In the early days of Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage, long before they had their twin boys, they went through many trials and struggles. At one point, a great famine came upon the land, and it grew more and more difficult for families to find enough to eat. It was getting dangerous. The lives of God’s chosen family was at risk. What was Isaac going to do?
Well, he packed up his family and his servants, his tents and his livestock and all of their valuable treasures. They began a journey to Egypt, where the Nile River poured out an unending water supply. It brought plentiful harvests to feed the Egyptian people and their animals. Along the way, Isaac and Rebekah passed through the land of the Philistines. While they were there, Isaac heard from God.
The LORD told Isaac not to go down to Egypt. Isaac was to stay in the Land of Promise.
That would take tremendous courage and faith. It might mean hunger for his clan. It would probably mean the death of many of their animals. Yet Isaac was faithful. He went to the region ruled by Abimelech, who live in the midst of the Promised Land.
Abimelech is a name we have already heard before. Abraham and Sarah met a man of that name in their travels. He was a king, and Abraham was afraid of him. Sarah was so beautiful that Abraham feared the king would kill him if he learned that Abraham was her husband. So he told the first Abimelech that Sarah was his sister, and Abimelech took her into his house to become his wife. Wow! Can you imagine what that was like for Sarah? But God saved the day. He came in a dream and told Abimelech that Sarah was Abraham’s wife, and Abimelech sent her back to her husband.
Now Isaac was face to face with another tribal leader. Some scholars suggest that he was probably the grandson of the first Abimelech. This king called himself the king of the Philistines in the land of Gerar. God told Isaac not to journey any further, but to rest in Abimelech’s land with his family.
Then something amazing happened. God appeared to Isaac in a grand theophany. “Theophany” is a fancy word to describe when God appears to a human. God showed himself to Abraham in a theophany three times, and each time it was a great marker in the life of his chosen servant. God came to communicate his covenant promises to Abraham, which should tell us how incredibly important those promises were. Now the LORD had come to Isaac to pass the covenant of Abraham on to him. The Lord said to Isaac;
“‘Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendents I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws.’ So Isaac stayed in Gerar.”
Wow. What an awesome moment. For all those years, Isaac had learned about the promises of God from Abraham and Sarah. Now God had appeared to him, and Isaac heard the words in person. This was not just a gift to his parents, he was a critical part of the covenant himself. His descendents would be as many as the stars, and every nation would be blessed through him. The fate of all humanity was tied up in the fate of Isaac and Rebekah.
It is interesting that God said these promises were given to Isaac through Abraham. There was a wealth of blessing stored up from Abraham’s obedience that was pouring out onto Isaac. Abraham kept the whole of all that God desired from him. His relationship with God was a righteous partnership so abundant that it flowed to the next generation!
God gave Isaac great and precious promises of abundance, but Isaac had to believe in them without seeing them. God gave them in the middle of a great famine, and he would make Isaac and Rebekah wait for twenty years to have their twins! Isaac was being called to live by the same faith that Abraham had. He was called to live by the same righteous standard and the same immediate obedience, too! He showed his immediate obedience by settling his vast clan down in Gerar! He chose the hardship of famine and faithfulness to God over the abundance of bread and ease in a place that was outside of God’s will.
The men of Gerar were very quick to notice Rebekah. She was a woman of remarkable beauty. Isaac was afraid to admit she was his wife. What if they wanted to kill him so they could have her?
And so he lied. He told them that she was his sister. Hm.
Who else does that remind you of? Isaac was acting just like his father.
Now, these lies might seem a bit strange to us, but we need to remember that they lived in very different times. There were no police officers to come and protect a family when others came to attack. There was no court system to try a man if he murdered someone. It was a dangerous and almost lawless land, and men were vicious and corrupt. The most powerful men often determined the law of the land, and Abimelech was very powerful. When Isaac weighed his options, the crisis of his own death might have seemed a lot less than facing the problem of a local man claiming Rebekah for his own while they were resting in Abimelech’s land.
There were good reasons for Isaac to be afraid if he was merely living according to the rules of this world. But Isaac wasn’t meant to live as this world is all there is. He was a man of God’s sacred covenant. He had heard the stories of how God provided for his father. He himself was one of God’s great provisions.
But God had a discipleship for Isaac just as surely as he had for Abraham, and Isaac was in the midst of one of the twisting points. Isaac had already avoided one of Abraham’s mistakes…he didn’t go to Egypt. Now he had another choice. Did he believe more in the fear of the power of men, or in the promises of God? Did he trust that God would protect his marriage, that Isaac could protect his wife and trust God with the results? What would happen if one of the local men wanted to take Rebekah and marry her? What would happen to the covenant if Rebekah’s children no longer belonged to Isaac? Would Isaac let her go? What would happen to the promises of God?