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Isaac ( , "he will laugh"; , Yitzchok; ; ; or ; ) as described in the Hebrew Bible, was the only son Abraham had with his wife Sarah, and was the father of Jacob and Esau. Isaac is regarded as one of the three patriarch of the Jewish people. According to the Book of Genesis, Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born, and Sarah was beyond childbearing years.

Isaac was the only Biblical patriarch whose name was not changed, and the only one who did not leave Canaan. Compared to those of Abraham and Jacob, Isaac's story relates fewer incidents of his life. He died when he was 180 years old, making him the longest-lived patriarch.

The New Testament contains several references to Isaac. The early Christian church viewed Abraham's willingness to follow God's command to sacrifice Isaac as an example of faith and obedience. Muslims honor Ishaq (Isaac) as a prophet of Islam, and a few of the children of Isaac are mentioned in the Qur'an, which describes Isaac as the father of the Israelites and a righteous servant of God. The Qur'an states that Isaac and his progeny are blessed as long as they uphold their covenant with God, a view that ceased to find support among Muslim scholars in later centuries.

Some academic scholars have described Isaac as "a legendary figure", while others view him as "a figure representing tribal history, though as a historical individual" or as "a seminomadic leader".

Etymology and meaning

The Anglicized name Isaac is a transliteration of the Hebrew term which literally means "may God smile." The term conforms to an established Northwest Semitic linguist type, but is not spoken elsewhere. Ugaritic texts dating from the 13th century BCE refer to the benevolent smile of the Canaanite deity El. Genesis, however, ascribes the laughter to Isaac's mother Sarah rather than El. According to the Biblical narrative, Sarai laughed privately when Elohim imparted to Abram the news of their son's eventual birth. Sarah laughed because she was past the age of childbearing; both she and Abram were advanced in age.

Biblical narrative

The angel hinders the offering up of Isaac, by Rembrandt

Isaac (Yitschaq, Yischaq) is mentioned by name 80 times in the King James Version of Genesis, 32 times in the remainder of the Hebrew Bible, and 20 times in the New Testament. In the narrative, God calls Isaac the "only son" of Abraham ( , , cf. ), though Abraham's sons also include Ishmael and six others. Variations of the formula "Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" occur 23 times in the Hebrew Bible. Isaac is first prophesied at , is born at , dies at , and is remembered at . According to the documentary hypothesis, use of names of God indicates authorship, and form critics variously assign passages like to the Yahwist source, and , , and to the Elohist source; this source-critical approach has admitted problems, in that the name "Yahweh" appears in Elohist material. According to the compilation hypothesis, the formulaic use of the word toledoth (generations) indicates that is Isaac's record through Abraham's death (with Ishmael's record appended), and is Jacob's record through Isaac's death (with Esau's records appended).

When Sarah was beyond child-bearing age, God told Abraham and Sarah that she would still give birth, at which she privately laughed ( ). Isaac was born when Abraham was 100, and Abraham circumcised Isaac when the boy was eight days old ( ). Isaac was Sarah's first and only child, but Abraham had had another son, Ishmael, thirteen years earlier, borne by Sarah's maidservant, Hagar ( ). After Isaac had been weaned, Sarah saw Ishmael mocking, and urged her husband to banish Hagar and Ishmael so that Isaac would be Abraham's only heir. Abraham was hesitant, but at God's order he listened to his wife's request ( ).

Later, God tested Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son. Abraham obeyed and took Isaac to mount Moriah. Without murmuring, Isaac let Abraham bind him and lay him upon the altar as a sacrifice. Abraham took the knife and raised his hand to kill his son; at the last minute, the angel of the prevented him from doing so. Instead of Isaac, Abraham sacrificed a ram that was trapped in a thicket nearby. (According to Islam, the Biblical narrative is incorrect and these events happened to Ishmael instead.)

When Isaac was 40, Abraham sent Eliezer, his steward, into Mesopotamia to find a wife for Isaac, from his nephew Bethuel's family. Eliezer chose Rebekah for Isaac. After many years of marriage to Isaac, Rebekah had still not given birth to a child and was believed to be barren. Isaac prayed for her and she conceived ( ). Rebekah gave birth to twin boys, Esau and Jacob. Isaac was 60 years old when his two sons were born ( ). Isaac favored Esau, and Rebekah favored Jacob.

As Abraham grew rich, Isaac stayed with his father, and was about 75 when his father died. Like Abraham, Isaac deceived Abimelech about his wife, and Isaac built his business by digging wells, unstopping those that his father had dug and the Philistines had stopped up. Isaac had a vision of God at Beershebamarker and made a treaty with Abimelech there.

Isaac grew old and became blind. He called his son Esau and directed him to procure some venison for him, in order to receive Isaac's blessing. While Esau was hunting, Jacob deceptively misrepresented himself as Esau to his blind father and obtained his father's blessing, making Jacob Isaac's primary heir, and leaving Esau in an inferior position. Isaac sent Jacob into Mesopotamia to take a wife of his own family. After 20 years working for Laban, Jacob returned home, and he and Esau buried Isaac when Isaac died at the age of 180 ( ).

Jewish traditions

In rabbinical tradition the age of Isaac at the time of binding is taken to be 37 which contrasts with common portrayals of Isaac as a child. The rabbis also thought that the reason for the death of Sarah was the news of the intended sacrifice of Isaac. The sacrifice of Isaac was cited in appeals for the mercy of God in the later Jewish traditions. The post-Biblical Jewish interpretations often elaborate the role of Isaac beyond the Biblical description and largely focus on Abraham's intended sacrifice of Isaac, called the aqedah ("binding"). According to a version of these interpretations, Isaac died in the sacrifice and was revived. According to many accounts of Aggadah, unlike the Bible, it is Satan who is testing Isaac and not God.Brock, Sebastian P., Brill's New Pauly, Isaac. Isaac's willingness to follow God's command at the cost of his death has been a model for many Jews who preferred martyrdom to violation of the Jewish law.

According to the Jewish tradition Isaac instituted the afternoon prayer. This tradition is based on ("Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide").

Isaac was the only patriarch who stayed in Canaan during his whole life and though once he tried to leave, God told him not to do so ( ). Rabbinic tradition gave the explanation that Isaac was almost sacrificed and anything dedicated as a sacrifice may not leave the Land of Israel. Isaac was the oldest of the Biblical patriarchs at the time of his death, and the only patriarch whose name was not changed.

Rabbinic literature also linked Isaac's blindness in old age, as stated in the Bible, to the sacrificial binding: Isaac's eyes went blind because the tears of angels present at the time of his sacrifice fell on Isaac's eyes.

New Testament

In the New Testament, there are references to Isaac having been "offered up" by his father, and to his blessing his sons. Paul contrasted Isaac, symbolizing Christian liberty, with the rejected older son Ishmael, symbolizing slavery ( ); Hagar is associated with the Sinaimarker covenant, while Sarah is associated with the covenant of grace, into which her son Isaac enters. states that the sacrifice of Isaac shows that justification (in the Johannine sense) requires both faith and works.

In the early Christian church, Abraham's willingness to follow God's command to sacrifice Isaac was used as an example of faith ( ) and of obedience ( ). views the release of Isaac from sacrifice as analogous to the resurrection of Jesus, the idea of the sacrifice of Isaac being a prefigure of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.


Ishaq/Ishak (Isaac) is a prophet in Islam, mentioned in a number of Qur'anic passages. Like many other Hebrew prophets, the Qur'anic references to Isaac assume the audience is already familiar with him and his stories. There is little narrative of Isaac in the Qur'an.

The Qur'an recalls that Isaac was given to Sarah, when she and her husband Abraham were both old ( ). God gave Abraham the good news of the birth of Isaac, "a prophet, one of the Righteous" ( ), via messengers sent against the people of Lut. Sarah, however, is said to have laughed at the glad tidings of Isaac, and after him, of Jacob.

Several other verses of the Qur'an speak of Isaac and Jacob being given to Abraham ( , , ), and say that God "made prophethood and the Book to be among his offspring" (cf. , ). The formula "We gave Abraham Isaac and Jacob" has been "thought by some scholars to demonstrate that in the early revelations Jacob was considered to be a son of Abraham and not his grandson." In some instances, the Qur'an joins together Isaac and Ishmael and "Abraham praises God for giving him the two although he was old" ( ). In other instances Isaac's name occurs in lists ( , , ). Isaac is also mentioned alongside the twelve asbat (meaning tribes), who were the descendants of Isaac from Jacob.

The Qur'an states that Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son. The son is not however named in the Qur'an (e.g., ). In early Islam, there was a dispute over the identity of the son. However, Muslim scholars came to endorse that it was Ishmael. The argument of those early scholars who believed it was Isaac rather than Ishmael (notably Ibn Ḳutayba, and al-Ṭabarī) was that "God's perfecting his mercy on Abraham and Isaac" ( ) referred to his making Abraham his friend and saving him from the burning bush, and to his rescuing Isaac. The other parties held that the promise to Sarah was of a son, Isaac, and a grandson, Jacob ( ), excluded the possibility of a premature death of Isaac. The early dispute was more concerned with Persian rather than Jewish rivalry with Arabs, since the Persians claimed to be of descendants of Isaac. Al-Masudi, for example, reports a Persian poet (902 C.E.) who claimed superiority over Arabs through descent from Isaac.

Academic view

Some scholars have described Isaac as "a legendary figure" while others view him "as a figure representing tribal history, though as a historical individual" or "as a seminomadic leader."

The stories of Isaac, like other patriarchal stories of Genesis, are generally believed in liberal Western scholarship to have "their origin in folk memories and oral traditions of the early Hebrew pastoralist experience." Conservative Western scholarship believes the stories of Isaac, and other patriarchal stories in Genesis, to be factual. The Cambridge Companion to the Bible makes the following comment on the Biblical stories of the patriarchs:

Yet for all that these stories maintain a distance between their world and that of their time of literary growth and composition, they reflect the political realities of the later periods.
Many of the narratives deal with the relationship between the ancestors and peoples who were part of Israel’s political world at the time the stories began to be written down (eighth century B.C.E.).
Lot is the ancestor of the Transjordanian peoples of Ammon and Moab, and Ishmael personifies the nomadic peoples known to have inhibited north Arabia, although located in the Old Testament in the Negev.
Esau personifies Edom (36:1), and Laban represents the Aramean states to Israel’s north.
A persistent theme is that of difference between the ancestors and the indigenous Canaanites… In fact, the theme of the differences between Judah and Israel, as personified by the ancestors, and the neighboring peoples of the time of the monarchy is pressed effectively into theological service to articulate the choosing by God of Judah and Israel to bring blessing to all peoples.”

According to Martin Noth, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, the narratives of Isaac date back to an older cultural stage than that of the West-Jordanian Jacob. At that era, the Israelite tribes were not yet sedentary. In the course of looking for grazing areas, they had come in contact in southern Palestine with the inhabitants of the settled countryside. The Biblical historian, A. Jopsen, believes in the connection between the Isaac traditions and the North and in support of this theory adduces Amos 7:9 ("the high places of Isaac").

Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth hold that, "The figure of Isaac was enhanced when the theme of promise, previously bound to the cults of the 'God the Fathers' was incorporated into the Israelite creed during the southern-Palestinian stage of the growth of the Pentateuch tradition." According to Martin Noth, at the Southern Palestinian stage of the growth of the Pentateuch tradition, Isaac became established as one of the Biblical patriarchs, but his traditions were receded in the favor of Abraham.


The Testament of Isaac is a pseudonymous text which was most likely composed in Greek in Egyptmarker after 100 C.E. It is also dependent on the Testament of Abraham. In this testament, God sends the angel Michael to Isaac in order to inform him of his impending death. Isaac accepts God's decree but Jacob resists. Isaac in his bed-chamber tells Jacob of the inevitability of death. Isaac has a tour of heaven and hell shortly before his death in which God's compassion to repentant sinners is emphasized. In this testament, Isaac also talks with the crowds on the subjects of priesthood, asceticism, and the moral life.

In art

The earliest Christian portrayal of Isaac is found in the Roman catacomb frescoes. Excluding the fragments, Alison Moore Smith classifies these artistic works in three categories:

"Abraham leads Isaac, bearing faggots, towards the altar; or Isaac approaches with the bundle of sticks, Abraham having preceded him to the place of offering ....
Abraham is upon a pedestal and Isaac stands near at hand, both figures in orant attitude ....
Abraham is shown about to sacrifice Isaac while the latter stands or kneels on the ground beside the altar.
Sometimes Abraham grasps Isaac by the hair.
Occasionally the ram is added to the scene and in the later paintings the Hand of God emerges from above."

See also



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