The Story of Isaac (Genesis chapters 21-28)

This is an overview of the story of Isaac with some commentary.


Isaac’s story starts in Genesis 21 when Sarah is 90 and Abraham is 100. While all of Abraham’s children are entitled to the blessing, the everlasting covenant is made to Sarah’s only son Isaac. Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn through Hagar (Sarah’s maidservant), is 14 when Isaac is born. When Isaac was weaned and Ishmael is bullying him, and Sarah has Hagar and Ishmael put out permanently. Abraham consults with God and God reminded Abraham that things would be good for them because he promised to bless Ishmael back in Genesis 17. Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away with food and water, and when they run out she sets him on his own and hides because she doesn’t want to watch him die of thirst and hunger. God appears and reminds her of his promise to her back in Genesis 16, and shows her an oasis where she and Ishmael are taken care of. There is a flash-forward of the future where Ismael becomes an archer and Hagar gets him a wife from Egypt where she is from and he has 12 sons and becomes the father of the Ishmaelites.

Comment: Ishmael was most likely 19 and Isaac 5 years old when Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away. God told Abraham back in Genesis 15:13 that his seed (Isaac) and his descendants will be persecuted and enslaved for 400 years. In Talmudic tradition, a baby is to be weaned no later than age 5. Paul says in Galatians 3:16-17 that the time from Abraham’s promise (at 75 years old) to the time of Moses’s Exodus (at 80 years old) was 430 years and that 430 years is referenced by Moses in Exodus 12:40 when the Israelites leave Egypt. The difference between 430 and 400 is 30, and since Abraham got the promise at 75 and Isaac was born 25 years later, 5 years later would be 30 years. That would make Isaac 5 years old and Ishmael 19 at the beginning of the Gen 15:13 prophecy of persecution and enslavement for 400 years. The persecution starts with Ishmael vs Isaac, then the Philistines vs Isaac then continues with Esau vs Jacob, then Laban vs Jacob, and lastly Joseph being sold as a slave by his brothers in Egypt. Then when Joseph is 39 and Jacob is 130 all of Israel moves to Egypt and at least 71 years later when Joseph dies at 110, the Israelites are enslaved for another 144 years.

Chapter 22 is the probably most famous event of Isaac’s life, it’s Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. The event starts with God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on a mountain in Moriah. Abraham took Isaac and two servants and a donkey to Moriah, bringing along some freshly chopped firewood. After traveling 3 days Abraham and Isaac separated from the two servants and the donkey. When they got to the mountain, he had Isaac carry the firewood up the mountain while he carried the torch and knife. When Isaac asked where the sacrifice was, Abraham simply said, “the Lord will provide”. At the top, he laid out the wood and tied Isaac to it, and as he was about to kill him, however, God stopped him and revealed a ram in the bush and they sacrificed the ram instead. God applauded Abraham for passing the test and reminded him of the promised blessing. In Hebrews 11:17-19 it says Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead because Isaac must live to fulfill the promise. Afterward, Abraham learns that his brother Nahor has 12 sons (8 from his wife Milcah and 4 from his concubine).

Comment: We don’t know what age Abraham or Isaac was when this happened but would have been old enough and strong enough to carry the firewood up the mountain which could be anywhere from age 10 and up. In the next Chapter, Sarah dies at 127 years old and that would make Abraham 137 and Isaac 37, which then means the sacrifice event happens before Isaac is 37.

Chapter 23 is when Sarah dies at age 127, while they were at Kiriath-arba (now called Hebron), Abraham purchased a cave at Machpelah (near Mamre) owned by Ephron son of Zohar to bury Sarah. This field and the cave became a permeant burial place for Abraham and his immediate descendants.

Chapter 24 takes place 3 years later when Abraham is 140 and Isaac is 40. Abraham sent his oldest servant to go and get a wife for Isaac from amongst his brother Nahor’s offspring. He did not want Isaac to marry the local Canaanite women. So the servant went to Aram-naharaim with a group of men, and 10 camel’s worth of gifts and supplies to pay the bride price and cover the cost of travel. He got to a well and prayed for God to reveal the wife by having her offer water to his camels and then he met Rebekah who came out to get water. He asked her for water, and she gave him some and then offered to water the camels. She reveals that she was the daughter of Bethuel, one of the sons of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. He gave her two bracelets, a nose ring, and a present, and Rebekah went home and told her family. Laban, Rebekah’s brother, came out to meet him and invited the servant and co. to stay with them and took care of his camels. He then explained to the family why he had come, ate with them, and showed them the gifts Abraham sent. Laban and his father Bethuel agreed to give Rebekah to him. However the next day her brother and mother wanted her to stay for more than 10 days before leaving. The servant insisted that he must not be delayed. Rebekah agreed to go and her family blessed her and sent her along with her nursemaid Deborah and some female servants. Isaac at the time was living between Kadesh and Bered at Beer-lahai-roi (the well, named by Hagar when she first ran away). Abraham’s servant brought Rebekah to Isaac. Isaac took her to his mother’s tent and married her.

In Chapter 25, 35 years after Isaac marries his wife, Abraham sends his sons from his 2nd wife Keturah away to the east with gifts and dies at 175 years old leaving everything else to Isaac. Abraham is buried by Isaac and Ishmael in the cave of Machpelah in Hebron with Sarah. This happens when Isaac was 75 and Ishmael was 89, and Jacob and Esau, Isaac’s son, were 15. After ending the saga of Abraham this chapter gives the genealogy of Ishmael and his 12 sons Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. Then Ishmael’s saga is wrapped up here stating that he dies at 137 (48 years after Abraham’s death). Ishmael is the father of the Ishmaelites and they occupied the region from Havilah to Shur, east of Egypt in the direction of Asshur. There they lived in open hostility toward all their relatives.

Then the chapter gives a flashback to 15 years before Abraham’s death, to the time of the birth of Jacob and Esau. Isaac and Rebekah got married when Isaac was 40 and they had no children for 20 years because she was barren. Then when Isaac was 60, he prayed to God for his wife and Rebekah gave birth to twins, Esau and Jacob. While she was pregnant with them they struggled in the womb and when Rebekah ask God about it and he prophesied to her that there will be contention between the two and Jacob would win. Esau was named so, because of his hairy body. Jacob means “heel” or “supplant” because he was holding on to Esau’s heel when Esau was born and it was prophesied he would supplant or replace Esau. The chapter comes back to the present after Abraham’s death and Esau had just come back exhausted and hungry from hunting while Jacob was cooking red lentil stew. Jacob would only give him some if he gave up his birthright, and Esau agreed. Esau didn’t value his birthright much since he gave it up for lentil stew and some bread. Esau’s name would later change to Edom (father of the Edomites) which means red since the stew he traded his birthright for was red, and when he was born his skin was a reddish color. Later on in Genesis 32:22-28, Jacob wrestles with a messenger of God (an angel) and gets the name Israel and it becomes his permanent name from God in Genesis 35:9-10 when returns from Paddam-Aram (where he gets wives) to Bethel wear his father lived.

In Chapter 26, Isaac is at least 75 or older, and famine hits the Negev, and Isaac wanted to move to Egypt, but God warned him not to go to Egypt and to stay in Canaan because that is where he will bless him and his descendants and God reminds him of the promise he made to his father. So Isaac moved to Gerar where King Abimelech of the Philistines ruled. (This King Abimelech is likely the same one from Genesis 20 and 21, making him really old, likely over 100 years old). Isaac repeated the tricks of his father by lying and saying his wife is his sister out of fear that someone would kill him for her. Abimelech caught Isaac caressing Rebekah in an intimate way and scolded Isaac for lying. The king feared that one of the men of Gerar may have tried to marry her, and he made a public decree that no one can harm Isaac or his wife to quell Isaac’s fears. God blessed Isaac that year and made him very rich in crops and livestock. The Philistines were jealous of Isaac and filled up his father’s wells with dirt. Abimelech ordered Isaac to leave because they were afraid he was getting too rich and powerful. So Isaac moves to Gerar valley and found a new well. However, the shepherds from Gerar came to claim it for themselves and Isaac’s shepherds argued with them, Isaac named it Esek meaning “argument”. Isaac’s servants dug another well and the same thing happened and he named that one Sitnah meaning “hostility”. Isaac abandoned Sitnah and dug a third well and no one fought him over it so he called it Rehoboth meaning “open space”, because there was finally enough space for everyone. Isaac then moves to Beersheba where God reminds him of his father’s covenant and the protection and blessing for his descendants that goes with it. Isaac digs a new well and builds an altar there and worships God. Sometime later, Abimelech, his advisor Ahuzzath, and Phicol his commander come to see Isaac and like Abraham in Genesis 21:22-34, he wants to make a covenant with Isaac. In fact, it is basically the same covenant in the same place. Abimelech realized that like his father, Isaac has God’s favor and he doesn’t want to be on God’s bad side. So they have a covenant meal and Isaac agrees to the oath of mutual respect and doing no harm to one another. His servants dig up a new well and he names this one Beersheba (well of the oath) just like Abraham did in that same area back in Genesis 21. Later on, when Esau and Jacob were 40 (and Isaac was 100), Esau married two Hittite women, Judith, the daughter of Beeri, and Basemath, the daughter of Elon, but Rebekah and Isaac did not like them.

Comment: It seems the Philistines initially only respected Abraham’s oath with Abimelech at Beersheba and when he died, they sealed up the wells because they didn’t care for Isaac. God however moved on Isaac’s behalf and gave him the same favor that his father had with the Philistines in Gerar. Ultimately Isaac ended up making the same covenant again with Abimelech.

In Chapter 27, we learn that Esau was a hunter and Isaac was proud of that and this made Esau Isaac’s favorite son. (At this time Esau and Jacob are 77 years old making Isaac 137.) Isaac is starting to go blind, so he figures it time to pass on the blessing before he dies. So one day, he promised to give Esau the blessing if he went out and got him some wild game and made his favorite dish. As Esau went out to do it and Rebekah overheard and came up with a scheme to trick Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing instead. She had Jacob bring her two young goats and she would prepare Isaac’s favorite meal. Jacob is concerned that Isaac will see through the plan and curse him instead because even though he is blind, he will know from feeling Jacob’s skin that he is not his hairy brother Esau. Rebekah says not to worry and that she will take any curse against him from Isaac. She prepared the meal and took hairy goat skins and had Jacob bind them to his arms and neck and then gave Jacob some of Esau’s clothes which smell like the wilderness. Jacob took the meal Isaac pretending to be Esau. At first, Isaac didn’t believe him. He was suspicious because the meal was prepared too quickly and Jacob’s voice didn’t match Esau’s. Jacob said God put the game right in front of him so he got the meat quickly, and the smell of Esau’s clothes along with the textures of the goat hair helped sell Jacob’s lie to the blind Isaac. Isaac ate the meal and gave Jacob the blessing that he would have been Esau’s. The blessing was for “an abundant harvest of grain and new wine from the dew of heaven and richness of the earth, and that he would rule over other nations including his brother, and all who curse him will be cursed and those who bless him will be blessed”. Then shortly afterward, Esau arrived with a freshly cooked game he hunted to get the blessing. Isaac realized what happened and told Esau that Jacob took the blessing, and Esau was bitter and angry at Jacob for tricking him twice. He begged Isaac for a blessing and Isaac gave him a simple blessing that said Esau would “live by the sword and would not inherit the abundance of the dew of heaven or the richness of the earth as Jacob would, and Jacob would rule over him, but Esau would break free eventually”. Esau threatened to kill Jacob after their father died. However, Rebekah had a plan for Jacob to escape to the house of her brother Laban in Haran, until Esau calms down. Rebekah will have him go there under the guise of getting a wife from among her relatives. Then she starts her campaign by complaining about Esau’s Hittite wives to Isaac.

In Chapter 28 Isaac sends Jacob off to Paddan-aram (Haran) to get wives from among Rebekah’s nieces (Laban’s daughters). Esau realized that his father did not approve of his wives after seeing him send Jacob off to get wives from among his cousins, so he went to the Ishmaelites and got Mahalath, Ishmael’s daughter, from her brother Nebaioth.

The end of Isaac’s story:
The rest of Genesis from this point is about Jacob and then Joseph. Isaac is not mentioned again until Genesis 35:27-29 when he dies at 180 years old. Jacob and Esau are 120 when Isaac dies. One note is that at the time Jacob flees to Paddan-Aram to live with Laban, he and Esau are 77 years old. Ishmael died 48 years after Abraham died. Jacob and Esau were 15 when this happen so they were 63 (and Isaac was 123) when Ishmael died. This is why Nebaioth, Ishmael’s oldest son, is mentioned when Esau goes to get a third wife from the Ishmaelites because Ishmael has been dead for 14 years and his oldest son would be the one to give his daughter away to a man for marriage.