Genesis Part 2-3 (The eighth account Isaac)

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The eighth account: Isaac (Chapter 25, verses 19 through 35: through Chapter 29)

Commentary

Now that Moses has dealt briefly with the side issue of Ishmael’s line, he can return to the main issue. The eighth account is that of Isaac, and it begins a new chapter in the history of God’s saving activity among the patriarchs.

Birth of the twins Esau and Jacob

Genesis Chapter 25, verses 19 through 26
This is the account of Abraham’s son Isaac.

Abraham became the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean.

Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD.

The LORD said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger.”

When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them.

Commentary

As we listen to the record of Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage, we hear some of the same sad overtones that we heard in the marriage of Abraham and Sarah a generation earlier. For 20 years God withheld his blessing of children. Growing up under the training of a pious father and mother, Isaac had learned that parents are not the manufacturers of human life but that God is the Creator of it. He uses human fathers and mothers to pass on the gift of life to another generation, but the gift is his to give or to withhold. During those 20 childless years, Isaac was concerned not only because of his natural desire for children but because he knew that in the present generation he and Rebekah were the only link to the promised Messiah. Isaac therefore begged the LORD, the God of the covenant, to remove Rebekah’s barrenness. The Lord listened to his prayer, and Rebekah became pregnant.

In the months ahead, she was awed by the miracle stirring within her. But at the same time, Rebekah was bothered by something going on within her that she was sure was not normal. There seemed to be a pushing and shoving going on (the Hebrew verb means “to crush, to oppress”). What was happening and why?

Like her husband, Rebekah knew whom to ask, and the Lord gave her a surprising answer. She learned that she was to become the mother of twins, each of whom would be the founder of a nation. She also learned that there would be conflict, an ongoing rivalry, between them as well as between their descendants, and that one would overcome the other. Finally Rebekah learned that contrary to the normal order, “the older will serve the younger.” In the society of that day, normally the firstborn had the position of privilege in the family. It was the firstborn who, after the father’s death, became the head of the clan and received a double share of the inheritance. Rebekah learned that in the case of her twin sons, God was going to reverse that natural order. The younger of the twins was going to be the stronger, the dominant one. In the centuries ahead, his descendants would consistently hold the upper hand over those of the older twin. The younger twin would also be the son who would continue the messianic line.

Paul refers to this in his epistle to the Romans, to illustrate the truth that God’s election is an election of grace. “Before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—[Rebekah] was told, ‘The older will serve the younger’” (Chapter 9, verses 11 and 12). The fact that back in eternity God chose us as his dear children, before we had done anything good or bad, before we were ever born or had come to faith, is traceable only to the grace of God.

When the time came for Rebekah’s babies to be born, there was something unusual about each of them. The first was completely covered with reddish-brown hair. That earned him the name Esau, which may mean “hairy”; he was also called Edom, which means “red.” The younger twin entered the world with his arms stretched out and holding on to his brother’s heel. His name (“heel-grabber”) perpetuated that memory. Someone present at the birth might even have thought he looked as though he wanted to hold his brother back so that he himself could be the firstborn. The name his parents chose for him may have been given innocently enough, but as Jacob’s life story unfolds, his name came to suggest “one who trips up another, who defrauds him.” We know that on at least one occasion the older twin interpreted the name Jacob that way (Chapter 27, verse 36).

Genesis Chapter 25, verses 27 and 28
The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was a quiet man, staying among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.

Commentary

As the twins grew older, sharp differences in temperament began to appear. Esau felt at home in the great outdoors; he loved the excitement of the hunt. Father Isaac felt attracted to Esau; perhaps he saw in this older son traits he felt lacking in his own personality.

Jacob, on the other hand, was a “quiet” man. The exciting and sometimes dangerous life of the hunter was not for him. He preferred the unglamorous but more secure life of the shepherd, like his father and grandfather. Mother Rebekah quite naturally felt closer to the quiet boy who spent more time in and around the tent. We assume that she shared with him the promise the Lord had made before the twins were born. It was unfortunate that each of the parents had a favorite child. That fact provided fertile soil for future problems to sprout—problems as serious as trying to interfere with God’s stated intention to transmit the messianic blessing through Jacob.

Esau sells the birthright

Genesis Chapter 25, verses 29 through 34
Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom.)

Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”

“Look, I am about die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”

But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.

Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.

So Esau despised his birthright.

Commentary

We learned earlier that Jacob was perfectly content to let his brother roam the fields, while he stayed closer to home. Here we meet him boiling a pot of lentil soup. It may very well be that he and his older twin had discussed the privileges that went with being the firstborn, and that he had sensed Esau did not value those privileges highly. Even though God had promised those privileges to the younger twin, Esau considered them his rightful property, and apparently so did his father Isaac (Chapter 27, verse 29). Jacob considered those privileges rightfully his and looked for an opportunity to make sure he got them.

His opportunity came on a day when Esau returned from the hunt famished and exhausted. He smelled and saw what Jacob was preparing and asked for some to eat. Translated literally, his question comes out something like this: “Let me swallow some of that red stuff, that red stuff there!”

With the exception of the forbidden fruit, that bowl of lentil soup has got to be the most expensive meal anybody ever bought. To buy the soup, Esau sold his birthright. His attitude was, “I’m going to die sooner or later anyway, since hunting is dangerous business, and then what good will a promise once made to my grandfather do me?” He attached no value to the rich promises God had made to Abraham and Isaac—promises about a chosen nation that would one day own the land of Canaan and about a messianic lineage that would produce the Savior of the world.

Unfortunately Esau passed that attitude down to his descendants, known as the Edomites. They later became bitter enemies of the people of Israel, and God had to pronounce judgment on them.

Esau’s attitude is a common one in our day too. Most people devote their best efforts and most of their time to satisfying their short-term needs: putting food on the table and a roof over their heads and getting the TV set fixed in time for that night’s favorite show. The result is that a lot of people are making good livings but mighty poor lives.

We see something here in Jacob that we don’t admire. When your brother is hungry and asks you for food, you don’t answer, “I’ll sell you some.” It’s also difficult to appreciate Jacob’s lack of trust in God’s ability to keep the promise he had announced before Jacob was born. Instead of waiting for God in his own good time to reverse the social custom that awarded the birthright to the firstborn son, Jacob grew impatient and thought perhaps he could help God keep his promise.

But we see one trait in Jacob that we do admire: he had an appreciation for spiritual values. He knew what was worth having, and he made sure he got it. Although Esau agreed to sell him the birthright for a bowl of soup, Jacob realized that Esau could easily change his mind after his stomach stopped growling or after sober second thoughts the following morning. And so he asked Esau to swear, to call upon God as his witness, that he was transferring the privileges of the firstborn from his name to Jacob’s.

“Keep these two pictures before your eyes,” Martin Luther once wrote, “because each of us is either an Esau or a Jacob.” Esau stands on the pages of the Scripture as a richly blessed man who despised God’s blessings and lost them. “See to it,” Scripture warns, “that no one is . . . godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears” (Hebrews Chapter 12, verses 15 through 17).

Isaac’s life in a hostile society

Genesis Chapter 26, verses 1 through 6
Now there was a famine in the land—besides the earlier famine of Abraham’s time—and Isaac went to Abimelech king of the Philistines in Gerar. The LORD appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live. 3Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws.” So Isaac stayed in Gerar.

Commentary

Moses’ eighth account bears Isaac’s name. It draws us a picture of the second patriarch that is quite different from that of his father, Abraham, and of his son Jacob. Abraham was a man whose faith led to resolute action. Jacob’s character was often marred by deceit and dishonesty and by his efforts to help God carry out his plan. By contrast, Isaac’s faith showed itself in humble service and in submission to the trials and difficulties God permitted to enter his life.

Like his father before him, Isaac lived in the Negev, in south Canaan. And like his father when famine struck, Isaac was minded to head for Egypt to seek relief. His route took him through Philistine territory, along the Mediterranean coast. It was here that God appeared to Isaac and changed his plans.

“Stay where you are,” God told Isaac, “and I will bless you here.” To make obedience easier, God confirmed to Isaac the oath he’d originally made to Abraham. The land in which Isaac was living would one day belong to his descendants. They would be as numerous as the stars, and through them all nations of the earth would be blessed. Instructed by God’s command and encouraged by his promises, Isaac changed his travel plans and remained in the land of the Philistines.

Genesis Chapter 26, verses 7 through 11
When the men of that place asked him about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” because he was afraid to say, “She is my wife.” He thought, “The men of this place might kill me on account of Rebekah, because she is beautiful.”

When Isaac had been there a long time, Abimelech king of the Philistines looked down from a window and saw Isaac caressing his wife Rebekah. So Abimelech summoned Isaac and said, “She is really your wife! Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’?”

Isaac answered him, “Because I thought I might lose my life on account of her.”

Then Abimelech said, “What is this you have done to us? One of the men might well have slept with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.”

So Abimelech gave orders to all the people: “Anyone who molests this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.”

Commentary

It was in the land of the Philistines that Satan successfully used a temptation on Isaac that he had twice used on Isaac’s father a generation earlier. Critical scholars have claimed that Genesis Chapter 26, verses 1 through 11 is a duplicate version of the incident recorded in Chapter 12, verses 10 through 20 and again in 20:1-18. In their view it happened only once that a patriarch introduced his wife as his sister and that several different literary traditions incorporated this narrative into the Genesis text in three different places. There is, however, no textual support for this view. Although there are some similarities among the three accounts of attempted deception, there are more points of difference, and these are significant. Unlike the earlier accounts, for example, the king here did not take the beautiful woman into his harem, and the realization that she was the patriarch’s wife came not through divine revelation but through the king’s personal observation.

It was a fear of consequences that proved to be the stumbling block for Isaac’s faith, as it had been for Abraham’s. When the men of Gerar asked about Rebekah, Isaac claimed she was his sister, thereby hoping to protect his own life. It was a pathetic attempt to deceive, considering that he and Rebekah had two children. The vessels through which God transmitted and later implemented his promise were frail jars of clay indeed.

It was a fear of consequences that proved to be the stumbling block for Isaac’s faith, as it had been for Abraham’s. When the men of Gerar asked about Rebekah, Isaac claimed she was his sister, thereby hoping to protect his own life. It was a pathetic attempt to deceive, considering that he and Rebekah had two children. The vessels through which God transmitted and later implemented his promise were frail jars of clay indeed.

Once again the Lord had to intervene to protect Rebekah, although not as forcefully as he had in the instances involving Sarah. And once again God’s man had to suffer the humiliation of being rebuked by a heathen. Although Isaac made a mockery of his faith and although his pitiful attempt at deception put his wife and his marriage in jeopardy and endangered the work of God, the Lord preserved his people and his plan.

Genesis Chapter 26, verses 12 through 22
Isaac planted crops in that land and the same year reaped a hundredfold, because the LORD blessed him. The man became rich, and his wealth continued to grow until he became very wealthy. He had so many flocks and herds and servants that the Philistines envied him. So all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the time of his father Abraham, the Philistines stopped up, filling them with earth.

Then Abimelech said to Isaac, “Move away from us; you have become too powerful for us.”

So Isaac moved away from there and encamped in the Valley of Gerar and settled there. Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them.

Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and discovered a well of fresh water there. But the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen and said, “The water is ours!” So he named the well Esek, because they disputed with him. Then they dug another well, but they quarreled over that one also; so he named it Sitnah. He moved on from there and dug another well, and no one quarreled over it. He named it Rehoboth, saying, “Now the LORD has given us room and we will flourish in the land.”

Commentary

Although Isaac must have been embarrassed when the news of his dishonesty spread throughout the region of Gerar, he didn’t immediately leave the area. Perhaps the famine persisted, and he had a large household and immense numbers of cattle to feed. In this situation we again see how true this statement of the psalmist is: “[The LORD] does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm Chapter 103, verse 10). Moses’ statement in the opening verse of this passage, “The LORD blessed him,” sets the tone for the entire passage.

Although nomads don’t ordinarily plant crops, since their flocks and herds are constantly on the move, Isaac did plant crops in Gerar (perhaps on a piece of land Abimelech, as a goodwill gesture, permitted him to use). His crop yield was unusually large—a hundred times the seed grain he had
sowed—all the more impressive if famine conditions were still prevailing.

It was clear to everyone, including Isaac, that more than natural causes were at work here. By showering his blessings on Isaac, God was telling him something. We might have expected that God’s Creator-name would be used to describe the one who blessed Isaac with that unexpectedly large harvest. But instead the name “LORD” is used. It was the covenant God who was keeping his
promise to this important man, reminding him that God didn’t need his dishonesty, that he was very well able to keep his promise to bless the family of promise without Isaac’s scheming.

He blessed Isaac’s fields, and he blessed his flocks. The man grew richer and richer. (And remember, Isaac had been the principal heir of a rich father.) His flocks and herds had become so numerous that his Philistine neighbors grew envious. They were landowners, and here this alien, living on the land only by their permission, was prospering. Understandably, much of the trouble centered around water rights. Water has always been a problem in Canaan, and it surely was here.

Isaac’s neighbors showed their spite in several ways. They stopped up the wells from which Isaac’s cattle drank. And when that failed to check his prosperity, they asked him to leave.

As a resident alien, Isaac had no alternative but to respect the wishes of the landowners. Besides, he was a man of peace, and to avoid conflict he moved from place to place. As he moved, he reopened some of the wells his father had dug. Isaac dug a new well and discovered fresh water in the Gerar Valley, but the local herdsmen contested his ownership. Perhaps with a touch of whimsy, Isaac named that well Argument Well. He let them have it, moved to another area, and dug another well. There was argument over the ownership of that one too, and it was called Opposition Well. A man of peace, Isaac moved still farther away, dug still another well, and about this one there was no argument. Plenty of Room was the name Isaac gave that well.

Despite all the pettiness and the provocation he had encountered, Isaac showed no bitterness. He knew that it was highly unusual to find water in an area adjoining the Sinai Desert. The fact that his servants had found water each time they attempted to dig a well was evidence to him that the Lord of the covenant was blessing Abraham’s descendants as he had promised. “The LORD has given us room and we will flourish in the land.”

Genesis Chapter 26, verses 23 through 35
From there he went up to Beersheba. That night the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.”

Isaac built an altar there and called on the name of the LORD. There he pitched his tent, and there his servants dug a well.

Meanwhile, Abimelech had come to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his personal adviser and Phicol the commander of his forces. Isaac asked them, “Why have you come to me, since you were hostile to me and sent me away?”

They answered, “We saw clearly that the LORD was with you; so we said, ‘There ought to be a sworn agreement between us’—between us and you. Let us make a treaty with you that you will do us no harm, just as we did not molest you but always treated you well and sent you away in peace. And now you are blessed by the LORD.”

Isaac then made a feast for them, and they ate and drank. Early the next morning the men swore an oath to each other. Then Isaac sent them on their way, and they left him in peace.

That day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well they had dug. They said, “We’ve found water!” He called it Shibah, and to this day the name of the town has been Beersheba.

When Esau was forty years old, he married Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and also Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite. They were a source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah.

Commentary

By now it had to be evident to the landowners in southern Canaan that Isaac’s astounding prosperity was more than just the result of hard work plus a streak of good luck. Even their king had to admit to Isaac, “We saw clearly that the LORD was with you.” Once they realized that, they realized something else: it’s not only difficult to oppose God; it’s useless. The king realized that since Isaac was going to continue to prosper, he might as well join him rather than oppose him.

Once again Isaac moved with his large household and all his flocks, this time to Beersheba, on the edge of the desert. We’re not told why he moved. Had the old rivalries with the local herdsmen over grazing and water rights flared up again?

At any rate, it was here that the Savior-God appeared to Isaac the second time, to reassure him. “Do not be afraid,” he told Isaac. Isaac realized that the strife with the landowners at Gerar had been unpleasant and could get mean. Now he was reassured that although he would remain a stranger in the land of promise, he was not alone. His God had told him, “I am with you.”

God had one more thing to say. He restated the promise originally given to Abraham, reminding Isaac that despite his unworthiness he was the heir of the messianic promises. God promised to compensate Abraham’s descendants for the obedience Abraham had demonstrated in taking the Lord at his word.

In response to the Lord’s assurance, Isaac built an altar at Beersheba and proclaimed the Lord’s name in public worship. He had learned from his father to give God the credit not only for individual blessings of body and soul but also for revealing his sacred truth to chosen people in each generation.

Proverbs 16:7 tells us, “When a man’s ways are pleasing to the LORD, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him.” One day at Beersheba, Isaac experienced the truth of this proverb when he received a surprise visit from the king of Gerar and two of his top officials. “A while back you asked me to leave your country. Why do you now come to me?” he asked them. They answered, “We did not molest you but always treated you well.” Even after Isaac had deceived them, they showed him the courtesy of permitting him to live in their land. True, they had stopped up his wells and later asked him to leave, but they had dismissed him in peace. Now they wanted an alliance of friendship, and Isaac was willing to make that.

The chapter ends on an unhappy note involving Isaac’s older son, Esau. Although he was the object of his father’s special love, Esau did not return that love. Without the knowledge of his parents and against their will, he married two Hittite wives. With this action he showed disrespect for God’s wishes regarding marriage as the lifelong union of two people devoted to each other. But with his action Esau also showed disrespect for God’s promises to his grandfather and his father. Esau had little interest either in being a part of the covenant nation or in having his descendants share the promised blessings. The Hittite wives he chose were unbelievers who couldn’t train their children to love the Lord’s Word and to cling to his promises. Instead they were members of Canaanite tribes that would fall under the judgment of God.

The End