I’m a sucker for the underdog. The runt of the litter, the last to get picked for the team at recess, the quiet kid who never gets called on in class – they are the ones that grab me and sometimes never let me go.
Among biblical Patriarchs, Isaac seems to be the underdog. His role seems more that of a placeholder than an independent actor. He’s the son born to very elderly parents as a demonstration of God’s faithfulness to the promise made to Abraham. Isaac is a promise kept, despite nature and its usual limits. Isaac the promised son is named “He Will Laugh” for the laughter of delight and incredulity, the radical amazement his parents experienced at the news of his coming birth. Oddly, Isaac himself is never seen laughing.
Simple and traditional readings of the texts make it easy to think of Isaac as an object, or at most a supporting actor in other people’s dramas. At the most dramatic moment of his own life, when the grown man Isaac presents his neck to the knife poised to make him a sacrifice, the narrative spotlight is on… his father. Although the event is called the binding of Isaac – note that Isaac is the object, not the subject of that phrase – it is generally viewed as the supreme challenge of Abraham’s life; it is a test of Abraham’s faith.
Without diminishing the extraordinary challenge Abraham faced in that episode, think about this: A 37 year old man’s willingness to lie down and be murdered for his God is defined and heralded through the ages as his father’s act of supreme faith.
Poor Isaac. His larger than life father had lived an epic life: Abraham traveled, dealt with, and when necessary, fought wars against kings. He debated God directly on behalf of justice, and when he lost that debate, went on to rescue his extended family from catastrophic destruction. Papa Abraham was a renowned hero in his time, and ever since. During his storied lifetime, Isaac’s father, who began as Abram, developed and grew through his many challenges, finally outgrowing the limits of his very name. He would be called Abraham, the father of many nations.
Skipping a generation, Isaac’s son Jacob became a hero in the model of his grandfather. He was active and engaged in the world. Despite a great deal of emotional challenge and ambivalence, Jacob, like Abraham, left his parents’ home to have adventures that required physical strength and mental cunning. A romantic hero, Jacob fell in love at first sight, and stayed to prosper and raise a large family. In the process, and through intense struggle with a mysterious adversary, Jacob emerged physically diminished but developmentally and spiritually enlarged. Jacob became Israel, the father of the tribes of the future Israel nation.
Where did that leave Isaac? Quiet Isaac was the man in the middle. His apparent passivity doesn’t resonate with many of today’s readers, who admire feats of derring-do in their heroes, whether holy or profane. At best, Isaac seems enigmatic, at worst, passive, even apathetic.
But I believe there is much more to Isaac. But it is not easily visible from the outside
The First Contemplative
Isaac’s quietude was striking. Awaiting the arrival of his bride, he meditated in the fields. We can imagine Isaac deep in a walking meditation – he is alone, day has begun to gather, and with it a subtle change of light and the sounds of nature.
Most of us have heard about the health benefits of meditation, and it turns out that Isaac is the longest-lived biblical patriarch.
Those who practice secular contemplation in nature (see, for example David Haskell, The Forest Unseen) report that all their senses open up to the environment: they smell the earth and discern its health. They hear the sounds of animals, birds and even insects and trees. They come to know the place intimately. At times they lose themselves in the harmony of place. Contemplation in nature leads to a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of the web of all life, including human life.
Contemplation is somewhere between thinking and meditation. It is wide vision, deep enlightenment. Contemplation is where rationalism and mysticism merge. Could Isaac have been the first contemplative?
Isaac was ideally suited for a life of contemplation. His materially and spiritually rich parents were able to give him the time, space, security as well as the faith with which to develop his own spiritual inclinations. Isaac lived in the desert, an environment preferred by later contemplatives of other faiths. Isaac never left the land that would become Israel, and was the only patriarch who cultivated the land. And then there is that matter of the names. Unlike his father and his son, whose personal development through action was reflected in their name changes, Isaac began and remained Isaac. He Will Laugh.
As he grew, Isaac became more deeply himself. He cultivated what is. He cultivated his internal life in the eternal present. The practice produced some practical advantages, as well. Later on in his business life, Isaac’s equanimity enabled him to walk away from conflict with those who cheated him without losing the blessings of prosperity.
Contemplative practice requires the skill of receptivity. It is practiced with stillness, with patience, with compassionate acceptance of all that is. Years of such practice reduce the ego and its sense of separateness. Contemplation enlarges and connects one to all of nature, and beyond. It alters the sense of time passing, replacing it with a refined taste of the present moment. The experience goes beyond words, and is therefore hard to describe. Nevertheless, mystics and others who meditate, regardless of tradition agree: Joy is the result. That’s Isaac.