Isaac and the Philistines

Sermon preached on Genesis 26:6-33 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/17/2023 in Petaluma, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.

In last week’s passage, a famine came upon the land of Canaan. God then appeared to Isaac and told him to not leave the land to go down to Egypt for food. That was something Abraham did back in Genesis 12, even though God called Abraham to go and live in Canaan, as God had promised to give Abraham the land. So, going out of the Promised Land to sojourn in Egypt was the wrong trajectory of redemptive history. That was, sadly, also when, out of fear of the Egyptians, Abraham lied to Pharaoh and said Sarah was just his sister. But God mercifully saved them out of that, and brought them back to the Promised Land.

Later in Abraham’s life, in Genesis 20, we see Abraham sojourning in the area of Gerar. This was in the southwestern area of the Promised Land, but controlled by the Philistines. Sadly, Abraham again, out of fear, also lied to the Philistines and said Sarah was just his sister. Yet, God, graciously intervened, and ultimately protected and restored Sarah to Abraham. Things there ultimately worked out well, with Abraham entering into a covenant of peace with the Philistines at the location of Beersheba, at the same time resolving a dispute over a well. And you might recall the Philistines that Abraham dealt with there were King Abimelech and the Army Commander Philcol. As Isaac in the next generation now deals with an Abimelech and a Philcol, we don’t know if these were the same people (now really old) or simply dynastic names that would be bestowed on the next generation of Philistine leaders. We do know from Psalm 34 that the name Abimelech did become a Philistine title for their king, somewhat like how later Roman Emperors were all known as Caesar. But whether Abimelech and Philcol are the same people Abraham dealt with or their dynastic descendants, it doesn’t really matter for our study. What we do see is Isaac having to navigate similar concerns while he is trying to obey God who said don’t go to Egypt but to stay there.

As we study today’s passage, we’ll divide up into three scenes. As we consider each, a topic that will come out is fear. Fear is a strong emotion. It has power to spur us to do great things if you are afraid for the right things and respond to that fear with wise, right actions. But fear also has power for bad if we are afraid of the wrong things or let our fear be a catalyst for sinful responses.

Let us begin then by studying the first scene which is verses 6-11. This is scene where Isaac holds out his wife Rebekah as merely his sister. This scene begins when Isaac sets up camp in the Philistine area of Gerar, somewhere in or around the modern-day Gaza Strip. Because of the famine, this was an area he hoped could sustain him during that time. Similarly, while Abraham sojourned a lot around Hebron, we remember that he also spent a considerable amount of time sojourning in and around Gerar, and had ultimately come into peaceful relations with them.

So then, like father, like son, he tells Abimelech and the Philistines that Rebekah is his sister. We should not be surprised that a parent’s besetting sins sometimes end up getting past on to their kids. You might recall that Abraham even tried to justify his sin to Abimelech as saying that Sarah was technically also his half-sister, in addition to being his wife. Yet, Rebekah was not at all Isaac’s sister. It was just a bold face lie. Notice that Isaac makes this lie just after God had commanded him verse 5 to be obedient to God like his father Abraham had been. Isaac does then right away mimic his father, but sadly in his disobedience.

Well, like so many lies, Isaac’s is eventually uncovered. Abimelech sees Isaac and Rebekah in some sort of personal moment that unveils the truth. Abimelech then confronts Isaac in verse 9 and proceeds to admonish him in verse 10. Abimelech explains to Isaac how evil that was of him, because if someone took Rebekah for his wife, without realizing the truth, it would have brought guilt upon them. In other words, Isaac’s actions looked to protect his own life, at the potential expense of others. This is not to mention how horrible this was for him to treat his wife like that. He should be willing to lay down his life for his wife, not be so quick to sacrifice her for his own sake.

In case it is not obvious, let me ask the question. Why does Isaac sin like this? Why does he lie about Rebekah? We are told the answer in verse 7. He feared the Philistines. His fear of man led him to tell this lie. He was afraid for his life, so he lied. As I said, while fear can be an impetus for good, we can also let it become a motivation for our sin. In Isaac’s case, I think we are supposed to see that he didn’t need to be afraid, not just because of what Abimelech ends up doing, but because of what God had told him just before this. Remember, in verses 1-5, God had just assured Isaac of his blessings and presence. That should have dispelled this fear of man for Isaac.

And so then, by the grace of God, when the truth finally comes out that Rebekah is his wife, it doesn’t result in Isaac losing his life. In fact, King Abimelech makes this wonderful pronouncement in verse 11 that no one is to harm them. Remember back to Genesis 12, that God said whoever blesses Abraham will be blessed. Here Abimelech blesses Isaac and Rebekah with protection. What is also implied is that they can continue to sojourn in the land. So then, in our first point we see God’s grace toward Isaac. Despite his fear that led to his sin, God blesses him, giving him safety among the Philistines.

That blessing will then continue as we head into our second scene today and look at verses 12-22. Here we see Isaac’s growing prosperity in the context of Philistine persecution as seen with these wells. Verse 12 begins by telling us how Isaac reaped a hundredfold there in the land of the Philistines. Remember Jesus’ parable that spoke about a harvest returning thirtyfold, sixtyfold, or even a hundredfold, and we know that a hundredfold harvest is a lot! Verse 13 specifically tells us that he gets rich, becoming very wealthy. Verse 14 talks of all his flocks, and herds, and servants that he obtains. As our men’s study discussed last lesson, God doesn’t forbid his people from being rich, and in fact if you are rich for honest reasons, then that is God’s blessing upon you, but I digress.

But Isaac’s prosperity there among the Philistines becomes a cause of conflict. Verse 14 tells us that the Philistines begin to envy Isaac. They see how rich he is becoming right there in their midst. They probably think, “How come this foreigner is allowed to come here and prosper in our land?” I can imagine in their envy that they think he’s taking riches away from them somehow. So then, surely because of this, Abimelech in verse 16 comes to Isaac and asks him to move away. Abimelech points out how mighty Isaac had become, speaking of his power and strength. Remember how back in Abraham’s day, Abimelech allowed Abraham to sojourn in and among them. That is what Isaac was also at first allowed to do. But now that he had grown so big, and the people were becoming so envious, Abimelech believes he should ask Isaac to move away.

So then, Isaac listens to Abimelech and moves at least a little away. He moves out of Gerar to the adjacent Valley of Gerar. But that is when the issue about the wells comes into focus. We learn that back in Abraham’s day, he had made various wells in the region as he was sojourning with his livestock. But since then, the Philistines had stopped up all those wells. Realize why you might do that. It is to keep people out, but because you yourselves aren’t big enough to use and control them. You wouldn’t stop up a perfectly good well if you could make use of it. Water sources were very important back then, especially if you have livestock that needed to pasture in various locations. The Philistines must not have had enough livestock and servants to use all those wells, but they wanted to discourage other peoples from coming in and setting up camp there. So, they stopped up the wells.

So, as Isaac moved out into this valley region, he began to re-dig all these wells that his father had previously dug. He even gives them their original names. But that is when we see more conflict arise between him and the Philistines. Once Isaac fixed a well, they claimed rights over the water. He names the well Esek, meaning contention, and he basically surrenders it to the Philistines and moves farther away. Then he rebuilds another well, and the same thing happens again. This time he names the well Sitnah, meaning enmity. Again, he moves farther away and digs another well, and this time there is no dispute about it. He names that one Rehoboth, meaning room or open space. He gives the LORD credit for him being able to finally find space in the region where the Philistines won’t be bothered by his presence. He says, that now they can be fruitful in the land, which mirrors how this scene started when it spoke of Isaac’s fruitful reaping of a hundredfold.

Now, when we see how Isaac dealt with the Philistines here, we can note that the conflict didn’t become bigger, because he just walked away from those wells they re-dug. The Philistines who took these wells set themselves as enemies against Isaac. But instead of opposing these enemies, Isaac let them have what they wanted. In matters of conflict resolution, we can remember that there is a meekness that overlooks a matter. There is a meekness that says, “As much as it depends upon me, I will live at peace with all people.” I’ve certainly seen Isaac credited here with such meekness. And maybe there is some truth to that here. But I propose that the text would have us to see another motivation for why Isaac keeps backing off from these aggressive Philistines. Fear. He was afraid of what might happen if he didn’t give into these Philistine demands. In considering whether Isaac here was driven by meekness or fear, I believe the context of this chapter points to fear. We saw his fear mentioned explicitly in the first scene which is what resulted in him lying about Rebekah. And as we head into the third scene, we’ll see his fear explicitly addressed again. I think the context would have us recognize that its Isaac’s fear still here. He’s a foreigner in a strange land, trying to find a place for himself, and he’s afraid of these people. And that’s not an unfounded fear, since these people were acting aggressively toward him.

Let us then turn to our third scene, to consider verses 23-33, where the action turns to the historic location of Beersheba, where Abraham and Abimelech had previously made their covenant of peace. Now, it becomes the place where Isaac and the Philistine make a covenant of peace. You might even wonder why this covenant is needed, because in that original covenant that Abraham and Abimelech made, their descendants were even named as covered in that covenant. Yet, this covenant making would reaffirm and reestablish that for the current generation.

Notice that this scene actually begins with God appearing to Isaac at Beersheba. Notice the specific emphasis of God’s words there. Everything that God had said to Isaac there can be found in what God told him in the opening verses of the chapter, except for this little phrase, “Fear not.” And yet, that is what Isaac needed to hear. This confirms that Isaac has continued to fear the Philistines. In light of what has been going on here with Isaac and his conflicts with the Philistines, God tells him here, “Fear not.” God says he doesn’t need to be afraid. That could be have been implied from what God told Isaac before. Before, God had already told Isaac that he would be with him and bless him as he sojourned in the land. That implies that Isaac didn’t need to fear the Philistines there. But, now God connects the dots for Isaac when he says, “Fear not, for I am with you.” And God’s words do not return void on Isaac. Isaac responds in worship, building an altar there and calling upon the name of the LORD.

So then, Abimelech and Philcol and an adviser show up there at Beersheba to meet with Isaac. Notice how Isaac responds to them in verse 27. He says, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you.” Isaac words there have a boldness that have not yet been seen in this chapter. I think we should see Isaac’s newfound courage here as a fruit of God’s words to him. Isaac has begun to put away the fear he didn’t need to have, trusting that God would be with him as promised.

We then see that Isaac’s courage is not misplaced. For Abimelech explains why he has come starting in verse 28, and the answer is the LORD. They acknowledge that the LORD has been with Isaac and has blessed Isaac. That is why they want to make a covenant of peace with Isaac. God had told Isaac, “Fear not for I will be with you and bless you.” Then the people whom Isaac would have been tempted to fear, say, “We see that God has been with you and has blessed you, so let us have peace and friendship.”

It is interesting, that they assert that they’ve treated Isaac well. Isaac doesn’t mention the conflicts he had with these Philistine herdsmen over the wells. Presumably Abimelech doesn’t even know about that. And so, this might be some actual meekness now by Isaac that he doesn’t bring up those other wells. But he can have such meekness now because of his newfound confidence in the LORD. Indeed, the backstory in this scene confirms that. While Isaac is meeting with the Philistines and making the covenant, meanwhile his servants have been digging for a well there at Beersheba. That is mentioned in verse 25 at the start of this scene, and then at the end of the scene in verse 32 it reports how they found water. This is further confirmation of Isaac’s faith in God being with him and blessing him, as God provides more of this essential-to-life resource of water at Beersheba.

So then, Isaac and the Philistines make this treaty of peace. In verse 30, they first have this feast, and then the next morning they make formal oaths. I believe we should see that this feast was not simply Isaac showing customary hospitality. Rather, it is typical when ratifying a covenant of peace, that the parties share a meal together. It is a fellowship meal, saying they eat together as friends, since you wouldn’t eat like that with an enemy. At the end, Abimelech and company depart in peace, verse 31. So, the treaty made before with the Philistines and Abraham is reaffirmed, even as the name of Beersheba also gets reaffirmed.

Stepping back, we see this was a commendable outcome. Genesis has been showing that it will be good for the nations to recognize God’s blessings that will come through the line of Abraham and now through Isaac. That’s what these Philistines recognized and found in this chapter. That trajectory has continued until it has come to full fruition now in Jesus. Now, we bring this gospel message boldly to all the nations, that all the world can find blessing in Christ in a covenant of peace with him. And that gospel offer is not simply to find a peace from far away, as a separate nation living in friendship from a distance. But rather, the gospel offers the nations to be brought into God’s people, to be united as one people of God in friendship in an eternal covenant of peace.

And so, saints of God, that is our story. That is what we’ve become. God has brought us near to him and his people. He tells us that we are no longer strangers and aliens to him, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of his heavenly household. That is a heavenly truth. It is an abiding eternal truth. It is a truth that we hold in faith until it will become sight at the day of Christ. But until that day, that means God has us still on this earth as strangers and aliens here among the nations. But as he has us here, he tells each of us again today, “Fear not, for I will be with you and will bless you.”

How will those nations respond to us who bear the name of Christ and bring his gospel of peace to them? Some will recognize that the LORD and his blessings are with us. They will want to join with us in peace. Others, will not accept our message, and will yet set themselves up as enemies against us. Yet, as much as it depends upon us, let us seek to live at peace with all people, and pray for our enemies, especially as we hold out the gospel to them. Let us do so with both the meekness and the boldness that we have from the LORD. And may God see fit to make those enemies not only friends, but even brothers and sisters in Christ.
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Amen.

Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.

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These are the Generations of Isaac

Sermon preached on Genesis 25:19-26:5 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/10/2023 in Petaluma, CA.

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