“And it came to pass that Isaac had returned from going to Beer-Lachay-Roiy — he had been dwelling in the land of Negeb. So Isaac went out to walk contemplatively in the field toward the turn of sunset. And he lifted up his eyes and looked — Behold! — camels were coming!”
Beer-Lachay-Roiy, or Beer-lahai-roi as it is often transliterated, is a spot with a freshwater spring, located to the south and in the wilderness, and is the place to which Hagar fled from Sarai when Sarai had become jealous. It is also the place where God revealed himself to Hagar and promised her that because her child was from Abraham, God would bless and strengthen the child. God also promised Hagar (for better or worse, depending on one’s perspective) that Ishmael and his line would be a warlike people, always in strife with their neighbors — a promise that sums up the Arab lands to this day! Even so, Isaac had been sojourning in that area, likely to water some of his herds by the spring, and now had returned home.
And thus, once home, Isaac goes out for a walk one evening. There is a great deal of discussion as to what it is that the scriptures are telling us that Isaac is doing. The Hebrew term used here is jwc (sawach) and is never used again in the Hebrew Bible. While it is not unusual to have a unique word pop up periodically, when one finds such a word, one needs to do a little detective work to determine the meaning of that word. Sometimes context clearly is helpful, sometimes related or cognate words are helpful, and sometimes ancient traditions are helpful.
What we know from the context is that Isaac is going out to the field around sunset to do something…this word expresses that something. He is also going out alone. We also know that Isaac knows the mission that Abraham has sent Eliezer on and one might expect, with some room for unforeseen events, that Abraham and Isaac have some sense of when it is that Eliezer should be returning if everything went well. Thus, it is not unreasonable that Isaac, having returned at the right time, makes an evening trip through the fields to scan the horizon. Remember that Eliezer and his companions were traveling on camels cross-country, so likely they would be traveling by day and not into the night as one could not see well enough to locate ditches or other hazards. Assuming these cultural and contextual clues are correct, then it seems reasonable to suggest that Isaac is out for a walk.
But if that is all he is doing, why do many of our English translations render this word as “meditate”? While the term jwc (sawach) does only show up once in the Biblical text, it should be noted that in ancient Hebrew, the yod (y) and the waw were originally the same letter. Thus, if you alter the respective central letter of jwc (sawach) to make jyc (sayach), we do have a word that is used throughout the Biblical text, which means to ponder, reflect (meditate), or talk about something deeply. Thus, when you put this clue alongside of the clues mentioned above, it seems to make sense that he is out for more than a stroll, but it is a time where he is captured by deep thought, perhaps reflection on what God had planned for his future, or prayer. While meditate is a perfectly legitimate translation of the term, in English it carries a lot of extra connotations that probably are entirely alien to the situation at hand — so perhaps “contemplative walk” would be the most accurate rendering of the text that we can offer.
Interesting is the time of the day. Obviously, this time frame would have made sense for all of the right practical reasons. The work of the day was done, this would be the last hour of the day when travelers would be making distance, and activity would have quieted down some. At the same time, I think that there is something about a sunset that lends itself to deep reflection and contemplation. It is God’s own form of “mood-lighting.”
While I have no intention of building a theology around a sunset, I think that it is worth noting that God does fill his creation with things that are designed to point our hearts and minds toward Himself. From the vastness of the ocean to the multitude of stars in the sky. From the beauty of the sunset to the inspiration of a new sunrise — God has made these things to point our hearts and minds toward him. While I do not disparage science and scientific explanations as to the “how” of these natural phenomena, I remind you that science can never answer the question of “why” or “to what end” these events take place. Yet God answers us and says that they proclaim His glory and invite us to join in that proclamation. Sadly we often do not do so. Sadly, we get lost in the explanation of how and the joy of why is lost.
A final note on contemplation — take time to do so. God has made us to rest from our labors one day in seven — and part of the purpose of that rest is to contemplate and take satisfaction in those good things that God has allowed you to do in the week prior to your rest. Just as God took a step back from his work of creation and proclaimed it to be “very good,” so we are called to step back from ours and do the same. Sadly, though, we have gotten so caught up in the tyranny of the pursuit of wealth and “stuff” that we often forget the things we need the most — rest, reflection, and being focused on the God who you serve. May we all follow Isaac’s example, and take the time for that meditative walk at sunset. Behold! God may show you some things during that time that you had failed to see before.