Three Plus Four: Isaac

We continue our “THREE PLUS FOUR” series, and we are still in the “three” part: the Fathers. Last time, we spoke about Abraham; today, we will speak about Isaac. I remind you that my task here is not to draw a full biblical portrait – especially now, when the posts are being published once in a month – but just to share with you the details and insights that might not be known by a Christian reader: they are either based on the meaning of the original Hebrew words, or taken from Jewish tradition.

HOW OLD WAS ISAAC?

When we read Genesis 22, we imagine a mountain, and the father and the boy going up together Thanks to the simple phrase ַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו – “and the two of them walked on together” – we get a glimpse of an extraordinary unity. While Abraham knew only too well the reason for going up this mountain, the son knew nothing and was clearly perplexed, all the time understanding less and less what was really happening and “where the lamb for burnt offering” was. Nevertheless, he continued to follow his father in perfect obedience and perfect trust.

In Christian tradition, Isaac is always depicted as a child or teenager – and his obedience is perceived as a child’s obedience to his father. However, was Isaac indeed a boy, obediently following his father? While nothing in the text indicates Isaac’s age, some suggestions can be made based on the text of the Torah – and these suggestions might really surprise you.

In Jewish tradition, Sarah’s death in Genesis 23 is juxtaposed to the event of Genesis 22: when Sarah heard that “her son was prepared for slaughter and was almost slaughtered, her soul flew out of her and she died.”[1] Sarah died at the age of 127, which means that Isaac was 37 when he was led to Mount Moriah—not a child, as is perceived in Christian tradition. Obviously, it was a huge trauma for him: many years later Jacob would refer to his father’s God as the “Fear of Isaac”[2] (פַ֤חַד יִצְחָק֙), a hint at the experience on Mount Moriah. Yet, Isaac’s obedience to his father’s will, his free consent and selfless readiness to be sacrificed, all becomes much more profound when we think of him as a strong grown man, willingly following his elderly and obviously weaker father.

 

WHERE DID ISAAC GO?

This story, the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, contains, among other enigmas, one more mystery that our sages have long pointed out. After all that happened on Mount Moriah—after the raised knife was stopped by the voice from heaven—Genesis 22:19 states: Abraham returned to his young men, and they rose and went together to Beersheba. Isaac isn’t mentioned there at all. Where did he disappear to? What happened to him after the Aqedah?

This question has triggered numerous discourses and speculations, which are laid out in a wide variety of works by our sages and rabbis. Where did Isaac go? The Scriptures inform us only about Abraham’s return. Isaac vanishes, and does not reappear until Genesis 24, right before his meeting with Rebekah.

Genesis 24:62 states that Isaac came from the way of Beer Lahai Roi. If you don’t know Hebrew, this name means nothing. In Hebrew, however, it has a profound meaning: The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me!  The message of this name is that, while Isaac had vanished from the scene, he never vanished from God’s sight. Though his parents could not see him, and though he disappears from the pages of the Torah, God still saw him and knew everything about him – just as He sees you and me: The One Who Sees Me Lives.

PRAYING HUSBAND

There is a verse in Genesis 25, which invariably touches my heart: Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer …[3] There are several details, especially in Hebrew, that make this verse very special. We know that Isaac is the only patriarch who remained monogamous his whole life: does this verse provide us an insight into the very close and intimate relationship of this couple?

Both Sarah, Abraham’s wife, and Rachel, Jacob’s wife, were also barren for a time, yet we don’t hear a single word in Scripture telling of Abraham praying for Sarah. It was even worse with Jacob: when Rachel complained about her barrenness, Jacob became angry and said, “Am I in the place of God”?[4] Thus, Isaac was indeed the only one who “pleaded with the LORD” on behalf of his barren wife: Now Isaac pleaded with the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his plea[5]

Amazingly, the phraseוַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַיהוה  (vaye’etar yztchak ladonai) – “Isaac pleaded with the LORD”, and the phrase וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ יהוה  (vaye’ater lo Adonai) – “the LORD responded to his plea”, use the same Hebrew root. However, this whole dynamic between Isaac’s plea and the Lord’s answer is completely lost in translation, as both phrases are translated with totally different verbs. I believe that for many husbands and wives, this dynamic, this commitment to plead until the Lord responds to the plea might be truly eye-opening. Therefore, it is very important not to miss insights such as these, found in the Hebrew text.

WHY DID ISAAC LOVE ESAU?

While Scripture tells us about the parental favoritism in Isaac and Rebekah’s family, remarkably, we don’t find any judgment or explanation of this situation. The Torah doesn’t justify, doesn’t excuse, doesn’t provide any comment at all – it simply states the facts: Isaac loved Esau … but Rebekah loved Jacob [6]– and we are left to wonder why. Why did this parental favoritism happen, and how did it start?

We must remember that, unlike his parents, Isaac was “sabra” – he was born in the Land, he had stayed in the Land his whole life, moreover, he worked the land! He was the first farmer in his family: he sowed, and reaped, and became extremely blessed in that: “Then Isaac sowed in that land, and reaped in the same year a hundredfold; and the Lord blessed him.”[7] So, we know that Isaac worked the land and reaped an abundant harvest from his fields.

Now, pay close attention: While most English translations call Esau “a man of the outdoors”, the Hebrew text calls him “a man of a field”. That’s probably why Isaac loved Esau – they were both men of the fields: “Oh, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which the LORD has blessed.”[8] The field is a symbol of the one who loves the land and nature, and Isaac and Esau probably spent a lot of time together outdoors, in the fields. I believe this is how their special bond was developed: however, we would not understand it, unless we know that, in the original Hebrew text, Esau is called “a man of a field”.

[1] Gen. Rabbah 58:5

[2] Gen. 31:42

[3] Gen. 25:21

[4] Gen. 30:2

[5] Gen. 25:21

[6] Gen. 25:28

[7] Gen. 26:12

[8] Gen. 27:27

The insights you read on these pages, are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion)  classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying  in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insightsI would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher courses (juliab@eteachergroup.com) .

If you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,   you can get them here. 

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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Join the conversation (6 comments)

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  1. Dale Williams

    Robin Bullock, an American prophet connects the events of Abraham and Isaac and the slaughter of the sacrificial lamb with the Cross of Jesus.

  2. Jan

    The encoding process first requires which word play is in use, then the Gematria Calculator. It is only then, that correct interpretation can begin, irrespective of what book one is studying, including the Talmud. Interpretation that does not include this logic in it’s rhetoric is not interpretation, it’s promulgation of the same we’ve heard from all the story tellers.

  3. Nick

    This is truly a great story! I’ve even heard Kabbalistic versions that suggest Isaac was in fact slain and resurrected. My current train of thought is that these stories including the Jesus story all likely have deeper meanings obvious to the writers, but not to us. We may have the “letter” of the story, but not the “spirit”. We’re all trying to be open and do the best we can, right???
    Thank you Julia,
    Nick

    1. Julia Blum

      Yes, Nick, there are some texts in Judaism that say that Isaac was slain and resurrected. I think I wrote about it in one of my articles on this blog. At some point, I had been really fascinated by this concept and tried to research everything about it. And you are so right about this meaning “obvious to the writers, but not to us”. This is the main source of so many distortions and misconceptions. But, as you wrote, “We’re all trying to be open and do the best we can”.

  4. Gladys Fox

    Thank you Dear Julia,
    It is so good to be learning from you and I thank God for all that you have taught me. My greatest joy is to come to a better understanding of His word.
    I not sure if it was you that wrote that Isaac might have went to find his brother Ishmael . I believe that this might be true . Abraham would never have stopped loving his first born and he may have talked often to Isaac about his big brother . Isaac would have been too young to remember much about Ishmael , but when he was about to be sacrificed he may have suddenly known how Ishmael may have felt and this may have made him want to see and know Ishmael . We know that both Ishmael and Isaac were together when they buried their father Abraham .
    It also touches my heart that Isaac would pray for his wife to have a baby . I once prayed for two women that wanted to have a baby . One could get pregnant but then she would miscarry and she and her husband would be devastated . The other woman couldn’t get pregnant and when her husband went out and got another woman pregnant her heart was broken . My prayers were answered and both of these women had babies and I do mean babies because they each had twins . One had girls the other had boys . I once said that God answered my prayers twice and this was just one of them . I now believe that He was teaching me to look for two when reading the Bible . This is something that the Jewish people already knew .
    May God Bless you and all the ones you love and love you !

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you, Gladys! I did write that after Aqedah, Isaac went to find Ishmael. I wrote it in my book (Abraham had two sons), and also here, on this blog. Of course, the Torah doesn’t tell it explicitly, and we have no way of knowing whether it really happened; yet, I believe the brothers had some healing time together before we see both of them burying their father. I choose to believe in healing!