The Story Of Isaac =or= derp-derp-derp-derp

Let me put this as nicely as possible:Isaac, God’s promised son to Abraham and Sarah, was never a member of Mensa.

He is the Old Testament’s Fredo, the Forrest Gump of the patriarchs, the Jethro Beaudine of Genesis.

In short, not the sharpest crayon in the box.

The evidence to make my case is all found in the Bible.  Let’s start at the end and work our way forward.

He Can’t Tell The Difference Between His Own Sons: Now granted at age 180 he was elderly going on senile and his eyes dimmed with age, and granted he suspected something wasn’t on the up & up, nonetheless Isaac went ahead and blessed Jacob over Esau when Jacob disguised himself with fleece mittens and collar.  Something’s wrong with that picture.

Add to it this deception was brought about by his wife, Rebekah, in order for her younger son to gain power and prestige over his older twin brother.[1]

God Won’t Let Him Leave Canaan: Of all the early patriarchs, only Isaac sticks close to his home turf and doesn’t go sojourning off elsewhere.  No clear reason is given for this, though some Jewish scholars feel it’s because of his brief tour of duty as a would-be human sacrifice.[2]

It could be that God knew if he ever left Canaan, there was little chance he could find his way back.  No matter; for whatever reason God couldn’t trust Isaac to stick with the plan on his own so He told him to stay put.

Daddy On His Deathbed Had To Send A Servant To Find A Bride For Isaac: To me this speaks volumes.  Isaac was forty when this happened.[3] If Junior hasn’t got enough on the ball to score a bride on his own, it indicates something was wrong with him.  The unnamed servant goes to the hometown of Abraham’s brother and by luck or holy design encounters Isaac’s first cousin, Rebekah.  The servant makes a great sales pitch to Becky & her family and she’s off to Canaan on the first caravan.

But something happened in the intervening years between their marriage and the scheme to get Jacob the birthright.  Rebekah’s love turned to contempt; she now had a hate on for her hubby and was determined to outfox him in a humiliating fashion.

Maybe she was honked off when he pretended she was his sister so Abimelech, king of the Philistines, wouldn’t kill him to marry her (Abimelech remembered when Isaac’s daddy tried the same stunt[4] and issued strict No Touch orders).

Whatever the reason, it’s clear Rebekah felt she’d been sold a bill of goods and was not happy about it.  One suspects she resented the fact Isaac was not the focused world-beater Abraham’s servant had touted him to be.[5]

His Daddy’s Other Baby Momma Made Fun Of Him: Hagar, whom Sarah let Abraham use as an incubator, brought forth his first son, Ishmael (patriarch of the people now known as Arabs).  When Sarah gave birth (miraculously) to Isaac, Hagar mocked him.

This doesn’t seem like a sound move for a couple of reasons.  Numero Uno, Hagar despite birthing Ishmael is still just a serving wench, not Abraham’s wife.  Her rights and legal claims, and the inheritance of her son, are hanging by a thread.  Numero Two-o, he’s a kid, f’r cryin’ out loud; there’s nothing about him different from Ishmael at the same age unless, y’know, there’s something different about him.

Predictably, Sarah gets her knickers in a twist and demands Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert to die.  Why such an extreme measure?  Why not a simple, “Shut up, you’re a womb for hire, I’m the big momma around here and my boy is better than yours” unless there was something about Isaac that clearly marked him as inferior?

Astute readers will notice I’ve left out the defining moment in Isaac’s life (not really; I’m just saving it for dramatic impact).

Isaac Meekly Goes To His Doom As A Human Sacrifice: So God tells Abraham he’s going to have a child with Sarah, even though both are over a hundred years old, and that this child will go on to be the patriarch of countless generations.[6] Then God apparently changes His mind and tells Abraham to sacrifice his son to Him.  Abraham dutifully schlepts off to do this, but using an angel God stays his hand.

Now, the conventional interpretation is that God was testing Abraham to see if Abraham would do what he was told.  This is so much horses4!t.  If God didn’t know already what Abraham would do, then He’s not omniscient and if He’s not omniscient then He’s not worthy of worship.[7]

So if God knew in advance that Abraham would kill Isaac at His command, for whose benefit was this little psychodrama enacted?

There are four players in the story (five, counting the ram whose horns were tangled in the thicket, but since he ended up being the sacrifice I think we can exclude him).

God knew what was going to happen before it happened, so it wasn’t for His benefit.[8]

The angel?  Well, maybe, but if so God has kept that knowledge from us.  As the story reads now he’s just a deus ex machina galloping to the rescue; it makes no nevermind to him whether the kid lives or not.

Isaac?  Larry Gornick in vol II of The Cartoon History Of The Universe suggests this was an initiation ritual designed to terrorize unruly kids into blind mindless obedience.  Well, maybe, but if that’s so then why isn’t this passed down as a tradition from generation to generation?  And while we think of Isaac as a child and typically depict him as anywhere from 5 to 16 years of age, in truth he was apparently much older; Jewish tradition says he was 37.

Kinda late in the game to be instilling discipline, doncha think?

That leaves just one player:  Abraham.  Now, we know from the Bible that while Abraham followed God, he didn’t have absolute faith in God, either (viz. marrying off Sarah to save his own neck, or boffing Hagar because he didn’t think God could deliver on the Sarah-giving-birth promise).  Maybe by the time of the sacrifice Abraham was having doubts re Isaac.  We read Isaac’s questions to Abraham and they seem to be the questions of a toddler, yet Abraham is having Isaac tote a pack of firewood up the mountain with him.  When Abraham answers Isaac’s question, it’s by first saying, “Here I am”.  (This was one of the verses that led me to wonder if Isaac might have vision problems).  Why would he answer in that manner unless his knew that his son wasn’t capable of recognizing his own father even if he stood only a short distance away?[9]

Islamic tradition holds that Abraham tried to sacrifice Ishmael.  Instead of an either / or situation, maybe it was both.  Maybe Abraham thought God would want Isaac out of the way so Ishmael could inherit everything and when this sacrifice was thwarted, he attempted to sacrifice Ishmael to atone for not having faith in God years earlier =or= perhaps he intended to first sacrifice Ishmael to atone for not having faith in God and when thwarted then assumed God was going to be transferring the birthright to his older son so it was okay to skag Isaac.

Doesn’t matter: The point God finally got across to Abraham was to have faith even when things seem most hopeless and impossible.  Abraham had constantly tried to direct God (look at his attempts to bargain with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah).  He was finally beginning to grasp the concept that he could Let Go & Let God.

…and before we wander off, let’s take one last look at Isaac, who meekly allows himself to be offered up in sacrifice.[10] Considering how cocky, defiant, and independent most kids in Genesis are to their parents, this is pretty atypical behavior.  It’s either a reflection of a horribly dysfunctional family dynamic (which it could be viz. Abraham arranging a marriage for him) or yet another example of Isaac lacking the wit or wherewithal to fully understand what was going on around him.

In defense of Isaac, by all accounts he was the nicest of the patriarchs and with the exception of trying to fob Rebekah off as his sister, the Bible holds no ill against him.

We could all stand to be that kinda dumb…




[1]  There’s an echo of Cain & Abel here:  Like Abel, Esau was a hunter while Jacob was a domestic homebody like Cain.  In both cases the domestic brother victimizes his more authentic in-tune-with-nature sibling, and in both cases exile is the result.  Unlike Cain & Abel, however, Jacob ultimately prevails, God’s favor shifting from the natural man to the civilized one.  This could be due to Esau’s unwillingness & indifference towards the covenant his grandfather made with God.  We blame Esau for passing over his birthright “for a mess of porridge” but even before that he’d married two of the local non-Hebrew girls, much to the dismay of his father.  Esau’s heart just wasn’t in the whole covenant thing; Jacob may have been a lying, scheming mama’s boy but he knew the value of Isaac’s birthright.  This story also indicates that the Hebrews were a preliterate society at this time since great importance was placed on the primacy of the laying on of hands and a spoken declaration as opposed to a written document that spelled out who got what.

[2]  Apparently nothing dedicated to God as a sacrifice can leave Canaan, which kinda flies in the face of all of God’s later admonishments that legalism, ritual, and sacrifice is not what He’s looking for in human beings, ergo this interpretation is just human folk religion, not the real thing.

[3]  Granted the number 40 was used by the ancient Hebrews the same way we use “dozens”; i.e., it doesn’t necessarily mean exactly that amount, just something around that number which nonetheless puts Isaac squarely in middle age.

[4]  Abraham passed Sarah off as his sister not once but twice, marrying her off to first the Pharaoh of Egypt then later to Abimelech in order to save his own neck.  In both instances the kings handed her right back when they learned the true relationship.  Despite his acceptance of God’s covenant, Abraham clearly didn’t have much faith in God protecting him from horny royalty.

[5]  While researching this entry, I wondered if the problem was with Isaac’s mind or just his eyes?  The latter verses certainly cite failing eyesight, and a couple of the earlier verses suggest a possible vision problem.  But then in Genesis 24: 64 Isaac clearly sees the approaching caravan from far off at evening time, so unless he was suffering from acute hyperopia we can’t explain his apparent helplessness as a vision problem.

[6]  In fact, when God announces this long before the fact to Abraham, He does so using the past tense:  “I have made you” not “I will make you”, thus further establishing His transcendent nature.

[7]  God’s nature is unchanging and He never breaks a promise; any time there is an apparent change or threat of change in God’s mind, check to see if there’s a human standing nearby who stands to benefit by claiming such a change is in the wind.

[8]  There is a school of thought based on Genesis 22:1 that the real instigator was Satan who is God’s tester of human beings.  Virtually all ancient Middle Eastern cultures -- and many contemporary ones -- believe God ordains every single action in the Universe and that good and evil alike flow solely from Him.  But as Solomon and Christ both pointed out, the rain falls on the just and unjust alike and sometimes purely through random chance bad things happen to good (or at least relatively innocent) people.  We know that as God would not visit evil on anyone (again, when it seems that He does in the Bible, look for a human who stands to benefit from it), it should have been obvious to Abraham that there was something amiss in this command.

[9]  This suggests that instead of limited intelligence, Isaac may have been suffering from some form of autism, which in those days would have been interpreted as being slow of wit.

[10]  Some think this prefigures Christ’s meek and mild self-sacrifice.  They’re wrong.  There was nothing meek and mild about Christ’s sacrifice:  The night he was betrayed he was going through a full blown anxiety attack of epic proportions, one so severe he was literally sweating blood.  That he had faith God’s plan would work out and went through with his self-sacrifice despite this fear and anxiety is a testimony to his devotion to God.

Teller On Magic/Storytelling