Was Isaac Mentally Challenged?

In his book How Good Do We Have to Be? Harold Kushner writes (pages 73-74): “I confess that I have never liked or understood the story in chapter 22 of the Book of Genesis, where God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, born to him after many years of childlessness, and then intervenes to stop it at the last moment. I never like the way it portrayed God, making such an outrageous demand, or the way it portrayed Abraham, so ready to obey it. But some years ago, I read an article by a physician suggesting that Isaac may have been a retarded child. He shares many of the traits of the retarded. He was born to older parents. He periodically gets into trouble by not understanding the consequences of his actions. He is the only man in all the Bible whose parents worry about his getting married, and ends up marrying a woman whose outstanding quality is her kindness. If that theory is correct, the doctor wrote, maybe that is why Abraham thought he heard the voice of God telling him to slay his son, as many societies in the ancient world did to imperfect children. And God’s intervening would then represent His proclaiming to Abraham that even such a child is fashioned in God’s image, that even such a life is holy.”

This potential interpretation of the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac helps me understand the story better. This would explain why

  • Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac in the first place (surely God would give Abraham a much better heir the second time)
  • Isaac allowed himself to be tied up (12-year-old boys can be very strong, especially when struggling against a 112 year old man)
  • Isaac never harbored ill-will against his dad after that event (Hey, Dad, remember when you tried to kill me and the angel intervened?)
  • Abraham sent a servant to get Isaac’s wife (the first time Rebekah saw Isaac was after she was committed to marry him and traveled a long way from her home)
  • Isaac couldn’t tell the difference between his sons’ voices when Jacob deceived him and how Rebekah could fool her own husband for her favorite son
  • Of the three patriarchs, Isaac did the least, virtually nothing, except being the grandfather of the 12 tribes

It also helps me understand the mantra “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

  • I am the God of Abraham: a rich and powerful man yet who was willing to pimp his own wife in Egypt
  • I am the God of Isaac: a man with mentally challenged who accomplished nothing in life except be the father of twin boys
  • I am the God of Jacob: a man who struggled with God’s angel all night and was also a thief, cheater, liar, and deceiver

God is the God of everyone – even the infirm – and he welcomes and accepts as His own all of us, regardless of our frailties. We will never know whether Isaac was mentally challenged or not, but if he was, then that tells me that God is not bound by my human condition and can use me (and you!) for whatever God chooses.


Lead On!