WITH ONE POSSIBLE EXCEPTION, there has perhaps never been a birth more longed for and rejoiced in than Isaac's. Sarah was in her nineties when an angel told her that after years of barrenness she and her centenarian husband, Abraham, were finally going to have the child God had promised them, and their wild and incredulous mirth at this news prompted them to name him Isaac, which in Hebrew means "laughter." He is a shadowy figure compared to his father, Abraham, and his son Jacob, but at certain moments in his life the shadows recede, and he stands on the stage in a flood of light.
He was just a boy when, to see what Abraham was made of, God said that he was to take Isaac up into the hills and make a burnt offering of him. Abraham didn't have the heart to tell him what was going to happen, and if Isaac guessed, he didn't have the heart to admit that he did as they trudged side by side up the steep track. A mule was loaded down with the things they needed for making the fire, but the sacrificial animal was conspicuously absent, and when Isaac asked about it, Abraham choked out an evasive answer as best he could. By the time the wood was all laid out and ready to be lit, Isaac no longer had any doubts as to what lay in store for him, and maybe the reason he didn't fight for his life was that suddenly it didn't seem to him all that much worth fighting for. He let himself be tied up and laid out on top of the wood like an unblemished lamb, and, shaking like a leaf, the old man got as far as raising the knife over his head when God spoke up at last and said he'd seen all he needed to see and Abraham could use it on a ram instead. The lights switch off there, and the stage is returned mercifully to darkness.
Isaac was getting pretty long in the tooth himself when Abraham finally died, and he and his half brother, Ishmael, buried him in the same cave that years before Abraham had bought to bury Sarah in. If either of them said anything while they were at it, their words were not recorded, and maybe the scene was played out in silence—the two old men leaning on their shovels, out of breath, with the old man who had nearly been the end of both of them in his day lying six feet deep beneath their aching feet.
Isaac was on the verge of second childhood and almost blind when his son Jacob conned him into thinking he was his other son, Esau, so he could get the old man's blessing and the lion's share of the estate when that time came. Isaac had a hunch there was something fishy going on and called the young man over to be sure. The young man said he was Esau, but it was in Jacob's voice that he said it. Isaac couldn't trust his hearing all that much better than his eyesight, however, so he told him to let him touch him with his hands. Esau's hands were hairy, and he knew he'd know them anywhere. But Jacob had seen that coming, and Isaac wasn't sure whether what he felt were Esau's hairy hands or a pair of bearskin gloves. In fact, there was so little he could be sure of anymore, he thought, and he felt so old and hopeless and dumb, that he almost didn't care by then which son it was if he'd only stop badgering him. He sent out for a drink and a sandwich, which revived him a little, and then with a sudden rush of emotion, his all but useless eyes welling with tears, he reached out, pulled the young man to him, and kissed him. Clover and timothy, black earth, horse manure, rain—his ears and his eyes were all shot, he thought, and he couldn't even tell what he was touching half the time, what with his bad circulation, but at least he still had a nose that worked, and by now the lump in his throat was so big he could hardly get the words out of his mouth.
"See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the Lord has blessed," he said (Genesis 27:27), and then, not caring whether it was Esau or Jacob or Napoleon Bonaparte who was there on his knees before him, he gave out with a blessing that made all the other blessings he'd ever given sound like two cents.
Jacob had to get out of town in a hurry when Esau found out, and he was gone off and on for twenty years, but he came back again finally just in time to see Isaac once more before he died, although it's doubtful that Isaac was in any condition by then to know much about it. Then Jacob and Esau together, the guller and the gulled, buried him as by then they had also buried the hatchet, and thus the shadowy old man disappeared permanently into the shadows at last.
Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-22:19; 25:7-11; 35:27-29