Olivier, Isaac

Olivier, Isaac

Olivier, Isaac: see Oliver, Isaac.

According to the Hebrew Bible, Isaac (Hebrew: Yitzchak יִצְחָק, Standard Yiẓḥaq Tiberian Yiṣḥāq ; Arabic: إسحٰق, ʾIsḥāq ; "he will laugh") is the son of Abraham and Sarah, and the father of Jacob and Esau. His story is told in the Book of Genesis. Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born. Isaac was the longest-lived of the patriarchs, and the only biblical patriarch whose name was not changed. Isaac was the only patriarch who did not leave Canaan, although he once tried to leave and God told him not to do so. Compared to other patriarchs in the Bible, his story is less colorful, relating few incidents of his life.

The New Testament contains few references to Isaac. The Christian church views Abraham's willingness to follow God's command to sacrifice Isaac as an example of faith and obedience.

Muslims honour Isaac as a prophet of Islam. A few of the children of Isaac appear in the Qur'an. The Qur'an views Isaac as a righteous man, servant of God and the father of Israelites. The Qur'an states that Isaac and his progeny are blessed as long as they uphold their covenant with God. Some early Muslims believed that Isaac was the son who was supposed to be sacrificed by Abraham. This view however 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, or as the founder of a cult."

Etymology and meaning

The English name Isaac is a translation of the Hebrew term Yiṣḥāq which literally means "may God smile." The term conforms to a well-known Northwest Semitic linguist type, but is not known from elsewhere. The Ugaritic texts from thirteenth century BCE refer to the benevolent smile of the Canaanite god El; the Bible (i.e. the canonical collections of sacred writings of Judaism), however, ascribes the laughter to be Isaac's mother (Sarah) rather than the Canaanite god El. The reason for Sarah's laughing, according to the Bible, was that God gave the news of the birth of Isaac to his parents. Since they were beyond the age of having children, Sarah privately laughed at the prediction.

Hebrew Bible

Isaac is mentioned by name more than 70 times in the book of Genesis but only mentioned 33 times elsewhere. The phrase "Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" occurs 23 times in the Hebrew Bible. Chapters 17-28 of the book of Genesis contain the stories of Isaac. Historians and academics in the fields of linguistics and source criticism believe that the stories of Isaac largely belong to the J, or Yahwist source (See Documentary hypothesis). The beginnings of and the end from to is however believed to belong to the P, or Priestly source while and is considered to be the E, or Elohist source. The account of the life of Isaac according to the Hebrew Bible God gave the news of the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah. Sarah was beyond the age of having children and privately laughed at the prediction. When the child was born, she said "God had made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me". Isaac was the only child that Abraham and Sarah had together. Sarah saw Ishmael mocking Isaac and urged her husband to banish Hagar and her child so that Isaac would be the only heir of Abraham. Abraham was hesitant but at God's order he listened to his wife's request.

Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when the boy was eight days old. According to the book of Genesis, a great feast was held for his being weaned.

Several years later, God tested Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son. Abraham obeyed and took Isaac to the 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, an angel of the Lord prevented him from doing so. Instead of Isaac, Abraham sacrificed a ram that was trapped in a thicket nearby.

When Isaac was forty years of age, Abraham sent Eliezer, his steward, into Mesopotamia to find a wife for him, from Bethuel, his brother-in-law's family. Rebekah was sent and became the wife of Isaac. She was barren, so Isaac prayed for her and God granted her the favour of conception. She gave birth to twin boys, Esau and Jacob. Isaac favoured Esau, and Rebekah Jacob.

Some years afterward, a famine obligated Abraham to move to Gerar, where Abimelech was king; and he referred to Sarah as his sister. Abimelech, having discovered that she was his wife, reproved him for the deception.

As Abraham grew very rich and his flocks multiplied, the Philistines of Gerar became so envious that they filled up all the wells which Abraham's servants had dug. At the desire of Abimelech he departed and pitched his tent in the valley of Gerar where he dug new wells, but was again put to some difficulties. At length, he returned to Beersheba where he fixed his habitation. Here the LORD appeared to him, and renewed the promise of blessing him. Also Abimelech visited him to form an alliance.

Isaac grew very old and became completely blind. He called Esau, his eldest son, and directed him to procure some venison for him. But 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 lived some time after this, and sent Jacob into Mesopotamia to take a wife of his own family. He 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 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. 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(). Rabinnic tradition gave the explanation that Isaac was almost sacrificed and anything dedicated as a sacrifice may not leave the Land of Israel. Isaac is the longest-lived of the patriarchs, and the only biblical 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

The New Testament contains few references to Isaac. There are references to Isaac having been "offered up" by his father, and to his blessing his sons. Paul contrasted Isaac (symbolizing Christianity) with the rejected older son Ishmael (symbolizing Judaism); (see Galatians 4:21-30). In Galatians 4:28-31, Hagar is associated with the Sinai covenant, while Sarah is associated with the covenant of grace (into which her son Isaac enters). James 2:21-24 argues that the sacrifice of Isaac shows that justification 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 (Hebrews 11:17) and of obedience (James 2:21). While the epistle to the Hebrews 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 sacrifice of Jesus on the cross dates back to the end of first Christian century. It first appeared in the apocryphal epistle of Barnabas and later became an important theme for many renowned artists.


Isaac is a prophet in Islam, mentioned in 15 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 talking about Isaac and Jacob being given to Abraham, and that God “made prophethood and the Book to be among his offspring”. 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 names occurs in the 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 and 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 in Isaac rather than Ishmael (notably Ibn Ḳutayba, and al-Ṭabarī) was that "God's perfecting his mercy on Abraham and Isaac (in) referred to his making Abraham his friend and saving him from the burning bush and to his rescuing Isaac. The other party held that the promise to Sarah of son Isaac and 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 CE) 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, or as the founder of a cult."

The stories of Isaac, like other patriarchal stories of Genesis, are generally believed in liberal western scholarship (in contrast with conservative western scholarship, which believes the stories of Isaac, and other patriarchal stories in Genesis, to be factual) to have "their origin in folk memories and oral traditions of the early Hebrew pastoralist experience." 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 (eight 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 renowned 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, however 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 Egypt 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 to 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.

Isaac 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:

"paintings showing the approach to the Sacrifice in which 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...[paintings in which] Abraham is upon a pedestal and Isaac stands near at hand, both figures in orant attitude...[paintings in which] 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



  • Browning, W.R.F (1996). A dictionary of the Bible. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-211691-6.
  • In The Columbia Encyclopedia (2000). Gale Group. ISBN 978-1593392369. .
  • In Encyclopaedia of Islam Online Brill Academic Publishers. ISSN 1573-3912. .
  • In Encyclopedia of Christianity (2001). Eerdmans Publishing Company, and Brill. ISBN 0-8028-2414-5. .
  • In Encyclopedia of Christianity (2005). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-522393-4. .
  • In The New Encyclopedia Britannica (2005). Encyclopedia Britannica, Incorporated; Rev Ed edition. ISBN 978-1593392369. .
  • In Encyclopedia of the Qur'an (2005). Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 978-9004123564. .
  • In The New Encyclopedia of Judaism (2002). New York University Press. ISBN 978-0814793886. .
  • In Encyclopedia of Religion (2005). MacMillan Reference Books. ISBN 978-0028657332. .
  • Eerdmans, Wm. B. (2000). Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0802824004.

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