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Encyclopedia of The Bible – Isaac
Isaac

ISAAC ī’ zĭk (יִֽצְחַק; LXX ̓Ισαάκ, G2693). Meaning, possibly one will laugh. Son of Abraham and Sarah, half-brother of Ishmael, husband of Rebekah.

Outline

1. Etymology. There is obviously a play on words, esp. on the root which signified “to laugh,” in the Isaac story. Different persons are said to have laughed: Abraham, when he is assured that in old age he is to have a son (Gen 17:17); Sarah, when after a long wait, she too hears that it will yet be true (18:12); also all persons who finally hear that the promise actually was fulfilled (21:6). Various shades of meaning are to be associated with these instances of laughter, the least acceptable being Sarah’s amusement. These instances are then summed up in the name finally given to the child. This approach may still be maintained, esp. if other cases of the use of the verb (like 26:8) are regarded, as long as only the obvious fact is kept in mind that the Biblical writers hardly engage in scholarly etymological studies, but do allow themselves a sort of popular etymology, or a play on words. Over against this approach a new attempt to explain the name of Isaac has gained prominence. This is the one which looks at Ugaritic texts in which the god ’el is said to laugh. If with this is coupled the fact that many Biblical names are, or originally were, theophorous, i.e. they were a verb-form having some name of a god as subject, then Isaac could mean “The god laughs.” However, to ignore all the historic instances of laughter in connection with the Isaac story and to have Israel, for all of its literary material go borrowing from its neighbors, would appear to put the emphasis in the wrong place. In other words, to have “Isaac” mean “Let God laugh,” puts an emphasis into the story for which there is no historical warrant.

In this connection it may not be out of place to note that we fully concur with those who regard Isaac as a “historic individual” (eine historische Einzelperson—A. Weiser, in RGG, 1959), and not as an eponymous ancestor, as is so frequently the case.

2. Origin of the Isaac tradition. Some thought may be given to the whole problem how the Isaac tradition came into being and was transmitted to later generations. The so-called sources (JE and P), all of which are thought to have contributed their share to the narrative, have been accepted on the strength of insufficient evidence. It could have happened, as some suppose, that there was an old sanctuary at Beersheba, where Isaac in his day worshiped, and where some basic tales regarding his life were perpetuated. The shrine continued to exist and around the original tales clustered others, which ultimately came to constitute the body of Isaac tradition now embodied in Genesis. The case hangs on slender evidence, but for want of a better approach, one may regard this as a reasonable possibility.

3. Early life. Though not listed in the catalog of the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11, Isaac still deserves to be classed among the great fathers of the OT and has a character distinctive by itself and not devoid of some elements of greatness.

He is the child long waited for according to the OT record and may in some sense in this respect be regarded as a type of Christ. When Abraham first appears on the scene he is already seventy-five years old and has a long futile wait for a son behind him. From Genesis 12 on the wait continues, reënforced by divine words of encouragement, until the patriarch, at the age of 100 years, finally sees the fulfillment of God’s promise (Gen 21:21).

The other major incident in which Isaac figures during his father’s lifetime is the memorable one of the incomplete sacrifice at Moriah (ch. 22). There the son of promise, according to human insight, was all but lost. The providence of God interposed in a striking manner and the son was spared. That Isaac submitted as he did, when the father was making the preparations for the sacrifice, indicates one of the chief characteristics of Isaac: he was meek and submissive in all situations of life. Nor do we imply that his submission was of a merely weak and cowardly nature. He was by disposition quite unassertive.

This fact comes to light also in Isaac’s acceptance of the wife that his father procures for him through the agency of the “old servant” of his household, presumably Eliezer (15:2). It apparently was customary in those days to a large extent for parents to arrange marriages for their children. Nor does the servant regard the assignment as a simple business transaction. He fulfills his task in the spirit of prayer. Isaac, no doubt entirely aware of the spirit that animated both his father and the servant, is totally in sympathy with the choice made in his behalf (24:67). It may properly be said that his attitude is one worthy of a good man and an obedient son. Under entirely different circumstances, Isaac’s son Jacob acted on his own initiative and made his own matrimonial arrangements.

4. Relation to those close to him. Though Isaac and Rebekah were a loving couple (26:8) it still appears, esp. at the point where Isaac arranges to bless his sons, that the wife is the dominating personality. In his contacts with Ishmael, Isaac, being somewhat younger, was at a disadvantage. The elder lad dominated him to an extent, and Hagar and Ishmael had to be cast out. Whatever difficulties there may have been at an earlier date, it is interesting to observe that apparently the differences were resolved and the two men cooperated in the matter of the burial of their father (25:9).

5. Relation to Jacob. Jacob is a unique child as Isaac was. Both were born, not after the flesh, but according to promise. Rebekah was barren for a long while as Sarah had been. The parents made it a matter of prayer and received a direct answer to their prayer, an answer which defined, from the divine point of view, the ultimate relation of the two sons to be born (25:23). Over against Jacob, it appears that there was too wide a disparity of temperament for both to get along in the best of relationship. This led to Jacob’s being preferred by Rebekah, but Esau was the favorite of Isaac. It almost appears as though Isaac could not quite understand the spiritual aggressiveness of Jacob. It made him uneasy, being himself of a passive disposition and utterly unaggressive. For that matter, father and son failed almost completely to understand one another. After the imparted blessing Isaac would seem to have perceived the issues involved in sharper focus. All this goes on the assumption that when Jacob connived to obtain the blessing of the first-born one of the motivations involved was that he had some wholesome spiritual objectives, based in part at least, on the promises of God. It seems somewhat remarkable that the stolid Esau should have been closer to Isaac and preferred by him.

6. In his father’s footsteps. When one of the periodic famines occurred in the land in the days of Isaac, he sought first of all to go to the land of Egypt. When God refused to let him take that journey and leave the land of promise, Isaac went to Gerar to the land later held by the Philistines. It is amazing that he resorted to the same stratagem as did his father when the problem arose as to how he was to safeguard his wife in a land of strangers. He represented her to be his sister, allowing for a broad usage of the term. Like his father, he then had to suffer the humiliation to be justly rebuked by the king of Gerar, a saint rebuked by a sinner.

In another respect similarity to his father appears to good advantage on Isaac’s part. The Lord appeared to him at least twice (26:1-5, 24f.). To Abraham he appeared a number of times. Isaac still, for all his shortcomings carried on the line of Abraham, and the promises made originally to Abraham are specifically referred to Isaac also. The spiritual stature of a man cannot be measured in all its aspects, by the number of times he is deemed worthy of a divine visitation. God never once appeared to Joseph. Isaac can be said to have been a man who also walked with God. If his gifts and capacities were less and fewer than those of his father, that is a matter of divine apportionment.

7. His life in summary. Isaac was indeed blessed most abundantly by the Lord, reaping abundantly, even to the point of a “hundredfold” (26:12). He was equally blessed in his cattle and, adding to the wealth of Abraham, he became “very wealthy.” His household also increased proportionately, so much so that he became the object of envy of the land. Isaac, for the most part, lived on the fringes of the land, either close to Gerar or down by Beersheba. Abraham, on the contrary, moved freely up and down through the length and breadth of the land, seeking contacts rather than shunning them. Connected with Isaac’s retiring nature is the fact that he cannot be described as an innovator. Typical is the incident of 26:18, where after a more or less systematic harassment by the shepherds in the area of Gerar, including the filling in of certain wells, it is reported that Isaac “dug again the wells of water which had been dug in the days of Abraham, his father.” Still apparently he did dig one new well (v. 25).

8. The big mistake. So strongly did Isaac sympathize with his son Esau that finally, when he became ill and took to his bed and decided to give his final blessing to his sons, he singled out Esau for his blessing, and gave him directions accordingly, directions which were overheard by Rebekah. Esau was to be designated to be the major member of the family, carrying the rich tradition and promises for the future. All this was done in spite of Genesis 25:23, which had divinely assigned a secondary role to Esau. Even though this important word was spoken to Rebekah, there is every ground for believing that Isaac was apprised of what the divine intention was. With a stubbornness, which does him little credit, Isaac sought to circumvent this divine pronouncement. This can in no sense be condoned. It makes Isaac’s guilt in the whole episode appear as heavy practically as that of Jacob, who resorted to crafty deceit rather than to silent evasion.

9. Correction accepted. It seems that the plan to send Jacob into Mesopotamia, to be removed from the reach of the anger of Esau, originated with Rebekah and met with the total approval of Isaac, who seems to have recognized his mistake and was seeking to remedy it. One objective specified in the plan was that the trip to Mesopotamia was to be for the purpose of enabling Jacob to obtain a wife of his own relationship, one with whom the knowledge of the Lord still remained. The parting blessing on this occasion apparently originated with Isaac. He sought to confirm the blessing which had by trickery been diverted to Jacob. This was a tacit admission of his own mistake and a comfort to Jacob, who after all had been divinely designated as the heir of the line of the promise of Abraham.

10. “The Fear of Isaac.”One feature that reaches into the theology of Genesis ought yet to be examined briefly, the unusual designation of God that appears to date from the days of Isaac, the divine name “the Fear of Isaac” (pahad yişhaq). This name appears twice in Genesis (31:42, 53). This seems to have been one of the names that catches a different aspect of the divine being than the other patriarchs perceived in their day. The name, rightly construed, seems to accord well with the unique temperament of Isaac, his docile, retiring, unassertive attitude. For “Fear” is to be construed as “the object of fear and reverence” as Isaac knew him. In other words, He was the God before whom Isaac bowed in deep reverence, trembling often as he worshiped Him. It was to have been expected that each patriarch would catch a partial glimpse of the fullness of the divine being, each experience of this being giving rise to its own designation.

11. Death. Contrary to expectations Isaac did not die soon after he had blessed his sons. If all the dates be sifted, it would appear that Isaac lived another thirty or forty years and finally died at the age of 180, having lived the longest of the three great patriarchs.

12. Typology. There remains the necessity of evaluating the typological aspects of the life and career of Isaac: to what extent may Isaac and his life be construed as having some Christological undertones? There is first of all the overall picture of a father giving his son into death. That factor came to full realization in the fact that “God spared not his own son” (Rom 8:32). That the Son acquiesced to this demand is a second factor that stands out. That the Son bore the very wood on which he was to be sacrificed is a third factor that is noteworthy. All this is typological. One can well understand why in the Early Church the sacrifice of Isaac was highly regarded as foreshadowing the sacrificial death of our Lord. Isaac is repeatedly ranked together with Abraham and Jacob (Exod 2:24, 25; Matt 8:11; 22:32; Acts 3:13, et al.). To this may be added one further aspect in which the Isaac image is used in Scripture (Gal 4:28): “We, brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise.”

Bibliography Among the many commentaries on Genesis, of the older ones, Keil (Keil and Delitzsch Commentary) still deserves attention; among newer ones Gerhard von Rad is exceptionally good; Interpreter’s Bible (Genesis), Cuthbert A. Simpson; among Encyclopedias: RGG, Mohr, Tuebingen (1959); The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, (1962) (article “Isaac”); Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, 2nd. ed. Edinburgh (1963).