Patriarchal History
Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob
Reading Assignment: Genesis 12-50
Dates: 2091-1876 B.C.

I.    Overview

This section of history contains stories about the three men whose lives would form the foundation of Israelite history.  It is with them that Yahweh begins His story of saving the world.  In later generations Israelites would find their identity by being descended from these men.  God in the Bible will sometimes identify himself as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.  He is not only a national God, but now the God of individual persons.  What sets these men apart is not what they did, but rather what God did for them.

This period of history spans a period of 215 years.  It began with Abram's call in his seventy-fifth year (terminus a quo) and ended (terminus ad quem) when Jacob and his sons entered Egypt. The length of the period is determined by looking at the age of the father at the birth of each child.  We know there are no gaps in the genealogies because we have the birth narratives that tell us that each of these men was the biological relative of the other and in direct lineage.

A.    Click HERE for the key verses used to calculate the internal chronology of the period.
B.    Jacob will live the first 130 years of his life in Canaan and the last 17 years in Egypt.  The period does not end with his death but when he left the land of promise.
C.    The next period of the history (Egyptian Sojourn) will last exactly twice as long (Ex. 12:40f.) as this one. People have interpreted this to say that the Exodus number was symbolic, but others have seen it as a curiosity and nothing more.  Jewish writers sometimes see the ages of the patriarchs as a type of symbolism to say that God is in control of History. Click HERE for additional comments on this concept.
Alternate Chronologies: This course follows what is called a high chronology for the events and so when dates and historical parallels are given, they will reflect this decision as to which chronological system is correct.

ANE Parallels

Modern historians tell the history of minor ancient countries by linking the particular countries history to the history of Egypt.  These patriarchs of Israel visited Egypt on two occasions.

1.    Abraham briefly visited during a famine for a brief time during the period referred to as the First Intermediate Period.
2.    Jacob and his family moved there and finished out their lives during the Middle Kingdom.


Clayton, Peter. Chronicle of the Pharaohs.  Thames & Hudson, 2006.

I.    The Promises: After the flood there was no faithful person like Abel, Enoch, and Noah.  In other words there was no faithful remnant.  What God did was to take an idolater and make him into a monotheist. He did this by drawing the first of these three men to himself and giving him three special promises.  Then he allowed the man to experience life and learn the reality of this God who had appeared to him in a vision while he was in Ur of the Chaldees.

A.    FUNCTION: These promises perform several functions in scripture.
1.    The three promises are the "key" to understanding the stories that are told.  The events of each story will either impede or facilitate the fulfillment of the promise.
2.    They also illustrate the apostle Paul's argument in Romans 4 concerning the Christian doctrine of justification by faith.
3.    The provide hope for a hopeless nation and world.  When these stories were put into writing the people of God were in a hopeless situation and of course people in later generations were too.  Both need assurance that in spite of adversity, God will bring about what he has promised.
4.    By studying them and there fulfillment a person learns how God functions in this world.  He brings about his agenda slowly by processes and by sudden dramatic events.
B.    Abram's Idolatrous Origins: This is something that is not often discussed in churches, but is actually taught in scripture.  Joshua 24:2 says, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, 'From ancient times your fathers lived beyond the River, namely, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods." That God would do this is not against our faith, but confirms it.  God is merciful and forgives. He wants to save the world through Abram and the promises given to him.  The world is filled with sinful disobedient people and so God starts with this type of person.

C.    The Three Major Promises: These promises are to be considered minimalistic statements. The fulfillment of a promise is usually greater than the initial promise.  God will actually go beyond what he promised in the fulfillment.

1.    Land: From the Euphrates to the river of Egypt
2.    Descendants: Like the stars of the sky, the sand that is on the seashore, or the dust that is on the ground.
3.    Blessing to the World:  Men will either bless this man or curse him.  How men respond to him and his offspring determines how God responds.
II.    Abraham:  Initially this man is called Abram which means exalted father.  This is ironic because he had no children, but he was still called father.  Later in the story his name will be changed to Abraham after he receives a promise that he will have many children.  This new name means "father of a multitude." In his own life he will have eight children, but only one of them, Isaac, will count towards the fulfillment of the promise.
A.    A World Tour (12:1-13:4): In scripture stories are often told to develop a particular theological theme.  They are also used to introduce new stories which may deal with another particular theme.  The major theological theme of this section is hard to define.  It is simply a set of stories about God moving Abram from place to place, God talking to Abram, Abram worshiping God, and on one occasion God striking one of the places with judgment.  The new story that is introduced tells the reader of the disobedience of the man.  Hardly a theme one wants to see developed about one of the founders of his faith.

My opinion as to the theological significance of the story is that it is about God being the supreme universal God.  Each place that Abram travels there is a religion with a particular pantheon of gods.  What transpires in the story denies validity to these so called deities. Yahweh the God who appeared to Abram is the true god and the others are not.

Modern scholars use the term henotheist for people who are religiously like Abraham. Simply stated a henotheist is a person who holds to only one god, but does not deny the existence of others.  In the ancient world when a person crossed a border into another god's territory he might still worship his personal deity, but he did it very carefully.  He had to be careful not to offend local deities and their followers.

1.    Journey #1: This part of the story was introduced in the preceding section (Gen. 11:30f.) with God moving Abram from Ur of the Chaldees to Haran in upper Mesopotamia which was about a 300 mile journey. These two places are bound by a common religious heritage. Haran was the place that God gave Abram three promises that were intended to change and unite the world. The chief god of that city was Suen (Sin/Nanna).  This appearance by Yahweh at this place was significant because it would have been understood by ancient men as an affront to the local deity.  There is no indication within the text that the deity did anything.  When Yahweh invaded Suen's space then the conclusion that Abram would be forced to draw would be that either Suen did not exist or that Yahweh was so great that he did not dare respond.

Several deities of this area are of great importance: An, Enlil, Enki, and Sin.

2.    Journey #2: In Genesis 12:4-9 Abram goes to Canaan.  He will travel from one end of the area to the other.  On this journey he is going to stop at several places, have visions of God, and do religious rituals.  In 12:6 it mentions that the Canaanite was then in the land.  The Canaanites worshiped a god called El the Bull and his children (Baal, Mot, Yam, and Anat). The religion focused on brutality and fertility rights of unspeakable nature. Major cities would have temples to the local deities and to build altars outside a city and worship another god there is an extreme insult tot hat deity.

a.    Shechem: Yahweh appears to him and Abram builds an altar. He will later return to the place and do the same with no opposition coming from the local deity.

b.    Bethel: There is no vision of Yahweh, but Abram again will build an altar and the text adds that he called on the name of Yahweh.

3.    Journey #3: A famine struck Canaan and Abram went to Egypt.  From Egyptian sources two famines took place at this time and probably one of the them was the one being discussed. What Abram did was typical of what people did during this period.  Egypt did not depend on local rainfall to grow crops, but on the flooding of the Nile.  The Nile would flood because of heavy rains in central Africa.  In Canaan they depended on rain and that is why the worshiped fertility deities like Baal who promised the worshiper rain would come if they did the fertility rites.

This is going to be the climax of the story.  At this point Abram's humanity kicks in and he becomes very afraid.  Even though he believes in Yahweh his faith is faltering.  The reasons for this are complex.

a.    He is far from home with a relatively large bodyguard (318 hanik). The problem was that Egypt was not a city state like some of the places he had visited, but a nation with armies in the traditional sense.  It must be noted that during the First Intermediate Period Egypt was relatively weak. It was still much more powerful than the places found in the earlier journeys of Abram.

b.    Egypt was abundantly wealthy.  In the ancient world the greatness of the deity was seen in the greatness of the temples and monuments dedicated to that deity.  The Egyptian deities who were worshipped in those temples were considered to be the greatest in the world.

The Egyptians see Sarai's beauty and praise her to pharaoh who takes for his wife.  This occurred after Abram told him that she was his sister.  That she was his sister was true because she was his half sister (Gen. 20:12), but he failed to mention that she was also his wife.  People often question whether or not Sarai had carnal relations with the pharaoh.  The text does not answer this question either way.  It is possible she did because later when Abraham tells the same lie to Abimelech, the Philistine king of Gerar, the text is clear that she did not have sexual relations with him.

In this story Yahweh strikes pharaoh and his house with plagues (nega).  Yahweh's follower is safe and the promise is fulfilled.  Abram was promised that if anyone cursed him then Yahweh would curse them. The promise is operative even if it is in a negative sense and in spite of the fact that Abram acted poorly and contributed to the situation.

4.    Journey #4: Abram returns to the land of promise.

The conclusion that can be drawn from all of this is that Abram is following a relatively unknown god who is of immense power.  This god is universal.  He was even able to bring plague on Egypt!
B.    The Lot Problem: As often is the case, the preceding story provides the introduction to the next series of stories.  As in all stories, Abram is learning through his experiences something about his God.
1.    Lot's Background:  Lot was the son of Abram's deceased brother Haran.  He was an orphan, but not a child.  He was a full grown adult, with flocks, herds, wife, children, and servants. By taking him along on the journey Abram was disobedient to God's command to leave his father's house (Gen 12:1).
2.    Trouble breaks out between Lot's men and Abram's over pasturing and water rights.  Abram tries to be the peace maker and offers to let Lot have whatever section of the territory he wants.  Lot chooses the best, which was the Jordan valley.
3.    A Theological Question:  Was this a good or evil deed?  Superficially and from an interpersonal standpoint it was admirable, but from the perspective of the promise it was wrong. God had given the Promise to Abram and not Lot. Read the conclusion to the story and give God a stern voice.

Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are,
northward and southward and eastward and westward;
for all the land which you see,
I will give it to you and to your descendants forever.
I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth,
so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth,
then your descendants can also be numbered.

Notice that two of the promises are brought up.  Abram has just given away land and so Yahweh emphasizes that the land is Abram's.  Next he brings up descendants and because they will be numerous, then they will need land and lots (pun intended) of it.
4.    The second part of the story is what is called the War of the Kings.  Four petty kings from the north have been doing raids to collect tribute. The story does a flashback to a former raid in which the four kings asserted their dominance over the region and began collecting tribute.  In Abram's day the kings of the local city states refuse tribute and so their overlords returned.  There are several things to note in the story.

a.    The Defeated Enemies: In this second raid the four kings defeated a variety of enemies:
(1)    Group #1 (Rephaim, Zuzim, Emim):  Two of these, the Rephaim and Emim, are associated with races of giants (Dt. 2:10f.) and it is surmised that the Emim were as well. They are formidable foes indeed!
(2)    Group #2 (Horites): These are identified either as the Hurru of Egyptian texts or as men who live on mountainous regions.  The Hebrew word for mountain is har and so a Horite would be a mountain man.  The area of their origin Mt. Seir would agree with the latter interpretation.  If it is the first then these men are worthy enemies of Egypt.  If it is the latter interpretation then these guys would be tough to beat because of the terrain involved.
(3)    Group #3 (Amalekites & Amorites):  These are major people groups and are not to be trivialized.  Amalekites seem to be slave traders who lived in the southern regions of the country.  At the time of the Exodus they are the ones who will try to recapture Egypt's lost slaves (Ex. 17).
(4)    Group #4 (The original five kings): When these armies are defeated and captured then Lot is captured as well.
b.    God does not appear in the story until the battle is over.  In Egypt the text informs the reader that Yahweh struck pharaoh with plagues.
God operates in two different modes.  The first type is called the magnalia dei (the mighty acts of God).  This is where people in the story immediately say that the deity did something.  It is obvious within the story that something has taken place. The second mode of operation is what is referred to as deus absconditus. This is the idea that God is hidden from view but was still working in secret to assure that his people would come off victorious. This is how God worked in this story. How do we know that? Abram with 318 of his men and some friends took on the invaders and defeated them.  Abram did what the other great armies of the area could not.  It must have been an act of God.

As an aftermath, Abram is met by two people.  The first is the king of Sodom who wants Abram to give him the released prisoners.  Abram will refuse.  He also meets another worshipper of the true God, Melchizedek.  People argue about his identity.  Was he an earthly king, an angel, or the son of God? This question is irrelevant for the story at hand. What is important is that Melchizedek does three things in the story.

a.    He reveals that God is working in ways beyond the person of Abram. We will occasionally run into this type of person in the Old Testament.  They are not Israelites but they are worshippers of the true God.
b.    He probably saved Abram from a confrontation with the king of Sodom.  Abram has paid tithes to this priest king and link his experience of God with Melchizedek's understanding of the creator god. The king of Sodom would have to fight them both.
c.    He interprets what happened in the story as an act of God.  He says that God has "delivered (magan) your enemies into your hand." The word magan is based on the word for shield.  The idea is that God protected him and allowed him to defeat his enemies. In the next story when God speaks to Abram he uses another form of the word when he says to Abram, "I am your shield."  This reuse of an unusual word is called a catchword.  The literary device is to use the word in one context and then reuse in the next context to link the two together.  Usually the second context is more significant.
What Abram learns about the nature of his God is that He sometimes works in secret.  Notice that the text presents a secret work of God which is followed by an explanation of the event by a prophetic/priestly figure.
C.    Covenant Sacrifice:
D.    Hagar Problem
E.    Covenant Signs
F.    Sodom & Gomorrah
G.    Abimelech, Isaac, Ishmael, & Abimelech
III.    Isaac
IV.    Jacob