The Glossary of Terms



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

Isaac, the second of the three patriarchs of the Israelites (Exod. 2:24; 3:6; Jer. 33:26). Born to the hundred-year-old Abraham (Gen. 21:5) and the ninety-year-old Sarah (17:17), Isaac was the fulfillment of the Divine promise of an heir to Abraham with whom God would establish his eternal covenant (17:15-21; 18:10-15; 26:2-5, 24).

The word ‘Isaac’ comes from the Hebrew word for ‘laughter’ (cf. 17:19 with 18:12, 13, 15; 21:3, 6-7), which was Sarah’s reaction when she heard the prediction that she would bear a son even though she was well past the age of childbearing (18:10-11). Sarah and Isaac, thus, form the first and most extreme example in the Bible of the motif of the barren woman who finally bears a son due to divine intervention (see also Rebekah and her sons Esau and Jacob, Gen. 25:21-26; Rachel and Joseph, Gen. 30:22-24; Samson and his mother, Judg. 13:2-25; Hannah and Samuel, 1 Sam. 1:1-20). Isaac is even named by God (Gen. 17:19). He was the first to be circumcised at eight days as commanded by God (21:4; cf. 17:12). Isaac’s birth resulted in the expulsion of his half-brother by Abraham and Hagar, Ishmael. This was accomplished after the feast of Isaac’s weaning at Sarah’s insistence, since she perceived Ishmael to be a threat to Isaac’s future as Abraham’s heir (21:8-14).

The major event of Isaac’s life in the biblical narration must surely have been ‘the binding of Isaac’ (Gen. 22). Abraham’s loyalty to God above all else was tested by a divine command to sacrifice his beloved son and sole heir (after the expulsion of Ishmael) on a mountain in the land of Moriah (vv. 1-2). At the time, Isaac is depicted as a lad of indeterminate age (v. 5). After leaving the servants and donkey behind (v. 5), Abraham gives the wood for the sacrifice to Isaac to carry, while he himself takes the firestone and knife (v. 6). Isaac, surprised at the lack of a sacrificial animal, asks his father ‘…where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ (v. 7). Abraham’s enigmatic reply, ‘God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son’ may have confirmed Isaac’s fears, but that the two walk on together (v. 8) may indicate that Isaac is prepared for whatever destiny awaits him. Indeed, for the rest of the story, Isaac plays a passive role—he is bound and placed upon the altar Abraham makes, and only when Abraham has already taken hold of the knife to slaughter him, is Isaac’s fate resolved. An angel cries out from heaven and a ram is substituted for Isaac. Thus, God’s promise to Abraham is reaffirmed.

For Isaac, this traumatic experience seems to have shaped his character and life. His passivity reappears with the choosing of Rebekah as wife for him, without consulting him (Gen. 24; at the age of forty! 25:20). He is the only patriarch to be monogamous and without concubines. It appears that Isaac had been bound to God in a special way, for of all the husbands of barren wives in the Hebrew Bible, only his prayer for a child by such a wife is mentioned as being answered by God (25:21). Isaac always remained the passive naive innocent who was unaware of the intention of others—he does not know of God’s plan for his sons, Jacob and Esau (25:23), nor of Rebekah’s and Jacob’s conspiracy to get his blessing transferred from Esau (Gen. 27). On the other hand, he is protected by God and all his doings are greatly blessed by God, and he attains great wealth and power (26:1-33). Isaac died at the age of one hundred and eighty, attended by his sons (35:27-29).

There is far less biblical material concerning Isaac than either Abraham or Jacob (or, for that matter, Joseph), which may indicate that many traditions have been lost. For instance, the origin of the phrase ‘Fear of Isaac’ (31:42, 53) is unknown. His individual importance is attested by Amos (7:9, 16), who equates the name ‘Isaac’ with the northern state of Israel. Isaac is frequently mentioned in the nt, along with Abraham and Jacob, as one of the three patriarchs (e.g., Matt. 1:2; Luke 3:34; Acts 7:8). The binding of Isaac is mentioned in James 2:21, and Paul emphasizes his wondrous birth (Rom. 9:7, 10) and the promise of God associated with him (Gal. 4:28).


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Copyright 1996-2002 Robert Nguyen Cramer
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