Genesis 21:1-12, 22:1-18, 24:62-67, 25: 19-21, 26: 1-33, 27: 1-40, 35:27-29
Galatians 4:21-31 Hebrews. 11:9, 17-20.
1. Where was Isaac born, where did he die, and where was he buried?
2. In which way was Isaac a symbol of Christ?
3. What are the lessons to be drawn from Isaac’s life to help us in our spiritual and moral life?
A superficial study of the Scriptures does not help us to consider Isaac as one of the main Bible characters because he came, chronologically speaking, between two of the giants of faith and life with God, namely, his father Abraham and his son Jacob. Each of these two men would overshadow the character of Isaac who, despite his special position in the family, was exposed to the persecution of Ishmael since his childhood (Gal. 4:29). When his father was about to sacrifice him, he did not resist or object. He had no say in choosing a wife; he was keen on maintaining peace with his neighbors, the Canaanites, even at the expense of loosing some of his rights. In giving the blessing to his first born son, Esau, Rebekah was able by her guile to take away the blessing to her favored son Jacob. Whereas Abraham and Jacob made long trips to many regions of the world known at that time, Isaac’s life did not go beyond a limited region of Canaan to the west of the Dead Sea.
Nevertheless, Isaac carried the torch of faith that he received from Abraham and handed it over to his sons and grandsons. He was worthy of God’s repeated testimony, “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exod. 3:6,15,16). The importance of Isaac to the history of salvation relates to the coming of Christ from his lineage, and to Isaac being a symbol (or “type” that prefigure things to come) of Christ. Also, Isaac was an example of the faithful man who lived with God a life of faith, offering love to everyone and peace to his enemies.
Isaac: a symbol of Christ in his sacrifice
The liturgical fraction, the Sacrifice of Isaac, usually read on Great Thursday of the Holy Pascha in Coptic Churches, summarizes in few words the similarities between the sacrifice of Isaac and the sacrifice on the cross. The fraction gives an account of the story as written in the Old Testament, and then adds:
(1) “The sacrifice of Isaac was a symbol of shedding the blood of the Son of God on the cross for the salvation of the world;
(2) As Isaac carried the wood of the burnt offering, Christ carried the cross;
(3) Isaac returned safe, and likewise Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to His saintly disciples”.
Because the symbols of the Old Testament were miniatures that could not be as perfect as their fulfillment in the New Testament, particularly when they refer to God Himself, we see (in the symbol) that God’s compassion was such that at the last moment He would not let Abraham sacrifice his son, saying, “Do not lay hand on the lad or do anything to him” (Gen. 22:12), but as for the cross (the fulfillment), the scripture says, “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all” (Ro. 8:32).
Isaac and the life of prayer and meditation
+ “Now that Isaac had come from Beer-Lahai-roi, and was dwelling in Negeb. And Isaac went out to meditate in the field in the evening;” (Gen. 24:62,63).
+ “After the death of Abraham God blessed Isaac his son. And Isaac dwelt at Beer-Lahai-roi (Gen. 25:11).
The Bible does not provide details that are meaningless or of no value to our spiritual life. The name ‘Lahai-roi’ means ‘vision’. Origen, the Christian theologian and scholar, said that all the blessing God gave to Isaac was his dwelling at Beer-Lahai-roi, and that the blessing of dwelling at Beer-roi is a great blessing for who may understand it. Origen then, after citing a number of visions witnessed by holy men in the OT, such as Jacob’s vision in Bethel which he described saying,“This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen. 28:17), as well as the visions of Isaiah (Is. 1:1), and Nahum (Na. 1:1), went on to say, “But as of Isaac, he was considered worthy of the blessing of dwelling at the well of vision, i.e. Beer-Lahai-roi.” Origen added that, “such a blessing can be received by everyone whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and on His Law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:2).
From the little we know about Isaac, we realize that prayer was a main theme in his life and that he depended on prayer in solving his problems, for example, when he prayed for Rebekah his wife who was barren and she conceived Esau and Jacob (Gen. 25:21).
Isaac followed the example of his father Abraham. Wherever he went, Isaac built an altar for the Lord and pitched his tent there (Gen. 26:25). He was always guided by the Lord who appeared to him several times, comforting and blessing him. When there was a famine in Canaan and Isaac had to depart, the angel of God appeared to him and prevented him from going to Egypt, and advised him to go to Gerar (which lies just few miles from the city of Gaza) (Gen. 26:1-6). When he left Gerar and went to Beer-Sheba, the Lord appeared to him again (Gen. 26:23-25).
Isaac and the ‘water wells’
Wells in the Bible symbolize God’s word, and with this in mind Origen1 was able to point to the spiritual allusions of the skirmishes between Isaac and the people of Gerar, which drove him to live in the valley out of Gerar, and ultimately moved out of all this region to Beer-Shebe.
First, “And Isaac dug again the wells of water which had been dug in the days of Abraham his father; for the Philistines had stopped them after the death of Abraham; and he gave them the names which his father had given them” (Gen. 26:18). Origen considered that the Philistines, who neither knew the value of wells or of water and so stopped them, refer to the scribes and Pharisees ‘who followed the Law literally and profaned the waters of the Holy Spirit’. He noted the objection of the Pharisees when the disciples began to pluck ears of corn to eat on the Sabbath, whereas the Lord defended them by quoting the story of David who, when hungry, ate the showbread which was allowed only for the priests, and by reminding them of the prophet’s words, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Mt. 12:2-4,7; Hos. 6:6). Here Isaac symbolizes Christ who does not insist on the letter of the Law, but rather draws from it the moral lesson of mercy. There is also the spiritual meaning; as Isaac dug again the old wells which had been dug by Abraham, so also our Savior used the books of the Old Testament rather than repeal them, He used the same names that the Books had before (Gen. 26:18), and furthermore, “He opened their (i.e. the disciples’) understanding, that they might comprehend the scriptures” (Lk. 24:45). But as for those who did not wish to see water in their wells, Jesus said, “See, your house is left to you desolate” (Mt. 23:38).
Second, “Isaac’s servants digged in the valley and found there a well of springing water” (Gen. 26:19). Origen likens Isaac’s servants who dug the new wells called by different names to the Christ’s disciples who wrote the books of the New Testament named after them. But those whose minds are set on earthly things (Phi 3:19) also quarrel over the new wells and oppose the Gospel.
Third, After the Philistines strove for the two new wells, Isaac dug a third well and “over that they did not quarrel; so he called its name Rehoboth, saying, ‘For now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land” (Gen. 26:22). Likewise, the disciples and apostles, the servants of the new Isaac, roamed all over the world digging wells of springing water, preaching the Word of God and baptizing all the faithful. But the old nation, who could not drink from the springing water of the Word of God, were destined to the fulfillment of the prophecy of Amos, “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord God, ‘when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11).
Before closing his sermon on the ‘wells’, Origen directs his words to all listeners, because the purpose of God’s words is for every soul to meet Christ. Origen says that in every human being there is a well of springing water which is God’s image created in us. But the powers of the darkness (denoted in the Bible as the Philistines) covered those wells with dust, and so “we have borne the image of the man of dust” (1Co. 15:49). But now that the new Isaac came to us, we have to re-dig our wells and purify them of dirt and evil thoughts until we find the running water. Thus, we may qualify for the words of Solomon’s proverbs, “Drink water from your own cistern (well), flowing water from your own well … Let your fountain be blessed” (Pro. 5:15-18).
To maintain his peace of mind, Isaac left Gerar and lived in Beer-Sheba, his birthplace in the southern part of Canaan, where he stayed for a while. Then he went back to Hebron, the place of his childhood, and sojourned until God called upon him to receive the true promise in “the city which has foundations” (Heb. 11:9-10; Gen. 35:27-29). His two sons Jacob and Esau buried him in the cave of Mach-phelah where Abraham, Sarah, and Rebekah were buried.
1 – See: ‘The Fathers of the Church’, Vol. 71; Origen’s sermon # 13 in his commentary on Genesis. Origen delivered these sermons at the City of Caesarea in Palestine around 240 A.D.
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