Abimelech in this chapter is identified as the king of the Philistines in Gerar. Whether or not this is the same Abimelech that Abraham dealt with in Genesis 20 is uncertain; 60 to 70 years have passed since then. We may also remember Phichol, the army commander that was with Abimelech. He also makes an appearance in this chapter.
If these are the same men from chapter 20, the explanation that they retain the same names and functions is convenient and simple. The lifespan of man at this time was still longer than today, although not the hundreds of years as in Adam and Noah’s days, so it is at least plausible. The other explanation is that the Abimelech and Phichol in chapter 26 are the sons of the men in chapter 20, and that the names Abimelech and Phichol are family names or perhaps even known titles associated with the functions of king and army commander. Whatever the details of their identities, these men behave in much the same way in chapter 26 as their counterparts did in chapter 20.
The content of chapter 26 seems parallel to the occurrences with Abraham and Abimelech earlier also. The men behave in the same way that they had and the outcome remains. Isaac here goes to Abimelech due to a famine in the land. God instructs him to avoid Egypt at this time and gives the Abrahamic covenant promises to Isaac, recalling the great faith of Abraham. Just as Abraham did, Isaac claims that Rebekah his wife is his sister to avoid being threatened and killed for her beauty.
But Abimelech discovers that Rebekah is Isaac’s wife when he sees Isaac showing love to her as a wife. Isaac fesses up and Abimelech describes how his lie could have brought guilt upon the men of Gerar had one of them lain with her, not knowing that she was married. It is interesting that these people retained this as a value; it seems that Isaac had perhaps misjudged them. Recall the covenant that Abimelech made with Abraham earlier and how it gave creedence to the power of the God of Abraham.
Earlier in the Genesis, there was a dispute over lands and wells. Abraham was, in due course, allowed to have consecrated wells in Gerar for his use. By the time Isaac comes to Gerar because of the famine, these wells had all been filled in with earth. This will be a problem for Isaac as he tends livestock and needs the water. Isaac was prospering and the men started to envy his prosperity so Abimelech asks Isaac to leave. Isaac goes to a nearby valley and he redigs the wells, calling them by the same names that his father had used.
But disputes over resources continue as Isaac digs three separate wells before the men in Gerar allow him to use the water in the land. Isaac’s temperament and attitude are exemplary here: he yields to the men, but continues to seek resources until they agree. Isaac acknowledges God’s part in the events: “And he moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it. So he called its name Rehoboth, because he said, “For now the LORD has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.”” Genesis 26:22
Isaac is visited by God and the promises are referenced once more as he builds an altar, prays to God and digs yet another well.
Then, Abimelech, Phichol and Ahuzzath (a friend of the king) visit Isaac and seek a covenant of peace with him. They recognize the power of God with Isaac and they fear, which prompts them to seek this covenant. Isaac agrees to the covenant, throws them a great feast and the oaths of peace are made.
Although the chapter is overall positive in that the glory of the Lord is known among Abimelech and others, the chapter ends on a sour note. Esau weds daughters of the Hittites, which grieves Isaac and Rebekah.
What can we learn from this chapter? First, we can recognize God’s faithfulness of the Abrahamic covenant to Isaac. Second, wise leaders will recognize and fear the one true God. Third, God values and blesses those that honor and obey Him.