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 neighbours, sometimes even when his neighbours were ambivalent about living at peace with him.
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 http://www.craigkeener.com/the-unexpected-deliverer-exodus-2/). The differences also extend to how different patriarchs were received in Egypt in different generations. Abram went to Egypt during a famine (Gen 12:10); Isaac is told not to go during a famine (26:1–2); later God sends Joseph ahead and during a famine tells Jacob not to be afraid to go to Egypt (46:3). Jacob knew the stories of Abram and Isaac (who else would have passed on these stories?), perhaps all the more reason that he needed a 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 (12:14–15). In Egypt, Joseph faces threats to his sexual security (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 (26:7, 10).
Isaac had clear reason for concern because local residents had asked about his wife (26:7). The complaint of the local ruler Abimelech, that one of the people might have lain with Isaac’s wife (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.) One might compare, later in Genesis, Prince Shechem, who is the most honoured member of his royal family (34:19)—yet raped Jacob’s daughter (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.
When others want Isaac’s wells, Isaac does not fight them; he learned this good model of peace from Abraham, his father, who would not contend with Lot when Lot’s shepherds (like those from Gerar in 26:20) fought with Abram’s (Gen 13:7–9). This model seems prudent particularly when dealing with those stronger than oneself (cf. 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—Exod 17:7.) Isaac offers a biblical model of avoiding unnecessary conflicts with our neighbours. 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, but God keeps prospering Isaac with success in the land until (26:26–31) even his enemies take note. And in 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 (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 (27:37).
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 (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” (12:13, 19; 20:2; 26:7, 9). Genesis provides mixed signals for Jacob’s deceit in Gen 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 (Prov 25:26), but we should choose our battles. Keeping peace with our neighbours, insofar as we can do so, is a good practice (Matt 5:9; Rom 12:18; James 3:17–18).