6 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 feared to say, “My wife,” thinking, “lest the men of the place should kill me because of Rebekah,” because she was attractive in appearance. 8 When he had been there a long time, Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out of a window and saw Isaac laughing with Rebekah his wife. 9 So Abimelech called Isaac and said, “Behold, she is your wife. How then could you say, ‘She is my sister’?” Isaac said to him, “Because I thought, ‘Lest I 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 surely be put to death.”
William James’ book The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature which was originally presented as the Gifford Lectures on natural theology in 1901 and 1902, is one of the most significant and famous books presented on religion in American history. Even so, James himself was not a believer and had, to put it mildly, a very vague notion of God. His most explicit account of his religious views is in a letter written in 1904 to psychologist James Leuba:
My personal position is simple. I have no living sense of commerce with a God. I envy those who have, for I know that the addition of such a sense would help me greatly. The divine, for my active life, is limited to impersonal and abstract concepts which, as ideals, interest and determine me, but do so but faintly in comparison with what a feeling of God might effect, if I had one.
There is something so very tragic about this. That a keen mind like James’ should only conceive of God in terms of “impersonal and abstract concepts” that “determine” him only “faintly” is truly tragic, for if the scripture reveals anything about God it is that He certainly cannot be reduced to “impersonal and abstract concepts.” On the contrary, God is personal. God is relational.
In scripture this can be seen in God’s interaction with human beings: His giving of laws and commands, for instance, or, more to our point, His establishment of a covenant and a people. Ultimately, the coming of Jesus shatters James’ conception of God to smitherines for the coming of Jesus reveals God’s loving and close heart as well as His intent to save humanity. Jesus is no impersonal or abstract concept!
No, God is relational and it is because of this that He calls us into relationship with Him. One of the ways this manifests itself is in His call for us to be obedient, for us to follow Him. Or, we might say, the relational nature of God can be seen in how disobedience disrupts the harmony of our lives and casts us into a chaos of various manifestations. Disobedience is disruptive to relationship and, inwardly, it is disruptive to the peace that should reign in the hearts and minds of God’s people.
This can be seen in the sad episode of Isaac’s deceit of Abimelech in Gerar. Having just shown amazing faith in obeying God and staying in Gerar and not going to Egypt, Isaac, ever Abraham’s son, now has a pitiful low point of disobedience. And, like Abraham, it involves fear and his wife.
When we fail to obey God we pass on bad examples to the rest of God’s children.
Our text truly must begin before our text, for Isaac’s behavior in Genesis 26 has its origins in the example of Abraham set in Genesis 20.
1 From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar.2 And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. 3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.”
This really is quite amazing! Abraham did the same thing in the same place earlier in his life! I almost added “under the same king, Abimelech,” but that is less clear than it might appear at first. The episode with Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis 20 would have happened many years before. This has led some to propose that the Abimelech of Genesis 20 is most likely not the Abimelech of Genesis 26 and that perhaps that name served as something of a royal title. We cannot be sure. If it was the same Abimelech then this is flabbergasting in the extreme, for it would mean that a father and son deceived the same king in the exact same way! If it is not the same Abimelech then certainly this second Abimelech would have been familiar with the story.
Regardless, this much is clear: Isaac’s dishonesty and deceit in Genesis 26, while certainly his own, is rooted to a certain extent in his father’s dishonesty in Genesis 26. We see then that when we fail to obey God we pass on bad examples to the rest of God’s children. The first lesson therefore arises from Abraham’s behavior.
Perhaps not surprisingly there have been those who have attempted to defend Abraham and Isaac, who have argued that what this father and son did was not truly a lie. Augustine takes this approach, for instance:
Those who assert that sometimes we must lie make inappropriate mention of Abraham as having lied about Sarah whom he called his sister. For he did not say “She is not my wife” but “She is my sister,” because Sarah was in fact of a family so closely related that without lying she could be called his sister. This fact Abraham confirmed afterward when Sarah was returned by him who had led her away. Abraham replied to him, saying, “Also she is truly my sister, the daughter of my father, and not the daughter of my mother,” that is to say, belonging to his father’s family but not to his mother’s. Thus he concealed something of the truth but did not say anything false in concealing the fact that she was his wife and in saying that she was his sister. His son Isaac also did this, for we know that he too chose a relative of his as wife. Hence it is not a lie when truth is passed over in silence but when falsehood is brought forth in speech.
Now Augustine is one of the greatest minds the church has ever produced, which makes the foolishness of his words here that much more regrettable. No good parent would let their child get away with the kind of reasoning the Bishop of Hippo exhibits in that last sentence: “Hence it is not a lie when truth is passed over in silence but when falsehood is brought forth in speech.” Really now? Are you sure?
Of course it is a lie to pass over the rest of the story in silence, especially when that part of the story you leave out fundamentally alters the part you express. Furthermore, in both Abraham’s and Isaac’s case, the partial truth they told led to grave spiritual danger for those to whom they told it.
No, Abraham and Isaac, great though they were in so many ways, both lied. But note this: Abraham lied first. Meaning, Isaac came by his dishonesty honestly! Again, Abraham’s bad example does not excuse Isaac. Not at all. But it does help explain it. And this is our point: when we disobey God we set a bad example for those around us.
Our text is a case study in the power of example for good and for ill. For good in that Isaac trusted good like Abraham did. For ill in that Isaac repeated Abraham’s deceptions from years before.
We simply must come to terms with the power of example!
Consider, for instance, just how powerful the examples of our lives are for our children. At all moments, our children are watching us and young children will oftentimes unconsciously mimic what they see in their parents. In his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey passes on a chilling example.
I have a friend whose marriage has gone through tumultuous times. One night George passed a breaking point. He pounded the table and the floor. “I hate you!” He screamed at his wife. “I won’t take it anymore! I’ve had enough! I won’t go on! I won’t let it happen! No! No! No!”
Several months later my friend woke up in the middle of the night and heard strange sounds coming from the room where his two-year-old son slept. He padded down the hall, stood for a moment outside his son’s door, and shivers ran through his flesh. He could not draw a breath. In a soft voice, the two-year-old was repeating word for word with precise inflection the argument between his mother and father. “I hate you…I won’t take it anymore…No! No! No!”
How terrifying…and how true! As it is with parents and children so it is with our Christians and their brothers and sisters in Christ. When we disobey, we set bad examples for others.
When we fail to obey God our spiritual vision becomes blurry.
Furthermore, disobedience clouds our vision. Consider Isaac’s reactions first to the men of Gerar and then to Abimelech.
7 When the men of the place asked him about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” for he feared to say, “My wife,” thinking, “lest the men of the place should kill me because of Rebekah,” because she was attractive in appearance.
9 So Abimelech called Isaac and said, “Behold, she is your wife. How then could you say, ‘She is my sister’?” Isaac said to him, “Because I thought, ‘Lest I die because of her.’”
Do you see how clouded Isaac’s vision has become? First how can a man who has just received a special revelation of the covenant from God and who has just demonstrated great faith by choosing to stay in Gerar be so utterly overwhelmed by fear? “Lest the men of the place should kill me”…“Lest I die because of her.” Fear and self-absorption permeate Isaac’s responses. How can he pass from a position of great clarity to such a position of great blindness? Easy: he put his eyes on himself and took them off of God.
Furthemore, there is a real question whether or not Isaac and Rebekah were even in danger at all. I personally think there is some evidence that there was at least some degree of danger in Gerar. Robert Alter, in commenting on the phrase “the men of the place” in verse 7, observes that “[t]he sexual threat against the matriarch is displaced in this final version from the monarch to the local male populace.” In this there is a bit of a parallel between Gerar and Sodom. In both places the men of the city inquire as to newcomers toward whom, in Sodom anyway, they have pernicious intent. So, yes, perhaps Isaac did have reason to be concerned as a sojourner in that land.
On the other hand, Victor Hamilton does not believe there is any danger present here. “The Gerarites simply and politely inquire about her,” he writes, “The text does not indicate any menace in their inquiry, but Isaac seems to feel threatened.” He continues:
That Isaac was at Gerar a long time demonstrates that the danger to Rebekah was more imagined than real. Sarah, Rebekah’s mother-in-law, was indeed “taken” (12:5; 20:3) into the house of another, but Rebekah was not. Thus Isaac’s act is repugnant in that it was not only deceitful but also unnecessary.
This is an interesting point. The fact that there is disagreement on this point today among people of good-intent who look closely in this text is itself confirmation that if there was danger there it likely was not of such a degree of intensity that it required Isaac’s duplicitous response. This is what disobedience does: it clouds our vision and leads us into a great sense of confusion.
In 1 Corinthians 13:12 Paul writes that we see now “through a glass dimly” or darkly. What that means is that even the redeemed people of God still have limited sight. We do not see everything as we should, though believers in Christ see more than others. And, we should say, that even though the glass is dim by virtue of our living in this fallen world order, what we are able to see can lead us to salvation by the grace of God.
That being said, though we see in part, we could likely see more than we do were we to keep our vision clear through obedience and through walking with the Lord. Our vision is not perfect, but it need not be worse. Disobedience clouds are vision.
Do you find yourself saying, “I cannot see God at work in my life. I cannot hear God.”? The first question is always, are you walking in obedience or disobedience. Granted, one may be walking obedience and still go through periods where it is hard to see and hear. Even so, disobedience certainly obscures our sight!
When we fail to obey God we endanger our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Disobedience also endangers the children of God. In this, we are moving past mere bad examples to the arena of actual spiritual endangerment. Notice how Isaac’s disobedience put Rebekah in a dangerous position both spiritually and physically.
8 When he had been there a long time, Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out of a window and saw Isaac laughing with Rebekah his wife.
At this point we need to ask what exactly Abimelech saw that revealed to him that Isaac and Rebekah were not brother and sister. While we will in fact never be able to answer that exactly, we can say that what the ESV renders “laughing” probably meant more than just a moment of levity. Kenneth Mathews explains:
…it was by his chance observation of Isaac exhibiting physical affection toward his wife: “Isaac caressing…” (yishaq mesaheq). “Caressing”…translates mesaheq, a wordplay with the name yishaq, “Isaac”…meaning “Isaak was Isaaking.” The term is used of toying with someone…or revelry…The term also has sexual connotations when Potiphar’s wife charges Joseph with degrading her by sexual advances…The narrative spares us the details of what precisely the king observed that was unbefitting a brother’s behavior toward his sister. On the basis of 29:14, 17, the conduct was probably sexual in nature, perhaps what we moderns call “foreplay,” but to what scope the passage conceals.
Different translations handle this verb thus: “sporting” (AV), “laughing with” (ESV), “fondling” (NRSV, NJPS, NLT, NJB, NAB), and “making love” (GNB). Again, we do not know exactly what was happening, but it is not out of line to suggest that what Abimelech observed was some form of affection and familiarity that would be inappropriate between a brother and sister. So Abimelech, shocked, acts:
9 So Abimelech called Isaac and said, “Behold, she is your wife. How then could you say, ‘She is my sister’?” Isaac said to him, “Because I thought, ‘Lest I 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.”
Notice that Abimelech is concerned about the danger that Isaac’s actions potentially brought to him, his household, and his people. More on that in our final point. But Abimelech also notes, though it is not his primary concern, the danger that Isaac put Rebekah in: “One of the people might easily have lain with your wife…”
Gerhard Von Rad writes that Isaac’s behavior “assured his own safety, but not hers.” This is true. Isaac’s disobedience showed a real lack of concern for his own wife. When we turn from God and act in our own self-interest we set up our brothers and sisters in Christ for real danger, for real spiritual peril.
Should Isaac not have guarded Rebekah and kept her far from the stain of sin? Yes! And should we not do the same? Yes, we should! Why? When we do commerce with the devil we draw all who are in our sphere into proximity with that which is against God, that which is truly anti-Christ. To open such doors to the adversary into our lives is to imperil everybody around us. While our sin is our own, it is usually not merely our own. The effects of it tempt others to join in and can warp the way those whom we should be leading to God live out their lives.
When we fail to obey God we show a callous disregard for the fate of the lost.
So too, the lost! When the people of God disobey God to cover their own hides, they show a cold and callous disregard for the fate of the lost. Again, Abimelech understood that Isaac’s actions set the stage at least for divine judgment to come upon his people.
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 surely be put to death.”
Mathews correctly notes that “the king’s response…showed a keener sense of moral decency than his guest.” This is true and this is sad, for Isaac, as God’s child and as the recipient of the covenant promises and the presence and blessing of God, should have been concerned with the people of Gerar drawing near to God! Indeed, Isaac should have been a missionary to these people. He should have even been willing to put himself in harm’s way so that these people could see what a godly life looks like. But no. He does the opposite.
“Isaac has missed the fact that in attempting to spare his own life he was risking the lives of everybody else,” writes Victor Hamilton. “A whole city was put in jeopardy because one man wanted to escape jeopardy.” This is true.
David Berlinski has spoken of “the ancient idea that homo homini lupus—man is a wolf to man.” And, yes, history would seem to bear that idea out. But this must never be so with the people of God! Isaac, whether he realized it at the time or not, was acting like a wolf to the people of Gerar, to the Philistines. He was endangering them. But we should love the lost and desire their salvation! We should not, in the name of self-preservation, set the lost up for judgment.
Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson bluntly put it like this: “Most Christians don’t like lost people.” I do not know if that is true. I hope that is not true! But maybe it is true. Isaac’s actions in Gerar would appear to confirm that truth and, if we are honest, may our actions frequently do as well.
Has it ever occurred to you that your sins and my sins are acts of cruelty against lost people who need to know Jesus? If the people of God will not follow God then how can we expect those who are distant to God to come near to God?
There is a staggering selfishness about sin, is there not? When we disobey God we are not only saying we are determined to do what we want to do; we are also saying that we do not care about the ultimate destinies of the lost around us. A heart turned to Jesus cannot act with indifference or malice to the eternal destinies of human beings.
Isaac set the people of Gerar up for judgment. Thank goodness Abimelech realized what was happening! What an embarrassing tragedy that it took a pagan king to point out to Isaac that he should obey his God and not imperil those who do not know his God! And we too need to hear this word.
Church, do not disobey the God who made you, loves you, and has redeemed you. Do not walk in rebellion. Do not show disregard for your fellow believers. Do not show disregard for the lost! Walk in the paths of righteousness. Follow King Jesus. Take up your cross and follow!
 Hauerwas, Stanley. With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology (Kindle Locations 544-548). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Mark Sheridan, ed. Genesis 12-50. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Gen. ed. Thomas C. Oden. Old Testament II (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), p.155-156.
 Philip Yancey. What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), p.120.
 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses. The Hebrew Bible. vol. 1 (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019), p.89n7.
 Victor Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Gen. Eds., R.K. Harrison and Robert L. Hubbard (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), p.195.
 Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary. Old Testament, vol. 1B (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, Publishers, 2005), p.406 and fn93.
 Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis. Revised Edition. The Old Testament Library. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1972), p.271.
 Kenneth A. Mathews, p.406.
 Victor Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Gen. Eds., R.K. Harrison and Robert L. Hubbard (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), p.196-197.
 Berlinski, David. The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions (p. 34). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
 Stetzer, Ed; Dodson, Mike (2010-07-19). Comeback Churches (p. 62). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.