As a minority in a larger society, how should we as committed believers relate to those around us?
Much of the Bible addresses such situations, whether the lives of the patriarchs, Israel in exile, or the New Testament. (The remnant of God-fearing believers in times that Israel as a whole was straying from God is probably somewhat less relevant for this question today because Israel had a distinctive covenant with God.) Isaac had to live at peace with his neighbors, sometimes even when his neighbors were ambivalent about living at peace with him.
God Working Differently in Different Generations
God did work with the patriarchs in different ways at different times; we can learn much from our role models, but we must listen to God afresh in our own time. One may compare and contrast how he worked through Joseph and through Moses (see here). The differences extend to how different patriarchs were received in Egypt in different generations. Abram went to Egypt during a famine (Genesis 12:10). Isaac is told not to go during a famine (Genesis 26:1-2). Later, God sends Joseph ahead and during a famine tells Jacob not to be afraid to go to Egypt (Genesis 46:3). Jacob knew the stories of Abram and Isaac (who else would have passed on these stories?). That was why he needed divine encouragement that it was currently safe for his household to travel there.
Although some places and times are better than others, nowhere in this world is perfect or completely “safe” apart from God’s protection. Indeed, when Abraham goes to Egypt, Sarah faces severe threats to her sexual security there (Genesis 12:14-15). Joseph faced threats to his sexual security in Egypt as well (Potiphar’s wife held less direct physical power to enforce her harassment, but because Joseph was a slave she exercised plenty of coercive power in other respects). Yet when Isaac stays in Canaan, Rebekah also faces potential threats to her sexual security there (Genesis 26:7, 10).
Isaac’s Concern Towards His Neighbors
Isaac had clear reason for concern because local residents had asked about his wife (Genesis 26:7). The complaint of the local ruler Abimelech, that one of the people might have lain with Isaac’s wife (Genesis 26:10), implies that they would not have slept with a married woman. Yet it also takes for granted a low level of morality otherwise. (Given usual ancient custom, one would not expect Isaac to appreciate them sleeping unmarried even with a sister in his care.) For example, later in Genesis, Prince Shechem, who is the most honored member of his royal family (Genesis 34:19) raped Jacob’s daughter (Genesis 34:2).
God directly intervenes in this case, again protecting a matriarch and the promised line. At other times, however, God allows Isaac and his people to experience conflict and difficulty, and then blesses them in spite of it.
Isaac’s Wisdom & Blessing
When others want Isaac’s wells, Isaac does not fight them; he learned this good model of peace from his father Abraham, who would not contend with Lot when Lot’s shepherds (like these from Gerar in Genesis 26:20) fought with Abram’s (Genesis 13:7-9). This model seems prudent particularly when dealing with those stronger than oneself (cf. Genesis 34:30)! (By contrast, the title “well of contention” in 26:20 may challenge the later Israelites, who contended with the Lord himself at Massah and Meribah—Exodus 17:7.) Isaac offers a biblical model of avoiding unnecessary conflicts with our neighbors. Local residents outnumbered Isaac’s tribe, but, even among peers, wise people choose their battles.
God does not stop Isaac’s enemies from causing trouble for him. Instead, God keeps prospering Isaac with success in the land until (Genesis 26:26-31) even his enemies take note. And in Genesis 26:32-33 God blesses Isaac’s tribe even further with another well of water. Isaac was blessable, both for his own sake and for the sake of God’s promise to his father. God continues to bless Abraham beyond Abraham’s time (Genesis 26:5-6, 24), and this was something Isaac may have counted on. A blessing, from a man of God who is blessed, makes something happen (Genesis 27:37).
A Good Practice
Following Abram’s model of peace was a good idea. Elsewhere also Isaac follows Abraham’s model; like Abram, he builds an altar and calls on the Lord’s name after the Lord appears to him and promises the land (Genesis 12:8; 26:25). Models can of course be positive, negative, or sometimes ambiguous. As signs of God’s blessings on their forebears, the patriarchal stories are important for Israel whether or not the patriarchs always did the right thing. It was undoubtedly a bad idea for Isaac to follow Abraham’s example (from before Isaac’s birth) in calling his wife his “sister” (Genesis 12:13, 19; 20:2; 26:7, 9). Genesis provides mixed signals for Jacob’s deceit in Genesis 27, which was an important ancestral story about Israel’s origins.
But the accounts tend to be more positive than negative, especially with regard to Abraham (and later Joseph). There are circumstances where the righteous should not give way before the wicked (Proverbs 25:26). But we should choose our battles. Keeping peace with our neighbors, insofar as we can do so, is a good practice (Matthew 5:9; Romans 12:18; James 3:17-18).