On the Passivity of Isaac in the Book of Genesis
G. Stolyarov II
Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2005 and published on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007. To preserve a record of my writings following the shutdown of Yahoo! Voices in 2014, I have given this article a permanent presence on this page.
Throughout Genesis, Isaac is predominantly passive and devoid of initiative. His life is shaped by others' decisions, to which he is not a party. Isaac is first a victim to his father's intention to sacrifice him to God. Only through divine intervention, not his own will, is Isaac saved. Then, Isaac's marriage is arranged for him and his wife procured by his father's servant. Isaac's family life, too, is subject to the machinations of his wife and son, to which Isaac must inevitably resign himself. The satisfactory outcomes of Isaac's binding and his marriage reinforce Isaac's conviction that passivity is the proper approach toward the decisions of life. Such an entrenched mentality ceases to be effective, however, once Isaac becomes a victim to his son Jacob's deception. He is therefore impelled to reject allocating his inheritance as he sees fit. Isaac tragically leads his entire life mired in the delusion that good things can come to him without any initiative on his part. By the time Jacob's deception shatters Isaac's delusion, Isaac lacks the capacity to renounce his erroneous attitude. Through his blessing of Esau, Isaac recognizes the need for an active response to Jacob's usurpation of familial primacy. Even there, however, Isaac only shifts the burden of activity onto Esau while remaining passive himself.
Isaac demonstrates his passivity from the moment he appears in the text, at the scene of his binding. Isaac's father Abraham is the agent of the passage; Isaac's behavior, if mentioned at all, is solely reactive. At the beginning of his and Isaac's ascent up the mountain, "Abraham took the wood for the offering and put it on Isaac his son and he took in his hand the fire and the cleaver, and the two of them went together" (Gen. 22.6). By having Isaac carry the items required for the prospective sacrifice, Abraham transfers his own burden in the intended sacrificial procedure onto Isaac, and Isaac does not object. Instead of seeking to independently establish the facts of the situation before cooperating with his father's imposition, Isaac obeys while putting forth a mere meek question: "'Here is the fire and the wood but where is the sheep for the offering?' And Abraham said, 'God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son.' And the two of them went together." (Gen. 22.7-8). Since Isaac raises no further objections during the remainder of the binding scene, the reader is left to assume that Isaac can either think of none, or that his personal dislike of the situation poses no obstacle to his willing submission to circumstance. Abraham's explanation elicits no response from Isaac; hence, the reader may also presume that Isaac does not consider the need to act autonomously here. Instead, Isaac trusts both his father and God-anyone but himself-to set things right. Because he fails to resist Abraham's intention to kill him, Isaac comes within moments of death: "And Abraham reached out his hand and took the cleaver to slaughter his son" (Gen. 22.10). Yet even here, with his demise seemingly imminent, Isaac does not react in any manner significant enough for the text to record. Indeed, the text does not mention any attempt on Isaac's part to resist Abraham's agency in the deprivation of Isaac's very life. Only God's intervention prevents Abraham from killing his son. Isaac remains passive during his endangerment and similarly obtains a fortunate rescue from death through none of his own initiative. Isaac's subsequent mindset in Genesis is shaped by the fortunate resolution to the binding episode. Isaac does not need to act autonomously in order to be saved in the end. From this, he is able to infer a correlation between passivity and safety. Isaac does not assert himself during a life-threatening situation, yet it ends well for him; he therefore consistently refrains from initiative during his life's lesser challenges, such as his marriage and his deception at the hands of his son Jacob.
Having escaped unscathed from his binding, Isaac is far more inclined to passively accept his father's other initiatives, including the procurement of Isaac's wife. In turn, Isaac's acquiescence in this matter further reinforces his passivity. Although the entirety of Chapter 24 in Genesis centers on the arrangement of Isaac's marriage, Isaac has no role in the arrangement until the chapter's end. The primary agents of the text, Abraham and his servant, allegedly act on Isaac's behalf, but without consulting Isaac or obtaining his permission. Abraham instructs his servant, "But to my land and to my birthplace you shall go, and you shall take a wife for my son, for Isaac" (Gen. 24.4). Abraham's words here constitute a direct command to his servant, a command that Abraham can exercise without Isaac's approval. Abraham's servant is given the authority determine Isaac's wife, because this authority is Abraham's, not Isaac's, to delegate. Indeed, the value of Isaac's judgment in this matter is lower than that of a mere servant, despite Isaac's place as Abraham's son. Abraham emphasizes that he does not wish for Isaac to be involved in the process of finding his own wife. He instructs his servant, "Watch yourself, lest you bring my son back there" (Gen. 24.6), indicating his displeasure at the prospect of Isaac actively exerting himself to travel to a distant land and seek out a woman of whom Isaac personally approves. Abraham has likely noticed Isaac's lack of initiative; therefore, he does not trust Isaac with arranging his own marriage. As a consequence of the binding, Abraham and Isaac may even have come to a tacit understanding. Since even Abraham's attempt to kill Isaac had turned out well, Isaac might be far more willing now to grant his father an unconditional trust in all things, including the determination of his marriage. Both father and son understand this, and Isaac is willing to allow Abraham to plan Isaac's life. Once the process of selecting Isaac's bride is underway, the authority of setting the standards for such a selection passes from Abraham to the servant, who devises an elaborate criterion of judgment. The servant addresses God with regard to the sign by which Isaac's future wife might be identified: "Let it be that young woman to whom I say, 'Pray, tip down your jug that I may drink,' if she says, 'Drink, and your camels, too, I shall water, she it is whom You have marked for your servant, for Isaac..." (Gen. 24.14). The servant has Isaac's best interests in mind when selecting a wife for him on the basis of the standard of generosity. However, Isaac remains oblivious to such a standard of selection and, for better or for worse, is sidelined while the servant makes arrangements to bring Rebekah to him. Only once the servant finds Rebekah and secures the promise of her marriage does Isaac even begin to feature as a character in the chapter. Even then, he is only a passive audience to the servant's "recount[ing] to Isaac all the things he had done" (Gen. 24.66). So complacent is Isaac that he accepts the entire pre-made arrangement as is, without inquiring into it in greater depth. Nonetheless, despite his non-involvement in the determination of his marriage, Isaac is happy with Rebekah as wife: "And he loved her, and Isaac was consoled after his mother's death" (Gen. 24.67). This episode serves, then, to give further evidence to Isaac's conviction that a passive response to events and an unconditional acceptance of others' agency in one's own life can bring happiness. Without acting, Isaac has already been granted his own life and an attractive spouse. Such fortunate coincidences readily impress upon Isaac the expectation of further gratuitous good things. Not surprisingly, therefore, he maintains the same passive mentality into his old age.
However, during Isaac's most formidable challenge, the passive mentality that has hitherto guided him fails to reach its intended consequences. Abraham is now dead and no longer present to prudently oversee Isaac's affairs. Isaac himself is an old man, becoming, as a result, ever feebler and losing hold of the sense of sight, which may have provided him with a shred of autonomous guidance during his youth. Not only is Isaac unable to exercise his patriarchal authority to quell the rivalry between his sons Jacob and Esau, but Isaac's family takes his inability to do so for granted. In orchestrating the deception to which Isaac will fall prey, Rebekah instructs Jacob, "Go, pray, to the flock, and fetch me from there two choice kids that I may make them into a dish for your father of the kind he loves. / And you shall bring it to your father and he shall eat, so that he may bless you before he dies" (Gen. 27.9-10). Rebekah exhibits not a shred of doubt that her plan will have precisely the intended effect on Isaac. She is confident that Isaac will fall prey to the deception and passively, unsuspectingly go along with it. Furthermore, though she lives in a highly patriarchal age, she does not fear Isaac's retaliation; she knows that a firm response of punishment would be out of character for her husband. Indeed, her expectations prove true. Isaac confers his primary blessing on Jacob and is unable to perceive Jacob's trickery until Esau informs him of it. Even then, however, Isaac remains astonishingly reluctant to act, despite his possession of full theoretical authority over how his estate will be distributed after his death. Although Isaac would rather have bestowed his property upon Esau, he is so resigned to what has transpired that he is unwilling to remedy the situation for the better. He informs Esau: "Look, I made [Jacob] overlord to you, and all his brothers I gave him as slaves, and with grain and wine I endowed him. For you, then, what can I do, my son?" (Gen. 27.37). Isaac treats his property as if it is not his own; he thinks he does not have the unconditional right to allocate it as he sees fit in light of new information. As in the prior crucial junctures of his life, Isaac has been acted on, and he is far too old and entrenched in a passive, reactive mentality to change his approach upon realizing that the present situation is fundamentally different from those of his past. Before, during his binding and his marriage, Isaac's passivity did not obstruct outcomes he was pleased with. Here, however, it serves as a direct obstacle to Isaac's fulfillment of his preference that Esau be his principal heir. Isaac's guiding principle has ceased to be functional, yet he has become so inextricably attached to it that he cannot renounce it nor even conceive of life without it. Isaac's question- "[W]hat can I do, my son?"- indicates that Isaac is unable to imagine what taking an active role in his own family affairs would be like. Isaac defines the options available to him to encompass only complacent and reactive behavior, such as the blessing he gives to Esau. Esau's blessing might be construed to imply Isaac's realization of the necessity of active measures to reverse the consequences of Jacob's deception. However, even through actively pronouncing his blessing, Isaac only further demonstrates his passivity. He tells Esau, "By your sword shall you live... And when you rebel / you shall break off [Jacob's] yoke from your neck" (Gen. 27.40), implying that Esau, not Isaac, ought to take decisive steps to undo Jacob's dishonestly won primacy in the family. Isaac urges Esau to live by the sword and rebel; however, Isaac fails to personally do anything. In the aftermath of Jacob's deception-a living refutation of the idea that passivity is always efficacious-Isaac recognizes the need for active measures in response, but he cannot conceive of himself undertaking any such active measures. Indeed, by shifting the burden of activity onto Esau, Isaac loses the ability to follow the most direct route to undoing the consequences of Jacob's treachery. Instead of urging Esau to eventually rebel against his brother-a course of action that will greatly exacerbate the tensions between the two siblings in the future-Isaac could have simply exercised his rightful authority over his property and immediately nullified his blessing of Jacob. Since Isaac is the patriarch of his household, his single command could have rendered Esau his primary heir. However, Isaac is oblivious to the possibility of his personal exercise of initiative. Taking proactive steps to reverse an action already committed is beyond Isaac's capacity to consider. Having always expected matters of grave significance to decide themselves in his favor, Isaac is utterly paralyzed in his ability to respond, now that a situation has arisen which does not lend itself open to automatic resolution. Isaac's loss of sight in these circumstances is symbolic of his even greater inability to refer to the external world. Had his senses been sharper, Isaac might have found and acted on evidence refuting his passive mentality and expectations of well-being attainable without individual agency. However, entrenched in passivity, Isaac can only will the challenge of active response onto his son.
From his binding to his old age, Isaac is incapable of renouncing his complacent mindset. If anything, this mindset reinforces itself over time, as his binding and marriage seem to demonstrate to him that passivity can promote a safe, happy life. However, Isaac cannot perceive the destruction his passivity has inflicted upon his capacity to act autonomously. Isaac instantly resigns himself to Jacob's deception and becomes utterly unwilling to personally remedy the situation-responses that show Isaac's loss of the very ability to conceive of his individual agency as potentially effective and significant. Isaac's capacity for self-directed action, never truly cultivated, cannot be first taken up in feeble old age, when even his sight can no longer assist him. Thus, Isaac meets his end having failed to allocate his inheritance as he wished and having never corrected his mistakenly passive attitude toward life. Even in recognizing the need for activity, Isaac cannot personally embrace it, instead shifting the burden of active response to the next generation via his blessing of Esau.
Genesis. Trans. Robert Alter. New York: Norton, 1996.
Gennady Stolyarov II (G. Stolyarov II) is an actuary, science-fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress.
In December 2013, Mr. Stolyarov published Death is Wrong, an ambitious children’s book on life extension illustrated by his wife Wendy. Death is Wrong can be found on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.
Mr. Stolyarov has contributed articles to the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), The Wave Chronicle, Le Quebecois Libre, Brighter Brains Institute, Immortal Life, Enter Stage Right, Rebirth of Reason, The Liberal Institute, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
In an effort to assist the spread of rational ideas,
Mr. Stolyarov published his articles on Associated Content (subsequently
the Yahoo! Contributor Network and Yahoo! Voices) from 2007 until
Yahoo! closed this venue in 2014. Mr. Stolyarov held the highest Clout
Level (10) possible on the Yahoo! Contributor Network and was one of its
Page View Millionaires, with over 3,175,000 views. Mr. Stolyarov’s
selected writings from that era have been preserved on this page.
Mr. Stolyarov holds the professional insurance designations of Associate of the Society of Actuaries (ASA), Associate of the Casualty Actuarial Society (ACAS), Member of the American Academy of Actuaries (MAAA), Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter (CPCU), Associate in Reinsurance (ARe), Associate in Regulation and Compliance (ARC), Associate in Personal Insurance (API), Associate in Insurance Services (AIS), Accredited Insurance Examiner (AIE), and Associate in Insurance Accounting and Finance (AIAF).
Mr. Stolyarov has written a science fiction novel, Eden against the Colossus, a philosophical treatise, A Rational Cosmology, a play, Implied Consent, and a free self-help treatise, The Best Self-Help is Free. You can watch his YouTube Videos.Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.Statement of Policy.
Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.