From New World Encyclopedia

Isaac, the faithful son of Abraham.

Isaac or Yitzchak (Hebrew: יִצְחָק Yiẓḥaq Arabic: إسحٰق, ʾIsḥāq; "he will laugh") is the son and heir of Abraham and the father of Jacob and Esau, as described in the Hebrew Bible. His story is told in the Book of Genesis. The half-brother of Abraham's son, Ishmael, Isaac was born miraculously when his mother was 90. He is primarily famed for his role as the faithful son who did not complain when Abraham prepared to offer him as a burnt sacrifice to God. Later, he married the beautiful Rebekah, whom he deeply loved. He was the father of the twin sons Esau and Jacob and thus the ancestor of both the Edomites and the Israelites in the biblical narrative.

The historicity of Isaac's story in the Bible has come under scrutiny from recent scholars. Also, in Islam, Isaac's role is significantly different than in Judeo-Christian tradition.

Isaac in the Hebrew Bible

Birth and youth

The biblical story of Isaac begins with a prediction from God that Abraham's wife would bear a son named Isaac. Although Abraham has another son through Sarah's Egyptian slave-woman, Hagar, it is Isaac who will inherit God's covenant and the promise to become a great people in the land of Canaan (Gen. 17:19). Isaac would be the longest lived of the three great patriarchs. His name, derived from the verb, "to laugh," is related to various verses in which either Sarah or Abraham laugh at the idea that they could have a son at such an old age (she was 90, he 100).

Sarah suckled the child herself and Abraham gave a great feast on his weaning day. During the festivities, however, Sarah became disturbed by the attitude of Hagar's son, Ishmael (Gen. 21:9). As there was already bad blood between the two women, Sarah attempted to convince Abraham to be rid of the slave woman and her son. Abraham resisted, but God intervened on Sarah's behalf, saying:

Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring (21:12-13).

Abraham banishes Hagar and Ishmael to the desert, where God protects them; and readers are told that Hagar eventually finds a wife for Ishmael in Egypt.

The Binding of Isaac

Rembrandt's version of the angel hindering the sacrifice of Isaac.

An unspecified time elapses, and Isaac, now a young man, faces a tremendous test. God commands Abraham to sacrifice him as a burnt offering. Abraham obeys and takes Isaac, together with two slaves, to the place "the Lord would show him." On the third day, discerning the place (identified elsewhere as Mount Moriah), Abraham leaves the slaves behind and begins the ascent with his son. The bewildered Isaac asks, "We have the fire and the wood, but where is the sacrifice for the burnt-offering?" Whether merely placating his victim or perhaps uttering a prophecy, Abraham tells Isaac that God will provide the sacrifice. He then binds Isaac, places him on the altar, and prepares to slay him with a knife.

At this point an angel of Yahweh dramatically intervenes to prevent the slaughter saying, "Do not lay a hand on the boy… for now I know that you fear God." Abraham then discovers a ram caught in a nearby thicket, and it becomes the sacrifice in Isaac's place.

Apparently deeply relieved, God immediately renews his covenant with Abraham, saying:

"I swear by myself… that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me" (Gen. 16-18).

Beside being one of the most dramatic scenes in the Bible, the incident—known as the Binding of Isaac—is also one of the most discussed.


Isaac and his family now move to Beersheba. His mother dies, at age 127, at Hebron (Gen. 23:1-2). After her death, Isaac establishes himself in the Negev. Abraham sends his steward, Eliezer, into Mesopotamia to procure a wife for Isaac, from among the family's kin. Isaac, now 40, thus receives Rebekah, who arrives on a camel train with her slave-girls, while Isaac meditates in a field (Gen. 24:62-67). The two fall in love at first sight. Isaac honors Rebekah by providing her with his mother's tent. "She became his wife, and he loved her," the Bible tells us, "and Isaac was comforted after his mother's death."

Like her mother-in-law before her, however, Rebekah is apparently barren. Isaac prays for her, God responds, and when Isaac is 60, she conceives. She struggles with her pregnancy, for "two nations" are warring within her womb. She is delivered of twins, named Esau and Jacob. Isaac favors the hairy Esau, a hunter, while Rebekah loves Jacob, a homeboy.

When Isaac is 75 years old, Abraham dies. Although he has taken another wife and has provided her and his other sons with substantial property, he leaves everything he owns at his death to Isaac. The banished Ishmael now briefly reappears, and the two brothers join together in peace to bury their father (Gen. 25:9).

Some years afterward, a famine obliges Isaac to retire to the Philistine town of Gerar, where Abimelech was king. God appears to Isaac and establishes His covenant with him (Gen 26:2), instructing him to remain in Gerar. Fearing that the men of the town will kill him in order to take the beautiful Rebekah for their own, Isaac does exactly as his father had done previously: He tells the king that his wife is actually his sister. Abimelech, looking out his window, sees the two behaving as lovers, and reproves Isaac for the deception.

Abimelech places Isaac under his protection, and Isaac grows rich with cattle. Others among the Philistines, however, become envious and fill up the wells which Isaac's slaves have dug. Fearing the outbreak of hostilities, Abimelech orders Isaac to leave the city. After more troubles with nearby herdsmen, he finds a good, safe well at Rehobeth. At length, he returns to Beersheba where he establishes a more permanent habitation. Here, the Lord appears to him again, and renews the promise of blessing. To commemorate this, Isaac establishes a tribal altar at Beersheba. Later, Abimelech and company make a formal visit, and the two leaders form an alliance. Esau, meanwhile, takes two Hittite women as wives, much to the disappointment of both Isaac and Rebekah.

Old age and death

Isaac, having grown very old (137 years), has now become nearly blind. He calls Esau, his eldest and favorite son, to him to receive his blessing. Isaac directs Esau to procure some venison for him. However, Rebekah has other plans. She conspires with Jacob, and while Esau is hunting, Jacob pretends to be Esau. Isaac suspects, but Rebekah has disguised Jacob very cleverly, and the old man is deceived. He gives the blessing meant for Esau to Jacob, saying:

May God give you of heaven's dew
and of earth's richness—
an abundance of grain and new wine.
May nations serve you
and peoples bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers, and
may the sons of your mother bow down to you.
May those who curse you be cursed
and those who bless you be blessed.

Having thus spoken, Isaac is powerless to take his words back once he discovers what has happened. "I have made him lord over you," he tells Esau.

Esau determines to slay Jacob, but Rebekah counsels her favorite to flee. Since both she and Isaac are unhappy with Esau's choice of Hittite women as wives, she is able to convince Isaac to send Jacob to her relatives in Haran. He does so, giving him another blessing, this time intentionally.

Esau, trying to be a good son to Isaac, realizes that he has displeased his parents by not marrying a relative. He thus takes Mahalath, a daughter of Ishmael, as a bride, in addition to his other wives. Jacob would return 21 years later and make peace with Esau. Isaac apparently continues to linger during this time and well beyond. But he is not heard from until his death notice:

Jacob came home to his father Isaac in Mamre, near Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had stayed. Isaac lived a hundred and eighty years. Then he breathed his last and died and was gathered to his people, old and full of years. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him (Genesis 35:27-29).

Isaac's lineage through Esau is listed in Genesis 36 and 1 Chronicles 1. The story of Isaac's descendants through Jacob makes up much of the Hebrew Bible. A list detailing Isaac's lineage through Jacob until the time of the Babylonian exile is found in 1 Chronicles 2-8.

Rabbinical literature

A variety of rabbinical legends survive concerning Isaac. He was born at noon, when the spring sun was shining in all its glory (Talmud: Rosh ha-Shanah 10b). His birth was marked by miracles: The sick were restored to health, the blind received their sight, and the deaf recovered their hearing. A spirit of justice began to prevail in the world (Tan., Gen. 37). However, slanderers claimed that Isaac was not Abraham's and Sarah's true son. It was to silence these critics that Abraham prepared the great feast to celebrate Isaac's weaning. Here, God provided a miracle proving Sarah's motherhood: She nursed all the infants that had been brought to the feast. The slanderers now questioned Abraham's fatherhood of the boy. However, God foiled their efforts by making the face of Isaac nearly identical to that of Abraham (Yalk., Gen. 93). According to some, Ishmael lured Isaac to the fields where he cast arrows at him, in order to get rid of him (Gen. R. 53). It was for this reason Sarah insisted on Ishmael and his mother being sent away.

The sacrifice of Isaac

According to the talmudic rabbi Jose ben Zimra, the idea of testing Abraham through the sacrifice of Isaac was suggested to God by Satan (Sanh. 87b; Gen. R. lv.), and the Binding of Isaac took place immediately after his weaning. (Most rabbis do not agree with the latter opinion.) Several rabbis believed that the event shocked Sarah so deeply that it caused her death (Pirke R. El. 31; Tanna debe Eliyahu R. 27). Not only did he consent to the sacrifice, but he suggested himself during an argument with Ishmael when the two were grown men. Ishmael claimed to be better than Isaac on account of having willingly allowed himself to be circumcised. Isaac retorted that Ishmael prided himself for spilling a few drops of blood, but "I am now thirty-seven years old, and would gladly give my life if God wished it" (Sanh. 89b; Gen. R. 56:8). Satan tempted Isaac on the way to Mount Moriah in these words: "Unfortunate son of an unfortunate mother! How many days did your mother pass in fasting and praying for thy birth! And now your father, who has lost his mind, is going to kill you." Isaac reportedly rebuked Satan, telling him that he would not oppose the will of his Creator and the command of his father (Tan., Gen. 46).

Some rabbis hold that Abraham actually carried out the sacrifice of Isaac, noting that Abraham alone is mentioned as coming down from Mount Moriah, while both he and Isaac are said to have ascended it. In this interpretation, Isaac was actually resurrected after first having been slain by his father.

The Binding—the akedah, in Hebrew—is especially important in Jewish liturgy. Isaac is presented in rabbinical literature as being the prototype of martyrs. The Talmud portrays him as deeply compassionate with regard to his descendants. When Abraham and Jacob were told by God that their children had sinned, they answered: "Let them be blotted out for the sanctification of Thy name." But when Isaac was informed that his children had sinned, he replied: "Why are they my children more than Thine" (Shab. 89b).

Isaac in Christianity

In the New Testament, reference is made to his having been "offered up" by his father (Heb. 11:17; James 2:21), and to his blessing his sons (Heb. 11:20). As the child of promise, he is contrasted with Ishmael (Rom. 9:7, 10; Gal. 4:28; Heb. 11:18). Hebrews 11:19 preserves the rabbinical opinion that when Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac, he believed that God would raise him from the dead. The apocryphal Letter of Barnabas, widely read in the early churches, makes Isaac a symbol of Christian faith, in contrast to Jewish devotion the law and custom: "Ye ought to understand who Isaac is, and who Rebecca is, and in whose case He hath shown that the one people is greater than the other" (9:2).

Isaac is seen by many Christians as a prototype of Jesus. As Isaac was willing to become a sacrifice to God at the hand of his father Abraham, so Jesus willingly became a sacrifice on the Cross for his Father, God. The Catholic Encyclopedia states of him: "He was pre-eminently a man of peace, the fitting type of the Prince of Peace, whose great sacrifice on Mount Calvary was foreshadowed by Isaac's obedience unto death on Mount Moria."

Isaac in Islam

The Qur'an repeats the tradition that Isaac was given to Sarah when she and Abraham were old. It also preserves the story that she laughed when God gave her the good tidings of Isaac's birth (14:39) (11:71-72) (37:112-113).

However, according to Islamic beliefs—though not stated directly in the Qur'an—it was Ishmael and not Isaac whom Abraham nearly sacrificed in the name of Allah {al-Saaffaat 37:99-113}.

According to the Qur'an, the God (Allah) whom Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob worshiped was the same God who spoke to the Prophet Muhammad. These patriarchs were called neither Jews nor Arabs in that time, but were considered righteous. Isaac and Jacob were guided by the command of God, and God inspired in them to do good deeds and establish godly worship and the giving of alms. Isaac and Jacob were worshipers of God alone. They are both considered prophets. God established the prophethood and the Scripture among the seed of Isaac and Jacob, and they were rewarded in the world (19:49-50) (21:72-73) (29:27).

Critical Views

Some scholars suggest that the binding of Isaac may represent an explanation for the acceptability of animal sacrifice to replace an earlier tradition of human sacrifice among proto-Israelite peoples. While some human sacrifice was clearly offered to pagan deities, at least one biblical hero, the judge Jephthah, offered his daughter to the Hebrew God. The narrative indicates that her sacrifice was once honored by the Israelites in an annual four-day pilgrimage (Judges 11:40). The rebuilder of Jericho, Hiel, is reported to have sacrificed two of his sons to lay the city's new foundations (1 Kings 16:34) in fulfillment of a prophecy by Joshua. Moreover the prophet Jeremiah indicates that the people of Judah believed it was God's will to sacrifice their first-born, quoting God as saying "I never commanded such a thing, nor did it enter my mind" (Jer. 7:31).

Some scholars see hints of a primitive tradition of Yahwistic human sacrifice in such priestly laws as:

The first offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all the firstborn males of your livestock, whether from herd or flock. Redeem the firstborn donkey with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem all your firstborn sons (Ex. 34:19-20).


All the firstborn are mine… whether man or animal. They are to be mine. I am the Lord (Numbers 3:13).

However, the commonly accepted view is that such passages refer to a tradition in which the first born son of every family was once supposed to be offered to the Lord for priestly service, not for death.

Some scholars suggest that rather than being lineal descendants of one ancestor, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were in reality the legendary founders of three separate peoples who eventually federated into the nation of Israel and gradually developed a common "history" as three generations of the same family. A similar thesis has been proposed for the origins of the 12 tribes of "Israel."

Critics also note the apparent doubling of some stories. For example, the story of Hagar's expulsion in Gen 21:8-21 is thought to be the E version of a J account in chapter 16, which takes place before the birth of Isaac. A more obvious example is that the story of Isaac's deceiving Abimelech in Gen. 26 seems to be a doublet of Gen. 20 in which it is Abraham who deceives this king. Even the story of Abimelech and Phicol visiting the patriarch later at Beersheba is repeated (Gen. 21:22 26:26). Scholars also point out that both of these stories are anachronistic, since the Philistines were not present in Canaan until several hundred years after these incidents took place. They thus describe a political situation closer to the tenth or ninth century B.C.E., when they were transcribed, than to the reality of Isaac's supposed time.

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