by CHAYA GREENBERGER
Isaac’s initiation into the patriarchy as a participant in building its legacy takes place at the akedah. He is portrayed as a full partner with Abraham in his own submission to God’s request for sacrifice.1 Isaac’s post-akedah life revolves around a return to the normative world, no small feat in the shadow of his near-death experience at the hands of the father he loves and the God he reveres. He marries and lives through the pain of twenty childless years, ending with the birth of two sons and a complex set of family dynamics. In the wake of a famine, Isaac moves to Gerar and establishes an economic and political foothold in the land, entering into a treaty with the local monarch. Initially designating Esau to be the next patriarch, he comes to realize that it is Jacob who is truly fit for the role. Isaac bestows upon him the historically significant blessings of Abraham, securing patriarchal continuity and the foundations for the making of a nation.
Isaac’s father Abraham is by nature an extrovert and an initiator. As he moves from place to place, Abraham opens up his hospitable tent to all and calls out in the name of God (Gen.12:8, 13:4, 18:4-8). Throughout his life Abraham engages his fellow man (e.g., in battle in order to free Lot from captivity) and God Himself (e.g., in his plea for Sodom and Amorah). Submission to God at the akedah comes for Abraham toward the end of a proactive existence. The trajectory of Isaac’s patriarchal life takes place in reverse, beginning with the ultimate submission. From that vantage point Isaac needs to learn how to engage the world; he encounters many stumbling blocks with surprisingly little in the way of Divine revelation to guide him. Remarkably missing, as will be further elaborated upon, is guidance with respect to choosing the son worthy of the birthright.
Although midrashic2 and liturgic3 sources speak to Isaac’s legacy of self-sacrifice at the akedah, the text itself, as will become apparent, describes another legacy: mustering the strength to live a coherent, goal-oriented, and contributive life after the akedah. Both of these legacies are an inspiration for posterity; the latter will be the focus of this analysis.
THE AKEDAH FROM ISAAC’S PERSPECTIVE
The akedah is described as a test for Abraham (Gen. 22:1) and the narrative contains a rapid run of verbs depicting his actions: rose early, saddled his donkey, took his servant lads and Isaac, chopped the wood, got up and went, took the trees, put them on Isaac, took the fire and the knife, built the altar, arranged the wood, tied his son, put him on the altar, and took the knife )Gen. 22:3-6, 9-11). As the drama comes to an end and Abraham is commanded to refrain from harming Isaac, God sublimely praises Abraham for his submission – For now I know that you fear God (Gen. 22:12) and reiterates the great rewards he has merited – children, land, and a Divine covenant (Gen. 22:16-18). Abraham, moreover, emerges from the akedah to resume his prior activities. The text relates that he immediately returns to Beer Sheba (Gen. 22:18) with his lads, possibly to continue managing his hostel (the eshel in which he provided hospitality for voyagers and passersby); business, in this respect, continues as usual.
In contrast, only two verbs depict Isaac’s actions with respect to the akedah: he says to his father: Where is the sheep for the burnt offering? And they – father and son – walked on together (Gen. 22:7-8). Isaac, moreover, receives no revelation, no reward, or even an honorable mention – indeed, hardly any mention at all. Although Abraham and Isaac ascend Mount Moriah together (Gen. 22:8) they do not return together. Abraham makes the descent to the lads he had left behind before the climb, but Isaac is not mentioned at all (Gen. 22:19). To crystalize the contradistinction between the two, the text uses the same words walked… together to recount both instances of ascent with Isaac and continuing to Beer Sheba with the lads. The akedah, as far as the biblical text is concerned, is clearly not intended to be Isaac’s omega and leaves much unfinished business for him to attend to.
Of Isaac’s whereabouts post-akedah we hear nothing for many verses – sixty-five to be exact. The silence of the text intimates that Isaac was not ready to engage the mundane world, an idea presented in the midrashic literature in various ways. Midrash Ha-gadol (Genesis, p. 327) places Isaac in the Garden of Eden healing his wounds from the akedah (perhaps not only the physical ones). Genesis Rabbah (56:19) relates that he went off to study in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever. Rabbeinu Bachya (commentary to Gen. 23:2) suggests that Isaac was made to stay on the mountain to prevent him from hearing of Sarah’s death, in accordance with the idea presented in Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 32, that Sarah hearing what transpired at the akedah was the direct cause of her death.
Isaac is indeed not mentioned in the context of Abraham’s involvement in burying and mourning for Sarah. Perhaps Isaac was not physically present at the funeral or involved in its preparations, or possibly Isaac took a back seat; publicly mourning his mother’s death against the recent backdrop of the akedah was more than he could bear, especially if he suspected that his own “near-death” had an irreversibly traumatic effect on his mother.
The first time we again meet Isaac is on his way back from the well of Be’er-lahai-roi (Gen. 24:62), the well at which Hagar prayed and had a revelation after being banished by Sarah (Gen. 16:13). Ramban (commentary to Gen. 16:13) points out that the construction of the phrasing Isaac had just come back from the vicinity of Be’er-lahai-roi (Gen. 24:62) indicates that he customarily frequented it. Perhaps Isaac went there to seek support and solace from Hagar and his stepbrother Ishmael, to share his akedah experience with Ishmael who himself was in a sense sacrificed when he was banished, ironically, for Isaac’s sake. Or, as Ramban and Sforno explain (commentary to Gen. 24:62), Isaac chose this location as a place suitable for his own prayer for strength to meet his future destiny, although the text does not specifically mention any such prayer. It is remarkable in this regard that after Abraham’s death the text specifies that Isaac settled near Be’er-lahai-roi (Gen. 25:11). Midrash Agadah on this verse explains that after his father’s death Isaac chose to spend extended periods of time in close proximity to Hagar and Ishmael whom he found consoling. The text lends additional credence to this possibility by enumerating the children of Ishmael in the very next verse (Gen. 25:12).
Rabbi S. R. Hirsch (commentary to Gen. 24:62) is of the opinion that whereas Abraham lived among the other nations, Isaac chose to spend much of his time in the wilderness. Perhaps Isaac also needed unconstrained space at some distance from his father. Indeed, there is no interaction at all recorded between Abraham and Isaac post-akedah. There is also no record of Abraham transferring the patriarchal blessings to Isaac in the manner that Isaac and Jacob do to their descendants later on; God himself bestows these blessings on Isaac (Gen. 26:2-5). The next mention of Isaac in the context of Abraham is at the latter’s burial, alongside his brother Ishmael with whom he had apparently reestablished his relationship (Gen. 25:9).
Chronologically, after returning from Be’er-lahai-roi to Hebron where his father resided,4 and prior to the “inadvertent” meeting of Rebecca, Isaac goes out in the evening lasuah ba-sadeh, to meditate in the field (Gen. 24:63). The Zohar (Bo, 39:2) suggests that he went to the field surrounding the Cave of Mahpelah where Sarah was buried. Textual credence is lent to this idea as the Cave is the subject of the two previous narratives (Gen. 23:9, 11, 13, 17, 20; i.e., the burial of Sarah) and the subsequent narrative (Gen. 25:9; i.e., the burial of Abraham).5 The word sadeh in fact appears seven times in the narrative relating to the purchase of the Cave and the burial of Sarah, six times together with the word mahpelah (the cave), and once independently in reference to Abraham’s purchase of the field itself. The Cave of Mahpelah always appears in tandem with the field, never on its own. Clearly the field was an important part of the purchase from Efron. In this view, Isaac spends his time not only alone in a field, but alone in the field of Mahpelah. These events and actions, especially when grouped together, reflect Isaac’s efforts in finding his way back to living life after its suspension on Mount Moriah. Engaging in this process, far from over as will become apparent, is Isaac’s challenge and legacy.
RELATIONSHIP WITH THE DIVINE
Although the text reports that God blesses Isaac immediately subsequent to Abraham’s death (Gen. 25:11), it is remarkable that the patriarch who was tied down on the altar for sacrifice experiences only two Divine revelations, in contrast to Abraham’s thirteen – one of which spans twenty-two verses (Gen. 17:1-22) – and Jacob’s seven. There are also differences also in terms of quality. For example, Abraham’s revelations are in many cases interactive; he actually engages and negotiates with God (Gen. 15:3-5, regarding his heir; Gen. 15:8, asking for proof he will inherit the land; Gen. 17:18, the hope that Ishmael lives before God; Gen. 18:23-33, the plea for Sodom), something altogether absent from the revelations Isaac experiences.
Several characteristics of Jacob’s interactions with God are remarkable in this regard. The text attests to their impact upon Jacob by reporting that he commemorates three of them by name: Beit El, Mahanaim, and Peniel (Gen. 28:19; 32:3; 32:31, respectively). Furthermore, subsequent to the revelation which transpires shortly after he leaves his parents’ home (Gen. 28:12), Jacob verbally acknowledges feeling the awesomeness of God’s presence (Gen. 28: 16). Jacob responds to the promises God makes, by making his own promise to dedicate to God one tenth of his future belongings upon his return home, addressing God in the first person, something Abraham did as well. Jacob is vividly engaged later when he struggles with the angel and refuses to allow him to depart until he blesses him; Jacob’s name and status are changed, leaving him with a permanent limp, but “victorious” over both heavenly and earthly rivals (Gen. 32:25-30). In the revelation Jacob experiences before his journey to Egypt, God tells Jacob that He will go down with you to Egypt and I myself will also bring you back (Gen. 46:4).
Isaac’s experience of the Divine pales by comparison to that of the other two patriarchs. Both of Isaac’s revelations occur at Gerar, one as Isaac enters and the other upon exit. The first is essential in order to preclude Isaac’s leaving the Land of Israel. It contains a reiteration of the blessings that were given to Abraham (e.g., children, land, and Divine covenant), but again, as with the akedah, all the credit is given by God to his father, inasmuch as Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge (Gen. 26:5). Isaac does not respond verbally, he simply fulfills God’s commandment to stay within the borders of Israel.
The second revelation occurs after Isaac acknowledges God’s intervention for his prosperity (Gen. 26:22). Here again, although God allays Isaac’s fears and blesses him, it is all for the sake of my servant Abraham (Gen. 26:24). In this respect, God seems to have purposely kept Isaac in the shadow of his father as had been the case at the akedah; no merits for Isaac are enumerated in the text. He is still in the process of establishing his way in the service of God. Remarkably, Isaac in not engaged in the revelation. Although he does subsequently call out in the name of God for the first time (Gen. 26:25), no additional verbal or emotional reaction to the revelation on his part is recorded in the text.
Although few, brief, and non-interactive, these two revelations provided Isaac with some guidance – not to leave the land of Israel, and reassurance – he will receive the blessings promised in the covenant. With respect to his relationship with his children, however, so problematic yet so crucial to the future development of the nation, there are no revelations at all! This stands in sharp contrast to the clear message Abraham received regarding Ishmael and Isaac. He is told by God unequivocally, My covenant I will maintain with Isaac (Gen. 17:21). In a subsequent revelation, Abraham is requested to heed Sarah’s command to banish Ishmael as it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you (Gen. 21:12).
Rebecca, as opposed to Isaac, who, as we will see, literally gropes in the dark, is privy to a revelation regarding the outcome of her unusually difficult pregnancy. The text does not mention Rebecca sharing her revelation, but rather specifically states that the Lord answered her (Gen. 25:23). It is particularly significant that Isaac receives no revelation regarding the nature of his two sons and which one merits carrying on the patriarchy. If Isaac would have known that Esau sold the birthright to Jacob for a meager meal, he would have reconsidered bestowing the first-born blessings upon him. This, in turn, would have prevented the anguish and heartbreak that befell Rebecca and Jacob in the wake of the need to deceive Isaac. Yet, despite the heavy price to be paid, God does not enlighten Isaac through a revelation with regard to Esau as He did for Abraham with regard to Ishmael. It almost seems that Isaac is experiencing a form of personal “hester panim” – God hiding His face, so to speak, from Isaac with respect to his sons. Clearly Isaac is meant to discover on his own what needs to be done.
IN THE LAND OF THE PHILISTINES
The Isaac described in Gerar is almost unrecognizable compared to the Isaac we have met in the text up to this point. He is characterized by a refreshing vitality: he digs wells, plants the soil, and oversees a staff of laborers. With God’s assistance (Gen. 26:12), Isaac essentially builds an agricultural empire large enough to threaten the kingdom to the point where he is driven away to its outskirts. King Abimelech, impressed by Isaac’s success as a farmer and shepherd, eventually seeks out his friendship in a covenant, and Isaac uses the opportunity to negotiate a treaty on his own terms (Gen. 26:26-29).
Isaac is described as proactively reestablishing the foothold Abraham had previously made in Philistine territory. Isaac becomes a partner and successor to Abraham in securing the land for future generations, and comes across as savvy, earthy, and much attuned to his surroundings. He is fully involved and pays close attention to the details of the business; clearly there is meaning in wealth and material success. Isaac reopens for posterity the wells Abraham had dug that were subsequently covered up by the Philistines. Although he encounters setbacks, such as contention over the wells of Esek and Sitnah (Gen. 26:20-21), these are expected setbacks in a competitive environment and do not deter Isaac’s determination to succeed, which he ultimately does.
Here, for the first time, we see Isaac as free from the shackles of the akedah, and reconciled with respect to the two who demanded his submission. Isaac reclaims the honor of his father Abraham by redigging the wells and giving them the same names that his father had designated, and calls out the name of God his Redeemer for all to hear, and actually builds an altar (Gen. 26:25). The trauma of the akedah recedes. Isaac, by his actions, proclaims that life on earth is worth living. Life must be lived and the akedah, although it needs to have taken place, can and must be put aside. In Gerar, with Divine guidance and support, Isaac overcomes his post-akedah challenge.
TRIAL, TRIBULATION, AND CLOSURE AT HOME
At home, however, residual effects of the akedah are still apparent. The stage is set with a description of the two sons: Esau, the expert hunter and man of open expanses, and Jacob, the unassuming tent-dweller (Gen. 25:27). The text gives the reason for Isaac’s favoring Esau, because he had a taste for game (Gen. 25:28), literally, “the hunt is in his mouth.” According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh (commentary to Gen. 25:28), Esau enthralled his father with stories of his adventures as a hunter. Isaac came to perceive him as vital, bold, and energetic in hunting down his prey. Rabbi Yaakov Meidan suggests that Esau, utilizing the skills he developed as a hunter, actually led the conflict over the wells against the Philistine shepherds on Isaac’s behalf.6 Isaac had learned to be a skilled farmer but, having been himself forcibly bound on the altar, was not a fighting man. Isaac appreciated the importance of being able to battle as Esau did, and so perceived Esau as better suited for forging a nation than his timid brother.
Isaac is kept in the dark regarding Esau’s lack of interest in leadership. Esau disinherits himself from the birthright, proclaiming, I am at the point of death, so of what use is the birthright to me? (Gen.25:32). This is the very antithesis of a willingness to put oneself bravely at risk for the future of posterity, a role which Isaac had hoped Esau would take on.
The text reports that Esau’s behavior in the matter of the Canaanite wives caused Isaac and Rebecca great grief (Gen. 26:34-35). Remarkably, this appears in the verse that immediately precedes Isaac’s informing Esau of the blessings he is to receive, perhaps in order to depict the depth of Isaac’s “blindness” regarding the nature of his son. Isaac has by now also lost the acuity of his sight; reverting to the vulnerable Isaac of the akedah.
Isaac knows that he is merely a channel for the blessings that are ultimately bestowed by God himself. To do so, Isaac needs inspiration which he hopes to achieve through the ultimate sensual experience Esau will prepare for him: choice, freshly hunted animal turned into a delectable meal. For the akedah survivor, the pleasure of eating, which sustains life itself, is his inspiration.
From this point on, a slowly unravelling epiphany is set into motion. The end result will be Isaac’s own realization regarding who deserves to be blessed. Jacob, posing as Esau, brings his father a meal prepared by his mother. It is impossible to ignore the many textual implications with respect to Isaac’s uncertainty regarding which son has in fact appeared before him. Witness: Which of my sons are you? (Gen. 27:18); How did you succeed so quickly? (Gen. 26:20); Come closer that I may feel you, my son, whether you are really my son Esau or not (Gen. 26:21); The voice is that of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau (Gen. 26:22); Are you really my son Esau? (Gen. 26:24).7
After Isaac partakes of the food, he proclaims: The smell of my son is like the smell of the fields that the Lord has blessed (Gen. 27:27). Clearly, Isaac intuits that the son before him is worthy of the blessing; he feels Divine inspiration as he blesses his son. As Isaac becomes inwardly convinced that the blessing is right, he is driven to proceed, despite the fact that at this point Isaac is unsure of the identity of the recipient. Isaac may also have begun to recalculate who was the worthier son. At the same time, it is possible that Jacob himself was undergoing a change in his understanding regarding the importance of assertiveness and perhaps, at times, the place of aggressiveness in leadership. According to Dr. Avivah Zornberg, by the time Jacob actually comes to Isaac for the blessing he is not only disguised as Esau, but has internalized the importance of some of his traits.8
When Esau returns from the hunt and the identity of the blessed son is fully disclosed, the text relates that Isaac was seized with very violent trembling (Gen. 27:33). This is the apex of his epiphany; Isaac is now fully convinced that he had been wrong in his prior assessment but right in his actual blessing, and the drama of this understanding makes him tremble. But he quickly, in the same verse, composes himself and informs Esau, I blessed him, now he must remain blessed.
God has orchestrated events in a way that would make Isaac come to his own realization regarding the blessings. Isaac has undergone a traumatic yet empowering experience with almost immediate practical ramifications. For the very first time the text reports Rebecca speaking to Isaac (Gen. 27:46). Rebecca apparently perceives the transformation in Isaac, he is now capable of hearing and dealing with difficult matters such as seeing to it that Jacob does not marry Hittite women. Isaac indeed springs into immediate action.
The text now depicts an assertive, self-confident Isaac who calls upon Jacob, commands him (Gen. 28:1), orders him (Gen. 28:2) and sends him (Gen. 28:5) to go to Padan Aram to find a wife. Genesis 28:1 ties the blessing Isaac is about to bestow to Jacob’s obeying his command, he blessed and commanded. These blessings are blessing of Abraham (Gen. 28:4), the blessings that will secure the patriarchal continuity that will eventually lead to the establishment of the nation.
Isaac’s legacy as depicted here relates not to how one sacrifices, but to how one comes back from the trauma of almost having being sacrificed. The text downplays Isaac’s role in the akedah to create space for his meaningful comeback. Indeed, he does that despite the stumbling blocks; through reflection, introspection, and action. Despite the scars of the akedah, Isaac lives a life of accomplishment and ultimately passes on the blessings of the previous generation to the next one.
Midrash Tehillim chapter 79 states that Isaac’s form of worship is likened to a sadeh, a flat, open, natural space teeming with life. This is as opposed to Abraham’s worship, which is likened to a mountain top. If we interpret worship in the broader sense as serving God, we can explain that Abraham’s service of God indeed peaks with the akedah on the mountain top. For Isaac, the akedah is just the beginning; he is not meant to stay forever on the mount confined to the altar. His challenge is to descend into the open field of life. In addition to meditating in the sadeh, surrounded by nature, Isaac plows and plants it. For Isaac the service of God culminates in combining devotion to the Divine with cultivating the field of life, in all its facets.
For Isaac’s descendants, there will inevitably be necessary sacrificial acts of varied proportions and little in the way of revelational guidance. They will take inspiration from Isaac’s mostly self-initiated comeback, to experience the joys of life and to live with principle and purpose; this is his legacy for future generations.
- Rashi, commentary on Genesis 25:8; Bereshit Rabbah 38:8, 56:4, Vilna ed.; Lamentations 1, 2:20, Buber ed.; Tanẖuma Emor, Buber ed.
- T. Sasson, “Akedat Yitshak Ke-nisyono shel Yitzhak,” Tallelai Orot 9 (2000) pp. 25-32; S. Elizur, “Ha-oked, Ha-ne’ekad, Ve-hamizbe’ah,” in S. Elizur, Shira al Haparshah (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1999) pp. 41-53.
- Rashi, commentary on Gen. 22:18; Yehuda Kiel, Daat Mikra, Sefer Bereshit, (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 2000) Gen. 24:62 (in Hebrew).
- Y. Meidan, “Why did Isaac love Esau?”
- See E. Samet, Iyunim Be-Parshat Ha-shavua, Vol. 1, Bereshit-Shemot (Jerusalem: Yeshivat Birkat Moshe, 2009) pp. 62–65.
- A. Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis (New York: Image Books/Doubleday, 1995) pp. 164-179.
Chaya Greenberger is Dean of the Faculty of Life and Health Sciences at the Jerusalem College of Technology and does research in the field of nursing and medical ethics.