the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26
Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters
ISAAC LOVED ESAU BECAUSE HE DID EAT OF HIS VENISON
THE patriarch Isaac presents but a pale appearance as he stands planted between two so stately and so impressive personages as his father Abraham on the one hand, and his son Jacob on the other hand. Isaac, notwithstanding our familiarity with his name, has hitherto made very little impression on our minds. Were we suddenly asked what we remember about Isaac, the chances are that we would get very little further than that memorable day when Abraham took his only son, and bound him, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. And, indeed, as we follow out the sad declension of Isaac's character to the end, it is forced upon us that it would have been well for Isaac, and for all connected with Isaac, that Abraham's uplifted hand had not been arrested by the angel of the Lord. Had Isaac died on his father's altar, an immense impression for good would have been made on all who ever heard of his submission and devotion; and, besides, the whole after-history of Israel, and of the nations around Israel, would have been far purer, far more peaceful, and every way far more happy. But all that is in the far future.
Isaac, like Noah and Lot before him, those two other shipwrecks of the best early promise, made a splendid start. In his early start in faith and in obedience, Isaac by a single bound at once outdistanced all who had gone before him. We are so taken up with Abraham's faith and surrender in the matter of Moriah, that we forget the splendid part that Isaac must have performed in that terrible trial; that magnificent triumph of faith and submission. I do not wonder that the Church of Christ has all along persisted in seeing in Isaac an outstanding type of our Lord, and in making Mount Moriah a clear forecast of Gethsemane and of Calvary. For, when it came to the last agony beside the altar on that terrible hill-top-'Not my will, but thine be done,' was wrung from Isaac's broken heart, just as long afterwards, and not far from the same spot, this same surrendering cry was wrung from the broken heart of our Lord. Josephus reports a remarkable dialogue that passed between Abraham and Isaac that day, in addition to the dialogue that Moses reports. As soon as the altar was prepared, and all things were entirely ready, Abraham said to Isaac his son: 'O my son! I poured out a vast number of prayers that I might have thee for my son. And since it was God's will that I should become thy father, it is now His will that I shall relinquish thee. Let us bear this consecration to God with a ready mind. Accordingly, thou, my son, wilt now die, not in any common way of going out of the world, but sent to God, the Father of all men, beforehand, in the nature of a sacrifice. I suppose He thinks thee worthy to get clear of this world neither by disease, neither by war, nor by any other severe way, but so that He will receive thy soul with prayers and holy offices of religion, and will place thee near to Himself, and thou wilt there be to me a succourer and supporter in my old age; and thou wilt there procure me God for my Comforter instead of thyself.' Now, Isaac was of such a generous disposition that he at once answered that he was not worthy to be born at first, if he should now reject the determination of God and his father, and should not resign himself up readily to both their pleasures. So he went up immediately to the altar to be sacrificed. The rest we know from Moses. To which Josephus only adds that Abraham and Isaac, having sacrificed the ram, embraced one another and returned home to Sarah, and lived happily together, God affording them His assistance in everything.
'And Isaac dwelt by the well Lahai-roi.' That arrests us. That must have been intended to arrest us. And to make sure that it shall arrest us and shall not escape us, the sacred writer is not content with having told us that once; he tells us that again, and still more emphatically the second time. At the same time, having with such repeated point told us that, Moses leaves it to his readers to make of it what they are able to make, and what they like to make. Make anything of it, or not, there stands the fact-that, in broad Canaan, as soon as Isaac had a tent of his own to pitch, he pitched his tent toward Hagar's well. Hagar, you must remember, had been Isaac's mother's maid. Not only that, but Hagar had been Isaac's own first nurse. Isaac and Ishmael, the two innocent half-brothers, had learned their lessons together, and had played together, till the two mothers fell out, and till Hagar and her unlawful son had to flee to the wilderness. But, little children never forget their first nurse, especially when she has such stories to tell as Hagar had to tell little Isaac about the palaces, and the pyramids, and the temples, and the Nile, and the crocodiles of Egypt. And then, as her charge grew up, in seasons of trouble and sorrow and mutual confidence, Hagar would be led into telling the devout little lad her wonderful story of Beer-lahai-roi. And that heavenly story took such a hold of young Isaac that to the end of his life he never found himself within a day's journey of Hagar's well without turning aside to drink of its waters and to meditate and to pray and to praise beside its streams. Where, then, when he was choosing a site for his future tent, where should he choose that site after Moriah, but on a spot scarcely less solemn to Hagar's pious little nursling than Jehovah-jireh itself. Lahai-roi was one of the two most sacred spots on earth to Hagar's two boys: and, as sometimes happens, the boy of the two who was not her own, best remembered all she had told him, and shaped his course accordingly. It is no superstition to seek out the spots where God has come down to visit His people. It is not that God is any more there, or is any more likely to return there; but we are better prepared to meet with Him there. And God comes to those who are ready to meet with Him wherever they are. There is no respect of places with God. And nothing draws God down to any place like a heart like His own. As often, therefore, as He saw Isaac's tears dropping into the water he was drinking, God again visited Isaac also. And Isaac could never walk round that well, or sit down beside it, or drink out of it, but his tears would come fast for poor ill-used Hagar, and for poor outcast Ishmael, till he wished again that he had never been horn rather than that they should both be outcast from their proper home on his account. I, for one, thank Moses warmly for writing it, and then for underscoring it, that, as soon as Isaac had a tent of his own to pitch, he pitched that tent toward Hagar's holy well.
It is now the late afternoon before the day of Isaac's marriage. Abraham's servant has performed his errand to perfection, and he is now nearing his young master's tent with Isaac's bride under his charge. 'And Isaac went out to meditate in the field in the even-tide; and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and behold, the camels were drawing near.' All that day Isaac had spent in prayer and in meditation. Isaac was greatly given to solitude and to solitary thoughts, and he had much that day to think upon. The day it was made him think. He thought of his father Abraham and his mother Sarah; and then he thought of his own wonderful birth as of one born out of due time. From that, he went on to think of Hagar his Egyptian nurse, and of Ishmael his half-brother, and of all the evil fate that had befallen both Hagar and Ishmael because of him. And then this well, whose sacred waters were now shining in the setting sun. And all that took place at this well; and that which Hagar exclaimed over this well, and which was never a day, scarcely ever an hour, out of Isaac's thoughts. And then Moriah, Mount Moriah, the mount of the Lord, had been so burned into Isaac's heart, that, for years and years, he felt its cords knotted round his arms, and saw its knife gleaming over his head. Till his heart gave a great bound as he suddenly looked up and saw the distant thread of Chaldean camels drawing slowly near with their precious burdens. And till they came near, and till Isaac met the rich procession, Isaac still prayed, and praised, and vowed to God, the God of Abraham, his godly father. It is a beautiful scene in the setting sun. 'And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the even-tide; and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and behold, the camels were coming. And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac she lighted off her camel. For she had said to the servant, What man is this that walketh in the field to meet us? And the servant had said, It is my master. Therefore she took a veil and covered herself. And Isaac brought Rebekah into his mother Sarah's tent, and she became his wife; and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother's death.'
The prophetic travail of Rebekah in giving birth to the twin-brothers Esau and Jacob, and then Esau's sale of his birthright, fill one graphic chapter, and then after another chapter we are all at once introduced to Isaac's deathbed. And then, the space given to the deathbed scenes; the dramatic situations; the eloquence and the pathos; and at the same time the suppression and the severity of the composition,-all that of itself would kindle an intense interest in the story of Isaac's last hours. And then both the writer's pains, and the reader's strained interest and attention, are all amply rewarded as we stand by and look on, and lay to heart all that goes on around that distressing deathbed. 'And it came to pass that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his eldest son, and said unto him, My son; and he said to him, Behold, here I am. And be said, Behold, now, I am old. I know not the day of my death. Now, therefore, I pray thee, take thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go out to the field, and take me some venison. And make me savoury meat, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless thee before I die.' The inspired writer had already been compelled to set it down, on the sad occasion of the barter of Esau's birthright, that Isaac loved Esau and despised Jacob, because he did eat of Esau's venison. And, altogether, the place that 'venison' holds on this page of the patriarchal history, and the part it plays in the tragedy now on the stage, compel us to consider and to think what it all means to us, and what it all warns us of.
When I read Isaac's whole history over again, with my eye upon the object, it becomes as clear as a sunbeam to me that what envy was to Cain and what wine was to Noah, and what lewdness was to Ham, and what weath was to Lot, and what pride and impatience were to Sarah-all that, venison and savoury meat were to Isaac. I cannot get past it. I have tried hard to get past it. Out of respect for the aged patriarch, and out of gratitude for the mount of the Lord and Hagar's well, I have tried to get past it; but I cannot. 'Take me some venison. Make me savoury meat such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat, and that my soul may bless thee before I die. And Esau went out to hunt for venison. And Rebekah said to Jacob, I will make savoury meat for thy father, such as he loveth. And she made savoury meat such as Isaac loved. And Jacob said, Sit up, and eat of my venison. And he said, Bring it near to me, and I will eat of my son's venison. And he brought it near to him and he did eat; and he brought him wine and he drank. And Esau he also made savoury meat, and said, Let my father arise and eat of his son's venison,' and so on till Isaac's death bed reeks with venison. The steam of the savoury meat with which his two sons bid for his blessing chokes us till we cannot breathe beside Isaac's deathbed. But Isaac's ruling passion is still strong in death, so strong, that the very smell of Esau's venison-stained coat is sweet to the old patriarch's nostrils. My brethren, there is no respect of persons in the Bible. The Bible puts the simple, naked truth before everything else. Before the consistency, before the honour, and before the good name of the saints. Before propriety, before partiality, before what is seemly to be told, before what is consoling, before what is edifying even.
The inordinate and unseemly love of good eating has an undue hold of many otherwise blameless men, of many able men also, and even of many old men. Neither the grace of God, nor some true love of the things of the mind, nor the decays of nature, would seem to be able to root out or at all to weaken this degrading vice; so deeply is it seated in some men's habits of life and character. It would not be so much to be wondered at that out-of-door men like Esau should eat and drink with a passionate delight; but that a quiet, home-keeping, devout old saint like Isaac should let his table become such a share to his soul,-that does startle and alarm us. And we see the same thing still. Sedentary men, bookish men, and men who are never out of their study, are sometimes as fond of savoury soup and venison as ever Isaac or Esau was. That they take too little exercise seems sometimes to make them seek their relaxation and refreshment in their table even more than other men. The greatest glutton I ever knew never crossed his doorstep. His only walk all the day was from his desk to his dinner-table, and then from his dinner-table back to his desk. Now, Isaac in his old age was the father of all such men. Isaac's very love for his sons depended on their skill and success in hunting. If a son of his could not hunt, could not run down and entrap venison, he might be a saint, but old Isaac had no blessing for him. Isaac was only happy, and full of good-humour and benediction, when he had just had another full meal. But he was sulky flnrt peevish and fretful if his soup was short or out of season. If you would enjoy Isaac's benediction, you must get him after his dinner, and it must be of the best, and at the moment. Old Isaac, with his eyes so dim that he could not see, is the father of all those men who make their god their belly, who think too much and too often of what they shall eat and what they shall drink, who value their friends by the table they keep, and who are never so happy as when they are sitting over their venison and their wine. Isaac was the father of Ciacco in the Inferno and of Succus in the Serious Call. Of him also 'who makes every day a day of full and cheerful meals, and who by degrees comes to make the happiness of every day to depend upon that, and to consider everything with regard to that. He will go to church, or stay at home, as it suits with his dinner, and he will not scruple to tell you that he generally eats too heartily to go to the afternoon service.' And, lastly, Isaac in his infirm years, and in his increasing appetite, is the father of 'all those people, with whom the world abounds, who are weakly and tender merely by their indulgences. They have bad nerves, low spirits, and frequent indispositions, through irregularity, idleness, and indulgence.' such to this day are some of Isaac's sons and daughters. Four rules for such.
- Never accept a second helping at table.
- Never rise from table without an appetite, and you will never sit down without one.
- Never sit down at table till you have said this for a grace-What! Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? Shall I, then, take the members of Christ and make them the members of a glutton? God forbid!
- Only love God enough, and then eat anything you like, and eat as much as you like, said St. John of the Cross to his over-ascetical disciples.
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Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Isaac'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wbc/​i/isaac.html. 1901.