elech grows tired of the disputes and orders Isaac to leave the land. He doesn’t go far, just into the neighboring valley where tensions again arise between Isaac and the people living there. Isaac digs several wells (okay, his servants dig them) and, like drilling for gas and oil today, disputes arise over the water that the wells pull from. Tiring of the disputes Isaac moves again, this time to Beer-sheba. This is a good move (distance wise) and gets him out of the land of the Philistines. After he has settled in the land Abim’elech comes to arrange a peace treaty with Isaac, for by now Isaac’s tribe has grown to a size that could be a problem with the Philistines. A treaty is arranged, a party is held to celebrate it, and all is well…for now.
Did you forget about Isaac’s older son, Esau? Esau reenters the picture in a very nasty way. We are told that at 40 Esau marries two Hittite women, and they make life “bitter” for Isaac and Rebekah. Let’s try to understand this in modern times. Imagine a marriage today between the son of an Evangelical Christian and the daughter of a modern Druid. This is a slap to Isaac and Abraham and their covenant with God, and had to sit hard with Isaac. However, Isaac hadn’t given up on Esau, when he was aging Isaac sent for Esau and asked him to hunt for game and prepare a meal so that he could deliver Esau his blessing. Rebekah, cunning woman that she was, sends for Jacob and has him prepare a stew, then disguise himself so as to fool Isaac into thinking he was Esau. Isaac, with his poor vision, fell for the ruse and gives his blessing to Jacob. Jacob is told that God’s promise to Abraham, passed onto Isaac, now goes to him. He is to be the lord of the nations, and his brothers will serve him. Jacob is now heir to everything Isaac owned: servants, land, livestock, and the inheritor of God’s promise. Esau has nothing.
Esau now returns from the hunt, with the stew ready for his father. Dad is confused, he just gave “Esau” everything, why is he back again? Isaac is angry at the deception, as is Esau, but there is nothing that can be done at this point. He gives to Esau the only thing he can, a promise of a hard life in service to Isaac until he can break away. Esau vows vengeance on Jacob, but Jacob flees to his uncle’s house (Rebekah’s brother) with instructions to stay there until Esau settles down, and that he is to marry one of his cousins. Esau, realizing that Isaac hated his Hittite wives goes to Ish’mael and takes one of his daughters as a wife.
So, how is your scorecard looking? Remind you of modern day soap operas? In case you lost track along the way, let’s summarize this twisted tale.
- Abraham married his half-sister, Sarah, both children of Terah.
- Abraham had two sons, Ish’mael by a concubine (Hagar), and Isaac by his wife Sarah.
- Isaac had two sons, Esau and Jacob.
- Yes, both Abraham and Isaac had more children, but these are the important ones to follow.
- Isaac married Rebekah, the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother, Nahor.
- Esau just married his cousin Ma’halath, the daughter of Ish’mael.
- Jacob was sent off to marry Rebekah’s niece, his cousin. Of course, he will end up marrying two of his cousins, Leah and Rachel, sisters.
And you thought you had family problems?
Next we leave Isaac, Rebekah, and Esau, and focus on Jacob’s strained future.