Biblical Scholarship, Genesis, Genesis 25, Genesis 26, Genesis 27, Old Testament

May Your Children Be Like Isaac: Reading Isaac on the Autistic Spectrum

The following is a paper I presented at the SBL southwest regional meeting in Irving, TX on March 11, 2018:


Genesis’ portrayal of the patriarch Isaac is remarkable both because of its brevity relative to the amount of text devoted to his father Abraham and to his son Jacob, or even to his grandson Joseph, but also because even where he is the main character or one of the main characters, he does not really stand out. His behavior is either passive or imitative of his father.

Commentators have explained this in different ways, but very often the explanation comes at the expense of Isaac’s reputation or character. Some suggest that Isaac suffers from having grown up under so great and imposing a figure as Abraham, so that, according to one older commentator, all he was able to do in his life (supposedly) is imitate “some of the least glorious passages of his father’s career” (Marcus Dods, The Book of Genesis, 8th ed., The Expositor’s Bible [London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1895], 254). Isaac’s preference for Esau in Genesis 27 is interpreted as evidence of an abusive neglect of his other son, or at least proof of spiritual blindness. It is not uncommon for commentators to seize on his physical blindness as somehow symbolic of spiritual weakness, a connection that seems terribly ungenerous and not unlike what we might have heard from Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar rather than from Job. It is remarkable that though Isaac does comparatively little in Genesis, somehow some commentators have managed to make a real villain out of him.

Alternatively, J. William Whedbee takes a different approach that nevertheless still relies upon stripping all nobility from the Isaac character. In The Bible and the Comic Vision (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), Whedbee identifies in the various stories that feature Isaac a U-shaped plot (meaning it starts and ends on a high note), which is a part of the classical definition of the comic plot structure (versus the contrastingly shaped tragic structure). Based on this observation and on the literal meaning of Isaac’s name (yiṣḥaq means “he laughs” or “he will laugh”), Whedbee makes sense of Isaac’s atypical behavior by interpreting him as a continual laughingstock and comic victim. Unfortunately, I feel that Whedbee conflates comedy as a plot structure in Aristotelian theory and comedy as a humorous story. To see that these are two distinct concepts one need only read Dante’s Divine Comedy and take note of how not funny it is. Moreover, I do not see that the description of Isaac’s stories as U-shaped plots tells us all that much of interest about the stories, since any story in the Old Testament that ends happily could be described in the same way. Nor do I feel that this way of explaining the unique features of Isaac’s character – his passivity, his imitative behavior, his preference for Esau, his unusually early death-bed testament – gives us any true insight into Isaac’s character or his contribution to the larger story.

I have to ask, are these really our two best options? Must we explain Isaac’s idiosyncrasies by maligning him, either by making him into a spiritually dull and even abusive villain or by turning him into a hapless laughingstock? Is there no way to read Isaac that preserves the essential nobility of his character that we would expect given his status as one of the three great patriarchs of Israel, even while acknowledging certain imperfections, as is also the case with Abraham and Jacob?

It was my wife, actually, who first made the observation to me that a lot of Isaac’s idiosyncrasies resemble characteristics of Autistic Spectrum Disorder. We have a very personal connection to autism – our son, who was born four months premature but who is now a very healthy eight-year-old, is on the autistic spectrum. Especially in the last five years we have learned a lot about autism through multiple ASD screenings and myriad appointments with pediatricians, speech therapists, occupational therapists, ABA therapists, psychologists, gastro-interologists, endocrinologists, ophthalmologists, neurologists, and many other -ologists I cannot now recall. So when my wife made the observation, (1) there was some authority behind it, but (2) I immediately saw the same thing. Could it be that the patriarch Isaac is an ancient depiction of a high-functioning autistic individual?

A similar but ultimately very different suggestion was made by Ora Horn Prousser in her 2012 book, Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible Embraces Those With Special Needs. Prouser sees in Isaac the hallmarks of a individual suffering from mental retardation, and she sees in his wife and children the hallmarks of family members coping with such an individual. Her reading of the Isaac stories in many ways parallels my own, but I am not convinced that mental retardation is the best explanation. Isaac seems to me too competent in life and too articulate. On the other hand, autism, even mild autism, explains all the same features of Isaac’s behavior and family dynamic, but more perfectly.

Let me clarify what I am suggesting. I am not saying that an historical Isaac was autistic. That lies beyond what we could possibly say from the text. Rather, I am suggesting that the character Isaac fits the profile of someone with autism. In other words, the Isaac tradition in Genesis portrays a character who appears to be what we would today identify as someone on the autistic spectrum, but who in a time before we had scientifically developed theory and vocabulary to talk about autism would have been treated as being in the broader sense “normal”. My hypothesis is that in such a society the quirks of high functioning autistic individuals would have been noticed and even to extent categorized but more along the lines of a personality type than as a disability or neurobiological disorder. This is because high functioning autistic individuals are so called because they are able to compensate to a large extent and function successfully in society. Such individuals are sometimes referred to as invisibly disabled.

Autistic Spectrum Disorder

Autistic Spectrum Disorder is a broad term that encompasses a range of neurobiological and developmental disorders. A common thread that ties these disorders together is a poorly developed theory of mind, meaning autistic individuals have trouble empathizing or developing a working theory of another person’s thoughts and feelings. This presents itself as impaired social behavior and perception, and in high functioning adults it can appear in the form of inappropriate affect, random social faux pas, and difficulty understanding the subtleties of verbal and non-verbal communication, such as implicature and body language. Other common characteristics of autistic individuals include language delay, a very strong need for sameness and systems; an inflexible adherence to routine; picky eating and various problems in the digestive system; sensory hypersensitivity and hypo-sensitivity; and difficulty regulating one’s own emotions. Mental retardation can be connected to autism, but autistic individuals can also be profoundly intelligent. Because of the nature of autism research in the last several decades, which has focused on diagnosis and treatment of children, the effects of autism on adults is comparatively poorly understood, but to some extent all of these symptoms can persist into adulthood, even if their appearance may change or become less obvious.

Researchers are still working to discover what the causes of autism are, and there are many different theories based on different kinds of genetic, environmental, and biological factors. These factors appear to interact in complex ways, where a genetic predisposition may or may not result in autism but can be activated and exacerbated by other factors. Among the well established risk factors is advanced age in parents, which contributes to the risk of autism both directly and indirectly. Older parents are more likely to have chromosomal abnormalities in their sperm and eggs. Also, low birth weight is a know risk factor, and older mothers appear to be statistically more likely to have trouble carrying a pregnancy to full term, meaning children born from older mothers are more likely to have a lower birth weight. So the advanced ages of both of Isaac’s parents contributes to Isaac fitting the autistic profile.

In light of modern autism research, more and more, doctors are making an effort to screen very young children, even infants, for signs of autism so that treatment can begin as early as possible. While some signs of autism, especially extreme autism, can be detected very young, without the advanced medical theory that we have today, often the earliest that autism becomes apparent to the non-specialist is right around three years of age, particularly in cases of mild autism.

Interestingly, this is likely how old Isaac would have been imagined by the narrator at his weaning feast in Genesis chapter 21, where Sarah sees Ishmael either playing or making fun. Whatever Ishmael was doing, that it is done with or toward Isaac seems implicit (this is made explicit in the LXX reading). Though it is possible that meṣaḥeq in 21:9 communicates something innocuous, such as Ishmael playing either by himself or with Isaac, most other occurrences of the Piel of ṣaḥaq in the Hebrew Bible (all but two of which are in Genesis) connote mockery of some sort. If we read Genesis 21:9 as Ishmael mocking Isaac, one reason he might be mocking Isaac, even gently or affectionately, would be if Isaac is not developing normally, perhaps saying something over and over or engaging in some other unusual repetitive behavior. Sarah’s defensiveness towards Isaac certainly would take on a new dimension if her son was not developing normally.

Reading Isaac on the Autistic Spectrum in Genesis 25-27

Having this profile of Autistic Spectrum Disorder in mind, if we look at Genesis chapters 25-27, where Isaac features as the main character or at least as one of the main characters, certain aspects of his behavior seem to reflect that profile. First, looking at chapter 26, where we find the bulk of the stories that focus on Isaac, the fact is that even here Isaac does not really do much that is unique. The impression is that Isaac lived his life largely in imitation of his father. In 26:1-18, Isaac imitates his father’s twice executed “my-wife-is-my-sister” ploy. But whereas Abraham’s fears may have been well founded in chapters 12 and 20, and whereas the second of these two stories indicates that there was some basis in fact for the ploy (Abraham and Sarah shared a father but not a mother), some readers have felt that Genesis 26:8, which says that they were able to stay in Gerar for a long time without trouble, indicates that Isaac’s fears were not well founded and that Isaac’s imitation of Abraham is, therefore, odd, perhaps even humorous because of being unnecessary and based on an entirely false pretense (Isaac and were cousins, not half-siblings).

The next thing we read is that Isaac went around redigging wells that his father had originally dug and calling them by the names by which his father had called them, but not without significant struggle. After Yahweh appears to Isaac at Beersheba, Isaac is approached by Abimelech and his military commander Phicol about making a peace treaty, just as had happened with Abraham his father in Genesis chapter 21. So in a very short span of narrative time, Isaac in effect recapitulates most of Abraham’s story. While we could reasonably explain this striking similarity in diachronic terms, the effect of the narrative as we have it is to characterize Isaac as a man who walks in familiar paths and very closely imitates his role model, regardless of how difficult those familiar paths might be to walk in, and regardless of whether or not full imitation is necessarily warranted.

I propose that this behavior fits the profile of an adult with high-functioning autism. Though such adults tend to find ways to cope with the challenges presented by the unique ways their brains work and to function productively in society, the fundamental characteristics of autism will often still be discernible to those who know what to look for. Among these characteristics are a pronounced need for consistent systems, structures, and patterns in life. Their commitment to such consistency can produce behavior that while technically correct or normal might strike an outside observer as odd or unnecessary. An adult on the autistic spectrum might feel especially strongly that there is one particular way things should be done.7 This way may have little basis outside of their own life experience or their family’s experience, but because of their need for reliable patterns, they may be so committed to the way they perceive things ought to be done that they will endure unnecessary hardship to accomplish it.

Another aspect of Isaac’s “wife-is-my-sister” story that could reflect the autistic profile is Isaac’s blunder in publicly fondling his wife when the pretense of their cover made that inappropriate. Even in adults who have largely learned to cope with autism, understanding the subtleties of social behavior, especially implied meanings and body language, can remain a challenge throughout their lives. This is because of their fundamental problem empathizing, seeing the world from someone else’s perspective. Practically, what this means is that they may unintentionally say or do things that are clearly inappropriate to people without autism, but to the autistic individual it just is not clear why it is wrong. Both social etiquette and effective deception require a developed ability to empathize. So things would have been difficult enough for Isaac even without the layer of deception complicating the situation. In other words, inappropriately fondling his wife is precisely how we might expect Isaac to give away the secret if he were autistic.

Isaac’s behavior in chapter 27, the story of how Jacob stole Esau’s blessing, also makes a great deal of sense if we see him on the autistic spectrum. This story, especially, is one where readers seem inclined to adopt negative attitudes toward Isaac. Either he is laughable because he initiates a death-bed story long before he actually dies (at least 80 years early) or because he is so easily deceived, or he is reprehensible and spiritually blind because of his favoritism towards Esau. Rebekah’s character is also often maligned because she is the one who initiates the deception of Isaac and because she favors Jacob over Esau. No amount of spiritual insight in perceiving Jacob to be the more appropriate recipient of the blessing is enough to salvage her character for a lot of commentators. Nothing can excuse her deception. I, however, believe that seeing Isaac on the autistic spectrum can help us see both of these two characters in a more balanced way.

First, I do think we ought to cut Isaac some slack. For one thing, he is blind or near blind. For another, he has adult children, meaning he is 100 years old or more if we assume this story takes place after Genesis 26:34 in terms of narrated time. If being blind, apparently physically weak, and 100 years old does not justify setting one’s house in order, I honestly do not know what does. But the fact remains that Isaac does not accurately perceive the nearness of his death. I would argue that the conventions of the Hebrew death-bed story (which is the narrative form of the stereotypically noble death) do not strictly require this kind of precision, but if this needs an explanation we might seek it in Isaac’s sometimes awkward commitment to doing things the way he believes that they should be done. This also goes for his determination to bless Esau even though Esau has already proven to be an unworthy successor through his marriage to a Hittite woman and through despising his birthright. Admittedly, Isaac may be unaware of Esau’s sale of his birthright to Jacob, but he is definitely aware of the problem of Esau’s choice of wife, and the reader is permitted to see that this is not just a one off mistake on Esau’s part, but a troubling pattern of behavior. For some reason, Isaac cannot bring himself to see Esau’s poor character and foolishness, and that reason could have to do with a commitment to patterns and systems, to doing things the way he thinks things are supposed to be done, including blessing Esau as his firstborn.

Even the expressed reason for Isaac’s favoritism towards Esau might connect to certain theories about autism. In Genesis 25:27-28, Esau is described as a man of the field and a cunning hunter, whereas Jacob dwelt in the tents. Some have seen in this a contrast between a stereotypical manly man and a man who some might accuse of being a little feminine, or at least his masculinity is expressed in less blatant ways. One theory about autism is called Extreme Male Theory, and the idea of this theory is that there may be a connection between autism and a hormonal imbalance skewed towards male hormones. This theory is based on the observation that autistic children tend in their interests towards subjects that are more stereotypically masculine. This is especially observable in girls who are identified on the autistic spectrum, and there is some evidence that such girls tend to experience their period later than normal and may suffer from androgen-related conditions, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome.

Now the point of all of this is that Isaac’s interest in Esau is explicitly connected to his love for venison, but this is implicitly connected to Esau’s more outdoorsy über-masculinity. So, what I am suggesting is that Isaac’s favoritism towards Esau may reflect the profile of autism in Isaac not just because Esau is the eldest and the one Isaac insists is the appropriate recipient of the blessing, but also because he naturally skews in his interests towards the über-masculine interests of Esau more than the less stereotypically masculine interests of Jacob. We need not suppose that Isaac did not love Jacob, but autistic adults do have difficulty connecting to their children emotionally, especially where there are no shared interests.

It perhaps goes without saying that the spouses of adults on the autistic spectrum have their own unique challenges as they not only accommodate their autistic spouses’ quirks but also actively try to facilitate their success and integration into society. I personally know of a man who, though not diagnosed on the spectrum, exhibits a lot of the typical characteristics of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. He is a highly successful professional with a family. His wife learned over time different strategies to work around his autism, at times to ignore it, and at other times to find subtle ways to prod him in the direction that she perceived would be best for him. For example, whenever he might find himself getting overwhelmed in a social situation, she would perceive this and create some errand for him to run to give him an excuse to escape. Needless to say, a successful spouse of an adult on the autistic spectrum must be an intelligent, resourceful, proactive, and deeply caring individual. There are profound blessings to the individual who loves someone on the spectrum, and every successful relationship requires adaptation, but when you love someone on the spectrum, sometimes that adaptation has to be a little more pronounced and intentional.

I argue that Isaac’s wife Rebekah exhibits the characteristics of a successful spouse of someone on the spectrum. From the moment we meet her in chapter 24, we see her to be a strong, proactive, kind, decisive, and courageous woman. Those features are only reinforced in chapter 25, in the story of the birth of Esau and Jacob. She herself takes the initiative to inquire of Yahweh about her twins who are struggling in her womb and apparently causing her great pain. Not only is she depicted here as proactive and decisive, but it is significant that she inquires of Yahweh herself and not through Isaac – she has her own relationship with Yahweh. I am also not convinced that her favoritism for Jacob is intended to be read as some fatal flaw in her character. Rather, we can read it in ways that are positive towards her: as spiritual perception, as faith in the oracle of Yahweh, as tenderness towards the unfavored son of the other parent, even as a purer love than Isaac’s love for Esau, because no reason is given – she just loves.

I would argue that until chapter 27, we have no reason to think ill of Rebekah and every reason to see in her a strong, intelligent, and tender spouse for Isaac. If we read Isaac as a man on the autistic spectrum, Rebekah’s actions look less selfish and deceitful and more caring and pragmatic: she is trying to help Isaac do the right thing (and I think the narrative leaves us in no doubt that blessing Jacob rather than Esau is the right thing) using the avenues that are available to her as a woman and as the spouse of someone who could perhaps be intractable in his commitment to doing things a particular way.

Conclusion

There is a lot more that could be said on this subject, including how I think reading Isaac on the autistic spectrum helps to explain his passivity in Genesis chapters 22 and 24 and the difficulty he seems to be experiencing in grieving for his mother at the end of chapter 24. However, I think what I have said so far communicates my hypothesis clearly and with a focus on the most important texts. Essentially, Isaac as depicted in Genesis fits the profile of a high functioning autistic individual on a lot of different levels.

Because high functioning autistic adults are invisibly disabled, meaning they find ways to compensate for their various challenges and thereby successfully integrate into society, we have no reason to think that ancient societies would develop a special term for such individuals. Even today, awareness of autism lags in non-Western countries, even developed ones such as Saudi Arabia. However, despite the invisibility of high functioning autism in cultures that are not looking for it, the quirkiness of an autistic individual’s behavior is still frequently observable. My hypothesis is that in such societies the commonality of these individuals may be recognized more in terms of a personality type, and there is no reason why the characteristics associated with this personality type could not be reasonably accurate. So in the depiction of Isaac, it would be almost like having a fossilized portrait of an autistic individual, as opposed to a self-aware portrayal of autism that we would find in a modern novel or television show.

I think this approach to Isaac has significance advantages. I have already indicated my discomfort with interpretations of Isaac that explain him by essentially maligning him. I find it difficult to accept that Genesis would have any reason to impugn the nobility of any of the patriarchs. Acknowledging weaknesses and mistakes is one thing. It is entirely another thing to dismiss Isaac as a dull-witted nobody, to condemn him as spiritually blind or even abusive towards Jacob, or to laugh at him as a bumbling comic victim. When we adopt any of these strategies, especially the last one, we as readers are more imitative of Ishmael in Genesis 21:9 than we are of Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, and I cannot imagine that the implied reader of Genesis identifies with Ishmael more than Isaac. Reading Isaac on the autistic spectrum preserves his fundamental nobility, his worthiness to be imitated. It also preserves the nobility of Rebekah as a caring and proactive spouse of an autistic adult.

Theologically and pastorally, reading Isaac on the spectrum opens up interesting new vistas. An autistic Isaac shows us that from the very beginning the Judeo-Christian faith was not simply a faith that was charitable towards those with special needs or open to including them in the margins, but in fact a faith that viewed them as having a central role in salvation history. I am certain the Apostle Paul would find such a reading consistent with his view that God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27). Pastorally, an autistic Isaac is a great encouragement to parents of children with special needs of all sorts, especially autism. An autistic Isaac shows us that children with special needs are not destined merely to survive and experience the benefits of the covenant from the margins of God’s plan. Rather, just as with Isaac, God has a very particular purpose for children with special needs that only they can fulfill. It is precisely in his apparently autistic insistence on routine and sameness that Isaac persisted in the path of faith trailblazed by his father, and God blessed him exceedingly because of it. God also provided him with a conspicuously perfect spouse to help him make good decisions when his parents were gone. Isaac is not perfect, but he is noble and good, and he is an outstanding role model by which we can bless our special needs children today, saying, “May you be like Isaac, faithful to the covenant and blessed by the LORD.”

Summary
May Your Children Be Like Isaac: Reading Isaac on the Autistic Spectrum
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May Your Children Be Like Isaac: Reading Isaac on the Autistic Spectrum
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Isaac's behavior and characterization in Genesis has long struck commentators as odd for his passivity, repetitiveness, and imitativeness of his father Abraham. Interestingly, much of the peculiarity of Isaac's behavior fits the profile of a high functioning autistic individual.
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Bite-Sized Exegesis
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