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Isaac by Amanda Mbuvi

Son of Abraham and father of Jacob, Isaac is the middle of the three patriarchs of the people Israel. He stands at the center of complicated relationships with enough drama to fill a reality TV series. His birth to Abraham’s postmenopausal wife Sarah represented the culmination of a long struggle to reconcile God’s promise to make Abraham the ancestor of a great nation with the realities of the couple’s childlessness and advanced age. Prior to Isaac’s birth, Sarah had pursued the path of surrogacy, encouraging Abraham to father a child (Ishmael) with her maidservant Hagar. However, she was unhappy with the result, leading to the eventual expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael from the household. Shortly thereafter, God ordered Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, intervening at the last minute after observing Abraham’s willingness to carry out the command. Isaac married his cousin Rebekah, and they became the parents of twins Esau and Jacob.

Isaac and Ishmael: Friends or foes?

"Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing [with her son Isaac]. So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’” (Gen 21:9-10)

The Hebrew word for “playing” is a pun on Isaac’s name, so the phrase “with her son Isaac” may have been added to the text when it was translated from Hebrew to Greek to help readers recognize the linguistic connection to Isaac in what Sarah saw. But what did Sarah see that prompted such a vehement response? It’s possible that she was provoked by the very sight of Ishmael, especially if she had hoped to be rid of Hagar since before he was born (Gen 16:6). Or she may have seen Ishmael being unkind to Isaac or engaging in some other objectionable activity. Alternatively, she may have seen the boys playing happily together and perceived a threat in the presence of an older brother who might become a rival to her son (in Hebrew, Ishmael’s “playing” is also Isaac-ing).

Genesis reports that the brothers came together to bury Abraham (Gen 25:9) but does not otherwise explore their relationship. Instead, it uses them to illustrate the complicated relationship between their mothers and the entire household’s wrestling with how God’s promise to Abraham will be fulfilled.

Sarah’s demand for Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion comes immediately after Isaac has been weaned (Gen 21:8), raising the possibility that Hagar may have been his wet nurse. Given Sarah’s stated plan to claim Ishmael as her own son (Gen 16:2), there may be a certain fluidity in the relationships between the mothers and the sons. Readers should not be too quick to accept Sarah’s neat division of the household. Both women potentially stand in a mothering role toward both children.

Why doesn’t Isaac make a stronger impression?

Isaac is the middle patriarch who easily gets lost in the shuffle. His personality doesn’t come across as vividly as that of his father or son. In his own generation, his wife Rebekah acts more decisively to advance the project God began with Abraham. Genesis relates almost every significant event in his life from someone else’s point of view: Abraham’s perspective on the near-sacrifice, an unnamed servant’s perspective on his betrothal, Jacob’s and Esau’s perspective on their rivalry over birthright and blessing. His story emerges in bits and pieces, squeezing into the cracks of more memorable stories focused on his sons. Yet Genesis also highlights him. Repetitions of the phrase “these are the generations of” divide the book into sections, and one of those sections is devoted to the generations of Isaac.

As it turns out, the two most distinctive features of the treatment of Isaac converge; Isaac’s strange, abbreviated story corresponds to his strange, abbreviated relationship with his brother. In lacking a sustained, intimate relationship with a rival, Isaac stands out among the founding ancestors of Israel (compare Abraham and Lot and Jacob and Esau). God may work differently with each member of those pairs, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of their relationships to one another. Genesis drives that point home through the Joseph story (Gen 37-50), which concludes the book with an extended exploration of the key theme of sibling rivalry. The connection between human reconciliation and divine blessing emerges most forcefully there, but it is present throughout Genesis. Ishmael’s departure diminishes Isaac and his ability to represent a family called to epitomize interdependence across difference.

 

Amanda Mbuvi, "Isaac", n.p. [cited 13 Nov 2019]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/people/main-articles/isaac

Contributors

mbuvi-amanda

Amanda Mbuvi
Assistant Professor of Religion, High Point University

Amanda Mbuvi is Assistant Professor of Religion at High Point University. She approaches biblical studies from an interdisciplinary perspective, engaging questions of identity and community that are prominent in both the biblical texts and contemporary conversations about how we live with those texts and with each other. Her first book, Belonging in Genesis: Biblical Israel and the Politics of Identity Formation,was recently published by Baylor University Press.

Son of Abraham and father of Jacob, Isaac is the middle of the three patriarchs of the people Israel.

Did you know…?

  • Of the three patriarchs (male founding ancestors of the people Israel), Isaac is the only one whose name God doesn’t change.
  • Hagar may have nursed Isaac.
  • Isaac’s age at the time of his near sacrifice is a matter of dispute. There are some suggestions that he is a small child, but there is also a long tradition that he was thirty-six and that Abraham was only able to attempt the sacrifice with Isaac’s active participation.
  • Genesis describes Isaac’s relationship with Rebekah as especially affectionate.
  • Isaac’s half-brother Ishmael was sent away, leaving Isaac without a sustained relationship with a rival, unlike most central characters in Genesis. Despite their forcible separation, Isaac and Ishmael came together years later to bury their father Abraham.
  • Isaac also appears in the Qu’ran.

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

when a woman bears a child on behalf of another woman or man

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Gen 21:9-10

9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.10So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman wit ... View more

Gen 16:6

6But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

Gen 25:9

9His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre,

Gen 21:8

Hagar and Ishmael Sent Away
8The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.

Gen 16:2

2and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” ... View more

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

Gen 37-50

Joseph Dreams of Greatness
1Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan.2This is the story of the family of Jacob.
Jose ... View more

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