Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (6 July 2014)



  • Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 and Psalm 45:10-17 (or Song of Solomon 2:8-13)
  • Romans 7:15-25a
  • Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Isaac: The In-Between Ancestor

In the formal account of ancient Israel’s ancestors, Isaac has an honored place. He was the only child of Abraham and Sarah, and he was the father of Jacob (Israel) and Esau. His name occurs in the common triplet, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

However, on closer examination, Isaac has been all but crowded out of the ancestral narrative by his son Jacob and his grandson, Joseph.

The name “Isaac” is found some 134 times in the Bible, but the data really falls into two categories: stories and lists from Genesis 17-35, and references to Isaac in other parts of the Bible.

The ancestral narratives are structured around the three key figures:

11:27-25:18 The Story of Abr(ha)am, son of Terah
11:27-32 Introduction
12:1-3 The Divine Call of Abram
12:4-25:11 Stories about Abraham
25:12-18 Concluding genealogy

25:19-37:1 The Story of Isaac, son of Abraham
25:19-34 Introduction: Birth and rise of Jacob
26:1-35:29 Stories about Jacob (ending with death of Isaac)
36:1-37:1 Concluding genealogy

37:2-50:26 The Story of the Sons of Jacob
37:2-11 Introduction: Joseph the dreamer
37:12-36 Joseph sold into slavery
38:1-30 Judah’s mistreatment of Tamar
39:1-41:57 Joseph’s ascent to high office in Egypt
42:1-45:28 Joseph and his brothers
46:1-47:31 Jacob comes to live in Egypt
48:1-49:33 Jacob’s deathbed blessings
50:1-21 Burial of Jacob
50:22-26 Death of Joseph

On that basis, it seems that Isaac is little more than the narrative link between the Abraham cycle and the Jacob cycle. Most of the stories in Genesis 25-36 center on Jacob, while the so-called Jacob cycle is really the extended Joseph saga. However, there are more traditions about Isaac here than immediately meets the eye:

18:1-15 Isaac’s birth is promised
21:1-8 Birth and infancy of Isaac
22:1-19 The Akedah of Isaac
24:1-67 Finding a wife for Isaac
25:7-11 Isaac (and Ishmael) bury Abraham
25:19-20 Brief list of the descendants of Isaac
25:21-34 Twin sons (Esau and Jacob) for Isaac
26:1-33 Isaac and Abimelech
26:34-28:4 Jacob steals Isaac’s blessing
35:27-29 Isaac dies and is buried by Esau and Jacob

In many ways Isaac is presented as little more than an imitation of his father, Abraham:

  • His wife is barren until God intervenes.
  • Isaac has two sons: the twins, Esau and Jacob.
  • The divine blessing goes to the younger of the boys, and the older son leaves to establish his own life separated from the clan.
  • Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, is caught up in a potential sexual scandal with the local ruler (Abimelech) who previously tried to acquire Sarah for his harem after Abraham, like Isaac in this episode, pretended his wife was actually his sister.
  • The designated heir must seek a wife from the old country in Mesopotamia, rather than taking a wife from the people of Canaan.

The list of parallels between Isaac and his father in Genesis 26 alone is impressive:

Whereas the surrounding sections focus primarily on Isaac’s descendants, this chapter focuses on Isaac apart from, his children. Although relatively little is told about Isaac, it is significant that each element makes him parallel to his father Abraham:

  • the initial notes linking his trip to Gerar with Abraham’s initial journey to Egypt (v. 1; cf. 12.10),
  • the travel command and promise (vv. 2-5; see 12:1-3; 22.18),
  • the story of the endangerment of the matriarch (vv. 6-11; cf. 12.10-13.1 and 20:1-18),
  • the manifestation of the blessing on Isaac (vv. 12-14; cf. 12.16; 20.14),
  • the recognition of that blessing by Abimelech (v. 28; cf. 21.22),
  • and the well stories (vv. 17-33; see 21.22-34).

By the end of the chapter it is clear that Isaac has successfully inherited Abraham’s blessing and is thus prepared to pass it on to one of his sons (see Genesis 27).

Apart from the references to Isaac in these stories from Genesis, the remaining occurrences of the name “Isaac” are almost entirely in genealogies or in compound descriptions of the God of the ancestors. The few exceptions are the following:

  • Amos 7:9,16 – “Isaac” occurs as a synonym for “Israel” in poetic speech
  • Acts 7 – Stephen twice refers to Isaac when recounting Israel’s history
  • In Galatians 4, Paul draws on the story of Isaac and Ishmael:

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children, burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth pangs; for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous than the children of the one who is married.” Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac. But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. [Galatians 4:22-29]

  • In Romans 9, Paul makes explicit use of the parallels between Abraham and Isaac to explore theological issues relating to the place of the Gentiles in God’s purposes:

It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. For this is what the promise said, “About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.” Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, “The elder shall serve the younger.” As it is written, “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.” What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. [Romans 9:6-16]

  • Hebrews 11 offers a brief summary of Isaac as a model of faith:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old–and Sarah herself was barren–because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead–and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. By faith Isaac invoked blessings for the future on Jacob and Esau. [Hebrews 11:8-20]

  • Finally, James has the following brief reference:

Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? [James 2:21]


Finding a wife for Isaac

Having passed the final test of his faithfulness (the Akedah in Genesis 22), Abraham has nothing else of substance to achieve—except to bury his wife (ch 23) and to arrange an appropriate wife for his chosen heir (ch 24).

Nahum Sarna (JPS commentary on Genesis) offers this helpful overview of this week’s passage (my italics):

Having discharged his duty to the dead, Abraham now turns his attention to the needs of the living. As long as Isaac is unmarried, the divine promise of posterity remains unfulfilled. The patriarch therefore commissions his trusted servant to set out for far-off Aram-naharaim in order to find a wife for his son from among Abraham’s own kinfolk.
This narrative, the longest chapter in Genesis, is a kind of novella, though it is somewhat dependent for its background on a knowledge of previous events. Its underlying motif is the abhorrence of the local Canaanites, who are presented in the Torah sources as unregenerately corrupt and who, for that reason, have forfeited all rights to their land.

The action in the narrative unfolds in five scenes. At the outset Abraham is the dominant personality. But the movement of the story gradually shifts to Isaac, so that at its conclusion it is the son who is the center of attention and the father has faded from the scene. The repeated phrase “my master Abraham” gives way to “my master Isaac” (v. 65). The betrothal episode effects the transition from the cycle of Abrahamic stories to the Isaac narratives. This progression from the older to the successor generation is mediated by the servant, who has no other function here and is never heard of again. For this reason, his anonymity is thoroughly appropriate. The fact that his statement, “I am Abraham’s servant” (v. 34), constitutes the exact middle verse of the chapter is symbolic of his role: to forge the link between the generations.
The transition to Isaac and Rebekah as the successors of Abraham and Sarah and as the heirs to the divine promises is effected through the deliberate use of several literary devices. Rebekah’s departure for Canaan, recounted in verse 7, is so styled as to bring to mind Abraham’s original exodus from his homeland, and the words are borrowed directly from 12:7. Key words and phrases of 12:1–3 also are repeated here, such as “native land” (vv. 4, 7),”father’s house” (vv. 3, 7, 8, 41), “to the land” (vv. 5, 7), “blessing” (vv. 1, 35), and “becoming great” (v. 35). The divine order to Abraham, “Go forth,” and his unfaltering response (12:1, 4) are paralleled here by Rebekah’s unquestioning willingness to go at once (v. 58). “I will go,” she firmly declares in response to the query, “Will you go?” This crucial verb “to go” (Heb. h-l-kh) occurs seven times in connection with Rebekah, a sure sign of its seminal importance. Finally, the divine blessing bestowed on Abraham, “Your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes” (22:17), is repeated almost verbatim in the farewell blessing to the bride in verse 60.
One other feature of the narrative deserves special mention. Although God does not intervene in a supernatural manner, the reader nevertheless is left with the absolute conviction that the guiding hand of Providence is present from first to last. The narrative conveys the clear impression that the commonplace and the natural are the arena for the realization of God’s unfolding plan of history.

We now know that the ancestors of ancient Israel and Judah did not arrive in Palestine from some other place, but were essentially “Canaanites with a new zip code.” That is, the population that created and occupied the new settlements that appear around 1,200 BCE had not come from anywhere other than Palestine. Their material remains and their cultural characteristics (language, religion, etc) are indistinguishable from the other inhabitants of the land.

Most likely they had no more of an experience of “Egyptian slavery” than any other peoples living in Syro-Palestine during the past 4,000+ years, during which time Egypt has exercised a natural hegemony over the coastal strip to its north which also serves as a strategic land bridge to Mesopotamia and Greece/Turkey. Like present day populations in Central America and the Caribbean, the Canaanites lived under the shadow of a large imperial power. They were all, in some sense, slaves of Egypt.

The current debates in “biblical archaeology” are not concerned with the historical existence of the Patriarchs, or even the dating of the Exodus. Those topics that loomed so large on the agenda of theological students in the 1970s and 1980s are no longer the focus of historical debate. Rather, the debate concerns the possibility that David was anything more than a minor chieftain in a remote and impoverished rural area, and whether Jerusalem was anything more significant than a small village without walls prior to the 10C BCE. Once we rid ourselves of the idea that these stories are historical memories, however garbled, of actual events, we are free to ask some rather more significant questions about the narrative:

  • By what kind of people (and at what point in ancient Israel’s history) might these stories have been told this way?
  • How do these stories shape faith?
  • How are these stories critiqued by faith?

Origin stories that project an oppressed community’s beginnings in the heartland of the dominant world powers serve a social function. History for its own sake was not known in pre-Hellenistic oriental societies such as we find in Palestine before the time of Alexander the Great.

The Judahite community that had established itself in and around Jerusalem early in the Persian period had a very good reason to depict Israel’s ancestors as not only coming from the land of the Babylonians (Ur of the Chaldeans), but also as taking exceptional care to project and preserve the purity (sic) of their line by acquiring wives from the old families back in Mesopotamia.

We know that the myth of a pure Jewish community was public policy in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, and that considerable hardship was caused to families that included parents from both Jewish and indigenous lines:

Then all the people of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days; it was the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month. All the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain. Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now make confession to the LORD the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, “It is so; we must do as you have said. But the people are many, and it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open. Nor is this a task for one day or for two, for many of us have transgressed in this matter. Let our officials represent the whole assembly, and let all in our towns who have taken foreign wives come at appointed times, and with them the elders and judges of every town, until the fierce wrath of our God on this account is averted from us.” Only Jonathan son of Asahel and Jahzeiah son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levites supported them. Then the returned exiles did so. Ezra the priest selected men, heads of families, according to their families, each of them designated by name. On the first day of the tenth month they sat down to examine the matter. By the first day of the first month they had come to the end of all the men who had married foreign women. [Ezra 10:9-17]

It is possible that the delightful little book of Ruth was written partly in response to this program, making the point that even the legendary David had a Moabite grandmother!

This week’s story, which reeks of tribal patriarchy and xenophobia has shaped generations of believers.

In fifth century Jerusalem there were compelling (and even life-affirming) reasons to identify their ancestors with Mesopotamia and prefer Babylonian Jewish brides to local girls. But those reasons too quickly became exercises in communal prejudice and tribalism, and especially when the myth-makers acquired real political and military power.

This is not a peculiarly Jewish dilemma. Apocalyptic dreams may bring hope to oppressed people, but they can also validate the worst kinds of oppression against others when the emperor becomes a believer. Manifest destiny might be a source of empowerment to a colonial outpost seeking self-determination, but it can also be a nightmare to others when the colony becomes a global superpower.

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