In the stories of these fathers of ancient Israel, the people begin their own particular story. As we read of these men and their families, of faith we are not only reading of persons who lived prior to recorded history, but we are witnessing as well the faith of ancient Israel and the struggle of its people to understand the presence of God in their lives.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all wanderers who experience God's call to establish a people in a land that God promises to give to them. Their tales set the stage for the wandering of the ancient people of Israel and their eventual settlement in the land of Canaan.
The tale of Abraham begins as a tale of Abram, who is called by the LORD God to leave his home in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley and journey into the land of Palestine. A famine in that land drives him out and down to Egypt, and after becoming quite prosperous Abram returns to Palestine and settles. Here he sacrifices to the LORD and receives the promise that God will give him the land and will make his descendants as numerous "as the dust of the earth." (Gen. 13:16)
Abram is successful in several battles with the rulers of other tribes of people in Palestine. Therefore Melchizedek, ruler and priest of the Canaanite city of Salem (a city which under the reign of David is called Jerusalem and becomes the capital of Israel), brings bread and wine to him and blesses him in the name of the God who made heaven and earth.
Then Abram has a vision in the night foretelling the oppression that Israel will experience in Egypt and the liberation and resettlement of the people in Palestine. The LORD God covenants with Abram to create from him a people who will settle the land he has settled and become great among the peoples of the Middle East.
When after many years Abram's wife, Sarai, remains barren, she gives her Egyptian maid, Hagar, to Abram as a wife. Hagar's pregnancy causes conflict between the two women, so Hagar flees into the wilderness. But there the angel of the LORD tells her to return to Abram, promising that the number of her descendants will be great. The angel tells Hagar to name her son, Ishmael, which means "God hears." In the wisdom of the East Ishmael is believed to be the father of the Arab peoples, and thus through him Muslims see themselves as descendants of Abraham.
Several years later Abram has a vision of God Almighty (El Shaddai in Hebrew) and receives a new name, Abraham, which means father of a multitude. God renews the promise made previously and specifies that the covenant relationship requires that Abraham and his men be circumcised. Sarai also receives a new name, Sarah.
Then the LORD appears again to Abraham, when he is sitting beside the oaks of Mamre, as three men (or angels) arrive to visit. Sarah overhears them tell Abraham that she will bear a son and laughs, because of her old age. Then the men set out to deliver the LORD's judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. The LORD reveals to Abraham that he intends to destroy the people of Sodom and Gomorrah for their sin, but Abraham argues that the LORD should spare the cities if there are just people living in them. Before they part, the LORD agrees that if there are even ten righteous persons in Sodom, the city will be spared.
When tthe men or angels arrive at Sodom they are offered hospitality by Lot, the nephew of Abraham. Then Lot's house is surrounded by men demanding that the visitors be given to them, but those in this angry crowd are mysteriously blinded. The visitors warn Lot to flee with his family from the city and not to look back. While fleeing, however, Lot's wife does look back and becomes a pillar of salt. Once safely in a cave Lot's two daughters make him drunk with wine so they might lie with him and produce offspring. Their descendants are said to be the Moabites and Ammonites, peoples with whom ancient Israel would later struggle for control of the land called Caanan.
The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah because of the apparent lust of men for other men is often cited to prove that homosexuality is condemned by God. In the story, however, God does not say that this is the sin of Sodom. We only hear that, in defending the visitors to his home, Lot urges the townsmen not to act so wickedly. Tradition has it that he is referring to sodomy.
To divert the threat to his visitors, Lot offers his virgin daughters to the townsmen, to use as they please — an action that is incomprehensible to the modern reader and clearly immoral. Lot either acts out of fear, or gives priority to his duty to protect his visitors as their host, or both.
As the story concludes with the incest of Lot and his daughters, it seems that those who later told this story wanted to confirm the wickedness of the Moabites and the Ammonites who challenged them for control of the land promised to Abraham and his descendants.
Isaac is born to Abraham and Sarah and is circumcised on the eighth day, thus establishing this ritual of the people of Israel as a part of the covenant between God and Abraham. The name, Isaac, meaning "laughter," reminds them of Sarah's lack of faith in the promise of the LORD. Sarah persuades Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, so that Isaac will be the uncontested heir to the promise of God, but God preserves their lives in the wilderness.
Isaac soon becomes the LORD God's way of testing Abraham's faith, for when Isaac is a young boy God tells Abraham to offer Isaac up as a sacrifice. In the story God comes during the night to Abraham with this strange request, and so Abraham rises and sets off with Isaac to find the appointed place of sacrifice. On the third day they arrive at the mountain ordained by God. Abraham builds an altar, piles wood on top of it for the fire, binds Isaac and places him on the wood, and then raises the knife to kill the boy.
But the angel of the LORD calls from heaven to Abraham, telling him not to kill Isaac, but to free him: "For now I know that you fear God, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." (Gen. 22:12) Abraham sees a ram caught in a thicket, and so he kills the ram and offers it instead of Isaac as his sacrifice. So, he calls that place, "The LORD will provide." (Gen. 22:14)
The tale of the testing of Abraham is thought by some to mark the end of child sacrifice, at least among the Israelites. However, to see the tale only in this light is to restrict its meaning to an ancient time and to the repudiation of cultural practices that are repugnant to us today.
More broadly interpreted the tale tells us that obedience results in the continued blessing of God. It is by being obedient to God, even to the point of being willing to sacrifice his son, that Abraham passes the test and receives once again the promise of God to bring forth through him a great people. In this sense the moral of the story is clear enough: faith in God requires obedience. However, if stated abstractly apart from the events of the tale, this moral seems remarkably easy to affirm. The story, however, makes the faith of Abraham and God seem immoral.
The story tells us that Abraham is asked by the LORD God to kill his son. He is not asked to risk the life of his son or to prepare to kill his son, but to offer his son as a sacrifice. It is a request that runs against all the tenets of acceptable conduct, a request that on its face is abhorrent.
Perhaps because the tale is from a distant time, we may conclude that such a demand would never actually require the life of an innocent child. However, this is to evade the meaning of the story. Abraham could not be certain that God would relent and spare his son. He could only hope, if he remained faithful, that the God who had entered into a covenant with him would not break that covenant.
Perhaps the tale simply warns us of the danger of losing our fear of God, as we become prosperous and come to understand ourselves as chosen by God for some special purpose. It also tells us that God tests those who claim to be faithful, even as God tempts each of us with the freedom to do wrong as well as right. In the dark of the night it is hard to distinguish the voice of God from that of the serpent. It is hard to know if one is being tempted or tested, hard to believe that life might require of us decisions that require the sacrifice of others or at least place their lives in the hands of God.
The story reminds us that God may will what we would not will for ourselves and so, to be faithful, we must will not what we want for ourselves but what God wants for us.
Isaac grows up and marries Rebekah, and she gives birth to twin sons, Esau and Jacob. The younger son, Jacob, becomes the favorite of his mother, while Esau is his father's favorite. Esau, as the eldest son, is to receive the blessing of his father denoting both family leadership and estate ownership. However, one day when Esau returns home hungry he agrees to give his birthright to Jacob in exchange for food. Then Rebekah schemes with Jacob to steal Esau's blessing.
Isaac, near death and blind, summons Esau and sends him out to hunt for food, so that after a meal together he might give Esau his blessing. Overhearing Isaac's conversation with Esau, Rebekah instructs Jacob to kill two kids from the flocks and bring them to her. Then she prepares a meal for Isaac and covers Jacob's arms with the hairy skins of the kids, so Isaac will think Jacob is Esau. For Esau, as a hunter and "a man of the field," (Gen. 25:27) not only smells of animals but is very hairy. Jacob serves his father the meal, allows his father to feel his hairy arm, tells his father that he is Esau, and receives the blessing intended for his older brother.
In the tale of Cain and Abel we saw a struggle between two brothers, but it was unrelated to their parents. The cause of Cain's enmity for Abel was God's decision to favor Abel's offering over Cain's, perhaps merely a reflection of better times for the herdsmen then for the farmers. In the story of Esau and Jacob, however, God is not involved at all. Now the source of enmity is competition for the blessing of Isaac, the head of the family.
Isaac's favorite son, Esau, is the victim of a scheme perpetrated by his mother and brother. Rebekah more than Jacob is responsible for the deception, as we read that Jacob is both fearful and reticent about deceiving his father. However, Jacob does as his mother tells him, and thus by lying to his father receives irrevocably the family blessing.
Having done what is clearly wrong, it would seem that Jacob would be punished. But in the story Jacob flees with the aid of his mother to the house of her brother, Laban, in Haran and so is saved from the wrath of Esau and from what would seem to be justifiable vengeance. A day's journey from home, during his first night in the wilderness, Jacob dreams of a ladder extending from the earth to heaven and of angels descending and ascending on it. This vision is remembered in the popular spiritual, "We are Climbing Jacob's Ladder."
In the dream God speaks to Jacob and renews the promise given to Abraham, that his descendants will be a great people and will dwell in the land of Canaan. When Jacob awakens he marks the place and calls it Bethel, meaning "the house of God." Then he makes a vow to worship the LORD as his God: "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace." (Gen. 28:20-21)
Jacob remains in Haran, the home of his uncle, for many years. He works for Laban for seven years to marry Rachel, Laban's more attractive but younger daughter. When Laban tricks Jacob by sending Leah into the dark marriage tent, Jacob works seven more years in order to marry Rachel. Through these two wives and their servants, Bilhah and Zilpah, who are given to Jacob to produce more sons, Jacob fathers twelve sons — who then father the twelve tribes of Israel.
Jacob becomes a successful businessman in Haran, and his wealth and herds arouse the jealousy of his uncle and cousins. Jacob finally flees from Haran to avoid an ugly incident with his in-laws, but he is followed and caught by Laban and his men. Laban searches the belongings of Jacob for his household idols, which Rebekah has taken without Jacob's knowledge. But Laban fails to find the idols as Rebekah has hidden them in her saddle and, while sitting on it, tells her father: "Let not my Lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me." (Gen. 31:35) After both Jacob and Laban have exchanged strong words to save face, they make a covenant defining their territories and establishing peace between their peoples.
The night before Jacob is to return to his own land, and so to meet again his brother, Esau, he lies down alone by the Jabbok ford. There a spirit wrestles "with him until the breaking of the day." (Gen. 32:24) The spirit asks Jacob to free him before dawn, an indication that the story originates in an ancient account of a night spirit who would lose all his power once the sun is up. But Jacob bargains for a blessing before releasing his adversary, and so receives the name, Israel, which means one who "strives with God."
With the rising of the sun Jacob also rises, limping from his struggle of the night, but convinced of his blessing by God: "I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." (Gen. 32:28) That morning when Jacob is reunited with Esau, he is forgiven by his brother and allowed to settle with his family in the land of his father and grandfather.
Thus Jacob, who lied to his father and cheated his brother and outwitted his uncle, receives the promise of God made to his grandfather, Abraham, that he would father a great people. At the end of the tale of Jacob, now named Israel, we discover it is a tale of a people as well as a story of a person. For the people of ancient Israel will cheat, outwit, and defeat their foes and, at least for a time, will enjoy peace and prosperity.
It is difficult in the story of Jacob to discern any divine purpose. As with Cain and Abel, the choice of a favorite from among the competitors seems unrelated to merit or morality. Moreover, God is rarely present in the story, appearing to Jacob only as he leaves home and as he returns. Finally, Jacob has to struggle with God to obtain his blessing. The God who appears to Jacob in a dream returns in the night to test his perseverance, before bestowing upon him the promise given to his father, Isaac, and his grandfather, Abraham.
The story of Jacob is far different from the earliest stories of the beginning. In the tale of the garden the God is described as a being much like the first man and woman. Cain's temptation is a direct result of God's expressed favor for Abel's offering. Noah is instructed by God to build an ark in preparation for the natural disaster that God causes. In the tale of the tower God comes down from heaven to destroy the city. In all these stories God's presence on the earth is central to the lives of its inhabitants and the events which overtake them.
God comes to Jacob, however, only in two night experiences, which might be dreams. The rest of the time of Jacob is concerned with what we might today call the secular affairs of life. We follow Jacob, from his struggle against an elder brother, through his career as a man of affairs in conflict with in-laws, to his prosperous retirement in the land of his fathers. If the faith of Abraham was measured in terms of his obedience to God's call, the faith of Jacob is measured by his perseverance despite God's silence. For God does not converse with Jacob, as God did with Abraham, nor does God give Jacob the guidance given to Abraham.
Yet, the promise of God is renewed because, although God seems to be absent, Jacob is faithful. Jacob receives the name of Israel, because he strives with God. He refuses to release God from the promise made to Abraham. Thus, to keep this promise and to remain faithful, God blesses a man who is not of exemplary character, but who has schemed his way to success.
Any divine purpose seems to be beyond our understanding, and God seems present only in the darkness of night. The tale of Jacob reminds us by its realism that we cannot limit God to our sense of fair play, even as we cannot choose to have life be the way we want it.
God is also absent from the story of Joseph, the second to the youngest son of Jacob by his favorite wife, Rachel. Israel (Jacob) favored Joseph, we are told, "because he was the son of his old age," (Gen. 37:3) and so Israel gives Joseph a long robe with sleeves. Joseph's brothers become jealous, so they sell Joseph to traders who take him to Egypt.
As a slave in Egypt, Joseph is falsely accused of trying to seduce his master's wife and is put into prison. He is only released when Pharaoh learns that Joseph may be able to interpret the ruler’s dreams. Joseph predicts years of good harvests followed by years of drought and famine. Trusting Joseph's power to see the future, Pharaoh places him in charge of storing the extra grain during the good years, so there will be enough to eat during the bad years.
After the drought has begun and there is widespread famine, the brothers of Joseph come to Egypt to buy grain. They are brought before Joseph, but do not recognize him. Only after Joseph has exacted some measure of genuine humility from them, does he reveals his identity. Joseph forgives his brothers and tells them that "God sent me before you to preserve life." (Gen. 45:5) Joseph interprets the injustice that he suffered as the will of God. After a dream, Joseph’s father believes Joseph was taken to Egypt by God to save them from starvation. So, despite his old age, he journeys to Egypt to be with all his children and their families.
It would appear from the story of Joseph that sad, tragic, and even wrongful acts may be a part of a larger purpose beyond our comprehension. This does not make them right, of course, or the sin of those who are responsible any less grievous. The brothers of Joseph were wrong to sell Joseph into slavery, even as Jacob was wrong in stealing the blessing meant for Esau. Yet, the story tells us, some good may follow even great wrong.
The story of Joseph shares with all the stories of the beginning an affirmation of God's presence and purpose in life, as it is, and not as we would like it to be. At times the presence of God is vivid and the purpose of God seems clear. At other times God seems strangely absent, or only present in the darkness of the night. Moreover, God's purpose often seems to elude moral rules.
The tales of the beginning were written to answer questions about the meaning of life. Yet, they do not answer questions with answers, but only with more profound questions. They depict life as it is and affirm God's presence and purpose in it. The God of the beginning is not unlike the men and women of the beginning, who in turn are not all that different from us. We have favorites, we become jealous, we tempt and test each other, and we do what is wrong as well as what is right.
Genesis 12:1-13:18 Call of Abram.
Genesis 13:1-18, 20:1-18 Sojourning in foreign lands.
Genesis 14:1-24 Fighting, blessing by Melchizedek.
Genesis 15:1-21 Covenant with Abraham.
Genesis 16:1-16, 21:1-21 Hagar and Ishmael.
Genesis 17:1-27 Covenant of circumcision.
Genesis 18:1-33 Abraham argues with God about Sodom.
Genesis 19:1-38 Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Genesis 22:1-19 Abraham called to sacrifice Isaac.
Genesis 24:1-67, 26:23-25 Story of Isaac and Rebekah.
Genesis 25:19-34, 27:1-28:5 Esau and Jacob.
Genesis 28:10-31:55 Jacob in Haran, marries Leah and Rachel.
Genesis 32:1-33:20 Jacob returns, wins name Israel, meets Esau.
Genesis 37:1-47:31 Story of Joseph in Egypt.
Genesis 48:1-22 Jacob's adoption of Joseph's two sons.
Genesis 49:1-33 Jacob blesses his twelve sons, dies.