Genesis 26: The Apple Falls Close to the Tree

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In this chapter, Isaac basically just wanders around copying a bunch of stuff his dad did.

He starts off by going into Gerar (because of a famine – which we’re told is a different famine from the one that sent Abraham into Egypt), the land of Abimelech. He does this because God tells him not to go into Egypt (see? Different!).

God then goes into yet another speech about how blessed Abraham’s family is, and how they will have so many lands, multitudes of descendants, and the blessing of nations. Yadda yadda. God, apparently, can’t get enough of telling people this (even though he never did end up giving them that land).

Back to the story, Isaac gets to Gerar and starts telling people that Rebekah is his sister. This is, of course, the same lie Abraham told to both the Pharaoh of Egypt and, more coincidentally, to Abimelech of Gerar. This family apparently has a thing for lying to people and pretending to be siblings with their spouses. It’s kinda weird.

But Abimelech (my favourite biblical character so far) doesn’t fall for it a second time. This time, he catches Isaac fondling Rebekah and puts two and two together.

He says to Isaac: “Behold, she is your wife; how then could you say, ‘She is my sister’?” (Gen. 26:9). When Isaac gives the standard excuse of being afraid because she’s so beautiful and the Philistines are such beasts that he couldn’t trust them not to kill him for her, Abimelech continues: “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” (Gen. 26:10).

This is why Abimelech is my favourite character – he tells it like it is. It’s too bad he’s suffering from amnesia. Then again, he’s probably rather old at this point.

In any case, he tells his people that anyone who touches Isaac or Rebekah will be put to death. Once again, he proves that he’s an upstanding guy and that Abraham and Isaac’s fears were completely misplaced and irrational.

Isaac gets rich

Abimelech spies on Isaac by Raphael, 1518-1519

Abimelech spies on Isaac by Raphael, 1518-1519

Continuing on with the accounting sub-theme of this book, we’re told that Isaac sowed the land and became very rich (even though he was the sole inheritor of his father, who was also very rich). Like his daddy, he has tons of possessions. In fact, he has so many possessions that the Philistines envy him and, I guess because of their envy, filled up all the wells Abraham had dug.

Abimelech tells Isaac to leave, “for you are much mightier than we” (Gen. 26:16).

I think it’s important to keep in mind, at this point, that Isaac is the stand-in for the Israelites and that this is a book written by Israelites. It makes me think of that weird kid in every High School who keeps writing in his journal that the reason no one likes him is that he’s just so awesome and cool that they’re all jealous.

So yeah, after both Abraham and Isaac lie to Abimelech, the former causing Abimelech’s household to be cursed and the latter nearly so, I’m totally sure that the reason Abimelech tells Isaac to scram is because he’s just so mighty.

Isaac starts re-digging all the wells his dad dug, but the locals keep telling him that they own that water and send him packing. He finally finds an uncontested well, but moves on anyway. At some point, God comes to him and reminds him, again, that he’s blessed and will have many descendants, so Isaac builds an altar.

Another covenant with Abimelech

Mirroring Chapter 21, Isaac gets a visit from Abimelech and his commander, Phicol. This time, he’s also brought Ahuzzath, his adviser. They ask Isaac to form a covenant not to harm them (and, just like when he formed a covenant with Abraham, he reminds Isaac that he hasn’t harmed him).

They swear the oath to each other and, that same day, Isaac finishes digging a well. Since the well was finished on the same day as the pact was made, he calls it Beersheba (even though it was already named Beersheba under the same circumstances by Abraham).

Esau’s genealogy

At 40 years old, Esau marries Judith, the daughter of Beeri the Hittite. He also marries Bashemath, the daughter of Elon the Hittite.

Bit of a weird ending to this chapter. We’re told that this (Esau’s marriages) make life “bitter” for Isaac and Rebekah (Gen. 26:35). We aren’t told why, but I hope we find out!

Genesis 21: Sarah Goes Bonkers on Hagar…Again

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As promised, God visits Sarah and she has a son they name Isaac. The author(s) of this chapter go to great pains to emphasise just how old Abraham and Sarah are and haha, isn’t it hilarious?

“God has made laughter for me; every one who hears will laugh over me” (Gen. 21:6).

We’re also told that Abraham circumcises Isaac, because the Bible’s idea of character development is letting us know the status of the various characters’ penises.

So little circumcised Isaac is hanging out one day, playing with little circumcised Ishmael, when Sarah catches the two of them. She goes to Abraham and demands that he cast out Hagar and Ishmael because she doesn’t want Isaac’s inheritance split with other sons. Just a reminder, Abraham abandoned his nephew because of possessions, and his wife is now asking that he dump his own son for the same reason. Are these the Biblical Family Values the religious right keeps touting?

Abraham, having at least a little humanity, isn’t sure about this. We’re told that it was “very displeasing” to him “on account of his son” (Gen. 21:11). But God comes down and tells him to chill, because it’s through Isaac that “your descendants be named” (Gen. 21:12). And since he likes Abraham so darn much, he’ll make Ishmael a nation too – “because he is your offspring” (Gen. 21:13) and Abraham totally gets God off-sprung.

So Abraham gets some bread and water for Hagar and sends her on her way.

Into the wilderness

Hagar in the desert by Pompeo Batoni

Hagar in the desert by Pompeo Batoni

After having been raped (come on, let’s be honest and call it what it was – Sarah “gave” her to Abraham and she’s a slave. At best, it was coercive) by her master and having a son as a result, poor Hagar is then cast out into the wilderness because Sarah isn’t happy with the fact that Hagar had the son Sarah wanted her to have. What the eff? No wonder the Victorians produced special, heavily edited Bibles for women and children to read…

So Hagar is wondering in the wilderness and she runs out of water. She puts her child under a bush and walks away, saying: “Let me not look upon the death of the child” (Gen. 21:16). This is actually a really poignant scene, and I think it serves to clearly illustrate Sarah’s cruelty. We can forgive Abraham in this one because God did tell him that Ishmael would become a nation, which implies that he gets to grow out of diapers. But Sarah had no such message – she just wanted Hagar and Ishmael gone and, for all she knew, she’d condemned them to death.

Ishmael starts to cry, and the angel of God calls to Hagar, assuring her that he’s heard Ishmael’s cries. He tells her to go back to him and pick him up, “for I will make him a great nation” (Gen. 21:18). Then God opens her eyes (she couldn’t do this herself, apparently) and she sees a well of water.

Ishmael grows up in the wilderness, and he “became and expert with the bow” (Gen. 21:21). At some point, Hagar procures for him an Egyptian for a wife.

How old is Ishmael?

We’re told in Chapter 16 that Abraham was “eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ish’mael” (Gen. 16:16), and in this chapter, we hear that Abraham “was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him” (Gen. 21:5). With a little counting on my fingers, I quickly worked out that Ishmael is at least around 14 (if not older, since he’s playing with Isaac in v.9 and newborns don’t really play).

So imagine my confusion when I read the following:

  • Abraham puts the bread and skin of water on Hagar’s shoulder, “along with the child” (Gen. 21:14);
  • When the water runs out, Hagar “cast the child under one of the bushes” (Gen. 21:15), and then Ishmael “lifted up his voice and wept” (Gen. 21:16);
  • God hears Ishmael’s cries and tells Hagar to “arise, life up the lad, and hold him fast with your hand” (Gen. 21:18).

Now, there’s only one explanation for why a fourteen-year-old would be treated this way that I can think of, and that’s that he has a severe handicap that prevents him from walking and that’s why Hagar must carry him. The poor boy clearly suffers from some form of mental disability as well, since I don’t know many 14-year-olds who would just sit under a bush and cry without first trying to express themselves through some other means. Too bad wheelchairs hadn’t been invented yet. I can’t imagine that Hagar is having much fun carrying a 14-year-old everywhere.

A more likely explanation is that we have yet another contradiction in the inspired word of God.

Final note on the casting out of Hagar

In A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Collins explains that “the story seems to champion ethnocentrism by suggesting that those who do not belong to the chosen people can be sent away” (p.49). He adds that “we shall meet a chilling application of the same principe much later in the book of Ezra,” so we have something to look forward to.

I didn’t quite make the connection on my own, but I can certainly see Collins’ point. Nowhere are Sarah and Abraham condemned for throwing out Hagar. It all works out okay because God has plans for Ishmael, but it could just as easily resulted in the deaths of the woman and her child. God never says “it’s okay to throw Hagar out because I’ll take care of her, but make sure you don’t cast out any other slaves you decide to diddle with.”

Hagar and Ishmael are saved because God has plans for them (and because he lurvs Abraham), but the implication is that they would otherwise have been perfectly expendable. So far, I’m not seeing much evidence that God values humans (or human life) for their own sake. Rather, it seems that those who serve his purposes don’t have much to worry about, but anyone else might as well just die in a flood.

A covenant with Abimelech

Completely unconcerned over the fate of his son and the mother of his child, Abraham meets with Abimelech (and Phicol, the commander of Abimelech’s army). Why Abimelech would want anything at all to do with Abraham after his last experience is beyond me, but there you have it.

In any case, Abimelech says to Abraham: “God is with you in all that you do; now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my offspring or with my posterity, but as I have dealth loyally with you, you will deal with me and with the land where you have sojourned” (Gen. 21:22-23). Oooh, that’s quite a burn! I love how Abimelech (possibly my favourite character so far) goes out of his way to point out that he’s always dealt “loyally” with Abraham.

Well, Abraham swears to this, and then complains that Abimelech’s servants have seized a well of water. Abimelech assures Abraham that he didn’t know about this, so they cool.

I’d just like to point out quickly here that Abraham doesn’t own the land he’s on, and therefore has no real claim to any well of water. He’s staying on Abimelech’s land (as we saw in Genesis 20:15). So if anything, Abimelech’s servants were just making use of their own well. Abraham doesn’t seem to care much.

But he does give sheep and oxen to Abimelech, so that’s nice of him. In exchange, Abimelech has to agree to witness for Abraham (to whom?) that he dug the well. I don’t know if it’s the same well or a second well, though. Abimelech agrees. They call the well Beersheba and then Abimelech and Phicol head home. Abraham gets his horticulture on and plants a tamarisk tree.

There are two mentions of “the land of the Philistines” (v.32, 34) in this chapter. However, according to Matthews, “the appearance of the Philistines in Canaan is traced to a period some eight hundred years after Abraham’s time” (Manners & Customs, p.24) which, was after 1200 BCE. This anachronism tells us that either this story takes place much later than claimed (and the storyteller is inserting details from her/his own world), or that it was edited much later.