Egypt was a place of certain sustenance and provision, whereas Gerar was as famine affected as Hebron. If Yitzchak is to obey God he must choose to travel from famine to famine and trust that God will provide for his needs.
Genesis 26 is the central chapter of the Torah portion “Toldot”, meaning generations. This portion is key to the extension of God’s plan for Israel and His irrevocable covenant with Avraham. This chapter plays a pivotal role in explaining the continuity of Avraham’s covenant as it is confirmed (not re-established) through Isaac and will be confirmed again through Jacob, not as a result of either Isaac or Jacob’s character but as a result of Avraham’s having accepted God’s Word (D’var, ketvi, memra, logos) through trust. This is why the text reminds us that it is as a consequence of Avraham’s trust in God that God has passed the covenant promises on to Isaac, Jacob and the ethnic children of Israel.
Chapter 25 ended with Esau despising his birth right and the priestly role as head of the family, thus rejecting the faith of his father Avraham. The current chapter ends with Esau making more poor choices and bringing grief and bitterness to Yitzchak and Rivkah. We may ask, why is the sin of Esau emphasised here? Why is it so important to distinguish him as one who grieves his parents? The answer is found in the establishment of the covenant of Avraham. The righteous line of Avraham will benefit from the trust of Avraham. This covenant is to be generational and must pass to those who will establish it for each subsequent generation. It is for this reason also, that Yitzchak must experience similar trials to those of his father.
This text is not the story of Avraham with Yitzchak’s name inserted (as some foolish critics conclude). This is the third account of its kind, the former two being those enacted by Avraham and Sarah, however, this is a story that is as unique to Yitzchak and Rivkah as it is similar to the accounts of Avraham and Sarah. It is a story of both continuation and personal revelation, of struggling and overcoming. It is important to note that verse 1 intentionally distinguishes this account from the former famine of Avraham’s time. The similarities in the three accounts should not blind us to the divergent details. For example, Rivkah, unlike Sarah, is not taken from her husband. The former wells have been stopped up and the covenant reneged upon. Add to this Avimelech’s agitation in verses 10 and 11, which is clearly in response to a precedent already known to him, i.e. the warning of 20:7. The present events allude to the former and presuppose the latter.
Therefore, Yitzchak, through circumstances similar to those experienced by Avraham, learns to trust HaShem for himself. This is an important illumination of generational trust (faith) in God. The parent must pass on the instruction of God, and the child must respond. Salvation comes to both family and the individual, everyone must choose God freely for himself. God does (contrary to popular Christian truism) have grandchildren, however, they are not grandchildren by osmosis but by free will.
Gen 26:1 And there was a famine (ra’av – hunger) in the land, separate from the famine (hunger) that had first come to pass in the days of Avraham (Father of many nations). And walking forth Yitzchak (He laughs) went to Avimelech (My father is king) king of the Pilishtiym (immigrants), he was heading toward Gerar (lodging place).
This chapter, like so many other accounts of its kind, gives an overview statement prior to presenting the details of the events. Verse 1 stresses the fact that this is not a repetition of a former account, so as to dispel any future revisionist attempts to discount its authenticity. The writer is Moses, who, from oral tradition (often as reliable as the written tradition and at times more reliable due to its one on one passing down of meticulously memorised detail) and by the revelation of God, has recorded Israel’s history at Sinai. These words, penned at Sinai are connected generationally to factual history. There is no good reason to doubt either the writer or the information gathering process.
The Pilishtiym, both here and in the previous episodes, are thought to be referred to in general terms, that is, as immigrants, which is the meaning of the Hebrew Philishtiym. This is because historians place the migration of the Philishtiym at a much later date in history (1200 BCE). Regardless, they are an immigrant people. This is essential to understanding the ongoing struggle for the land to this day.
The fact that Avimelech is still alive either means that he had been much younger than Avraham, or that the name is a Title, “My father the king”, much like the name Pharaoh.
Yitzchak’s journey is said by the rabbis to represent the future exile to Babylon, just as Avraham’s journey represented Israel’s descent into Egypt and captivity.
The Hebrew, “ra’av” translated as famine, means hunger. One reads a twofold meaning here: famine affects the land, hunger impacts the individual. Spiritual famine is the result of spiritual decay and spiritual hunger, a desperate cry for redemption.
Gen 26:2 And seeing, perceiving, appearing (vayira) HaShem (YHVH: Mercy) said: “Do not descend to Mitzrayimah (Egypt, double straits); settle in the land which I tell you to go toward.”
Mizrachi explains that when Yitzchak was placed on the altar of the Akiedah (The Binding), he became the equivalent of an elevation offering that is to be entirely consumed on the altar of sacrifice. This offering was not to be removed from the Temple courtyard. Thus Rashi reads, “Do not descend to Egypt (bondage) for you are an unblemished offering, and it is not proper for you to reside outside the land (Eretz Israel).”
Egypt was a place of certain sustenance and provision, whereas Gerar was as famine affected as Hebron. If Yitzchak is to obey God he must choose to travel from famine to famine and trust that God will provide for his needs.
Gen 26:3 Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you, and to your seed (zera Gen.3:15, 22:18), I will give all these lands (Ha-aratzot), and I will stand up, arise and establish (v’hakeemotiy) the oath which I swore to Avraham (Father of many nations) your father; Gen 26:4 and I will make great (multiply) your seed (zera) as the stars of the heavens, and will give to your seed (zera) all these lands (Ha-aratzot); and kneeling to be blessed (v’heet’brachoo) in your seed, will be all the nations of the earth (Ha-aretz);
Faced with the decision to remain in the land of Israel in spite of the famine, rather than going to Egypt where the Nile river feed the rich crops of the delta, Yitzchak, like Avraham before him, must choose to trust God for the future fulfilment of His promises (Hebrews 11:9-10).
This repetition of God’s former promise to Avraham is not a renewal of the promise, nor is it a new promise, rather it is the firm establishment of the generational promise and a precursor to the fulfilment of the generational covenant originally made with and through Avraham. This covenant is entirely reliant on God and not on the deeds or misdeeds of His servants. God is simply saying to Yitzchak, who has yet to complete his faith journey, “In case you had any doubts, I’m reminding you that I will keep my promises.” The Hebrew idiom, “I will arise, stand up” is intended to convey God’s active participation in and acknowledgement of His creation and His purposes for His servants. This same phrase is used frequently in the Genesis creation accounts.
The Hebrew “zera” seed, is the same term used in Genesis 3:15 & Genesis 22:18, which is singular but can be understood in Hebrew to also denote the sum of a man’s progeny in the plural sense and thus lends itself to ambiguity. Rav Shaul (Paul the Apostle) makes a drash on the Genesis 22:18 text saying:
“The promises were spoken to Avraham and to his seed (zera). Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Mashiyach. What I mean is this: The Torah, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by Elohim and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the Torah, then it no longer depends on the promise; but Elohim in His grace gave it to Avraham through a promise.” –Galatians 3:16-18
It is worth noting that the Hebrew text says, “I will give you the lands (plural: Ha-atzarot)”, rather than simply saying, “I will give you the land (Ha-Aretz).” This makes it impossible to confuse the legitimacy of Israel’s Promised Land, made up of the lands of each of her yet to be born tribes.
Gen 26:5 As a consequence of Avraham listening, hearing, understanding and obeying (Shema) My voice, and guarding (keeping) My safeguards mishmar’tiy, My mitzvotay right actions (commands), my decrees Chookotay, and My Torahtay instructions.”
This is the explanation for the repetition of the blessing and covenant given to Avraham. It is due to Avraham’s trust and obedience that his son Yitzchak has been given the generational promises of God. However, in order to receive God’s promises Yitzchak must exhibit trust of his own.
The specific instructional terms used here convey detailed forms of obedience. The Safeguards (mishmar’tiy) are intended to serve as barriers against infringement. The right actions, positive commandments, (mitzvotay) are the laws that innate moral sense dictates. The decrees (Chookotay) are laws that human reason cannot always explain but are given for our good as a result of God’s greater knowledge of His creation. Thus they are considered to be like Royal decrees, which God our King enacts on His subjects. The instructions (Torahtay) refer to the written, even engraved word of God. The rabbis conclude that the plural refers to both the written and oral Torah. What is certain is that Avraham obeyed God in a wide range of ways and was ultimately attentive to God’s voice, “Kol”.
Gen 26:6 And Yitzchak dwelt in Gerar (lodging place). Gen 26:7 And enquiring, the men of that place asked him for his wife; and he said: “She is my sister”; for he feared to say: “My wife”; “Or the men of this place might kill me for Rivkah (Captivating), because she is beautiful to look upon.”
Yitzchak was well aware of the way the people of Philistia treated others. He had witnessed it as a young man dwelling in his father’s camp and had no reason to believe that Avimelech and his people had changed their ways. After all, as we soon see, they have stopped up the wells of Avraham thus breaking the covenant oath which they had made with him before God. It is a mistake to presume that Yitzchak is being intentionally deceptive, or to call his actions sin. They are in fact the actions of a righteous man who is seeking to protect and defend his household.
Some suggest that by calling Rivkah his sister, Yitzchak places her in greater danger, however, given the cultural, historical context and the explanation Yitzchak gives to Avimelech later in the account, it is in fact the opposite that is true. By calling Rivkah his sister Yitzchak prevents the men killing him in order to take Rivkah (his wife). This is because cultural historical tradition required that a man seeking to bed/wed Rivkah, a single woman (sister), must approach the male relative responsible for her and make a proposal, prepare a home and pay a bride price in order to take her into his bed. According to the text Rivkah was extremely beautiful, which means the men would have been fighting among themselves for the pleasure of possessing her and would thus be compelled to pursue the traditional process of outbidding each other to pay her bride price. Yitzchak’s subterfuge was extremely effective, as can be seen from the many days he and Rivkah experienced, devoid of harassment, prior to Avimelech discovering them.
Gen 26:8 And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Avimelech king of the Pilishtiym looked out a window, and saw, and, behold, Yitzchak was sporting with and fondling Rivkah his wife.
Much time has passed and Yitzchak has obviously become comfortable in his surroundings, thus he seems to be less careful with regard to how he is seen to interact with his wife. The Hebrew word play between Yitzchak’s name and the term zachek (sporting, playing, fondling), is meant to convey a sense of relaxed laughter and free play. Thus supporting the notion that Yitzchak had become settled in the land and felt much safer than he had previously.
The term “window” may indicate that Yitzchak and Rivkah were now living in the small village community of Gerar, perhaps even in a solid dwelling, or at very least their tent community lived very nearby.
Gen 26:9 And Avimelech called Yitzchak, and said: “Behold, certainly she is your wife; how could you say, “She is my sister?” And Yitzchak said to him: “Because I said: they might kill me because of her.”
As alluded to previously, this was a reasonable assumption on Yitzchak’s part, given the lack of character exhibited by Avimelech and his people in the past and the fact that they had now stopped up Avraham’s wells and reneged on the covenant they had made with him.
Gen 26:10 And Avimelech said: “What is this you have done to us? One of the people (Ha-am) might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.”
The Hebrew Ha-am (the people) is interesting. It may indicate that sexual immorality like that of S’dom was being practised by the Pilishtiym.
Another view suggests that Avimelech is referring to the “One over the people”, a ruling title denoting Avimelech himself. However, this is at best a dubious reading of the Hebrew.
Gen 26:11 And Avimelech charged all the people, saying: “Anyone that touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.”
Avimelech, while a covenant breaker, is none the less familiar with the servants of HaShem and the protection and prosperity they experience in His service. Thus his somewhat fearful warning to his people. The warning also shows that Avimelech knew his people were likely to do the very thing he warned against, thus the severe punishment that accompanied his decree. The irony of Avimelech’s powerless decree is not lost on this reader. In the end it is the decree of the King of kings that will prevail.
Gen 26:12 And Yitzchak sowed in that land, attaining in the same year a hundredfold measure; and blessing from HaShem (YHVH: Mercy). Gen 26:13 And the man (Isaac) became great, and grew more and more until he became very great.
God had promised to be with Yitzchak and prosper him and that is exactly what happened. The numerical value of a hundred is ten by ten, that is completion multiplied by completion, fullness multiplied by fullness. This kind of harvest was nothing short of miraculous in a drought ridden climate during a time of famine.
Gen 26:14 And he had flocks, and herds of cattle, and a great many servants; and the Pilishtiym envied him.
The Pilishtiym clearly felt threatened by Yitzchak’s success. This resentment of the Jewish alien would become a cyclic historical reality and continues to this day. The irony here being that the Pilishtiym themselves were immigrants, aliens in the land.
Gen 26:15 Now all the wells which his father's servants had dug in the days of Avraham his father, the Pilishtiym had stopped them up, and filled them with earth.
The past tense shows that this had been done some time ago and probably soon after Avraham’s death. Under Avimelech’s rule the Pilishtiym had violated the covenant they had made with Avraham and had brought a curse upon themselves according to the oath. This may well have been the reason for the famine which had come upon the land.
In addition, this made Yitzchak’s journey into the desert of the wider Negev all the more treacherous. He had in fact sought refuge from famine in a land of famine. This shows his great faith.
Gen 26:16 And Avimelech said to Yitzchak: “Go from us; for you are much mightier than we are.” Gen 26:17 And Yitzchak walked forth, and encamped in the valley of Gerar, and dwelt there.
Once again Yitzchak experiences a prelude to Israel’s history among the nations. Once Jews begin to prosper and become despised, they are often persecuted and sent away, or worse. Avimelech was sending Yitzchak into barren land where he knew that his men had stopped up the water sources. This is a harsh exile for Yitzchak and yet another testimony to Avimelech’s poor character. Yitzchak moved to the south and dwelt in the valley of Gerar, some distance from the town.
Gen 26:18 And Yitzchak dug again the wells of water, which they had dug in the days of Avraham his father; for the Pilishtiym had stopped them up after the death of Avraham; and he called their names after the names by which his father had called them.
In the desert, water or the lack thereof is a poignant reminder of life’s frailty. Yiztchak, in re-digging his father’s wells is showing his connection to his father’s journey, and in renaming them with the names his father had given them he is also honouring his father’s faithful legacy. Yitzchak is identifying more and more with both the physical struggle and the spiritual journey of his father Avraham.
Gen 26:19 And Yitzchak’s servants dug in the valley, and found there a well of living water (Mayim Chaiyim).
The phrase, “living water” denotes an underground stream that flows from outside the valley with its source in the north. These waters of living are a significant symbol of God’s life giving spirit and his sustaining provision.
Gen 26:20 And the herdsmen of Gerar fought with Yitzchak’s herdsmen, saying: “The water is ours.” And he called the name of the well Eisek (contention); because they contended with him.
Having cast Yitzchak out and into a place where they knew there was no water, the herdsmen (Pilishtiym), now envious of the success of Yitzchak’s men, attempt to steal the water for themselves. This type of contention is also a familiar refrain in Israel’s history. The irony here is that the living water’s source is to the north outside the land of the Pilishtiym. Thus, spiritually speaking, they are attempting to cut Yitzchak off from the living waters of HaShem. All be it a vein attempt.
Gen 26:21 And they dug another well, and they also had to fight for that. And he called the name of it Sitnah (strife).
Yitzchak’s men, acting in humility, turn their attention to looking for another water source rather than antagonising the Pilishtiym herdsmen. However, this does not prevent the Pilishtiym from contesting the finding of the second well. Strife is an escalation of the Contention, things are becoming dire, Yitzchak’s community cannot survive without water.
Gen 26:22 And he moved from there, and dug another well; and they didn’t have to fight for it. And he called the name of it Rehobot (wide places); and he said: “For now HaShem (YHVH: Mercy) has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.”
In these dire circumstances, Yitzchak still chooses to act righteously and moves away from the contentious Pilishtiym to dig a third well. The Hebrew number three indicates complex unity, Godly action, firm establishment, completion and security. This third well which Yitzchak calls “Wide open places” is symbolic of the freedom found in the life giving spiritual waters of HaShem’s salvation. Yitzchak acknowledges that it is HaShem who has made room for them, rather than their own well digging know how.
Gen 26:23 And he went up from there to Beer-sheva (Well of sevenfold oath).
Yitzchak’s journey to Beer-Sheva denotes his desire to seek God. Beer-Sheva, the well of the sevenfold oath is a place of solace and recovery, of covenant and sustenance. Avraham had experienced the living God at work there (Gen. 21:22-34), and after Yitzchak (Genesis 26:23–33), Yaakov would have his intimate dream of the stairway to the heavens immediately following a visit to Beer-Sheva (Genesis 28:10–15 and 46:1–7).
Beer-Sheva was to become a place of glory and refuge for many of Israel’s prophets, judges and kings. Beer-Sheva was the territory of the tribes of Simeon and Judah (Joshua 5:28 and 19:2). The sons of the prophet Samuel were judges in Beer-Sheva (1 Samuel 8:2). Saul, Israel's first king, built a fort there for his campaign against the Amalekites (I Samuel 14:48 and 15:2–9). The prophet Elijah took refuge in Beer-Sheva when Jezebel ordered him killed (1 Kings 19:3). The prophet Amos mentions the city in regard to idolatry (Amos 5:5 and 8:14). Following the Babylonian conquest and subsequent enslavement of many Israelites, the town was abandoned. After the Israelite slaves returned from Babylon, they resettled the town. According to the Hebrew Bible, Beer-Shebah was the southernmost city of the territories settled by Israelites, hence the expression “from Dan to Beer-Shebah” to describe the whole kingdom.
Gen 26:24 And HaShem (YHVH: Mercy) appeared to him the same night, and said: “I am the God of Avraham your father. Fear not, for I am with you, and will bless you, and multiply your seed (zera) for My servant Avraham's sake.” Gen 26:25 And he built an altar (mizbeiach – blood sacrificial altar) there, and called upon the name of HaShem (YHVH: Mercy), and pitched his tent there; and there Yitzchak’s servants dug a well.
Having experienced such hostility from the Pilishtiym and seeing God’s provision of the well at Rehobot, Yitzchak seeks God where his father had once made a covenant with the wicked people of Philistia.
God comes to Yitzchak strait away, “the same night”. The immediacy of this encounter illuminates the Father and His intimate care for the wellbeing of His sons and daughters. Yitzchak needed to be comforted, he was overwhelmed and longed for the deep trust centred relationship with God that he had witnessed in his father Avraham. He sought personal revelation of the tribal, generational God of Avraham. God does not disappoint, for His desire has always been to reconcile Yitzchak to Himself just as He had reconciled his father Avraham.
Once again the building of the altar is a response to what God has already done (Gen.12:9, 13:17-18, 35:7). The Hebrew mizbeach (altar) is from the root zabach (kill, slaughter), meaning an atoning blood sacrifice. Thus, this altar, as in the case of those built before it, is an altar of animal blood sacrifice and an acknowledgement of the need for covering of sin.
Gen 26:26 Then Avimelech went to him from Gerar, and Achuzzat (possession) his friend, and Peechol (strong) the captain of his army.
Avimelech, now old in years, as is Phicol, the captain of his guard, has become more and more afraid of Yitzchak. Perhaps he fears his own destruction due to his violation of the covenant he made with Avraham? Whatever the case, he comes, not in humility, but with a show of strength.
Gen 26:27 And Yitzchak said to them: “For what reason have you come to me, seeing you hate me, and have sent me away from you?”
Yitzchak has every reason to be weary of their intentions.
Gen 26:28 And they said: “We saw plainly that HaShem (YHVH: Mercy) was with you; and we said: ‘Let there now be an oath between us, even between us and you, and let us make a covenant with you;
Avimelech and his retinue stress that the oath be made between, “us and you” because they have already broken the former oath made with Avraham.
Gen 26:29 that you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you, we have only been good to you, and have sent you away in peace; you are now the blessed of HaShem (YHVH: Mercy).”
The Pilishtiym have envied Yitzchak, kicked him out of town, hounded him in the desert, stopped up the wells of his father and stolen the new wells he has dug. Nothing could be further from the truth than the statement, “We have done only good to you”. This lack of humility and brazen unrepentance is consistent with the character exhibited by Avimelech and his people throughout their dealings with Avraham and Yitzchak.
The one thing they do right is to acknowledge that where Avraham was the blessed of HaShem, his son has now taken on the mantel of HaShem’s blessing.
Gen 26:30 And he (Isaac) made them a feast, and they ate and drink. Gen 26:31 And they rose up in the morning, and swore to one another; and Yitzchak sent them away, and they departed from him in peace.
Yitzchak’s response to the unrepentant and arrogant request of Avimelech and his retinue is nothing short of incredibly gracious. Yitzchak is clearly a man who has met God and has been filled with the Spirit of righteousness. Rather than refute Avimelech’s lies, Yitzchak sees that Avimelech is fearful of Yitzchak’s God and that beneath his bravado he is desperate. Secure in his own identity in God and the assurances from God of the promised land and provision for generations to come, Yitzchak shows great mercy toward Avimelech and his people, Yitzchak treats them to the best in Middle Eastern hospitality, having a feast prepared for them, he sits down to eat with his enemies.
The reason the oath takes place the following morning is that an oath should not be taken after the parties have become intoxicated.
The outcome of this interaction with his enemies is that they depart in peace. We could all benefit from practicing the type of merciful religion that Yitzchak exhibits here. He is truly a man transformed by a personal encounter with the God of the Universe.
Gen 26:32 And it came to pass the same day, that Yitzchak's servants came, and informed him of the well which they had dug, and said to him: “We have found water.” Gen 26:33 And he called it Shevah (Seven). Its name unto this day.
The provision of water following Yitzchak’s righteous actions is an affirmation of God’s pleasure.
There are two possibilities here: either Avimelech’s men had stopped up Avraham’s well at Beer-Sheva and subsequently Yitzchak’s men had re-dug the well, or they had dug a second well. Regardless, the name Sheva is a shortened form of Beer–Sheva and is another example of Yitzchak renaming a location with the same name his father had used. This brings attention to both covenant oaths made with Avimelech and passes the knowledge on to subsequent generations. “Unto this day” means unto the day of the writing down of the Torah at Sinai by Moses.
Gen 26:34 And when Esau (hairy) was forty years old, he took to wife Y’hudit (Praised, Jewess) the daughter of B’eiri (My well) the Chitti (Descendent of terror - Chet), and Bas’mat (Spice) the daughter of Elon (mighty, terebinth) the Chitti. Gen 26:35 And they brought bitterness and grief to the spirit of Yitzchak (He laughs) and of Rivkah (Captivating).
Esau’s sinful actions in marrying women outside of his father’s faith system result in grieving the spirits of his mother and father. This same grief comes upon mothers and fathers of faith today when we see our children wandering from the faith. This is a grieving of both our own spirits and the Ruach Spirit of God in us. God’s desire is for the reconciliation of Esau, God is grieved by Esau’s rejection of Him.
The reason for ending this account with Esau’s continued sin practices is to show the stark contrast between his actions and those of the Patriarch Yitzchak. The promises of HaShem are to be passed on to men of noble character, men who will not despise His promises, covenants and birth rights. As explained in my commentary on the previous chapters, Yaakov is a follower of HaShem and a man who struggles to acquire integrity and righteousness. He is to be the next step in the ladder of Israel’s generations. Thus Toldot.
© 2017 Yaakov Brown