Introduction to Genesis 26 and Gen. 26:1 “There Was a Famine”

Posted on March 6, 2011. Filed under: Genesis: Answers to Life's Crucial Questions |

Sunday, 03-06-2011

Bryan E. Walker

Read Genesis 26:1-5

Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech king of the Philistines. 2 And the Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. 3 Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. 4 I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, 5 because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”

6 So Isaac settled in Gerar. 7 When the men of the place asked him about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” for he feared to say, “My wife,” thinking, “lest the men of the place should kill me because of Rebekah,” because she was attractive in appearance. 8 When he had been there a long time, Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out of a window and saw Isaac laughing with  Rebekah his wife. 9 So Abimelech called Isaac and said, “Behold, she is your wife. How then could you say, ‘She is my sister’?” Isaac said to him, “Because I thought, ‘Lest I die because of her.’” 10 Abimelech said, “What is this you have done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.” 11 So Abimelech warned all the people, saying, “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.”

12 And Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. The Lord blessed him, 13 and the man became rich, and gained more and more until he became very wealthy. 14 He had possessions of flocks and herds and many servants, so that the Philistines envied him. 15 (Now the Philistines had stopped and filled with earth all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father.) 16 And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you are much mightier than we.”

17 So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the Valley of Gerar and settled there. 18 And Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Abraham his father, which the Philistines had stopped after the death of Abraham. And he gave them the names that his father had given them. 19 But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, 20 the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” So he called the name of the well Esek,  because they contended with him. 21 Then they dug another well, and they quarreled over that also, so he called its name Sitnah.  22 And he moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it. So he called its name Rehoboth,  saying, “For now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.”

23 From there he went up to Beersheba. 24 And the Lord appeared to him the same night and said, “I am the God of Abraham your father. Fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham’s sake.” 25 So he built an altar there and called upon the name of the Lord and pitched his tent there. And there Isaac’s servants dug a well.

26 When Abimelech went to him from Gerar with Ahuzzath his adviser and Phicol the commander of his army, 27 Isaac said to them, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?” 28 They said, “We see plainly that the Lord has been with you. So we said, let there be a sworn pact between us, between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you, 29 that you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good and have sent you away in peace. You are now the blessed of the Lord.” 30 So he made them a feast, and they ate and drank. 31 In the morning they rose early and exchanged oaths. And Isaac sent them on their way, and they departed from him in peace. 32 That same day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well that they had dug and said to him, “We have found water.” 33 He called it Shibah;  therefore the name of the city is Beersheba to this day.


Introduction: This morning we are going to begin our study of chapter 26 which might take 3-4 weeks. As we usually do, we will begin by looking closely at the literary structure of this chapter and how it fits in with the rest of Genesis, what has gone before and what is to come after. I don’t know about you, but this chapter has always kind of mystified me because it seemed like it was out of place or did not quite fit in. After studying it now, I once again see the genius of Moses and the incredible beauty and symmetry of this book.

After we do our literary analysis of this chapter we will begin to look at the first 6 verses and see what the Lord has for us. These verses will present us with a famine in the Promised Land and we will see how Isaac handles the obstacle. The focus of these first 6 verses is on God’s faithfulness to his covenant.



  1. I.                   Literary Analysis of 26:1-33
    1. A.     Themes
      1. 1.      Conflict and Blessing- in our study of Abraham we saw major themes of the promise of land, descendants, blessing but also we saw obstacles or conflicts which kept appearing. In this chapter we see the themes of conflict and blessing: conflict- which begins with a famine and the temptation to go to Egypt – followed by the blessing of covenant renewal. Then the next conflict occurs over Isaac’s beautiful wife, whom he passed off as his sister, followed by the blessing of a hundredfold harvest. Fear of Isaac leads to more conflict and then there is more conflict over the wells that he digs which is followed by another promise of blessing from God and a peaceful treaty with Abimelech.
      2. 2.      Geography- The action involves Isaac moving to Gerar in vs.1; to the valley of Gerar in vs.17, and then to Beersheba in vs. 23.
      3. 3.      Faith- Isaac’s faith is shown by his obedience to the LORD in not going down to Egypt. Abraham’s faith is brought up in a fourfold description of his obedience to the law.
      4. 4.      Temptation and sin- the sins of the fathers are indeed passed down to the next generation as Isaac is tempted to go to Egypt during a famine. Like his father, Isaac passes off his wife as his sister out of an unwarranted fear. This trait of deception will be manifest in Isaac’s son, Jacob.
    2. B.     Structure (Waltke, p.365)
      1. 1.      Theophany, vss.1-6, at Gerar (1) blessing conditioned upon Isaac’s staying in the land, vss.2-5. (2) Isaac stays , vs.6.

2. Blessing of protection on Rebekah, vss.7-11.

              3.  Blessing of prosperity, vss. 12-16.

4.   Isaac reopens Abraham’s wells, vss.17-18,

5.   Conflict over the wells, vss.19-21 (looks back at v.15).

6.   Isaac digs Rehoboth, uncontested, vs.22, looks forward to  vss.


7.  Theophany,  ss. 23-25, at  Beersheba. (1) blessing  of vss.23-24

      is unconditioned. (2) Worship, vs.25.

8. Blessing of protection through a treaty, vss.26-31.

   9.  Blessing of prosperity, vss.32-33.

                  C.   Parallels with the Abraham Narrative (Waltke, p.366)

                                 1.  Abraham

                                       a. God’s call and promise, 12:1-3

                                       b. Wife-sister deception, 12:10-20

                                       c.  Conflict with Lot over land, 13:1-12

                                       d.  Theophany and sacrifice, 15:1-21

                                       e.  Treaty with Abimelech at Beersheba, 21:22-24

                                 2.  Isaac

                                       a.  God’s call and promise, 26:1-6

                                       b.  Wife-sister deception, 26:7-11

                                       c.  Conflict over water, 26:14-22

                                       d.  Theophany and sacrifice, 26:23-25

                                       e.  Treaty with Abimelech at Beersheba, 26:26-33

                   D.  Key Words

                                  1.  Blessing- vss.26:3, 12, 24, 29.

                                  2.  Abraham his father- 26:3, 5, 15, 18, 24.

                   E.   Placement of chapter 26

                                  1.  Anachrony- chapter 26  most  likely takes  place before the birth  of the twins because they would  have been a  clue to  Abimelech that  Isaac  and Rebekah  were  married.  

                                  2Why did Moses  place this  episode after  the birthright  story and before the blessing story?  Chapter 26 is  about the  covenant  being passed down to  Isaac  with  its  promises  of  blessing  and  protections.  The conflict between Jacob  and  Esau  is  over  who will inherit these blessings.  The  deception  Isaac  practices  also  points back to his father Abraham and forward to Jacob, his son.

  1. 2.      Ross writes, p.453, “Genesis 26, with its concentration on Isaac rather than Jacob, does not seem to be closely connected to its context. Without it, Genesis 25 and 27 would form a smooth continuation for the Jacob stories. In a parallel way Genesis 34 (the story of the rape of Dinah) seems to interrupt Genesis 33 and 35. But chapters 26 and 34 form interludes in the development of the Jacob stories: the first interlude is about the father of Jacob, and it comes just prior to the major break with Esau; the second interlude is about the sons of Jacob, and it comes just after the reconciliation with Esau. The two chapters, then, bracket the concentration of the on the Jacob and Esau conflict, liking the stories to the ancestry and progeny.”
  2. 3.      Wenham, p.186, has a good discussion of the placement of this chapter. He points out that not only do chs.26 and 34 have an important role in the Jacob story, but ch.24 plays a similar role in the Abraham stories and, later, ch.38 (Tamar and Judah) also plays a seemingly disruptive role in the Joseph stories. These are not random departures from the story lines, they are integral to the stories.


  1. II.                Exposition of 26:1-6 “Do Not Go Down To Egypt
    1. A.     Introduction, vs.1
      1. 1.      Baldwin, p. 108, “This chapter is the only one devoted entirely to Isaac, whose story is not only shorter but also less spectacular than that of either Abraham or Jacob. In many ways he is the bridge between the two, recapitulating the lessons learnt by Abraham, and passing on to his sons all that God had so far revealed of the family’s destiny and of God himself.”
      2. 2.      Vs.1 “Now there was a famine…” In a typical Moses fashion he begins with an idea that links with the previous story, 25:29-34, Esau was famished and in fact is so hungry that he bartered away his birthright to Jacob for a pot of lentil stew. “He ate and drank…Now there was a famine in the land.” Esau was, in all likelihood, not really about to die from starvation; the story emphasizes that he did not consider his spiritual birthright worth his desire as he focused on his physical desires. We will see this again in 26:34-35 as he marries against the will of his parents. This then gives us some bookends for the Isaac story of ch.26.
      3. 3.      The opening line from 26:1 also points us directly back to 12:10. Here Moses is deliberately comparing Isaac with Abraham. Droughts and the resulting famines were re-occurring events in Canaan. It seems that Isaac’s intention was to go down to Egypt just as Abraham had, but the LORD tells me not to go in vs. 2.
      4. 4.      For Israel in Moses’ day, they had to face a shortage of food and water early in their escape from Egypt. They left immediately after celebrating Passover, a feast, but by Ex.15, after crossing the Red Sea and watching God judge the Egyptian Army, they headed off into the wilderness and were out of water after traveling for three days. Ex.15:24 “And the people grumbled against Moses.”
      5. 5.      In Ex. 16:1-3 “Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then, in vss.4ff the LORD rains bread from heaven, manna. So as a possible preaching point to the people of his day, Moses could have pointed to Isaac’s willingness to stay in Canaan in the famine.
      6. 6.      An application- some problems come up in every generation that are similar or even exactly the same. We can learn from the past, from history, from our parents. Had Isaac and Abraham talked about the famine, the trip down to Egypt, and how obtaining the slave girl, Hagar, worked out not so well?

  The Lord elsewhere uses famine in a spiritual way, Amos 8:11-12   

11 “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God,
“when I will send a famine on the land—
not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
12 They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord,
but they shall not find it.

  1. 7.      Application: is it even possible for our modern society to experience a famine? What could bring on a famine? How would you respond? How would a famine affect our church?
  2. 8.      Application: Is there a spiritual famine in our land? How can we prepare for or overcome a spiritual famine?
  3. 9.      Why would Isaac, and before him, Abraham, go to Egypt during a famine? Kidner, p.153, “The promise was searching: to refuse the immediate plenty of Egypt for the mostly unseen (3a) and distant blessings (3b,4) demanded the kind of faith praised in Hebrews 11:9,10 and proved him a true son of his father- even though, like Abraham, he was to mar his obedience at once.”

10.  Francisco, p.202, “When famine came, Isaac seemed to be   heading for Egypt, as his father Abraham had done. When he had come as far as Gerar, he was hindered by God himself from going any further. This was his initial test of faith, not the adventure of following God to a land he did not know, but the endurance of remaining in that land when the going was hard. This was a more difficult test than the one initially faced by Abraham, for nothing is more difficult than to stay in one’s place to starve when there is grain in Egypt. Isaac met the test without a murmur and as a consequence became more prosperous than Abraham ever was (vv.12-16).”

11.  “besides the former famine”- many of the liberal critics of Scripture point to the similar stories of Isaac and Abraham- the famine, the deception about the wife-sister, the wells- and say that there could only be one actual event of these natures and that the several stories are the result of different traditions or sources. However, here in the text itself is a clue: the author specifically relates that this famine was different from the one in Abraham’s day. And we know that droughts were not uncommon, so there is absolutely no reason to not take this passage as being genuine. And it would be typical for people to head to Egypt because Egypt was the breadbasket of the Mediterranean. We will see another famine in Joseph’s days and the Lord will at that time send Jacob and his family to Egypt.

12.  And Isaac went to Gerar- this city is considered to be on the border with Egypt and is not technically part of Canaan.

13.  “Abimelech king of the Philistines”- since at least 40 years had passed since Abraham had visited Abimelech (he and Sarah went before she was pregnant with Isaac) this is probably not the same man. Abimelech is a royal title given to their king. We don’t know for sure how old Isaac is at this point, but it is after his marriage to Rebekah at age 40, yet before having children at age 60.

14.  “the Philistines”- the action in this chapter takes place around the years of 2000  B.C. and yet most scholars say the Philistines did not come into the region until about 1200B.C. and the invasion by the Sea Peoples. If this is a fairly secure date by archeology and history, so how do we explain this? The Philistines have been mentioned before (21:34; 10:14- they are related to the Casluhim and Caphtorim. See also Deut. 2:23). This could be one of the rare instances where we have a possible update to the story so that the people of either Moses’ day or during a later time would understand which people Isaac and Abraham had encountered in their current terms. This should not be considered an error in Scripture and we believe that some later updating of place names and people groups does not affect the veracity or inspiration of the text. However, archeology does show that the cities of the Philistines were occupied during Abraham and Isaac’s day and the Philistines could have arrived in earlier waves, trickles, much earlier than the records show. The Philistines are related to the earliest Greeks, the Myceneans.


Baldwin, Joyce G. The Bible Speaks Today series, The Message of Genesis 12-50. Inter-Varsity Press, 1986 (pp.108-109.)

Boice, James Montgomery. Genesis: An Expositional Commentary, Vol.2 Genesis 12:1-36:43. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 1985 (pp.270-275).

Calvin, John. The Geneva Series of Commentaries. Genesis. Translated and edited by John King, 1847. Banner of Truth Trust: Edinburgh, Scotland 1965 (originally published in Latin, 1554. 2 volumes in one, (vol. 2 pp.55-60.)

Francisco, Clyde T. The Broadman Bible Commentary, vol.1, Revised, General Articles, Genesis-Exodus, “Genesis” pp.201-202. Broadman Press: Nashville, TN. 1973.

Hamilton, Victor P. New International Commentary on the Old Testament, The Book of Genesis The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI 1995 (p.189-198.)

Keil, C.F. Keil&Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament, vol.1, Pentateuch “The First Book of Moses (Genesis)” translated by James Martin. Hendrickson: Peabody, Mass. (Reprinted from the English edition originally published by T&T Clark, Edinburgh 1866-91). (p.173).

Kidner, Derek. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Genesis: an Introduction and Commentary. Inter-Varsity Press: Downers Grove, ILL. 1967 (pp.152-153).

Ross, Allen P. Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis. Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, MI. 1996 (pp.453-461)

Sailhamer, John H. NIV Compact Bible Commentary. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI. 1994 (p.39).

______________ The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Frank E. Gaebelein, ed. Volume 2 Genesis-Numbers, “Genesis”. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI. 1990 (pp.184-7).

Walton, John H. and Matthews, Victor H. The IVP Bible Background Commentary, Genesis-Deuteronomy. InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, Ill.1997 (p.56).

Waltke, Bruce K. Genesis: A Commentary. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI 1991 (pp.365-372).

Wenham, Gordon J. Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 2, Genesis 16-50. Word Books: Dallas, TX 1994 (pp.181-197.)


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