Isaac (Genesis 21:1-35:29)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

Isaac was the son of a great father and the father of a great son, but he himself left a mixed record. In contrast to the sustained prominence that Genesis gives to Abraham, the life of Isaac is split apart and told as attachments to the stories of Abraham and Jacob. The characterization of Isaac’s life falls into two parts: one decidedly positive and one negative. Lessons regarding work may be derived from each.

On the positive side, Isaac’s life was a gift from God. Abraham and Sarah treasured him and passed on their faith and values, and God reiterated Abrahamic promises to him. Isaac’s faith and obedience when Abraham bound him as a sacrifice is exemplary, for he must have truly believed what his father had told him: “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Gen. 22:8). Throughout most of his life, Isaac followed in Abraham’s footsteps. Expressing the same faith, Isaac prayed for his childless wife (Gen. 25:21). Just as Abraham gave an honorable burial to Sarah, together Isaac and Ishmael buried their father (Gen. 25:9). Isaac became such a successful farmer and shepherd that the local population envied him and asked him to move away (Gen. 26:12-16). He reopened the wells that had been dug during the time of his father, which again became subjects of disputes with the people of Gerar concerning water rights (Gen. 26:17-21). Like Abraham, Isaac entered into a sworn agreement with Abimelech about treating one another fairly (Gen. 26:26-31). The writer of Hebrews noted that by faith Isaac lived in tents and blessed both Jacob and Esau (Heb. 11:8-10, 20). In short, Isaac had inherited a large family business and considerable wealth. Like his father, he did not hoard it, but fulfilled the role that God had chosen for him to pass on the blessing that would extend to all nations.

In these positive events, Isaac was a responsible son who learned how to lead the family and to manage its business in a way that honored the example of his capable and godly father. Abraham’s diligence in preparing a successor and instituting long-lasting values brought blessing to his enterprise once again. When Isaac was a hundred years old, it became his turn to designate his successor by passing on the family blessing. Although he would live another eighty years, this bestowal of the blessing was the last meaningful thing about Isaac recorded in the book of Genesis. Regrettably, he nearly failed in this task. Somehow, he remained oblivious to God's revelation to his wife that, contrary to normal custom, the younger son, Jacob, was to become head of the family instead of the older (Gen. 25:23). It took a clever ploy by Rebecca and Jacob to put Isaac back on track to fulfill God's purposes.

Maintaining the family business meant that the fundamental structure of the family had to be intact. It was the father’s job to secure this. Foreign to most of us today, two related customs were prominent in Isaac’s family, the birthright (Gen. 25:31) and the blessing (Gen. 27:4). The birthright conferred the right to inherit a larger share of the father’s estate both in terms of goods and land. Though sometimes the birthright was transferred, it was typically reserved for the firstborn son. The specific laws concerning it varied, but it seems to have been a stable feature of ancient Near Eastern culture. The blessing was the corresponding invocation of prosperity from God and succession of leadership in the household. Esau wrongly believed that he could surrender the birthright yet still get the blessing (Heb. 12:16-17). Jacob recognized that they were inseparable. With both in his possession, Jacob would assume the right to carry on the heritage of the family economically, socially, and in terms of its faith as well. Central to the unfolding plot of Genesis, the blessing entailed not only receiving the covenantal promises that God had made to Abraham but also mediating them to the next generation.

Isaac’s failure to recognize that Jacob should receive the birthright and the blessing arose from Isaac putting his personal comfort above the needs of the family organization. He preferred Esau because he loved the wild game that Esau the hunter got for him. Although Esau did not value the birthright as much as a single meal—meaning that he was neither fit for nor interested in the position of leading the enterprise—Isaac wanted Esau to have it. The private circumstances under which Isaac gave the blessing suggests that he knew such an act would invite criticism. The only positive aspect of this episode is that Isaac’s faith led him to recognize that the divine blessing he had mistakenly given to Jacob was irrevocable. Generously, this is what the writer of Hebrews remembered him for. “By faith Isaac invoked blessings for the future on Jacob and Esau” (Heb. 11:20). God had chosen Isaac to perpetuate this blessing and tenaciously worked his will through him, despite Isaac’s ill-informed intentions.

Isaac’s example reminds us that immersing ourselves in our private perspective too deeply can lead us into serious errors of judgment. Each of us is tempted by personal comforts, prejudices, and private interests to lose sight of the wider importance of our work. Our weakness may be for accolades, financial security, conflict avoidance, inappropriate relationships, short-term rewards, or other personal benefits that may be at odds with doing our work to fulfill God’s purposes. There are both individual and systemic factors involved. On the individual level, Isaac’s bias toward Esau is repeated today when those in power choose to promote people based on bias, whether recognized or not. On the systemic level, there are still many organizations that enable leaders to hire, fire, and promote people at their own whim, rather than developing successors and subordinates in a long-term, coordinated, accountable process. Whether the abuses are individual or systemic, merely resolving to do better or to change organizational processes is not an effective solution. Instead, both individuals and organizations need to be transformed by God’s grace to put the truly important ahead of the personally beneficial.