Who was Isaac?

In the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament, Isaac was the promised son, born to Abraham and Sarah.

Isaac means "to laugh". In Hebrew both Heb: tsachaq and Heb: sachaq have their cognate nouns, and signify, in the simple stem, "to laugh," in the intensive stem, "to jest, play, dance, fondle," and the like.

The Family of Isaac

The two things in Isaac's life that are deemed worthy of extensive treatment in the sacred narrative are his birth and his marriage. His significance, in fact, centers in his transmission of what went before him to what came after him. Hence, his position in his father's family, his relation to its greatest treasure, the religious birthright, and his marriage with Rebekah are the subjects that require special notice in this connection.

Birth and Place in the Family

The birth of Isaac is represented as peculiar in these respects: the age of his parents, the purity of his lineage, the special Divine promises accompanying. What in Abraham's life is signalized by the Divine "call" in the from his father's house, and what in Jacob's life is brought about by a series of providential interpositions, seems in Isaac's case to become his by his birth. His mother, who is not merely of the same stock as Abraham but actually his half-sister, is the legal wife.

As her issue Isaac is qualified by the laws of inheritance recognized in their native land to become his father's heir. But Ishmael, according to those laws, has a similarly valid claim, and it is only by express command that Abraham is led to abandon what was apparently both custom and personal preference, to "cast out the bondwoman and her son," and to acquiesce in the arrangement that "in Isaac shall thy seed be called."

Relation to the Religious Birthright

But the birthright of Isaac was of infinitely more importance than the birthright in the family of any other wealthy man of that day. All that limitless blessing with which Abraham set forth under God's leadership was promised not only to him but to his "seed"; it was limitless in time as well as in scope. To inherit it was of more consequence to Isaac than to inherit any number of servants, flocks or wells of his father's acquisition. A sense of these relative values seems to have been a part of Isaac's spiritual endowment, and this, more than anything else related of him, makes him an attractive figure on the pages of Gen.

Significance of Marriage

The raising up of a "seed" to be the bearers of these promises was the prime concern of Isaac's life. Not by intermarriage with the Canaanites among whom he lived, but by marriage with one of his own people, in whom as much as in himself should be visibly embodied the separateness of the chosen family of God--thus primarily was Isaac to pass on to a generation as pure as his own the heritage of the Divine blessing. Rebekah enters the tent of Isaac as truly the chosen of God as was Abraham himself.

The Life of Isaac

Previous to his marriage Isaac's life is a part of the story of Abraham; after his marriage it merges into that of his children. It is convenient, therefore, to make his marriage the dividing-line in the narrative of his career.

A child whose coming was heralded by such signal marks of Divine favor as was Isaac's would be, even apart from other special considerations, a welcome and honored member of the patriarchal household. The covenant-sign of circumcision (which Isaac was the first to receive at the prescribed age of 8 days), the great feast at his weaning, and the disinheritance of Ishmael in his favor, are all of them indications of the unique position that this child held, and prepare the reader to appreciate the depth of feeling involved in the sacrifice of Isaac, the story of which follows thereupon.

The age of Isaac at the time of this event is not stated, but the fact that he is able to carry the wood of the offering shows that he had probably attained his full growth. The single question he asks his father and his otherwise unbroken silence combine to exhibit him in a favorable light, as thoughtful, docile and trustful. The Divine interposition to save the lad thus devoted to God constitutes him afresh the bearer of the covenant-promise and justifies its explicit renewal on this occasion.

From this point onward the biographer of Isaac evidently has his marriage in view, for the two items that preceded the long 24th chaper, in which Rebekah's choice and coming are rehearsed, are, first, the brief genealogical paragraph that informs the reader of the development of Nahor's family just as far as to Rebekah, and second, the chapter that tells of Sarah's death and burial--an event clearly associated in the minds of all with the marriage of Isaac (see Gen 24:3,16,67).

Divine interest in the choice of her who should be the mother of the promised seed is evident in every line of the chapter that dramatizes the betrothal of Isaac and Rebekah. Their first meeting is described at its close with the tender interest in such a scene natural to every descendant of the pair, and Issac is sketched as a man of a meditative turn (Gen 24:63) and an affectionate heart (Gen 24:67).

Subsequent to Marriage

The dismissal of the sons of Abraham's concubines to the "East-country" is associated with the statement that Isaac inherited all that Abraham had; yet it has been remarked that, besides supplying them with gifts, Abraham was doing them a further kindness in thus emancipating them from continued subjection to Isaac, the future head of the clan. After Abraham's death we are expressly informed that God "blessed Isaac his son" in fulfillment of previous promise.

The section entitled "the Heb: toledhoth (generations) of Isaac" extends from Gen 25:19 to 35:29. At the opening of it Isaac is dwelling at Beer-lahai-roi (25:11), then at Gerar (26:1,6) and "the valley of Gerar" (26:17), then at Beer-sheba (26:23; 28:10), all localities in the Negeb or "South-country." But after the long narrative of the fortunes of Jacob and his family, occupying many years, we find Isaac at its close living where his father Abraham had lived, at Hebron.

For 20 years Isaac and Rebekah remained childless; it was only upon the entreaty of Isaac that God granted them their twin sons. A famine was the usual signal for emigration to Egypt (compare Gen 12:10; 42:2); and Isaac also appears to have been on his way thither for the same cause, when, at Gerar, he is forbidden by God to proceed, and occasion is found therein to renew to him the covenant-promise of his inheritance: land, posterity, honor and the Divine presence (Gen 26:1-4).

But Isaac had also received from his father traditions of another sort; he too did not hesitate to say to the men of Gerar that his wife was his sister, with the same intent to save his own life, but without the same justification in fact, as in the case of Abraham's earlier stratagem. Yet even the discovery by the king of Gerar of this duplicity, and repeated quarrels about water in that dry country, did not suffice to endanger Isaac's status with the settled inhabitants, for his large household and great resources made him a valuable friend and a dangerous enemy.

The favoritism which Isaac showed for one son and Rebekah for the other culminated in the painful scene when the paternal blessing was by guile obtained for Jacob, and in the subsequent enforced absence of Jacob from his parental home. Esau, too, afforded no comfort to his father and mother, and ere long he also withdrew from his father's clan. The subsequent reconciliation of the brothers permitted them to unite at length in paying the last honors to Isaac on his decease. Isaac was buried at Hebron where his parents had been buried (Gen 49:31), and where' his place of sepulture is still honored.


IBSE, (in the public domain) with minor edits.