Abraham and Isaac

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According to the biblical account, Isaac - his name in Hebrew is יִצְחָק, yitschaq - was born when his father Abraham was 100 years old and his mother Sarah was 90 (Genesis ch. 21, v. 5; ch. 17, v. 17). They had long since come to believe that they would not have any children (ibid. ch. 18, vv. 9-15), and in fact some 14 years earlier Abraham had had a son, Ishmael, by Sarah's Egyptian servant girl, Hagar (ibid. ch. 16, vv. 15-16). (Although it had been Sarah's suggestion that Abraham should have sex with Hagar, the relationship between the two women was subsequently strained, and after Isaac's birth Sarah compelled Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away (ibid. ch. 16, vv. 1-14, ch. 21, 9-21)).

When he was 8 days old Isaac was circumcised in accordance with the practice instituted by Abraham the previous year as a symbol of God's promise to him that Sarah would have a son and he (Abraham) would be the 'father of many nations' (ibid. ch. 17).

While Isaac was still a boy Abraham's faith in God's promise was tested by his belief that God required him to kill Isaac as part of a ritual sacrifice. Together with two young men, Abraham and Isaac set off, taking with them fire, wood, and a knife, and after travelling for two days in the desert came to the place where Abraham intended to make the sacrifice. The two young men were left behind, and Abraham moved on with Isaac, who became anxious when he realised that they did not have a lamb for the sacrifice - an anxiety which Abraham tried to allay by saying that 'God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering' (ibid. ch. 22, v. 8). However, it was only when Abraham had already bound Isaac, placed him on the altar he had built, and was on the point of killing him, that he believed God required him to go no further, and at that moment he saw a ram caught in some bushes nearby and substituted the animal for his son (ibid. ch. 22, vv. 1-19).

Muslims believe that the son of Ibrahim (Abraham) who was to be sacrificed was Ismail (Ishmael), although the son is not named in the Qur'an (XXXVII: 100-107), and some hold with the Hebrew scriptures that it was Isaac. Ismail is accounted among the ancestors of the prophet Muhammad.

After Sarah's death (ibid. ch. 24, v. 67) Abraham was concerned that Isaac should not marry a woman from one of the local tribes, and so he sent his oldest servant back to his native city, Ur of the Chaldees (near the river Euphrates, about 130 miles northwest of the modern city of Basra), to find a wife for Isaac. The servant travelled to Ur, where he selected Rebekah, one of the granddaughters of Abraham's brother Nahor. Rebekah was willing to leave her family in Ur and accompanied Abraham's servant back to Canaan, where she was married to Isaac (ibid. ch. 24).

For details of Isaac's life after the death of Abraham see Isaac.

Well known paintings inspired by events in Isaac's early life include The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1573-1610), The Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), The Sacrifice of Isaac by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), Le sacrifice d'Isaac by Salvador Dali (1904-1989), and Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebekah by Claude Lorrain (1600-1682).

In his poem The Parable of the Old Men and the Young the war poet Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) draws on the biblical account of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac to denounce the First World War politicians and generals who, rather than sacrifice their pride, preferred to sacrifice the lives of the young men they sent to the front..