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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Jacob Marries Leah & Rachel, Gen. 29

A.1. The Arrival and Welcome by Uncle Laban, 29:1-14

Then Jacob went on his journey, and came to the land of the people of the east.  2 As he looked, he saw a well in the field and three flocks of sheep lying there beside it; for out of that well the flocks were watered. The stone on the well’s mouth was large,  3 and when all the flocks were gathered there, the shepherds would roll the stone from the mouth of the well, and water the sheep, and put the stone back in its place on the mouth of the well.   4   Jacob said to them, “My brothers, where do you come from?” They said, “We are from Haran.”  5 He said to them, “Do you know Laban son of Nahor?” They said, “We do.”  6 He said to them, “Is it well with him?” “Yes,” they replied, “and here is his daughter Rachel, coming with the sheep.”  7 He said, “Look, it is still broad daylight; it is not time for the animals to be gathered together. Water the sheep, and go, pasture them.”  8 But they said, “We cannot until all the flocks are gathered together, and the stone is rolled from the mouth of the well; then we water the sheep.”   9   While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep; for she kept them.  10 Now when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his mother’s brother Laban, and the sheep of his mother’s brother Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of his mother’s brother Laban.  11 Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept aloud.  12 And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman, and that he was Rebekah’s son; and she ran and told her father.  13   When Laban heard the news about his sister’s son Jacob, he ran to meet him; he embraced him and kissed him, and brought him to his house. Jacob told Laban all these things,  14 and Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” And he stayed with him a month.

This arrival scene is intended to remind us of the arrival of Abraham's servant in quest of Rebekah as a bride for Isaac. This association is reinforced by Laban's words at the end: "You are my bone and my flesh." It reminds us also of Isaac's instructions to Jacob in 28:2 that he "Go at once to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father; and take as wife from there one of the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother." The wife Jacob seeks will be a first cousin, the daughter of his mother's brother Laban. But Isaac had anticipated that he would take "one of the daughters", whereas he will end up taking two and their two maidservants as well! Four women will produce twelve sons and give Jacob a head start to gain the promised offspring that will spread abroad and fill the land. Each of the twelve will become a tribe to inhabit the promised land. 

The presence of the well at the gate of the city is important to the story. First of all, the hand of God is clear in Jacob's arrival at the well precisely when Rachel was bringing her father's sheep there for watering. But that scene also shows a pattern seen elsewhere showing how God's grace works through the human kindness of his servants. For in the experience of Abraham's servant in Genesis 24, it will be Rebekah's willingness to water his ten camels from it that will reveal her as God's chosen bride. And here it is Jacob's action of rolling the stone from the mouth of the well, so that Rachel's flock of sheep can be watered that gives him entrée into her and her father's family. Readers of Exodus 2 would also be aware of how Moses found hospitality from Jethro and gained his daughter Zipporah as his wife by protecting Zipporah and her flocks at a well. And readers of the Gospel of John will recall Jesus requesting a drink from the well at the gate of Samaria from a woman, and having received it offered her more than a marriage—for she had been living unmarried with four different men—but the living water of eternal life through believing in him as the Messiah. 

In all of these examples God worked his miracles through an act of human kindness. Kindness opens doors today also for God to work, as I'm sure many of you have experienced, as have I. Even a simple act of kindness can melt a cold heart and allow God to pour out his blessings without measure. 
Here it is also worth noting that, although Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebekah were at pains to have their preferred son and heir marry "in the family" so that God's promise to Abraham that his descendants through whom the nations would be blessed should have no maternal component from outside the Abrahamic family, Matthew's genealogy of Joseph, the legal father of Jesus, includes Rahab the Canaanite prostitute and Ruth the Moabite, showing that the promise to Abraham fulfilled through Jesus did not actually require an exclusively Abrahamic purity of the gene pool. These two women owed their inclusion in the messianic genealogy to acts of kindness to Abraham and his offspring, just as Rebekah owed her inclusion to her kindness to Abraham's servant. Rahab helped the two spies escape with information that would encourage Joshua to follow God's instructions and capture Jericho, the first huge military obstacle to the possession of the Promised Land. And Ruth kindly left her Moabite family to travel with Naomi back to Bethlehem and give birth to Obed, the grandfather of King David. Neither Leah nor Rachel owed their inclusion to their own acts of kindness, but to God's grace.

For his part, Laban gives his daughters to Jacob in exchange for a seven-year work contract, and the assurance that Jacob is a blood relative, while Rebekah's father Bethuel grants her to Abraham's servant because his remarkable story of Yahweh's miraculous leading assured him that it was Yahweh's will, and only if Rebekah is herself willing to marry Isaac. Bethuel's behavior seems much more God honoring than Laban's. For his part, Jacob is attracted to Rachel solely because of her physical beauty, not her kindness, as we shall see next. 

A.2. Jacob Gains Two Wives from his Uncle Laban, 29:14-30

(Jacob) stayed with him a month.  15   Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?”  16 Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.  17 Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful.  18 Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”  19 Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.”  20 So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.   21   Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.”  22 So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast.  23 But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her.  24 (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.)  25 When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?”  26 Laban said, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn.  27 Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.”  28 Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.  29 (Laban gave his maid Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her maid.)  30 So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. He served Laban for another seven years.

Verse 14 tells us that Laban's hospitality to his nephew lasted for one month. At the end of that time, Laban approached his guest with a proposal. As a relative of Laban's Jacob had been given free room and board, but as a member of the family he—like Rachel with her shepherding—had been doing his share of work as a family member. But after a month of this, Laban decides that Jacob should not be required to work just for free room and board, but would be given wages like an ordinary contract worker. Laban may have thought in terms of goods and provisions, doled out on a monthly basis as wages. But Jacob was thinking about his father's instructions to get a wife and about the promise Yahweh gave him at Bethel (Gen 28:13–15) that his offspring would be numerous (like the dust of the earth v 14) and possess the land of Canaan (v 13). He needed to get started on those matters. So he proposed a long-term arrangement: working without extra compensation for seven years in return for Laban's daughter in marriage. But unlike Rebekah who was clearly revealed to Abraham's servant as the one intended by God, no such revelation had been given to Jacob, and Laban had two daughters: Leah the older, and Rachel the younger. Jacob made his choice based on their looks. Leah had a pretty face—in Hebrew "eyes" often means "face", and the adjective translated "weak" or "tender" means "delicate" or "pretty"—while Rachel had the better figure. Jacob preferred the younger one with the good figure. 


The seven years went by like a few hours, because his patience was nourished by the intense joy that he knew awaited him. For most of us, if we are eager for something to happen, it makes us impatient. But it can have the opposite effect as well. We all know that the Lord's coming again is what we want more than anything else in life. And yet, because we know it will happen, and we know he has given us work to do before he will come, we soldier on in patience, nourished by the certainty of the event and how wonderful we know it will be. 


The longed for day has come: the seven years have passed. At last Jacob can begin his family with Rachel. Weddings involved large community gatherings that lasted an entire day, at the end of which the bride, who was veiled, was led into the bridal chamber, and the groom was allowed to enter after her and consummate the marriage. This portrayal on a large Hittite ceremonial jar showing scenes in a wedding, shows the groom lifting the veil of his bride in the bridal chamber. He can see her face now before the consummation. Apparently, in Jacob's case either there was no light in the chamber or he was too inebriated to see clearly. For he did not recognize that the woman was Leah until the following morning. 

His angry protest to Laban was prompted not only by his love for Rachel, but also by the clear breach of the terms of his contract with Laban, which was for Rachel, not Leah. Laban's excuse had to be something that would hold up in court, since breach of contract was a civil, not just a personal, matter. His defense was community law: the younger daughter could not be given in marriage before the older. Now Jacob, being an outsider, wouldn't know this. This would defend him in refusing Rachel, but would not justify his deceit in not making this clear at the time of the contract. Nothing could be done to revoke the marriage to Leah, since she was now Jacob's legal wife. And Laban seems to have gotten away with the deceit without any penalty, for Jacob had to work another seven years to provide the "bride-price" for the second daughter, although he was allowed to take her as wife after a delay of only one week. Laban had blindsided Jacob. Jacob now had a taste of what he had done to Esau! His uncle had bamboozled him completely and saddled him with an extra wife. 

A.3. The Lord Shows Sympathy for Leah, because Jacob Prefers Rachel over her, Gen 29:30b-35

When the LORD saw that Leah was given second place in Jacob's affections, he made her fertile; but Rachel remained infertile. Leah became pregnant and bore a son, and named him Reuben [meaning 'See! A son!']; for she said, “This is because the LORD has seen to my misery; surely now my husband will prefer me.” She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the LORD has heard that I was given second place, he has given me this son also”; and she named him Simeon [meaning: 'Hearing']. Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons”; therefore he was named Levi [meaning: 'Joined']. She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise the LORD”; therefore she named him Judah [meaning: 'Praise']; then she ceased bearing. (Genesis 29:31–35 NRSV)


Jacob took his frustration out on Leah, for verses 30 and 31 indicate that he preferred Rachel to Leah, and that Leah knew he did. This was not unnoticed by Yahweh, who had pity on her in her misery. When Leah became pregnant, and her sister did not, Leah said to herself: "This is because Yahweh has seen how I am afflicted; but now surely my husband will prefer me." Yahweh's motive in giving Leah children and not Rachel may not have been because Leah was a kinder or more godly woman than her sister: the text says it was out of pity for her misery in being so obviously the runner-up in Jacob's affections that God blessed her with the first and the largest number of sons. And based upon other examples of two-wife families in the Old Testament, such as Abraham's wives Sarah and Hagar (16:4), and Elkanah's wives Hannah and Peninnah (1 Sam 1:6), we can be sure that the preferred wife lorded it over the non-preferred one, and that children were a valuable poker chip in the game of rival wives. Yet in defense of Leah we should notice that she gave all the credit, thanks and praise to the Lord who had befriended her and given her dignity in her husband's eyes. This section reports the birth of Jacob's first four sons. Leah was given the right to choose their names, and she related the name of each to the Lord's kindness and how she hoped this would improve her relations with Jacob. The names of the first two—Reuben and Simeon—are related to God's ability to see (Hebrew consonants: rʾh) Leah's plight and to hear (Hebrew consonants: šmʿ) her prayers. The third—Levi—expresses Leah's hope that her place in Jacob's affection will be secure, joined (Hebrew consonants: lwy) to him at the hip. And the fourth—Judah (yhwdh)—expresses her unbounded praise (hwdh) to God. She chose the names well. So far as the historical destiny and roles of Leah's four sons are concerned, Reuben and Simeon are more or less marginal among the twelve tribes. Reuben's territory in east of the Jordan River, outside the proper boundaries of the Promised Land, while Simeon is swallowed up by Judah (see a map here). Levi will become the "priestly tribe," without landed inheritance, but whose inheritance portion is Yahweh himself. Surely, this was a great honor. And Judah would become the tribe of King David and the ancestral tribe of the Messiah Jesus (Mt 1:3; Lk 3:33). 

After Judah's birth Leah ceased conceiving. God's mercy to her was complete. Mission accomplished. 

God gives blessings to us that are more than adequate to meet our needs. But they are not wasted by being extravagant: he wishes us to know contentment as well as happiness. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Jacob at Bethel, Genesis 28

A.1. Isaac sends Jacob to Paddan-Aram, 28:1–5

28:1 Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him, and charged him, “You shall not marry one of the Canaanite women.  2 Go at once to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father; and take as wife from there one of the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother.  3 May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and numerous, that you may become a company of peoples.  4 May he give to you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your offspring with you, so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien—land that God gave to Abraham.”  5 Thus Isaac sent Jacob away; and he went to Paddan-aram, to Laban son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, Jacob’s and Esau’s mother.

This account of Isaac's parting words to Jacob employs what is called a chiastic form, meaning the the two parts are stated first in one order and then in the reverse (A-B-B'-A'). The narrator (Moses) says that Isaac "blessed him and charged him" (v. 1), while in what follows it is the charge that comes first (v. 2), followed by the blessing (vv. 3-4). 

As Jacob's father, Isaac has the authority to order him. This order has come as a result of Isaac's coming to recognize that it is this youngest of his twin sons whom God has chosen to be the channel of the promise to Abraham, and as a result of seeing how his oder son Esau has intermarried with the local women apparently without seeking his father's permission. As Abraham had sent to the land of his relatives for a bride for Isaac, so now Isaac himself will send his chief heir to that same area to secure a bride. The stricture that Jacob must not take a bride from any other family in Paddan-Aram is made clear by the terms "one of the daughters of Laban, your mother's (Rebekah's) brother. The choice of Rebekah had been made by God in answer to the prayer of Abraham's servant. There is room in the phrase "one of the daughters" for a choice now also. No hint is given, however, that Jacob will eventually take two of Laban's daughters as wives. Isaac also makes no explanation for this restricting of the choice of a wife for his son, no comment about how Laban's daughters will be more godly or more free from the worship of other gods.  


The form of an ancient blessing normally began with the invoking of a particular god or goddess who would perform the action of the blessing. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob employed a number of titles and names for the one God whom they worshiped. Foremost among these, because it later became the normal name for Israel's God, was Yahweh. But the patriarchs used other names with equal frequency, and it was only at the time of the exodus from Egypt that the name Yahweh became truly meaningful and its true significance understood by God's people. 

Jacob will later refer to the god of Isaac as פַּחַד יִצְחַק paḥad Yitshaq 'the Fear of Isaac' (31:42). But Isaac himself here invokes God as El Shaddai. The first part of this name, El, is the Hebrew and Canaanite noun meaning "god" (with a lower case 'g'). But the meaning of the second part, Shaddai (שַׁדָּי), is even today disputed. Some render it 'Almighty', although the oldest attested translation, the ancient Greek version of the OT made three centuries before Christ, takes Shaddai as the possessive pronoun "my" (Greek: ὁ δὲ θεός μου 'my God'). What is more important than its precise translation is the fact that Isaac uses it to describe God in his role of multiplying the offspring of Jacob. The best translation of the final clause in v. 3 is "may he make you into a confederation/association (קָהָל) of tribes," which of course is precisely what God did: he gave Jacob twelve sons, and these eventually became the twelve tribes of Israel. 
In v. 4 Isaac turns to describing the ultimate goal of this proliferation of offspring: it is the "blessing" (בְּרָכָה εὐλογία) given to Abraham. This is what Jacob did not consciously seek, when he earlier swindled Esau out of birthright and blessing—nor did it result in that being conferred at that time (see the lesson on Genesis 25 and the one on chapter 27), but which now will be given to him properly as the fulfillment of God's original purpose. We also see that this blessing will have an immediate fulfillment as well as a later, much fuller one. For Isaac first asks that the blessing be given "to you," i.e., to Jacob during his own lifetime, but then amends this to "to you and to your offspring with you." And one historical event in the future which will signify a major step toward the fulfillment of that blessing will be Israel's taking possession of the Promised Land after the exodus (recorded in the Book of Joshua). 

A.2. Esau marries Ishmael's daughter, 28:6–9

Now Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him away to Paddan-aram to take a wife from there, and that as he blessed him he charged him, “You shall not marry one of the Canaanite women,”  7 and that Jacob had obeyed his father and his mother and gone to Paddan-aram.  8 So when Esau saw that the Canaanite women did not please his father Isaac,  9 Esau went to Ishmael and took Mahalath daughter of Abraham’s son Ishmael, and sister of Nebaioth, to be his wife in addition to the wives he had.

Both Isaac's and Jacob's marriages were arranged by their fathers. This was the usual procedure in the ancient Near East, although the parents often sought the guidance or the final consent of the son or daughter. Samson came to his father and asked that he get a particular Philistine woman for his bride (Judges 14:2-3). Bethuel asked Rebekah if she was willing to go to Canaan and become Isaac's wife (Gen 24:58). Although it is possible that we are simply not told about Esau securing Isaac's consent to marry Hethite and then later Ishmaelite women as his wives [see p.  ? ], the very silence of the text seems to imply that he did not. This adds to the disapproval of the marriages already expressed by the statement that these foreign wives made Isaac's and Rebekah's lives bitter (26:35, see comments at 26:34–35 [here]).

A.3. Jacob's dream at Bethel, 28:10–17

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran.  11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.  12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  13 And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring;  14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.  15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”  16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!”  17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

Jacob's journey to the full revelation of God's purpose for him began at birth with the oracle to Rebekah (25:19-26; see comments at 25:22-23), continued with his imperfect understanding of the birthright and blessing he selfishly sought (25:29-34; ch. 27 [see here]), and began to mature with Isaac's blessing on him (28:1-4), but comes to full light of day in God's appearance to him at Bethel. 

Jacob has set out for Haran (which is another way of designating Paddan-Aram, the homeland of Rebekah's kinfolk. He travels northward as far as Bethel, in the central highlands of what will later be the tribal territory of Benjamin, north of Jerusalem. There he stops for the night and uses a stone for a head-rest. As he slept, he had a dream. In the dream he saw a stairway—some translations call it a ladder, which is less likely—leading up to heaven. On this stairway angels were seen, ascending and descending. And Yahweh stood above it (or perhaps beside him, i.e., Jacob). Yahweh then began to speak. 

In the extended speech of God there is no explanation given of the significance of the stairway or the angels. After awaking from the dream, Jacob seems to give some significance to it when he says, "This is the house of God; this is the gateway to heaven" (v. 17). But God himself says nothing about the stairway or its significance. Centuries later, our Lord Jesus commented on this passage, when he says to Nathaniel, “Do you believe (I am the Son of God and the king of Israel) because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. …  I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (Jn 1:50-51). Just what specific event Jesus refers to here is a bit unclear: most likely he refers to his ascension into heaven following the forty day period of ministry to his disciples after the resurrection (Acts 1:6-11). The narrative of Acts 1 mentions no stairway, but it was the last vision the disciples (including Nathaniel) had of Jesus, and it records his ascending into heaven's glory as the Son of God and Israel's king. And it is commonly assumed that in this entry he was escorted by angels (see the two standing by in white robes in Acts 1:10), as he will be when he returns in glory to the earth (Matthew 25:31; 2 Thessalonians 1:7).


But the main focus of the passage is vv. 13-15, which record God's message to Jacob and in particular his promises. These will see dramatic—if sometime unexpected—fulfillment in the chapters that follow, describing Jacob's adventures in Paddan-Aram and his return to the land of promise. 

The first element of the dream revelation is the name of God. "I am Yahweh," God said. This was a different name for God than what Isaac used in his parting blessing (28:3), which was El Shaddai 'God Almighty'. But Jacob would not be allowed to be misled by the different name, for God immediately qualifies this statement with the words "the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac." Thus he clearly identifies himself with the only God whom Jacob's father and grandfather would have worshiped. But this identification meant even more. The father-grandfather connection tells Jacob that Yahweh is the God who called his grandfather out of Mesopotamia and gave him great promises that had been the focus and chief hope of his family now for three generations. Yahweh was therefore not some local god, associated with a particular shrine or location. He was the God of all the earth, who has attached himself to this one family and will follow them wherever they go. Yahweh repeats in vv. 13-14 the main elements of the earlier promises to Jacob's father and grandfather: (1) he would multiply his offspring, and (2) he would give them a land of their own, the very land on which he was lying as he dreamed, and (3) that all families of the earth would be blessed in him and his offspring. This God at Bethel is confirming the same promises Jacob has heard about from his father. But in v. 15 God promises something more, something related directly to Jacob and his mission. He will be "with" Jacob in the sense not only of accompanying him but also of protecting and giving him success in his mission, and he will bring Jacob back to this land. 


Jacob understands the significance of a vision such as this. Normally visions of deities were considered to signify that the particular god or goddess dwelt in that location, and resulted in the human recipient of the vision vowing to build there a shrine or temple for the deity. But although Jacob confesses that Yahweh is in this place, he understands from the content of the vision that Yahweh transcends any one place. Therefore he makes no vow to build a temple. He does set up a stone marker to commemorate the vision, but this is not the same thing. He will set up other markers in later situations (see 31:45-46, [31:43-55]).

A.4. Jacob's vow to God at Bethel, 28:18–22

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.  19 He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.  20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear,  21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God,  22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.”

Vows to gods were often solemnized by erecting a stone in the place where the vow was made. In this case, since Jacob had received the message from God while sleeping with his head resting on a stone, he chose that particular stone to be the mark of his vow to God. The use in modern translations of the English word "pillar" to translate the word maṣṣēḇah should not mislead us into visualizing some large stone like a column of a building. The word merely denotes a stone of between one and two feet in height when erect. Examples have been found in excavations in Israel of these stones. So we know what they looked like.  Pouring oil on the stone was a kind of offering made to the god to whom the vow was being made, and also consecrated the stone, removing it from normal use. 

The name given to the place, Bethel, means "house of God." Jacob explains his choice of that name in v. 22, "this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house." By "house" he clearly does not mean a building, but merely the place in which the God he has heard will dwell and be honored. Jacob's vow has several conditions: (1)  that this God will accompany him in his travels and protect him at every stage, (2) that this God will see that he can find/earn food and clothing, and (3) that he returns safely ("in peace") to this land, as God promised. In his vow Jacob mentions nothing about the success of his mission to find a wife. These are his conditions. What he promises is also in several parts: (1) Yahweh ("English translations "the LORD"), the God who spoke to him at Bethel, will become his God, (2) the stone that he erects at Bethel will be always a place in which Yahweh is venerated and honored and worshiped, and (3) Jacob will devote to God in sacrifice a tenth of all his earnings. As is typical in such ancient votive statements, the speaker speaks of his god both in the third person ("he/she" and with verb forms that imply "he/she" as subject) and in the second ("you"). Jacob addresses God as "you" only in the final sentence of his vow.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Rebekah & Jacob Think They Have Stolen a Blessing, Gen 27

We have now reached that point in the narrative of Genesis where the patriarchal focus has shifted to Jacob, and we must begin to follow the gradually emerging picture of this third of the patriarchs. He was a complex person, and we will see much in him that we do not like at all. His name Jacob would eventually be changed by God to "Israel," which would become the name of the kingdom that descended from him. That kingdom too was God's chosen instrument, and yet at time behaved in very unattractive ways. So the Bible's picture of Jacob in many ways is an appropriate preview of the nation that bore his name. 

What are we to make of this strange behavior on the part of three members of a dysfunctional family: Isaac, Rebekah, Esau and Jacob? Esau is perhaps the least problematic, since no one is tempted to make a hero of him, although he does seem to have been victimized. His main fault is that he saw no value in the birthright that he sold to his brother, and therefore portrays the attitude typical of unbelievers in the gospel today: perhaps a fairly decent person, but with no belief in or interest in God. But the others (Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob) will continue to be regarded as founders of God's people Israel. How should we evaluate their behavior here? Is it something to be emulated?

A statement typical of one side of the debate—blaming Rebekah and Jacob, and exonerating Isaac—is the following:

What Jacob did in deceiving his father and thereby cheating Esau out of Isaac’s deathbed blessing is condemned as blameworthy, … indirectly, by the … narrator of the present story, who makes the reader sympathize with Esau as the innocent victim of a cruel plot, and shows that Jacob and his mother, the instigator of the plot, paid for it by a lifelong separation from each other. The story was told because it was part of the mystery of God’s ways in salvation history — his use of weak, sinful people to achieve his own ultimate purpose.

Those who take the opposite view assume that Rebekah had told Isaac of what the Lord had said to her about the two babies in her womb, and despite this, Isaac was trying to outwit God by secretly blessing Esau. Of course, there is no explicit evidence for this assumption in the text. Yet, admittedly both interpretations are possible. But either way, very few of the characters in the story come off looking completely honest. 

Without assigning total blame on either side, it is possible to appreciate the consummate literary art of the passage and to see how it adumbrates events in Jacob's and Israel's future. Another author has written:

The chapter, a literary masterpiece, is the third and climactic wresting away of the blessing of Esau. Rebekah manages the entire affair, using perhaps her privileged information about Jacob’s status (25:23); Jacob’s only qualm is that, if his father discovers the ruse, he will receive a curse instead of a blessing (vv. 11-12). Isaac is passive (passivity, see p.  ? ) as he was in chaps. 22 and 24. The deception is effected through clothing (Jacob wears Esau’s clothing), which points ahead to a similar deception of a patriarch [this time Jacob himself deceived by his 11 sons] by means of clothing in the Joseph story (37:21-33). Such recurrent acts and scenes let the reader know a [single, relentless] divine purpose is moving the story forward even though the human characters are unaware of it.


When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called his elder son Esau and said to him, “My son”; and he answered, “Here I am.”  2 He said, “See, I am old; I do not know the day of my death.  3 Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and hunt game for me.  4 Then prepare for me savory food, such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may bless you before I die.”

At the outset of the story we are informed that Isaac's has become blind. The ancient rabbis came up with all kinds of imaginative explanations for this blindness: When Isaac was bound on the altar, and his father was about to slaughter him (Gen 22), the heavens opened, and the ministering angels saw and wept, and their tears fell upon Isaac’s eyes. As a result, his eyes became dim (Gen. Rabbah 65:6), or the idolatrous wives [p.  ? ] of Esau were making so many sacrifices of animals and incense to their gods that the smoke caused his blindness. On the literary level, his blindness must be mentioned at the outset so that Rebekah's plan makes sense. But behind that, on the level of the actual event itself, Isaac's blindness explains why he chose this time to give the 'final' blessing on his son before he died (v. 2). He saw his blindness as a precursor of his death. He might die at any time, without fulfilling all that was required for the "passing of the torch" to the next generation. Jacob himself would be blind in his final years, when he gave his final blessings to his twelve sons (Gen 48–49). 

Isaac's concern to finish preparations for his death parallels Abraham's concern in Gen 23 to provide a family tomb in Hebron for Sarah and eventually himself, and in Gen 24 to secure a bride for his son Isaac, who would be his primary heir. It also suggests that Isaac here regards Esau (not Jacob) as his primary heir. It is possible that at this point Esau has not yet married local girls and embittered his father (26:34–35). We are not told that Rebekah had divulged to him the content of the revelation she received from God (Gen 25:22-23) about that "the older shall serve the younger" (וְרַ֖ב יַעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר) nor that Jacob had informed him of Esau's oath conveying to him his birthright (Gen 25:27-34), which he finally divulges in angry tears after he discovers that Jacob also has received the blessing. Readers are aware of these events, but the character Isaac may not have been. His possible ignorance of these two matters allows us not to see him as deliberately opposing God's will for Jacob. He can be regarded as doing what in his ignorance he thought was his duty. 


The bit in v. 4 about the delicious wild game (מַטְעַמִּ֜ים כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר אָהַ֛בְתִּי) that would put Isaac in the mood to bless Esau seems crass or even pitiful to us. It should not be required that someone be put in the mood with a dinner of tender venison or pheasant before he can pronounce God's blessing on another, especially since the effectiveness of the blessing lay in the Lord in whose presence it was pronounced. But in partial defense of Isaac, it should be noted that solemn rites of testament in the ancient Near East often involved a meal [BKMK]: and we can see this custom reflected the Lord's last meal with his disciples, on which occasion items of food and drink—bread and wine—were central elements in inaugurating the New Covenant. Later Jewish traditions imagined that the two kids Rebekah had slaughtered for the meal were analogous to the two goats used in the ritual of the Day of Atonement (Lev 16; see in Jewish Encyclopedia and in ISBE).


Now Rebekah was listening when Isaac spoke to his son Esau. So when Esau went to the field to hunt for game and bring it,  6 Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “I heard your father say to your brother Esau,  7 ‘Bring me game, and prepare for me savory food to eat, that I may bless you before the LORD before I die.’  8 Now therefore, my son, obey my word as I command you.  9 Go to the flock, and get me two choice kids, so that I may prepare from them savory food for your father, such as he likes;  10 and you shall take it to your father to eat, so that he may bless you before he dies.”  11 But Jacob said to his mother Rebekah, “Look, my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I am a man of smooth skin.  12 Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to be mocking him, and bring a curse on myself and not a blessing.”  13 His mother said to him, “Let your curse be on me, my son; only obey my word, and go, get them for me.”  14 So he went and got them and brought them to his mother; and his mother prepared savory food, such as his father loved.  15 Then Rebekah took the best garments of her elder son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob;  16 and she put the skins of the kids on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck.  17 Then she handed the savory food, and the bread that she had prepared, to her son Jacob.

Rebekah's response to overhearing Isaac's plan reminds us of what we were told in 25:28, that Isaac favored Esau, while Rebekah favored Jacob. The parents were opposed to one another, as were the twin sons. As Kenneth Mathews (391) observes, " Partiality for a child was a recurring feature of all three patriarchal households (e.g., 22:2; 25:28; 37:3-4; 44:20)." Since preferment of a son implied conferral of primacy in the inheritance, when God declares Jesus to be "my beloved (ἀγαπητός) Son" (Mt 3:17; Mk 9:7; 2 Pet 1:17; cf. p.  ? ), it expresses his status as the 'preferred Son, the Heir', the "heir of all things" (κληρονόμον πάντων Hebr 1:2), the Crown Prince of Heaven. 

Rebekah will now prove that she is more clever than her husband, just as in ch. 25 Jacob proved that he was more clever than Esau. Of course, Rebekah has the advantage over her husband of not being blind, and by deceiving a helpless blind person she may have violated the law of God. Leviticus 19:14 reads "You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am Yahweh." If Rebekah had told Isaac of God's revelation to her during pregnancy, and he did not believe her, this may have been her only recourse. In which case, by deceiving him she was not causing him to stumble, but kept him from doing so. But we have no way of knowing that she had told Isaac. If she didn't, then by choosing this means of securing his blessing on Jacob she was showing that she did not trust or fear the Lord to be able to carry out his promise without her taking advantage of her blind husband. And in Deuteronomy 27:18 the following words appear in a list of curses which the entire people of Israel were to swear: "‘Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind man on the road.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen: Let it be so!’" This is probably why Jacob feared to do what Rebekah commanded him to do, lest he be discovered (vv 11-12). Apparently, Rebekah believed that, since she was trying to make the promise of Jacob's primacy come true, no curse from God would befall them, and it would only be Isaac—not God—who would curse them. But surprisingly, Isaac pronounced no curse, when he discovered that his wife and younger son had deceived him. Perhaps this was because he suspected that he had been prevented from blessing the wrong son: that God had worked his will through Rebekah's unkind method. 

That Rebekah was a consummate deceiver, we cannot deny. She thought of everything. The meal she prepared from the meat of two young goats apparently was delicious enough to fool Isaac into thinking it was his favorite wild game. And the clothes of Esau which carried a residue of his body odors and the hair goatskins on his hands and the smooth of his neck were enough to simulate Esau's hairy body. One wonders if Esau always smelled like a goat! Jacob, the arch Deceiver, may have inherited his ability to trick people from Rebekah—certainly not from Isaac, who couldn't deceive Abimelech into thinking that Rebekah was his sister (Gen 26:7-11).


So he went in to his father, and said, “My father”; and he said, “Here I am; who are you, my son?”  19 Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so that you may bless me.”  20 But Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” He answered, “Because the LORD your God granted me success.”  21 Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near, that I may feel you, my son, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not.”  22 So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”  23 He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him.  24 He said, “Are you really my son Esau?” He answered, “I am.”  25 Then he said, “Bring it to me, that I may eat of my son’s game and bless you.” So he brought it to him, and he ate; and he brought him wine, and he drank.  26 Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come near and kiss me, my son.”  27 So he came near and kissed him; and he smelled the smell of his garments, and blessed him, and said,  “Ah, the smell of my son   is like the smell of a field that the LORD has blessed.  28  May God give you of the dew of heaven,   and of the fatness of the earth,   and plenty of grain and wine. 29  Let peoples serve you,   and nations bow down to you.  Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.  Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!”

Isaac is described in the opening verses of the chapter as old, with at least one of his senses having become dull, his vision. But as an old man myself I can testify that he was probably also hard of hearing, which made it easier for Jacob to impersonate Esau's voice. And although Isaac thought his sense of taste was as keen as ever, prompting him to ask for tasty game from Esau, the fact that Rebekah's goat stew could deceive him suggests that he underestimated also the loss of his discriminating taste! 

It is remarkable that, when Jacob himself became old, his eyesight deserted him too, but he overcame it in order to reverse the firstborn right of Manasseh and give it to the younger Ephraim (48:9-14).
As if the plan of Rebekah "on paper" already didn't look pretty sleazy, when Jacob actually has to execute it, we see at each turn how blatantly he must lie, even when it seems that his father has recognized him. Three times Isaac essentially asks Jacob, "Are you really my son Esau?" and Jacob must lie three times. It reminds us of Peter's threefold denial of Jesus in the house of the High Priest. That Isaac still has doubts is shown by his words, "The voice is Jacob's but the hairy hands are Esau's." Rebekah's goatskins were working!

After all the plotting of Rebekah and Jacob, and the tense suspense of Isaac's hesitation, they finally win: the blessing is given to Jacob! But when it is all over, just what has Jacob gained in this blessing (27:27-29)? There is precious little in it to recall God's promises to Abraham and Isaac. What do you see that is missing? (1) Nothing about inheriting the land or (2) giving birth to kings or (3) being the channel of God's blessing on the peoples of the Earth. What did it contain? Material prosperity (v 28) and the domination of surrounding peoples (v 29) are all that it contained. See also v. 37. 


As soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob, when Jacob had scarcely gone out from the presence of his father Isaac, his brother Esau came in from his hunting.  31 He also prepared savory food, and brought it to his father. And he said to his father, “Let my father sit up and eat of his son’s game, so that you may bless me.”  32 His father Isaac said to him, “Who are you?” He answered, “I am your firstborn son, Esau.”  33 Then Isaac trembled violently, and said, “Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all before you came, and I have blessed him?—yes, and blessed he shall be!”  34 When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, “Bless me, me also, father!”  35 But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.”  36 Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing.” Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?”  37 Isaac answered Esau, “I have already made him your lord, and I have given him all his brothers as servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?”  38 Esau said to his father, “Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, me also, father!” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept. 39  Then his father Isaac answered him:  “See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be,   and away from the dew of heaven on high. 40  By your sword you shall live,   and you shall serve your brother;  but when you break loose,   you shall break his yoke from your neck.”

In fact, even the "leftover" version given finally to Esau (27:39-40) contains only the same two gifts: (1) although Esau's descendants will not live an agricultural life with all the wealth of the land, they will live by the sword and will gain wealth from the caravan trades passing through their territory in the great north-south trade routes east of the Jordan River (v. 39-40a), and (2) although the Edomites will at times be subservient to the Israelite tribes, they will eventually break free and live independently (v. 40b). Neither the first or the second blessing relate directly to God's covenant with Abraham and Isaac. That will come by God's sovereign grace, without need of a blessing from a duped blind man or tricks from a devious mother. Applications? When we try to manufacture God's 'blessing' by clever advertisements and programs instead of focusing on God's Word and prayer, all that we come up with are the worthless and transient 'successes' that are exemplified here. 

Rebekah's plan to capture the blessing for Jacob was no better than Sarah's stratagem in giving Hagar to Abraham. Both women should simply have trusted God to do the seeming impossible: it was God's plan for the older (Esau) to serve (i.e., be secondary in the order of inheritance to) the younger. God could have brought this about without all this chicanery. Isaac's selfish blessing in return for a meal was repaid by the humiliation of being tricked and thinking he was eating venison, when he was actually eating crow! His pseudo-blessing was worthless to both boys. Rebekah and Jacob all needed to learn better, but—alas—most likely they did not. For all her efforts Rebekah only earned the everlasting hatred of her older son, and forced isolation from her favorite for the many years that he fled from Esau and lived in Mesopotamia with Laban. As for Jacob himself, from Laban he acquired two wives, Leah and Rachel, who would bicker and fight constantly [see note 39]. And Jacob would learn the hard way the painful effects of deception. Laban would trick him with the wrong daughter in his bed on the wedding night (29:25; 31:19-42), while he too was blinded by darkness. And his two wives would use him like a chess piece in a bitter rivalry for his sexual affections, actually buying and selling nights with him in bed using for payment items of food (mandrake plants) that their children provided (30:13-17)! Poetic justice. What goes around, comes around. God was accomplishing his promises without help from the competition of brother against brother and husband against wife. 


Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”  42 But the words of her elder son Esau were told to Rebekah; so she sent and called her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you.  43 Now therefore, my son, obey my voice; flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran,  44 and stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury turns away—  45 until your brother’s anger against you turns away, and he forgets what you have done to him; then I will send, and bring you back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?”  46 Then Rebekah said to Isaac, “I am weary of my life because of the Hethite women. If Jacob marries one of the Hethite women such as these, one of the women of the land, what good will my life be to me?”

When you poke at a rattlesnake you have to be ready to run. Esau had been provoked once before when Jacob "bought" his birthright with a plate of lentil stew. But now for the second time he had cheated him out of the blessing of his father. This was enough to spawn a murderous plan by Esau which he would delay until after his aged father had died. What good would a birthright and a blessing be to a dead Jacob? Rebekah naively thinks that "a little while" (יָמִ֣ים v 44) will be all that Jacob will need to stay in distant Harran with her brother Laban. To her credit, when she asks the boys "Why should I be bereaved of you both on the same day?" she seems to realize that by Esau killing Jacob, he would be executed as a murderer, leaving her without any son at all. After losing the blessing to Jacob, Esau took wives from the local population (26:34-35)—the Hethites were a subdivision of the Canaanites—which made Rebekah fear that Jacob might do the same. So she sent him to her homeland, just as Abraham had sent his servant to get Rebekah for Isaac. 

We have been confronted by a very dark picture of a family that God had chosen to be the channel of his blessing and salvation to the nations of the earth It cannot help but be somewhat depressing. But are there lessons for us to take away from this reading that are positive and helpful?


Promises are promises: they only require action on the recipient's part, if the one who promises indicates a need for cooperation. 
Being clever is not the same thing as being godly.
If you hurt or humiliate another person, expect that God may give you a taste of your own medicine. 
Expect God to surprise you in the way He fulfills his promises.

What hardships God send to you to test or to discipline you are meant to lead you to repentance and to bless you in the end. 

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Isaac at Gerar, Gen. 26

The Famine and God's Instructions, 26:1-5

Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar, to King Abimelech of the Philistines.  2 The LORD appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; settle in the land that I shall show you.  3 Reside in this land as an alien, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will fulfill the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.  4 I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and will give to your offspring all these lands; and all the nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves through your offspring,  5 because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” 

When God promises you a good land, it is disappointing if, before you even get it, you find it undependable. Famines occurred periodically during Abraham's and Isaac's lifetimes because of irregular rainfall, causing drought. Is this the land that Moses would later be told was a "land flowing with milk and honey"?

Egypt was a dependable refuge, whose water supply was the dependable Nile flooding. But although God permitted Abraham to go there during a famine (12:10-20), and much later Jacob's sons will go there to buy grain during a famine (42:1-5), here he expressly forbids Isaac from going there.

It has been observed that of the three patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) only Isaac is never allowed to leave the land. We saw in ch. 24 that this was one reason why the search for his bride Rebekah had to be carried out by a servant. 

Semi-nomadic types like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob could move about with relative ease, because they kept all their assets in movable form. They acquired no real estate, and their livestock did not consist of pigs or chickens, but sheep, goats and cattle. They could seek out the better areas for grazing in a relatively dry land suffering from drought. Here God promises Isaac that he will guide him to those parts of the land where he and his livestock can survive the drought. He is to remain in the land as a non-resident sojourner (גּוּר בָּאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את), a gēr (Greek πάροικος [WikiLXX lnk] [TDNT5weblnk])
Although the situation was different at this earlier date, the promise God gave through Moses to Joshua as he was about to lead Israel into Canaan to conquer it still applies: "Wherever your foot shall tread, that I will give to you" (Deut 11:24; 14:9; Josh 1:3). When Isaac moved about at God's guidance, each place he visited he could say to himself, "God has promised to give my descendants this spot." And since at each location God showed him how to survive against the odds of drought, famine, and occasionally hostile kings, it must have been a very good faith-building experience. 

God repeats to Isaac his promise to Abraham (15:5, see p.  ? ) that he will make his descendants extremely numerous and a means of God bringing blessing on all the nations. Ironically, we are about to see how Isaac was almost the very opposite of blessing on the nation of the Philistines and their king Abimelech, and through no fault of theirs, but of Isaac's. Verse 5 gives a clue why this is: because like the Abraham, when he did not obey God's commandment to be truthful, Isaac repeated his father's failure instead of following the example of his father's faith.  

A.2. Isaac' Faith Fails through False Fear, 26:6-11

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 was afraid to say, “My wife,” thinking, “or else the men of the place might kill me for the sake of Rebekah, because she is attractive in appearance.”  8 When Isaac had been there a long time, King Abimelech of the Philistines looked out of a window and saw him fondling his wife Rebekah.  9 So Abimelech called for Isaac, and said, “So she is your wife! Why then did you say, ‘She is my sister’?” Isaac said to him, “Because I thought I might 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 be put to death.”

Isaac's faith failed because he did not rely on God to keep him and Rebekah safe. Ironically, he also underestimated the morality of the Philistines among whom he was living temporarily. He thought there was no "fear of God" among them, meaning no morality. Pagan peoples feared their gods, but generally made little or no connection between "religion" (meaning sacrifice and prayer) and "ethics" meaning honest and upright conduct. But there were some exceptions: pagan societies did have laws against theft, adultery, murder and personal injury. Isaac either didn't know this, or ignored it in his irrational fears for his own safety. It never entered his mind that by misleading the local people he made it much easier for them to unknowingly commit adultery with Rebekah, thinking she was single and available for marriage to them (26:10). 

It is no secret to us today either that individuals who have no faith in God can still be decent, honest and generous people. This is part of God's common grace to humanity. They are still sinners, since everyone sins, but they do not necessarily need to be feared and suspected of all sorts of vile and life-threatening acts. 

It was only through God's grace that Rebekah was untouched before Isaac's lie was discovered by the king, who saw him fondling her as only a husband would to a wife, not a brother to a sister. We might wonder why Isaac would do this in public, where he could be seen doing it, but that is what the scripture says. Maybe they were just being lovingly playful, not actually caressing in a sexual way. But something didn't look right for a brother-sister relationship to exist. Clearly, Isaac was not the consummate deceiver that Rebekah was, but it ran in Rebekah's family, because Laban deceived Jacob on his wedding night (29:25), and Rachel deceived her father by hiding the stolen household gods under her camel's saddle (31:29-35).

A.3. Isaac and his servants struggle to control their wells, 26:12–16

Isaac sowed seed in that land, and in the same year reaped a hundredfold. The LORD blessed him,  13 and the man became rich; he prospered more and more until he became very wealthy.  14 He had possessions of flocks and herds, and a great household, so that the Philistines envied him.  15 (Now the Philistines had stopped up and filled with earth all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham.)  16 And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us; you have become too powerful for us.”

This section illustrates how God prospered Isaac in agriculture. He was living in the southwestern lowlands of what later became the land of Israel. [For maps showing Gerar, see weblnk.] Unlike the high country to the east, this area was good land for crops, but even so, the remarkable size of Isaac's harvests amazed the men of Gerar and made them envious. What is surprising here is that we are not told that the patriarchs owned real estate, except for the one case of Abraham's purchase of land to bury Sarah (Gen 23:3-20). They were supposedly semi-nomadic, raising livestock and moving about. Later, Jacob also purchased (or leased) land on the outskirts of Shechem on which to pitch his tents and set up his livestock enterprise (33:19).  Isaac's activity here as a farmer suggests that he actually owned or at least leased land on which to grow crops. Sarna has an explanation:

“The patriarch's venture into agriculture should not be viewed as a stage of transition from the nomadic to the sedentary mode of life. The pastoral nomads of Mari and elsewhere similarly engaged in small-scale agriculture from time to time. This practice is well documented. In the case of Isaac, there is no evidence that his sedentary experience was other than exceptional; it was probably occasioned by the famine and encouraged by the favorable agricultural conditions in the low-lying plains of the region of Gerar, which is situated between the settled country and the grazing land of the nomads. The nature of the crop is not specified. Most likely it was wheat, which was a winter cereal widely cultivated in the land. It would be planted in October-November and harvested in May-June” (Sarna, JPS Genesis on 26:12). 

On the wells of Isaac, Sarna writes:

The digging of wells or cisterns, usually in the dry beds of rivers, streams, and brooks, was essential to the pastoralist's survival. Because the winter floods would silt them up and obliterate them, the wells were frequently lined with stone, or the cisterns were actually hewn out of rock. They would have to be cleaned out after the floods subsided. The Philistines spitefully and deliberately refilled them with dirt.


So Isaac departed from there and camped in the valley of Gerar and settled there.  18 Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham; for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham; and he gave them the names that his father had given them.  19 But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water,  20 the herders of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herders, saying, “The water is ours.” So he called the well Esek, because they contended with him.  21 Then they dug another well, and they quarreled over that one also; so he called it Sitnah.  22 He moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, “Now the LORD has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.”

After moving away from Gerar, Isaac reclaims some of his father's wells.  Abraham's sojourn could not have been accomplished without the digging and maintenance of several wells. In order to establish clear proprietary rights, each well would be given an identifying name. Since Abraham's death the Philistines had blocked them up. Isaac now restores them and revives their original names so as to make his ownership incontestable. In the course of this work his men unexpectedly uncover an old well fed by a subterranean spring. A well of this type was especially valuable; when originally excavated, it would have been lined with stone. Since a memory of its existence has not been· preserved, it is ownerless and ought to belong to the finder. Nevertheless, the shepherds of Gerar lay claim to it. Significantly, they do not assert this on behalf of the king, which shows that the well was situated in a region beyond the limits of royal domain.


From there he went up to Beer-sheba.  24 And that very night the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham; do not be afraid, for I am with you and will bless you and make your offspring numerous for my servant Abraham’s sake.”  25 So he built an altar there, called on the name of the LORD, and pitched his tent there. And there Isaac’s servants dug a well.

Pestered by the local inhabitants and living in the land during a prolonged famine, Isaac had much to fear. But God wished to calm those fears. So he appeared to Isaac and reassured him that the blessings promised to his father Abraham and much more awaited him. The words "Do not be afraid" may have prompted Isaac to give to God another name: "the Fear of Isaac".


Then Abimelech went to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his adviser and Phicol the commander of his army.  27 Isaac said to them, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?”  28 They said, “We see plainly that the LORD has been with you; so we say, let there be an oath between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you 29 so 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.”  30 So he made them a feast, and they ate and drank.  31 In the morning they rose early and exchanged oaths; and Isaac set them on their way, and they departed from him in peace.  32 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!”  33 He called it Shibah; therefore the name of the city is Beer-sheba to this day.

Abimelech's treaty with Isaac has the same reticent note as that of Laban with Jacob (31:44-55). Both parties recognize the hand of Yahweh in blessing the patriarch, and wish to protect themselves from his growing power. This is an adumbration of the way in which the promise to Abraham that his seed would bless the nations will find fulfillment. 


When Esau was forty years old, he married Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite;  35 and they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah.

These verses set the stage for the next episode, for Esau's intermarriage with the local pagan women further antagonizes Rebekah and leads to her scheme to steal the blessing Isaac intends for Esau for her own favorite son, Jacob. These two women are from the Hethite ethnic group, a local subdivision of the Canaanites, descended from Heth the son of Canaan (Gen 10).