In earlier years, Abraham and Sarah had experienced a severe famine in the land of Canaan, leading to their taking up temporary residence in Egypt. Faced with another severe famine in the land, Isaac headed for Gerar (not far from Gaza), where the Philistine king Abimelech ruled. Apparently this Abimelech was not the same king with whom Abraham had dealings at a much earlier time, and likely the designation “Abimelech” (“my father [is] king”) was a royal title. Like his father Abraham, Isaac probably planned to travel southward to Mizraim (Egypt). (26:1) Targum Jonathan is specific in saying that it was in Isaac’s “heart to go down to Mizraim [Egypt].” Josephus (Antiquities, I, xviii, 2) wrote that “Isaac resolved to go into Egypt,” but then said that “he went to Gerar, as God commanded him.”
YHWH (apparently the representative angel of YHWH) appeared to Isaac, instructing him not to go to Egypt but to remain in the land that had been promised to Abraham as a future inheritance. The nature of this appearance is not disclosed in the Genesis account. YHWH assured Isaac that he would bless him in the land, for he would give to him and his “seed” or descendants the entire land (literally, “all these lands”; “all this land” [LXX]), fulfilling the oath-bound promise he had made to his father Abraham. YHWH would increase the “seed” or descendants of Isaac “like the stars of the heavens.” “All the nations of the earth” were to bless themselves by his “seed.” (26:2-4) In the fulfillment, the “seed” by whom people of the nations were to bless themselves is the Messiah or Christ, Jesus the unique Son of God. Persons who put faith in him and his sacrifice of himself for them are granted forgiveness of their sins and thus gain an approved relationship with God as his beloved children.
The promise YHWH made to Isaac repeated the very promise he had earlier made to Abraham. This confirmation of the promise to Isaac occurred because Abraham had heeded YHWH’s “voice” and observed his charge, commandments, statutes, and laws. (26:5)
After Isaac began residing in Gerar, the inhabitants asked him about his wife Rebekah. Fearing that the men might kill him and that one of them would take possession of his wife as his own on account of her exceptional beauty, he, like his father Abraham had done many years earlier, told them that she was his sister. On a later occasion, the Philistine king Abimelech, from a window of his residence, observed the interaction of Isaac with Rebekah. He recognized that Rebekah was the wife of Isaac, not his sister. Abimelech thereafter reproved him for the misrepresentation that could have brought guilt on his people if one of the men had lain with her. Subsequently, he warned his subjects not to lay a hand on Isaac or on his wife, decreeing the death penalty for anyone who were to do so. (26:6-11)
In the same year, Isaac experienced YHWH’s blessing on his agricultural labors. He harvested a hundredfold from the seed he had sown. During the time he lived in the region, Isaac became very wealthy, accumulating flocks and herds. His household expanded extensively, apparently through the addition of many male and female servants and their offspring. As a result, he became an object of envy among the Philistines. (26:12-14)
After the death of Abraham, the Philistines had stopped up all the wells he had dug in the region, filling them with soil. Isaac reopened these wells and called them by the names his father had given them. (26:15, 18)
Imagining Isaac and his large household to have become a potential threat, Abimelech demanded that he move away, asserting that Isaac had become much mightier than he and his people. There were repeated problems with the Philistines after Isaac took up tenting in the valley of Gerar. Subsequent to digging a well in the valley and obtaining a water supply for flocks and herds, the servants of Isaac were faced with hostile herders from Gerar. The herders insisted that the water was theirs. For this reason, Isaac named the well “Esek” (“Contention”; “Injustice” [LXX]), “for they [the Philistines] had contended with him” (for they wronged him [did him injustice] [LXX]). Again a quarrel erupted with herders from Gerar respecting the digging of another well. Isaac named that well “Sitnah” (“Accusation”; “Enmity” [LXX]). (26:16-21) Josephus attributed Isaac’s withdrawal from violent confrontation with the Philistine herders to “rational and prudent conduct” that gained security for him. (Antiquities, I, xviii, 2)
To avoid future conflict with the Philistines, Isaac moved away from the area. This time no disputing arose in connection with the digging of a well. Therefore, Isaac named this well “Rehoboth” (“Broad Places” or “Spaciousness”) because he perceived that YHWH had “made room” for his household and that they would become fruitful in the land. He departed from there, arriving at Beer-sheba, a site at the edge of the desert south of the mountainous region of what later became a part of the territory of the tribe of Judah. That night (likely in a vision), YHWH (his representative angel) appeared to Isaac, identifying himself as the God of his father Abraham and telling him not to be afraid as he would be with him, bless him, and make his “seed” or descendants numerous “for the sake of [his] servant Abraham.” Isaac then built an altar there, called upon the “name” or person of YHWH (doubtless by offering sacrifices and praying to him). Isaac also located his tent at Beer-sheba, and his servants dug a well. (26:22-25)
After Isaac had relocated his household to Beer-sheba, Abimelech, accompanied by his “companion” or trusted counselor Ahuzzath (Ochozath [LXX] and Phicol (Phikol or Phichol [LXX]) the commander of his army arrived from Gerar. Isaac asked why they had come, considering that they hated him and had sent him away from their region. They explained that they recognized that YHWH was with him, and they wanted to conclude an oath-bound covenant with him, assuring them that he would not harm them just as they had not touched him. Apparently they regarded the size of Isaac’s household as a potential threat to their security and wanted a binding agreement so that a peaceful relationship would continue with a man whom they acknowledged as the “blessed one of YHWH” and to whom they claimed they had only done good and sent away in peace. (26:26-29)
Isaac prepared a feast for Abimelech, Ahuzzath, and Phicol. Early in the morning of the next day, they concluded an oath-bound covenant with one another, and the men departed from Isaac in peace. On the same day, Isaac’s servants reported that they had obtained water from the well they had dug. Isaac named the well Shibah (Oath [LXX]) and called the city Beer-sheba (“Well of an oath” [LXX]), apparently recalling the oath that Isaac, Abimelech, Ahuzzath, and Phicol had taken with one another. At the same time, Isaac preserved the name that his father Abraham had earlier given to the site. Beer-sheba continued to be the name of the place in the time the Genesis account came to be in its final written form. (26:30-33)
Apparently without the consent or guidance of his father Isaac, Esau, at the age of 40, married “Judith [Ioudin (LXX) the daughter of Beeri [Beer (LXX)] the Hittite and Basemath [Basemmath (LXX)] the daughter of Elon [Ailon (LXX)] the Hittite.” Josephus (Antiquities, I, xviii, 4) referred to the fathers of the two women as “great lords among the Canaanites.” Josephus wrote that Esau did not ask his father Isaac for advice and that Isaac would not have given his approval, “for he was not pleased with contracting any alliance with the people of that country.” The two women proved to be a source of bitterness (literally, “bitterness of spirit”) for Isaac and Rebekah. According to the Septuagint, the two women quarreled with Esau’s parents. (26:34, 35) Targum Jonathan indicates that Judith and Basemath engaged in strange worship and, by their evil conduct, rebelled against Isaac and Rebekah.
It appears that Phicol and Ahuzzath (Possession), like Abimelech, were official titles. According to the Septuagint (26:26), Ochozath (Ahuzzath) was Abimelech’s nymphagogós (literally, “leader of the bride”) and may here designate a “trusted companion” or counselor.
Targum Jonathan says that, after Isaac, departed from Gerar, the wells dried up and the trees did not bear fruit. This was the reason Abimelech, accompanied by his companions, came to Isaac, asking him to pray for them. The Targum quotes them as saying, “For your righteousness’ sake all good has come to us. But when you departed from our land, the wells dried up, and our trees bore no fruit. Then we said, We will cause him to return to us. And now let there be an oath established between us, and kindness between us and you, and we will enter into a covenant with you, lest you do us evil.”