On June 6 it was the 159th birthday of Sir Isaac Isaacs, who is famous for being the first Australian-born Governor-General of Australia. He is also our first Jewish Governor-General.
The appointment of Sir Isaac Isaacs in 1930 by Prime Minister James Scullin was a controversial one at the time, because it was fiercely opposed by the British government. They didn’t have anything much against Sir Isaacs personally (apart from being a bit old and unknown to them), but were greatly offended by the idea of an Australian representing the British monarch. However, Scullin stuck to his guns and eventually King George V agreed to the appointment with great reluctance.
This landmark moment led to the Statute of Westminster 1931 and the formal separation of the Crowns of the Dominions. From now on, the monarch would be bound by constitutional convention to accept the advice of the Australian Prime Minister on Australian constitutional matters.
Despite the stain of his Australianness, Sir Isaac Isaacs did everything he could to make himself agreeable. He was an ardent monarchist and, although very proud to be an Australian, a strong supporter of the British Empire. He agreed to accept a lower salary, and conducted himself very frugally, which went down well during the Great Depression. He was the first Governor-General to live permanently at Government House in Canberra, and the public approved of this, as well as his general air of austere dignity, while following his duties with obvious enjoyment.
I’d like to be able to say that after Sir Isaacs, all Governor-Generals were Australian, but conservative governments immediately reverted to appointing British Governor-Generals. There was only one more Australian-born Governor-General until 1965 – since then, they have all been Australian-born, except Sir Ninian Stephen, who emigrated here as a child.
Isaac has one of the better known name stories in the Bible, and is one of the few characters in the Bible to be named directly by God.
When the patriarch and prophet Abraham was ninety-nine years old, God made a covenant with him, that he would be a “father of many nations”, and that his descendants would possess the land of Canaan forever. As Abraham and his wife Sarah did not have any children, God promised he would bless them, so that Sarah would soon bear a son.
Abraham laughed when he heard that, for by the time the baby was due to be born, he would be one hundred years old, and Sarah would be ninety. Sarah secretly listened to this prophecy, and had a good chuckle to herself at the idea that a very old couple would be able to conceive a child together, and a woman long past her child-bearing years could give birth.
Despite their scepticism, the prophecy was fulfilled, and Abraham and Sarah had a son together. They gave him the name that God had chosen, which was Yitzhak, meaning “laughter” in Hebrew. In English the name is Isaac.
The other key story about Isaac is that during his childhood, God commanded Abraham to build an altar in the wilderness and sacrifice his son on it. However, just at the point the knife was raised above Isaac, an angel appeared and told Abraham that it had just been a test of his faith, and that he should sacrifice a ram which happened to be around at the time instead. Because of Abraham’s show of faith, and Isaac’s obedient willingness to be sacrificed, God blessed them both many times over.
Christians have tended to see Isaac as a forerunner of Christ, and both Jews and Christians see him as a model for the martyr, who goes willingly to the slaughter for his faith. Isaac is venerated as a saint in Catholicism, and revered by Muslims as a prophet of Islam.
The story of Abraham and Isaac has made Biblical commentators uncomfortable enough that they feel it needed to be explained. Some Jewish writers felt that human sacrifice was so revolting that God couldn’t possibly have requested it even as a test, and suggested that it must have been a delusion of Abraham’s imagination, or even some trickery by Satan. Others thought that Isaac was in fact sacrificed, but that God had resurrected him straight away.
Modern philosophers don’t seem to feel that the story shows God in a very attractive light. Some scholars believe that it preserves an ancient memory of a tradition of child sacrifice, with the “happy ending” tacked on later, when such sacrifice was viewed with abhorrence and needed to be explained away.
Isaac has been used as an English name in the Middle Ages, and became more common after the Protestant Reformation. One of its most famous namesakes is Sir Isaac Newton, the mathematician and scientific genius. This gives Isaac a rather brainy image – and Sir Isaac Isaacs was very intelligent too.
For many years, the name Isaac was particularly associated with Jewish people – to such an extent that even in the twentieth century, Jews were referred to in a derogatory way as ike or ikey (short for Isaac), in the same way that Catholics were called micks (short for Michael).
Isaac was #147 in the 1900s, and left the charts in the 1920s. It didn’t return until the 1970s, when its position was #326. It climbed very steeply in the 1980s, and joined the Top 100 in 1991 at #86. After pottering along in the bottom third of the Top 100, it suddenly gave a massive jump in 1997, when it made #25. Is it a coincidence that the teen pop band Hanson, with singer Isaac Hanson as the singer, had their biggest success in 1997? Hmm! Or should I say MMMBop?
After this Hanson-led surge of popularity, Isaac settled down, but remained in the Top 50; it has been fairly steadily climbing since 2005. It is currently #19 nationally, #14 in New South Wales, #28 in Victoria, #34 in Queensland, #23 in Western Australia, #41 in Tasmania, #17 in the Northern Territory, and #31 in the Australian Capital Territory.
In a rather cheeky post, I suggested that if Isaac kept climbing, it could be the #1 name by 2028. I’m not sure if it will, but it is a good strong name, and many people find the meaning of “laughter” attractive. In the Bible, Isaac was a true “miracle baby”, born to two people very late in life who never expected to be parents, making it an excellent choice for couples blessed with a surprise or against-the-odds baby. As well as the traditional Ike or Ikey, you could also use Iggy or Zac as the nickname, should you want one.
Isaac received an excellent approval rating of 84%, making it one of the highest-rated names of 2014. People saw the name Isaac as cute on a boy, but solid on a man (29%), strong and handsome (20%), intelligent and professional (16%), and having a very attractive meaning (12%). However, 8% were put off the name by the Bible story of Abraham and Isaac. Nobody thought the name Isaac sounded creepy or evil.
(Picture shows a portrait of Sir Isaac Isaacs from the Victorian Bar’s collection)