50. Genesis 25:11, 25:19-26, 26:1-33, and 35:28,29

III. B. continued

3.  The Birth of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:11, 19-26)

Isaac resembled Abraham in character. He was  a quiet man, not at all assertive. His life was not as eventful as Abraham’s.  God made two recorded appearances to Isaac (not counting when the angel rescued him), compared to seven for Abraham. This does not mean that he lacked the spiritual depth that Abraham had, however. On the contrary, the small amount of information we have indicates that he had both the same personal flaws and the same spiritual discernment that Abraham had. He was the only one besides Abraham among the patriarchs that was recorded as interceding in prayer for someone else, in his case for his wife Rebekah (25:21); and he was the only one mentioned who had a habit of meditating in the field at sunset.

Isaac fought no great battles, interceded for no cities, and never was called on to sacrifice his sons, and so we may imagine he had less on the ball spiritually than Abraham. But I believe that his near sacrifice as a boy had had a profound effect on his spirituality, deepening and maturing him more than many visitations and visions would have. It is not how many visions we have that make us godly, but how much we get out of them. In being rescued from Abraham’s knife, he deepened spiritually a great deal in a short time. It was a profound experience. True, Isaac did no great deeds, but great deeds are not a sign of deep spirituality as Enoch proved. It is a misguided ambition, one not encouraged by the Scripture, to want to do great deeds for God. Let’s resist arrogance in any form. Great deed assignments are what God does, and they don’t usually go to whom we think they will.

Abraham did not die for thirty-five years or so after Isaac and Rebekah were married. During that time Isaac and Rebekah settled in Beer-lahai-roi, while Abraham probably returned to Hebron. They may have been too rich jointly to live together. Abraham, who had seemed very ill when he sent off the servant to look for Rebekah, must have made a good recovery and gone on to a vigorous life with Keturah. Isaac and Rebekah had been married nineteen years before Isaac felt the need to pray for Rebekah’s barrenness. The struggling of the twins within her womb was unusually intense and alarmed Rebekah. Her inquiring of the Lord was the occasion of the prophecy regarding Jacob and Esau. It is not known how she would have gone about inquiring of the Lord; such things usually have some ceremony attached, but there were no priests, no precedents. The answer that God gave her told her that the behavior of the babies in her womb was itself a prophecy of their future, that they would be always rivals of one another and that the older twin’s descendants would produce a nation that was the servant of the descendants of the younger twin.

It is possible, of course, that this is an insert from a later time, a reading of their subsequent history back into the events surrounding their birth, but it doesn’t seem to be. Why would a fictional account of the founders of the two nations be so honest and negative about them? The founders of America were disinfected as completely as the records would allow, and not as much as they would have been had there been no widely disseminated documentation. If the story of the twins’ birth is an insert from later generations to exalt Jacob over Esau, why would they then continually portray Esau as the cheated one and Jacob as the cheater? If the story of the twins’ birth is an insert from later generations, why would they then have presented their own father Isaac as biased against Jacob and in favor of the one they intended to discredit? If later generations inserted only the prophecy, and the rest of the story is original, then they achieved only a rather lame justification of Jacob at the cost of discrediting Isaac. Further, if one were intending to insert a fictional prophecy to strengthen a nation’s claim to pre-eminence, one might clean up the ancestor’s life a bit as well. Jacob was relentlessly portrayed as a scoundrel. There is no evidence in the account that anyone was trying to make Jacob look good; it is quite the contrary.

I assume Genesis was an oral tradition passed from generation to generation as stories around a campfire, as it were. If later generations of Israelites had wanted to modify the story to glorify their ancestral founders, there was nothing to stop them from doing it; no one could have stood up to contradict them. It was Isaac that would have had to add these chapters of Genesis to the oral tradition and it portrays him as biased in favor of Esau, against Jacob and against God’s choice. The account would then have been passed on to Jacob for preservation and it is important that neither patriarch felt entitled to dress up their own account or hide their flaws. Indeed, the account of the prophecy is in deliberate contrast to their actual lives. The whole history of Jacob and Esau is a deliberately and carefully drawn portrait of God choosing an unscrupulous man over a “good” one. Only God insisting on truth can well explain what we have here. They were given the job of bearing the revelation that was being enacted in their lives and God held them to it. They did not dare embellish the truth however embarrassing it might be.

Nor would such an insert ever have been imagined as necessary. Israel was forbidden to take land away from the descendants of Esau. Though later several of the Israelite kings were powerful enough that they took tribute from Esau’s people, there was never the possibility of occupying their land as they had done with the Canaanites. Even more than for the Canaanites, it is hard to see why the ancient Israelites would have ever felt the need to rationalize their relationship with the descendants of Esau.

Jacob and Esau were born in about 1999 b.c., during a time of great innovation and brilliance in Egypt under Mentuhotep III, and while Isin and Larsa were competing to dominate Mesopotamia. So far as civilization went, the balance had tipped toward Egypt and away from Mesopotamia, but Isaac and his family were out on the fringe where the action wasn’t.

4. Isaac’s Later Years (Genesis 26:1-33 and 35:28,29)

Assuming that the events of chapter 26 occurred after the birth of the twins, there was a severe famine in the land when they were young. During the famine from the previous century Abraham’s instinct had been to go to Egypt to seek pasture, but God warned Isaac not to go down into Egypt. Why would God warn Isaac not to go to Egypt? There are many possible reasons why He might, reasons that we have no way of knowing. But there is an interesting possibility. In about 1985 b.c. there seems to have been a coup in Egypt. Amenemhat I, who had been the vizier, seized the throne from his master  Mentuhotep IV and there was a period of violence and disorder at the beginning of his reign. It is tempting to hypothesize that this is the date of the famine and Isaac’s dream and his relocation to Gerar. If so, it is also about the time Abraham died and going to Gerar would have put Isaac nearer to Abraham at his death.

In addition, there is a collection of letters written by an Egyptian farmer, Hekanakhte, to his family that seem to date from approximately this time. These letters suggest that there was a famine in Egypt as well and so there may have been no relief from the famine there anyway.  Furthermore the Egyptians had been growing more suspicious of foreigners just preceding and during Amenemhat’s reign. He sent his army against Asiatic peoples living in the delta early in his reign, and so Egypt may have been unsafe as well as unhelpful for Isaac. Isaac had gone to Gerar already, intending to leave for Egypt from there, but God’s appearance changed his plans.

This was the first recorded appearance of God to Isaac in his adult life, the first since the angel had prevented his death. At this point God renewed the covenant He had made with Abraham, summarizing it all: that He would bless him, that He would give him all of those lands, that He would give him many descendants, and that all of the nations of the earth would be blessed through him. And why did God renew this covenant with Isaac? Because Abraham had been obedient to Him – not because Isaac had been obedient. He didn’t even give Isaac anything to obey. Abraham was portrayed as being obedient to God’s charge, His commandments, His statutes, and His laws but all these laws, commandments, and statutes boiled down to a single law regarding circumcision, and the one command to sacrifice his son. The list of Abraham’s obediences here sounds more like a formulaic list, a means of expressing approval of Abraham rather than a statement to be taken at face value. The translation is somewhat misleading; literally the text in 26:5 means “hearkened to My voice” rather than “obeyed Me”. Abraham was the man in all the world who listened to God. The point was that however Abraham had managed to please God, Isaac was to reap the benefits of Abraham’s favor, and the Covenant was renewed to him in an entirely unconditional manner.

At this point, shortly after he had heard from God for the first time, Isaac told Abimelech that Rebekah was his sister. He used the same lie that Abraham had used eighty-five years or more previously, and even more a lie since she was not in fact his sister. Clearly he got the idea from his father, from the oral tradition, from the stories he had been told by Abraham to be preserved. Isaac was literally walking in the footsteps of the faith of his father Abraham. It is barely possible that this was the same Abimelech as had been deceived by Abraham, but more likely he was a successor, Abimelech being a title rather than a personal name. Previously the Abimelech had attached Sarah to his harem pretty quickly, but this Abimelech took no such action and did not seem to be contemplating it. Possibly this was because it was the same Abimelech but now an old man rather than a young man; or possibly not. According to 26:8 Isaac had been in the land for a long time, with no real threat from anyone, before Abimelech saw him fondling Rebekah and knew immediately what was going on.

But why would Isaac try the same deception again and in the same place? It had not worked out very well for Abraham. And why would Rebekah agree to such a hair-brained scheme? Further, this lie was complicated by the presence of his fourteen year old twin sons, if my chronological guess work is correct. But Isaac seems to have inherited Abraham’s paranoia, and perhaps he panicked at some point and simply could not think of another story on the spot. How many of us say foolish things in the heat of a moment knowing very well that they are the lamest of things to say? I imagine him having just returned from the burial where he had stayed with Abraham during his final days and perhaps had been told all the stories one more time. It could have been fresh in his mind, the events from his father’s life in that same city. Whatever the cause, Isaac did say what he said and might have gotten away with it if he had not been indiscreet and been caught. He may not have consulted with Rebekah before he told the lie, either, forcing her to either contradict him or play along. The course of her life would show that she was not averse to a lie or two if it was to her advantage.

And why had the men of Gerar filled in all the wells that Abraham had dug in his lifetime, rather than use them? It appears that Abraham did not move around as much after Sarah died and perhaps never visited Gerar again. Perhaps the men of Gerar did not want him to come back, despite the covenant they had made, and to discourage his return they had filled in all the wells he had dug. Perhaps it did keep Abraham out, but it didn’t keep Isaac out. After some time Isaac was as settled in Gerar as a nomad gets, and he planted some fields and reaped a hundred fold. We need not take this as an exact figure, but the intent is clearly to indicate that he made a huge profit. Even more to the point, he made a huge profit reaping a harvest during a famine. Isaac was so blessed with an increase of material possessions when everyone else was declining that Abimelech and his people became afraid of him and asked him to leave their land. Fighting over water rights was a symptom that the land was too crowded with their many animals. But Isaac shared his father’s non-assertiveness; rather than argue with the servants of Abimelech, he preferred to relinquish his rights and try again somewhere else.

When Isaac had withdrawn as far as Beersheba God appeared to him a second time, the last time, and repeated His promises. This was the first time Isaac was recorded as building an altar to God though it might not have been the first time. It is noteworthy that God introduced Himself as the God of Abraham. From this time to the present day it has become part of God’s name by which He is known everywhere in the world. He is the God of Abraham; His bond to Abraham was a permanent and a public bond. Just as a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh, even so God left Himself, as it were, and joined Himself to His people, and they have become one (and we might say they have become one flesh though this is for a future chapter of revelation), and they have taken each other’s names. In this way, symbolically, when God joined Himself to the people of Israel it was God who left heaven, who left Himself, to come in to His new family and He took Abraham’s name as His own.

Abimelech came after Isaac for the purpose of making a covenant, just as his predecessor had gone after Abraham ninety or so years previously. The original covenant between Abraham and Abimelech would not have been forgotten, but Isaac had not lived in the neighborhood of Gerar until the famine as far as we know, and perhaps Abimelech felt nervous about Isaac’s willingness to keep the agreement his father had made. Note that Genesis 26:28,29 says, “And they said, ‘We see plainly that the Lord has been with you; so we said ‘Let there now be an oath between us, even between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you, 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.’ ” This strongly suggests that this Abimelech knew something about the Most High God and honored Him as a god. Abimelech had no idea that a covenant with God Himself was possible, but he could recognize the hand of God’s favor and wanted to be closely associated and allied with it. Also it suggests that Abimelech had recognized Abraham as the “blessed of the Lord”, and recognized that this distinction had now passed on to Isaac. When Isaac and Abraham made these covenants with Abimelech, God was already beginning to fulfill in a small way His promise to make the descendants of Abraham a blessing to every nation.

The only other detail from this passage we might mention is the alternative story given about the source of the name of Beersheba. There is no reason to see conflict between the two accounts, 26:33 and 21:31. Many places in the ancient world had several names, and Isaac typically gave the same names Abraham had given to the wells he dug again, and sometimes for similar reasons.

The focus of Scripture now turns to Jacob and Esau, the third generation of the Covenant. Though Isaac lived a long time, and played some role in their lives, the burden of the story passed to the next generation. We are only left to note the death of Isaac at the age of 180 years, in the year 1879 b.c. Isaac lived until Jacob was 120 years old and was still alive when Joseph was sold into slavery. Meanwhile, the Covenant and the oral tradition and the revelation of God proceeded according to His purposes in the next generation.

An oral tradition, indeed even the concept of a written revelation such as the Bible, composed over many centuries by many people, assumes that knowledge of God is something that can be accumulated and stored up, rather than begun from scratch with each new generation. It is not evident how the details preserved in Genesis were selected for remembrance; one must assume that God Himself somehow made His will known as the events went by. For the most part, the events that were preserved were embarrassing to the people involved and to their immediate families, so it is quite clear that God was impressing on them what was to be preserved, forcing a certain character on the overall account.  It is not explicable as the result of merely human authorship.

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