Like father, like son. Isaac also travels to Gerar, and while there, lies that Rebekah is his sister and not his wife, only without the she’s-my-half-sister-so-I-wan’t-really-lying loophole (she’s his first cousin once removed). Since we’re getting two similar stories, let’s do some comparing on more than just the level of blood-relation:
Rather than Rebekah being caught by the king and taken into his harem, the king catches Isaac “fondling” Rebekah (v 8), or “playing around” with her in the Japanese… if you know what I mean. Abilmelech, familiar with this family, doesn’t think he’s stumbled across incest but rather jumps to the (correct) conclusion that Rebekah is actually Isaac’s wife and not his sister.
He then tells Isaac off because “one of my people might easily have lain with your wife” (v 10). Note that Abimelech wasn’t worried that he might have picked her up. Apparently he got out of the business of snatching women for his harem – another support for my idea that God was using Abraham’s spinelessness as a way of teaching bad kings to clean up their acts.
Note also that, again, the only crime anyone seems to see in this is sleepingwith another man’s wide, not taking women against their will. Man, the third millennium BC was a messed up place.
There’s then an extended section where Isaac re-digs and re-names the wells his father had dug in the area, and becomes powerful enough that Abimelech makes another convenant with him like he did with Isaac’s father. Partly this serves as more stories for the origin of place-names – something I’ve seen in other mythological collections, like The Mabinogion – but also to show Isaac fully stepping into his father’s shoes. This includes both the good – wealth, contacts with kings, receiving promises of land and ancestors – but also the bad – being a total wimp when it comes to protecting his wife.
Heck, he’s apparently not even very good at protecting her from his daughter-in-laws, since verses 34-35 report that Esau’s two Hittite wives “make life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah.” The Japanese says they are “a seed of distress,” an idiom for someone or something that is very annoying. Perhaps we’d say “a thorn in their side.”
Getting back to my math fixation – seriously, how old is Abimelech? Isaac has to be at least 80 here (his children were adults before this happened), with Rebekah at about 60. I’d always imagined Abimelech as an older king, and thus prone to looking fondly on the geriatric yet lovely Sarah. He’d have to be pushing 200 by now.
Jewish tradition comes to my rescue, giving Abimelech as the name of two kings, Abilemelech I and Abimelech II, so that the man in Isaac’s story is the son or grandson of the first king. Not implausible. What I’m starting to suspect, though, is that the odd discrepancies in the age of characters is due to one tradition being somewhat loosely pasted onto another.
The Japanese: tawamureru “to play with, to frolic with, to flirt with” (v 8), otoshiireru “to trick someone into doing something” (v 10), kikai wo kuwaeru “to inflict harm on” (v 11), kokumotsu “grain,” shuukaku “harvest” (v 12), netamu “to be envious” (v 14), tekii “enmity” (v 21), sanbou “adviser” (v 26), seiyaku “oath” (v 28), moyousu “to hold (an event)” (v 30), houkoku “to report information” (v 32), nayami no tane “source of annoyance.”