The Faith of Isaac

By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau (Hebrews 11:20).

This is a very perplexing verse. For, anyone familiar with the life of Jacob will know that he deceived his father, Isaac, into giving him his blessing. Indeed, in blessing Jacob, Isaac thought he was blessing Esau. How then can the writer of Hebrews say that Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esauby faith? In order to answer this question, a quick review of Genesis 27 is required.

Isaac was old and blind when he called his favourite son, Esau, and told him that the time had come for him to receive his father’s blessing. But first, Isaac wanted to taste some venison (perhaps a reminder of the exhileration he experienced when feasting on that ram that had been caught in the thickets to stay his execution), and so he requested that Esau go hunting before receiving the blessing (Genesis 27:1-4).

Having listened-in on Isaac’s conversation with Esau, Rebecca mobilized her favourite son to steal Esau’s blessing by stealth. This was, perhaps, because she remembered the prophecy given to her from the LORD that the older twin, Esau, would server the younger, Jacob (Genesis 25:22-26). Whatever her reasons may have been, she successfully disguised her son with hairy garments to replicate the hairy body of Esau. The blind Isaac touched his costumed son and, upon smelling the goatish stench, he blessed Jacob thinking he was Esau (Genesis 27:5-27). The blessing went like this:

See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field that the LORD has blessed! May God give you of the dew of heaven and of the fatness of the earth and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you (Genesis 27:27-29).

Isaac’s intent was that Esau be lord over his brothers, so that his mother’s sons would bow down to him. This, of course, was a direct reference to Jacob, his younger twin brother.

When Esau returned with the hunted game and approached his father for his blessing, Isaac was made aware of his error. Rather than withdrawing his blessing from Jacob, however, he affirmed that it shall stand. Moreover, he blessed Esau with a blessing that sounds much more like a curse than a blessing:

Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling be, and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you grow restless you shall break his yoke from your neck (Genesis 27:39-40).

Therefore, Esau hated his brother and he sought to kill Jacob on account of his thievery (Genesis 27:41-45). And thus, Jacob fled for his life and did not return for almost two decades. So ends this chapter of salvation history.

By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau (Hebrews 11:20).

In what way was Isaac’s error an act of faith? He had wanted to bless Esau not Jacob. He had been deceived by his wife and son to do that which he had not planned, nor desired to do. And here, the writer of Hebrews is calling this an act of faith. How are we to make any sense of it?

This episode is instructive for us when it comes to a full-bodied understanding of biblical faith.

One: Faith does not require all the facts. Clearly Isaac was not in possession of all the facts. He had been flat out deceived. And yet, by the intentional act of blessing his son he did demonstrate faith. He was passing forward the blessing that the LORD had given to his father Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3), the same blessing that had been passed down to him (Genesis 17:15-21). Therefore, in spite of the deception, the act of blessing his son demonstrated faith in the LORD’s promise to Abraham, to him, and to his sons for generations to come.

Two: Faith chooses God’s will over one’s own will. It is no small thing that Isaac chose not to rescind the blessing that he had mistakenly bestowed upon Jacob. One might argue that even against cultural decorum, a blessing received by trickery is not necessary legitimate. However, when given the chance to make it right, Isaac chose to ratify his blessing of Jacob, not take it away. And, it must be noted, this time he was in possession of all the facts. In this sense, his blessing of Esau has the aroma of Gethsemane to it: “Not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). Isaac had wanted to bless Esau (Genesis 27:1-4), but the LORD wanted Isaac to bless Jacob (Genesis 25:22-23, Malachi 1:2-3, Romans 9:13). Somehow, Isaac was able to discern this reality and, therefore, by faith, he chose the will of the LORD over his own will, even though it had all transpired via paternal deception.

Three: Faith is not the creation of the self. It is true that we are all responsible for our own waywardness in every way. It is also true that it is we who must choose to exercise faith. In that sense, faith comes from within us and it must be harnessed by us. Moreover, we are responsible for our lack of faith, in whatever measure. And yet, this episode, perhaps more than many others, illustrates so plainly that faith is not something we can create or fully control. There is a quality to faith that is beyond us. There is a source to faith that is not rooted in us, but belongs to God, comes from God, and returns full back to God. In his exercise of faith, Isaac was not in control, and yet his actions matched the will of God. It is as though the faith of God was exercised through Isaac, in spite of Isaac, in order that the son that God desired to bless was blessed.  All of this without blaming God for the sin of Rebecca and Jacob! Sorting out the depth of this mystery is beyond me this morning, but at the very least, my hope is to expose this aspect to faith. There is an aspect to faith that dwells in the domain of God alone.

May God richley bless us and help us to act by faith even when we are not in possession of all the facts. May God assist us to act in accordance with His will even when it requires us to act against our own will. Most of all, let us praise Him that He will always remain faithful to Himself, even when we are in danger of acting faithless (2 Timothy 2:13).

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