Isaac in Abraham’s Shadow

Christians and Jews both refer to God as the God of “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”– the big three patriarchs of Genesis. But while the bible goes to great lengths to teach us about Abraham and Jacob, Isaac is almost a mystery. So much of his story is told through other eyes: we know of his torment by Ishmael through Abraham’s and Sarah’s reaction to it, we know of Abraham’s anguish at being asked to sacrifice his only remaining son, and later in the story we will see his granting of the birthright to Jacob through his and Rebekah’s eyes. Isaac is rarely a doer in Genesis, only one that reacts to things being done.

Timeline of Key Figures in Genesis (after Abraham)
Timeline of Key Figures in Genesis (after Abraham)

Fortunately for us, the Genesis narrator is crafty: several of the events in Isaac’s story closely parallel events in his father’s life. This grants a certain narrative economy, but more importantly allows us to learn who Isaac is by underscoring how he is or is not like his father. What kind of man do you think Isaac is? Read on for my view.

(This post is part of a continuing series of chronological commentaries on Genesis, starting at the very beginning, but they get better as we go on. Previous entries in the life of Isaac include his birth, his name pun, his being nearly sacrificed, his father’s search for his wife, and his burying of his father.)

Stories Told Out of Order

Statue of Isaac in Braga, Portugal (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Statue of Isaac in Braga, Portugal (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Before we begin, a moment of bookkeeping. The stories in Genesis 25 and 26, especially those that concern Isaac, are out of order. This isn’t a problem that we’ve seen before– at least outwardly, Abraham’s tale was old sequentially. In these two chapters we see Abraham’s death and burial, then Jacob and Rebekah’s difficulty conceiving, the birth of Jacob and Esau, Esau sells his birthright for the first time, then Isaac sojourns to Gerar and meets up with Abimelech. But from the dates that are given in the story, we know that Abraham’s death happened 15 years afterJacob and Esau’s birth– the last rather than the first event in this sequence. Similarly, the story of Isaac in Gerar appears to take place prior to the birth of the twins, when the couple could more effectively masquerade as siblings. There is plenty of room for debate, but in my estimation the correct order of these stories would be:

  1. Isaac and Rebekah meet Abimelech (after their marriage in Genesis 24)
  2. Isaac and Rebekah struggle to conceive children for twenty years
  3. Jacob and Esau are born
  4. Esau sells his birthright
  5. Abraham dies; Isaac and Ishmael bury him

There must be a reason for this reordering. Moving Abraham’s death from chronological order makes sense since it ends a thematic unit of the text, but shifting the Gerar story later doesn’t make sense for the same reason. The text we are left with seems to start Jacob’s story before returning and telling a bit more of Isaac. In my analysis, I’m going to keep to Genesis-order, but just keep in mind that things may not be as they appear.

A Promised Son

After nineteen years of marriage, Isaac and Rebekah had been unable to conceive a child. Without a male child, God’s promise could never be realized. Isaac was already in his late fifties and while Rebekah was younger, biological clocks were ticking. Of course, this neatly paralleled Abraham and Sarah’s own challenges.

When this happened to Abraham and Sarah, they lost faith– but it took them a long time to do it. When Abraham was 85 and Sarah 76– twenty-six years older than Isaac at this point– they looked for alternate solutions. Sarah was too old to conceive? Sleep with my maid instead. Because they lost faith, Ishmael was born and all of the problems that would later bring. God did eventually provide Abraham and Sarah with a son of their own, Isaac, fourteen years later.

In contrast, Isaac is never depicted as wavering. They had problems, Isaac prayed to God for help, and God answered:

Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant.
Genesis 25:21

What can we learn about Isaac from this incident? The message isn’t clear. Isaac waited 40 fewer years for his miracle to come. He also had the advantage of knowing that God performed that miracle before. I think you can argue that Isaac had more faith than Abraham– perhaps God rewarded him for this faith by not making him wait quite as long– but it’s not clear. At the very least, Isaac did not repeat his parents’ mistake.

A Famine in Israel

Isaac’s next story opens with a concise problem statement:

Now there was a famine in the land—besides the previous famine in Abraham’s time […]
Genesis 26:1

This time, the story itself makes the connection that Isaac is experiencing a problem that was also faced by his father. When Abraham experienced a famine, very soon after he arrived in Israel, he fled to Egypt according to the story in Genesis 12. Isaac makes a different decision: he goes to Gerar instead, near modern day Beersheba in Israel. Why this part of Israel was less affected by the famine, the text doesn’t say. Isaac may have been considering a trip to Egypt because God appears and talks him out of it (Genesis 26:2-3), but the first decision appears to have been Isaac’s alone.

Was the choice to go to Gerar a good one? Yes! Abraham had previously established a peace treaty with Abimelech back in Genesis 21. It stated:

At that time Abimelek and Phicol the commander of his forces said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything you do. Now swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants. Show to me and the country where you now reside as a foreigner the same kindness I have shown to you.”
Genesis 21:22-23

Gerar had been an unsafe place for Abraham and Sarah, but by the time they left they had put the literal fear of God in the ruler and established a treaty. It is around 75 years later, but when God comes and makes all your women infertile, you don’t forget about it quickly.

My verdict on this decision is that while Isaac is following in his father’s footsteps, he’s making different choices. He made a sound decision to visit an ally. Post-exile, the situation with the Philistines won’t be as rosy, but we’ll get there eventually.

Wife or Sister

Isaac and Abimelech swear friendship from 1728's "Figures de la Bible" (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Isaac and Abimelech swear friendship from 1728’s “Figures de la Bible” (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On arrival in Gerar, Isaac decided to follow in his father’s footsteps in another way: he announces that his wife was his sister:

When the men of that place asked him about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” because he was afraid to say, “She is my wife.” He thought, “The men of this place might kill me on account of Rebekah, because she is beautiful.”
Genesis 26:7

I hated this about Abraham and this is a trick that he pulled twice, with terrible consequences each time. He was willing to put his wife in danger of rape in order to protect himself. Isaac not only repeats this horrible strategy, he doesn’t seem to put the same amount of thought into it:

  1. Abraham wasn’t lying: Sarah WAS his sister. Rebekah was Isaac’s distant cousin, but not his sister.
  2. Abraham’s treaty with Abimelech stated that they would not “deal falsely” with each other. Isaac entering the king’s lands and lying about his wife  is “dealing falsely”.
  3. Rebekah may not have been in the same danger Sarah was.

The third item may takes some explanation. While Rebekah was certainly beautiful, Sarah was the type of one-of-a-kind beauty that is magical. When she traveled, even into her nineties, people couldn’t help but to fall in love with her. Both Pharaoh and Abimelech stole her away– and paid the price. But Rebekah doesn’t seem to have this same magic about her. When she sojourned in Gerar, neither Abimelech or any of the other over-sexed menfolk there seemed to notice. By all appearances, she was quite safe since they were there “a long time” before they were caught:

When Isaac had been there a long time, Abimelek king of the Philistines looked down from a window and saw Isaac caressing his wife Rebekah.
Genesis 26:8

Actually, I love this about Isaac and Rebekah. What husband doesn’t see in his wife the most beautiful woman in the world? I know I do! It’s almost a twisted kind of sweet that in Isaac’s view she ranks up there with his mother. He’s a bit of an idiot, but it’s charming.

The Verdicts

In these three events, we see Abraham’s life paralleled three times. In the first story, Isaac arguably displays more faith in God than his father did. This makes sense for a man who had even submitted to his father’s hand on the mountain. His faith in God had been rewarded before and he had seen his father’s faith rewarded, so Isaac’s was stronger for it. In the second case, Isaac makes a different choice than his father and it was a smart one: he traveled to a land where he had a peace treaty. As Jacob’s descendants would find out, Egypt wasn’t always going to be an ideal choice and I like that Isaac saw a better option. Finally, Isaac does ape his father unnecessarily in Gerar and doing the “wife/sister thing” is clearly a mistake. But, it is sweet in a way that he loves his wife so much and while we look down on the decision to put his wife in danger, his calculation (and his father’s) must have been that she would be better off if he remained alive.

I come out of these stories not seeing Isaac as a super-hero like his father, but like a man that sometimes makes good decision and sometimes not, a man that loves his wife more than anything else in the world, and one who is rewarded for his patience and faith. Isaac is much more of an every-man than his father or sons. God is the God of normal people, not just warrior-kings.

Up Next: I plan to spend a couple more posts on Genesis 25 and 26. They are remarkable chapters, made all the more challenging because of all of the mini-stories. I’m working on posts about whether there was one Abimelech or two, about the birth of the twins and Jacob’s first betrayal, and another about Isaac and Abimelech and the redigging of Abraham’s wells. I also have my final post on Ishmael’s grandchildren to finish up. Lots of great stuff, but I’m not sure what I’ll finish next.

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