The life of Isaac, son of Abraham: a movie treatment

The life of Isaac, son of Abraham: a movie treatment November 22, 2015


They say middle children are often ignored, compared to the ones who came before and after them. The same could be said of middle patriarchs, too.

Take Isaac, for example.

He’s kind of a big deal: he’s the miracle child that Sarah thought she would never have, he’s the beloved son that Abraham is asked to sacrifice — and whose life is then spared — and he’s one of the three names that gets repeated throughout the Old Testament whenever the prophets speak of “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

But how often has anyone considered the stories of Genesis from Isaac’s point of view? How often has his life story been dramatized?

There are plenty of films about Abraham and Jacob, but Isaac, to my knowledge, has never taken centre stage. Instead, he is always presented as a supporting character: as the son of Abraham, or as the father of Esau and Jacob.

This point stood out to me over the last two years as I researched, wrote and proofed an essay on films about the patriarchs of Genesis for an upcoming book called The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of the Bible and Its Reception in Film.

My essay looks at the wide variety of films that have been made about Abraham, his grandson Jacob and his great-grandson Joseph. Even his nephew Lot gets a few films to himself. But I could not find any films that were specifically about Isaac.

The closest I came, perhaps — the one film I found that might have told an Isaac-related story without putting Abraham or Jacob at the centre — was a silent film called Rébecca, though it appears to have been a movie about Abraham sending his servant to find a wife for Isaac, rather than a movie about Isaac himself.

It’s not too surprising that filmmakers and other storytellers have gravitated towards the patriarchs who lived on either end of Isaac’s life. On the surface, the lives of those patriarchs seem a lot more dramatic. But I think a story told from Isaac’s point of view could open up the book of Genesis in new and interesting ways.

The story would admittedly be somewhat episodic. And some of the gaps would have to be filled in. But there is actually a lot of information in the book of Genesis that a filmmaker could work with, if he or she put the pieces together.

The Bible often groups its stories by theme: first it tells us about the life of Abraham, then the life of Isaac, and so on. But if you lay the details out in chronological order, you start to notice interesting parallels and overlaps between those stories.

Abraham, for example, did not die until Jacob and Esau were about 15 years old — but how often has a film ever shown Abraham co-existing with his grandchildren?1

Or consider Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers while their grandfather Isaac was still alive — has any film ever acknowledged that there were other ancestors besides Jacob who could have wept over Joseph’s presumed death?

In fact, I think a film about Isaac could ultimately be something of a tragedy about the escalation of hostilities between brothers.

It would begin with Isaac and Ishmael, separated by their parents but not necessarily enemies themselves. It would then show Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright and Esau threatening revenge, but never really following through on his threat. And it would end with Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery and faking his death.

And Isaac would be the witness to all of this.

Here, then, is my take on what a movie (or miniseries) that began with Isaac’s birth and ended with his death could be like:

We could start with Isaac’s birth and explore the infant/toddler’s relationship with his half-brother Ishmael, who is 14 when Isaac is born.2 Perhaps they get along, perhaps they don’t. Maybe the boys get along even if their mothers don’t. But eventually, Isaac’s father sends Ishmael away, and Isaac loses his half-brother.

A few years go by. Isaac is now a teenager, maybe in his 20s, when he goes on a journey with his father. They prepare an altar. Suddenly Abraham binds him and puts him on the altar. Isaac may or may not comply on some level, but he must be freaking out — his life is about to end, and at his father’s own hand! Suddenly a voice stops his father. They see a ram, and Isaac’s father sacrifices that instead. They go home, no doubt bearing some psychological scars.

Isaac is 37 when his mother dies.3 Shortly afterward, Abraham sends his servant Eliezer back to his homeland to look for a wife for Isaac; the servant comes back with the daughter of Isaac’s cousin. Isaac is 40 when he marries Rebekah.4

Abraham himself takes a new wife, Keturah, and has several children by her. Once again, Isaac has half-siblings, but this time he’s the older one. How does he relate to them? Does he keep in touch with Ishmael?

While Abraham’s new wife is having children, Isaac’s wife is barren. It fills her with grief. Finally, when Isaac is 60 — two decades after he married Rebekah — his wife gives birth, to fraternal twins.5 From the beginning, they are rivals. Isaac favours one, his wife the other. Does Isaac tell his children to be careful around Grandpa, lest Abraham try to sacrifice one of them on an altar again? Maybe. Then again, maybe not; Abraham hasn’t tried anything like that with any of his new wife’s children.

Abraham does, however, give his other sons gifts and send them away to the lands of the east, just as he sent Ishmael away. He does not want anyone to claim the inheritance that he is leaving for Isaac. But Isaac, perhaps, misses some of them; his special status within the family prevents him from becoming close to any of his half-siblings.

Then, when Isaac is 75, his father Abraham dies.6 Ishmael and Isaac are reunited for their father’s funeral. Then they part ways.

After this, Isaac moves into Philistine territory and has a few adventures there. (His encounters with the Philistines are pretty much the only stories about Isaac in Genesis that don’t involve Abraham or Jacob.)

When Isaac is 100, his son Esau marries a couple of Hittite women, which disappoints Isaac, but not as much as it disappoints Rebekah.7

And then, as Isaac gets older and goes blind, things come to a head between his two sons. Jacob tricks him into giving Jacob a blessing that was meant for Esau. Esau vows to kill Jacob. Is it the first time a member of this family has threatened another with death? Maybe, although Abraham sending Isaac’s half-brother Ishmael into the wilderness with his mother was arguably a death sentence, too. (It did take an angel to keep them going, at first.)

Isaac’s son Jacob leaves, fleeing to the land that Isaac’s wife Rebekah came from. (Isaac himself has never been there.) Isaac has to live with his other son’s disappointment, and his own shame and guilt at falling for Jacob’s ruse. Plus there are the strains on Isaac’s relationship with his wife, who enabled Jacob’s ruse.

At one point, Isaac’s son Esau decides to appease his parents by marrying someone of their own kin, i.e. his cousin Mahalat, the daughter of Isaac’s half-brother Ishmael. Maybe Esau gets over his thirst for revenge when he learns about the history of his father and his uncle, who were separated by their own jealous parents.

Eventually Isaac’s wife dies. Has their son Esau forgiven her yet? Maybe, maybe not.

Isaac is also 123 when news arrives that his half-brother Ishmael has passed away.8

And then — decades after he left — Isaac’s son Jacob comes home, with twelve sons, a wife, and two concubines. (There was a second wife, but she died on the journey home, while giving birth to Isaac’s youngest grandchild.) Isaac is at least in his 150s by this point.9

Jacob may or may not also have a daughter with him; it’s not clear what her fate was after her brothers massacred the residents of Shechem. But it’s clear that Jacob has brought a lot of baggage home with him: his daughter is a widow, two of his sons are mass murderers, another of Jacob’s sons has slept with Jacob’s concubine…

But at least Isaac’s two sons are on friendly terms again. And at least one of those sons, Jacob, has finally come home.

Isaac is now 168 years old. He sits in his tent, maybe outside it. He is blind, so he can’t see anything either way. But he can hear. He hears his grandchildren. He hears the sons of one mother grumble about the son(s) of another. Isaac’s grandson Joseph is 17 and has been given a new coat of many colours…10

Isaac knows what it means to be a favoured son (especially when the other son has a different mother), and he knows the consequences of favouring a son (even when the sons have the same mother!). He can hear the bitter family dynamic starting again…

Eventually he hears his son Jacob’s grief when word comes that a wild animal has killed Joseph. Maybe Isaac suspects, deep down, that the other grandsons are lying. Or maybe he doesn’t know what to think. Maybe the same illness that has taken his eyes is taking his other senses, even his mental faculties.

Eventually, at the age of 180, he dies.11 And his sons, who are both 120, bury him.

He will never learn that his grandson Joseph is still alive. He will never learn just what the other grandsons did to Joseph. And he will never know about his clan’s move to Egypt just 10 years after his death.12 All of those things still lie in the future.

He never made the great migration from Haran to Canaan — that was his father’s doing. And he will never make the great migration to Egypt — that will be his son’s doing. Isaac is the in-between person, the one whose story seems to take place entirely in media res. But without him, we never would have gotten from here to there.

So, what do you think? It’s pretty episodic, sure. But there’s potential here, to look at some familiar stories from a whole new angle.

There may even be a way to tie in the fact that Isaac’s death almost coincided with Joseph’s liberation from slavery and prison. Jacob moved to Egypt during the second year of the famine, which itself followed seven years of plenty. So Jacob moved to Egypt about nine years after Joseph became the Pharaoh’s right-hand man. He also moved to Egypt only ten years after Isaac’s death.

That means Joseph became the Pharaoh’s right-hand man about one year after Isaac’s death. But it wouldn’t be too hard to move the two events just a bit closer together. And maybe there would be some magic-realist way of making the connection — like having Isaac die, and having his spirit leave his body and witness what’s happening to his grandson, with all that that means for the future of their family… or maybe having God grant Isaac a vision of what’s to come as Isaac takes his last breath…

Anyhoo. Just a thought.

The main point is, seeing the stories of Genesis from Isaac’s point of view could bring these stories to life in a whole new way. I’d like to see someone try it.

The pictures at the top of this post show Alberto Lucantoni as the young Isaac in The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966) and Joss Ackland as the old Isaac in Jacob (1994).

1. The Bible Collection’s Jacob begins with a scene in which Esau and Isaac are fastening their tents during a storm; Esau asks, “Is Abraham safe?” and Isaac replies, “Yes, his tent is out of the wind.” In the next scene, Isaac tells Rebekah that Jacob is “with his grandfather,” and when Jacob arrives at Isaac’s tent, he says, “I think Abraham hears God’s voice whenever the wind blows.” So Jacob acknowledges that the lives of Abraham and his grandsons overlapped, and it is the only film I can think of that does so. But the film never depicts Abraham himself, so there are no scenes that actually show him with his grandsons.

2. Abraham was 86 when Ishmael was born (Genesis 16:16) and 100 when Isaac was born (Genesis 21:5).

3. Sarah was 90 when Isaac was born (Genesis 17:17) and died at the age of 127 (Genesis 23:1).

4. Isaac is 40 when he marries Rebekah (Genesis 25:20).

5. Isaac is 60 when Rebekah gives birth to Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:26).

6. Abraham was 100 when Isaac was born (Genesis 21:5) and he lived to be 175 (Genesis 25:7).

7. Isaac was 60 when Esau was born (Genesis 25:26) and Esau was 40 when he got married (Genesis 26:34).

8. Ishmael was 14 when Isaac was born, and Ishmael died at the age of 137 (Genesis 25:17).

9. Jacob was 130 when he moved his family to Egypt (Genesis 47:9). Joseph was 30 when he started working for Pharaoh (Genesis 41:46), and he had served Pharaoh through the 7 years of abundance (Genesis 41:47) and 2 years of famine (Genesis 45:6) before Jacob moved to Egypt. Ergo, Joseph was 39 when Jacob was 130, so Joseph was born when Jacob was 91. And if Jacob was born when Isaac was 60 (Genesis 25:26), then Joseph was born when Isaac was 151. And Jacob did not return to Isaac’s home until after Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin had been born, so Isaac would have been at least 152 and probably a little bit older before he was reunited with Jacob.

10. See footnote 9. Joseph is 17 when Jacob gives him the many-coloured robe (Genesis 37:2-4).

11. Isaac is 180 years old when he dies (Genesis 35:28).

12. Jacob was born when Isaac was 60 (Genesis 25:26), so he was 120 when Isaac died at the age of 180 (Genesis 35:28). That was only 10 years before Jacob moved to Egypt at the age of 130 (Genesis 47:9).

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