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Genesis 26:16, 1222comment (0)

April 17, 2008

By James R. Strange

Related Scripture: Genesis 26:16, 1222

Assistant Professor of Religion, Department of Religion, Samford University

Exploring Perseverance
Genesis 26:1–6, 12–22

Stories in Genesis sometimes repeat. For example, three accounts tell of a patriarch trying to pass off his wife as his sister. Two are about Abraham and Sarah: one when Pharaoh takes Sarai (later Sarah) into his harem (Gen. 12:10–20) and another in Gerar when Abimelech takes Sarah (Gen. 20:1–18). In today’s passage, the account of Isaac and Rebekah repeats many details from both stories. But the biblical author apparently was not bothered by these "doublets," as scholars call them, perhaps because despite the stories’ matching details, each account bears a different meaning. Meaning is what biblical authors are most concerned about. In this case, the text offers a lesson on endurance: "In the face of adversity, continue on and be ready to befriend your enemies when they repent."

The phrase "the former famine that occurred in the days of Abraham" (1) refers to the story of Abram (later Abraham) and Sarai in Egypt. The patriarchs and matriarchs tend to travel to Egypt during times of famine (Gen. 41:1ff), perhaps because the Nile’s annual flood protects the region from the worst effects of a drought. The text suggests Isaac wishes to move to where food might still be abundant, but God tells him not to act on his common sense. Isaac is to stay in Canaan during the famine, living as an alien, and like his father and mother before him, to trust God.

The phrase "the land that I shall show you" connects readers back to Genesis 12:1 (the call of Abram and Sarai) and to Genesis 22:2 (the binding of Isaac), stories that emphasize trust and obedience. God then repeats the promise made to Abram and Sarai. There is some irony here: Isaac seeks to benefit from Egypt’s prosperity, but God tells him that one day the situation will be reversed: the world will benefit from the blessing God gives to the descendants of Isaac and Rebekah.

The irony continues to play out. Isaac and Rebekah remain in Canaan where the famine is bad. But when Isaac plants, he reaps a hundredfold. He continues to prosper until he becomes "very wealthy." The text interprets all of this as God’s doing, and so it reinforces the theme of reliance on God rather than one’s own planning (James 4:13–17).

Many readers will interpret the text as a parable in which Isaac’s material wealth represents any good gift from God. The challenge is to accept good things as divine gifts without seeing them as proof of divine favor or their absence as signs of God’s displeasure. The second challenge is to become as generous as God is. The text leads us to this interpretation through the reiteration of the promise in Genesis 26:4: "and all nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves through your offspring."

But the text also makes it clear that God’s blessing does not protect Isaac and Rebekah from all hardships. Trusting in God also leads, indirectly, to difficulties when some Philistines fill in Isaac’s wells, and Isaac is forced to move. There is more going on here than mere spite, however. The text again employs irony, inviting readers to appreciate the distance between God’s assurances and their fulfillment. Earlier God promised descendents to Abram and Sarai, but events immediately threatened that promise, for Sarai was taken into Pharaoh’s harem, Ishmael was born to Hagar and Sarah was taken again, this time by Abimelech. Now God has promised blessings to "all nations," but the Philistines — a non-Israelite nation — seek to "stop up" the blessing rather than gain anything from it.

Patience is partially rewarded in this section, for Isaac’s dispute with the Philistines first intensifies and then reaches resolution. Isaac has just cause to contend with the Philistines’ false claims, but he patiently digs wells until his opponents realize his integrity and seek his friendship. This is the implication of the oath and feast of verses 28–31.

I say "partially rewarded" because for the author, writing after the events (Gen. 26:33), the promise is still not fulfilled. That moment yet lies in the author’s (and our) future.

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