Matthew Shanahan, M.Sc.

Matthew Shanahan M.Sc.

Living It

The Bible and Psychology – Isaac's Obedience

A series looking at the psychology of eight important men in the Bible

Posted Apr 04, 2013

Continuing this eight-part series on men in the Bible, the fourth in the series is Isaac. As a practicing, committed Catholic for over fifteen years, I have learned a lot about Abraham and about Jacob/Israel. I find that not much is said, known, or understood about Isaac in common Christian experience. As this series is intended as a psychological profile of important men in the Bible, I will combine what I know about Isaac from the Bible with what I might reflect on about possible psychological dynamics at play in Isaac’s story.

The truly amazing thing about Isaac is inextricably linked with his father, Abraham. Isaac is recorded as allowing himself to be tied up and put on pyre for the offering. With minds today far removed from ancient times, it is difficult to understand what this was about, for good or ill. What I imagine, though, is that Isaac learned to trust his father, Abraham, in a way similar to the way Abraham trusted God. This seems to me a deep truth worth pondering at great length. Human beings can’t help but model who they are on the person who gives them life.

The substance that I attribute to Isaac, though it is not recorded in the Bible, and so is my own attribution, are the tears that someone in his position might have shed. I don’t believe Isaac was weepy. I don’t expect any of the Patriarchs were weepy, but the helpless assent and obedience that was required of him on the occasion of Abraham’s sacrifice would leave him in the ultimate ‘victim’ position. We often hear of Abraham’s faith. I feel we could hear more often, as Christians and indeed as human beings subject to the authorities in our families and societies, about Isaac’s obedience and faith as well.

Going ahead in the story, I sometimes wonder how Isaac could have been off the mark with his favour for his eldest son Esau, when God’s favourite was Isaac’s son Jacob. With utmost reverence and respect for the family tree here, I wonder if Esau’s hunting skills and manly strength was something Isaac loved to see in contrast to Jacob’s domestic nature, “keeping to his tents”. Jacob’s less hairy and gentler demeanor might have reminded Isaac of his own crucible, just for a moment, as a potential helpless victim. Sometimes the very best that is within us is the hardest thing to acknowledge.

Unacknowledged virtue is often what we most fear in ourselves, or avoid in our lives, or detest in others. Fellow PT blogger Ken Page describes this in his entry “How Our Insecurities Reveal Our Deepest Gifts”. Isaac’s reverent submission to his father, and his few words about it, remind me of the great power of accepting powerlessness: the power of obedience. In this week after the celebration of Easter, I have a clearer sense as I write this of Isaac’s special testimony to the power of the Cross.

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