Genesis 26 – Liars and Kings

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Today’s PassageGenesis 26

In today’s chapter, Isaac travels in the land of a foreign king, in order to avoid the effects of a local famine, and to keep the inhabitants from killing him and taking his extremely attractive wife, he claims she’s his sister. Sound familiar? It’s the same thing Abraham did twice before. However, to paraphrase the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, you can’t step in the same river twice, much less the same river that your father stepped in. Isaac’s encounter doesn’t go exactly as his father’s two encounters did, but what are we to make of that?

Once again, we find ourselves in a room with an elephant in it. Some scholarly criticism posits that the three accounts conflate a single event, or that they are mythic or didactic tales not meant to be taken as history at all, or otherwise cannot reasonably be expected to have happened. I have to admit it has strained my credulity at times that Abraham would have made the same mistake twice, almost note for note, or Isaac would have made the same error in the same country as his father, or that Abimelech wouldn’t have recognized the same situation playing out. And although at present I find it plausible that the three accounts describe three different events from the lives of real ancient Near East humans, I have to admit that in the future, they may strain my credulity again.

But I’m not here to convince you of anything. I’m not even here to convince myself. I’m here to read the Bible and talk about it. I will note that “Abimelech,” meaning “father of the king,” could be a title, much like “Pharaoh,” giving us two Abimelechs. But they both have a military captain named Phicol. Is Phicol also a title? Maybe. Unlike “Abimelech,” it doesn’t have a clear meaning in Hebrew, so it may be a transliteration of a word from the Philistine language. But let’s move on to two more important questions: Why are these accounts in here? What are they meant to teach us?

First, that lying has consequences, and not always for the liar. Trouble comes to the king’s household because of Abraham’s lies, and the situation is only set right when he’s confronted and forced to tell the truth. The Abimelech of Isaac’s story doesn’t take Rebecca; perhaps he’s wised up to situations like these, whether through past experience or through the instruction of his father Abimelech, the father of Abimelech. I don’t know. Point is, if injustice is a disordered universe, lying propagates injustice. It warps the world, promotes misconceptions, and has unintended consequences, causing suffering to people other than just the liar.

The second lesson is that God can speak to whomever he wants, whenever he wants, however he wants–even pagan kings. The patriarchs assume there is no fear of God in these foreign nations (20:11), but each time, the king treats the patriarch with kindness and hospitality. And both Pharaoh and Abimelech return Sarah to Abraham out of reverence for God’s protection over Abraham! God even speaks directly to Abimelech, warning him of the truth that Abraham omitted (20:3-7). It might be a stretch, but I’m reminded of twenty one pilots’ song “Heathens.” These ostensibly pagan kings are closer to God than Abraham and Isaac might give them credit for.

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