Isaac, long-awaited son of Abraham and Sarah, and husband of Rebecca. Nearly sacrificed by his father Abraham. Loves Rebecca, is tricked by her
Rebecca, his cousin and beloved wife Abraham, forefather of the Jewish people
Sarah, foremother of the Jewish people
Jacob and Esau, twin sons of Isaac by Rebecca
Isaac as a boy
The birth of Isaac: still from the movie ‘The Bible’
Isaac was the long-awaited child, the beloved son of Sarah and Abraham. His name means ‘he laughs’ – a happy sort of name. He was promised to Abraham by an angel, so great things were expected of him.
Despite her advanced age, Sarah may have been able to breast-feed him. At any rate, when he was weaned a great party was held. During it, something happened that brought the simmering quarrel between Sarah and Hagar to a head.
As a result, Isaac’s older half-brother Ishmael was ejected into the desert to die (though he did not) and Isaac became the undisputed heir to his father Abraham.
The sacrifice of Isaac
Some years later, Abraham received a message from God instructing him to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah.
Isaac knew nothing of this until the moment approached for his death – but when he did know, he seems to have accepted the idea with fortitude, not quarreling with his father’s intention to kill him. Abraham tied his son him with a rope, placed him on the altar they had built together, and raised the knife to cut Isaac’s throat.
The sacrifice of Isaac, Caravaggio
Fortunately the boy was saved from death by an angel, who instructed Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead – one being conveniently caught in a thicket nearby.
Writers seem to gloss over the horror of this incident and the permanent psychological damage it must have done to Isaac.
Isaac falls in love
When it came time for Isaac to marry, his father Abraham decided (as was the custom) that Isaac should marry a cousin. This practice kept power and wealth in the hands of the tribe’s ruling family.
Abraham sent word to his brother Laban in Mesopotamia, who had a grand-daughter called Rebecca.
The Jewish Bride, by Rembrandt
A trusted messenger offered marriage to Isaac. When Rebecca met the messenger she offered water not only to the man but to his thirsty animals, showing a gracious hospitality that impressed him. The go-between introduced himself and told her of his mission, Rebecca agreed to the match, and she and Isaac were duly married.
They were happy, but for quite awhile there were no children. Rebecca seemed to be barren. But then she became pregnant, and after a difficult nine months she bore twin sons, Esau and Jacob.
Isaac preferred the older twin, Esau, a real man’s man and an excellent hunter.
Rebecca begged to differ. She loved Jacob, the quiet one, the one who thought before he acted.
Isaac & Esau struggle for the birthright
Esau, being the elder of the two, would inherit more of his father’s goods than Jacob – that was his birthright.
One day he came in hungry and tired from a day in the fields. Jacob was cooking a stew, and Esau demanded some of it. He was famished.
But Jacob withheld the food. He asked Esau for something in exchange – his birthright as older brother. Did he say it jokingly? There is no way of telling.
Esau certainly took it as a joke. ‘Just give me the food’ he said. ‘What use is a birthright to me if I die of hunger?’ Jacob still withheld the food. ‘Swear to me’ said Jacob, and Esau swore the oath giving his birthright to his younger brother.
Jacob handed over the food, Esau ate, and the birthright was Jacob’s.
The fateful moment: Esau sells his birthright, Henrick ter Brugghen
Isaac tricks King Abimelech
A little later there was a famine, and Isaac took his flocks into Gerar, where King Abimelech ruled and pasture was plentiful. He worried about Rebecca – she was beautiful, and he feared she might be desired by the foreign men who saw her. This could result in trouble for him and his clan.
So he told people that Rebecca was his sister. This way, they courted his favor rather than wishing him dead. But he could not keep his hands off Rebecca, and one day King Abimelech saw Isaac fondling her in a most un-brotherly way.
The King confronted Isaac, who admitted the ruse. The King was annoyed, not so much because of the deception but because of the guilt that might have been heaped on his people if one of them had had sex with Rebecca, not knowing she was married.
Despite this fracas, Isaac did well in Gerar, becoming very wealthy. His flocks increased dramatically.
But animals need water, and water was scarce. There were quarrels about the wells in the area, and eventually Isaac moved on, ending up at a well his men dug at Shibah, a place that became known as Beer-sheba.
Esau had married two Hittite women, foreigners. Neither Isaac or Rebecca approved of his choices, and the wives responded by making life bitter for Isaac and Rebecca.
Who will succeed Abraham as tribal leader?
Meanwhile Isaac grew older, and the question of his successor resurfaced. Isaac had always preferred Esau, and custom dictated that the father give a Blessing to his heir, to cement his position as leader of the tribe.
Rebecca and Jacob waited. Then, when death was approaching for Isaac, when he was old and blind and failing, they acted.
They prepared Isaac’s favorite food, and Rebecca coached Jacob on how to trick his father into mistaking the younger son for the older. Esau was hairy, with hair on his arms and shoulders. Jacob was smooth – in more ways than one. She dressed Jacob in Esau’s favorite clothing and covered his arm and neck with the skins of a young goat. Thus disguised he was able to fool Isaac and gain the all-important Blessing.
Isaac Blessing Jacob. Gioachino Assereto, 1640
Esau was enraged when he found out what had happened. He set out to kill his brother. But Rebecca got wind of his plan, and smuggled Jacob out of the camp, and away to her relatives in Mesopotamia. Why, she asked, should she lose both her sons in one day?
Before Jacob went, Isaac told him to marry a girl from his family in Mesopotamia – not to marry a foreigner as Esau had done.
Esau took note, and a little after this, he married another wife, but this time it was a relative, the daughter of Abraham’s son Ishmael.
Years later, Isaac breathed his last. Jacob was with him when he died at Hebron, and his two sons, now reconciled to each other, buried him there.