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How Old Isaac

by Tim O'Hearn

It is sometimes surprising how much we are influenced in our view of scripture by artist’s rendering of certain events. Cherubs are cute little fat kids, rather than the fearsome multi-faced beasts of Ezekiel and the Revelation. When people see “Mary” or “Jesus” in a piece of burnt toast or a tortilla it is always some variation on Renaissance portrayals using northern European models. In like manner many people have pictured the akeida, the sacrifice of Isaac on the altar, based on the pictures in our Bibles or on our museum walls. But are those pictures accurate?

Most Jews and Christians know the story in Genesis 22. Abraham was asked to take his son, Isaac, to Mount Moriah (in what is now Jerusalem) to sacrifice him. (Some Muslims say it was Ishmael, not Isaac.) Abraham put Isaac on the altar and “stretched out his hand” and took the knife. (Many paintings have him holding the knife high in the air, which is not indicated in the passage.) An angel prevents Abraham from actually killing his son, instead pointing out a ram caught in the bushes, which was sacrificed. Nobody questions how a ram caught by his horns would have been quiet enough not to have been noticed before, but that is a separate question. Most artist renderings have Isaac looking anywhere from five to twelve years old. Is this accurate?

Genesis 22:12 uses the word “lad” (in English) to describe Isaac. The Hebrew word can mean a very young boy, but is more often used for a young bachelor of marriageable age. That still leaves a wide range of possible interpretations, but would probably put Isaac anywhere from twelve to his mid-twenties. Isaac was certainly old enough to be strong enough to carry wood a long distance. Which means he would have been strong enough to fight off his father, who was well past 100, had he not been willing to obey Abraham and God.

Two incidents recorded right after the akeida may shed some light on Isaac’s age. The first one less so than the second. It is recorded that “after these things” Abraham learned that his brother had children. This is interesting because God waited to give children to Nahor, apparently, until Abraham had an heir, and had established his faith in God. One of those nephews, Bethuel, was the father of Rebekah, who was to become Isaac’s perhaps much-younger wife. This might indicate that Isaac was on the younger side of youth.

Many rabbis make much about the start of the next chapter, which records the death of Sarah, Isaac’s mother. Sometimes things recorded within a few verses have many years between them. Nevertheless, some rabbis say that Sarah’s death followed immediately after Abraham and Isaac got home. One possibility proposed is that she had a heart attack upon learning what Abraham had done, and how close she had come to losing her son. Now, Sarah was 127 years old. If she died immediately after the incident in question, that would make Isaac about 36 years old. This, anyway, puts an upper limit on his age, although it seems quite high to be called a “lad.”

We don’t know how old Isaac was, and it probably doesn’t matter. He was probably at least in his teen years, and no older than 36. Most likely he was in his late teens or early twenties. Whatever his actual age, the point is that we cannot base our views of scripture on paintings or statues with which we are familiar. Artists can be wrong. The scripture is not.