Of the three patriarchs, Isaac remains the most obscure. With only a brief interruption regarding the fate of Lot in the city of Sodom and the report of Eliezer’s mission to secure a wife for Isaac, Abraham is the central figure of chapters twelve through twenty-five of the Book of Genesis. And the narrative of Jacob and sons takes up chapters twenty-seven through fifty. In fact, precious little space is devoted to Isaac. Except for the brief dialogue with his father before the Akedah, and an equally brief narrative about his blindness in his advanced years, we learn little about Isaac’s character or achievements. The only actions associated with Isaac are his journey to Gerar and his re-opening of the wells dug by his father but closed by the Philistines (Chapter 26).
In the text Abraham is glorified as a pioneer and Jacob an action hero. But in the Midrash, it is Isaac who emerges as the star. In his interpretation of Isaiah 63:16, Rabbi Jonathan (Shabbat 89b) imagines that in the future, God will tell the patriarchs how the people Israel – their children – have sinned. Abraham, in his uncompromising way, will say: “Let them be wiped out for the sanctification of Your name!” Even Jacob, who experienced the pain of raising a large and conflicted family, will have no mercy. He too will say: “Let them be wiped out for the sanctification of Your name!” But Isaac would not join the chorus.
Isaac would first assert that the people Israel are not just the children of the patriarchs; they are the children of God as well. Moreover, I saac would argue that the average life expectancy of a human being is seventy years. Until a person reaches the biblical age of adulthood at twenty, no sins can be accounted against him. Half of the remaining years are spent in sleep when no sins can be committed. And half of that remainder is spent in eating or prayer or in performing bodily functions when such preoccupation forestalls sin. And were God to hold people responsible for the meager number of sins possible in the remaining time, Isaac would declare: “Let their sins be upon me as I have already offered myself to You as a sacrifice!”
Isaac’s experience had transformed him. He was prepared to be forgiving for two reasons. First, he was willing to lay down his life for a principle. And second, in contrast with Abraham and Jacob, Isaac understood what it meant to lay at the brink of disaster. Isaac appreciated confronting oblivion. He looked at death in the face and saw its finality. That is why, according to Rabbi Jonathan, the prophet Isaiah has the people Israel lovingly calling Isaac “Father.” Abraham and Jacob were heroes in the ordinary sense. But Isaac was a hero in another.