1 Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech king of the Philistines.2 And the Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. 3 Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. 4 I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, 5 because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” 6 So Isaac settled in Gerar.
It is surely one of the great ironies of the book of Genesis that the child promised to Abraham and Sarah—that waited for, prayed for, agonized over, promised child—would ultimately, upon his arrival, never really play the leading man in any major biblical scene. He is present in critical scenes (i.e., Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice him in Genesis 22), but he is never really given many action or speaking roles. In fact, Genesis 26 is the only real exception (except for when he intercedes for Rebekah in one verse of Genesis 25). Old Testament scholar Robert Alter points out that “this chapter is the only one in which Isaac figures as an active protagonist. Before, he was a bound victim; after, he will be seen as a bamboozled blind old man.”
It is a curious thing. Even so, what we see in Isaac’s screen time in Genesis 26 is something to behold. Simply put, we see what we saw in Abraham: a man of big faith and big follies. It will be seen that Isaac’s role in 26 is quite important, however, for in our chapter we see God communicating the covenant promises to Isaac and we see in Isaac a model both of what to do and what not to do as an heir of the divine promise! The first six verses of Genesis 26 contain a positive and vitally important lesson.
It is better to reside in the scary place with God than to flee to the “safe” place without Him.
Abraham has died and Isaac is now the patriarch of the family. When he moves to the forefront of the scene we find him having to grapple with a particularly pernicious and recurring problem in the world (ancient and modern), namely, famine. When famine comes (and Moses reminds us this is not the first to come!), Isaac decides to move his family to safety. However, God refuses to let Isaac’s desire for safety lead him away from the land of promise.
1 Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech king of the Philistines.2 And the Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. 3 Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you
Isaac goes to Gerar, home of Abimelech, king of the Philistines. He apparently intends to go from there to Egypt, for God says to him in verse 2, “Do not go down to Egypt…” “Following a coastal route,” Alter writes, “Isaac could well have used Gerar as a way station to Egypt, and Abraham’s pact with Abimelech (chapter 21) would have provided some assurance that the Gerarites would grant him safe transit.” But God tells him not to continue. Instead, God tells Isaac to “dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land,” that is, in Gerar.
Now this—staying in Gerar—was a less than pleasant idea. Egypt was, in Isaac’s mind, the land of salvation in the midst of famine just as it would be again for Joseph’s brothers in Genesis 42. So when God instructed Isaac to stay in Gerar he was telling Isaac to do something really frightening: to set aside his own plans for safety and trust that God would meet him in the scary place of faith. “Humanly speaking,” writes R. Kent Hughes, “to obey by staying in Gerar in time of famine was to court catastrophe.” Hughes then observed that “Isaac was called to reside as an alien, devoid of legal status and totally dependent on the goodwill of the pagan community.”
Why would God do this? For one thing, God did this because he did not want Isaac to flee the land of promise in a time of trouble. To stand in the covenant promises of God is to stay even when the frightening times come! And, as we will see, God will lead Isaac into a personal embrace of the covenant himself. For Isaac to flee would have been ruinous to Isaac taking his own place in the covenant first expressed to his father, Abraham.
But in a more general sense we might also say that God was leading Isaac to a place where he could understand that it is better to reside in the scary place with God than to flee to the “safe” place without Him. Indeed, this is a lesson we must all learn!
It is in the scary place that we hear God!
It is in the scary place that we learn to trust!
It is in the scary place that we understand the meaning of true faith.
Derek Kidner summarized the situation like this:
To refuse the immediate plenty of Egypt for mostly unseen (3a) and distant blessings (3b, 4) demanded the kind of faith praised in Hebrews 11:9, 10 and proved him a true son of his father…
Yes, it was in Gerar that Isaac’s faith would be able to grow for to stay in Gerar would mean trusting that God’s plan was better than his own. The great inducement for Isaac to stay is found in verse 3:
3 Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you
God says two things:
- I will be with you.
- I will bless you.
John Chrysostom, so many years ago, paraphrased the words of God to Isaac in our text like this:
You have the supplier of all good things, so entertain no concern. After all, I the Lord of all will be with you—and not only that, but “I will bless you.” That is to say, I will make you prosperous and provide you with blessing from myself.
Church–brothers and sisters—how often we miss what God is wanting to teach us and show us in the scary place because we spend all of our time there scheming to get out! If your days in Gerar are spent dreaming of Egypt you will miss what God wants to show you in Gerar. And, in verse 3, what God says He wants to show and teach Isaac is simply this: Himself. “I will be with you! I will bless you!”
These moments in life that are painful and difficult and frightening—these moments when you want to flee to the Egypt of your own safety as you understand it—these moments are the precise moments when God wants to grow us the most! Here in the midst of this corona virus, this world-wide pandemic, has it occurred to you that God may have you in your Gerar, that God may be trying to draw you closer into His own self than you have ever been? Could it be that every moment you spend panicking and anxious about escaping to Egypt, to safety, to security as you envision it, is a moment when you cannot hear the voice of God?
It is better to reside in the scary place with God than to flee to the “safe” place without Him.
The promises of God are as real for this generation as they were for the last and as they will be for the next.
There is something else at play here. Part of Isaac owning the covenant promises first given to his father and growing in his knowledge of God and his faith there in Gerar involved his coming to see that the promises of God were as real for him as they were for Abraham.
3 Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. 4 I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.
This is powerful and significant: God, after calling Isaac not to flee the land of promise, rearticulates the covenant promise. The upshot is clear: Isaac is to stay in the land because the promise of a name and a family and a home and a future and a blessing for the nations and a Savior was as much for Isaac as it was for Abraham! The promises of God are as real for this generation as they were for the last and as they will be for the next.
So what does God do? He repeats the covenant. As we will see, God fleshes the covenant out a bit more in one particular aspect, but the significant thing at this point is that God speaks the covenant to Isaac.
Imagine this: in Isaac’s great and almost only active moment front and center onscreen, God speaks the promises to him!
It is one thing to know the promises from your parents and another to see them as for yourself. It was not to Abraham’s faith that Isaac was being called in Gerar. It was to his own. God was calling Isaac to hear and understand that the call that was put upon Abraham was also put upon him, for he, Isaac, was part of that very same story.
And what were the components of the promise?
- That God would be with Isaac.
- That God would bless Isaac.
- That God would give Isaac and his offspring the land.
- That God would multiply Isaac’s offspring.
- That God would bless all the nations through Isaac’s offspring.
In other words, God passed the covenant promises on from one generation to the next and promised that it would continue on and on. Most significantly, Isaac too is given the promise of a coming Savior in God’s promise that the nations would be blessed, for it was in Jesus that the covenant would find its fulfillment, its culmination.
Christian, you must see yourself in the grand story of God’s salvation that has been unfolding since creation. The promise is for you! You must take your place in it.
We are brought into proximity to God through the faith of others but we truly come to know God when we follow Him ourselves.
Part of taking your place in the promise is having a sense of personal ownership and investment. The bottom line is this: we were not made to skate on our parents’ faith. We were made to have a vibrant and vital faith ourselves!
4 I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, 5 because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” 6 So Isaac settled in Gerar.
God does something interesting in his communication of the covenant to Isaac. John Walton has noted that there are “variations” in the “obedience clause” when one compares God’s communication of the covenant in Genesis 22:18 with His communication of it in Genesis 26:5. Read these carefully:
18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.
5 because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”
In Genesis 22 Abraham is said to have obeyed God’s “voice.” In Genesis 26 Abraham is said to have obeyed God’s voice, charge, commandments, statutes and laws! What is going on here? Why the extension of the section on obedience when God repeats the covenant to Isaac?
Walton points out that “the language here is much more specific than the simple reference to obedience in chapter 22” and that “[p]articularly curious is the use of terminology that is elsewhere in the Old Testament often associated with the law given at Sinai.” This includes:
- miswot – “commands” (“demands that incur obligation”)
- huqqot – “decrees” (“regulations”)
- toroth – “laws” (“instruction”, “the entire Mosaic legislations and…the Pentateuch”)
This is most fascinating. God uses more extensive and detailed terminology that will, in time, come to refer to the law that God will give to Moses. God does not extend the blessing section. God extends the obedience section. Again, why?
Think of it this way: in the passing down of the faith from generation to generation it usually is not the blessing aspect of faith that has to be safeguarded. Everybody wants a promised land. Everybody wants to go to heaven, we might say.
No, what is often lost in the transgenerational passing on of the faith is the obedience aspect of faith, the part of faith that costs, that demands following, that calls for trust and the giving of one’s life to God! It is one thing to want to go to the heaven that your parents talk about and it is another to actually want to follow God in your own life.
I believe that God amps up the obedience clause because it is precisely in the area of obedience that we are most likely to grow lax and think that we can simply live parasitically off of our parents’ and grandparents’ faith. But the truth is that while your parents and grandparents can bring you into the proximity to God, to really own the faith you need to walk in it and believe it yourself!
“The heaped-up terms” of the obedience section in our text, writes Derek Kidner, “suggest the complete servant, responsible and biddable.” This is what God is calling Isaac to: complete servanthood, ownership of the faith. Indeed, Ken Mathews argues that “by employing covenant terminology, the author depicts the complete obedience of Abraham as the ideal for Israel in the land…”
Yes, it is the ideal. It is, in fact, absolutely necessary.
Isaac needed to own the faith and the promises himself…and so do we!
I ask you: have you embraced the faith yourself, or are you attempting to live off the inertia of your parents’ faith?
Is Jesus your Lord or do you think it is enough that He was your grandmother’s Lord?
Have you decided to follow Jesus?
God underlines and highlights and increases the font on and all-caps the obedience clause because he needs Isaac to know that He is calling him, Isaac, to a life of following! You cannot have the blessing without the life that God blesses! You cannot have the Kingdom without the cross we are called to carry.
We may thank God that we are not saved by our efforts. We are saved by the completed and perfect work of Jesus on Calvary. But church, this truth must work itself down into the marrow of our very lives, our very existence.
Are you following? Have you claimed Christ yourself? Are you walking in the promises?
May it be so!
 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses. The Hebrew Bible. vol. 1 (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019), p.89, f.ch26.
 Robert Alter, p.89, f.2.
 R. Kent Hughes, Genesis. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), p.49-50.
 Derek Kidner, Genesis. Tyndale Old Testament Commentary. Vol.1 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), p.163.
 Mark Sheridan, ed., Genesis 12-50. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Old Testament II. Gen. ed. Thomas C. Oden. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), p.154.
 John H. Walton, Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), p.552-553.
 Derek Kidner, p.163.
 Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary. Old Testament, vol. 1B (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, Publishers, 2005), p.405.