Avraham and Yitzchak

Introduction

The dictum, מעשה אבות סימן לבנים (the deeds of the fathers are a sign for the sons), is particularly apt when speaking of the lives of Avraham and Yitzchak.  The stories of father and son are surprisingly similar, and many of the episodes that define the Avraham narrative find their echo in the life of Yitzchak.1  In several of these cases, linguistic parallels strengthen the comparison.

Content Parallels and Contrasts

Parallels Contrasts
Family Life

Barren wife

Despite blessings of progeny, both Sarah and Rivka are initially unable to conceive. While Sarah gives Hagar to Avraham in order to obtain an heir, Hashem opens Rivkah's womb after prayer.

Two children

Each of Avraham and Yitzchak has two sons, one of whom is favored by the mother, while the other is loved by the father.2 In Avraham's case, each child is born from a different mother. In contrast, Yitzchak's sons are twins, both born to Rivka.
  Younger son  chosen In both stories, the mother (Sarah/Rivka) acts to make sure that it is the younger sibling who inherits or is blessed. Avraham knowingly banishes Yishmael due to Sarah's demand and Hashem's command, whereas Yitzchak is duped by Rivka into blessing Yaakov..
Son marries non-Canaanite Both Avraham and Yitzchak ensure that their chosen son does not marry a Canaanite, but rather a woman from the family in Charan. While Avraham sends his servant to fetch the wife, Yitzchak sends Yaakov himself. Moreover, Yaakov has an additional purpose in leaving, his flight from Esav.
 Rejected son leaves & thrives
Both Yishmael and Esav leave their homeland, but grow to be great nations and fathers of numerous princes and chieftains.3 ---
Wife-sister    
Famine A famine leads both Avraham and Yitzchak to uproot.4 Though both patriarchs head to Egypt,5 Yitzchak is told to remain in Canaan.
Fear Recognition of their wives' beauty causes both husbands to fear that they will be killed and their wives taken by the locals. ---
Pretense Avraham and Yitzchak each pretend that their wives are really their sisters. By Avraham, the pretense is believed, but Sarah is nonetheless taken by Paroh. In contrast, Rivka's true status is discovered before she is taken and the king calls for her protection.
Great wealth The story ends with descriptions of the wealth of each of Avraham and Yitzchak. In contrast to Avraham who is enriched by the many gifts of the king, Yitzchak earns his own wealth through his successful farming.
Life in Gerar    
Digging wells Avraham and Yitzchak each dig wells in Gerar which are a source of dispute with the Philistines. Avraham's accusations focus on one stolen well, while Yitzchak deals with multiple squabbles.
Visit of Avimelekh Avimelekh and his general Pikhol visit and declare their recognition that Hashem is with Avraham / Yitzchak. ---
Oath and covenant
The two sides make a covenant and swear not to harm the other. ---
Beer Sheva Beer Sheva is named. By Avraham the name refers to the oath (שבועה) taken by Avraham and Avimelekh, while by Yitzchak it refers to the well named "שבעה".
Death    
Old age Both patriarchs die at a "ripe old age". ---
Burial Despite the earlier conflicts and potential for enmity, Yishmael and Yitzchak together bury Avraham, while Yaakov and Esav join to bury Yitzchak. ---

Literary Allusions

EN/HEע/E
סיפורי אברהם סיפורי יצחק
(כב:יז) כִּי בָרֵךְ אֲבָרֶכְךָ וְהַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה אֶת זַרְעֲךָ... וְיִרַשׁ זַרְעֲךָ אֵת שַׁעַר אֹיְבָיו. (כד:ס) וַיְבָרְכוּ אֶת רִבְקָה וַיֹּאמְרוּ לָהּ... אַתְּ הֲיִי לְאַלְפֵי רְבָבָה וְיִירַשׁ זַרְעֵךְ אֵת שַׁעַר שֹׂנְאָיו.
(כב:יז) כִּי בָרֵךְ אֲבָרֶכְךָ וְהַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה אֶת זַרְעֲךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם וְכַחוֹל אֲשֶׁר עַל שְׂפַת הַיָּם... (יח) וְהִתְבָּרְכוּ בְזַרְעֲךָ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקֹלִי. (כו:ג) וְאֶהְיֶה עִמְּךָ וַאֲבָרְכֶךָ... (ד) וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת זַרְעֲךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם... וְהִתְבָּרְכוּ בְזַרְעֲךָ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ. (ה) עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקֹלִי.
(יא:ל) וַתְּהִי שָׂרַי עֲקָרָה אֵין לָהּ וָלָד. (כה:כא) וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַי"י לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא.
(כד:ג) וְאַשְׁבִּיעֲךָ בַּי"י אֱלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם וֵאלֹהֵי הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר לֹא תִקַּח אִשָּׁה לִבְנִי מִבְּנוֹת הַכְּנַעֲנִי. (כח:א) וַיִּקְרָא יִצְחָק אֶל יַעֲקֹב וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ וַיְצַוֵּהוּ וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ לֹא תִקַּח אִשָּׁה מִבְּנוֹת כְּנָעַן. 
(יב:י) וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ וַיֵּרֶד אַבְרָם מִצְרַיְמָה לָגוּר שָׁם כִּי כָבֵד הָרָעָב בָּאָרֶץ. (כו:א) וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ... וַיֵּלֶךְ יִצְחָק... גְּרָרָה.. וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו י"י וַיֹּאמֶר אַל תֵּרֵד מִצְרָיְמָה
(יב:יא) ... הִנֵּה נָא יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת מַרְאֶה אָתְּ. (יב) וְהָיָה כִּי יִרְאוּ אֹתָךְ הַמִּצְרִים וְאָמְרוּ אִשְׁתּוֹ זֹאת וְהָרְגוּ אֹתִי וְאֹתָךְ יְחַיּוּ . (יג) אִמְרִי נָא אֲחֹתִי אָתְּ. (כו:ז) וַיִּשְׁאֲלוּ אַנְשֵׁי הַמָּקוֹם לְאִשְׁתּוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲחֹתִי הִוא כִּי יָרֵא לֵאמֹר אִשְׁתִּי פֶּן יַהַרְגֻנִי אַנְשֵׁי הַמָּקוֹם עַל רִבְקָה כִּי טוֹבַת מַרְאֶה הִוא.
(כא:כב) וַיֹּאמֶר אֲבִימֶלֶךְ וּפִיכֹל שַׂר צְבָאוֹ אֶל אַבְרָהָם לֵאמֹר  אֱ-לֹהִים עִמְּךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה. (כג) וְעַתָּה הִשָּׁבְעָה לִּי ...וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אָנֹכִי אִשָּׁבֵעַ.... וַיִּכְרְתוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם בְּרִית. (כו:כו) וַאֲבִימֶלֶךְ הָלַךְ אֵלָיו מִגְּרָר וַאֲחֻזַּת מֵרֵעֵהוּ וּפִיכֹל שַׂר צְבָאוֹ...
(כח) וַיֹּאמְרוּ רָאוֹ רָאִינוּ כִּי הָיָה י"י עִמָּךְ... וְנִכְרְתָה בְרִית עִמָּךְ... וַיִּשָּׁבְעוּ...
(כא:ל) וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי אֶת שֶׁבַע כְּבָשֹׂת תִּקַּח מִיָּדִי בַּעֲבוּר תִּהְיֶה לִּי לְעֵדָה כִּי חָפַרְתִּי אֶת הַבְּאֵר הַזֹּאת.  (לא) עַל כֵּן קָרָא לַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא בְּאֵר שָׁבַע כִּי שָׁם נִשְׁבְּעוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם. (כו:לב) וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא וַיָּבֹאוּ עַבְדֵי יִצְחָק וַיַּגִּדוּ לוֹ עַל אֹדוֹת הַבְּאֵר אֲשֶׁר חָפָרוּ וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ מָצָאנוּ מָיִם.  (לג) וַיִּקְרָא אֹתָהּ שִׁבְעָה עַל כֵּן שֵׁם הָעִיר בְּאֵר שֶׁבַע עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
(כה:ח) וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמׇת אַבְרָהָם בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל עַמָּיו. (ט) וַיִּקְבְּרוּ אֹתוֹ יִצְחָק וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל בָּנָיו .... (לה:כט) וַיִּגְוַע יִצְחָק וַיָּמׇת וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל עַמָּיו זָקֵן וּשְׂבַע יָמִים וַיִּקְבְּרוּ אֹתוֹ עֵשָׂו וְיַעֲקֹב בָּנָיו.

Analysis

  • Distinctive phrases – Several of these terms are unique to these narratives. The phrases "וְיִירַשׁ זַרְעֵךְ אֵת שַׁעַר" 6,"וְהִתְבָּרְכוּ בְזַרְעֲךָ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַעְתָּ",  and "לֹא תִקַּח אִשָּׁה מִבְּנוֹת כְּנָעַן" appear only here, while the description "וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ"‎7‎ and the word pair "וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמׇת"‎8 each occur in only one other verse.  Finally, only two other people in Tanakh are described as an "עֲקָרָה‎"‏‎,9‎ or as dying "זָקֵן וּשְׂבַע יָמִים".‎10
  • Degree of similarity – Many of the parallels have a high degree of similarity.  Several phrases are totally identical (as above), while in others the choice of word is the same, though the form might differ due to number, tense, or gender.11  In a few cases, the meaning is maintained but the word choice is different.12
  • Roles in their respective stories – All of the linguistic similarities serve to reinforce the content parallels, highlighting the similar story-lines of the two narratives.  Interestingly, none of the parallels serve to compare the individual characters of Avraham and Yitzchak, but rather the events of each of their lives.

Explicit references

At several points in the Yitzchak narrative, the text explicitly refers the reader back to the Avraham narratives, reinforcing that the reader is meant to compare the two:

  • Bereshit 26:1 – "וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ מִלְּבַד הָרָעָב הָרִאשׁוֹן אֲשֶׁר הָיָה בִּימֵי אַבְרָהָם"
  • Bereshit 26:3-6 – "וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת הַשְּׁבֻעָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ... עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם "בְּקֹלִי
  • Bereshit 26:18 – "וַיָּשׇׁב יִצְחָק וַיַּחְפֹּר אֶת בְּאֵרֹת הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר חָפְרוּ בִּימֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו וַיְסַתְּמוּם פְּלִשְׁתִּים אַחֲרֵי מוֹת אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקְרָא לָהֶן שֵׁמוֹת כַּשֵּׁמֹת אֲשֶׁר קָרָא לָהֶן אָבִיו." 
  • Bereshit 26:24 –  "וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו י"י בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא וַיֹּאמֶר אָנֹכִי אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ אַל תִּירָא כִּי אִתְּךָ אָנֹכִי וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת זַרְעֲךָ בַּעֲבוּר אַבְרָהָם עַבְדִּי. "

Conclusions

The above parallels shed light on both the character of Yitzchak and on how he compares to his father:

  • A link in the chain –  The many parallels underscore how Yitzchak's life appears to be no more than an echo of his father's, with no innovations of his own.  He has similar family strife and business complications.  He repeats his father's deeds, calling his wife his sister, re-digging Avraham's wells, renaming Beer Sheva, and renewing the covenant with Avimelekh.  This repetition, though, need not be viewed negatively.  It is possible that in contrast to Avraham's trail-blazing, Yitzchak's strength lay in his preservation and continuation of the tradition.13
  • Strong or weak? – Although some of the contrasts between the stories suggest a very passive Yitzchak (he does not find his own wife and is tricked by Rivka), others point to a strong character who merits special providence by God.  Thus, in contrast to Avraham, Yitzchak actively prays for children,14 earns his own wealth, and persistently digs wells despite the disputes.  In turn, Hashem actively watches over him: He bears children without the need to take another wife, Rivka is never actively endangered in Gerar, and Hashem reassures Yitzchak regarding the Philistines.
  • Man of the Land – R"D Sabato15 notes that many of the unique aspects of Yitzchak relate to the Land of Israel.  In contrast to his father Avraham, Yitzchak remains in Canaan during famine, and in contrast to his son Yaakov, Yitzchak does not leave Israel to find a wife.  Additionally, unlike Avraham, Yitzchak engages in agriculture in addition to shepherding, thus staking out the land as his own.16  Yitzchak thus begins to realize the promise of "זרע וארץ" by sowing (זרע) and settling the land.17
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