I respectfully disagree with Prof P that this is showing Isaac as Abraham Jr. From an archaeological point of view, OK, the environment (famine, drought, hostility) repeated itself and so did the stories. But from a literary point of view, it’s more complicated than that, and the differences are not minor but significant.
First, Isaac comes off as inferior to Abraham in every aspect. Where Abraham took initiative and pushed forward, Isaac is passive and laissez-faire – acted upon, rather than acting. That was his role in the Sacrifice story, as well (Ch 22) and his passivity will be critical to the next chapter.
Let’s consider these repetitions as outlined by Prof P:
(A) God repeats to Isaac His promise to Abraham
“The Adventures of Isaac” start with famine in the land; we’ve had several famines already, and will have others to come. Sarna says, “The sharp contrast between God’s promises for the future and the threatening reality of the present is a recurring theme in the patriarchal narratives.”
Remember that the curse on Adam was “by the sweat of your brow, shall you get bread to eat” – that farming shall be arduous toil. Famine occurs often in Genesis, reflecting the curse on Adam continuing to haunt the area.
Thus, given disparity between what God had promised and the reality, it’s very appropriate to repeat the promise to Isaac. This reinforces (for both Isaac and the reader) that the descendents of Abraham are part of that promise, and reminds Isaac that things may look bleak at the moment, but keep the faith.
(B) The third wife/sister story
Quick reminder and compare/contrast:
(1) The first, in Chapter 12, involves Abraham and Sarah against Pharaoh in Egypt. [Attributed to the J-author]
(2) The second, in Chapter 20, involves Abraham and Sarah against Abimelech, king of Gerar. [Usually attributed to E-author]
(3) The one currently under discussion involves Isaac and Rebekah against Abimelech, King of Gerar [Also attributed to the J-author.] ASIDE: This is more than 75 years later, so it’s presumably not the same Abimelech. It could be a royal title (literally “Father-King”) or a common royal name.
Isaac is not simply repeating Abraham’s foolish/unwise actions. This version has almost no dramatic tension, not just because it’s the third time around. Rebekah is not kidnapped, the king is not at fault, Isaac doesn’t anticipate danger until he has to react to it; and divine intervention is unnecessary since the king sees husband/wife loving behavior.
So, as I said above, Isaac doesn’t take initiative, but is mostly passive. The story happens around him, rather than because of him.
This episode must have happened before the birth of Esau and Jacob, since they’re not mentioned, and “she’s my sister” is a poor fabrication if her twin boys were crawling about. The biblical text often tells stories thematically, a sort of literary order, rather than chronologically (we moderns tend to prefer chronological order, we get that from the Greeks, I suppose.)
When Abraham faced famine in Gen 12:10 (the first wife/sister story), he went to Egypt for food. Later, in Gen 42, Jacob will face famine and his family will go to Egypt for food. However, in this section, Isaac is specifically told not to go down to Egypt, but to stay in the land of Canaan. Rabbinic commentary says that Abraham and Jacob must go to Egypt to be tested, but Isaac was tested at Mount Moriah (the sacrifice story of Ch 22) so needn’t be tested in Egypt. Thus he does not leave the land that he was promised to belong to his descendents.
Backing this up is verse 3, when God says He is fulfilling the “oath” (Heb: shavuah) rather than the “covenant” with Abraham. So, when is there an oath? It’s at Gen 22:15, the sacrifice story. So we as readers have a literary reminder that Isaac was already tested, and needn’t go to Egypt.
Abimelech in verse 26 is called King of the Philistines. This is usually considered an anachronism, some say peculiar to the J-author. However, it’s not a reflection of later times, since the description of the Philistines in Judges and Kings doesn’t really match this section. It’s possible that the term here is a generic term for “sea-people”, and the Philistines of patriarchal times were not the same as those of the later era. The E version of the wife/sister story in Ch 20 mentions Gerar but not the Philistines.
We are told later (Exodus 13:17) that the shortest route between Canaan and Egypt goes through the land of the Philistines, and Gerar is a Philistine royal city that would have food. Isaac could reasonably expect that the treaty Abraham had established with the king of Gerar (Gen 21:22-24) might give him some ability to negotiate, so he travels there in search of food.
In verse 8, the king sees Isaac is “fondling” his wife Rebekah. The Hebrew M-Tz-Kh-K is a pun on the name Isaac Y-Tz-Kh-K, and a better translation is “delighting” or “reveling.” Recall Isaac’s name meant “laughter.” The verb will be used again in Exodus 32:6 at the incident of the golden calf.
© Protection of the Patriarch
In v 12ff, God’s promise of success starts to be realized, and Isaac farms and reaps plentifully, even in time of famine. This provokes envy, so he is kicked out of Gerar. He submits without protest (again, he’s passive in contrast to Abraham.)
(D) Negotiations over wells
Wells were critical for life in the desert area, were generally line with rocks to as protection against winter floods, and then cleaned out after the rainy season. The Philistines here are deliberately refilling the wells with dirt. That’s a pretty nasty thing to do, in an area where water/wells make the difference between life and death (recall Hagar finding water.) Isaac doesn’t challenge the Philistines, but restores the wells, and (v 19) uncovers an old well fed by a subterranean spring. That would be especially valuable.
Again, Isaac comes off as lacking initiative compared to Abraham. In a similar situation, Abraham (Gen 21:25) reproaches Abimelech because his wells were seized. Here, Isaac just shrugs his shoulders, moves over and digs another well. The outcome is NOT from Isaac’s negotiation, but the local townsfolk seeing that Isaac has been successful (thus is blessed) and not wanting divine wrath to whomp them.
As noted, I disagree with Prof P. These are not simply repetitions with differences. Repetitions, sure, but that just reflects the repetition of the agriculture (famine, drought, scarcity/value of water, hostility of neighbors.) The literary effect is that we see Isaac’s responses contrasted to Abraham’s. And Isaac is far from Abraham II, he’s weak and easily intimidated, he chooses the path of least resistance.
Learning about Isaac’s character sets us up for the next chapter, when his meekness will play a major role in the succession passing to Jacob rather than Esau.