Three Plus Four: Isaac
By Julia BlumAugust 15, 2022No comments
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.” 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” (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.
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 … 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”? 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.
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 – 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.” 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.” 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”.
 Gen. Rabbah 58:5