Like Father, Like Son
Like Father, Like Son
In the middle of Chapter 25 we transitioned from the account of God’s dealings with Abraham to the account of his dealings with his grandsons, Esau and Jacob. The storyteller, in fact, skips right over Isaac. Everything we read of Isaac is either inserted into his father’s story or his sons’ story. Today we’ll be looking at Chapter 26. This is one of those insertions of Isaac’s story into someone else’s. And its being here might seem a little odd. The last thing we read was the story of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for a pot of stew. Suddenly, now, the storyteller takes us back to a time before Esau and Jacob were even born and spends almost an entire chapter summarizing the adult life of Isaac. The reason why the story of Isaac’s life is mostly inserted as an interlude in the story of Esau and Jacob is important, but I want to address that in our conclusion this morning. First we need to look at Isaac’s story itself.
The first thing we’ll notice about Isaac’s story is that it can almost be read as if it were a summary of Abraham’s life. Almost. The events of Isaac’s life run parallel to the events in his father’s. We’ve already seen this in Chapter 25, where we read of the birth of Esau and Jacob. The story started by telling us that Rebekah was barren for twenty years. We’re reminded of Sarah, who was barren for twenty-five years. And yet where it took nine chapters for the storyteller to work out Sarah’s problem, he resolves Rebekah’s in just one verse. It’s his way of telling us: All that heartache and anxiety that Sarah and Abraham went through on account of their childlessness—yes—Isaac and Rebekah dealt with it too.” It’s a sort of literary “ditto” that becomes the pattern for telling us about Isaac as we see in Chapter 26. Like Abraham, Isaac faces a famine; like Abraham, Isaac gets in trouble with Abimelech for lying about his wife; like Abraham, Isaac gets into disputes over his wells; like Abraham, Isaac receives God’s promises and builds an altar; like Abraham, Isaac makes a treaty with Abimelech. But there’s a reason Isaac’s story is told this way: We see very clearly that God’s plan hasn’t changed; he’s leading Isaac down the same covenant path that he had previously led Abraham.
The chapter begins on a familiar note: there’s a famine in the land. Look at verse 1:
Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech king of the Philistines.
Notice the parallels with Abraham’s actions when he faced famine. Famines were relatively common in ancient Palestine. And so Isaac picks up and heads to Egypt just as anyone else would have. That’s where the food was. But Isaac isn’t “anyone else”. He had reason to stay in Canaan despite the famine and he should have known better. His father got himself into trouble when he left the promised land to find bread in Egypt. And if we think back to the account of Abraham sending his servant to find a bride for Isaac, remember how insistent he was that his servant not take Isaac out of the promised land. Abraham no doubt made sure Isaac knew just how important it was to stay in the place God had promised. Again, Isaac should have known better. On the way south he stops in Gerar. This is the same place where Abraham had been given permission to pasture his flocks and herds many years before. And Isaac has dealings with another Abimelech. The name means “my father is king”; it was either a title, like “Pharaoh” or a dynastic name. This is probably the son or grandson of the Abimelech of Abraham’s days. It’s while Isaac is in Gerar that God intervenes to ensure he goes no further:
And the Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” (Genesis 26:2-5)
Again, going to Egypt for food was the natural thing to do, but God has other plans for Isaac. Isaac was looking at the natural; God was planning the supernatural. And so he calls Isaac to remain in the land of promise, despite the famine. It’s something of a test of faith. And then God uses this call to faith as an opportunity to make a formal restatement of his blessing. Up to this point it was God’s covenant with Abraham. Now he makes it his covenant with Isaac: “I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring…and I will give to your offspring these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” Everything that was promised to Abraham is now promised personally to Isaac. God is calling Isaac to walk with him in faith just as Abraham had. And yet God doesn’t call his people to follow him blindly; he shows us his past faithfulness as reason to trust him. That’s what he does here for Isaac.
But God doesn’t just restate his covenant blessing to Isaac, he also reminds Isaac of his own covenant obligations. God had told Abraham: “walk before me and be blameless.” Here God puts it to Isaac in terms of Abraham’s obedience to that call: “Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” It’s hard to understate just how significant this statement from God is. This is where God explains what it looks like to walk before him and to be blameless. It means doing what he says and, more specifically, keeping his charge, commandments, statutes, and laws. This is almost exactly the language used in Deuteronomy 11:1, where God tells the Israelites:
You shall therefore love the Lord your God and keep his charge, his statutes, his rules, and his commandments always.
This is God’s summary of the covenant he established with his people at Sinai as they fled from Egypt and when he gave them the law through Moses. Pages and pages of instructions, “thou shalt’s”, and “thou shalt not’s” are summed up by God in the words: “Love me and keep my charge, statutes, rules, and commandments.” What’s remarkable here is that God tells Isaac that Abraham had done all of this with no direct knowledge of the law. Again, the law came hundreds of years later, but over and over our storyteller shows Abraham doing things that are in accordance with the law. The point is that Abraham obeyed the law from his heart. Because he walked with God, he knew what was pleasing to God and because he desired to please God, he did those things he knew to be pleasing. Abraham exemplifies the ideal for God’s people. Think of God’s promise made through Jeremiah that looked forward to what the Messiah would do:
This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34)
The Messiah would establish the ideal by writing the law on the hearts of his people. Through the Messiah, men and women would “know the Lord”, they would be in fellowship with him. And yet we see that ideal right here in Abraham as God says, “He obeyed me.” The point God makes to Isaac is that faith makes obedience possible. In fact, faith creates in us the desire to please God by obeying him. Abraham lived by faith and obeyed God; he kept the law, even though he lived long before it was recorded on stone tablets. God had written it on his heart. Even Moses could tell the people in Deuteronomy 30, “This commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you….It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14). “It is in your heart” because of your faith. St. Paul, looking back to this passage from Deuteronomy, says in Romans that word that Moses said was “in your heart” is “the word of faith that we proclaim” (Romans 10:8). To walk with God in faith is to know him and to desire to please him. Faith desires obedience and that same faith makes obedience possible.
In calling Isaac to stay in the promised land despite the famine, God isn’t just calling him to a legalistic obedience. He’s calling him to faith. God is asking Isaac to trust him. Obedience is the natural outgrowth of trust, because in trusting God to provide, we stop trusting in ourselves and put our problems—and our whole lives—into the hands of God. Isaac obeys, and as we’ll see in a few verses, God provides.
But first we see that Isaac’s faith and his obedience weren’t perfect. Just as Abraham had, he makes mistakes. Look at verses 6-11:
So Isaac settled in Gerar. 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. 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. 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.’” 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.” So Abimelech warned all the people, saying, “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.”
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Just as his father had, Isaac feared that he might be killed by men interested in his beautiful wife. So, as Abraham did, Isaac lies to the men of Gerar, saying that Rebekah is his sister. Isaac and Rebekah get away with their ruse for a long time, we’re told. But on day Abimelech looks out his window and sees the two of them together. Isaac was “laughing” with his wife. It’s a euphemism for some kind of intimate behaviour. But remember that “Isaac” means “laughter”. Despite pretending to be someone he’s not, Isaac is caught “isaacing”—Abimelech catches Isaac being himself. And, of course, Abimelech is outraged; someone might have believed the lies and taken Rebekah adulterously. Thank God it hadn’t happened so far, but the possibility was there. Ironically, the pagan king fears God and lives righteously in contrast to Isaac, whom God has called to walk in obedience, but who lives a lie.
Just as his father had done, Isaac put God’s covenant promises in jeopardy through his dishonesty, but God providentially rescued the situation. And God graciously continues to bless Isaac. It’s encouraging to know that God’s doesn’t abandon his people because of our mistakes. Isaac was unfaithful when it came to his lies about his wife, but he obeyed God’s command to remain in the promised land. He planted crops, and God blessed him with a hundred-fold return. In fact, God blessed Isaac so greatly, adding to the wealth he had inherited from Abraham, that the people of Gerar began to see him as a threat. Look at verses 12-16:
And Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. The Lord blessed him, and the man became rich, and gained more and more until he became very wealthy. He had possessions of flocks and herds and many servants, so that the Philistines envied him. (Now the Philistines had stopped and filled with earth all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father.) And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you are much mightier than we.”
Again, Isaac is walking the same path his father had walked. What God had promised to Abraham is fulfilled in Isaac’s life. But having been asked to leave by Abimelech, Isaac moves his camp and resettles in the region where Abraham had pastured his flocks years before. Apparently Isaac was powerful enough that he posed a real threat to Abimelech, but neither Abraham nor Isaac is ever willing to seize the promised land by force. In very stark contrast to how we’re so often ready to claim our rights by force, in stark contrast to how their modern-day descendants have dealt with the land, when conflict comes with the locals, both Abraham and Isaac simply made peace, moved on, and trusted God to give them the land in his timing.
So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the Valley of Gerar and settled there. And Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Abraham his father, which the Philistines had stopped after the death of Abraham. And he gave them the names that his father had given them. (Genesis 25:17-18)
We’ve seen before, in Abraham’s life, how important wells were in that dry and arid climate. The king had previously given Abraham permission to use his land, but since that time Abraham had moved on and the local shepherds had filled in his wells. It was their way of saying: “Abraham no longer has a claim on this land.” But Isaac returns and digs out those wells and asserted his rights by reviving the names Abraham had given them.
Because of God’s blessing, Isaac’s flocks and herds grow and his men start pasturing them over a wider area. They start digging new wells, which, whether intentional or not, made a statement to the local shepherds that he was claiming more land. They didn’t like that. And this again links Isaac’s experience to Abraham’s. The storyteller describes his conflict with the shepherds of Gerar in almost exactly the same language he used in describing the conflict between Abraham’s herdsmen and Lot’s. As Abraham experienced a shortage of pastureland, so does Isaac. Look at verse 19 and 20:
But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” So he called the name of the well Esek, because they contended with him.
This happens a second time and Isaac names that second well “Sitnah”, which means “opposition”. But a third well goes undisputed:
So he called its name Rehoboth, saying, “For now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.” (Genesis 25:22b)
Isaac acknowledges God’s provision. Again, he could have gone to war with these men who opposed him. It was apparently in Isaac’s power to seize the disputed land and wells for himself by force, but instead he moves on until God provides. As Abraham had been a peacemaker with Lot, so Isaac makes peace with these men, leaving his provision in God’s hands.
Do you remember what took place immediately after Abraham and Lot separated? God came to Abraham and renewed his promises. Following the same pattern, having peacefully resolved this conflict over land, Isaac is visited by God, who renews his promises. Look at verses 23-25:
From there he went up to Beersheba. And the Lord appeared to him the same night and said, “I am the God of Abraham your father. Fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham’s sake.” So he built an altar there and called upon the name of the Lord and pitched his tent there. And there Isaac’s servants dug a well.
Again, the promises God had made to Abraham are now confirmed as promises to Isaac. And for the third time we’re told that God blessed Isaac, who—again following the example of his father—responds by building an altar and worshiping God.
Finally, in verses 26 to 33 we see another parallel between the life of Isaac and the life of Abraham. Abimelech seems to have heard about the disputes over Isaac’s wells. He arrives at Isaac’s camp with Phicol, the commander of his army and a man named Ahuzzath who is said to be an “advisor”. The title “advisor” probably refers to a sort of agricultural minister who oversaw grazing rites and had his own police force to settle disputes. The text doesn’t indicate that they came with a force of men, so it seems their mission was peaceful. Isaac is still suspicious though. Their culture would ordinarily demand that Isaac greet these men with a feast, the way Abraham had greeted the Lord’s messenger. Instead, Isaac only meets them with questions. The feast comes only after matters have been settled.
Isaac said to them, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?” They said, “We see plainly that the Lord has been with you. So we said, let there be a sworn pact between us, 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.” So he made them a feast, and they ate and drank. In the morning they rose early and exchanged oaths. And Isaac sent them on their way, and they departed from him in peace. (Genesis 26:27-31)
The point of the story is to once again draw a parallel between Isaac and Abraham. Just as the previous Abimelech had recognised God’s hand on Abraham, this Abimelech recognises God’s hand on Isaac. At the same time, the storyteller stresses that just as Abraham had been the source of the previous Abimelech’s blessing, so Isaac had become a source of blessing to this Abimelech.
The account ends with a brief note about another well:
That same day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well that they had dug and said to him, “We have found water.” He called it Shibah; therefore the name of the city is Beersheba to this day. (Genesis 26:32-33)
“Shibah” means “oath”, and so having just sworn an oath with Abimelech that secured Isaac’s peaceful existence in the land, he names the new well after that oath. Isaac connected the blessing of the well with the blessing of God’s continued provision, not just for water in a dry land, but of the land itself and his peaceful existence there.
With verse 34 we return to the account of Esau and Jacob, which we’ll pickup next time. As I said when we started, the reason for the storyteller inserting this collage of Isaac stories into the middle of Esau and Jacob’s story is important. We’ve already seen how these Isaac stories show us the continuity of God’s covenant promises. What he had promised to Abraham, he also promised to Isaac. What he did for Abraham in fulfilling his promises, God also does for Isaac. These Isaac stories are reminders that when God makes a promise, he keeps it. And this is why Isaac’s story is suddenly interposed into the middle of Esau and Jacob’s story. It comes just after we’ve seen the character of these two young men. Esau’s birthright represents God’s covenant promises, but the last we saw of Esau, he sold that birthright for a pot of stew. We were told that he “despised” it. He put no value on the things of God. And yet Jacob, despite valuing God’s blessing, had no grasp of what it meant. He understood the promised blessings, but he couldn’t grasp the covenant obligations. He didn’t know what it meant to walk before God and to be blameless. And so we’re left wondering if this third generation is going to run God’s venture of faith into the ground. God’s covenant looks like it’s in jeopardy. And so the storyteller gives us this interlude. As he tells us about Isaac, what he’s really doing is reminding us of all the obstacles that have stood in the way of God’s covenant in the past and showing us how God removed every one of them. He’s showing us how God grew the faith of both Abraham and Isaac through these events. And in doing that he’s giving us hope. If God was faithful in transmitting the covenant promises and blessings from Abraham to Isaac, he will be faithful in transmitting those same promises and blessing to the next generation, overcoming the new obstacles and character flaws, so that those promises and blessings can be transmitted to the generation after that and after that.
In this sense the story has even wider application. These stories were important for the Jews who first heard them in the wilderness after their flight from Egypt. God’s promises for them were real. They had every reason to believe that he would lead them through the wilderness and give them possession of that land he had promised to Abraham and to Isaac. And for the Jews in exile in Babylon who collected and edited these stories, more or less as we have them now, they gave encouragement as they tried to understand what had happened. God had removed them from the promised land because they had failed to walk in faith, but Abraham and Isaac also encouraged them with the knowledge that God is faithful to his promises. He would return them to the land he had promised. And brothers and sisters, these stories ought to be encouraging reminders to us too. God’s promises to us are good. Everything that he has promised us through Jesus Christ will come to pass. When we struggle through difficult times, when we deal with the temptation to sin and even when we fail and fall into sin, we can know that God is standing by us and that he will care for us. He is the great Promise Keeper. And as our Gospel today reminds us, he is the Good Shepherd and the Good Shepherd knows his sheep. In fact, the Good Shepherd laid down his life for us, his sheep. In response let us hear his voice and, in faith, let us follow him in faithful and loving obedience just Abraham did, just as Isaac did, and just as all the other saints of God have done.
Let us pray: “Almighty God, You have given Your only Son to be for us both a sacrifice for sin and also an example of godly life; give us grace that we may always thankfully receive the immeasurable benefit of His sacrifice, and also daily endeavour to follow in the blessed steps of His most holy life; who now lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for evermore. Amen.”