The ESV renders Genesis 31:42 like so (emphasis mine):

If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God saw my affliction and the labor of my hands and rebuked you last night.

It seems the title "Fear of Isaac" is translated by the ESV as a name for God. However other translations like the KJV eschew the capitalization, such that it almost reads as if Jacob's dread of Isaac's anger was instrumental in Jacob's success or some such thing. Is "the fear of Isaac" a title/name for God? Or something else? What does this phrase mean?

  • This "fear" is reminiscent of the "fear" mentioned in Hebrews 2:15. There is a nuance worth consideration. Please click here.
    – Joseph
    Commented Mar 31, 2014 at 20:30

5 Answers 5


The phrase appears not only in Gen 31:42:

MT ... אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם וּפַחַד יִצְחָק ...
= ... ʾĕlōhê ʾābî ʾĕlōhê ʾābrāhām ûpaḥad yiṣḥāq ...
LXX ... ὁ θεὸς τοῦ πατρός μου Αβρααμ καὶ ὁ φόβος Ισαακ ...
= ... ho theos tou patros mou Abraam kai ho phobos Isaak ...

but also in a slightly variant form a few verses later, in v. 53:

ESV ... And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac
MT ... וַיִּשָּׁבַע יַעֲקֹב בְּפַחַד אָבִיו יִצְחָק
= ... wayiššābaʿ yaʿăqōb bĕpaḥad ʾābîw yiṣḥāq
LXX ... καὶ ὤμοσεν Ιακωβ κατὰ τοῦ φόβου τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτοῦ Ισαακ
= kai ōmosen Iakōb kata tou phobou tou patros autou Isaak

Rashi's discussion of the phrase suggests he thinks it is a (mere) epithet, and not a designation for Isaac's deity per se. This view seems to have prevailed up to the time of the seminal and influential studies of Albrecht Alt, in particular in his article, "The God of the Fathers".1

Since then, the phrase paḥad yiṣḥāq has been the subject of much debate, with a variety of suggestions about the precise meaning of paḥad itself ("thigh"? "kinsman"?), but these have been tested and found wanting,2 and the question that remains is that of OP: is this a reference to Isaac's deity ("Fear of..."), or to Isaac's experience of or posture before his deity ("fear of..")

It is a divine epithet: Alt made his case on the basis of (1) the "parallelism" with "God of Abraham" within the phrase of Gen 31:42, and the subsequent action in v. 53 (why would Jacob swear on his father's "emotion"?); and (2) the analogous phrase אֲבִיר יַעֲקֹב (ʾăbîr yaʿăqōb "Mighty One of Jacob") which is better attested and less contentious (Gen 49:24; Ps 132:2, 4; Isa 49:26; 60:16).

It's NOT a divine epithet: On the other hand, the phrase paḥad YHWH or equivalent is found numerous times in the Hebrew Bible, and so too of humans, as in e.g. Esther 9:3 (the "fear of Mordechai"). In these cases, however, the phrase conveys the fear produced by the figure(s) named, not the fear experienced by them. At a quick survey, paḥad seems consistently to be used of "terror induced by" rather than "terror experienced by".

Who knows? There appears to be no consensus on this. Still, two of the more substantial Genesis commentaries accept the "divine epithet" interpretation (Westermann and Wenham), although Westermann opts for understanding the phrase to mean "refuge" or "protection" of Isaac.3 (Wenham more explicit than Westermann, but in spite of this, the typography does not reflect the choice: both present it with lower-case: "fear", or "protection")

There are also two substantial and technical dictionary articles on the phrase.4 Both reject the "novel" suggestions for the meaning of paḥad and maintain the "traditional" understanding of "terror, fear". But Emile Puech (Anchor Bible Dictionary) upholds the "divine epithet" interpretation; Matthias Köckert (Dictionary of Deities and Demons) considers it "doubtful whether paḥad itself can be understood in terms of a divine name".

Assessment (FWIW)

My own inclination is to go with the ESV for the following reasons:

  • when paḥad is used in a phrase, it consistently means "fear induced by", and this sits uneasily in Gen 31:42 if it is not a divine epithet;
  • the oath in Gen 31:53 would be odd if not sworn "on" a deity;
  • the parallels noted by Alt are quite attractive;
  • while there are considerations in favour of the "epithet" understanding, not much can be marshalled by way of argument/evidence against it.

Finally, the most recent full treatment of the phrase I'm aware of -- Lawrence Zalcman, "Shield of Abraham, Fear of Isaac, Dread of Esau", Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 117 (2005): 405–410 -- argues that the "divine epithet" understanding finds support in a new interpretation of the name of the Edomite god, "Qôs" = "dread" (see abstract at link).


  1. In translation in the collection Essays on Old Testament History and Religion (JSOT Press, 1989), especially pp. 26-27. Original publication date of the article was 1929.
  2. Against Albright's influential suggestion of "kinsman", see the thorough repudiation by Delbert Hillers, "Paḥad Yiṣḥāq", Journal of Biblical Literature 91 (1972): 90-92.
  3. C. Westermann, Genesis 12-36, (Continental Commentaries; Augsburg/SPCK, 1985) p. 497 (his chief grounds for the "refuge" interpretation is almost wholly based on Isa 2:10, 19, and the "fitness" of the epithet -- not a great argument, IMO); G. Wenham, Genesis 16-50 (Word; 1994), p. 278.
  4. E. Puech, "Fear of Isaac", in Anchor Bible Dictionary, gen. ed. David Noel Freedman (Doubleday, 1992), vol. 2, pp. 779-80; M. Köckert, "Fear of Isaac", in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible ed. by K. van der Toorn et al (2nd edn; Brill, 1999), pp. 329-31.
  • So basically, the "Fear of Isaac" meant "Isaac's influence"?
    – Philip
    Commented Aug 31, 2019 at 1:32

Jacob is using this phrase when talking to Laban while his father, Isaac is still alive, but after the death of Abraham. According to Rashi,

and the Fear of Isaac: He did not wish to say, “the God of Isaac,” because the Holy One, blessed be He, does not associate His name with the righteous while they are alive. Although He said to him upon his departure from Beer-sheba (above, 28:13): “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac,” since his eyes had become dim and a blind man is like a dead man, Jacob was afraid to say, “the God of,” and said,“and the Fear of.”


The fear (pahad) of Isaac that is described in Genesis 31:42 & 45 is the greatest fear that most of us feel (if not all of us.) It is the fear of losing life. It was the fear of the women who approached the sepulcher where Jesus dead body was placed after he had been crucified. He had claimed to be "the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25-26;) but now he was dead. But when told by messengers of God, "He is not here; he is risen" (Matthew 28:6-8;) the women left in fear and joy. The writer of Hebrews puts emphasis on this fear of death in Hebrews 2:14-16, "Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death - that is, the devil - and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham's descendants.


The following was a result from a Google search. I have no experience with the text the excerpt is taken from:


Excerpt: "For some references to the "left" in the kabbaiislic tradition, cf. Agrippa (De occulta philosophia, III, 40), who recalled how the Kabbalists distinguished between two aspects of divinity; one of these was called phachad (fear), left hand and sword of the Lord, and corresponded to the awful sign that is impressed on man, which subjects all creatures to him; whereas the other aspect was called hased, clemency or right hand, the principle of love."

Finding the concept interesting, I looked for other instances of "phachad" where the idea might fit.

Phachad is used 49x in 48 vv.

Gen. 31:42, 31:53.

Exo. 15:16 - "She-is-falling on~them dread (aimth~e) and~awe (u~phchd) in~greatness-of arm-of~you; they-are-(be)ing-still as~the~stone until(-) he-is-passing-(by) people-of~you Yahweh..."

Deut. 2:25 - The~day the~this I-shall-start to-give-of phachad ((Sword of me/Left arm of me)) and~fear (irath)-of~you on(-) faces-of the~peoples under all-of(-) the~heavens ...

Don't know if Jacob knows the actual Name of the 'Left-arm Entity/Sword of God' but it appears he is distinguishing it from Elohy?

Will continue to comb the remaining verses for connections.


It is not a Divine epithet (Name of G-D) but a reference to the Test of Avraham concerning the Akeida (Binding of Yitzchaq (Isaac) and the fear of G-D that he had when he submitted himself to be bound on the Altar. For instance, we read in Shmoth:

And all the people saw the thunder, and the lightning, and the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they were shaken, and stood far away. And they said to Moses, "Speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die." And Moses said to the people, "Fear not; for God has come to test you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that you sin not."
-- Exodus 20:15-17

The successful conclusion of the Akaida takes place when the angel declares that Abraham's "fear of God" has been established.

And the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham"; and he said, "Here am I". And he said, "Lay not your hand upon the lad, nor do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing that you did not withhold your son, your only son from me."
-- Genesis 22:11-12

We can see from Genesis 31.24 that Laban was tested by G-D, NOT to speak anything good or bad against Ya'acov; yet he accused Ya'acov of stealing his house-hold gods (by which Laban chose to swear when making the covenant with Ya'acov).

Here, Ya'acov (Jacob) chose to swear by the fear of G-D out of respect for or in Honor of G-D and in honor of his father.

In Ya'acov's case, he left Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) with a vow but only having a G-D consciousness: "If the L-RD will... then the L-RD shall be my G-D!"

Here, Ya'acov is on the verge of seeing that vow fulfilled - if he is successful then HaShem (the L-RD G-D) will be his G-D (Deity).

The phrase "fear of Isaac" is merely a euphism for the "fear of G-D" which should always be before our faces as was the case with Ya'acov!

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, one of the forefathers of neo-Orthodoxy in 19th-century Germany) writes in his commentary on Genesis 31:42:

Pahad Yitzhak is not a name for G-d, but refers to that dread moment of the Akeda, when Isaac felt the knife already drawn at his throat. It is the zenith of the moral perfection which Isaac achieved.

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