What’s Your Isaac?

This morning, Bo the Poodle and I did our customary routine, riding in my car to QuikTrip for a large refill of Diet Dr. Pepper. To those who want to tell me that diet soda is worse for your health than regular soda, I would like to say, “Shut up!” I don’t really care. I don’t drink coffee, and I like my Diet Doc.

Yesterday, in preaching on Genesis 22, my pastor asked us, “What is your Isaac?” In other words, what is the thing that you would find it difficult or impossible to give up if God required it. In Genesis 22:2, we hear God establishing this category:

“Take your son,” he [God] said, “your only son Isaac, whom you love, go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

In this verse, God piles on the pain. He starts off telling Abraham to take his son. Then he emphasizes that Isaac is Abraham’s only son. Then God calls Isaac by name before emphasizing that Abraham loves the young man. The sarcastic side of me wants to hear Abraham responding, “Oh, that Isaac!”

Abraham loved Isaac. He’d waited for decades to see a son born from Sarah, and finally he had one. God had promised to make of Abraham a great nation through this boy. And did we mention that Abraham loved his son? Now God wanted Abraham to take this miraculous, sought-for, promised, and beloved son out to a desolate mountain and thrust a dagger into him. We have to assume that, although obedient, Abraham did not rush to this task with joy in his heart. Still, he showed his readiness to obey.

So what’s your Isaac? What would be the impossible or nearly impossible thing for you to give up for God? I’ve determined that right now, my Isaac is my stomach. I enjoy eating way too much. I enjoy that Diet Dr. Pepper.

You might protest that food and drink do not compare with sacrificing Isaac, and you’d be right. Still, I can love them more than I love God. I can give them priority. Eating and drinking–like loving a son–is not sinful, but it can become sinful when it pushes God into second place.

Jesus sets up our priorities pretty clearly.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”–Matthew 22:37

That list does not leave a lot of room for Diet Dr. Pepper. Or maybe it leaves room for however much of that drink God allows. The beauty of our Isaac problem is seen in the conclusion to the Genesis 22 account. When he is willing to give up Isaac in order to obey God, Abraham is given Isaac and so much more along with God.

I’m not sure God will allow me to keep the Diet Dr. Pepper, but I’m hopeful.

Full of Years–A Mathematical Excursion with the Patriarchs

As we learn in Genesis, the patriarchs of the Hebrew nation lived to ripe old ages. Abraham passed on at 175 (Genesis 25:7). Isaac was 180 when he died (Genesis 35:28). The next generation, Jacob, lived to age 147 (Genesis 47:28), while Jacob’s most celebrated son, Joseph made it to 110 (Genesis 50:26).
Aside from the fact that these men would have almost single-handedly bankrupted the Social Security system had they lived in the United States, what can we learn from these numbers?
The bit of mathematical conjuring that follows is certainly not original to me, but its origin is, from my research, obscure. Let’s look.

Within the Ages

Looking at those credibility-stretching ages, we see that each of the first three can be expressed by a formula: Age=X * Y2. In other words, each each age is a multiple of a perfect square. What are the odds of that happening by coincidence? I checked out every age from 1 to 184, dividing each by the numbers 2 through 9. That is 1,472 possible combinations. And of those 1,472 possibilities, only 46 yielded perfect squares. That’s 3.1%. The likelihood of two generations in a row being like this? It’s less than one tenth of 1%, and the chances of three in a row matching are .0031%. That’s just north of 3 chances in 100,000–more likely than a lottery win but still very unlikely.

Not Just Unlikely But Following a Pattern

Looking more closely, not only do all three of those first three patriarchs have such X * Y2. ages, but there’s a pattern to their ages.
Let me demonstrate.
Name
Age
X
Y
Y
Sum
Abraham
175
7
5
5
17
Isaac
180
5
6
6
17
Jacob
147
3
7
7
17
So if you noticed, the value of X decreases by 2 with each generation while the value of Y increases by 1 in the same generation. I’m not sure how to calculate the probability of that progression, but it is clearly far less probable than even the .0031% we saw above.

All that and 17 Also!

A great deal has been made by previous writers of the fact that this pattern also features all of the digits adding up to equal 17. When you think about it, however, that consistency is simply a feature of the progression. If X decreases by 2 and Y increases by 1 but is counted twice, then what else can that “Sum” column do but remain steady. Still, if there’s significance to the number 17, there might be something to it.
It turns out that 17 is a significant number for a couple reasons:
  • It is a prime number.
  • It is the seventh prime number: 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17.
  • It is a combination of 7 (the number of the divine) and 10 (which appears several times in Genesis). E.W. Bullinger explains this sum as a combination of “spiritual perfection, plus ordinal perfection, or the perfection of spiritual order.”

Have We Forgotten Joseph?

I know that you’re wondering if Joseph, our fourth patriarch, fits the pattern. If the progression continued, then we would expect Joseph to be 1*(8*8) or 64 years old when he died. Instead, of course, he lived to be 110. So is Joseph the pattern buster?
Perhaps it is nothing but Joseph’s age can be expressed with the expected X (1) and the sums of the three preceding squared Ys (5, 6, and 7). That is, 1*(25+36+49)=110.
Of course, even though I suggested that might signify nothing, I don’t really believe it. What are the chances that happens by accident?
Let’s assume that we’re adding up three numbers hoping to reach 110. We could use dozens of different combinations if we didn’t care about those perfect squares. But if we restrict ourselves to perfect squares, there are only three combinations: 2 (4), 5 (25), and 9 (81) on one hand, and the 5,6, 7-combination noted above. In short, there is very little chance that Joseph’s age just happens to combine the squares that were found in the ages of his three preceding ancestors.

So What Does It All Mean?

Hopefully I have convinced you that the numerical play afoot in the ages of the patriarchs is not just an accidental occurrence. Assuming that it is not an accident leaves us with the sense that some intent lay behind these numbers.
The mere presence of these numbers does not prove anything about the interpretation of these numbers and it does not prove or disprove the hand of God in the creation of the Genesis text.
  • Could a human author have deposited mathematical Easter eggs for readers to discover? It’s possible.
  • Could God have controlled the ages of the patriarchs in order to produce these numbers? That’s possible as well.
Either way, what does it mean? That’s a question for a later post.