Isaac and Abimelech (26:1–35)
1–6 Verses 1–11 recount events that probably took place prior to Jacob and Esau’s birth. As in Abraham’s time, there was a famine in the land of Canaan, so Isaac and Rebekah went to the land of the Philistines to seek relief. The Abimelech mentioned here could be the son of the Abimelech with whom Abraham had made a treaty many years earlier (see Genesis 21:32–34 and comment).
The Philistine territory (southwestern Canaan) was on the way to Egypt; but God commanded Isaac not to go there. Egypt was a worldly place, filled with temptation for God’s people. If Isaac obeyed, all the promises that God had given Abraham (Genesis 12:2–3; 15:5,18; 17:5–8; 22:16–18) would be Isaac’s as well (verses 3–4). Those promises had been given to Abraham because Abraham obeyed God (verse 5). We obtain the promises of God only if we remain obedient to His commands.
Notice that Abraham never had any written commands to obey, such as the Israelites had later on. Because of his faith in God, Abraham was enabled to obey God instinctively from his heart. God’s law was “written” on Abraham’s heart (Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 8:10). Thus with Abraham, walking in faith and keeping the law were inseparable; he could not do one without the other. And so it is with us (James 2:22).
7–11 In these verses, we observe Isaac doing almost exactly what his father Abraham had done earlier (Genesis 12:11–13; 20:1–2): he deceitfully told people that Rebekah was his sister. Isaac had no doubt been born with some of his father’s character strengths; but sadly, he was born with some of the weaknesses too.
12–25 In spite of his weaknesses, Isaac prospered in the land, as his father had done before him. Already the covenant promises were being fulfilled in Isaac’s life. But as a result, the local people became envious and hostile (verse 14)—a pattern that would be repeated later in Israel’s history (Exodus 1:9). Indeed, it has always been so: whenever God’s people have prospered as a result of God’s blessing and their own honest work, godless people around them have reacted with envy and hostility.
Since water was such a scarce commodity in that semi-arid region, it was natural that the local people would show their hostility to Isaac by depriving him of water. They blocked off the wells that Abraham had dug (verse 15) and to which Abraham had a legal right (Genesis 21:25–31).
Wherever Isaac moved, the local people disputed his right to the water. Finally the Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you” (verse 24). The assurance of God’s presence was the greatest of all the covenant promises (Matthew 28:20). In gratitude, Isaac built an altar to the Lord, just as his father had done before him (Genesis 12:7).
26–33 As if to confirm the Lord’s assurance to Isaac, Abimelech came to visit him to make a treaty of peace. Abimelech clearly recognized that the Lord was with Isaac (verse 28), just as He had promised. By making a treaty with Isaac, this Gentile king sought to share in Isaac’s blessing; in this way the promise that Abraham’s offspring would bring blessing to all nations was beginning to come true (Genesis 22:18).
As we reflect on Isaac’s life, we see a man who from his birth was the beneficiary of the promises of God—so much so that even a Gentile king could recognize it. So many of the world’s people pursue happiness and prosperity without regard for God; they give no credence to spiritual realities. If they temporarily succeed in life, they give themselves the credit. These are the Esaus of the world; they prefer the pleasures of earth to the blessings of heaven. They would rather fill their bellies than feed their souls; their god is their stomach; their destiny is destruction (Philippians 3:19).
34–35 Esau married two Hittite women; the Hittites were one of the Canaanite tribes living in the land of Canaan (Genesis 10:15). The Canaanites were known for their ungodliness, and God did not wish His covenant people to intermarry with them. Thus once again Esau demonstrated that he was unfit to inherit the blessings of the covenant—both because he married two wives and also because they were Hittites.