04. Test of Abraham & Isaac; Jacob – the son of Isaac is made successor

The Jewish religious texts have multiple instances of God testing Abraham. The test in which God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac is believed to be the most challenging of all. But it was Isaac who was to take Abraham’s responsibilities and rewards under God’s covenant further, to truly realize the divine vision that Abraham had received. Extraordinary circumstances and an equally extraordinary time lag had preceded Isaac’s birth. And to think that it was Isaac who would be subject to sacrifice (binding)!

But such thoughts did not occur at all to Abraham, who had complete faith in God. ‘Our son is God’s gift to us and so it is He alone who has a right over him, not we’, thought Abraham and Sarah and began preparations to implement God’s command. The sacrifice was to happen at a specified place, viz., ‘Mount Moriah’. Isaac was said to be 37 years old then. But not even for a fraction of a second did Isaac’s mind waiver when he learnt what was to happen to him. In fact, he willingly set out with his father to Mount Moriah.

Binding of Isaac
Binding of Isaac

On reaching the site of sacrifice, Abraham set about the preparations and readied a knife to slay his son. Isaac was asked to lie on the sacrificial altar. Just as he was about to raise the knife to strike…

…an angel appeared and stopped Abraham. Pointing to a ram caught in the bushes, the angel told Abraham to sacrifice it in place of his son. (Many Islamic scholars claim that it was Ishmael and not Isaac, who was to undergo the binding).

God was done with testing Abraham and Isaac, and both had cleared it in an exemplary manner.

Following the divine test, when Abraham returned home, Sarah had left this world. Jewish texts say that she was 127 years-old at the time. Other sources are known to have stated that she probably died of because she could not withstand the surge of euphoria in her on receiving the news that her dear son, Isaac was indeed alive.

Sarah’s death dealt a blow that left Abraham bereft. Not just Abraham but all of his followers and kindred too were saddened and wept over her death. Abraham bought from its owner ‘Ephron’, the Cave at ‘Machpelah’ situated in ‘Hebron’. It was here that Sarah was given a ritualistic burial.

It was now three years since then. Isaac was 40 and Abraham, 140. He began his search for a suitable bride for Isaac. The regions surrounding Canaan were full of detractors of Abraham and hence he did not quite approve of any of the womenfolk to be his daughter-in-law. He sent Eliezer, head of his household, in search of a suitable bride to one of his brothers, ‘Nahor’, settled in Mesopotamia.

On reaching Mesopotamia, Eliezer encountered Nahor’s grand-daughter, ‘Rebecca’. Eliezer found her to be very polite and courteous and so approved her as Abraham’s daughter-in-law. Eventually Isaac and Rebecca married.

Isaac and Rebecca had a happy married life. Moreover Rebecca’s courteous and polite nature reassured Abraham at every step that she was indeed a correct choice. However it was twenty whole years until Isaac and Rebecca bore children.

Twins were born to Isaac and Rebecca. They were named ‘Esau’ and ‘Jacob’. Esau was considered the elder of the two. Jacob, following in the footsteps of his grandfather Abraham and of his father Isaac, became an ardent devotee of God. Esau regarded as the elder, spent his days playing mischief say many a texts.

In the meanwhile, following Sarah’s death, Abraham married ‘Keturah’ who became his third wife. Abraham fathered 6 children from Keturah who are believed to be ancestors to some of the Arab tribes of today’s southern and eastern Palestine. However some scholars tend to believe that Keturah was none other than Hagar whom Abraham had sent away.

The seed of the religion that believed in the concept of ‘One God’ planted by Abraham was now slowly but surely blossoming into a tree. Abraham was confident that his son, Isaac was now capable of carrying the torch and one day, Abraham departed from this world with a contented heart. He was 175 years old then. Isaac and Ishmael gave a ceremonial burial to Abraham in the very Cave of Machpelah which was also Sarah’s final resting place. He was buried besides Sarah’s tomb. Even today the Jews revere this Cave as one of their most sacred sites.

Cave of Patriarchs at Machpelah, Hebron and Well at Beersheba

A few days after Abraham’s death, a horrific famine struck Canaan one more time prompting Isaac to head for Egypt just like Abraham had in the past. But God stopped him at the very start and commanded him to stay back in Canaan. Taking God’s wish to be his command, Isaac returned to Canaan.

In the meantime, Isaac toured Philistine. Acknowledging Isaac’s abilities, the King of the land, entered into a treaty with him. According to the customs of the time, the pact was solemnized with drops of water from the well at Beersheba. Abraham too had, in the past solemnized a pact using the waters of the same well, a pact he had entered into with the ruler of the time. As a result, the well at Beersheba is no less than a place of pilgrimage for the Jews.

Isaac blessing Jacob

On the one hand, Jacob and Esau were growing up, while on the other Isaac had begun his journey towards senescence. His eyesight had deteriorated. He remained confined to his home throughout the day. Consequently, the stories of Esau’s roguery never ended up falling on his ears. Knowing that his end was near, Isaac sent for his elder son, Esau with the intention of holding a household yet formal ceremony to pass on Abraham’s responsibilities and rewards under God’s covenant. But Rebecca knew both her sons, only too well and hence was sure that it was Jacob, who could take over from Isaac. She asked Jacob to pose as Esau before Isaac while Esau was out preparing for the ceremony. Jacob was not ready to deceive his father at first but Rebecca took the onus of the lie on her saying that this was indeed necessary for sustenance of Abraham’s mission. Though much against his will, Jacob agreed to deceive his father and was thus conferred with the honour of becoming the successor to Isaac. It may also be noted that references to God Himself prophesying Jacob to be Isaac’s successor are also available. On his return, Esau learnt of the whole episode and was wild with fury. The truth dawned on Isaac too and blessings Esau he promised to grant him certain rights but on some conditions. Esau, not at all pacified decided to wait for an opportune moment to get back at Jacob. (To be continued…)

– Shulamith Penkar-Nigrekar