One of the most notable aspects of Isaac is that he is a man who things happen to. There are some people in scripture who are best known for what they do. We imagine Moses holding his staff over the Red Sea as it allows Israel to travel into freedom and their time in the wilderness. We see military heroes like Joshua and Gideon and David and others lead Israel and its forces to victory, we witness the service of priests and the prophetic calls to repentance. We see healings and travels and debates in the pages of scripture, where people are engaging in exciting and momentous deeds. But for the most part, when we look at the life of Isaac, he is a passive observer of what happens to him. This habit continues later in life, and some commentators have thought that it was the near-sacrifice he suffered as a young man at the hands of his father in the area of what became the Temple Mount of Jerusalem that gave him a strong case of PTSD and what contemporary psychologists would view as learned helplessness. As that particular incident is going to be covered by another Sabbath School teacher, I will leave it for others to discuss that in detail, at least at this time.
It should be noted that the passivity of Isaac’s life began much earlier. While the near-sacrifice of Isaac was demonstrative of Isaac’s passivity, and certainly may have furthered and deepened it, it was not the origin of it. This may be seen from the way the incident is framed in scripture. Isaac would not have been able to tied up and nearly butchered by his faithful father had he not been in some way already a passive individual. Obviously, that sort of experience is going to leave a mark, but Isaac was a young man, and probably a strong one even at that age, while Abraham was a very old man over 100 years old. Had he fought for his life, he almost certainly could have made sure that there would not even be a near-sacrifice in a moment like that. There are a variety of reasons, of course, why Isaac hesitated. Certainly the respect for one’s parents that Isaac had, and the regard for elders, and perhaps even an aspect of faith that believed that his father would surely not do anything to harm him played a role in it. But part of it was likely an already present tendency to passivity that was only reinforced.
We are, of course, dependent on the very limited information about Isaac’s personality before the sacrifice that is written in scripture. The Bible does not give a great deal of information about the childhood of Isaac, as is common in the biblical narratives that only rarely give extensive information about childhood and that often leave somewhat large gaps in coverage of what people are doing. Considering how few narratives we have about the childhood of such notable figures as Jesus Christ and Moses and David, to say nothing of those like Abraham of whom nothing is said about his youth, it is little surprise that we should only have one incident from the childhood of Isaac, but it is an incident that is illustrative all the same, specifically because it relates to the troubled relationship between Isaac and Ishmael as well as their mothers, and one that ominously looks forward to the troubled relationship that would exist between their progeny, especially when we look at the relationship between the Arabs and the Jews as well as the other people of Western Europe and their settler colonies elsewhere.
We find this story in Genesis 21:8-13, which reads: “So the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the same day that Isaac was weaned. And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, scoffing. Therefore she said to Abraham, “Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely with Isaac.” And the matter was very displeasing in Abraham’s sight because of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not let it be displeasing in your sight because of the lad or because of your bondwoman. Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac your seed shall be called. Yet I will also make a nation of the son of the bondwoman, because he is your seed.”” The rest of the story, which continues on for several verses, concerns the deliverance in the desert of Ishmael and his mother from dehydration and Ishmael growing up to be a worthy figure of his own, the sort of desert nomad that would set an example for his descendants.
But even in this incident, we see that Isaac is someone that things happen to. Of course, at this time, Isaac was rather young. The Bible does not say how old he was when he was weaned, but he could not have been that old. As Isaac was thirteen years younger than Ishmael, it seems likely that he was around three years of age or so, which would put Ishmael at sixteen years or so, which is an appropriate age for a scoffing older half-brother who laughs the fact that his kid brother is having a banquet thrown in honor of his weaning. It would not be surprising for a teenager, particularly one who had been raised by his mother to look down on Sarah, and presumably her son as well, to view the antics of a child with disdain. Some commentators even view Ishmael’s behavior in a more malign fashion, viewing him as being rough and even perhaps a bit violent with the young Isaac. This would surely justify any of Sarah’s hostility for Ishmael and her concern for the safety of her young boy. The fact that God backs up Sarah suggests as well that the departure of Ishmael was necessary or important for Isaac to grow up safe and sound, which suggests that the matter of Ishmael’s offense was more than merely scoffing.
It is unproductive to speculate more at this point. It is worthwhile to note, though, that even from his childhood, Isaac was someone who things happened to. Born when his parents were very old, and thus less active themselves, he would have had parents who were not as vigorous as people are in their youth. Likely of a pleasant and placid temperament himself (his name means “laughter,” after all, and nowhere does the Bible present him as a fierce sort of man), he spends much of his life being a victim of those around him in one fashion or another. This tendency starts when he is the victim of at least scoffing (and perhaps other abuse) from his older half-brother when he is a small child. It continues when he is nearly butchered to death by his father, and when the wells of his father are stopped up by the Greek settlers of Gerar under Abimelech, when his wife is barren for a long time, and when he is deceived by his wife and younger son over the matter of the blessing, and so on and so forth. Isaac is a man who things happen to, who does not grasp his destiny but rather seems to live rather passively and cautiously in a small area, not even going to Egypt when there is another famine but being told to remain where he is, in the Negev region, and yet he is a faithful follower of God all the same, despite his general lack of initiative that his father and certainly his children had to a great extent. God does not only use heroes as part of His plan, even if few people would want to be like Isaac.