Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorshiip of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity, with assistance of the Shoresh Charitable Fund and the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Parashat Toledot 5759/1998
Isaac in Genesis Chapter 26
Dr. Meshulam Margaliyot
Chapter 26 of Genesis is the only chapter devoted exclusively to Isaac, in contrast to numerous other chapters on Abraham and Jacob. In other chapters Isaac appears as the son of Abraham and Sarah, and later as the father of his sons Jacob and Esau. Isaac is the only patriarch who never left the land; he was born there, lived there, died there, and was buried there.
In this chapter Isaac figures prominently as the son of Abraham (vv. 3, 15, 18, 24). He had to cope with the same situations previously encountered by his father in the land of the Philistines, as the Midrash points out: "Everything that happened to Abraham also happened to Isaac" (Midrash ha-Gadol, proem on ch. 26).
Famine was not unusual in Canaan, since cultivation depended on rainfall. Abraham had been forced by famine down to Egypt (ch. 12); Isaac, encountering a similar situation, intended to go there as his father had done (and as Jacob and his sons later did to escape famine in the land), and reached as far as Gerar, in the southwest of the land, en route to Egypt.
In Gerar G-d appeared to him and commanded him not to leave the land (26:2-5). He promised him all the blessings destined for Abraham and his descendants: to continue his seed and family line, make his progeny numerous, and to give him the land. G-d had made the same promises to Abraham in His covenant with him (in chapter 17, and reiterated after the binding of Isaac, ch. 22), except that here the word "oath" was used instead of covenant. G-d emphasized that Abraham had been granted these things because he obeyed G-d and kept His teachings entirely. Therefore G-d called him "My servant Abraham" (v. 24), a faithful servant of his liege the Lord. G-d expected Isaac, as well, to follow in his father's footsteps. Indeed, Isaac stood this test and trusted in G-d to provide for him during the famine as well.
Why was Isaac, unlike his father Abraham, commanded to remain in Gerar? To test the loyalty of Abimelech (the second) to the treaty his father had made with the family of Isaac. Recall that Abimelech (the first), king of the Philistines, had proposed a treaty to Abraham, and the latter agreed to the terms as detailed in 21:22-34, ultimately concluding a treaty between equals. What were the terms of this treaty?
Clause 1: Abimelech said to Abraham: "Swear ... that you will not deal falsely with me or with my kith and kin (literally: with my son and grandson)" (Gen. 21:23), meaning that the treaty applied to future generations.
Clause 2: Mutual loyalty. This is a fundamental element of any treaty. As Abimelech said, "deal with me and with the [inhabitants of the] land in which you have sojourned [=in which you sojourn] as loyally as I have dealt with you." Abimelech was referring to the permission that he granted Abraham to dwell wherever he wished in his land: "Here, my land is before you; settle wherever you please" (20:15). In other words, the condition of mutual loyalty also applied to the inhabitants of the land, i.e., to the Philistines.
Clause 3: The well that Abraham dug in Beer Sheba was recognized by Abimelech as belonging to Abraham, after an attempt had been made to steal it from him, as Abraham said, "as proof that I dug this well" (21:30). Hence, any well that Abraham might dig would remain incontestably in his ownership.
This treaty was concluded festively by both parties swearing to it: "The two of them made a pact" (21:27, 31, 32).
This was the legal status between the Hebrews and the Philistines when Isaac and his family arrived in the land of "Abimelech, king of the Philistines, in Gerar" (26:1) during the famine. Isaac was commanded to remain in Gerar in order to see how Abimelech (the second) would treat Isaac, and how his people, the Philistines, would behave. Of course Isaac was fully entitled to expect that the pact concluded between Abraham and Abimelech (the first) would continue to hold, which clearly was the reason he went to Gerar on his way to Egypt.
In Gerar, capital of the Philistines, the same thing happened to Isaac as had happened to Abraham in Egypt (ch. 12) and later also in the land of the Philistines (ch. 20). Hence he, like his father, had to introduce his wife as his sister. What, we ask, did he stand to gain from doing so? Common sense would appear to dictate the opposite approach, for a person's wife is closer to him than his sister. Precisely an unmarried sister could be considered a highly eligible candidate for marriage to the king (cf. 12:10-15; 20:2).
Archaeology and epigraphy have provided the clue to understanding this perplexing question. In Aram-naharaim (present-day northern Iraq), an ancient city called Nuzi was discovered, one of the cities of a large kingdom dating to the second half of the second millennium B.C.E. Family archives were discovered in this city, showing that marital relations were considered extremely close, the additional legal status of sister being conferred on the married woman. Abraham and Isaac were thus using the strongest legal instrument at their disposal according to the law and custom of their time. It must be remembered that Abraham lived many years in Haran, in the same cultural sphere as Nuzi, which extended to Canaan and even as far as Egypt. This was the setting for introducing one's wife as one's sister. In this way the patriarchs tried to protect their wives from attempts on them by the rulers.
Abimelech and the Philistines, and also Pharaoh, undoubtedly were quite familiar with custom. Abimelech's contention, "So she is your wife! Why then did you say: 'She is my sister?'" (v. 9) was a highly transparent argument to extricate himself from an extremely uncomfortable situation. Moreover, his words, "One of the people might have lain with your wife" (v. 10), are the opposite of the truth: Abimelech almost did this himself! Thus it seems the phrase, "one of the people," was deliberately ambiguous.
The continuation of the narrative is consistent: since Isaac stood the test and did not leave the land, G-d blessed him with excellent crops, reaping "a hundredfold" what he had sown -- a very high yield, all the more so for a drought year. Isaac's wealth evoked the Philistine's jealousy. They tried to harm him by dispossessing him of his wells. He wished to use the same wells that Abraham had dug and that he was now claiming. But he discovered that the Philistines had stopped them up and filled them with dirt -- a barbaric thing to do on the fringe of the desert.
Moreover, they told him, "Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us" (v. 16). So Isaac was forced to leave Gerar. On his way he reopened the wells that had been stopped up, the same wells that his father had dug on his way to Beer Sheba (21:25; 26:21, 33). The Philistines, however, would not let him be, as is attested by the names that Isaac gave the wells, commemorating what had been done to him: Esek, meaning contention, and Sitna, meaning hatred and enmity. Along his way he dug a third well, not contested by the Philistines, and therefore he called it Rehovot, saying, "Now at last the Lord has granted us ample space [hirhib, connected with Rehovot]" (v. 22). From there he moved to Beer Sheba, where he hoped to find the well that had belonged to Abraham by virtue of his pact with Abimelech (the first; 21:30-31).
In conclusion, we may ask to what extent did Abimelech and the Philistines live up to their side of the treaty with Isaac? The answer is plain: they broke all three terms detailed in this treaty, as if it did not exist at all. Firstly, an attempt was made on his wife, whether by Abimelech himself or by some other person, all the same signifying the diametrical opposite of loyalty, which entails a privileged and highly respected status. All this happened after the words of reconciliation spoken by Abimelech (the first) to Abraham at the end of chapter 20. Secondly, Isaac was not allowed to dwell in their land, but was expelled. Thirdly, the wells that had been dug by his father Abraham were stolen frhim, even though the terms of the treaty provided that ownership of the wells pass to Isaac. In short, we see total denial of their obligations regarding the pact.
The Lord appeared to Isaac again in Beer Sheba (26:24). He reassured him and promised him His continued help. Isaac responded to G-d's revelation as his father had, by building an altar but without offering any sacrifices on it (12:8; 13:18). Even in Beer Sheba, where the pact between Abimelech and Abraham had been concluded, the Philistines in the meantime stopped up Abraham's well. Therefore, Isaac's servants started digging a well, but they did not yet find water (v. 25).
At this point the narrative takes a surprising turn: a high-level delegation arrived from Gerar, consisting of Abimelech and two dignitaries: Ahuzzath his councilor (a figure not mentioned in chapter 21) and Phicol chief of his troops. Isaac immediately realized why they had come; moreover, diplomatically he had the advantage, as seen in his words, "Why have you come to me, seeing that you have been hostile to me and have driven me away from you?" (v. 27). "Why" is said here not as a question, but as an accusation. Isaac proceeded to hear what he already knew -- that they were afraid, and rightfully so, of vengeance by the G-d of Isaac for not having kept their pact with him. Even though Isaac had not appealed to G-d to intervene on account of their treaty violations -- which response showed his desire for peace, not revenge -- nevertheless their fears were justified. It must be remembered that in the ancient Near East every pact was viewed as sanctified by the gods who were its guarantors; if the pact was violated, their role was to punish the violators (cf. the pact between Laban and Jacob (31:44-54), especially v. 53: "May the G-d of Abraham and the god of Nahor judge between us," meaning pass judgment and mete out punishment.) Violating a pact in the ancient Near East could entail extremely harsh punishment.
In this light we can understand the reason they give Isaac for their visit (vv. 28-29): "We now see plainly that the Lord has been with you" -- having noticed that you reaped a hundredfold what you sowed (note the same opening phrase in 21:22). "Let there be a sworn treaty between our two parties, between you and us." The treaty was concluded with an oath, heb. alah, stressing the negative aspect of the threat in the curse of the covenant (cf. Deut. 29:18-20). Here alah refers to G-d bringing evil on the party that violates the treaty. With good reason they feared lest Isaac invoke his G-d's curse on them. Therefore they were interested in making the oath of the treaty apply to both sides, even though they knew full well that Isaac had upheld his side of the agreement. They continued: "that you will not do us harm, just as we have not molested you" -- as if to say 'we have done you no harm' (!), moreover, they continued, "but have always dealt kindly with you and sent you away in peace" (!) -- a most crude diplomatic lie, for the facts attested the opposite. Apparently they took into account Isaac's easy-going nature, and he did not let them down. They concluded in parallel to the words with which they opened: "From now on, be you blessed of the Lord," apparently meaning, 'Since you are blessed of the Lord, you surely will not wish to invoke your G-d's curse on us.'
Clearly their words were nothing more than a transparent attempt at appeasing Isaac while saving face. Isaac could have responded harshly on account of their three outright violations of the treaty with him. But he was a peace-loving man, although he was also interested that the Philistines recognize his status as a resident with full rights in their land. Therefore Isaac met their request with silence, signifying consent, and even prepared them a feast. He did so not only to honor his important guests (as a sort of sulhah or reconciliation rite), but also because a joint feast was considered an inseparable part of the rite of concluding a treaty in the ancient Near East. Thus this feast marked the formal renewal of the pact between them (cf. the end of the covenant made at Sinai, where "they ate and drank" (Ex. 24:11), as well as the pact between Laban and Jacob (Gen. 31:54)). Isaac was immediately rewarded by G-d: that very day his servants found water. Isaac called the well Shibah, and the narrative concludes by renewing the name of the place Beer Sheba, explaining that water was found there.
Thus Isaac obtained recognition of his status as a resident on the part of the Philistine inhabitants of the land, his G-d protecting him and blessing him. Thereby the Philistines also acknowledged the divine power of G-d and His divinity. This was the two-fold purpose of the pacts the Philistine kings concluded with Abraham and later with Isaac, as well as Laban with Jacob: "The Lord has blessed me on your account" (30:27).
In conclusion, we see that this chapter is built on a contrast between Isaac's two covenants: one with Abimelech and the other with G-d, one that was broken and one that was kept. The narrative about the patriarchs in Genesis reveals two parallel systems of covenants: G-d's covenant with the patriarchs, and the covenants in which the inhabitants of the land acknowledged the patriarchs' rights as residents. Through these latter pacts, the native inhabitants of Canaan also acknowledged the divinity of the Lord, G-d of the patriarchs.
 On the wife-sister motif, cf. The International Dictionary of the Bible (=IDB), "Nuzi" (E. A. Speiser); E. A. Speiser, Genesis, Anchor Bible, 1964, pp. 91-94; C. H. Gordon, Biblical Customs and the Nuzu [SIC] Tablets, in: The Biblical Archaeologist Reader, 2, 1964, pp. 21-33; IDB Supplementary Volume, 1976, "Nuzi" (B. Eichler); The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1992, "Nuzi".