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.
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.
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.’” (
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 (
Genesis reports that the brothers came together to bury Abraham (
Sarah’s demand for Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion comes immediately after Isaac has been weaned (
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 (