During a famine in the land of Canaan, Isaac went to Abimelek (aka Abimelech), who was the king in Gerar where the Philistines lived. On his way, God stopped Isaac and instructed him to not go to Egypt (as his father Abraham had done during the last famine). God reminded Isaac that he should live in the land that God instructed him to live in. He told Isaac if the stayed in this land for a while, God would bless him.
God reminded Isaac that because Abraham did what God told him, obeyed his commands, and followed his instructions, he would one day give him these lands (confirming the oath God made to Abraham). God told Isaac that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and that all nations on earth would be blessed through Isaac’s offspring. As such, Isaac remained in Gerar.
When the men of Gerar asked Isaac about his wife, Rebekah, Isaac told them that she was his sister. Isaac was afraid that the men of Gerar would kill him to take Rebekah (Rebekah was a beautiful woman) if they knew she was his wife.
After Isaac had lived in Gerar for some time, King Abimelek looked down from a window and saw Isaac caressing Rebekah and thus, recognized that Rebekah was Isaac’s wife, and not his sister. Abimelek summoned Isaac and asked him why he had claimed that Rebekah was his sister. Isaac explained that he was afraid he may lose his life otherwise. Abimelek chastised Isaac telling him that his lie could have allowed other men to sleep with Rebekah which would have “brought guilt upon us”. Abimelek issued orders to the people: Anyone who harms Isaac or Rebekah shall be put to death.
What the story means to us today
Lies, even when used to avoid danger, can be harmful
Isaac’s plight was unusual and his “lie”, unlike Abraham’s lie which was truly a half-truth, was blatant and deceitful. As God reminds Isaac of the promise blessings, Isaac, like his father, lacks faith in God’s ability to protect him and his family. It is natural to seek to avoid danger but you must have faith that God will protect you – and remain honest even when afraid.
Additional thoughts and considerations
Famines in ancient Israel
This is the second famine recorded in Genesis (the first forced Abraham to flee to Egypt). The famine referenced here compelled Isaac to migrate into the land of the Philistines.
Similarities to the story of Abraham
This story is oddly similar to the story of Abram (aka Abraham) mentioned in Genesis 12:10. Isaac’s father, Abraham, had told the same lie (twice), that his wife Sarah was his sister. Isaac may have learned this lie from his father in which case, we are provided an example of children repeating the sins of their father.
Literal representations of events
Whether God physically stopped Isaac and verbally spoke to him or communicated to Isaac through that “voice in your head” is unknown. The Bible tends to express its stories using literal representations of the events so it’s difficult to know exactly how God communicated to Isaac. Regardless, Isaac listened and as a result, not only became prosperous, but secured a place in history as one of the three patriarchs of the Israelites.
All nations blessed through Isaac’s offspring
God told Issac that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars and that all nations on earth would be blessed by “Isaac’s offspring”. It is worthy to note that Jesus was a descendant of Isaac and this statement may be a reference to him.
The Science behind the story
The name Abimelech
Abimelek or Abimelech is a common name in Semitic literature. It means “my father is king” and may be a title (similar to “Pharaoh” in Egypt) rather than a personal name.
Gerar was located on the southern border of Canaan (near Gaza) in the foothills of the Judaen Mountains. Both Abraham and Isaac lived there, digging wells, and had cordial relations with Abimelech, its king. This land would later be assigned to the tribe of Simeon. A few likely locations have been discovered by archaeologists –Tell Jemmeh, Tell Haror, and Tell Abu Hureira have all been suggested as possible Gerar locations.
Philistines in Canaan?
This story specifically calls Abimelech “king of the Philistines” which is unusual. Nowhere in Genesis are Philistines mentioned as inhabitants of Canaan and to date, archaeological evidence from their cities does not show that they lived in the area until around 1,200 BC – several centuries after the patriarchs. Why Abimelech is mentioned in this capacity (or why he was in Gerar at the time) is unclear but may be an instance where the sciences (i.e. archeology) have yet to catch up with the Bible.
Notes on Biblical translation
Stay in this land and I will “bless you”
Of the two words rendered as “blessed”, this one indicates an inward feeling of happiness in a very lofty sense, akin to the spiritual well-being that gods would enjoy.
26 Now there was a famine in the land—besides the previous famine in Abraham’s time—and Isaac went to Abimelek king of the Philistines in Gerar. 2 The LORD appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live. 3 Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. 4 I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, g 5 because Abraham obeyed me and did everything I required of him, keeping my commands, my decrees and my instructions.” 6 So Isaac stayed in Gerar.
7 When the men of that place asked him about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” because he was afraid to say, “She is my wife.” He thought, “The men of this place might kill me on account of Rebekah, because she is beautiful.”
8 When Isaac had been there a long time, Abimelek king of the Philistines looked down from a window and saw Isaac caressing his wife Rebekah. 9 So Abimelek summoned Isaac and said, “She is really your wife! Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’?”
Isaac answered him, “Because I thought I might lose my life on account of her.”
10 Then Abimelek said, “What is this you have done to us? One of the men might well have slept with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.”
11 So Abimelek gave orders to all the people: “Anyone who harms this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.”
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
There was a famine in the land, as bad as the famine during the time of Abraham. And Isaac went down to Abimelech, king of the Philistines, in Gerar.
2 GOD appeared to him and said, “Don’t go down to Egypt; stay where I tell you. 3 Stay here in this land and I’ll be with you and bless you. I’m giving you and your children all these lands, fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father Abraham. 4 I’ll make your descendants as many as the stars in the sky and give them all these lands. All the nations of the Earth will get a blessing for themselves through your descendants. 5 And why? Because Abraham obeyed my summons and kept my charge—my commands, my guidelines, my teachings.”
6 So Isaac stayed put in Gerar.
7 The men of the place questioned him about his wife. He said, “She’s my sister.” He was afraid to say “She’s my wife.” He was thinking, “These men might kill me to get Rebekah, she’s so beautiful.”
8 One day, after they had been there quite a long time, Abimelech, king of the Philistines, looked out his window and saw Isaac fondling his wife Rebekah. 9 Abimelech sent for Isaac and said, “So, she’s your wife. Why did you tell us ‘She’s my sister’?”
Isaac said, “Because I thought I might get killed by someone who wanted her.”
10 Abimelech said, “But think of what you might have done to us! Given a little more time, one of the men might have slept with your wife; you would have been responsible for bringing guilt down on us.”
11 Then Abimelech gave orders to his people: “Anyone who so much as lays a hand on this man or his wife dies.”
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
The NET Bible
26:1 There was a famine in the land, subsequent to the earlier famine that occurred in the days of Abraham. Isaac went to Abimelech king of the Philistines at Gerar. 26:2 The LORD appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; settle down in the land that I will point out to you. 26:3 Stay in this land. Then I will be with you and will bless you, for I will give all these lands to you and to your descendants, and I will fulfill the solemn promise I made to your father Abraham. 26:4 I will multiply your descendants so they will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, and I will give them all these lands. All the nations of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using the name of your descendants. 26:5 All this will come to pass because Abraham obeyed me and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” 26:6 So Isaac settled in Gerar.
26:7 When the men of that place asked him about his wife, he replied, “She is my sister.” He was afraid to say, “She is my wife,” for he thought to himself, “The men of this place will kill me to get Rebekah because she is very beautiful.”
26:8 After Isaac had been there a long time, Abimelech king of the Philistines happened to look out a window and observed Isaac caressing his wife Rebekah. 26:9 So Abimelech summoned Isaac and said, “She is really your wife! Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’?” Isaac replied, “Because I thought someone might kill me to get her.”
26:10 Then Abimelech exclaimed, “What in the world have you done to us? One of the men might easily have had sexual relations with your wife, and you would have brought guilt on us!” 26:11 So Abimelech commanded all the people, “Whoever touches this man or his wife will surely be put to death.”
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
King James Version
26 And there was a famine in the land, beside the first famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went unto Abimelech king of the Philistines unto Gerar. 2 And the LORD appeared unto him, and said, Go not down into Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell thee of: 3 Sojourn in this land, and I will be with thee, and will bless thee; for unto thee, and unto thy seed, I will give all these countries, and I will perform the oath which I sware unto Abraham thy father; 4 And I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; 5 Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws. 6 And Isaac dwelt in Gerar: 7 And the men of the place asked him of his wife; and he said, She is my sister: for he feared to say, She is my wife; lest, said he, the men of the place should kill me for Rebekah; because she was fair to look upon. 8 And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out at a window, and saw, and, behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife. 9 And Abimelech called Isaac, and said, Behold, of a surety she is thy wife: and how saidst thou, She is my sister? And Isaac said unto him, Because I said, Lest I die for her. 10 And Abimelech said, What is this thou hast done unto us? one of the people might lightly have lien with thy wife, and thou shouldest have brought guiltiness upon us. 11 And Abimelech charged all his people, saying, He that toucheth this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.