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by Keith Megilligan
There is a certain chain-linked relationship which the early patriarchs inherited. The Old Testament reference to the three founders of Israel is almost formulaic. “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” is the standard form of reference. This reference is spoken of with reverence and almost in prayer-like intonation. The foundation of the phrase has its roots in the blessing that Isaac places upon Jacob while invoking the God of Abraham (Genesis 28:1-5). But the pivotal passage would probably be Exodus 2:24 where God remembers the covenantal relationship that he had with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. However from this Scriptural point forward, Isaac would always be the “middle man!” But how does this look, this middle man position of Isaac’s?
Of all the biblical characters of the Old Testament of which books have been written, I doubt seriously that a book on the life of Isaac would even make the top ten. Of his father and his son (Abraham and Jacob), much has been written. The former is marked as a man of faith, the father of his nation, etc. The latter is often seen as the deceiving progenitor of the twelve tribes who would produce the foundation for the nation of Israel. So, where does that leave Isaac?
There is quiet news, good news and some surprising news when it comes to Isaac. Let’s start with the quiet news. I use the word quiet to describe Isaac because there is little recorded of his speaking in Genesis. His entrance, of course, is significant – almost miraculous. He is the child of promise. Though Abraham and Sarah had tried to force the issue of having children so they might see the blessings of the multitudes God had promised, it ended in mitigated sorrow. God’s sovereignty was not to be outdone, however. When he came to announce the birth and arrival of the promised son, he caught Sarah in an embarrassing response. She laughed and God heard her. And then the embarrassment came. God asked her why she laughed; she denied it and He called her on it! The result was that God named the promised son for her and Abraham. He named the yet-to-be-born son, “Laughter (or, “he laughs),” for that is the Hebrew translation of Isaac (Genesis 18:9-15). From then on, whenever Sarah would call her son, there would be a not so subtle rebuke to her own soul as she spoke the name of Isaac: calling “Laughter.” From Isaac’s point of view, perhaps there was a bit of personal encouragement in having such a name – surely it would bring an occasional smile to himself and others. And in fairness, this was the desire of Sarah’s heart as well after Isaac was born (Genesis 21:6, 7).
Now while it is true that Abraham had also laughed when he first heard the news that he was to have a son (Genesis 17:17-19), Abraham’s circumstances were different. The first time God had made the promise of a son of Abraham’s old age, the Lord was not taken back by Abraham’s response (of laughter). Instead, He laid out the covenantal nature of his promised son. From the New Testament another interesting biblical anecdote is provided for us in the announcement of the birth of Jesus and Mary’s stunned reply (Luke 1:34-38). Put that response over against Zechariah’s reply to the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth (Luke 1:18-22). His astonishment is viewed as a lack of faith resulting in his mute judgment. Zechariah surely had knowledge of Abraham and Sarah’s history with Isaac. Thus he should have responded with more expectation than doubt. But, Mary had no such precedence. Her response was “acceptable” to the angel and the Lord.
Isaac was circumcised on the eighth day following his birth. The next generation of the initial covenant to Abraham was marked by this act of obedience. (But see also the element of faith related to circumcision vs. uncircumcision in Romans 4:9-18.) The confluence of Isaac being a child of the old man, the fulfillment of promise of God regarding Abraham’s progeny, and the testing of Abraham’s faith regarding his son (Genesis 22), were all causes for strong emotional ties between this elder patriarch and his son. Some of the quiet news regarding Isaac takes place during the Mt. Moriah incident. Abraham is quietly obedient and Isaac is quietly submissive. Not once do you get the idea that Isaac was protesting his personal offering as a sacrifice. The evidence of this bond, co-mingled with Isaac’s quiet demeanor, comes to the forefront when Abraham gives his trusted servant instructions about obtaining a bride for his son. The action is at Abraham’s initiation and direction. But the culmination shows the tender heart of Isaac as he is “comforted” over the death of his mother with the advent of a bride in his life (Genesis 24).
This “good news” for Isaac lays the foundation for good news for us as well. Genesis 21:12, Romans 9:7, and Hebrews 11:18 open our eyes a bit to this good news. The Genesis passage reads (in part) “…in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called.” Romans 9:7, “Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called.” The Hebrews passage reads: “Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called.”
The primary passage of record is Genesis 21:12. The other New Testament passages provide divine commentary and exegesis for us as to how the primary passage should be understood. Both Paul in Romans and the author of Hebrews put the calling of the descendants of Abraham/Isaac in the context of faith – each with slightly different detail.
The point to draw from the Genesis passage is the distinction that the Lord made to Abraham between his two sons. He was told not to worry about the son of Hagar; God would make a nation of him. Instead take special note of his son of promise, Isaac. From him will come Abraham’s descendants (his seed; the Hebrew text in Genesis 21:12, 13 is zera = seed), and, more pointedly, the promised seed of Messiah. The personal pronoun is used to distinguish Isaac’s descendants from that of his half-brother, i.e. “your seed/descendants.” Interestingly, in this whole narrative of Genesis 21 about the two sons of Abraham, only Isaac is referred to by name. Ishmael is simply referred to as “the lad, the boy,” “son of Hagar” or “her son.” The good news is that when God makes a promise, He keeps it! The son of promise, Isaac, becomes the “seed” through which the Messiah would come. The One in whom rests our salvation and eternal life.
In Romans 9:7, the Holy Spirit is directing Paul to emphasize that the children who come from Abraham/Isaac are the ones through whom his “seed be called.” This is where the “surprise” comes. Paul makes a distinction here, not only between the two sons, but also between Abraham and Isaac.
There is a distinction made about who should be considered Israel. “For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: “Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children…” (Romans 9:6b-7a).
Both the Hebrew text (of Genesis 21:12) and the LXX (Septuagint – Greek translation of OT Hebrew text) use their respective words for “seed.” Likewise, Paul uses the New Testament Greek word for seed. The linguistic emphasis is a bit stronger than using the word “descendant” or the like. It appears to emphasize a certain “direct” connection between the generations. Further, Paul plays off the use of sperma against tekna (Greek translated “children”) in Romans 9:7 and following.
Paul (and the author of Hebrews, each following the writing of Moses in Genesis 21:12) states the reason Isaac is important is, 1) he is the son of promise, 2) as the son of promise his genealogical line is the line that is blessed by covenant, 3) his seed will be the one from which the nations of the world will be blessed (Genesis 15, 17, 21:12, 22:16-18).
As the son of promise/covenant, he was the first male offspring to be circumcised after God entered into the covenant with Abraham. The synthesis is stated in Romans 9:8, “…That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” Isaac became the first child of the children of promise that would come from Abraham.
Abraham is given another distinction in this matter of genealogy. In Romans 4:17, Paul quotes Moses in Genesis 17:5: “…a father of many nations have I made thee.” God grants the patriarch a promotion: Abram becomes Abraham. The reason being, the Lord will make of him a “father of many nations.” And, the reality is just that. Abraham and Hagar have Ishmael through whom comes twelve tribes and a great nation of people (Genesis 17:20). Following that comes the son of promise, Isaac, then Jacob, the “son of promise” instead of Esau, Genesis 28:13-14, and finally the twelve tribes who make up the nation of Israel. However, it is with Isaac, not Ishmael, that God establishes his covenant (17:21). Abraham becomes the “father” of many nations. Indeed today, Christians, Jews and Muslims each look to Abraham as their progenitor, “Father.” However the son of promise, Isaac, becomes the “father” of all Jewish people who embrace the promise (of Messiah), the true Israel, Jews who believe in Jesus, as opposed to those who are not true Israel, Jews who don’t believe in Jesus as Messiah. As Paul says in Romans 9:8, ”That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.”
Physical heritage is not important. What is important? A person’s spiritual relationship! This is the distinction being made in Romans 9:6-8! Being born Jewish does not please God. Following in the path of Isaac is what is needed. “Concerning the flesh Messiah came…” (Romans 9:5) speaks of the Jewish lineage of Jesus. But, the lesson of Isaac, is that he is the progenitor of Messiah and those who recognize and follow Messiah “are counted for the seed,” “the children of God.”