Occasionally in this series I get to a chapter like this and I wonder where to begin the discussion of all the problems it creates for conservative Bible expositors clinging to the notion that a single author, Moses, wrote the book of Genesis sometime in the 15th century BCE. It's not that there's a devastating kill shot to the head in here that apologists can't possibly overcome so much as it is a bunch of razor blade cuts. I'd like to point out that we're just over half way through the first book of the Bible and we have yet to come across a single chapter that hasn't presented problems for anyone claiming that this book is anything more than the product of ordinary human beings living in the Iron Age of the Ancient Near East. The claim of divine inspiration for any book is extraordinary. The claim of divine inspiration for this book is beyond even that.
Because of a famine, Isaac travels to the Philistine city of Gerar where we find king Abimelech. Yahweh appears to Isaac and tells him not to go to Egypt, but settle there instead and he will receive the blessings of inheriting the covenant Yahweh made with Abraham.
The first thing we need to ask about this passage is this: are we looking at a flashback or is it a continuation of the narrative in chronological order? Recall that chapter 25 ended with a grown Esau selling his birthright to a grown Jacob. Isaac would've been at least in his late seventies and Rebekah in at least her mid-fifties. Abraham, who died when the twins were fifteen, is out of the picture to the point that there is even a reference made in this chapter to "the days of Abraham" as though he's long gone. When this section of narrative concludes, Jacob and Esau will be 40. The alternative is that this is a flashback to that twenty-year period of time when the couple were childless and Rebekah was still in her twenties and thirties and Abraham was still alive. Either scenario causes problems, but be sure to keep those things in mind as we move through this.
We've encountered Abimelech, Gerar and the Philistines before. They were back in chapters 20 & 21. Depending on how we reckon the chronology, that was anywhere from forty to seventy years prior. As noted before, the Philistines did not even settle in this region or even enter the archaeological record until sometime after 1200 BCE. As Finkelstein & Silberman note:
Gerar is today identified with Tel Haror northwest of Beersheba, and excavations there have shown that in the Iron Age I - the early phase of Philistine history - it was no more than a small, quite insignificant village.(Finkelstein & Silberman, The Bible Unearthed p. 38)That's loooong after the Patriarchs lived and even after Moses was dead, for those keeping score of anachronisms. Speaking of anachronisms, note that Yahweh tells Isaac in verse 5 that Abraham had kept his charge, commandments, statutes and laws. Really? Which ones? OK, so there was circumcision and the command to leave Ur. What else? Oh, yeah, I forgot: "Slit your son's throat and burn him on an altar." Those categories in verse 5 are clear designations for some kind of extant law code. They presuppose the existence of such laws. How exactly did Abraham keep charges, commandments, statutes and laws that wouldn't be delivered for another 430 years? Just as the command to Noah to take extra "clean" animals on to the ark presupposed the existence of a sacrificial system, this commendation presupposes the existence of a law code.
Now, I'm sure conservative Bible scholars will just call this "interpretive" or maybe even try to point out that Abraham obeyed this law code to the extent that these things were "written on his heart" or maybe even that Yahweh counted Abraham's faith as obedience to that unpublished law code. Those are all interesting notions. Are they excuses for clinging to certain presuppositions about what the Bible is, or do they deal with what the text actually says here? Would Moses really say this about Abraham, or is this the Yahwist trying to put Abraham forward as a model of obedience to whatever his religious community perceives are Yahweh's commands? Abraham certainly isn't the model of obedience for the Law of Moses as presented later. He made multiple unauthorized sacrifices at shrine trees, bore false witness on at least two occasions and married his sister.
Here we find the third and final of the three sister/wife patriarchal narratives. We saw it first in chapter 12 when Abram went to Egypt during a famine. It worked out for him so well that he tried it again in chapter 20 when he went to Gerar. Now we have Isaac repeating the formula a third time in lying to the locals to protect himself because his wife is so incredibly attractive. This is where it gets no less weird than the last two times this happened.
When Isaac, a chip off the ol' insecure block, is asked about his wife, he tells all the men that she is his sister because he's worried they will kill him and take her as she's so smokin' hot. After they've been there for a long time, Abimelech looks through a window and sees Isaac playfully sporting with Rebekah, apparently in a manner that suggested they were more than siblings. Abimelech freaks out and tells no one to touch Isaac or his wife.
If you take the position that the events of this story come after the events of the previous chapter, Isaac is pushing eighty with two grown sons and a wife in at least her mid-fifties. Yet here he is worried that people will kill him and take her so he tells everyone she's his sister. No mention is made of Jacob or Esau until the end of the chapter and no special protection is granted to them by Abimelech. If you take the position that this is a flashback to an earlier period when they were childless and Rebekah was realistically still a fox, then Abraham is still alive. Yet Abraham is treated like a bygone figure throughout the entire chapter. Did dear old dad not have some advice to offer about his prior experiences in Gerar? In any case, you still have the same poor guy, Abimelech, getting caught up in this ruse yet again. Only now he's anywhere from forty to seventy years older. Did Abimelech just assume that Isaac wouldn't pull the same crap his dad did? It's a funny story, but is it credible?
It's sometimes proposed that this is a different Abimelech. OK, well, then what about Phicol, Abimelech's buddy in verse 26? Is it a different Phicol too? Does this different Abimelech also just happen to have a buddy named Phicol? Maybe this is like that whole Kennedy and Lincoln coincidence thing. Didn't the other Abimelech tell this one all about that time Abraham pulled this stunt and threatened his entire harem?
What if there are two different sources taking similar story elements and applying them to two different Patriarchs? One is familiar with a tradition that this is a story about Abraham and his encounter with the Philistines and another has a tradition that this is a story about Isaac and his encounter with the Philistines. What if story A and story C come from one author and story B comes from another that combines elements of the other two? Dr. Steven DiMattei has an excellent in-depth analysis of these three accounts and presents the standard case that chapters 12 and 26 come from the pen of the Yahwist and chapter 20 is from the Elohist. True to form, the Elohist refers to the deity as "elohim" in chapter 20 and the Yahwist refers to the deity as "Yahweh" in chapters 12 and 26. The Yahwist has his down-to-earth deity appear directly to people while the Elohist has his more transcendent deity show up in a dream. We've seen this over and over in Genesis. Maybe those Documentary Hypothesis guys are on to something? Nah. Moses wrote it all.
Really, does it make more sense to view these three accounts with overlapping story elements, anachronisms, continuity issues and odd characterizations as coming from the pen of a single author, writing in the 16th century BCE, or from multiple authors writing much later when the Philistines actually had settlements in the Lavant? Which view makes the most sense of the text and doesn't make a single writer out to be a complete imbecile? Which one fits the available evidence the best?
Isaac takes up farming and, of course, has a bumper crop despite the complete lack of experience, as herding livestock has been the family business up to this point. He gets rich, his influence grows and the locals get jealous, so those dirty Philistines fill up all the wells his father's servants dug back "in the days of his father Abraham," a phrase that suggests that Abe is long dead. Abimelech asks him to leave, so he goes to the Gerar valley and reopens the wells and goes back to herding animals. What follows after that is a series of conflicts over access to various wells and etiologies that seek to explain how they got their names.
To say that Isaac takes a successful stab at farming would be an understatement. The text says he harvested a hundred times what he planted in the first year. That's clearly a miracle meant to convey just how blessed by Yahweh he is. Anything he touches turns to gold and that brings the fear and ire of those around him. Even to this day when an ethnic group experiences prosperity, usually as a result of cultural and economic factors and not because of some unexplained supernatural intervention, their neighbors get pissed. The writer is reminding his readers that when you're special, haters gonna hate and this would play right into the cultural biases of his audience. One can see this today reflected in the attitude of American exceptionalism. Clearly other countries hate us because we're so friggin' awesome.
Isaac goes to Beer Sheba where Yahweh again appears to him and reminds Isaac of his blessing. Isaac builds an altar there and his servants dig another well. This is the same place in what would eventually be the southernmost area of inhabited Israel where Abraham planted a tree for cultic purposes back in chapter 21. That author apparently had no problem with trees being involved in worship practice, something that will be roundly condemned later on. The site itself will eventually be condemned. Both passages are linking a Patriarch to an area with a known worship center other than Jerusalem. Jacob/Israel will later be associated with this shrine in chapter 46.
Abimelech and two others including Phicol, the commander of his army, come to visit Isaac at Beer Sheba. Isaac asks why a bunch of haters have come calling and they reply that they are eager to make a treaty because clearly Yahweh is with Isaac and they don't want him to get angry and kick their asses. Isaac makes a feast, they sign a treaty and part on good terms. Afterward Isaac's servants find water and he names the place "shiba" or "oath" so the place comes to be known as "well of the oath" or "Beer Sheba."
If this sounds familiar it's because this has happened before. In Chapter 21 Abimelech and Phicol come to Abraham at Beer Sheba and recognize that he is blessed by "Elohim" (as opposed to Yahweh). They make a treaty to settle the dispute over access to water resources and Abraham names the place Beer Sheba or "oath of the well" in commemoration. Did this really happen twice or did two different authors use different Patriarchs to try to establish Israel's rightful control over this area by telling a tale of them digging and naming wells all while showing why any territorial encroachment by the Philistines would've been a violation of a sacred, ancient treaty? Is this an accurate historical recording of events that actually occurred way back in the Bronze Age or does this really tell us much more about the political realities that existed between the Philistines and kingdoms of Judah and Israel in the Iron Age? Which makes more sense?
These verses tell us that when he was forty, Esau married a couple of the daughters of Heth and this really did not sit well with his parents. It's a seemingly-innocuous couple of verses, but it presents at least two problems. The first is it raises the question of who Basemath's father really was. How? Well, let's look at verse 34.
When Esau was forty years old, he married Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, as well as Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite.And now Genesis 36:2-3
Ooops. Uh, scribal error? Sure. Let's go with that one.
The other problem with this passage is much more significant, but I'll save it until next time because it relates more to the events of chapter 27.