Started Strong, But Did He Stay the Course?
Steve Daskal, CMAA
Gen 24 — This long chapter contains the story of how Abraham endeavors to ensure that Isaac has children of his own from “good stock.” I’m not going to go through it verse by verse; you can read it on your own if you haven’t already. Essentially, Abraham is firmly determined to find a wife for Isaac “from amongst his own people” — someone of Semitic, Aramean descent, not a Hamitic Canaanite or Egyptian. He wisely does not want his son, whose descendants are to inherit the land, to marry into one of the pagan families of the “old order” in the land. He also is probably aware of, and saddened by, what happened to Lot, who had not been so careful with his children. Abraham’s anonymous servant is introduced here — and he has an important role for someone who is left anonymous. He may have been the Elieazer of Damascus, Abraham’s foreman spoken of in Gen 15:2, who would have been his heir had Isaac not been born, or perhaps one of Elieazer’s sons (among these people, servants had various degrees of rank, that were inheritable like property). The servant is made to swear two things — first that he would do his best to bring a wife to Isaac from amongst Isaac’s maternal cousins back in Paddan Aram, but above all, under no condition was he to bring or allow Isaac to go back to Aram! Abraham is confident that the servant will be successful; that God will send an angel to smooth his path before him to accomplish what is needful. Although Rebekah has never met her future husband, she seems quite willing to abandon her life in upper Mesopotamia and go in faith to meet and marry her new husband in a distant, unfamiliar land, knowing she will probably never see her family again.
Gen 24:62-66: Here’s an interesting sort of “betrothal,” and “wedding” all in one.
Gen 25, esp. vv5-11we read about Abraham’s death in a ripe old age (175!), after having made responsible provisions for the sons of his second wife Keturah and of his concubines, but also ensured that his inheritance was secure with Isaac. He was buried with Sarah (who had died some forty years earlier) in the Caves of Makhpelah.
Isaac as Father — Jacob vs Esau, opening rounds
Gen 25:19-34 — The text makes it clear that “This is the account of Abraham’s son Isaac.” In v. 21, we learn that Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, Rebekah, who is barren. Then nothing further is said about Isaac until Isaac’s decision some time later to go down into Egypt. The rest of chapter 25 revolves around Jacob, Esau, and Rebekah. Note that it is Rebekah, not Isaac, who gets the revelation that the younger — Jacob — will supplant the elder — Esau. This foretells what happens at birth and for the rest of their lives. There is no indication that Rebekah ever shared this with Isaac, nor that God ever revealed it to him. So, as the boys grew up, Isaac favored Esau the hunter, the “man’s man.” But Rebekah favored Isaac, the “gentleman,” the one who would carry forward the covenant. One might read between the lines and suspect that despite starting strong up on Mt. Moriah, in middle age Isaac’s faith in and closeness with God faded to some degree, while Rebekah, the Aramaean, who married into the family, is attentive to God’s will.
— Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of porridge. Esau lives in the flesh and trusts in the flesh — including his father. Esau “despises his birthright” in the sense of disdaining it — he doesn’t hate it, but it doesn’t matter very much to him. He’s a young man in his prime, enjoying worldly life in the flesh. It matters a great deal to Jacob, whose mother probably told him about the prophecy — very likely on more than one occasion. It made sense that if Jacob was to be the covenant bearer, he should also have been the legal “first born” to inherit the heart of Isaac’s estate.
Gen 26:1-11 — Isaac goes to Gerar, faithfully obeying God’s command not to go down to Egypt (that would have been premature!). Yet, he repeats Abraham’s deception [again, Abimelekh, literally “father-king,” is probably a title rather than a personal name]. This Abimelekh was probably a descendant of the one Abraham deceived, unless he had been very young when he met Abraham, and very old when he encountered Isaac. Isaac like Abraham obeys God, but lacks complete faith for God’s protection and relies on a ruse. Also note (1st) renewal of the Abrahamic covenant between God & Isaac in v. 24.
Gen 26:26-31 — Abimelech and the Philistines “saw clearly that the LORD was with you, so we said, ‘There ought to be a sworn agreement between us’….” [Isaac is solid here — active, expects God’s reward, accepts responsibility, and takes leadership.]
Gen 26:34-35 — Esau married two Hittite girls when he was 40, grieving his parents. Jacob was apparently not yet married. Isaac did nothing about this, even though Rebekah complained about it. This is not about being “unequally yoked” — that is a concept that wasn’t established until after the Israelites received the Law at Sinai half a millennium later. Rather, it is about Isaac allowing Esau to marry into a local Canaanite tribes (these people are Khitee — not the Indo-European Hittites of Asia Minor), instead of doing as his father Abraham had done for him and sending back to Aram for a Semitic woman to be Esau’s wife. Isaac loved and favored Esau — why did he not do for Esau what his father had done for him? This appears to be a failing of Isaac’s.
Gen 27 — Here is the well-known story of how Jacob — “commanded” by his mother — tricked Isaac into giving him the blessing [vv. 28-29] of the holder of the birthright, which was technically due to his slightly elder brother (& his father’s favorite) Esau. But remember:
(1) Rebekah had been told by God that the covenant and birthright was to be Jacob’s not Esau’s.
(2) Esau had sold his birthright to Isaac, so in fact he no longer deserved the blessing which was intrinsically connected to the birthright. Esau claims that Jacob “took my birthright” by deception in v. 36, but this was not the case (see back in Gen 25).
(3) Esau had “grieved” his parents by marrying two Canaanite girls, apparently without seeking their blessing.
Esau has always sought the easy way, the quick way, the “way of the nations around them,” and then begrudges the benefits accruing to the one who remains true to and values the things of God. What does the birthright mean to each? Esau — material wealth; Jacob — God’s provision for himself and his descendants even above material wealth.
Many modern Christian readers tend to be very critical of Rebekah for this subterfuge and of Jacob for going along with it. There is a lot of sympathy for poor old blind Isaac. But Isaac’s physical blindness reflected something of a spiritual loss of vision. Isaac was either unaware of God’s will, or was stubbornly resisting it, by continuing to favor Esau the rugged yet rebellious huntsman, over God’s chosen, the slightly younger, quietly obedient Jacob. Rebekah had been called by God to be Isaac’s wife; she was given the revelation that Jacob was to prevail over Esau; and she was righteously angered by Esau’s rebelliousness in taking Canannite wives and implicitly tolerating if not joining in their pagan ways (rather than taking a Semite wife from among her relations). Rebekah stood in the gap when her husband failed to live up to his obligations, preserving the integrity of the covenantal line down to the next generation. Do we really believe that God would have allowed Rebekah and Jacob to trick Isaac this way if God had willed Esau to obtain the blessing of the first-born and of the covenant? I hope not! This is the way God worked out His will when Isaac was either too closed, too stubborn, or too inattentive to carry it out as he was supposed to have done.
–New Testament Perspectives–
Isaac is almost invisible in the New Testament. He does not have Abraham’s prominence as a progenitor nor as a spiritual example. There are only two significant mentions, one pertaining to his binding, the other to his sons:
Rom 9:1-16, esp. v.10 — Isaac is only mentioned as being the father of Jacob and Esau. Paul also notes that God had determined to favor Jacob with the covenant and the inheritance even before he and his near-twin brother were born, before they had done anything good or bad, God elected Jacob, God called Jacob, and had bypassed Esau.
Hebrews 11:17-20 sees Isaac mentioned as Abraham’s sacrifice, whom “figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.” v.20 adds “By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.” But as we know, the blessing to Jacob was the covenant blessing and the inheritance of the first born.
Isaac serves as a transitional figure between Abraham and Jacob. His greatest test of faith and demonstration of faith occurred when he was very young — he was willing to obediently submit to his elderly father’s binding him to be a sacrifice. He stayed in the Land of Promise when God told him not to go to Egypt, but then he does not appear to have trusted God for his security, instead relying on subterfuge. Over time, he appears to have lost focus, failing to discipline Esau and providing a proper marriage for him in accordance with Abraham’s example. He retained his God-given birth name tied to his parents’ laughter — he never had a God-given name change the way his father and his son did. The Canaanites sensed that Isaac was blessed, but perhaps he didn’t feel blessed. On to Jacob!