200605isaac

Isaac

One would expect big billing for Isaac after all the drama leading up to his birth. What is surprising and challenging for the reader is that he does not get it. There is the long and elegant chapter 24 about getting him a bride from the old country, but this is more about Rebekah than about Isaac.

Indeed, Rebekah is in some ways a more prominent character in the narrative than Isaac, especially the way she takes charge in chapter 27. There is really only one chapter in which Isaac plays a lead; Genesis 26.

Isaac is one of Israel’s ‘foundational’ male ancestors—along with Abraham and Jacob—but a relatively minor one it seems, by comparison. Genesis 26 is itself located within the larger story of Jacob and Esau. What is even more puzzling, it portrays him as almost a carbon copy of his father.

Like Abraham in chapter 20, he is prepared to trade his wife to the Philistines for personal security. Like Abraham in 21:22-34, he is involved in dealings with Philistines which result in peace after some initial tensions (given Isaac’s lie about his wife, one can understand the neighbours being wary).

What might be the significance of this portrayal of Isaac (and Rebekah)? Here, as elsewhere, the Torah does not dictate how the text is to be read: it invites rather than imposes thought.

Isaac’s Birth as Interpretative Clue

A clue may lie in those chapters leading up to Isaac’s birth. I suggested that the promise of Isaac in 18:1-15 is subsumed within God’s larger purpose of bringing salvation to all the earth.

An Israelite might become too absorbed in the promises for Israel and lose sight of this larger agenda. The text anticipates this by moving relatively rapidly from Isaac to Jacob who will be the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.

According to the larger Torah, Israel is chosen not for its own sake but to be the bearer of blessing for all people (Gen 12:2-3). It could also of course be due to the fact that few traditions were recorded about Isaac and this is reflected in the text we have.

Abraham and Isaac

What about the similarities between the portraits of Abraham and Isaac? We saw earlier how Abraham and Sarah prefigure aspects of the larger story of Israel.

The portrait of Abraham could thus be meant to prefigure Isaac, and Isaac to be a ‘type’ of Abraham.

Historical critical scholarship debates whether OT authors drew on material about Abraham for their portrayal of Isaac, or vice versa. Whichever way the direction of dependence may lie, the result is not slavish repetition: there are significant differences.

In 26:1-11, Rebekah is not taken by the foreigner for a wife as was Sarah in chs. 12 and 20. This fits the context because she has already borne Jacob and Esau in 25:24-26. Gen 26:10 suggests that the issue at stake is whether Isaac will be a source of blessing or curse for others.

It could be significant therefore that, in his dealings with the Philistines, blessing is more to the fore than in the Abraham parallel (21:22-34). In 26:29, the Philistines acknowledge that Isaac is indeed blessed.

Blessing is a power for life and fertility and, according to Gen 1:28, God entrusted it in a special way to human beings. It is meant to enable them to live in God’s image and likeness: as the following chapter 27 reveals, hunger for it can tempt them to do the opposite.

Some Reflections

With the story of Isaac and Rebekah we are about half-way through the book of Genesis: it may be a good point to pause and do a little stocktaking on OT stories.

You will notice that most of the stories are fairly brief : each one takes only a few minutes to read. Antony Campbell, a Jesuit scholar in Melbourne, has proposed the very attractive hypothesis that the biblical text preserves the outline of stories rather than their performance by a gifted storyteller.

As a form of entertainment as well as instruction, each story took considerable time to actually tell. It would have been difficult and costly for a scribe to record it all (a vellum scroll required many sheep skins).

For a long time written versions served more as a base for storytellers to expand in performance than a fixed sacred text on which commentators would expound.

Characteristics of the story form

You will also notice that stories tend to have 3 main characters and that action normally involves two while the third is temporarily ‘off stage’. Lot does not appear in 12:10-20 because he is not needed for the plot but he reappears abruptly in 13:1 in preparation for 13:5-13.

A further point to note is that some stories, on close inspection, seem rather uneven. A good example is the garden story (Genesis 2–3). If you compare 2:9; 3:3 and 3:22 carefully, you get the impression that the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life switch places in the middle of the garden. A further feature is that 3:22-24 does not say the woman was expelled from the garden, only the man.

Scholars like Campbell believe such features may have served as prompts for a storyteller that a story could be told in more than one way.

In this case, one version involved only the man and the tree of life; another the couple and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; a third both trees, the couple, and expulsion, presumably of both, from the garden.

A storyteller would probably select one option for a performance. When the biblical text became a fixed text, such options were preserved even though they created a certain literary unevenness. Torah is ultimately about teaching not literary neatness.

A final point is that any story about God is destined to be inadequate in some way. How can any story do complete justice to the ultimate mystery of life? Hence the Bible offers a variety of stories about God from a variety of angles because its authors knew full well their limitations.

 

Copyright © Mark O'Brien, OP. Catholic Institute of Sydney