Abraham and Isaac in Gerar Foreshadows Judea under Persian Rule
Genesis has a set of stories about Abraham and Isaac living in the territory of Abimelech, the Philistine king of Gerar. For over a century, archaeologists and Bible scholars have observed that while these stories are set in the Bronze Age, the Philistines only entered the Levant at the beginning of the Iron Age, and thus these stories cannot be historically accurate.
Scholars have offered many hypotheses to explain when and why such stories would have been written. Did their authors simply not know that using Philistines for these stories was anachronistic? Or do the Philistines here represent some other group? I believe that a careful reading of these stories, especially noting the way Abimelech is consistently painted in a positive light, points us toward the answer.
Abraham, Sarah, and Abimelech in Gerar
When Abraham travels to the Negev, he takes up residence in the city of Gerar, ruled by King Abimelech. Abraham pretends Sarah is his sister, and Abimelech takes her as a wife. God then appears to Abimelech in a dream to warn him to return Sarah, and Abimelech protests his innocence, on the grounds that Abraham had dissembled about his and Sarah’s true relationship. God admits that Abimelech is in fact blameless:
בראשית כ:ו וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו הָאֱלֹהִים בַּחֲלֹם גַּם אָנֹכִי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי בְתָם לְבָבְךָ עָשִׂיתָ זֹּאת וָאֶחְשֹׂךְ גַּם אָנֹכִי אוֹתְךָ מֵחֲטוֹ לִי...
Gen 20:6 And God said to him in the dream, “I knew that you did this with a blameless heart, and so I kept you from sinning against Me…”
Abimelech rebukes Abraham, and asks him why he lied:
בראשית כ:י וַיֹּאמֶר אֲבִימֶלֶךְ אֶל אַבְרָהָם מָה רָאִיתָ כִּי עָשִׂיתָ אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה. כ:יא וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם כִּי אָמַרְתִּי רַק אֵין יִרְאַת אֱלֹהִים בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וַהֲרָגוּנִי עַל דְּבַר אִשְׁתִּי.
Gen 20:10 Abimelech said, “What did you see that brought you to do this thing?” 20:11 “I thought,” said Abraham, “surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.”
Contrary to Abraham’s assumption, Abimelech demonstrates that there is fear of God in Gerar. In fact, when Abimelech informs his people about Sarah being married to Abraham and the danger that this puts Abimelech and his people in (according to God’s warning), the text states וַיִּירְאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים מְאֹד “the people were very much afraid” (Gen 20:8). Moreover, Abimelech describes the act of taking a man’s wife as חֲטָאָה גְדֹלָה “a terrible sin” (Gen 20:9). After Abimelech returns Sarah to Abraham, he offers a further sign of his goodwill by permitting Abraham to settle anywhere in his land (Gen 20:15).
Abimelech is being portrayed more positively than Pharaoh in the parallel story of Abram and Sarai in Egypt (Gen 12:10–20), as seen by comparing the following points:
- God speaks to Abimelech but God simply strikes Pharaoh with a plague.
- Abimelech asks Abraham why he lied while Pharaoh simply makes a speech and never asks Abram anything.
- Abimelech allows Abraham to settle anywhere he wants in his territory while Pharaoh has Abram removed from Egypt.
- Abimelech gives Abraham money to help ameliorate the harm he did to Sarah, while Pharaoh gives money only as long as he thought Abram was her brother.
Genesis 20 was written with the Pharaoh story in the background, to make Abimelech, and whoever he represents, look good. While Abraham is initially wary of him, Abimelech succeeds in earning Abraham and Sarah’s trust and they remain living in his territory.
The Oath and Well at Beersheba
After Sarah gives birth to Isaac and, several years later, Ishmael is banished from Abraham and Sarah’s house, Abimelech comes to visit Abraham, who is now living in Beersheba, located in territory that is in Gerar’s domain:
בראשית כא:כב וַיְהִי בָּעֵת הַהִוא וַיֹּאמֶר אֲבִימֶלֶךְ [תה"ש: וַאֲחֻזַּת מֵרֵעֵהוּ] וּפִיכֹל שַׂר צְבָאוֹ אֶל אַבְרָהָם לֵאמֹר אֱלֹהִים עִמְּךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה׃
Gen 21:22 At that time Abimelech [LXX: and Ahuzzath his councilor] and Phicol, chief of his troops, said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything that you do.”
Abimelech begins by speaking about God’s support of Abraham, and follows this up with a request that Abraham swear that he and his descendants will remain faithful to Abimelech and his descendants:
בראשית כא:כג וְעַתָּה הִשָּׁבְעָה לִּי בֵאלֹהִים הֵנָּה אִם תִּשְׁקֹר לִי וּלְנִינִי וּלְנֶכְדִּי כַּחֶסֶד אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי עִמְּךָ תַּעֲשֶׂה עִמָּדִי וְעִם הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר גַּרְתָּה בָּהּ׃
Gen 21:23 “Therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my kith and kin, but will deal with me and with the land in which you have sojourned as faithfully as I have dealt with you.”
The term chesed means something like “faithfulness” or “graciousness,” and is often expressed by a more powerful figure. Here, Abimelech, reminding Abraham of how he has been kindly permitted to remain in Abimelech’s territory despite the initial act of deceit, seeks to leverage this kind behavior to ensure that Abraham’s descendants will treat him and his descendants with the same faithfulness. Clearly this is meant to foreshadow a historical reality in the author’s time.
Abraham answers אָנֹכִי אִשָּׁבֵעַ “I swear” (v. 24) but mentions a dispute he is having with Abimelech’s servants about a well that he dug. Abimelech denies having known anything about it (vv. 25–26), and then the two make a covenant, with Abraham giving Abimelech seven sheep and Abimelech accepting that the well is Abraham’s, and they both swear, again ostensibly in God’s name (vv. 27–32). After this Abimelech and his entourage return to Gerar, and Abraham remains in the area now called Beersheba, “Well of the Oath.”
Abraham plants a tree and calls on the name of YHWH (v. 33), and the account ends with:
בראשית כב:לד וַיָּגָר אַבְרָהָם בְּאֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים יָמִים רַבִּים.
Gen 22:34 And Abraham resided in the land of the Philistines a long time.
Thus, Abraham apparently feels comfortable with Abimelech’s oath, and safe enough in his territory, to stay there for years.
The Meaning of the Abraham and Abimelech Stories
Abraham’s sojourn in the Negev and his interactions with King Abimelech of Gerar depict Abimelech in consistently positive terms. In both of the stories in Genesis 20 and Genesis 21:22–34, the two parties navigate tensions with each other by coming to agreements, expressing goodwill, and invoking God. Abraham is in the weaker position, living in Abimelech’s territory, but Abimelech respects him as a man of God, and Abraham succeeds in finding a place for himself in the land of the Philistines.
Isaac, Rebecca, and Abimelech in Gerar
The one section in Genesis in which Isaac is the protagonist (ch. 26) focuses on Isaac’s interactions with Abimelech, King of the Philistines, in Gerar. The story begins with Isaac moving to Gerar on account of a famine, and like Abraham did, he pretends that his wife Rebecca is his sister.
Isaac’s fears are entirely unfounded, as no one takes his wife at all. This time, Abimelech is spared even the suspicion of wrongdoing, and he eventually learns that Rebecca is Isaac’s wife when he accidentally spots the couple through a window מְצַחֵק “playing,” a euphemism for sex. His rebuke of Isaac is reminiscent of his rebuke of Abraham, again invoking the concept of sin:
בראשית כו:י וַיֹּאמֶר אֲבִימֶלֶךְ מַה זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לָּנוּ כִּמְעַט שָׁכַב אַחַד הָעָם אֶת אִשְׁתֶּךָ וְהֵבֵאתָ עָלֵינוּ אָשָׁם.
Gen 26:10 Abimelech said, “What have you done to us! One of the people might have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt (אָשָׁם) upon us.”
Since Abimelech did not take Rebecca, he is not worried about himself, but he is still upset about what could have happened to one of his righteous subjects. Notably, instead of the verb ח.ט.א “sin,” which he used in chapter 20, Abimelech uses the root א.שׁ.מ, meaning “guilt.” This is the only place where the word אָשָׁם is used in the book of Genesis, and it conjures up the image of the guilt offering, which is brought in cases of unintentional transgression (see Leviticus 5).
The 11th cent. Byzantine Jewish commentator, R. Toviah ben Eliezer, in his Lekah Tov (ad loc.) already observed the unexpected use of this word in Genesis:
והבאת עלינו אשם – שהאשם בא על מעילת השוגג. אבל באברהם כתיב כי הבאת עלי ועל ממלכתי חטאה גדולה. כי באברהם פשע. דכתיב וישלח אבימלך מלך גרר ויקח את שרה. אבל רבקה לא לקחה לאלתר.... לכך נאמר אשם.
“And you would have brought an asham upon us”—For the asham is brought on account of unintentional violations of the holy. But regarding Abraham, it is written (Gen 20:9) “for you have brought upon me and upon my kingdom a great sin.” For in Abraham’s case, he acted with iniquity, for it is written (Gen 20:2), “Abimelech King of Gerar sent forth and took Sarah.” But he did not just take Rebecca immediately… That is why it says asham.
The text is cognizant of Torah law as it appears in the priestly text, and may even be implying that Abimelech himself (and whoever he represents) is aware of the details of Torah law and respects them.
Oaths, Wells, and Beersheba
The next part of the story begins with Isaac becoming very wealthy in Gerar, leading the locals to be jealous of him (vv. 12–14) and even to block up the wells that Abraham had dug in the area (v. 15). This leads Abimelech to ask Isaac to move elsewhere (v. 16), and Isaac settles in the Valley of Gerar, where he unstops the wells, and even digs new wells, Esek and Sitnah. Both of these are disputed by the local shepherds (vv. 18–21), though a third well, Rehoboth, is undisputed (v. 22).
Isaac then moves to Beersheba, hears from YHWH, builds an altar, calls on the name of YHWH, and digs another well (vv. 23–25), after which Abimelech and his entourage visit him:
בראשית כו:כו וַאֲבִימֶלֶךְ הָלַךְ אֵלָיו מִגְּרָר וַאֲחֻזַּת מֵרֵעֵהוּ וּפִיכֹל שַׂר צְבָאוֹ׃
Gen 26:26 And Abimelech came to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his councilor and Phicol chief of his troops.
Given the conflicts, Isaac asks Abimelech and his entourage why they are there (v. 27), to which they respond by noting Isaac’s success and asking to make a covenant:
בראשית כו:כח וַיֹּאמְרוּ רָאוֹ רָאִינוּ כִּי הָיָה יְ־הוָה עִמָּךְ וַנֹּאמֶר תְּהִי נָא אָלָה בֵּינוֹתֵינוּ בֵּינֵינוּ וּבֵינֶךָ וְנִכְרְתָה בְרִית עִמָּךְ׃ כו:כט אִם תַּעֲשֵׂה עִמָּנוּ רָעָה כַּאֲשֶׁר לֹא נְגַעֲנוּךָ וְכַאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂינוּ עִמְּךָ רַק טוֹב וַנְּשַׁלֵּחֲךָ בְּשָׁלוֹם אַתָּה עַתָּה בְּרוּךְ יְ־הוָה׃
Gen 26:28 And they said, “We now see plainly that YHWH has been with you, and we thought: Let there be a sworn treaty between our two parties, between you and us. Let us make a pact with you 26:29 that you will not do us harm, just as we have not molested you but have always dealt kindly with you and sent you away in peace. From now on, be you blessed of YHWH!”
This scene is a repetition of the encounter between Abimelech and Abraham in Beersheba, but here Abimelech invokes the personal name of Isaac’s God, YHWH—in Genesis 21 he uses the generic term for God, Elohim—and Abimelech describes their relationship as one of שָׁלוֹם, “peace.”
Isaac and the visiting Philistines then have a meal together (v. 30), and the next morning they make their oaths:
בראשית כו:לא וַיַּשְׁכִּימוּ בַבֹּקֶר וַיִּשָּׁבְעוּ אִישׁ לְאָחִיו וַיְשַׁלְּחֵם יִצְחָק וַיֵּלְכוּ מֵאִתּוֹ בְּשָׁלוֹם׃
Gen 26:30 Then he made for them a feast, and they ate and drank. 26:31 Early in the morning, they exchanged oaths. Isaac then bade them farewell, and they departed from him in peace.
The story ends on the note of peace.
Peace with the Philistines: Abraham and Isaac as Models
The theme of Abraham’s and Isaac’s sojourn with the Philistines in Genesis 20–21 and Genesis 26 is the relations between Israel’s ancestors and a non-Israelite group in the land of Canaan. Taken as a whole, they emphasize the goodwill that the Philistine ruler shows to Abraham and Isaac (despite antagonism by parts of the Philistine population), which results in Abraham and Isaac confirming their reciprocal goodwill through oaths and covenants.
For the text’s readers, Abraham and Isaac’s agreement to a covenant with Abimelech implies that they too, like their ancestors, should treat the group represented by Abimelech and his posterity with respect.
Life in Israel Under Foreign Rule
The complex of stories about the patriarch living under a friendly foreign king is a veiled description of the life of Judeans in the post-exilic period. The image of a friendly foreign king, who references YHWH by name and respects Torah laws fits with the biblical description of Persian kings such as Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes, who allow the Judeans to return to their land and rebuild the Temple.
This is in stark contrast to biblical depictions of the Egyptian Pharaoh, for instance, who is antagonistic to Israel and contemptuous of their God. For example, in the exodus story, when Moses demands in the name of YHWH that Pharaoh let his people go, Pharaoh responds:
שמות ה:ב וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה מִי יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁמַע בְּקֹלוֹ לְשַׁלַּח אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יָדַעְתִּי אֶת יְ־הוָה וְגַם אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחַ.
Exod 5:2 And Pharaoh said, “Who is YHWH that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know YHWH, nor will I let Israel go.”
This contrasts sharply with the opening edict of Cyrus in the book of Ezra:
עזרא א:ב כֹּה אָמַר כֹּרֶשׁ מֶלֶךְ פָּרַס כֹּל מַמְלְכוֹת הָאָרֶץ נָתַן לִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמָיִם וְהוּא פָקַד עָלַי לִבְנוֹת לוֹ בַיִת בִּירוּשָׁלִַם אֲשֶׁר בִּיהוּדָה.
Ezra 1:2 Thus said King Cyrus of Persia: “YHWH God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has charged me with building Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.”
Certain biblical texts even portray the Persian king as someone who is familiar with the laws of the Torah (see Ezra 7:26). Thus, several scholars have argued that the stories of Abraham and Isaac living under the rule of a Philistine king represent the experiences and concerns of the Judean diaspora in the Persian Empire.
And yet, this is not the full picture since, despite its being ruled by a “foreign” king, Gerar is part of the Promised Land. This is emphasized in Genesis 26:2 when God commands Isaac not to go down to Egypt and but to remain in the land, which in context refers to Gerar:
בראשית כו:ג גּוּר בָּאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת וְאֶהְיֶה עִמְּךָ וַאֲבָרְכֶךָּ כִּי לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת כָּל הָאֲרָצֹת הָאֵל וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת הַשְּׁבֻעָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ... כו:ו וַיֵּשֶׁב יִצְחָק בִּגְרָר.
Gen 26:3 “Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; I will assign all these lands to you and to your heirs, fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.… 26:6 And Isaac dwelt in Gerar.
Here, the land promised by God is at the same time a land in which Isaac is to reside as an alien (גּוּר), namely, under the authority of the Philistine king Abimelech. In other words, the stories about Abraham’s and Isaac’s sojourn in Gerar and Beersheba seem to reflect a situation of Judeans living in the Promised Land but under foreign rule.
Judeans: Accommodated and Accommodating
This depiction of Abraham’s and Isaac’s sojourn in the land of Canaan but under foreign rule fits well with what many argue is a Persian-period Judean background to Genesis 20–21 and Genesis 26. During the Persian period, Judah was no longer an independent state with a king of its own but was instead under the authority of the Persian king and the local Persian administration. Yet, as already noted, the books of Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles depict the Persian king as supporting Judeans’ return from exile in Babylonia and the revitalization of religious life in Judah.
All of this closely resembles Abraham’s and Isaac’s relations with the Philistine king Abimelech in the book of Genesis, suggesting that the authors of the Abimelech passages in Genesis 20–21 and Genesis 26 sought, through the biographies of Abraham and Isaac, to foreshadow life in the land under Persian rule.
The message of the stories then is one of mutual trust with Yehud’s overlords. Abraham and Isaac were both suspicious at times of Abimelech, and there were even squabbles, but the good intentions of both sides paved the way for lasting covenant and prosperity. The same can be true for Yehud, with Judeans living on their land, under the Persian king. As long as both sides can cooperate under the auspices of YHWH, Yehud can thrive, even under a foreign monarch.
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Dr. Stephen Germany is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Basel, where he is a member of the research project “Transforming Memories of Collective Violence in the Hebrew Bible,” funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. He holds a Master of Theologies Studies from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from Emory University and is the author of The Exodus-Conquest Narrative: The Composition of the Non-Priestly Narratives in Exodus–Joshua (Mohr Siebeck, 2017).
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