Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Isaac Betrayed and Triumphant

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Isaac Betrayed and Triumphant

Article excerpt

   Longman Dictionary: BETRAY: to be disloyal to someone who trusts
   you so that they are harmed or upset.

   "Rabbi Berakhia said, [Isaac] ... was a child of suffering"
   (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 36.4[5]).

Though the phrase "Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" is well familiar, it is the lives of Abraham and Jacob that command people's attention. Biblical Isaac is a kind of afterthought. People have difficulty remembering much about Isaac in the Bible, aside from his role at Moriah as the victim in the narrative of the akedah [binding] (Gen. 22).

Everett Fox correctly describes Abraham as "a towering figure, almost unapproachable as a model in his intimacy with God and his ability to hurdle nearly every obstacle." Jacob, explains Fox, "emerges as the most dynamic and most human personality in the book" of Genesis. Fox, however, dismisses Isaac as "practically a non-character." He explains that Isaac "has almost no personality of his own." (1) Paul Borgman describes Isaac as "passive," and "never too adept at anything." He muses that "[p]erhaps God takes by the hand those who can't quite cope, but whose heart is fine, though fragile." (2) These descriptions damn Isaac with their faint praise. They fail to take note of how much Isaac accomplishes in his lifetime. The horrific trauma Isaac experienced as a lad at Moriah scarred him. That shock notwithstanding, he achieved a tremendous amount in his life; a testament to the might of his inner fortitude and to the strength of his will.

Isaac is not as venturesome as is Abraham. Nor does he seem to have as close a relationship with God as did his father. In several ways, however Isaac's life echoes that of Abraham:

   Each marries a close family member from the old country. Each
   achieves fatherhood after a long delay. Each is involved in a
   wife/sister episode.

   Each is directly involved in sending away his first son (in the
   case of Esau, a temporary departure), so that the second son
   receives the patriarchal blessing.

   Each travels through the land and prospers. Each interacts with his
   neighbors to mutual advantage. Each outlives his wife. While
   Sarah's death is specifically mentioned, in the Bible the death of
   women is rarely noted. Given the relationship of Rebekah and Isaac,
   the absence of her name at Isaac's burial suggests she predeceased

   Each is buried by both of his sons.


Isaac is a resilient character. That Isaac was able to survive his father's betrayal as a parent is testimony to the power of his inner spirit. Suddenly and unexpectedly, he had turned from being the beloved child to being the sacrificial lamb. Moments later, Abraham released Isaac because he heard a voice--and it is not at all clear that Isaac also heard that voice--drawing Abraham back from the abyss. Isaac somehow found the way to make some kind of sense of what had happened in Moriah, and have the courage to move on with his life.

The moment on the mountain was terrifying and traumatic. According to a midrash, Isaac, in both fear and desire to please his father, had asked to be bound "for the instinct of life is so strong that when I see the knife coming towards me, I may move compulsively [and have you cut me in a place] that will disqualify me as an offering." (3)

Following the incident at Moriah, Isaac chooses to separate himself from Abraham. It is likely that he goes to live with Hagar at Beer Lehai Ro-i, for it is at that locale that he is next seen (24:62 ff.). (4) Isaac reconnects to his brother Ishmael, and when Abraham dies, they bury him together (25:9).

In his late fifties, Isaac actively entreats God's help, for Rebekah has yet to conceive (25:21). God honors his request, and Esau and Jacob are born.

God addresses Isaac directly and maintains an open connection with him. God promises Isaac a prosperous life (25:11; 26:2 ff. …

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