When Isaac had been blessed in the land, with the wealth of tremendous reaping, this did not exactly go over well with the Philistines. Though his wealth is not attributed to anything beyond providence of God, this gaining of wealth in the land of Abimelech (Gerar) is a repetition of that which had been experienced by the original bearer of the covenant of blessing. Abimelech gave Abraham “sheep, cattle, and male and female servants” (Genesis 20:14b). Isaac is said to have had “sheep, cattle and such a great household of servants” (26:14a). Not only did Abraham receive such things as gifts, he was also told “Look, my land is before you; live wherever you please” (20:15). In response, “Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, as well as his wife and female slaves so that they were able to have children” (20:17). We read that Abraham did this, thereby becoming the exemplary of divine blessing that God had ordained him to be (rather than the deceiver of these people), “For the Lord had caused infertility to strike every woman in the household of Abimelech because he took Sarah, Abraham’s wife” (20:18). Interestingly, the revelation of divine blessing that Abimelech and his household received was precisely the same blessing that Abraham would receive, and which would enable him to even have a household. Abimelech’s wives were barren, as was Abraham’s wife.
It would be immediately after Abraham prays and the Lord restores fertility to Abimelech’s household, that the Scriptural record confirms that “The Lord visited Sarah just as He had said He would and did for Sarah what He had promised” (21:1). The Lord brought life to Sarah’s womb, and also brought life to the womb’s of Abimelech’s wives. In a culture in which having children was highly prized, and in which not having children was a source of shame (with shame being the near equivalent of death in an honor and shame society), the God of Abraham becomes the God of vindication, of exodus, and of resurrection for Abimelech and his household, just as He will also show Himself to be for Abraham. How incredibly fascinating that God does for Abimelech, through Abraham, what He promised to do for Abraham, doing it for Abimelech before He did it for Abraham. How difficult it must have been for Abraham to pray for fertility to come to Abimelech’s household while awaiting the same to come to him.
Whereas Abraham is well appreciated by Abimelech, even after attempting to defraud him, and whereas Abraham becomes a blessing for Abimelech and the Philistines, the same cannot be said of Isaac. His growing wealth produced the effect that “the Philistines became jealous of him” (26:14b). In response, “the Philistines took dirt and filled up all the wells that his father’s servants had dug back in the days of his father Abraham” (26:15). Rather than hearing what Abraham heard, which was “live wherever you please,” what Isaac heard, through these actions by the Philistines, was “please leave.” Just in case he did not get the point with the filling of his wells, which would his continued dwelling there impossible anyway, “Abimelech said to Isaac, ‘Leave us and go elsewhere, for you have become much more powerful that we are’” (26:16). As Israel would tell its story, this would be a natural parallel to Israel’s experience in Egypt, when “a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power over Egypt. He said to his people, ‘Look at the Israelite people, more numerous and stronger that we are! Come, let’s deal wisely with them. Otherwise they will continue to multiply, and if a war breaks out, they will ally themselves with our enemies and fight against us” (Exodus 1:8-10a).
This rejection of Isaac by the Philistines is not unfortunate, in that it forces Isaac into the mold that we have come to expect, which is that of exile and exodus, and a yet a further reminder of the God of movement. Abraham went to Egypt, underwent a figurative oppression through having his wife “taken” from him, grew in numbers and power and gained great wealth, saw plagues come upon Pharaoh’s household, and was then expelled from the land. Later, Israel went down to Egypt, and though the sequence is not necessarily the same, they grew in number, were oppressed, saw plagues come upon the whole of Pharaoh’s household (the Egyptian empire), and were then expelled from the land, gaining great wealth as part of the expulsion. Isaac went to Gerar, grew in wealth, suffered the oppression of local opposition through the stopping of his wells (almost like a military siege), and was asked to leave. We only lack evidence of some type of plague upon the Philistines or upon Abimelech’s house to complete the nearly identical picture (in events, if not in sequence). This story of exiles and exodus and movement is the story that Israel was able to tell as they sought to understand and to reveal their God.
In being exodus-ed, as he was actually in exile from the land promised to his father when in Gerar---yes, exile can even entail growing in wealth and enjoying God’s blessings and being a blessing, in fact, God will later demand that His people seek the good of their oppressors, when exiled to Babylon, “Isaac left there and settled in the Gerar Valley” (26:17). Upon arrival there, making the point that the earlier stopping up of the wells that are essential to life can be equated with forcing Isaac to leave, the first thing that happened was “Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug back in the days of his father Abraham” (26:18a). In this, not only is Isaac mimicking Abraham, but he represents something of a forerunner to Israel in their post-Egypt wilderness experience.