Isaac in Beersheba
(An Exegesis of Genesis 26)
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
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.
GEOGRAPHICAL AND SOCIO-CULTURAL
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
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.
(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
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
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
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
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
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.