This is part three of a Think Theology series of ‘bits I didn’t get to unpack in the tiny amount of words available to me for the whole of Genesis 26 in the Bible reading notes I wrote for Scripture Union’ (pithy, eh?). Today, a quick little story that sounded oddly familiar when I came to it.
When the men of that place asked him about his wife, he said, ‘She is my sister,’ because he was afraid to say, ‘She is my wife.’ He thought, ‘The men of this place might kill me on account of Rebekah, because she is beautiful.’
When Isaac had been there a long time, Abimelech king of the Philistines looked down from a window and saw Isaac caressing his wife Rebekah. So Abimelech summoned Isaac and said, ‘She is really your wife! Why did you say, “She is my sister”?’
Isaac answered him, ‘Because I thought I might lose my life on account of her.’
Then Abimelech said, ‘What is this you have done to us? One of the men might well have slept with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.’
So Abimelech gave orders to all the people: ‘Anyone who harms this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.’ (Gen 26:7-11)
I don’t even know where to start with this.
Why on earth would Isaac do the exact same thing his father had done (twice – Gen 12 and Gen 20)?
What kind of man is more willing give his wife to another man than risk that man wanting her so much he would kill you for her?
How does anyone – especially Abimelech (though Matthew Henry tells me it wasn’t the same Abimelech that Abraham pulled the trick on some decades earlier) – ever trust anyone in this family, when they repeatedly pull stunts like this?
And what can we learn?
The core error here is fearing men more than you trust God. Isaac must have known the stories of Abraham pulling this same trick. If we know it, the stories must have been being passed down from generation to generation – they didn’t come to light centuries later when someone unearthed Abraham’s secret journals. Isaac clearly hadn’t grasped the learning point of the stories, he hadn’t heard the ‘But God’ moments (12:17, 20:3) where Sarai/Sarah was about to be taken as Pharaoh’s/Abimelech’s wife, but God stepped in and protected her.
Isaac seems to have a somewhat overinflated fear of these men anyway. Look at verse 8 – “When Isaac had been there a long time…” I don’t know whether that ‘long time’ was days, weeks or years – in the Abrahamic versions it seems more or less instantaneous (“When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman. And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace.” (12:14-15); “For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, ‘She is my sister.’ Then Abimelech king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her.” (20:1-2)), so mentioning the passage of time seems to suggest that it had been at least months, if not several years in Isaac’s case. Either way, no-one seemed to be exactly straining at the bit to get their hands on this beautiful woman.
Isaac was afraid for no good reason, and even if he had had good reason, he also had a God who had proved himself capable of intervening in such situations before.
It’s tempting to mock Isaac, to berate him for his stupidity, and to feel that we would never do anything so stupid, yet Matthew Henry (my go-to commentary – other commentaries are available) points out:
1. That very good men have sometimes been guilty of very great faults and follies. Let those therefore that stand take heed lest they fall, and those that have fallen not despair of being helped up again.
[And] 2. That there is an aptness in us to imitate even the weaknesses and infirmities of those we have a value for. We have need therefore to keep our foot, lest, while we aim to tread in the steps of good men, we sometimes tread in their by-steps.