In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Right off the bat, there are obvious similarities with Abraham’s story. Isaac’s encounter with Abimelek repeats the exact same sin that his father was guilty of with both Pharaoh and Abimelek (poor Abimelek). However, that’s not the only similarity with Abraham’s journey. Firstly, we can notice that our passage today can probably be divided into three sub-stories. These stories are marked by three separate locations where Isaac settled.
- 1-11 – Gerar
- Isaac and Abimelek (repeats Abraham’s stories)
- 12-22 – the Valley of Gerar
- Isaac is prosperous; digs wells; conflict with herders of Gerar
- 23-33 – Beersheba
- Isaac in Beersheba; treaty with Abimelek
So let’s’ take a closer look (albeit briefly) at these stories. I don’t want to spend all of our time considering the similarities and the structures so I’ll just point out a few things.
- The story begins with a mention of a famine in the land (and makes the point that it’s a different famine than in Abraham’s time.
- We then get a warning from God to Isaac not to go to Egypt (like his father Abraham did). God tells Isaac that his obedience will confirm the covenant that God made to Abraham and of which Isaac is a part.
- Isaac obeys and stays in the land God told him to.
- Nevertheless, Isaac commits the same mistake as his father (Rebekah = Sarah).
- Following Isaac’s departure from Abimelek, we find that he has grown extremely wealthy and powerful. His prosperity leads to conflict between Isaac and the Philistines in the area.
- Respecting Abimelek’s wishes, Isaac moves away from the area.
- This leads to a succession of quarrels over wells.
- Begins with another confirmation of covenant from God.
- Erection of an altar (worship) and another well.
- Abimelek again meets with Isaac, this time to make a treaty. This echoes the treaty Abraham makes with Abimelek in chap. 21.
- The encounter between Abraham and Abimelek is marked by a conflict regarding a well. It’s the same place, Beersheba, where Isaac’s servants report digging a well, closing this section and giving us a final connection between the stories of Isaac and Abraham.
Now there’s a number of other structural and thematic elements that connect this story of Isaac with the story of Abraham but we won’t go into all of them. I encourage you to read the story for yourself and then read it again in the context of the overall Jacob (descendants of Isaac) story. Right now, however, I want to call your attention to a couple of internal patterns which are interesting. Let’s focus our attention on a couple of things.
Firstly, the account makes the point that, in spite of the fact that Isaac is clearly the heir to the Abrahamic covenant, he is also as flawed (i.e. sinful) as his father was. The encounter with Abimelek (the first story) makes this abundantly clear in that he made the exact same mistake (sin) that his father did. Further, we see in subsequent passages that Isaac is not a paragon of faith and righteousness that we would hope for in the child of Abraham. Specifically, what we may be seeing in this tri-fold account of Isaac’s life is the juxtaposition of faith and covenant with (what we will further see in the next chapter) Isaac’s human failings and sensuality.
Secondly, the account also makes the point that in spite of his flaws Isaac is both the physical and spiritual successor to Abraham of God’s covenant. This may be demonstrated by the fact that both the first and third stories begin with a re-affirmation of the covenant of God to the descendants of Abraham – in this case, to Isaac specifically. Furthermore, unlike Abraham who ran from the famine due to fear, Isaac stays in the land that God has given. Also, whereas Abraham’s actions in claiming his wife was his sister lead to his gaining wealth from the hands of the deceived, we see Isaac gaining his wealth by working the land (implicitly indicating that his wealth is from God as opposed to man).
Now I hope that you’ll see in these patterns, once again, one of the overarching themes in the story of Israel, that is, the theme of God’s grace. Specifically, God works in the midst of, in spite of, and even through broken and sinful people.
Another theme that we’re beginning to see, however, is perhaps best summed up in verse, Exodus 20:5-6 (from the second of the Ten Commandments):
…for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
This, and other verses throughout scriptures, seem to be saying that children in some way share in the sins (or blessings) of our parents. It’s probably passages like this that led Jesus’ disciples to ask him, in regard to the blind man, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). It’s often hard for our generations and society to understand this way of thinking. We live in a very individualistic culture and the notion of generational sin or generational blessing seems contrary to our society’s values – we succeed or fail on our own merits.
However, regardless of where you fall on the nature vs. nurture continuum, it’s hard to ignore the fact that we inherit (whether genetically, socially, or otherwise) both the sins and the blessings of our parents. Children often remark, as they get older, how similar they become to their parents. We often inherit the habits, inclinations, preferences, and prejudices of our parents.
I believe that Abraham probably did what he could do. Abraham was not perfect – we see that told in stark detail in scriptures. Though he was called by God, he frequently stumbled and sometimes walked in entirely the wrong direction altogether. And we see the same failings in his son, Isaac. But we also see the same grace. Abraham, because of his sinful nature, passed on (in whatever sense) sin to his son. But he also passed on the blessing. By living out his faith, his relationship with his covenant-God, in the presence of his son Isaac, he tells, through the living, the story to Isaac. And in some sense the story itself, God’s redeeming work in history, invites Isaac to be a part of it.
What’s funny about all of this is that, while God clearly works in the life of Isaac and through the life of Isaac, Isaac kind of makes a mess of things. If we see Isaac living out the sins of his father Abraham, we will also see Jacob and Esau living out the sins of their parents. Remember last week when we noted how scripture says Isaac loved Esau but Rebekah loved Jacob? Well that same conflict will shape Jacob’s story. Nevertheless, in spite of Isaac’s sin, the story continues. And the reason for that is that the story is not ultimately Isaac’s story. It’s not Jacob’s story and it’s not Abraham’s story. All of it is God’s story. It’s the story of God redeeming creation. It’s not the story of you or I becoming right, it’s the story of God making things right.
So What Now…?
Last week I reminded us all to be encouraged because our stories are not finished yet. Because we are still in the middle of our stories and God is still working. Today, I want to remind you to be encouraged because our stories are much bigger than we think. It’s easy to get discouraged when you consider your failings or your struggles or the simple fact that you’re not where you think you’re supposed to be. And maybe you never will be. But that’s not the end of the story because the story is not just about you. The story is God’s story that encompasses Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. It includes Moses and David and Peter and Paul. And we are still living in the blessings promised to all of those who went before us. The promises of God to Abraham and Isaac are the promises of God to us. The promises that are fulfilled in Jesus who is part of our story and at the same time the author of our story.