🔼The name Isaac: Summary
- Laughter, He Will Laugh
- From the verbs צחק (sahaq) and שחק (sahaq), to laugh or make fun.
🔼The name Isaac in the Bible
Isaac gets quite a bit of Biblical screen time in the New Testament (where his name is spelled Ισαακ). Two thousand years after Isaac breathed his last, Jesus proclaimed him, his father and his son as being alive and well, and not dead (Luke 20:37). Isaac is mentioned twice in relation to Abraham's willingness to sacrifice him on Mount Moriah (Hebrews 11:17, James 2:21), which is a difficult story that we'll look at in some detail below, and he is celebrated as the child of the promise three times (Romans 9:7, Galatians 4:28, Hebrews 11:18).
The name Isaac occurs 20 times in the New Testament; see full concordance.
🔼Etymology of the name Isaac
The name Isaac is usually spelled יצחק and sometimes ישחק. It comes from the verbs צחק (sahaq) and שחק (sahaq) meaning to laugh:
The verbs צחק (sahaq) and שחק (sahaq) are probably two different written forms of the same verbal verb: both mean to laugh, to express joy or delight, to have fun, to sport, to play, to fool around, to deride, to mock, and so on. Nouns צחק (sehoq) and שחק (sehoq) or שחוק (sehoq) mean laughter, game, sport, and so on. The noun משחק (mishaq) refers to the object of derision, or something laughed about.
Note that these words correspond both to leisure activities, and to child-like states. Humans are so successful and carefree relative to other animals that humans can remain playful all throughout life. Laughter and expressions of fear of grief are physiologically very kindred, which is why it's often not clear whether someone is laughing or crying. Laughter is also very contagious, which is why it's associated to singing and other expressions of synchronicity, such as international trade, artistic schools and ultimately the Internet.
The question whether Sarah laughed out of joy or out of mockery (Genesis 18:12) is usually answered in her disfavor. Here at Abarim Publications we find that wholly unjust. Sarah laughed within herself and she denied she did, perhaps because she was trying to be polite, or perhaps because she was afraid that she might get yelled at. But Abraham laughed as well and for the same reason, namely out of gladness for being promised a son (Genesis 17:17).
To mark that promise, Abraham had circumcised himself, his son Ishmael and the entire tribe he ruled (Genesis 17:23). And to put that in perspective: previously, Abraham had waged a war with 318 men that were born in his house (Genesis 14:14). Add to them their elderly fathers, younger brothers and an untold number of foreign-born men and we get an idea of what an operation this would have been. Abraham must have been an incredibly persuasive man to get this all done without causing an insurrection. And Sarah was most likely, likewise, busy for months appeasing the women.
When Isaac was finally born, Sarah said, "God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me". (Genesis 21:6). Centuries later, Paul wrote, "By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered him faithful who had promised". (Hebrews 11:11) Sarah's faith therefore existed before she conceived of Isaac, not after, and she laughed because of that faith.
For a meaning of the name Isaac, NOBSE Study Bible Name List has Laughter and Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names has Laughing. BDB Theological Dictionary proposes He Laugheth.
🔼The sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah
As one of the most seductive scenes in the Bible, the sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah has attracted its fair amount of scorn. Far be it from us here at Abarim Publications to tell the reader what to think (this story, like any story, exists so that the reader can make up their own mind about the difficult truths about being human) but a few pointers might help sort things out:
As we often mention in our articles, the Bible, and particularly the book of Genesis is a fractal, whose defining structures repeat at various levels of complexity. But it also follows the progression of mankind's signature mind as it arose naturally from the animal plain (Psalm 73:22, Ecclesiastes 3:18, 2 Peter 2:12, Jude 1:10). Humanity's mind is one of words — basically, without speech there is no conscious thought and without the word (ονομα, onoma) there is no law (νομος, nomos) — and words are social things that formed like mist in the cooling night, spontaneously in the vast realm of increasingly calm and cooperative social interactions. Very early humans probably demonstrated their peaceful intentions by imitating others. The others did the same, and their mutual expressions gravitated toward shared verbal symbols that became the first words. That means that the sapiens-part of the familiar term homo sapiens says something about humanity's social development rather than physical evolution, and about the depth of mankind's social complexity rather than the shape or form of one single brain.
In Hebrew symbolic jargon, water, light and human culture are discussed with the same set of words (see our article on the name Tigris for a more detailed look at this), which is how in the Bible the beginning of mankind is marked by a mist rising from the earth (Genesis 2:6). Humanity, or Adam, was "born" when the first words had been accepted as legal tender in an economy of information that began to rise from the animal world and began to form its own hydrological cycle of reason (Genesis 2:7). With his first words, man began to name the other animals (Genesis 2:19-20), and try his hand at the first rudiments of agriculture (Cain), animal husbandry (Abel), music (Jubal), tent-living (Jabal), and metallurgy (Tubal-cain). But mankind's true breach from the animal world came as a result of man's quest for wisdom (skill, knowledge, science, technology, and the deliberate pursuit thereof), which the Torah represents as the line descending from Seth and particularly his son Enosh, in whose days "men began to call upon the name YHWH" (Genesis 4:26).
The line of Seth culminated in Noah, whose flood definitively separated mankind from animal kind, and whose vineyard (Genesis 9:20, Isaiah 5:1) depicts mankind as a collective, social, cultural and intellectual entity rather than a physical entity (see our article on the noun αμπελος, ampelos, vine).
Mankind's first great urban centers were the capitals of centralized empires (towers of Babel), but their sovereignty became challenged by rebels who started traveling and trading between these centers (Abraham). Social contracts became more complex, and began to emphasize genetic diversity over tribal exclusivity (see our article on γαμος, gamos, marriage), and just before Jacob began to "build houses for him and his livestock" (Succoth), Abraham had attempted to sacrifice Isaac on Moriah.
This event is rather crucial since Moriah became the hill upon which Solomon would build the temple of YHWH (2 Chronicles 3:1). Since this temple was devoted to information technology (specifically, alphabetical script), the sacrifice of Isaac on Moriah describes some kind of primary principle that sits at the very heart of IT, and that means that it sits at the very heart of this snazzy modern world of ours.
The Bible as we know it stems from oral traditions, which doubtlessly were moralistic adaptations of popular legends, which were doubtlessly based on the lives and deeds of actual historical, flesh-and-bones individuals. But the Bible is a work of literary art, not a newspaper. Rather obviously, none of the heroes we've mentioned up to this point are flesh-and-bones historical individuals, but rather embodiments of stations of human complexity which every growing child still has to traverse (which is why God is the God of the living and not of the dead: Matthew 22:32). Jacob's houses at Succoth are not the first stables for cattle but rather the first physical centers of wisdom; the first academia, if you will. Of course, Mamre and Melchizedek had treated Abraham to their formidable share of wisdom, but these were tribal schools: focal points of cultural wisdom that congealed at the heart of economic basins. Jacob had begun to build to first international centers, where travelers from all over the world could converge upon and create physical centers for the international trade (of goods, services and wisdom), which had begun in Abraham (1 Kings 10:24-25, Acts 2:5, Revelation 21:24).
Most men are loyal, but most men are loyal to their local group, their family or tribe. That's where all forms of nationalism and religion come from, which are marked by nonsense terms like "fatherland" and "brotherhood", and the idea that "we" the good guys are to wage war on "them" the bad guys. Most people, even today, believe that our world essentially consists of parties and factions that continuously compete and struggle to survive. Those same people believe that natural evolution is primarily driven by the principle of survival of the fittest.
In Abraham, people began to realize that the whole of creation is a unified and closed system, whose Creator and Sustainer is therefore equally One (see our article on the verb πασχω, pascho, to experience, and particularly the paragraph that says God is the Oneness of All Things). People who understand this, also understand that evolution is primarily driven by cooperation and symbiosis, and ultimately the survival of the weakest. Said otherwise: the giants of old did not die out because they were defeated by something even greater but because they began to fit in less and less, until they were identified as unsustainable and rejected by the rest of the unified biosphere.
Isaac marks the level at which mankind began to understand that beyond one's tribe, there is a greater identity to be loyal to: namely that of the whole entirety of the unified dynamic system that is our earth, from the hydrological cycle and weather patterns in the atmosphere, to the cycle of life and migratory patterns in the biosphere, to the patterns in culture and science and technology in mankind's κοσμος (kosmos). And because all is one, and all is described by the same unified theory of everything, leaders and heroes are sorely overrated (Matthew 23:10, John 17:11, 17:21-23).
Isaac's sacrifice on Moriah is part of a very old story that handles the great mysteries of being human in images that are not immediately recognizable to the untrained eye, but a covert defense of human sacrifice is obviously not part of that (2 Kings 3:27, 16:3, 17:17-18, 23:10, Psalm 106:37-39, Jeremiah 7:31, 19:5, 32:35, Ezekiel 16:21)— just like Jesus' instructions to eat his flesh and drink his blood are equally obviously not about cannibalism. The character of Abraham represents the stage of humankind where individuals left their familiar realms (Luke 14:26) and began to engage strangers in international trade (Matthew 5:47).
Abraham's defeat of the pentapolitan coalition headed by Amraphel, the recovery of Lot and his alliance with Melchizedek represent the beginning of autonomous, non-imperial communities plus a voluntary taxation system, and thus the collective coffers that would ultimately become central banks and universities (see our article on the noun ναος, naos, meaning temple). In Abraham, mankind began to appreciate the importance of manners and codes of conduct (see our article on the verb περιτεμνω, peritemno, to circumcise), and learned to differentiate between sisters and wives and husbands and brothers (the failure to do so clearly wrecked the ruling families of Egypt, and certainly helped Egypt's demise, which in turn helped trigger the Bronze Age Collapse — see our article on Hellas).
Crucially to our present story, in Abraham, mankind began to understand that one's own survival did not depend on one's own strength but rather on the strength of one's social network. Likewise — and this is told as Isaac's sacrifice on Moriah — the survival of one's family did not depend on the loyalty to one's own family but rather one's loyalty to the whole of mankind and the whole of all living things (Adam's wife Eve was called the "mother of all living" and thus embodied the entire biosphere). In Abraham, mankind began to understand that the nature that we are part of runs on laws (called Logos, or Word). Mankind's collective knowledge of these laws is thus the (divine) Word in (human) Flesh (John 1:14). The first conscious engagement of the Logos and mankind happened, you guessed it, in Abraham, and this miracle is described in Genesis 15:1 — and contrary to certain modern translations, Genesis 15:1 does not say: "and the Lord said to Abraham...", but rather "and the Word of YHWH appeared to Abraham, and said...". And that is not a subtle difference.
Like all Biblical heroes, the literary character of Jesus Christ is most likely, but inconsequentially, based on historical events. The Jesus of the Bible is a literary character, not a historical one. He embodies the Logos, which not only describes the workings of the whole of created reality (1 Kings 4:33, 1 Thessalonians 5:21) but also the intimate nature of the inevitable Creator (compare Colossians 1:19 and Hebrews 1:3 to Romans 1:20). Obviously, the laws of nature apply to the whole of nature, which is why God's promise to Abraham (Galatians 3:7) has always applied to the whole of mankind (Genesis 12:3, John 12:32, Zechariah 8:23), even the whole living world (Romans 8:22, Colossians 1:23).
It's taken quite a few turbulent millennia for modern mankind to arrive at this tricky 21st century of ours, but if we human parents want to preserve the lives of our children, we must overcome the illusion of our tribal (religious, cultural, national) superiority, and sacrifice whatever איל ('ayil) we find stuck in the thicket.