By David Hazony If you take a fresh, unadorned look at the life of Isaac, son of Abraham, you might feel like you’ve walked into a bad remake of a great film. Many of the same plot lines are there, but without much of the magic.
Isaac’s whole story appears in this week’s reading—and all of it a pale reflection of his father’s adventures. Like Abraham’s wife Sarah, Isaac’s wife Rebecca is barren until the intervention of the Divine. When she finally gives birth to twins, Isaac prefers the (slightly) older Esau while Rebecca prefers Jacob—mirroring Abraham’s preference for the older Ishmael over Sarah’s preference for Isaac. God clearly sides with the women in both cases: He tells Abraham to “harken to [Sarah’s] voice,” while in our reading he tells Rebecca that “the older [Esau] shall serve the younger [Jacob].”
Soon after, God speaks to Isaac (the only such direct communication he receives) and tells him not to go to Egypt despite the famine, but rather to stay “in this land . . . and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father; and I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven . . . ” Again, the parallel to God’s promise to Abraham is sharp and clear.
The parallels continue with Isaac’s encounter with Avimelekh, King of Gerar. To protect his life, Isaac lies to Avimelekh, telling him that Rebecca is his sister—just as Abraham did with Sarah. (This time around, however, Avimelekh doesn’t take the bait.) Isaac grows rich under Avimelekh’s protection—as did his father. Then he re-digs the same wells that Abraham did in his day. Finally, Isaac makes a deal with Avimelekh, taking an oath of alliance, as his father did, and even naming the city of Beersheva after the oath, as his father likewise did.
The final story of Isaac, in which Jacob tricks Isaac into giving him a blessing that he had intended for Esau, may not seem at first like a replay of an episode in Abraham’s life. But in some ways it is. We may call it “the Blinding of Isaac,” for the similarities it shares with Abraham’s Binding of Isaac. Again, we have a story in which the patriarch is deceived: Abraham by God, into putting Isaac on the altar; Isaac by Jacob and Rebecca, who swindle Esau’s blessing out of him. In both cases, what’s at stake is a father sacrificing his beloved son.
And yet, despite the parallels, all along the way we have a sense that Isaac is no Abraham.
Isaac never clashes with Rebecca over their two children, the way Abraham does with Sarah. When Abraham goes to Avimelekh and lies about his wife, he packs it with a moral punch: “Because I thought, Surely the fear of God is not in this place.” Isaac merely says, “Because I said, Lest I die for her.” Abraham digs new wells, while Isaac merely re-digs old ones—a striking symbol of the original, creative actor versus the pale imitator. Abraham makes his wealth as a freewheeling shepherd, while Isaac makes his as a farmer. (The Bible everywhere prefers the shepherd over the farmer; think Cain and Abel.) Isaac speaks with God just once, while Abraham has various, fascinating discussions with the Divine.
The difference is clearest in the final story: While Abraham plays an active role in the Binding of Isaac, Isaac’s role in his final story is passive, that of the dupe. While Abraham passes his test, Isaac fails his. Indeed, the symbolism in the stories couldn’t be more striking: While Abraham’s story invokes vision—Abraham “lifted up his eyes” to see the mountain, and then again “lifted up his eyes” to see the angel—Isaac is blind.
Indeed, we are left with two strikingly different figures, whose differences are made all the more apparent by their similarities. In many ways Isaac is the anti-Abraham, passive, imitative, and cautious where his father was active, original, and bold even to a fault.
These are the two figures that Jacob carries with him as he begins his own tale, two paradigms that end up laying the groundwork for the whole Israelite nation. In everything he does, Jacob will be choosing between Abraham and Isaac—creating a tumultuous, complex, and ferociously contradictory inner story of Israel that resonates throughout the Bible, and onward in history.
David Hazony is author of The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, recently published by Scribner.
Response to Avraham Burg’s commentary on Parashat Toldot, Genesis 25:19 – 28-9. To read Burg’s piece, click here.
Do you remember when Ross Perot, in a debate against Al Gore back in the early 1990s, got flustered by something Gore said, maybe about NAFTA or Perot’s computer company, and at a certain point he started yelling out, “Now you’re lying!” “He’s lying!” Nobody could tell who was right at that moment. But everybody knew that Perot had lost the debate. The accusation, it turned out, revealed more than did the deception itself.
Avraham Burg, of course, is no Ross Perot. Yet we ought to be exceptionally careful when we focus too intently on the falsehoods that biblical characters allow themselves. Our reaction may say more about us than them.
To understand what’s troubling in Burg’s approach, we should start by taking note of the one “liar” that he oddly neglects to mention: God. God, after all, deceives twice. He famously twists Sarah’s words when asking Abraham why she laughed at the prospect of having a baby at her age (she had actually laughed about Abraham’s age, not hers). And he later deceives Abraham into thinking that he would have to kill his own son in the Binding of Isaac. In both cases, God’s example points to a problem in Burg’s reasoning: If deception equals corruption, then God too is corrupt, and we have a lot more to worry about than Jacob’s character.
The trouble is, neither of God’s lies are really “dishonest” in the way we usually think of the term. One was meant to protect Sarah’s dignity in Abraham’s eyes, the other to test Abraham’s commitment. Yet the same can be said for many of the “lies” Burg tallies. Rebecca and Jacob deceive Isaac into getting the blessing meant for Esau — but only after God had sworn to Rebecca that the “older [Esau] would serve the younger [Jacob].” Yes, Simeon and Levi deceive everyone before killing off Shechem — but that’s in retaliation for the rape and kidnapping of their sister Dina, which Burg neglects to mention. Their evil, such as it was, was in their vengefulness and violence, much more than their deception.
And clearly, what Burg points to as the “family’s greatest lie of all” is anything but. Jacob’s sons committed a great and stupid evil in brutally selling their brother Joseph to slavery. Yet even if we condemn their decision to hide it from Jacob, we can also understand their motivation. They truly wanted to protect their father from the horrible deed. Again, the cover-up pales in light of the crime.
The rabbis taught us that in rare cases you are allowed to lie — such as if a groom asks you on his wedding day what you think of his bride. And the Ten Commandments are oddly lacking the line “Thou Shalt Not Lie.” Instead we are told to “Distance yourself from the lying word,” and to be honest in your business dealings. Lying is a very bad habit; but not every deception is inherently evil, nor is every truthful statement worth saying. To lump them together, ignoring the subtleties of the actual motivations or results, branding the whole patriarchal world a “culture of lies and deceit”—is to reveal our own bugaboos more than to understand a difficult text we call our own.
To read this as it originally appeared at the Forward, click here.