6 ¶And Isaac dwelt in Gerar:
7 And the men of the place asked him of his wife; and he said, She is my sister: for he feared to say, She is my wife; lest, said he, the men of the place should kill me for Rebekah; because she was fair to look upon.
8 And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out at a window, and saw, and, behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife.
9 And Abimelech called Isaac, and said, Behold, of a surety she is thy wife: and how saidst thou, She is my sister? And Isaac said unto him, Because I said, Lest I die for her.
10 And Abimelech said, What is this thou hast done unto us? one of the people might lightly have lien with thy wife, and thou shouldest have brought guiltiness upon us.
11 And Abimelech charged all his people, saying, He that toucheth this man or his wife shall surely be put to death. (Genesis 26:6-11)
I think this story gives us an interesting picture of how different Isaac and Rebekah’s morality was from the people around them in Gerar. We may think that Isaac was just following the example of his father Abraham in Egypt by claiming his wife is his sister in order to keep from being killed. That’s easy to say, but it may be more complicated than that. It may be that Isaac observed that the people were so morally loose—making any excuse to justify fornication/adultery—that he worried they would think nothing of stooping to murder just so they could get Rebekah. So he claimed to be her brother, and he lived there a long time that way.
The thing is, the longer Isaac lived there, the more people got to know who he was and what he stood for and the goodness of his character. And the result was that when Abimelech saw Isaac sporting with Rebekah—and we have no idea what “sporting” means, but it instantly clued Abimelech in—Abimelech didn’t automatically think Isaac was doing something incestuous or ugly like that. He knew Isaac would only have been doing what he did if Rebekah was his wife. And he hastened to clarify this with Isaac.
Incidently, the way Abimelech “looked out at a window” and randomly saw Isaac and Rebekah seems very odd to me. It makes it seem like Isaac and Rebekah were almost…exhibitionist about whatever they were doing. But they don’t seem like the type that would do that. (Can we imagine Rebekah doing something like that, the woman who covered herself with a veil when she was about to meet Isaac for the first time?) But if they aren’t exhibitionist, then that makes Abimelech into Mr. Suspicious-Stalker-Peeping-Tom. Who do we believe here?
Now, notice the reproach that Abimelech fires at Isaac: “What is this thou hast done unto us? one of the people might lightly have lien with thy wife, and thou shouldest have brought guiltiness upon us.” Abimelech is SO SHOCKED that Isaac lied him and said Rebekah was his sister. He is absolutely outraged about it. Commentators tend to dwell on this rebuke and say this shows just how low Isaac (and Abraham before him) was for their deception and their lack of trust in God. “And look, they were justly rebuked by those rulers for their sin!” they say. Yeah, you have to agree that Abimelech’s rebuke on the surface makes Abimelech look really good and Isaac look bad.
But look very carefully again at Abimelech’s rebuke and you can see what he reveals about himself and his people. “one of the people might lightly have lien with thy wife, and thou shouldest have brought guiltiness upon us” His people were so casual about who they had sex with that Abimelech was worried they might have “lightly lien” with Rebekah! His people don’t take chastity seriously. And at the same time it is a subtle insult against Rebekah, implying that she was the type of woman who would “lightly” sleep around with random people in Gerar just because everybody thought she was single. We Latter-day Saints know that Isaac would trust Rebekah to be chaste. It is Abimelech who thinks Rebekah would have exploited the situation without social expectations to keep her in line. (Maybe Isaac wasn’t that good looking and Abimelech thought Rebekah would have jumped at the chance to sleep with someone more attractive.) We Latter-day Saints, with our perspective on chastity as a sacred covenant, understand that Rebekah’s situation was not license for looseness, but a test of her faithfulness.
It burns me up that people think the “she’s my sister” was done out of fear, first by Abraham and then by Isaac. Consider that we have the modern revelation in Abraham 2:22-25 to show us that when Abraham first used this line, it was at the Lord’s command. Not only that, but we get that Abraham told Sarah of this revelation and it is implied that she agreed to do it to save him.
Abraham and Isaac were brave. Consider this. Latter-day Saints have the story of Abraham 1 in which Abraham would have been sacrificed on an Egyptian altar, presumably because he would not back down from his testimony in the living God. Can we then imagine Abraham afraid to acknowledge his marriage to Sarah as he comes into Egypt? No! He would have died if the Lord had not commanded him to say what he did. Then consider Isaac. This is the man who did not protest earlier in his life when his father was about to sacrifice him! He is no shrinking violet, even if the text does say in Genesis 26 that he feared to say Rebekah was his wife. I think it more likely that he was commanded as well.
Now, here’s another thought. Was the subterfuge only for Isaac and Rebekah’s sake? What if the Lord meant it for Abimelech’s benefit as well? It is likely that Abimelech was not nearly as good at the beginning of his acquaintance with Isaac as his rebuke makes him look, but by the end, he had become someone who was concerned about accidentally sinning. At the end he uses his influence with his people to ensure the safety of Isaac and Rebekah. Better late than never.
One of the things we learn from this story is that Rebekah was faithful to Isaac, social expectations and environment to the contrary. She’s a great example to remember today, as morals are loosening and unraveling at an alarming rate.