“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.