6 So Isaac settled in Gerar. 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. 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. 9 So 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.’” 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.” 11 So Abimelech warned all the people, saying, “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.”
12 And Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. The Lord blessed him, 13 and the man became rich, and gained more and more until he became very wealthy. 14 He 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.) 16 And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you are much mightier than we.” – Genesis 26:6-16 ESV
Isaac and his family are facing a severe famine in the land of Canaan. And this is not the first time that God has allowed the land of promise to withhold its bounty. Nearly two centuries earlier, another famine had come upon the land of Canaan. Isaac’s father, Abraham, had been only 75-years-old at the time and was a new arrival to the land, having been called by God out of Haran in Mesopotamia. Yet, while God had promised to give Abraham the land of Canaan as his inheritance, a severe famine forced Abraham to seek refuge in Egypt.
Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. – Genesis 12:10 ESV
Hundreds of years later, when Isaac found himself facing similar circumstances, God warned him to avoid Egypt like the plague.
“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.” – Genesis 26:2-3 ESV
Abraham was dead and gone, but as this passage will reveal, his influence still lingered over his family. And God knew that Isaac would be prone to follow in the footsteps of his father. There is little doubt that Abraham had told his son about his fateful trip to Egypt and all that occurred there. His decision to seek food and shelter in Egypt had not been his primary mistake. It was the unwise decision he made once he had crossed the border.
When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” – Genesis 12:11-13 ESV
Finding himself a stranger in Egypt, Abraham had feared for his own life, and so he convinced his wife to hide their marital status. He hoped that by having Sarah claim to be his sister, which technically she was, the Egyptians would not kill him so they could have his beautiful wife. But his plan had backfired. The Pharaoh himself had decided to add Sarah as a concubine in his harem, leaving Abraham very much alive, but also very much alone. But God had intervened, sparing Sarah from humiliation at the hands of Pharaoh, and returning her to Abraham’s side.
So, Isaac’s warning from God that he avoid Egypt at all costs makes more sense with that story in mind. But there is another story from Abraham’s past that factors into this account. While Isaac had been forbidden by God to seek shelter in Egypt, Moses makes it clear that “Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech king of the Philistines” (Genesis 26:1 ESV). This should sound eerily familiar.
Years earlier, Abraham had also journeyed to the land of Gerar. And, as he had done in Egypt, he begged Sarah to introduce herself as his sister. He had learned little from his close call with Pharaoh and was still having a difficult time believing that God could protect him from his enemies. So, upon their arrival in Gerar, Sarah had once again faithfully followed her husband’s counsel, and the next thing she knew, she was in the harem of King Abimelech. And as before, God intervened and protected Sarah.
God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” – Genesis 20:3 ESV
Sarah was returned to Abraham, along with many sheep, oxen, and male and female servants. The relieved Abimelech showered Abraham with gifts, including 1,000 pieces of silver. The unbelieving and distrustful Abraham had walked away a wealthy man, just as he had done in Egypt. And perhaps it was this silver lining on the dark cloud of Abraham’s behavior that attracted Isaac and prompted him to mirror his father’s behavior. Because that is exactly what he did.
So Isaac settled in Gerar. 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. – Genesis 26:6-7 ESV
His little ploy seems to have worked because a great deal of time passed and no one attempted to add Rebekah to their harem. And because no one suspected them to be husband and wife, there had been no threats on Isaac’s life. But in time, their little charade was exposed.
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. – Genesis 26:8 ESV
There is far more here than meets the eye. Isaac and Rebekah were doing far more than sharing an innocent laugh together. The NET Bible Study Notes explains:
The Hebrew word מְצַחֵק (mtsakheq), from the root צָחַק (tsakhaq, “laugh”), forms a sound play with the name “Isaac” right before it. Here it depicts an action, probably caressing or fondling, that indicated immediately that Rebekah was Isaac’s wife, not his sister. Isaac’s deception made a mockery of God’s covenantal promise. Ignoring God’s promise to protect and bless him, Isaac lied to protect himself and acted in bad faith to the men of Gerar.
As he had done some 70-90 years earlier, Abimelech proved to be more righteous than Abraham or Isaac. He had done more to protect the wives of these two men than they had. And when he discovered the lie that Isaac and Rebekah had been living and considered the consequences it could have brought upon his people, Abimelech confronted Isaac and warned his people to avoid Rebekah or face death.
“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.” So Abimelech warned all the people, saying, “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.” – Genesis 26:10-11 ESV
One of the difficult things to understand about these stories is how God repeatedly blessed Abraham and Isaac even in the midst of their unfaithful actions. Moses reveals that Isaac’s lies and deception were seemingly rewarded by God.
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. – Genesis 26:12-14 ESV
But these blessings were not a result of Isaac’s actions. They were the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to Abraham. God was blessing Isaac in spite of his behavior, not because of it. God had told Abraham, “I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2 ESV). God had made a self-binding agreement with Abraham, declaring His intentions to establish an everlasting covenant between Himself and Abraham’s descendants.
“I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” – Genesis 17:6-7 ESV
And Isaac was destined to play a role in God’s fulfillment of His covenant promise. After Abraham had shown his willingness to obey God and sacrifice Isaac, his only son, God had reiterated His promise.
“…because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” – Genesis 26:16-18 ESV
Now, years later, the adult Isaac stood back and watched as God poured out His covenant blessings, despite all that he had done to deserve God’s judgment and wrath. And while he was blessed by God, he also found himself despised by the occupants of the land. As they watched him prosper at their expense, they decided to treat him as persona non grata and cast him from their land. Even they could see that Isaac was under some kind of divine protection. He was living under a charm and they were jealous of his supernatural and inexplicable success.
But as God continued to bless Isaac, He was also preparing him for what was to come. There would be yet another famine in the land, and the days ahead would be full of conflict and constant relocation, as Isaac and his family continued the same nomadic lifestyle that Abraham had endured. God was blessing Isaac so that he might one day be a blessing. God was separating Isaac so that, one day, his descendants might become the set-apart people of God. And through Isaac would come another Son who would mirror the nature of His Father. He would become the offspring of Abraham who would bring the blessing of God to the nations.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.