Eldest son of Caleb (1 Chronicles 4:15); probably to be read Ir, the syllable "-u" being the conjunction "and" belonging to the following word.
1. Root, Forms, Analogues
II. FAMILY AND KINDRED
1. Birth and Place in the Family
2. Relation to the Religious Birthright
3. Significance of Marriage
III. STORY OF LIFE
1. Previous to Marriage
2. Subsequent to Marriage
IV. BIBLICAL REFERENCES
1. In the Old Testament
2. In the New Testament
V. VIEWS OTHER THAN THE HISTORICAL
1. Root, Forms and Analogues:
This name has the double spelling, yitschaq, and yitschaq (Isaak), corresponding to the two forms in which appears the root meaning "to laugh"--a root that runs through nearly all the Semitic languages. In Hebrew both tsachaq and sachaq have their cognate nouns, and signify, in the simple stem, "to laugh," in the intensive stem, "to jest, play, dance, fondle," and the like. The noun yitshar, meaning "fresh oil," from a root tsahar ("to be bright, conspicuous"), proves that nouns can be built on precisely the model of yitschaq, which would in that case signify "the laughing one," or something similar. Yet Barth (Die Nominalbildung in den semitischen Sprachen, 154, b and c) maintains that all proper names beginning with yodh prefixed to the root are really pure imperfects, i.e. verbal forms with some subject to be understood if not actually present. Hence, Isaac would mean "laughs":
either indefinite, "one laughs," or "he laughs," namely, the one understood as the subject. There are some 50 Hebrew names that have a similar form with no accompanying subject. Of these sometimes the meaning of the root is quite obscure, sometimes it is appropriate to any supposable subject. Each is a problem by itself; for the interpretation of any one of them there is little help to be gained from a comparison with the others.
What subject, then, is to be understood with this imperfect verb yitschaq? Or is no definite subject to be supplied?
(1) 'El, God, may be supplied:
"God laughs." Such an expression might be understood of the Divine benevolence, or of the fearful laughter of scorn for His enemies (Psalms 2:4), or, euphemistically, of the Divine wrath, the "terrible glance," as of Moloch, etc. (so Meyer, Israeliten und ihre Nachbarstdmme, 255).
(2) Some human person:
"he laughs." So, for example, he himself, namely, the child who receives the name; or, the father; or, the brother (not the mother, which would require titschaq). In the light now of these possibilities we turn to the narratives of Isaac's birth and career and find the following subjects suggested:
(a) father, Genesis 17:17;
(b) indefinite, "one laughs" (not "she laughs," see above), Genesis 18:12-15; 21:6; (c) brother, Genesis 21:9; (d) himself, Genesis 26:8. Of these passages the last two show the verb in the intensive stem in the signification of
(c) "mock" (?), and
We find this same verb in these senses in Genesis 19:14 and 39:14,17, in the stories of Lot and of Joseph, and it is possible that here also in the story of Isaac it has no more connection with the name Isaac than it has there with the names Lot and Joseph. However, this may be, there is obviously one interpretation of the name Isaac, which, required in two of the passages, is equally appropriate in them all, namely, that with the indefinite subect, "one laughs." Consideration of the sources to which these passages are respectively assigned by the documentary hypothesis tends only to confirm this result.
II. Family and Kindred.
The two things in Isaac's life that are deemed worthy of extensive treatment in the sacred narrative are his birth and his marriage. His significance, in fact, centers in his transmission of what went before him to what came after him. Hence, his position in his father's family, his relation to its greatest treasure, the religious birthright, and his marriage with Rebekah are the subjects that require special notice in this connection.
1. Birth and Place in the Family:
The birth of Isaac is represented as peculiar in these respects:
the age of his parents, the purity of his lineage, the special Divine promises accompanying. What in Abraham's life is signalized by the Divine "call" in the from his father's house, and what in Jacob's life is brought about by a series of providential interpositions, seems in Isaac's case to become his by his birth. His mother, who is not merely of the same stock as Abraham but actually his half-sister, is the legal wife. As her issue Isaac is qualified by the laws of inheritance recognized in their native land to become his father's heir. But Ishmael, according to those laws, has a similarly valid claim (see ABRAHAM, iv, 2), and it is only by express command that Abraham is led to abandon what was apparently both custom and personal preference, to "cast out the bondwoman and her son," and to acquiesce in the arrangement that "in Isaac shall thy seed be called."
2. Relation to the Religious Birthright:
But the birthright of Isaac was of infinitely more importance than the birthright in the family of any other wealthy man of that day. All that limitless blessing with which Abraham set forth under God's leadership was promised not only to him but to his "seed"; it was limitless in time as well as in scope. To inherit it was of more consequence to Isaac than to inherit any number of servants, flocks or wells of his father's acquisition. A sense of these relative values seems to have been a part of Isaac's spiritual endowment, and this, more than anything else related of him, makes him an attractive figure on the pages of Gen.
3. Significance of Marriage:
The raising up of a "seed" to be the bearers of these promises was the prime concern of Isaac's life. Not by intermarriage with the Canaanites among whom he lived, but by marriage with one of his own people, in whom as much as in himself should be visibly embodied the separateness of the chosen family of God--thus primarily was Isaac to pass on to a generation as pure as his own the heritage of the Divine blessing. Rebekah enters the tent of Isaac as truly the chosen of God as was Abraham himself.
III. Story of Life.
Previous to his marriage Isaac's life is a part of the story of Abraham; after his marriage it merges into that of his children. It is convenient, therefore, to make his marriage the dividing-line in the narrative of his career.
1. Previous to Marriage:
A child whose coming was heralded by such signal marks of Divine favor as was Isaac's would be, even apart from other special considerations, a welcome and honored member of the patriarchal household. The covenant-sign of circumcision (which Isaac was the first to receive at the prescribed age of 8 days), the great feast at his weaning, and the disinheritance of Ishmael in his favor, are all of them indications of the unique position that this child held, and prepare the reader to appreciate the depth of feeling involved in the sacrifice of Isaac, the story of which follows thereupon. The age of Isaac at the time of this event is not stated, but the fact that he is able to carry the wood of the offering shows that he had probably attained his full growth. The single question he asks his father and his otherwise unbroken silence combine to exhibit him in a favorable light, as thoughtful, docile and trustful. The Divine interposition to save the lad thus devoted to God constitutes him afresh the bearer of the covenant-promise and justifies its explicit renewal on this occasion. From this point onward the biographer of Isaac evidently has his marriage in view, for the two items that preceded the long 24th chaper, in which Rebekah's choice and coming are rehearsed, are, first, the brief genealogical paragraph that informs the reader of the development of Nahor's family just as far as to Rebekah, and second, the chapter that tells of Sarah's death and burial--an event clearly associated in the minds of all with the marriage of Isaac (see Genesis 24:3,16,67). Divine interest in the choice of her who should be the mother of the promised seed is evident in every line of the chapter that dramatizes the betrothal of Isaac and Rebekah. Their first meeting is described at its close with the tender interest in such a scene natural to every descendant of the pair, and Issac is sketched as a man of a meditative turn (Genesis 24:63) and an affectionate heart (Genesis 24:67).
2. Subsequent to Marriage:
The dismissal of the sons of Abraham's concubines to the "East-country" is associated with the statement that Isaac inherited all that Abraham had; yet it has been remarked that, besides supplying them with gifts, Abraham was doing them a further kindness in thus emancipating them from continued subjection to Isaac, the future head of the clan. After Abraham's death we are expressly informed that God "blessed Isaac his son" in fulfillment of previous promise. The section entitled "the toledhoth (generations) of Isaac" extends from Genesis 25:19 to 35:29. At the opening of it Isaac is dwelling at Beer-lahai-roi (25:11), then at Gerar (26:1,6) and "the valley of Gerar" (26:17), then at Beer-sheba (26:23; 28:10), all localities in the Negeb or "South-country." But after the long narrative of the fortunes of Jacob and his family, occupying many years, we find Isaac at its close living where his father Abraham had lived, at Hebron.
For 20 years Isaac and Rebekah remained childless; it was only upon the entreaty of Isaac that God granted them their twin sons. A famine was the usual signal for emigration to Egypt (compare Genesis 12:10; 42:2); and Isaac also appears to have been on his way thither for the same cause, when, at Gerar, he is forbidden by God to proceed, and occasion is found therein to renew to him the covenant-promise of his inheritance:
land, posterity, honor and the Divine presence (Genesis 26:1-4).
But Isaac had also received from his father traditions of another sort; he too did not hesitate to say to the men of Gerar that his wife was his sister, with the same intent to save his own life, but without the same justification in fact, as in the case of Abraham's earlier stratagem. Yet even the discovery by the king of Gerar of this duplicity, and repeated quarrels about water in that dry country, did not suffice to endanger Isaac's status with the settled inhabitants, for his large household and great resources made him a valuable friend and a dangerous enemy.
The favoritism which Isaac showed for one son and Rebekah for the other culminated in the painful scene when the paternal blessing was by guile obtained for Jacob, and in the subsequent enforced absence of Jacob from his parental home. Esau, too, afforded no comfort to his father and mother, and ere long he also withdrew from his father's clan. The subsequent reconciliation of the brothers permitted them to unite at length in paying the last honors to Isaac on his decease. Isaac was buried at Hebron where his parents had been buried (Genesis 49:31), and where' his place of sepulture is still honored.
IV. Biblical References.
There is a great contrast between Abraham and Jacob on the one hand, and Isaac on the other, with respect to their prominence in the literature of the nation that traced to them its descent. To be sure, when the patriarchs as a group are to be named, Isaac takes his place in the stereotyped formula of "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob," or "Israel" (so 23 times in the Old Testament, 7 times in the New Testament).
1. In the Old Testament:
But apart from this formula Isaac is referred to in the Old Testament only as follows. During the lifetime of Jacob the names of Abraham and Isaac are repeatedly linked in the same way as are all three subsequently:
they form for that age the dynasty of the covenant. But several times Jacob calls Yahweh the God (or, the Fear; see infra) of Isaac, because Isaac is his own immediate predecessor in this chain of the faithful. Isaac is called the "gift" of God to Abraham, in the farewell address of Joshua, just as Jacob and Esau are called God's "gifts" to Isaac (Joshua 24:3; compare Koran, Sura 6 84). The "house of Isaac" is used by Amos as a parallel expression for "Israel," and "the high places of Isaac" for "the sanctuaries of Israel" (Amos 7:16,9), in the same way as "Jacob" is often used elsewhere Septuagint in Amos 7:16 reads "Jacob"). Other references to Isaac are simply as to his father's son or his children's father.
2. In the New Testament:
He fares better in the New Testament. For, besides the genealogical references, Isaac's significance as the first to receive circumcision on the 8th day is remembered (Acts 7:8); his position as first of the elect seed is set forth (Romans 9:7); his begetting of two sons so unlike in their relation to the promise as were Esau and Jacob is remarked (Romans 9:10); the facts of his being heir to the promise, a child of old age, and, though but one, the father of an innumerable progeny, are emphasized in Heb (11:9-12), which also discovers the deeper significance of his sacrifice and restoration to his father (11:17-19; compare James 2:21); and in the same context is noticed the faith in God implied in Isaac's blessing of his sons. But Isaac receives more attention than anywhere else in that famous passage in Ga (4:21-31), in which Paul uses Isaac and his mother as allegorical representations of Christians who are justified by faith in the promise of God, and are the free-born heirs of all the spiritual inheritance implied in that promise. Even Isaac's persecution by Ishmael has its counterpart in the attitude of the enemies of Paul's gospel toward him and his doctrines and converts.
V. Views Other than the Historical.
Philo, the chief allegorizer of Scriptural narratives, has little to say of Isaac, whom he calls "the self-instructed nature." But modern critics have dissolved his personality by representing him as the personification of an ethnic group. "All Israel," writes Wellhausen (Prol., 6th edition, 316), "is grouped with the people of Edom under the old name Isaac (Amos 7:9,16) .... the material here is not mythical (as in Genesis 1-11) but national." And just as Israel plus Edom had little or no significance in national customs or political events, when compared on the one hand with Israel alone (= Jacob), and with Israel plus Edom plus Moab and Ammon (= Abraham) on the other hand; so likewise the figure of Isaac is colorless and his story brief, as compared with the striking figures of Jacob on the one hand and of Abraham on the other hand, and the circumstantial stories of their lives.
Other scholars will have none of this national view, because they believe Isaac to be the name of an ancient deity, the local numen of Beersheba. Stark, whom others have followed, proposes to interpret the phrase translated "the Fear of Isaac" in Genesis 31:42,53 as the name of this god used by his worshippers, the Terror Isaac, Isaac the terrible god. For the sense of Isaac in that case see above under I, 2, (1). Meyer (loc. cit.) defends the transfer of the name from a god to the hero of a myth, by comparing the sacrifice of Isaac ("the only story in which Isaac plays an independent role"!) with the Greek myth of Iphigenia's sacrifice (Hesiod, Euripides, etc.), in which the by-name of a goddess (Iphigenia) identified with Artemis has passed to the intended victim rescued by Artemis from death.
The most recent critical utterances reject both the foregoing views of Isaac as in conflict with the data of Gen. Thus Gunkel (Schriften des Altes Testament, 5te Lieferung, 1910, 41) writes:
"Quite clearly the names of Abraham, Isaac, and all the patriarchal women are not tribal names. .... The interpretation of the figures of Ge as nations furnishes by no means a general key." And again: "Against the entire assumption that the principal patriarchal figures are originally gods, is above all to be noted that the names Jacob and Abraham are proved by the Babylonian to be personal names in current use, and at the same time that the sagas about them can in no wise be understood as echoes of original myths. Even Winckler's more than bold attempt to explain these sagas as original calendar-myths must be pronounced a complete failure." Yet Gunkel and those who share his position are careful to distinguish their own view from that of the "apologetes," and to concede no more than the bare fact that there doubtless were once upon a time persons named Abraham Isaac, etc. For these critics Isaac is simply a name about which have crystallized cycles of folk-stories, that have their parallels in other lands and languages, but have received with a Hebrew name also a local coloring and significance on the lips of successive Hebrew story-tellers, saga-builders and finally collectors and editors; "Everyone who knows the history of sagas is sure that the saga is not able to preserve through the course of so many centuries, a true picture" of the patriarchs.
See also ABRAHAM, end.
J. Oscar Boyd