15. Isaac, the John Adams of Jewish history

With Abraham and Sarah now behind us, we turn to Isaac, the second Jewish patriarch. Isaac is kind of the John Adams of the patriarchs. When you’re sandwiched in between heavy weights like Washington and Jefferson, or in this case Abraham and Jacob, you tend to get overlooked, or at least under-appreciated. And indeed Isaac is the patriarch whom we know the least about. He’s basically famous for two things: almost getting sacrificed by Abraham, and later getting deceived by his son, Jacob, into giving him the inheritance. While today’s episode is about him, he barely makes an appearance.

THE PLOT

Fearing that he is nearing the end of his life (he actually lives several more decades), Abraham instructs his servant (who never gets named) to find a wife for Isaac. The servant has to promise that the wife will not be a local Canaanite, but rather a woman from Abraham’s ancestral homeland around Babylon, and that he will bring her back to Canaan. 

The servant travels to the city of Aram along the Euphrates River. There he encounters Abraham’s grand niece, Rebecca, recorded by the Torah as a beautiful virgin. Rebecca kindly offers water to him and his animals. The servant spends the night with Rebecca’s family, headed by her father, Laban, where he explains the plan to bring Rebecca to Canaan as a wife for Isaac. Laban and his wife are reluctant, but Rebecca agrees. Rebecca and the servant start the long journey home to Canaan.

Upon arriving during sunset, Rebecca sees Isaac out walking in a field. She covers herself with a veil on approach. Isaac greets her, brings her into the family’s tent, takes her as his wife, and falls in love with her.

MAIN CHARACTERS

Abraham’s servant: never named, he is charged by Abraham with traveling to Babylonia to find a wife for Isaac.

Rebecca: Abraham’s grand niece, is chosen by the servant to be Isaac’s wife due to her beauty, virginity, and, most importantly, kindness.

Laban: Rebecca’s father, he plays something of an antagonistic role in the Torah, most especially with Jacob later on.

KEY THEMES

  • Abraham’s insistence that Isaac’s wife must not be a local Canaanite is one of the earliest prohibitions against intermarriage. There’s a reason for it. Abraham is supposed to father a separate nation of people with a distinct identity and destiny from the surrounding Canaanites. Marrying a Canaanite woman would put that genealogical project in jeopardy. And since Abraham is claiming this land by divine promise, he can’t have Isaac inherit land from his Canaanite wife. 
  • Although the Torah records Rebecca’s beauty and virginity as signs of her virtue, much greater emphasis is put on her kindness and generosity. For not only does she allow the servant to drink water from her jar, but she also offers water to his ten camels. This trait above the others demonstrates her suitability to be Isaac’s wife.
  • Like Abraham, Rebecca is having her own lech lecha (“go forth”) moment, when she elects to leave her home and go to Canaan with the servant. Other aspects of her life, such as her kindness to strangers, also mirror Abraham. This story seems to be setting Rebecca up as the natural successor to Abraham. And with Sarah having just died, Rebecca is the new and emerging female protagonist. The biblical writers are making Rebecca seem like the proactive doer who is going to carry forth God’s covenant. The Bible emphasizes her kindness and generosity, but it also has her acting decisively and with conviction, as with her decision to immediately go to Canaan with the servant, rather than wait the extra ten days like her family wanted.

FUN FACTS

  • Isaac is the only Jewish patriarch who doesn’t get his name changed (Abram becomes Abraham; Jacob becomes Israel).
  • He is the only patriarch who doesn’t ever leave the land of the Canaan.
  • He is the longest living patriarch (he lives to 180 years old).

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© Jason Harris 2017