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ISAAC , or, in Hebrew, Yitsaq; the second of the biblical patriarchs and the only son of Abraham and Sarah. Although not known from elsewhere, the name Yitsaq conforms to a well-known Northwest Semitic type and means "may God smile"; Ugaritic texts from the thirteenth century bce refer to the benevolent smile of the Canaanite god El. The Bible, however, ascribes the laughter to Isaac's mother, who was amazed to learn that she would have a child despite her advanced age.

Isaac is the only patriarch whose name was not changed. The Bible treats him primarily as Abraham's son or the father of Jacob and Esau. He was the first ancestor of the Israelites to be circumcised on his eighth day in accordance with God's command (Gn. 17:12). At an unspecified age he was taken to be sacrificed in order to test Abraham's faithfulness; however, Isaac himself did little except ask why his father had not brought an animal for the offering. His later marriage to Rebecca, a cousin, was arranged by Abraham and provided comfort to Isaac after his mother's death. In his old age, Isaac was deceived into giving Jacob the blessing intended for the older Esau.

Isaac's only independent actions are found in Genesis 26, in which he tells King Abimelech that Rebecca is his sister, a story reminiscent of one told twice about Sarah and Abraham. The same chapter mentions his involvement in agricultural activities and his resolution of a dispute over water rights between his shepherds and those of Abimelech. Isaac died at the age of 180 and was buried alongside Rebecca at Machpelah.

Postbiblical Jewish interpretations focus largely on the story of Abraham's intended sacrifice of Isaac, called the ʿaqedah ("binding"), and often elaborate his role beyond the biblical description. According to one version he actually died and was then revived. Christian tradition, perhaps attested as early as the writings of Paul (Rom. 8:32), views this incident as prefiguring the Crucifixion. Paul contrasted Isaac, representing Christianity, with Ishmael, the rejected older son who symbolizes Judaism (Gal. 4:2130).


An excellent survey of modern scholarly insights into the patriarchal narratives is Nahum M. Sarna's Understanding Genesis (New York, 1966). Rabbinic legends are collected in Louis Ginzberg's The Legends of the Jews, 2d ed., 2 vols., translated by Henrietta Szold and Paul Radin (Philadelphia, 2003). Shalom Spiegel's The Last Trial, translated by Judah Goldin (New York, 1967), summarizes a vast array of postbiblical legends pertaining to the binding of Isaac (Gn. 22).

Frederick E. Greenspahn (1987 and 2005)

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