Isaac’s Meditation, Wandering, and Humor in the Bible

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Gen 24:63 And Isaac went out to meditate in the field in the evening; and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, there were camels coming (RSV).

1. Isaac’s meditation

Isaac is Abraham’s legitimate heir from whom Israelite ancestor’s genealogy continues for generations. He was a miraculous baby as Abraham and Sarah had him at their very old ages, and he survived the critical situation, in which God designated him as an offering of a sacrifice. He is often described as an exemplar of obedience to God because he, obeying God’s order, went upon the altar despite that he could have brought old Abraham under his control.

Some people say that Gen 24:63 tells us another anecdote about Isaac’s religious faithfulness. In Gen 24, Abraham’s servant went on a long journey to get Isaac’s wife to Paddan-aram and returned to Canaan with Rebekah. According to v. 63 (KJV and RSV), on that evening, Isaac was meditating in the field by coincidence and noticed the servant coming home. You might have heard of a sermon that praises Isaac’s disciplined religious lifestyle, encouraging that we also have to pray regularly as Isaac did. But was he really praying at that moment? Alas! The meaning of the original word for “to meditate” in v. 63 is uncertain. We do not know what exactly he was doing in the field.

The original word for “to meditate” here is “śûaḥ” which occurs only once in the entire Herew Bible. We call such a word “hapax legomenon” Meanings of Hebrew words require many examples to know because biblical Hebrew is an ancient language that is no longer spoken daily. So meanings of words like “śûaḥ” are difficult to know or deduce. Even ancient translations do not seem to know the exact meanings of the word. For example, an old Greek translation renders it as “to gossip,” whereas Vulgate took it as “to meditate.” Such a difference between these two ancient translations reveals that the word’s meanings were already long forgotten at their times. One of the most famous English translations KJV follows Vulgate as it has “Isaac went out to meditate.” Likewise, RSV has “Isaac went out. . . to meditate.” These seem to suggest English translations of this verse generally chose to follow Vulgate.

2. Isaac’s Wandering

But more recent translations, for instance, NRSV, the revised version of RSV, “corrected” this translation as “walking.” According to v. 65, Rebekah noticed a man, that is, Isaac, “walking” in the field to meet her. Rebekah did not see him praying. So NRSV renders v. 63 likewise, “Isaac went out. . . to walk.”

3. Humor in the Hebrew Bible

Maybe the situation does not seem so funny to you, but I think there is an element of humor. The first sight of Isaac for Rebekah was “wanderer.” According to the ancient patriarchal culture, Isaac was the one whom Rebekah had to rely on for her life, but a “wanderer” does not seem to be very reliable. Or maybe the author wanted to describe Isaac as an agitated person waiting for his mysterious bride. Nothing is clear, but what is certain is that Isaac does not seem to be a typical patriarch who shows seriousness. Such a twisted plot is an element of humor. As I mentioned in some other posts, the name of character, Isaac, means “laugh,” and he himself is often a humorous element in the Hebrew Bible. As Isaac’s wandering in the field adds up his humorous character, translating “śûaḥ” as “to walk” well fits to the overall Isaac narrative.

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