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The Key That Fits the Lock, Part 14 Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 30 January 2013

“Tell them,” says God to Moses, “that the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob has sent you.”

I will come round to discussing that identification and what it has to do with the name that is no name, which God has just revealed: I AM.  But for now I’d like to consider the often forgotten middleman in that trio of patriarchs, Isaac.

Isaac does not embark upon a long journey into an unknown land, as his father Abraham did. He is not visited by angels of the Lord, as Abraham was, and as his son Jacob will be.  He does not lie in mystic dreaming upon the fields of Luz.  He is neither warlike nor cunning.  There is not the slightest resemblance between Isaac and Romulus or Theseus or Minos and the other semi mythical founders of nations across the Mediterranean.

Isaac is, by all appearances, an ordinary fellow.  May we call him the patron saint of the ordinary?  I think so, as long as we keep in mind Chesterton’s saying that there are no merely ordinary people; and this is something that pagans ancient and modern cannot understand, because they bow at the altar of worldly power in one form or another – wealth, brains, celebrity, rank, influence. 

Scripture shows us three defining events in the life of Isaac: the terrible morning upon Mount Moriah, his marriage with Rebecca, and his blessing of Jacob.  In all three, Isaac is not in control of the situation.  He submits to the command of his father on the mountain; he falls in love with the woman whom Abraham’s servant has brought back for him from Haran; and he does not curse Jacob once he learns that Rebecca and his son have deceived him. 

Kierkegaard sought to probe the heart of Abraham as he ascended the mountain.  But what about the boy?  His affectionate words, “My father” – Hebrew abi – must have tempted Abraham more than anything else to give up, to descend the mountain, caught between despair and despair. What must Isaac have felt, when Abraham unsheathed the knife?

Did Isaac go on to hate his father after that?  All the evidence suggests the contrary.  Abraham named the place where he sacrificed the ram caught in the thickets Yahweh-yireh, “God will see to it,” “God will provide,” the very words he used when Isaac asked him, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”  Isaac’s later life would testify to that: God will provide.

       Isaac Blessing Jacob by Govert Flinck, 1638

Isaac does not seek a wife for himself, but accepts his father’s choice.  When Rebecca is brought to him, he takes her and loves her – there’s even a pleasant episode in which Abimelech the king of the Philistines looks out of his window and sees Isaac “sporting with Rebecca his wife.”  Isaac is both a herder and a farmer, a more settled man than his father or his sons.  When the Philistines fill up his father Abraham’s wells, Isaac doesn’t fight.  He digs them up again.  When other herdsmen quarrel with him over the water, Isaac moves on to another of the wells and restores it. He is a man of peace.

Why did Isaac prefer the one son to the other, Esau instead of Jacob?  Maybe the cunning of Jacob put the plain man off; maybe Isaac admired in Esau the aggressiveness that he himself did not possess. Not everything Esau did pleased him.  He and Rebecca were grieved when Esau married two women from the Hittites. 

But when Isaac lay upon his bed, an old and blind man ready to give his final blessing, he asked Esau the hunter to catch some game for him, and make it in the savory way he favored – another touch of the ordinary about Isaac, who has a hankering for meat seasoned with cumin or peppercorns.  No journey from Haran to Canaan, no building an ark; just a nice supper.  We know what happens.  Rebecca cooks a kid goat and spices it, and then spices Jacob too, making his arms hairy like Esau’s, so that Isaac will mistake the younger for the elder.

More on that deceit later – the sacred author withholds his approval, as we shall see.  But Jacob is chosen by the Lord, who sees what Isaac does not see.  When Esau returns from his hunt – he has exercised himself far more energetically for the old man than Jacob has – and asks for the blessing, Isaac understands that the Lord has had a hand in the events, as upon Mount Moriah.  “He shall be blessed,” says Isaac.

Esau weeps bitterly.  “Bless me, even me also, my father!”  Abi – the same word we have heard from the lips of the boy Isaac.  And again, “Do you have only one blessing, abi?  Bless me, even me also, abi!

Isaac does what he can.  He tells the lad that he will dwell upon the fat of the land, blessed with dew from above; and he shall live by the sword.  But he will serve his brother Jacob, and his descendants will break the yoke of Jacob from their necks.  That is not enough to prevent Esau from hating his brother and plotting to kill him once Isaac dies.

What then does it mean to worship the God of Isaac? It is to see the Lord at work in the unimposing matters of day to day life.  It is to follow His commandments, and to walk in the footsteps of one’s fathers, not unthinkingly, but with trust. Isaac, whose name derives from the laughter of his mother and father when the Lord told them they would beget a son in their old age, does not seem to have been a man given to much laughing. Nor to much strife. 

That God should present Isaac to us as a hero to emulate says much about where holiness, that most extraordinary virtue, may well be found.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College.
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Comments (5)Add Comment
written by Xabi Kiano, January 30, 2013
@anthony, as u well know, your writing is elegant, playful and stylistically rich, but this cuts both ways: sometimes (for me anyways) the prose itself obfuscates the pedagogical character of your exegesis. This was not the case today. May we all seek holiness in the "ordinary".
written by Stanley Anderson, January 30, 2013
Wonderful column as usual -- look forward to the "more on that deceit later"! In the meantime, you mentioned early in the article, "Chesterton’s saying that there are no merely ordinary people." Chesterton said so many, and so many wonderful, things that he may very well have said this to for all I know. But I associate that line most strongly with C. S. Lewis' comment in his sermon "The Weight of Glory." Might this be the reference you intended?
written by Achilles, January 30, 2013
Xabi, oh my goodness, I think you got your metaphysical cart before your epistemological horse. Dr. Esolen, I don’t really understand all that post modern gobblydegook, but I, as a lowly intellectual peasant, have always found your writing to be as straight forward, honest and as simple as it can be without being simpler. It seems to me you employ Aristotle’s parsimony while stopping far short of Ockham’s razor. It is always a joy, always a pleasure and always a lesson that I sincerely hope is not lost on all the smarty pants out there.
written by debby, January 30, 2013
if you are an "intellectual peasant" i am your slave, or rather, the one "unworthy to untie your sneaker laces...."

in comparison to the astute writers and readers here at TCT, i know next to nothing, but i know what rings incredibly true, and pure, and lovely, and is of good report. therefore, it is always my great joy to read over and over the posts of Dr. Anthony Esolen (here and at Magnificat) and to "think on these things."

Dear Prof., St. Paul is mighty proud of you, i do venture!
written by Tony Esolen, January 30, 2013
Stanley -- you are right. I keep getting the two reversed, on just that line. It is something that GK would have said. But Lewis is the one who did say it, and in a really powerful passage, too -- where he reminds us of the two destinations of the supposedly ordinary being in front of us.

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