God didn’t seem to give Isaac a very happy old age

Q. My question revolves around Issac and Rebecca. When Issac was old, his son Jacob deceived him, his wife deceived him. Issac died without his son Jacob and with a wife who was not trustworthy. This is not what we would have expected from the earlier part of Isaac’s story. He would certainly have remembered his father Abraham taking him to the mountain where God provided the ram for the sacrifice and protected him. He would also have remembered how his father sent his servant to get him a wife and the remarkable way that this turned out to be Rebecca. So this ending is not what I would think would be a positive note for the aging Issac from a “Creator Father Loving Providing God.” I would appreciate hearing your thoughts about this.

Thank you for your thoughtful question. As I say in other posts on this blog, God advances his purposes by working through the free choices, both good and bad, of human moral agents. And I believe that, unfortunately, Isaac ended up in the situation you are describing through some of his own bad choices. And those can be traced to other people’s earlier bad choices.

Specifically, his parents Abraham and Sarah tried themselves to fulfill God’s promise to give them a child by having Abraham take Hagar, Sarah’s servant, as his concubine so that he could become the father of Ishmael. When God fulfilled his own promise supernaturally and Isaac was born to Sarah, Ishmael had to be sent away so that Isaac could be the undisputed heir. Abraham tried to intercede with God for his son Ishmael, even before Isaac was born, asking God to make him the heir instead. God said in response about Ishmael, “I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac.” And so Ishmael still needed to be sent away.

I believe that Isaac unfortunately got the unintended message from all of this that favoring one child over another was acceptable. The book of Genesis tells us this about Isaac and Rebekah’s two sons: “The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” So each parent favored one son.

It was this favoritism that led Isaac to say to Esau one day, “I am now an old man and don’t know the day of my death. Now then, get your equipment—your quiver and bow—and go out to the open country to hunt some wild game for me. Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die.” The blessing that Isaac should have given to Esau automatically as his firstborn became tied up with the grounds for favoritism, and this opened the door for Rebekah to deceive Isaac and get the blessing for her favorite instead.

We might note that this favoritism continued into the next generation. Jacob favored Joseph over his older brothers, and that led to much trouble within this extended family for many of the years that followed.

So there is a lot of human responsibility here. We can’t consider God responsible for Isaac’s situation, so we do not need to ask how a loving Heavenly Father would leave him in such a situation at the end of his life.

That much said, however, we should also observe that God actually did not leave Isaac in this situation at the end of his life. He did not die without his son Jacob. Rather, when Isaac said, “I don’t know the day of my death,” he was right. He lived at least another twenty years, because he was still alive when Jacob returned from Paddan Aram. He got to see all of Jacob’s children, who were his grandchildren. In the end, “Isaac lived a hundred and eighty years. Then he breathed his last and died and was gathered to his people, old and full of years. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.

“Old and full of years” is a figurative phrase that some Bibles translate as “having lived a good long life.” Isaac actually died with both sons present to care for him at the end and, as I said, surrounded by grandchildren as well. I can’t say for sure that he also patched things up with Rebecca regarding the betrayal. But I’m going to speculate that Isaac’s attitude in the end may have been the same as Joseph’s, as he looked back on how God had worked even through the harmful consequences of favoritism to advance his purposes through this family: “What you planned against me was wrong, but God planned it for good, to bring about the present result.”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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