Tuesday July 3
Genesis Chapter 26
Déjà vu all over again, eh? Isaac’s famine pushes him southwest to offer up his wife to Philistine Abimelech as his ‘sister’. Just as with Abraham’s surrender of Sarah, this is no family values role model, but a tale of living as resident aliens among more powerful locals. We’ve been talking through the gender roles of a patriarch’s chief wife, managing the caravan’s business, and treating Sarah then Rebekah more like C-suite executives assuming a position at a bit of arms-length from a company’s founder or board. It’s a stretch, worth the work.
It’s a pretty positive view of Philistines as patrons, not enemies – and a pretty sophisticated reflection on sex and power. Isaac keeps ‘laughing and loving’ with Rebekah, as Fox translates the verb. Abimelech restrains his sexual advances on Rebekah in favour of the intercourse of trade, and directs Philistines to do the same. The story also flows into an etiological land claims legend of a well near Beer-sheba, long a key marker in the southern reaches of desert.
The idea that affluence led to negotiated separation between otherwise peaceable nomadic shepherds, rather than desperate need for scarce resources, is a key reframing of the counter-narrative driven by famine. Just as Abraham and Lot had separated to settle, so Yitzaak moves away from the Philistines. Petty disputes over key wells, with Philistines filling or claiming sources found by Yitzaak’s herders, mark the boundaries between them.
You can reduce these to more etiological legends about the name of Rehoboth and Beer-sheba, as they are. This time through, more than usual, I see it as a model of negotiating boundaries with a balance of challenge and consent, between peoples who will over millennia, until now, present competing claims to the use and access to water and other resources, more than land title.
The chapter closes with a dismissive reference to Esau’s parents ruing his choice of Hittite wives, local girls, outside the ethnic groups. The story is of intense interest over the millennia for minorities facing the existential threat of assimilation and out-marrying. Keep trying to empathize with that unfamiliar position, despite our dominant culture’s celebration of individual freedom and romantic love over arranged marriages and pragmatic household management and succession.
The slander against Esav’s Hittite wives may also reflect, in a wider frame of reading, less-favoured alliances between Edom and Egypt. Such east-west alliances just south of Judah in effect block trade to either the Gulf or the Red Sea, sea routes to Africa and South Asia, for Philistia dealing with the Mediterranean coastal trade route, Aram, Ammon, and Moab and the King’s Highway leading to Asia and what we call the Silk Road.
Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham.
And Isaac went to Gerar, to King Abimelech of the Philistines.
2The Lord appeared to Isaac and said, ‘Do not go down to Egypt; settle in the land that I shall show you.3Reside in this land as an alien, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will fulfil the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.
4I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and will give to your offspring all these lands; and all the nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves through your offspring, 5because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.’
6 So Isaac settled in Gerar. 7When the men of the place asked him about his wife, he said, ‘She is my sister’; for he was afraid to say, ‘My wife,’ thinking, ‘or else the men of the place might kill me for the sake of Rebekah, because she is attractive in appearance.’
8When Isaac had been there a long time, King Abimelech of the Philistines looked out of a window and saw him fondling his wife Rebekah. 9So Abimelech called for Isaac, and said, ‘So she is your wife! Why then did you say, “She is my sister”?’
Isaac said to him, ‘Because I thought I might die because of her.’10Abimelech said, ‘What is this you have done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.’ 11So Abimelech warned all the people, saying, ‘Whoever touches this man or his wife shall be put to death.’
12 Isaac sowed seed in that land, and in the same year reaped a hundredfold. The Lord blessed him, 13and the man became rich; he prospered more and more until he became very wealthy. 14He had possessions of flocks and herds, and a great household, so that the Philistines envied him. 15(Now the Philistines had stopped up and filled with earth all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham.) 16And Abimelech said to Isaac, ‘Go away from us; you have become too powerful for us.’
17 So Isaac departed from there and camped in the valley of Gerar and settled there. 18Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham; for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham; and he gave them the names that his father had given them. 19But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, 20the herders of Gerar quarrelled with Isaac’s herders, saying, ‘The water is ours.’
So he called the well Esek, because they contended with him.
21Then they dug another well, and they quarrelled over that one also; so he called it Sitnah.
22He moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, ‘Now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.’
23 From there he went up to Beer-sheba.
24And that very 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 and will bless you and make your offspring numerous for my servant Abraham’s sake.’ 25So he built an altar there, called on the name of the Lord, and pitched his tent there. And there Isaac’s servants dug a well.
26 Then Abimelech went to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his adviser and Phicol the commander of his army. 27Isaac said to them, ‘Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?’ 28They said, ‘We see plainly that the Lord has been with you; so we say, let there be an oath between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you 29so that you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good and have sent you away in peace. You are now the blessed of the Lord.’
30So he made them a feast, and they ate and drank. 31In the morning they rose early and exchanged oaths; and Isaac set them on their way, and they departed from him in peace.
32That same day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well that they had dug, and said to him, ‘We have found water!’33He called it Shibah; therefore the name of the city is Beer-sheba to this day.
34 When Esau was forty years old, he married Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite; 35and they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah