The Fear of Isaac

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Hebrews 10:31

My attention was recently drawn to a unique Old Testament title for God found only twice in the Scriptures, and both times in the 31st chapter of Genesis.  There we hear Jacob telling his uncle and father-in-law Laban:

“If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God saw my affliction and the labor of my hands, and rebuked you last night.” Genesis 31:42

The Fear of Isaac. While Isaac’s very name means “he laughs,” and laughter marks many points in the scriptural narratives associated with him, the Sacred Scriptures do record one incident where Isaac experienced sheer terror.  Despite repeatedly promising Abraham that he would be the father of a multitude of nations, God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on a mountain in Moriah.  After climbing the mountain with his father, Isaac asked, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Gen. 22:7) We then read:

“When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.” Genesis 22:9-10

How terrifying! Surely Abraham must have shared God’s promise with Isaac, and Isaac certainly remembered it. But Isaac’s terror must have been relieved when he heard God say to his father:

“Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Genesis 22:12

While the Scriptures clearly present this as God testing Abraham, we know that in His omniscience God already knew both Abraham and Isaac thoroughly.  In “A Grief Observed,” a very short work written shortly following his wife’s death from cancer, the author C.S. Lewis writes:

“God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality.  He knew it already.  It was I who didn’t…He always knew my temple was a house of cards.  His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”

Perhaps Isaac learned something of his own faith on the mountain in Moriah, and that his God is a dangerous God.  He’s a danger to plans, pretenses and presumptions, and to fear Him is, in part, to acknowledge that He is such a danger and that in the face of that danger, his own faith (and ours) is rather small.