How Old Was Isaac When Abraham Was Told to Offer Him?
The Bible does not give a direct answer to the question of Isaac’s age when he was about to be offered as a sacrifice by his father. We therefore must conclude that neither our understanding of the passage nor our grasp of the points that God wants us to learn depend on knowing his age. However, some linguistic data are available that shed some light on the matter by pointing us in the direction of Isaac being older than we normally think, i.e., 20+.
In the first place, consider the details pertaining to chronology. Sarah gave birth to Isaac when she was 90 years old (Genesis 17:17). She would have been 92 or 93, 95 at most, when Isaac was weaned. She died at age 127 (Genesis 23:1)—when Isaac was 37 years old. Following Isaac’s birth, the events of the rest of Genesis chapter 21 (i.e., the driving out of Hagar and Ishmael, and the incident with Abimelech), as well as the events of chapter 22, all occurred during a 35-year period (approximately). Notice the expression “many days” in Genesis 21:34, as well as the phrase “after these things” in 22:1. These allusions would suggest that some time had elapsed prior to the offering of Isaac.
In the second place, the term “lad” used to refer to Isaac (21:5,12) is a flexible Hebrew term that does not necessarily refer to what we ordinarily think of—i.e., a boy. Rather, the term encompasses a wide range of meanings—from a baby (e.g., Exodus 2:6; 2 Samuel 12:16) to a young man (e.g., Absalom in 2 Samuel 14:21; 18:5). It even can refer to “servant” or “attendant” (e.g., 2 Samuel 16:1) as well as soldier/leader (1 Kings 20:14,15,17,19). Look closely at the context of the Isaac passage in 22:5 where the servants that accompanied Abraham and Isaac are referred to as “young men” (22:3,5,19). The word “servants” is precisely the same term that is used in verses 5 and 12 to refer to Isaac (cf. Gesenius, 1979, p. 555; Wigram, 1980, p. 823; Harris, et al., 1980, 2:585-586). Were the servants that accompanied Abraham 5 to 7 year olds? Or were they older?
Third, Isaac was given the task of carrying the wood for the impending sacrifice (22:6). There would have been enough wood to consume a human body when set on fire. Could a 5- to 7-year-old child carry such a burden?
Several commentators have weighed in on this question. Leupold wrote: “He may by this time have arrived at the age of some eighteen to twenty years” (1942, 1:625). Josephus stated: “Now Isaac was twenty-five years old” (1.13.2). Adam Clarke said: “[I]t is more probable that he was now about thirty-three” (1:140, emp. in orig.). Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown asserted that Isaac was “then upwards of twenty years of age” (n.d., p. 29). J. Curtis Manor described him as “a youth of sufficient strength and agility to carry a load of firewood up a mountainside” (1994, p. 103). Keil and Delitzsch affirmed that “this son had grown into a young man” (1976, 1:248). Morris added: “[T]he meaning in Isaac’s case should also be ‘young man’ ” (1976, p. 373).
We conclude that as the several lines of evidence converge, they point to Isaac being a young man—not a young boy.
Clarke, Adam (no date), Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon).
Gesenius, William (1979 reprint), Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Harris, R. Laird, Gleason Archer, Jr. and Bruce Waltke, eds. (1980), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago, IL: Moody).
Jamieson, Robert, A.R. Fausset, and David Brown (no date), A Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Josephus, Flavius (1974 reprint), “Antiquities of the Jews,” The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus, transl. William Whiston (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Keil, C.F. and F. Delitzsch (1976 reprint), Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Leupold, H.C. (1950 reprint), Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Manor, J. Curtis (1994), Adventures From the Pentateuch (Fort Worth, TX: Star Bible Publications).
Morris, Henry M. (1976), The Genesis Record (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Wigram, George V. (1980 reprint), The Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).