In the television show Survivor, fire means life. But in the Book of Genesis, water is the element that saves your life. Wells found in the wilderness save the lives of Hagar and Ishmael, wells are the community meeting place where both Isaac’s and Jacob’s wives were found, and wells mark a territorial claim to a plot of land. To have a well demonstrates that the land is capable of sustaining life; you can live there.
One of the lesser-known stories of the bible, one of the very few where Isaac is more than a passive actor, is the story of Abraham’s wells. This is a story of Isaac’s success against all odds, of a compromise with the Philistines, and setting one of the borders of the future land of Israel. It also happens to involve quite a lot of wells.
Try to put yourself in King Abimelech’s shoes: He was eighty years young, having held sway over his kingdom for more than half a century through war and peace. He’s a Philistine, who the Egyptians called the “Sea People”, and a descendant of a tribe of seafarers and raiders that were not unlike the Vikings of their day. We might say that his olive complexion looks a bit Greek, but it’s hundreds of years before Homer composed his first stanza. At this time, the Philistines controlled a coastal area of Israel from what today would be Gaza to just south of Tel Aviv. Abimelech is ruling from a town called Gerar, though it’s not one of the principal Philistine cities. In the time since the Philistines had come to Canaan, the local customs had rubbed off on them: they still spoke a separate language, but were increasingly worshipping Canaanite gods.
One day, Abimelech’s kingdom was greeted by two wanderers, a brother and sister from Canaan who had fallen upon hard times. Something was familiar about them, but he couldn’t quite place it– they both had just the hint of a Mesopotamian accent. Where had he heard that accent before? But the young lady was attractive and even though Abimelech was too old for those kinds of thoughts, he didn’t see the harm in letting them stay in Gerar.
But Abimelech didn’t live to his eighth decade by taking chances: he kept a close watch on the couple. After all, they could have been spies or worse. Not that it was too much of a chore to keep tabs on the young lady, after all. But a few weeks later, as he watched from afar, he caught the supposed siblings in a lover’s embrace. Realization dawned: they weren’t siblings! He stormed out of his hiding place to confront the young man. “She is really your wife! Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’?” The king fumed. He paused for a second, his brow creased, “Wait a second… have we done this before?”
That narrative is a fabrication, a mix of details from historical and biblical sources. But Abimelech is undoubtedly one of the most unusual figures in Genesis: a polytheist who nonetheless talked with God and may have been rewarded by Him. But was the Abimelech who met Abraham the same man who met Isaac? The bible isn’t clear and there is some disagreement. Read on for a look at what the early Jews and Christians thought.
Christians and Jews both refer to God as the God of “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”– the big three patriarchs of Genesis. But while the bible goes to great lengths to teach us about Abraham and Jacob, Isaac is almost a mystery. So much of his story is told through other eyes: we know of his torment by Ishmael through Abraham’s and Sarah’s reaction to it, we know of Abraham’s anguish at being asked to sacrifice his only remaining son, and later in the story we will see his granting of the birthright to Jacob through his and Rebekah’s eyes. Isaac is rarely a doer in Genesis, only one that reacts to things being done.
Fortunately for us, the Genesis narrator is crafty: several of the events in Isaac’s story closely parallel events in his father’s life. This grants a certain narrative economy, but more importantly allows us to learn who Isaac is by underscoring how he is or is not like his father. What kind of man do you think Isaac is? Read on for my view.
The Bible overall, but especially Genesis, is a collection of stories. These stories were stitched together (either by man or God, it doesn’t matter) to make theological or historical points. I’ve made a big deal out of ages and timelines in the last couple of posts because I love facts. I love nuggets of information that I can hold on to and draw context with. Genealogical tables, lists of place names, and timelines all fascinate me in the bible and I’ve done posts about all three.
The truth is though, that sometimes it seems like the author didn’t care about all of that. Some stories appear to be spiritually true more than they are historically true, or even true relative to other stories. This happens in the Proverbs (some of which directly contradict each other), this happens in Numbers (the inflated population figures), and it happens in Genesis. The ages of Isaac and Ishmael is one of those “truths”.
What do I mean? Well, I guess you’ll have to keep reading…
Some chapters are just action-packed: Genesis 21 is one of those. This chapter includes the birth of Isaac, the casting out of Ishmael and Hagar, and now a peace treaty between Abraham and Abimelech. You might remember that Abimelech had tried to take Sarah as a bride, only a chapter ago.
This story is a brief return, or perhaps a deliberate contrast, with the Abraham of Genesis 14. In that story, Abraham was a war-lord, a king in all but name. Abraham went to war against a host of Caananite kingdoms to rescue his nephew. Now, he’s suing for peace. Read on.
While I love the bible in translation, there are little moments that I miss for not being able to read the original Hebrew. All translations have to make difficult choices. Given a poem, for example, do we translate for the meaning or the meter of the verse? Should we fail at both and land in between? The bible contains poetry, of course, but these translation challenges happen whenever there is wordplay in the bible.
The birth of Isaac is one of the places where the humor, in this case the puns, simply don’t come through in our translations. In Hebrew, Isaac’s name means “he laughs”. (I have no way to verify this, but several of my bibles reference in this a footnote.) By a complete non-coincidence, the verb “laugh” happens all over the several chapters of Genesis that refer to Isaac. In fact, the verb appears in that story in Genesis more than it appears in any other book except the Psalms.
Let’s try an experiment. Let’s re-translate “Isaac” and “laughter” in the Isaac story as “Chuckles” (as a proper name) and “chuckle” (as a verb) and see what happens…
Then Abraham fell upon his face, and chuckled, and said in his heart: ‘Shall a child be born unto him that is a hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?’ … And God said: ‘Nay, but Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son; and thou shalt call his name Chuckles;
Modified Genesis 17:17-19
Not too bad, right? Funny, but understated. The vision of Abraham “falling on his face” underscores the humor intended. Can a woman that old have a child? Preposterous!
Genesis 21 follows up and knocks this pun out of the park:
And Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bore to him, Chuckles. […] And Sarah said: ‘God hath made Chuckles [or chuckles] for me; every one that heareth will chuckle on account of me.’
God was very hard on Abraham’s relationship with his kids. Despite the fact that he would be “a great nation”, the choices (and commands) that God gave Abraham only served to separate him from his family. While the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac is better known, it must have been all the more heart-wrenching to Abraham for one often overlooked reason: he had already sacrificed his fatherhood for his real first-born son. When God commanded him later to “Take now thy son, thine only son,” when he took Isaac up the mountain, those words must have stung twice over: both with regret for the son he had already lost, as much as for the one that he knew he was soon to lose.
After a long break with posts about holidays and marriage, I have returned to the Genesis stories. (The last was the second wife-sister story, where Abraham first meets Abimelech.) This will begin a short cycle (with one intermission to return to the Abimelech story) that will ultimately result in the loss of everything Abraham ever loved: Hagar, Ishmael, Isaac, and finally Sarah.
No discussion of biblical marriage can be complete without the major elephant in the room: polygamy. Though modern Jews and Christians hold that marriage should be like Adam and Eve, one man and one woman, early Jews thought otherwise well into the post-Christian era. Echos of this practice still exist today in Islam as well as a few very fringe Mormon groups. (Mormonism as a whole outlawed the practice around forty years after the religion’s founding.)
If you are just joining us, this week in honor of my first wedding anniversary, I’m doing a post every day about a different aspect of marriage in the Torah. Monday was marriage in the creation story. Tuesday was Levrite marriage. Today, I’m digging into polygamy.
I’m abandoned all pretense now: I’m just going to go at my own pace, but still based on the Jewish liturgical cycle as far as break-points are concerned. There’s just too much to write about and I hate to skip things. (Like I did Babel, for example.)
As I wrote a bit about a few posts ago, Genesis in particular features what to a modern ear sounds like bizarre textual echos. You can see this in the duplications in Noah, in the creation story, and elsewhere. These echos could be visible stitching as multiple versions of the early bible were edited together, or they could have a specific deeper purpose, but in either case one of the most bizarre echos are in the several stories in Genesis where a patriarch disguises his wife as his sister.
Genesis 12:10 begins the first of these echos with Abram, and to make it even more exciting, it’s a DOUBLE echo!