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Isaac or Yitzchak (Hebrew: יִצְחָק, Standard Yiẓḥaq Tiberian Yiṣḥāq ; Arabic: إسحٰق, ʾIsḥāq ; "he will laugh") was the only son of Abraham and Sarah, and the father of Jacob and Esau as described in the Hebrew Bible. His story is told in the Book of Genesis. 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 early Christian church viewed Abraham's willingness to follow God's command to sacrifice Isaac as an example of faith and obedience.

Isaac is a prophet in Islam. A few narratives of Isaac appear in the Qur'an. The Qur'an views Isaac as a righteous man, servant of God and the father of Jews. 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.

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. As mentioned the term literally means "may God smile", and the Ugaritic texts from thirteenth century BCE refer to the benovolent smile of the Canaanite god El. The Bible(i.e. the canonical collections of sacred writings of Judaism), however, ascribes the laugher 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, they 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 Genesis 17:15-27 and the end from Genesis 27:46 to Genesis 28:9 is however believed to belong to the P, or Priestly source while Genesis 21:1-7 and Genesis 22:1-19 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.

The angel hinders the offering up of Isaac, by Rembrandt
The angel hinders the offering up of Isaac, by Rembrandt

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 obliged Isaac to move to Gerar, where Abimelech was king; and, as his father had done under similar circumstances, he referred to Rebekah as his sister. Abimelech, having discovered that she was his wife, reproved him for the deception.

As Isaac grew very rich and his flocks multiplied, the Philistines of Gerar became so envious that they filled up all the wells which Isaac'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 (137 years) 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 sneakily misrepresented himself as Esau to his blind father as obtained his father's blessing, making Isaac Abraham'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.

Jewish traditions

In Rabannical traditions 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 taught 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 Haggadah, 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 matrydom to violation of the Jewish law.

According to the Jewish tradition Isaac instituted the afternoon prayer. This tradition is based on Genesis 24:63 ("Isaac went out to mediate 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 he not to do so( Genesis 26:2). Rabannic 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.

Rabbinical 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 the Qur'an. His name appears in 15 passages of the Qur'an. Like many other ancient 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 states that Isaac was given to Sarah, when she and her husband Abraham were both old (see 11:70-74). In verse 37:112, God gives Abraham the good news of the birth of Isaac "a prophet, one of the Righteous." Verses 11:71-74 provide a fuller version of the story: The messengers of God who were sent against the people of Lut came to Abraham. Abraham's wife (Sarah) "laughed: But we gave her glad tidings of Isaac, and after him, of Jacob." Watt states that there are several verses of the Qur'an talking about Isaac and Jacob being given to Abraham (Qur'an 6:84; 49 19: 49-50; 21:72), and 29:27-26 adds that God “made prophethood and the Book to be among his offspring” (see also 38:45). 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 verse, 14:39-41, Isaac and Ishmael are joined together and "Abraham praises God for giving him the two although he was old." In other instances Isaac's names occurs in the lists (see 12:38, 2:127-133, 4:161-163)

The Qur'an states that Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son. The son is not however named in the Qur'an(see 37:99-113) and in early Islam, there was a fierce controversy over the identity of the son. However the belief that it was Ishmael prevailed later and it was fully endorsed by the Muslim scholars. The argument of those early scholars who believed in the Isaac theory (notably Ibn Ḳutayba, and al-Ṭabarī) was that "God's perfecting his mercy on Abraham and Isaac (in 12:6) 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 Isaac followed by Jacob ( 11:71-74) excluded the possibility of a sacrifice of Isaac." The early controversy was more concerned with Persian than Jewish rivalry from the Arabs, since the Persians claimed to be of descendents of Isaac. Al-Masudi for example reports a Persian poet (902 CE) who boasted to be superior to the Arabs because of 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 western scholarship to have "their origin in folk memories and oral traditions of the early Hebrew pastoralist experience." 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").

Distinguished biblical historians 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 favour 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"

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