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Isaac in Beersheba (An Exegesis of Genesis 26)
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Isaac in Beersheba (An Exegesis of Genesis 26)

Meishi Tsai

Out of the seven sections in Genesis 26 (w. 1-6: the covenant with Abraham renewed to Isaac; w. 7-11: Isaac and Rebekoh at the court of Abimelech; vv. 12-17: Isaac’s prosperity; w. 18-22: Isaac’s wells: w. 23-25: Isaac at Beersheba; w. 26-33: Abimelech’s covenant with Isaac; w. 34-35: Esau’s Hittite wives), 26:1-6, 18-33 have been selected as a sample of exegetical method as well as an exposition of the importance of faith.

I) An Exegetical Method


 Two things warrant our attention when we look into the historical period of the Patriarchs.1 Firstly, the history of the tradition of Israel’s ancestors hod originated from Upper Mesopotamia, to the semi-nomadic population of which area they felt a close kinship. Secondly, the date of Patriarchs falls in the Middle Bronze Age (MB II) between 20th and 7th centuries B.C., although the chronology and extra-Biblical evidence cannot settle the exact dates of the patriarchs.


During the Patriarchal Age, the forefathers of Israel made their livelihood as herdsmen, moving about only in the hilly and forested regions of the country and along the border. The areas of their activities covered the following three regions: the central region hill country including Hebron (Mamre), Jerusalem and Migdal-eder, Bethel, Shechem and Dothan; the Negeb (the south) -- the region from Beershebo to Ceror, from whence the Patriarchs sometimes wandered as far as Kadesh(-bornea) and Shur (Egypt); the region of Cilead -- Mizpoh, Mahanaim, Penuel and Succoth. In these regions the patriarchs travelled as sojourners (“foreigners”) without real estate holdings, acquiring resident privileges from the local rulers in return for various services. Their livelihood and cattle depend on the posture and the living spring as a vital source. The nomads were engaged in corn-growing, when the pasture lasted for on extended period of time (cf. Gen 26:12, 37:7). The dispute over the wells of living water occurred not only among the rival groups of herding nomads, but also among the city dwellers whose flocks would vie for water. That is why controversies took place between Abraham and the lord of Hebron, between the herdsmen of Lot and those of Abraham (Gen 13), and between Isaac and Abimelech.


“Building the altar” goes side by side with “pitching the tent” (Gen 12:7-8; 13:3-4, 18; 26:23-25: 35:1, 6-8). Each patriarch is represented as undertaking the worship of his God with a variation of the term Elohim: The God of Abraham (elohe Abraham, Gen 28:13; 31:42, 53), the “Fear” of Isaac (Pahad yishoq: Gen 31:42, 53), and the Champion/Mighty One of Jacob (abir ya’qob Gen 49:24). God was the patron deity of the clan: hence in Gen 31:36-55 Jacob swore by the “Fear” of Isaac, and Laban by the Cod of Nahor, i.e., each by the Cod of his father’s God.

The personal and divine names attest that the Hebrew ancestors worshipped God under the name ‘El”. Not only Ishmael (May God hear), Jacob-el (May Cod protect) appeared in the extrabiblical documents of the second millennium and other personal names, but terms like El Shaddai, El Elyon, El 01cm, and El Ro’i occurred in connection with ancient shrines: El Olam with Beersheba (Gen 21:33), El Elyon with Jerusalem (Gen 14:17-24).


The key words which comprise the characters and major events are Isaac, Gerar, the Philistines, Abimelech, divine promise, Abrahamic covenant, “Esek”, “Sitnoh”, ‘Rehoboth”, Sheba, and Beersheba, Some important words ore listed as follows:

1. Isaac: The name Isaac derives from the verb shq “he laughs” or “he will laugh”.2 Its variant is shhq (Ps 105:9; Jer 33:26; Amos 7:9, 16). In connection with the birth of Isaac, as conveyed in the popular etymology (Volksetymologien), the thought of laughter recurs: see 17:17 where Abrahorr foIls upon his face and laughs at the idea of the birth of the promised heir Here the incredulous laughter of Abraham must be reckoned as the joy of the assurance that the promise of a son shall be fulfilled.

In Gen 18:12-15 Sarah laughs in derision at Yahweh’s promise of a son, because Abraham and she have passed the possible age of conception (Gen 18:12-15).

Gen 21:6-7 (Consequence of Isaac’s birth), 8-21 (Expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael) renders the etymon Isaac into (1) Sarah becoming an object of laughter at the birth of her son (21:6), or (2) her rejoices at his birth (AV).

A third derivative meaning of Isaac is “mocking” “laughing at”. his how Ishmael is “sporting” with Isaac in Gen 21:9 (so ASV; cf. Judg 16:25; Ps 2:4). Elsewhere, “laughing” connotes “laughing with” in the sense of sexual play (Gen 26:8 [RSV “fondling”]; Ex 32:6). In Galatians 4:22-31, the allegory of Abraham’s two sons, Paul refers to the two covenants: Hagar, Ishmael and Sinai represent the Old Testament, whereas Sarah and Isaac point to the Jerusalem above, the spiritual grace and truth given by the gospel of Christ. Paul refers to “teasing” and “persecution” when he mentions the carnal (Ishmael), or the Jews, persecuting the spiritual (the promised heir Isaac), or the Christians.

2. Gerar (10:19; 20:1): Gerar, the present-day Tel Abu Hureireh, is in Wodi esh-Shari’ah (the Biblical Valley of Gerar).3 It is one of the two major wadies of the western Negeb (the other is Wadi Shalloleh [the Biblical Besor?]). Yohanan Aharoni has suspected that the Negeb is the title for Gerar. Gerar is at the borderline on the southwest toward “Gerar unto Gaza” (Gen 10:19) between Philistia and Judoh. That Abraham in Gen 20:1 dwelt between Kadesh and Shur, i.e., Egypt, (For these places see Gen 14:7, 16:7) and sojourned in Gerar presents a difficulty. Gerar is the court of the King Abimelech. In 24:1, Abimelech is king of the Philistines and Gerar has been identified with an area a few miles south of Gaza (Umm Gerar). But Gerar is hardly a place of sojourn “between Kadesh and Shur”. The best explanation is that (1) there is a lacuna between the two clauses of Gen 20:1, representing a journey from the Negeb into the Philistine region, or (2) Gerar may be a place southwest of Kodesh (Wadi Gerur), whose king happened to have the same name as the Philistine king of Gerar in Gen 26.4

The Hebrew text of Gedor in 1 Chronicles 4:39-40 is Gerar. In LXX records that: “They journeyed to the entrance of Gedar to the east side of the valley, to seek pasture for their flocks, where they found rich, good pasture, and the land was very brood, quiet, and peaceful; for the former inhabitants there belonged to Ham” (1 Chr 4:39-40). The sons of Ham could be Egyptians, Philistines or Canaanites (Gen 10:6-20), thus giving us o much clearer picture how the southern region of Palestine was inhabited by the descendants of Noah’s third son. Although the name of Gerar is not mentioned in the Biblical conquest narratives of the book of Joshua and Judges, Gerar is the most important Canoanite city in the western Negeb.5 It is connected with the Simeonite expansion towards Gedor (LXX: Gerar) and Mount Seir (1 Chr 4:39-43).

3. Beershebo: The Hebrew Beershebo consisting of “Beer” (“well”) and “sheba” (“seven”, “plenty”, “contract”) means (1) the plenty of water; (2) well of the seven daemons; (3) well of covenant, contract, or pact. According to the Aramaic Papyri, Beersheba is rendered Bir-es-Sheba.6

The occurrence of Beershebo in the Bible can be seen in the following scriptures:

Gen 21:22—32: Beersheba originated in Abraham’s covenant with Abimelech, the “well of seven lambs” or “the well of the oath”. There, in Beersheba, Abraham worshipped El Olam (the Everlasting God) under a tamarisk tree (Gen 21:33).

Gen 46:1—5: Jacob consulted its oracle before journeying to Egypt.

Amos 8:14: The shrine of Beersheba, one of the most famous places in the land, is equal to Don and Bethel (sanctuaries with golden calves); Gilgal (the ancient sancturary founded by Joshua) and Samaria (capitol of the Northern Kingdom in the Divided Monarchy).

As the southern limit of Palestine, Beersheba s mentioned with Don, “from Dan to Beersheba” (Judg 20:1) or “from Beershebo to Dan” (1 Chr 2:12), and refers to the entire notion. 2 Kings 23:8 has the phrase “from Gebo to Beersheba” which refers to the territory of the kingdom of Judah.

II) An Attempt at Literary Criticism

Here literary criticism specifically refers to the two aspects: (1) From the ideological content, any given place has a message to convey to the reader, and without exception, the Biblical narrative is related to a definite theological purpose; (2) In reading any given passage one must be engaged in a careful and minute scrutiny of all aspects of the text’s language, style, images, and the organic relation of one part to another. This “close reading” will bring the text to a sharp focus, so as to evoke a total response on the part of the reader to the “achieved content”, form, or art of the work.

It has been a vogue for Bible or literary critics to label a piece of literary work which is oriented toward theological analysis as “narrative theology”.7 Many narrative theologians hove seen the stories as a discourse about God. Robert Roth, for example, has pointed out that the power of great stories and sagas of faith lies in their ability to kindle a universal human hope.8 Others like Johann Baptist Metz find in the great stories a cherished fact of suffering and conflict.9 Notably, Robert Alter, Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Berkeley, has stressed the role of human decision in the Biblical narrative. He sees that God’s purposes are inseparable from history, dependent on the acts of individual men and women for their continuing realization. The Biblical tale, in Alter’s words, “through the most rigorous economy of means, leads us again and again to ponder complexities of motive and ambiguities of character because they are essential aspects of its vision of humanity, created by God, enjoying or suffering all the consequences of human freedom”.10 In this sense, the Isaac narrative in Gen 26 can be viewed as a decisive image for understanding and interpreting faith. By depicting a mundane and supramundane reality, Isaac, in the land of Gerar is given plot, movement, and climax, centering on the vision of God and His historical relation to the patriarchs.

In the literary analysis of any work, another important component is what we call “structure”. A sum of relationships of the ports of a literary whole to one another conveyed either by the recurrent imagery, or thought patterns by means of contrast, intensification, a transitional technique, a reversal of order or value, a parallelism, or a chiasmic structure. A looking into such a conscious structural design of pattern will result in our discovery and evaluation of the meaning of the writer.

In terms of IDEOLOGICAL PATTERN, the structure of Genesis 26 is organized by a theme of “test” to prove whether Isaac is a man of moral and spiritual excellence.” The theme of “test achieved” of Isaac’s worth is seen in two spheres of reality: God and men. In the first part Yahweh’s command to stay in the land of promise is a test whether Isaac is a true heir of Abraham, and whether he will trust in God’s providence. In the second part, Isaac’s moral and spiritual qualities are put to test by a series of difficult situations caused by the vandalizing and threatening Philistines.

Both direct discourse and the narrator’s third person account reveal the character’s internal psychological and the intended theological purposes. The direct discourse in Genesis 26 has an immediate effect in involving the reader in the divine will and the interreaction among characters. Examples are seen in the following:

26:2-5 (Yahweh’s command to dwell in the land of promise); 26:16 (Yahweh’s appearance and blessing); 26:22b (Isaac’s remark about the board room/space/world for him to live on); 26:24 (The Lord’s exhortation not to fear and His blessing); 26:27 (Isaac’s question about the motive of Abimelech’s visit): 26:28-29 (Abimelech’s confession and intention to make a covenant of peace); 26:32b (Dramatic revealing by Isaac’s servants that they have found water).

The implied narrator’s point of view and the way he communicates to the reader concerning the progress and the aetioloqical background of the event are reflected in the following reports: Isaac’s sojourning in Gerar (26:1-6); Isaac’s plowing, fruitfulness and the Philistines’ envy and malice (26:12-15); Isaac’s departure from Abimelech and settlement in the Valley of Gerar (26:17); the contention over the wells (26:18-22a); on altar and the calling upon Yahweh (26:25); Abimelech and his aids visiting Isaac (26:26); the feast and the peaceful separation after a covenant (26:30-32); the aetiological naming of Beersheba (26:33).

Structurally speaking, there is a rising and falling pattern. Claus Westermann, emeritus Professor of Old Testament at the University of Heidelberg, has rightly observed how Genesis 26 begins with an increase in prosperity (12-14), falls to a low point (v. 16 Isaac is expelled by Abimelech), and finally rises to a high point (v. 31).12 As is with any account of characters and events in a plot moving over time and space, Isaac’s life story can be viewed as a TWO-ACT MORAL DRAMA, focusing on the ethical principle as one of the vital aspects in the Israelite religion.13 By vividly characterizing the progress from famine as a test of Isaac’s moral vision to the final climax, the human drama teaches all the believers of God the importance of faith and stoic magnitude. Significantly, psychological and behavioural conflicts in Isaac cumulates in the movement from “esek” (contention/rivalry, 26:20) through a much severer “sitnah’ (life-or-death struggle, 26:2 1) to a totally reversed “rehoboth” (opening a brood way, 26:22). The dispute with its resultant resolution and the divine intervention (26:24) ore complicated enough to become dramatic in the imagination of the reader, who can readily visualize how the dialogue takes place between the lines and how the hero proves his fortitude amidst the heightened stress and strain.

ACT I: Relationship between the Divine and the Human

Scene 1: Yahweh’s Speech to Isaac and Isaac’s Reaction

(Exposition: Natural disaster as challenge to faith)

Scene 2: Isaac in the land of Gerar (Complication: Isaac’s

labour and plentiful harvest).

In this Act Yahweh appears in the right timing and in the right place, reaffirming twice His divine promise and His gracious dealing with the patriarchs. Whereas on the horizontal human plane Isaac moves along with the Philistines, the contact between Yahweh and Isaac is a vertical axis, along which the divine being reveals Himself in such crucial moments as the call of Abraham in Genesis 12 and Jacob’s vision of the Heavenly Ladder at Bethel in Genesis 28.

ACT II: Human Relationship between Isaac and the Philistines.

Scene 1: Isaac and the Philistines: The expulsion and dispute over the Wells (Climax: Reversal of “fate” and Resolution).

Scene 2: Yahweh’s Benedictory Speech to Isaac (Interlude: Hero’s reward from above after achieving a moral test).

Scene 3: Abimelech’s covenant with Isaac (Denouement: Reconciliation of contraries).

Scene 4: “We have found water” (Epilogue: A happy ending. Grace is upon grace).

The command to stay in the land of promise in Act I is followed by another challenge posited by the harassing Philistines. The heightened dispute over the wells are strongly contrasted with Isaac’s forbearance, leading to a unity of opposites and reconciliation of contraries. Ashamed, the enemy come for peace covenant. In the coda of the drama the finding of the water, symbolic of natural plenty and a living hope, triumphantly attests Yahweh’s blessing upon Isaac’s gentleness and endurance. Isaac has proved to be a man of true faith who has won moral victory in the sight of God and men.

III) Some Observations on Isaac’s Genuine Faith

The Isaac narrative invites us to a reflection of the meaning of faith. First, faith means the fear of the Lord and trust in Him. Fear means not just a simple apprehensiveness or total dread. It is respect, reverence, and submission to God, deriving from an awareness of His almightiness. A perception of God as a creator and author of life (Rom 4:17) has inspired people throughout the ages. First there was Abraham who responded to the divine call and began his journey of life under His guidance. The divine promise concerning the land and the descendants (Gen 17:4-6; 22:17-18) remained unshaken in spite of the vicissitudes of life. Abraham did not weaken in faith even though he was beyond the hope to beget a son. Later, at Mount Morioh a miracle of faith took place when Abraham showed his faith in surrendering his only heir. There he gained an abiding experience of “Yohweh jireh” (the Lord will provide).

Isaac had no less faith than his father. The Lord tested Isaac’s faith on the same grounds whether he would adhere to the divine promise at the time of severe famine, It seems comprehensible for Isaac and his family to become famine refugees in the fertile lower Egypt. But from the divine perspective, the sojourning in a foreign land means not only a breach of faith, but also a perilous tendency to become identified with the world. The Lord’s command to stay in the promised land, albeit its temporary setbacks, reminds His people of the importance of trust in His providential care. Analogically, a Christian may from time to time encounter adverse circumstances, even to the point of despair, he must, however, understand that adversity tries one’s faith and makes one mature. If he understands the higher purpose of God, he will then come closer to Him and become mature, even if he is in hardships. The command to stay in the promised land in Isaac’s case serves as a teaching to Christians that they need to constantly dwell in His grace and love, our Lord Jesus Christ has told us to abide in His words and be united in Him, the true vine (Jn 15:4-5). Apparently, if one departs from the faith, he would be spiritually endangered, even though he might have the material gain of the world.

Isaac’s virtue of temperance as an aspect of the dynamic faith in the Lord has a modern relevancy. A person worthy of the Lord must show wisdom and good conduct towards people. The two wells, “contention’ and “enmity”, represent the treachery of the hostile world. To overcome the world one needs faith (1 Jn 5:4) and its moral strength. Just as Isaac’s gentleness wearied the violence of the Philistines, we need to have the wisdom of quiet spirit and a character of integrity. Isaac’s moral strength inspires us to be strong and to yield rather than quarrel. Isaac understood that the Lord would vindicate and that he had to turn his enemies into friends. Indeed, “when a man’s ways please the Lord, says the Scripture, “he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him’ (Prov 16:7). In this world people tend to repay evil with evil, but the Lord Jesus Christ teaches His followers to love the enemy and pray for those who persecute the Christians. A wise person knows that meekness and gentleness can even touch a stony heart and convert the haughty. He also knows how to bear with temporary disadvantages and work for a long-term wellbeing. For this reason, he will avoid fretfulness, ill-humour or irrationality, for “with patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone” (Prov 25:15) and “he who is slow to anger is better than the might, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” (Prov 16:32). Isaac’s moral victory lies not only in his repaying the enemy’s evil with good, but also in overcoming evil with superior spiritual and moral splendour. Likewise, we Christians must manifest the fruit of the Holy Spirit in order to declare the wonderful deeds of the Lord and to reform the corrupted world with our moral excellence.

            Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will dwell in the land, and enjoy security
Take delight in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord: trust in Him, and He will act
He will bring forth your vindication as the light, and your right as the noonday.
Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for Him.
(Ps 37:3—7)


1.        Roland de Vaux, EARLY HISTORY OF ISRAEL, Eng tr. David Smith, Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1978, pp. 125-52; see also John Gray, THE CANAANITES, London, 1964; John Gray, THE LEGACY OF CANMN: THE RAS SHAMRA TEXTS AND THEIR RELEVANCE TO THE OLD TESTAMENT (SVT), 1965. Related to the historical background of this period, it is necessary for us to check up such terms as “Philistines” by J.C. Greenfield, in IDB [Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible], Nashville, Tenn., Abingdon Press, 1962, Vol. 3, pp. 790-95, and the chapter on ‘The Patriarchs” in John Bright’s well-acclaimed A HISTORY OF ISRAEL, London, SCM, 1982, pp. 67-103.

2.        “Isaac”, 1DB, Vol. 2. p. 728.

3.        For a good geographical introduction of Gerar, see Y. Aharani, “The Land of Gerar”, IEJ[ISRAEL EXPLORATION JOURNAL], VI (1956), 26-32,

4.        Y Aharoni, LAND OF THE BIBLE, Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1979, p. 157.

5.        Herbert E. Ryle, THE BOOK OF GENESIS, CambridgeUniversity Press, 1921, p. 222.

6.        A.C. Cowley, ARAMAIC PAPYRI OF THE FIFTH CENTURY B.C., London, 1923, pp. 165ff, and A, Aft, JOURNAL OF THE PALESTINE ORIENTAL SOCIETY 15, 320ff. A fuller discussion of the Beersheba appears in Walther Zimmerli, CESCHICHTE UND TRADITION VON BEERSEBA IM AT, 1932.

7.        For an apt summary of this subject, see Gabriel Fockre, “Narrative Theology: An Overview”, INTERPRETATION, 37:4 (Oct 83). pp. 340-352.

8.        Robert P. Roth, STORY AND REALITY: AN ESSAY ON TRUTH, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1973.

9.        J Baptist Metz, FAITH IN HISTORY AND SOCIETY, Irons. David Smith, New York, Seobury Press, 1980, pp. 211-12.

10.     Robert Alter, ART OF BIBLICAL NARRATIVE, New York, 1981, pp. 22.

11.     The theme of “test” recurs throughout most of the Biblical narratives, e.g.. the story of Noah and his ark (Gen 6:5-8, 9-16, 22; 2 Pet 2:5, Ezek 14:14), Abraham on MountMoriah (Gen 22), and Moses on the Midian wilderness for a period of forty years before the divine call (Ex 2:11 — 3:17). Others like Daniel and his three friends at the Babylonian court (Don 1;lOff), or facing a mortal threat in their faith in Yahwisrn (Dan 3). Most of them have been portrayed as men of God who fulfilled the test given by Yahweh.

12.     Claus Westermonn, GENESIS 12-36, Eng tras. John J, Scullion, Minneapolis, Augsburg Press, 1981, p. 423.

13.     For a general discussion of the ethical tradition in the Old Testament, see Johannes Hempel (1891-1964), DAS ETHOS DES ALIEN TESTAMENTS, Berlin, & Toepelmonn, John Barton, “Approaches to the Ethics in the Old Testament” in BEGINNING OLD TESTAMENT STUDY, edited by John Rogerson, London, SPCK, 1983, pp. 1 13-130; John Barton, “understanding Old Testament Ethics”, JSOT [JOUNRNAL FOR THE STUDY OF THE OLD TESTAMENT], 9 (1978), pp. 44-64; Eryt W. Daives, PROPHECY AND ETHICS; ISAIAH AND THE ETHICAL TRADITION OF ISRAEL, Sheffield, 1981 (JSOT, 16).

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Author: Meishi Tsai