Isaac was the son of the Hebrew patriach Abraham by his wife Sarah. It is believed the name Isaac is derived from the fact that Sarah laughed (zahaka) when being told she was to bear a child, (Genesis 18:12), since she had passed childbearing age. It is believed that this was a supernatural birth predestined by God (Genesis 17:19). In the Bible it is recorded that Abraham was one hundred years of age and Sarah was ninety. His mother’s skeptical laughter turned to exultation and joy when her son was circumcised, eight days after his birth. No event concerning Issac is Biblically records until his weaning (probably according to Eastern custom) when he two years old (Genesis 21:8, sq.). This was a happy occasion; Abraham gave a feast, no doubt to express his joy. But for Ishmael, Isaac’s older half-brother, this was not an occasion of joy; he probably felt the younger child was taking his place in the household, so he mocked Isaac. This angered Sarah who insisted that Ishmael and his mother Hagar be sent away. Some think Sarah also wanted to make certain that Isaac was Abraham’s heir, which coincides with Abraham sending away other children that other wives bore him after Sarah’s death.
The next recorded event involving Isaac is his involvement in Abraham’s offering. God commanded Abraham to offer his son, Isaac, up as a sacrifice on a mountain in the land of Moriah. He was probably around sixteen, and not aware of the real intention of his father until the act was in progress of being accomplished (Genesis 22:7, 8), and then, so far as it is recorded, the youth offered no resistance. Some believe this made Isaac a perfect prototype of Christ who was to come; the submission of one’s will to the One who sent him.
According to scripture Isaac married Rebekah after his mother’s death. This was a prearranged marriage. Abraham’s oldest servant was sent to back to Haran, where his brother Nahor had settled, with instructions to select a woman of their own family. Rebekah, the daughter of Nahor’s son Bethuel, is chosen, and eventually occupies Sarah’s main tent as chief lady of the camp. Eventually Rebekah gives birth to two sons, Jacob and Esau. Isaac favors Esau, perhaps because he was the elder of the two and more robust. Jacob, «a plain man, dwelling in tents,» was his mother’s favorite.
There came a famine to the land where Isaac resided, which forced him to seek food in a foreign land. God admonished him not to go to Egypt, but to continue in the promised land. The Lord renewed him promise to him and to his seed; and confirmed the promise made to his father. Not fully trusting in the divine protection, Isaac allowed his fear to lead him into error. While dwelling in the vicinity of Gerar, Isaac said Rebekah was his sister, lest the people might kill him if they knew she was his wife. When learning the truth, Abimelech, the Philistine king, rebuked Isaac for his provocation, but allowed him to remain in the land (Genesis 26:1-11).
Isaac prospered on the land, the section which he cultivated produced a hundredfold; and his flocks and herds multiplied greatly. This made his Philistine neighbors so envious that they drove him from their land. He reopened wells that his father had dug, which the Philistines filled them up as quick as he dug them, and claimed the new wells that Isaac drilled as theirs; however, he was allowed to keep one, and in token of the peace he enjoyed, he named Rehoboth (Room, Genesis, 26:12-22). When returning to Beersheba the Lord repeated the covenant blessing. Abimelech also sought and received from Isaac a covenant of peace (Genesis 26:24-33). When Esau was forty, he married Judith and Bashemath, the daughter of Canaan, «which were a grief of mind to Isaac and Rebekah» (Genesis 26:34-35).
When Isaac grew old it became time for him to give his blessing to one of his sons, which according to custom should go to the oldest. Rebekah was aware of this, and she knew Isaac favored Esau who, being the oldest, should receive the birthright, but she favored Jacob and wished him to receive the right. When Rebekah discovered that it was Isaac’s intension to ask Esau to take venison and make him a «savory meat» so that he might eat and bless him before died, she sought to thwart her husband’s plan. Isaac’s eyesight was dim, and during Esau’s absence Rebekah prepared the meat, then Jacob personated his older brother to receive his father’s blessing. When discovering the deception Isaac doubtlessly remembered the prediction that, «the elder should serve the younger,» but did not revoked the words he had uttered. He later bestowed an inferior blessing upon Esau. Fully aware of what occurred Esau vowed to slay his younger brother. With his wife’s entreaty, the aging patriarch was induced to send Jacob to Mesopotamia to take a wife «of the daughters of Laban» (Genesis 27:41-28:6).
After some time, Jacob again saw his father at Hebron, where Abraham and Isaac had journeyed. It was here that Isaac died at the age of one hundred and eighty, and his sons Esau and Jacob along with his people buried him (Genesis 35:27-29).
In the aggadah it states the sun shone with extraordinary splendor on the day of Isaac’s birth, «the like of which will only be seen again in the messianic age» (Tanh.B. Gen. 107). He is said to be one of only three men upon whom evil inclination had no influence over (BBB 17a).
In the Qur’an Isaac is called Ishaq. A.G.H.
Unger, Merrill F., Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Chicago, Moody Press, 1966, pp. 533-534
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 477