Isaac is the promised child of Abraham and Sarah. Yet, his life as described in Genesis seems, well, uninteresting. But, there is a very interesting idea behind what happens--or rather, what doesn't happen--in Isaac's life, and it has to do with to how humanity's relation to God develops through multiple generations, according to the Bible. Coming to learn the personal character of God is a journey, and journey means each step starts from where the previous step ended. And so, each generation begins their journey from where the previous generation ended. How that works and what that means is presented through Isaac's life.
2:42 Those who watched Abraham's life
12:28 What you learn by watching Abraham's life
20:15 Knowing God through time and generations
26:42 Where Isaac begins and his life
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In the Bible, God is the Creator of the cosmos, the One that speaks forth everything that happens, but, God is also called, “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” This is to remind us that God is also the Voice that personally speaks and walks with people—people like Abraham… and Isaac.
Speaking of which, do you know of any stories about Isaac—ones that don’t center on his parents, Abraham and Sarah, or his sons, Jacob and Esau, or his wife, Rebekah? Even those of us who are passably familiar with the Bible—increasingly uncommon demographics nowadays—have trouble with that question. In nearly every story, Isaac plays a secondary role; he is the promised child born late to Abraham and Sarah, the son Abraham brings before God as an offering, the man Rebekah decides to leave home to marry, or the father that Esau and Jacob tries to gain blessing from.
Yet, God that speaks with the Hebrews, the people of Israel, declares that He is the God of Isaac, and not just Abraham or Jacob. So, God’s relationship with Isaac, how Isaac engages with all of reality, is a key exemplar to everyone who seeks to join the journey that the Bible maps out. But, what can we say specifically of Isaac?
Well, it turns out that big things happened in his life too, but, most of them—aside from those that involve his dad, or his sons—didn’t develop into the kind of crisis that make for a memorable story. Isaac’s life is… uneventful. You could even say, “uninteresting.” Then again, there is that expression, which is widely believed to be a curse:
“May you live in interesting times.”
So, perhaps we can say that Isaac was blessed to live in “uninteresting” times. And that in itself hints at a very significant idea that the Jewish and Christian Bible develops in its narratives. Let’s explore what that is in this episode of…
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… "What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs, and everyone in between.
I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our tenth episode of the third season, “Why Isaac’s life seems so uneventful: Where the next generation begins.”
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What would have been like to have lived with Abraham, Sarah, or even Hagar for that matter, and watch what unfolded in their lives?
Now, we tend to project our questions to the stories of Abraham and his family that they themselves, nor the Hebrews who wrote about them, likely did not ask. We ask whether Reality that is all around us can speak with us personally and guide us—which is to say, we ask whether “God” that Christians describe really exists. But, for the ancients, it was taken for granted that “gods” exist and that they spoke to people. Their question was rather “which god is speaking” to whom, and “who does that god favor”?
Which god spoke to you, what domain did they rule over, and how powerful were they? For the ancient Hebrews, it was the Creator of the world that spoke to them, the One that speaks forth all things, ruling over every domain and unfolding all of history. Now, it did take a long time to fully develop this understanding of God—specifically what such a view really means—and this series explored what that was in the first two seasons. But, even in the early days, they would have believed that this ‘god’ ruled over all things and unfolded what happens in their lives. So, then the important question was, “who does this incredibly powerful ‘god’ favor?” Which individuals does this ‘god’ seem to speak with, side with, and bless? Because they are the ones you want to be friends with; they will do well in whatever they do, and things will unfold favorably for them.
Those who watched Abraham would’ve become convinced that Abraham was one such person. Here he was, a foreigner living amidst strangers, separated from the support of his relatives. Yet, he overcame numerous challenges and crises, and became powerful and prosperous. Abraham even testified that “God” that created the world has brought about these things for him. So, people around him would come to the conclusion that a tremendously powerful force, one that unfolds and shapes their world, favored this man and guided him. That is why in a story we skipped over in one previous episode, a local ruler of a people called the Philistines, offer a treaty of friendship with Abraham, saying that “God is with you in everything you do.” [ Btw, this detail is one of the reasons why the scholars believe that the life-story of Abraham and his family in Genesis is a later adaptation of older stories, written for the Hebrews living in a historical period, more than a thousand years later; this is because there were no Philistines living in this region during the time Abraham is to have lived; but, the Philistines were one of the most recognizable neighboring people for the Hebrews who lived in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah a thousand years later. ]
The Philistines in the story though were merely neighbors who watched Abraham from a distance. What about those who had lived with Abraham throughout his journey and saw what happened firsthand? What would that have been like, to live with someone who seems to converse with this ‘god’ that can speak forth and bring about everything that happens, no matter how impossible it seems? There is an example of someone in that position in Genesis. He is a chief servant of Abraham—a steward of his household. He is unnamed in the story, though most interpretations believe that he is a man named Eliezer of Damascus, who Abram mentions to God nearly twenty years before Isaac is born, as someone who will have to inherit his house because he does not have a child. But, God fulfilled the promise to Abraham and Sarah, and they have a son in their old age. Eventually, Sarah dies, after seeing her son grow into adulthood, and Abraham, stricken with grief, buries her in a small cave on a field he bought from one of the local residents. Then, a few years later, Abraham wants to ensure that his son has a family of his own. His son, Isaac, is at this point reported to be 40 years old, and in the Bible, 40 years often represents the full length for a single generation to grow into maturity. Simply put, Isaac needs to marry; back in those days though, marriage was almost always something your parents set up, because it was a matter that involved the entire families, rather than just individuals. So, Abraham calls his chief servant, the oldest of his house—likely Eliezer—and instructs him to find a wife for his son. He tells him to travel to the land Abraham once lived, before he followed God’s call. There, around the city of Haran, somewhere between today’s Syria and Turkey, he is to meet up with Abraham’s relatives still living there, and find his son’s wife among them.
Why go to his relatives? Why not find a wife among the local people? Well, later stories in Genesis suggest that the cultural difference between the Semitic people Abraham belonged to, and the local people inhabiting this land, together called the “Canaanites,” were sources of interpersonal conflicts. But, there was likely also the concern that marrying one of the locals would lead to them becoming absorbed into that people, losing their identity. There may be a wider thematic issue as well; what I mean is, in the Bible, the Canaanite nations represent idolatry, immorality, and injustice in our human societies—rather like to the civilization that is destroyed in the Flood. I say, “represent,” because Abraham’s neighbors themselves are often portrayed positively in Genesis, such as the Philistine king who made a treaty with Abraham, or Melchizedek, the priest-king of God who created the cosmos, who Abraham gave a tenth of all he owned. So, this aversion to have his son marry a local may be an allusion to the future conflicts between the people of Israel and the Canaanites, which were understood in spiritual terms. But, all of this is for a future season, quite some time away, and none of these concerns us now.
What we’re interested in for this episode is what the servant, Eliezer, did. He takes ten camels, laden with expensive gifts —the camels, again, is another one of those anachronistic thing in the story that suggests this is a later adaptation—and he travels to a town in that region. But, upon reaching that town, he seems to be at a loss as to how to go about fulfilling his master’s charge. How will he meet up with his master’s relatives, whose exact whereabouts are unknown? And if he does, will he find a proper wife for his young master, who will be willing to travel to a foreign land with him? So, he decides to pray—and it’s an interesting prayer.
He stands by the town well in the evening when the young women come to draw water. Then, he prays: “O LORD, God of my master Abraham, please give me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. See, I am standing here by the spring, and the young women in the town are coming out to draw water. Let the one to whom I’ll say, ‘Please give me some of your water to drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels too’—let her be the one whom you’ve appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”
So, he basically asks God to bring the right person to him. He asks God to unfold a very particular set of events, which he will recognize as God responding to his prayers. And the conditions he sets forth is quite difficult, though carefully considered. Drawing water from a well is hard work, so the young woman would likely be quite kind to readily offer some stranger the water she just drew, even with the cultural expectation to take care of guests. But, he asks for more; she will freely, without being asked, offer to water the camels too. Now, camels are known to be able to go without water for a long time, which is why they are so well suited to traversing across the desert. One of the reasons they can do this, is that they can drink, a lot, if they need to—we’re talking about upward of hundreds of liters, though probably not in this case. That means she’d be volunteering to do a long, grueling physical labor on his behalf. So, what he is asking for is very, very unlikely, where the first woman he will speak to, will offer to do this.
Before he even finishes speaking, a particularly attractive young woman catches his eye. So, he asks her for a drink, and she not only offers him water, but freely waters his camels too. And he carefully watches her to see if this is God responding to his prayers, and when she is finished, he thanks her by gifting her with gold rings and bracelets, and asks who she is. It turns out that her name is Rebekah, and she is the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother, Nahor. Eliezer, awestruck, worships God, saying, “Blessed be the LORD, God of my master, Abraham, who has not abandoned his steadfast love, and He has led me to the house of my master’s relatives!”
He visits her house, meets with her father Bethuel, and her brother, Laban, and tells them his story. They agree that this is from the LORD, and Rebekah in turn agrees to travel with him to marry Isaac.
And this is how Rebekah came to be Isaac’s wife.
[ pendulum ]
In one of the classes I took as an undergrad student at the University of Toronto, I remember my psychology professor, Jordan Peterson, excitedly telling us about the recent studies of “mirror neurons,” which were found in primates—and as it later turns out, in some birds, and humans. So, a mirror neuron is a kind of neurons in the brain that activates both when an animal performs an action, and when an animal observes that same action performed by another animal. So, for example, these neurons would activate when you catch a ball, but also when you watch someone else catch the ball. That’s where the name, “mirror neuron,” comes from; the neuron “mirrors” the action of others, so that it’s as if the one who’s watching is also doing that same action. This has led to a number of theories on what these neurons are really doing, but one prominent idea is that when we watch someone do something, we are in a sense going through a “simulation” in our minds, of us doing the same thing.
Now, debates are still ongoing as to the possible functions of these neurons, but I bring it up because it is a physiological correlate to what all of us already experienced; we can go through an action in our mind when we watch others do it. We see someone effortlessly snatch a ball in the air, and we imagine us doing it. Of course, the thing is, we can sometimes go, “Yeah, I can do that!” and later find to our embarrassment that it’s not at all as easy as we’ve imagined, as the ball bounces off our hands. Or perhaps that’s just me. But still, having seen someone do something does make it much easier to perform that same thing. That’s why there’s so many “how to,” videos on YouTube.
For all his life, Eliezer has watched Abraham—how he engaged with the world around him; how he was able to converse with the One that unfolded everything that happens in his life. And Eliezer followed Abraham’s example when he was given the daunting task to find a wife for his master’s son. He prayed and expected a—if not impossible, at least remarkably unlikely—set of events to unfold and guide him.
And this leads us to a distinctive feature of Jewish and Christian worldviews. Now, I say distinctive, because I don’t think it’s unique, but it is more prominent and noticeable in comparison to other major world religions or philosophies. And it’s about how its key tenets are presented in its central texts. Here’s what I mean: most such texts tend to consist primarily of verbal teachings of some sort; it could be records of oral teachings, like the Sutras in Buddhism, or the Confucian Analects; it could be poetry and mystical reflections, as found in the Hindu Vedas; it could be some direct divine revelation, such as the Quran in Islam; or it may even be philosophical discourse found in parts of Hindu Upanishads, or the Daoist texts, or, say the Platonic Dialogues in Greek philosophy. Now, the Bible has those also, such as the Ten Commandments Moses receives, the Wisdom literature, or Jesus’s sermons in the Gospels. But, a surprisingly large number of its books consist primarily of narratives: stories about people’s lives, often without clearly stated moral or spiritual teachings. They simply describe how people lived, what they did, and what happened to them, which is to say, about how their lives engaged with Reality—with God that speaks forth all things. And if you remember, we considered why the Bible might be doing this in previous episodes—most recently in the 7th episode of this season. What is more striking though is that whatever is learned through these lives are transmitted to other people, not primarily through teachings, but by having them witness what happens. And in doing so, it seems, they indirectly live through the same things.
In the case of Eliezer, he witnessed how God unfolded seemingly impossible things in his master’s life to fulfill the promise God has made to him. So, he prays for the same thing—that God will unfold what will happen, so that he will find a wife for his master’s son, which will sustain God’s promise that Abraham will have descendants. But, for Eliezer, his relation to God depended on what he saw as God’s special relation to his master. He was a participant, but still by and large, a bystander. It was different for Isaac though; he was Abraham’s heir, the one who will inherit that relationship.
Isaac would have grown up with a sense that his very life was something extraordinary. He would have heard many, many times how impossible his birth was, and how it was something that God brought about to fulfill His promise with his father, Abraham. He very likely heard the stories of the long journey that his parents had taken, how God called them from a faraway land, and how they were led by God throughout their lives. And what he heard would have been constantly visible to him. He would have seen that his parents were much older than other children’s parents, and in fact, older even than their grandparents. The very place he lived, his current home, would be due to their journey with God. His everyday life, and even his very existence, would have been a constant reminder of what God has spoken to his parents.
Then, there was that one time when God called his father to present him as an offering. We explored what this disquieting call meant for Abraham in the previous episode. But, what did it mean for Isaac? Now, the Bible does not say how old he was when this happened. It happened before Sarah’s death when Isaac was around 37 years old, and some interpretations suggest that Sarah died of shock from hearing what Abraham did. I find that unconvincing though, since Genesis quite readily describe Sarah’s thoughts and reactions whenever it was about her son, such as how she advised Abraham to get a surrogate to bear a child for her, or her laughter hearing that she herself will bear a son, or her later insistence that Ishmael cannot remain as Abraham’s heir. But, there is nothing whatsoever about how she responded to Abraham’s offering of Isaac. So, I don’t think she knew about this at all. At any rate, we are trying to place Isaac’s age when he was offered to God—and I don’t think he was a small child then either. He was old enough to follow his father climb up a small mountain, and he was old enough to realize there is wood and fire for the offering, but not the sacrificial animal; he likely was carrying some of the wood too, since it’d have been difficult for Abraham to hold the fire in one hand, and carry all the wood with him on the other; remember, there were no lighters or matches—he’d be carrying a torch or a firepot.
What I am trying to suggest is that everything in that story points to Isaac being at least old enough to reflect on, if not comprehend, the significance of what Abraham had gone through, and what it meant for his father to see that God indeed provided a ram for him as he had hoped and believed—what all of that meant for God’s lifelong promise to his parents. Isaac witnessed all this, and this meant he had the opportunity to imagine himself in their position, and in a sense, simulate their faith journey in his mind.
And this leads to the second part of that distinctive feature in how Jewish and Christian understand what it is to come to know God.
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Mircea Eliade, a 20th century scholar of religion whose works form part of the paradigm of the academic discipline of religious studies to this day, described this idea of “sacred time” that is found in cultures and ancient religions across the world. “Sacred time,” according to Eliade, is separate from normal and linear historical time in which we live, though it is usually believed to be some sort of primordial time at the beginning. So, events in myths, for example, such as the creation of the world, or the primordial battle against the monsters of chaos, or the appearance of the first human being, and so on, take place in this separate—and sort of transcendent—timeline. Obviously, we won’t be able to go through even a short summary of his overall position, which is extensive, but what is of interest for us here is that whatever is “sacred” or “divine” happens in this “sacred time,” and not in the linear march of historical time. Yet, the “sacred” is what is truly real and valuable—the origin of things—and so, according to Eliade, it is more or less humanity’s universal religious impulse to move ourselves beyond our mundane historical time in which we live, and return to this transcendent, sacred time, through re-enacting what happens there in rituals and by reciting mythical narratives.
I bring this up because it sort of fits some aspects of Christianity. Christians do re-enact the events in the Bible—especially the Gospels—in its religious liturgies, for example. And it can be argued that the “primeval history” portion of Genesis fits the description of “sacred time” by and large. But, Eliade himself acknowledged that his general account about “sacred time” have notable exceptions, especially in regard to major religious traditions that remain to this day. One of these is how the Abrahamic religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, affirm that history—mundane, linear history—is sacred, or can become sacred. As this series would put it, God speaks forth normal, historical time—and that is why Christianity’s most important events are historical; the events in the Gospel of Jesus, for example, is reported to have taken place in history, 2000 years ago in a the land of Judea under the rule of the Roman Empire, and even partially and indirectly corroborated in the records outside the Bible, written by people living in those days. For the Abrahamic religions, all of history and its events, and not just sacred and transcendent events described in myths, are what God speaks forth and unfolds.
But, there is something more to this understanding of historical time in Abrahamic faiths, which is connected with that distinctive feature of Christianity I’ve raised earlier—of how its understanding of God that speaks personally with us is formed in the Bible through the life-stories of people, which is then, often passed down to the next generation by having them witness what happened. Why is this significant? Well, in Eliade’s general account, the near-universal religious intuition is that ultimately, there is no such thing as progress, at least in regard to what is “sacred.” After all, whatever is “sacred” is outside normal, linear march of historical time that is constantly moving from our past to our future; we need to instead return to the ideal, original state of things that exist in that primordial time, again, by re-enacting what happens there through rituals and such. Yet, in the Bible, especially from the account of Abraham’s family and onward, humanity’s relationship with God unfolds through the life-stories of people, living in history, over multiple generations. It is an inter-generational journey, and a journey with a destination can make progress. Yesterday you were 100 km away from Toronto, and after walking all day, you are about 50 km away today, and you hope to arrive tomorrow. Likewise, according to the Bible, humanity can make progress in their relationship with God—for example, we can come to a greater understanding of the personal character of God, or more precisely, God can reveal more of Himself to people. Our relationship with God is not quite about returning to some pristine original state; it is a journey, and journey means that each step adds something to the previous step.
Thus, in the Bible, people of God do not merely encounter God as a blank slate, nor are they simply taught some timeless, primordial truths. Each generation begins from where the previous generation left off. And so, God declares to Isaac later in his life that he is the God of his father, Abraham, and years later, God declares to Isaac’s son, Jacob, that he is the God of Abraham and Isaac. Then, many generations later, God declares to Moses that he is the God of his fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And this is declaring more than just that God that is speaking to them right now is the one that also spoke to their ancestors. This declaration points back to what God has spoken and brought about in the past, during the lives of the previous generation, including the still ongoing promises made to them. God speaks to Moses because God promised Jacob that his descendants will one day be freed from Egypt; God speaks Jacob because God made a promise with Abraham and Isaac.
And God speaking to Isaac begins from everything that was established in the life of Abraham. That means Isaac’s life and his relationship with God will not be a simple repetition of Abraham’s relationship with God and what happened to him. Isaac begins with everything God spoke and unfolded in his father’s life, and how that shaped his character. He had watched, reflected, and in part, “simulated” his parents’ faith journey before he comes to inherit his father’s legacy and leads his household.
That is where he starts. And that is what makes his life seem… uneventful to us.
[ pendulum ]
Abraham dies, at a very old age. He actually gets together with another woman, named Keturah, after Sarah’s death, and they have some children together. We don’t know who Keturan is from the brief description of this last portion of Abraham’s life; there is a traditional Jewish position that this is another name for Hagar, because another book in the Bible, Chronicles, seems to suggest that Abraham had one concubine, and also, the descendants of Hagar’s son, Ishmael, and Keturah’s children, are reported to live in the same area. If so, Abraham got back together with Hagar. But again, this is just one view among others, since there just isn’t enough details in the story. Anyway, Abraham dies and Ishmael, his son, comes to Isaac, and the two brothers place their father in the cave where Sarah was buried.
Then, the following events happen in Isaac’s life.
First, they remain childless for about twenty years, according to Genesis, and it turns out that Rebekah is barren. So, Isaac prays for her, and she becomes pregnant, and gives birth two sons, Esau and Jacob. We’ll get to know them more next episode. Then, there is a famine in the land. But, God speaks to Isaac, reiterating the promise made to his father, Abraham, saying that he will have as many descendants as the stars in the sky, who will one day inherit the land he now lives, and that the entire world will become blessed through his lineage. And God speaks that he should remain in this land during the famine and not go down to Egypt. So, Isaac and his family stays in that land, and soon, he becomes fearful that because his wife, Rebekah, is so beautiful, others might try to kill him to take her for themselves. So, he lies to the neighboring people that she is her sister. But, one day, the ruler of that land catches sight of them in their romantic moment, and realizes that she is his wife, and after reprimanding him for the lying, decrees that anyone who tries to harm either Isaac or Rebekah will be put to death. So, Isaac becomes very prosperous and wealthy in that land until that ruler comes over and offers a treaty of friendship, saying, “we can clearly see that the LORD is with you in everything you do.”
Did you notice? These are more or less the exact events his father Abraham went through—his wife unable to have children, the famine in the land, the threat of powerful people taking his wife from him, and his eventual prosperity and treaty. But, we kind of blazed through them all. That’s because, as I said earlier, it is not a simple repetition of what happened. Abraham and Sarah had to pioneer these difficulties, experiencing and coming to know God that is speaking to them, step by step, and sometimes second- guessing what God seems to have spoken. So, they move to Egypt during the famine, and decide to get a surrogate to have their child, which led to Ishmael. Isaac skips all of that. The central and life-long struggle of his father, to have a child God promised, is resolved in his generation with a single sentence: “he prayed to the LORD… and the LORD granted his prayer.”
This is because Isaac begins from where his father, Abraham arrived in his journey. And though it’s easy to miss, there is an underlying, unshakeable confidence that seem to flow within him— well, aside from his father-like lapse when he lies about his wife, but even that was resolved before anything happened—confidence that God is with whatever he tries, and God will provide.
One, rather rare story that centers on him is about how he digs a well and finds water, and people around him become jealous and claims that the well belongs to them. Now, digging for a well is hard work, requiring a lot of labor and time; and you can’t just dig anywhere and find a spring of groundwater that can supply your entire household and flocks. So, digging for a new well would have been about as risky, if not more, as say, opening a new business in our time. And what is worse is that this happens after the ruler of the land he lived in, evicts his entire family, saying he has grown too powerful and wealthy that he is now considered a threat by his neighbors. But, Isaac decides to let the other people take his new well. He goes elsewhere and digs a new one and finds water. Yet, another group of people claims that the well should be theirs. So, he moves even further away where no one was around, digs a well, and again, finds water. Then, God speaks to him, saying, “Don’t be afraid. I am with you.” That is the point when that ruler who evicted him, comes to him and offers him a treaty of friendship.
It seems to me that Isaac’s embodies what he witnessed when his father, Abraham, found a ram that would substitute his life as an offering, and confessed, “The LORD will provide.” And since then, Isaac knew that God will provide, and God will uphold the promise to his father and to him. That, I believe, is his seeming confidence and ease underlying how he freely lets other take his hard work, only to reap something even greater—or how he is able to listen to God and stay during a famine and prosper, or perhaps, how he simply prays until Rebekah becomes able to have a child.
[ Genesis music ]
But, Life does not always present us with the same problems and challenges. Isaac seems to breeze through the grounds his parents, Abraham and Sarah, once traveled. Yet, he is blind—and I use that term specifically because in the story, he physically becomes blind—to a new problem that emerges in his generation.
Isaac was the only inheritor of God’s promise to his father. He grew up as the sole heir to Abraham, the only son to his mother, Sarah. He never had to ask, whether he would be blessed by God. He heard he was, he saw that he was, and knew that he was. But, it would be different for the generation that would follow him. Rebekah had a twin; Esau and Jacob. What God would speak to them, and what He would unfold before them would be untrodden and unknown, and he would be unable to see what would happen between them.
[ ending music ]
So, please join me next time as we explore the lives of Isaac’s son, Jacob, who would eventually be named, “Israel,” meaning “Those who wrestle with God.”
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