What You Need to Know about Isaac in the Bible
- Jessica Udall Contributing Writer
- 2021 26 Jul
What is your reaction when someone tells you something too good to be true?
For many people, laughter is their first response. This laugh might be genuine, but especially if the “too good to be true” news is something we desperately wish were true, this unbelieving laughter can be tinged with grief.
This was the response of the biblical characters Sarah and Abraham at different times when they were told that they would bear a son in their old age, and so, when that “too good to be true” thing indeed came to pass, they named that son Isaac, which means “one who laughs.”
Who Is Isaac in the Bible and What Is His Story?
Isaac’s father, Abram (who would later become Abraham), had been called to leave his homeland and go to a land that God would show him, by faith. So he and his wife, Sarai (who would later become Sarah), along with their nephew, Lot, set out with all that they owned in obedience to God.
Some time later, God promised Abraham that he would bless him, and Abraham lamented that he did not have any children. In answer, God told Abraham that he would indeed have an heir, even going beyond that to say: “Look at the sky and count the stars, if you are able to count them... Your offspring will be that numerous” (Genesis 15:5). In response to this extravagant promise, the Bible tells us that “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).
Abram’s belief in God’s promise took some twists and turns, however. At Sarai’s insistence, Abram tried to jumpstart God’s fulfillment of his promise by conceiving a child with Sarai’s servant, Hagar. This caused all manner of relational fallout between Abram, Sarai, Hagar, and the child who was called Ishmael.
And yet God continued to be faithful and merciful. He came to Abram again and confirmed his promise to him, giving him and his wife new names. This time, the newly-named Abraham was incredulous: “Then he laughed and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a hundred-year-old man? Can Sarah, a ninety-year-old woman, give birth?’ So Abraham said to God, ‘If only Ishmael were acceptable to You!’” (Genesis 17:17).
In response, God did not condemn Ishmael, but he re-stated his promise as a reminder that he does not need help to accomplish his purposes:
But God said, “No. Your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will name him Isaac. I will confirm My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his future offspring. As for Ishmael, I have heard you. I will certainly bless him; I will make him fruitful and will multiply him greatly. He will father 12 tribal leaders, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will confirm My covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year” (Genesis 17:19-21).
As if this reiteration of the promise were not enough, in the following chapter God came to visit Abraham and Sarah as a mysterious guest who foretold that at about that time next year, she would have a son. Sarah laughed bitterly, and the visitor said asked pointedly: “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Can I really have a baby when I’m old?’ Is anything impossible for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:13-14).
What Is Important about Isaac's Lineage and about Isaac in the Bible?
Indeed, nothing is impossible for the Lord. Genesis 21 tells us:
The Lord came to Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what He had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the appointed time God had told him. Abraham named his son who was born to him—the one Sarah bore to him—Isaac. When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God had commanded him. Abraham was 100 years old when his son Isaac was born to him.
Sarah said, “God has made me laugh, and everyone who hears will laugh with me.” She also said, “Who would have told Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne a son for him in his old age” (Genesis 21:1-6).
In later accounts in the Old and New Testaments, after Isaac had had a son named Jacob, God is often referred to as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (for example, in Genesis 50:24) to remind God’s people about his covenant (promise-keeping) faithfulness to their forefathers. God repeated the promises that he made to Abraham to Isaac and then to Jacob, showing that he does not forget his promises and stays the same throughout the ages.
Isaac grew up and one day Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice Isaac as a test of his faith. He obeyed, but at the last moment, God stayed his hand and provided a ram to sacrifice instead. God assured Abraham “The Lord Will Provide,” which is what Abraham named the place (Genesis 22:14). God also reiterated his promise yet again to Abraham, that “all the nations on earth will be blessed by your offspring” (Genesis 22:18).
Ultimately, Jesus Christ was a descendent of Isaac and was the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. Paul explains: “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say ‘and to seeds,’ as though referring to many, but referring to one, and to your seed, who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16).
A Lesson We Can Learn from Isaac in the Bible
God’s promises are worth waiting for. Though it took more time than Abraham and Sarah would have liked, God fulfilled his promise to them just as he had said.
In the same way, we can trust God that he will be faithful to us as well, providing for us what he knows we need at the right time. Our incredulous laughter will turn to joy as we lean in to trusting Him more than what our eyes can see, following Abraham’s wavering but wrestling example of faith:
He believed in God, who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist. He believed, hoping against hope, so that he became the father of many nations according to what had been spoken: So will your descendants be. He considered his own body to be already dead (since he was about 100 years old) and also considered the deadness of Sarah’s womb, without weakening in the faith. He did not waver in unbelief at God’s promise but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, because he was fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. Therefore, it was credited to him for righteousness. Now it was credited to him was not written for Abraham alone, but also for us. It will be credited to us who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification (Romans 4:18-25).
Isaac was God’s “too good to be true” gift to Abraham and Sarah, foreshadowing his even greater gift to humanity--the coming of Jesus Christ. There are many things that are indeed “too good to be true” in this life, but not God’s promises. “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 1:20).
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Jessica Udall holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Bible and a Master of Arts degree in Intercultural Studies. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Intercultural Studies and writes on the Christian life and intercultural communication at lovingthestrangerblog.com.