Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
6 So Isaac settled in Gerar. 7 When the men of the place asked him about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” for he feared to say, “My wife,” thinking, “lest the men of the place should kill me because of Rebekah,” because she was attractive in appearance. 8 When he had been there a long time, Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out of a window and saw Isaac laughing with Rebekah his wife. 9 So Abimelech called Isaac and said, “Behold, she is your wife. How then could you say, ‘She is my sister’?” Isaac said to him, “Because I thought, ‘Lest I die because of her.’” 10 Abimelech 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.” 11 So Abimelech warned all the people, saying, “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.”
The text returns the story to Gerar where the Philistines reside. Here we revisit the “my wife is my sister” fib of Abraham, however, in Isaac’s case there is no truth in it at all (Sarah, conversely, was Abraham’s half-sister.)
Gerar is first mentioned in The Table of Nations section of Genesis Chapter 10.
Gen. 10:19: And the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon in the direction of Gerar as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha.
Abraham later visits Gerar in Genesis chapter 20.
Gen. 20:2: And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah.
Picking up in verse 7 with Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:
(7) He said, She is my sister.—We have already seen that Abraham at Gerar showed no consciousness of having done wrong in denying his wife (Genesis 20:2); and we now find Isaac imitating his example with even less reason for his conduct. The circumstances are, however, different. It is the people who inquire about Isaac’s relation to Rebekah, and though she was “fair to look upon,” yet no annoyance followed upon his denial of her. The king after “a long time” detects their intimacy; but there are no presents, and no marks of respect to Rebekah, and no friendship. It is only after long quarrels, during which Isaac is obliged to withdraw to a long distance from Gerar, that finally peace is made between them.
Also from The Pulpit Commentaries:
And the men of the place (i.e. the inhabitants of Gerar) asked him (literally, asked, or made inquiries; probably first at each other, though ultimately the interrogations might reach Isaac himself) of his wife (being in all likelihood fascinated by her beauty); and he said,—falling into the same infirmity as Abraham (Genesis 12:13; Genesis 20:2)—She is my sister:—which was certainly an equivocation, since, although sometimes used to designate a female relative generally (vide Genesis 24:60), the term “sister” was here designed to suggest that Rebekah was his own sister, born of the same parents. In propagating this deception Isaac appears to have been actuated by a similar motive to that which impelled his father—for he feared to say, She is my wife; lest, said he (sc. to himself, the words describing the good man’s secret apprehensions), the men of the place should kill me for Rebekah;—the historian adding, as the explanation of his fears—because she was fair to look upon (vide Genesis 24:16).
Isaac follows the path of his father Abraham. He puts his wife in danger of being kidnapped, or added as one of the local ruler’s concubines, by not being forthcoming with the fact that she is his wife. The motive for doing this is said to be fear concerning her beauty. First Abraham, and now Isaac, did not want to be killed so that someone else could take her. If she is going to be taken either way, both Abraham and Isaac seem to believe it is prudent to make sure not to die in the process. Both father and son here decide to let God protect her and sort the matter out.
Continuing on with verse 8 and the note in The Pulpit Commentaries:
And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time (literally, when were prolonged to him there the days), that Abimelech king of the philistines looked out at a window, and saw, and, behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife—i.e. caressing and using playful liberties with her, which showed she was not a sister, but a wife—παίζοντα (LXX.), jocantem (Vulgate).
One wonders whether the reputation of Isaac’s family is such, among the Philistines, that they suspected something like this might be afoot. After a long while, nobody has touched Rebekah despite Isaac telling the local people that she is his sister. The King keeps an eye on them and one day notices the truth of their relationship.
The picture painted here of the Philistines is that of a relatively good people. Ellicott’s note provides a potential explanation for the difference in portrayal here from later portrayals in the Old Testament:
(8) Abimelech.—Upon this title of the Philistine monarchs see Note on Genesis 21:22. As eighty years had elapsed since Abraham’s sojourn in Gerar, it is highly improbable that the same king was still reigning; but both king and people maintain on this occasion the good character previously deserved. The Philistines, however, at this period, were a feeble colony of strangers, and were kept in restraint by a sense of their weakness. They had received a vast accession of strength from abroad before they became formidable enemies of the Israelites at the end of the period of the Judges. (See Genesis 10:14.)
On the topic of the Philistines as strangers and newcomers:
- For an interesting interview on the topic of The Sea Peoples, see the video below:
I also wonder – given the emphasis in Genesis – whether the Philistines have not yet been intermixed with the Canaanite giant clans. There seems to be a textual link between those clans and a greater and more virulent form of evil.
- If you are interested in a perspective on The Giant Clans, the Nephilim of Genesis 6, the Conquest, etc., I will direct you HERE to Dr. Michael Heiser’s website.
In any event, Abimelech is not happy to have been deceived by Isaac. From the Pulpit Commentaries in verses 9 and 10:
And Abimelech called Isaac, and said, Behold, of a surety she is thy wife: and how saidst thou, She is my sister? And Isaac said unto him, Because I said (sc. in my heart, or to myself), Lest I die for her.
And Abimelech said, What is this thou hast done unto us? one of the people might lightly have lain with thy wife,—literally, within a little (cf. Psalms 73:2; Psalms 119:87) one of the people might have lain with thy wife—and thou shouldest—i.e. (within a little) thou mightest—have brought (or caused to come) guiltiness upon us (cf. Genesis 20:9, where חַטָּאָה is used instead of אָשָׁם).
I wonder still if the reputation of Isaac’s family remains firmly in the mind of the Philistine king. Surely the curse upon the women in the household of Abimelech, during the time of Abraham, is still well-remembered.
The outcome of this deception though is similar for Isaac as the ruses previously executed by his father and mother had been a generation earlier (both with Pharoah and Abimelech.) The local ruler declares that they are not to be messed with. From The Pulpit Commetnaries:
And Abimelech charged all his (literally, the) people, saying, He that toucheth—in the sense of injureth (cf. Joshua 9:19; Psalms 105:15)—this man or his wife shall surely be put to death. The similarity of this incident to that related in Genesis 20:1-18. concerning Abraham in Gerar may be explained without resorting to the hypothesis of different authors, The stereotyped character of the manners of antiquity, especially in the East, is sufficient to account for the danger to which Sarah was exposed recurring in the case of Rebekah three quarters of a century later. That Isaac should have resorted to the miserable expedient of his father may have been due simply to a lack of originality on the part of Isaac; or perhaps the recollection of the success which had attended his father’s adoption of this wretched subterfuge may have blinded him to its true character. But from whatever cause resulting, the resemblance between the two narratives cannot be held as destroying the credibility of either, and all the more that a careful scrutiny will detect sufficient dissimilarity between them to establish the authenticity of the incidents which they relate.
Note that the commentary above defends the authenticity of this story. It is true that the story occurring so similarly to the previously story does not mean that both did not occur. In fact, the behavior of Abimelech here in this second account betrays a certain wariness of learned experience in dealing with Abraham’s family.
The note also describes the plan as a “wretched subterfuge.” I am somewhat ambivalent as to the wretchedness of the deceit inasmuch as God does not seem to overtly punish any of the patriarchs for this type of deception. That begs a question as to why and I wonder if we should adjust our paradigm a bit.
PERHAPS kidnapping a sister should be viewed as being an evil just as is kidnapping a wife. A lot of the commentaries seem to write about this story from a perspective wherein kidnapping a sister is perfectly fine and that Abraham/Isaac are entrapping otherwise innocent pagan rulers. I am not convinced that God viewed things that way.
If we decide then to accept that kidnapping one’s sister is also an evil, then the deception represents a test of the local leaders rather than a deception of them. Here it seems that Abimelech passes the test without the need for God to intervene directly at all.
For the sake of balance, though, here are homiletics included in The Pulpit Commentaries written from the perspective that Isaac’s deception was “wretched.”
A good man’s transgression.
I. A LIE TOLD.
1. An unmitigated lie. It was scarcely entitled to claim the apology of being what Abraham’s falsehood was, an equivocation, Rebekah not being Isaac’s half-sister, but cousin.
2. A deliberate lie. Asked about his relations to Rebekah, he coolly replies that they are sister and brother. He had no right to suppose his interrogators had ulterior designs against Rebekah’s honor.
3. A cowardly lie. All falsehoods spring from craven fear—fear of the consequences that may flow from telling the honest truth.
4. A dangerous lie. By his wicked suppression of the truth he was guilty of imperiling the chastity of her whom he sought to protect. Almost all falsehoods are perilous, and most of them are mistakes.
5. An unnecessary lie. No lie ever can be necessary; but least of all could this have been, when God had already promised to be with him in the land of the Philistines.
6. An unbelieving lie. Had Isaac’s faith been active, he would hardly have deemed it needful to disown his wife.
7. A wholly worthless lie. Isaac might have remembered that twice over his father had resorted to this miserable stratagem, and that in neither instance had it sufficed to avert the danger which he dreaded. But lies generally are wretched hiding-places for endangered bodies or anxious souls.
II. A LIE DETECTED.
1. God by his providence assists in the detection of liars. By the merest accident, as it might seem, Abimelech discovered the true relationship of Isaac and Rebekah; but both the time, place, and manner of that discovery were arranged by God. So the face of God is set against them that do evil, even though they should be his own people.
2. Liars commonly assist in their own detection. Truth alone is sure-footed, and never slips; error is liable to stumble at every step. It is difficult to maintain a disguise for any lengthened period. The best fitting mask is sure in time to fall off. Actions good in themselves often lead to the detection of crimes.
III. A LIE REPROVED. The conduct of Isaac Abimelech rebukes—
1. With promptitude. Sending for Isaac, he charges him with his sin. It is the part of a true friend to expose deception whenever it is practiced, and, provided it be done in a proper spirit, the sooner it is done the better. Sin that long eludes detection is apt to harden the sinning heart and sear the guilty conscience.
2. With fidelity. Characterizing it as
(1) a surprising inconsistency on the part of a good man like Isaac;
(2) a reckless exposure of his wife’s person, which was far from becoming in a kindly husband; and
(3) an unjustifiable offence against the people of the land, who, by his carelessness and cowardice, might have been led into grievous wickedness.
3. With forgiveness. That Abimelech did not intend to exact punishment from Isaac, or even cherish resentment against him in consequence of his behavior, he proved by charging his people to beware of injuring in any way either Isaac or Rebekah. It is good and beautiful when mercy seasons judgment, and the reproofs of friendship are accompanied by messages of love.