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B'resheet/Genesis 26:2 Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land that I will say to you.
Now that Avraham and Sarah are both dead, the story switches - using the key phrase , these are the generations - to Yitz'khak, the quiet and unassuming bearer of the promise. Rivkah, his wife, had given birth to twin boys and after enough years for them to grow up and for Ya'akov, the younger, to trick Esau, the older, into selling his birthright as the first-born, there is a famine in the Land. The Torah tells us that this is "aside from the previous famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham" (B'resheet 26:1, JPS). Yitz'khak needs to find food for his family and household, and pasture for his flocks and herds, so packs up and sets off.Rashi comments that "he had in mind to descend to Egypt, as his father had descended in the days of the famine" and Rabbi Hirsch agrees, adding, "It is apparent that Isaac had the intention of going to Egypt, the usual place of refuge from famine."
The , "to rest, abide, continue, dwell" (Davidson) plays quite a significant part in both our text and as word-plays and links in the comments made by classic and modern commentators. It appears in our text as , the Qal ms imperative form, "dwell!" Nahum Sarna suggests that the base meaning of the root is "to tent"; we see this with the noun most frequently derived from it: , tabernacle. TheRamban connects HaShem's instructions with the behaviour of the Israelites during the years of the Exodus from Egypt: "Go not down into Egypt, but dwell all your days in the land which I shall tell you from time to time. At the bidding of G-d you should encamp - 'At a command of the L-RD the Israelites broke camp, and at a command of the L-RD they made camp: they remained encamped as long as the cloud stayed over the Tabernacle'" (B'Midbar 9:18, JPS), which contains not only , the Tabernacle, but also the verb , the Qal prefix 3ms form, "he stayed" - and right now, you should camp here in the land of the Philistines."
The ancient rabbis suggested that one interpretation of HaShem's command to dwell in the Land, was that by his presence, Yitz'khak would cause the Shechinah to dwell in the Land. They also suggested that Yitz'khak was to "cultivate the Land, be a sower, be a planter" (B'resheet Rabbah 64:3), a longer term commitment than just passing through while grazing livestock. TheSforno echoes that, paraphrasing HaShem's ideas and picking up the tent theme again as, "Set up shepherd's tents for your flocks and cattle in the place where I tell you to dwell for your flocks will be successful here." Rabbi Hirsch also touches the agricultural metaphor when he explains that, "[Yitz'khak] first went to Abimelech who had made a treaty with his father, to see, so it seems, if it was possible to find help there. But there was famine there too. There G-d appeared to him and directed him not to seek help from human hands. His field was to be cultivating obedience to G-d." Hirsch positions the verb , "dwelling quietly" midway between , "to sojourn, to be a temporary resident" and , "to sit or dwell", which implies being a permanent resident. It is the witness of Yitz'khak dwelling quietly and obediently in these lands that are so frequently affected by drought and famine, that will attract the attention of the nations. While others seek help in neighbouring countries, such as Egypt, Yitz'khak just trusts in HaShem, holds fast in the Land which he is to inherit but does not yet own, and sees G-d's steady hand of provision even in adverse circumstances.
There is also the suggestion that Yitz'khak would be polluted or contaminated by leaving the Land. Working from his near-sacrifice in chapter twenty two, the rabbis portray Yitz'khak as if he were a burnt offering and, just as a burn-offering becomes impure if it is removed from the sanctuary, they suggest that he would lose his holiness or sanctity if he left the Land (B'resheet Rabbah 64:3). Rashi takes that a step further, claiming that other territory outside the Land is not worthy of Yitz'khak. TheRadak draws a parallel between HaShem's words when calling Avraham, to go to " the land that I will show you" (B'resheet 12:1), and our text above - "the land that I will say to you" - to emphasise that this isn't just advice: he is explicitly called to remain in the Land.
We have, then, two things going on here. Firstly, HaShem interrupts Yitz'khak's intended descent to Egypt in order to seek food and tells his to remain where he is, in the Land. Previous generations went down to Egypt and the following generations will also make the same descent. It was commonplace human logic to go where there is food. The regular annual flooding of the Nile each spring as the snow melt from the African mountains pushed millions of gallons of water down stream and across the Nile delta in its rush to the Mediterranean Sea was almost always dependable and ensured that there would be food and grazing available for itinerant and nomadic herdsmen and families. But no, HaShem doesn't want Yitz'khak to follow that logic; He wants him to obediently stay in the Land, change his farming practice to include arable crops as well as livestock, and be dependent on G-d for water and provision.
Secondly, in words that echo the call to covenant relationship first given to his father, he is told to settle and make a more thorough connection to the Land itself rather than simply following the green mist of grazing out of the Land of promise. His faithful and quiet obedience to G-d will be a witness that there is a higher call on his life than simply putting food on the table and clothing on his back. Only those in covenant can expect G-d to provide for them; G-d promised Avraham the Land, Yitz'khak has inherited that promise and will pass it on to his son. Now it needs to be lived out, in public and in fullness so that the surrounding nations can see and will recognise that the L-rd is G-d. Just a few verses later, the Torah tells us that "Yitz'khak sowed in that land and reaped a hundredfold the same year. The L-RD blessed him, and the man grew richer and richer until he was very wealthy: he acquired flocks and herds, and a large household, so that the Philistines envied him" (26:12-14, JPS). And this in spite of the famine!
James draws the attention of the early believers to their dependence on G-d for direction: "Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit' -- yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, 'If the L-rd wills, we will live and do this or that'" (James 4:13-15, ESV). James sees more than a touch of arrogance in their words, planning their own lives for a (or more) year ahead, when they have no control over their lives but are totally dependent on G-d for life itself, let alone where and what they should be doing. They should express their ideas, James says in a way that clearly shows their contingency on G-d!
Make no mistake though. James is not saying that believers should make no plans only to live their lives locked in crippling short-termism as many of the developed world economies currently are. On the contrary, planning is good; education is good; development is good; saving is good. All these thing are good provided that they are grounded in the knowledge that it is G-d who numbers our days and makes the final decisions. As Solomon wrote, "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the L-RD" (Proverbs 16:33, ESV). Yeshua rebuked the attitude of the farmer who tore down his old barns and built newer and bigger ones to hold his harvest and then relax in smug self-sufficiency: "Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" (Luke 12:20, ESV).
Sometimes we have long-held or long-cherished plans for our lives. These texts teach us that we need to be prepared to hold those plans lightly and allow the L-rd permission to change or even scrap them in order to implement His plans for us. Jeremiah told the Jewish exiles in Babylon that G-d had plans for them: "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the L-RD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope" (Jeremiah 29:11, ESV). Sometimes G-d's plans mean relocation, new vocations and jobs, or seasons of rest. At other times, no matter how much we may want those things, G-d's plans involve staying exactly where we are and - against human expectation or wisdom - faithfully serving our families and our existing communities, or altering our modes of interaction to reach or touch new groups of people, planting or pioneering new expressions of faith and worship. But here's the key: only G-d's plans will prosper. As the Psalmist says, "Unless the L-RD builds the house, its builders labor in vain on it; unless the L-RD watches over the city, the watchman keeps vigil in vain" (Psalm 127:1, JPS). Our plans, made by ourselves for ourselves, like the grass will wither, but "the word of our God is always fulfilled!" (Isaiah 40:8, JPS).
Further Study: Zechariah 8:14-15; 2 Corinthians 1:17-20
Application: Do you have plans for your life, perhaps involving changing your location, your job, or your vehicle? If they are G-d's plans, then they will succeed and accomplish His purposes. But be prepared to hear the words: stand fast and serve where you are and fulfil the calling you already have.
© Jonathan Allen, 2017
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