1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Isaac

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ISAAC (Hebrew for “he laughs,” on explanatory references to the name, see Abraham), the only child of Abraham and Sarah, was born when his parents were respectively a hundred and ninety years of age (Gen. xvii. 17). Like his father, Isaac lived a nomadic pastoral life, but within much narrower local limits, south of Beersheba (Gen. xxvi., on the incidents here recorded, see Abimelech). After the death of his mother, when he was forty years old, he married Rebekah the Aramaean, by whom after twenty years of married life he became the father of Esau and Jacob. He died at the age of one hundred and eighty.[1] “Isaac” is used as a synonym for “Israel” by Amos (vii. 9, 16), who also bears witness to the importance of Beersheba as a sanctuary. It was in this district, at the well Beer-Lahai-roi, that Isaac dwelt (Gen. xxiv. 62, xxv. 11), and the place was famous for an incident in the life of Hagar (xvi. 14). This was perhaps the original scene of the striking episode “in the land of Moriah,” when at the last moment he was by angelic interposition released from the altar on which he was about to be sacrificed by his father in obedience to a divine command (Gen. xxii).[2] The narrative (which must be judged with due regard to the conditions of the age) shows that the sacrifice of the first-born, though not inconsistent with Yahweh's claims (Ex. xxii. 29), was neither required nor tolerated (cp. Micah vi. 6-8). See Moloch.

Isaac is by general consent of the Christian church taken as a representative of the unobtrusive, restful, piously contemplative type of human character. By later Judaism, which fixed its attention chiefly on the altar scene, he was regarded as the pattern and prototype of all martyrs. The Mahommedan legends regarding him are curious, but trifling.

The resemblance between incidents in the lives of Isaac and Abraham is noteworthy; in each case Isaac appears to be the more original. See further Ishmael, and note that the pair Isaac and Ishmael correspond to Abraham and Lot, Jacob and Esau. On general questions, see E. Meyer, Israeliten (Index, s.v.). For attempts to find a mythological interpretation of Isaac's life, see Goldziher, Mythology of the Hebrews; Winckler, Gesch. Israels (vol. ii.).


  1. The stories, including the delightful history of the courting of Rebekah by proxy, are due to the oldest narrators. The jarring chronological notices belong to the post-exilic framework of the book (see Genesis).
  2. The name is hopelessly obscure, and the identification with the mountain of the temple in Jerusalem rests upon a late view (2 Chron. iii. l). It is otherwise called “Yahweh-yir'eh” (“Y. sees”) which is analogous to “El-ro'i” (“a God of Seeing”) in xvi. 13. See further the commentaries.