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Holman Bible Dictionary

Patriarchs, the

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Israel's founding fathers—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the twelve sons of Jacob (Israel). The word patriarch comes from a combination of the Latin word pater , “father,” and the Greek verb archo , “to rule.” A patriarch is thus a ruling ancestor who may have been the founding father of a family, a clan, or a nation.

The idea of a binding agreement between God and humankind antedated the patriarchs, being first expressed in the time of Noah (Genesis 6:18 ; Genesis 9:8-17 ). The growth of the Hebrew nation was promised specifically to Abraham in the patriarchal covenant (Genesis 15:1 ; Genesis 17:1 ), along with the provision of a land in which Abraham's offspring would dwell. Since several generations elapsed before this situation developed, the covenant with Abraham must be regarded as promissory. The promises made to Abraham established the concept of a people descended through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who would be in a special historical and spiritual relationship with God. See Covenant .

Abraham, or Abram as he was called in the earlier chapters of Genesis, was a ninth-generation descendant of Shem, son of Noah. Abram's father Terah was born in Ur of the Chaldees, as were his brothers Nahor and Haran (Genesis 11:26 ,Genesis 11:26,11:28 ). See Shem ; Terah ; Ur .

Just why Terah left Ur with his family is not stated, but it may have been to seek new pastures for the flocks and herds. They journeyed to Haran, several hundred miles northwest. After living there for some time, Terah died. Abram was 75 at the time, and responded to God's call to migrate to Canaan, where he would become the founder of a great nation. God's promises were not fulfilled immediately.

As Abram moved along the trading routes leading to Shechem, Bethel, and the Hebron area and mingled with the pagan Canaanites, God's promise that the childless Sarai would bear a son could only be accepted by faith. Yet God was with them, and saved Sarai from the amorous attentions of Pharaoh (Genesis 12:15-20 ) and Abimelech (Genesis 20:1-18 ). During this period Abram managed to retain his dignity and his position as a wealthy owner of flocks. When Lot was taken prisoner by a number of local rulers, Abram mustered a rescue party and was recognized for his leadership (Genesis 14:14-19 ) by the kings of Sodom and Salem.

When Abram proposed to appoint Eliezer of Damascus as his heir (Genesis 15:2 ), God entered into a formal covenant with Abram and promised him vast amounts of land for his descendants. Then Abram, apparently impatient for an heir, took Sarai's handmaid Hagar as a concubine, following Mesopotamian custom, because Sarai continued childless. From this union came Ishmael, who was born when Abram was 86. See Ishmael . Later God renewed His covenant with Abram and instituted the sign of circumcision for Abram's household. He promised Abraham and Sarah a son.

Before the baby was conceived, Sodom and Goomorrah were destroyed. Sarah subsequently bore Abraham the promised son: Isaac.

To test Abraham's faith, God ordered him to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering on a mountain in Moriah, some distance from Beersheba. Whatever his own misgivings, Abraham obeyed God's instructions, and at the last moment a sacrificial ram was provided, while God's angel praised Abraham for his obedience and faith. Sometime later Sarah died and was buried on land belonging to a group of Hittites' living at Mamre in Hebron (Genesis 23:1 ).

Although advanced in years, Abraham married a woman named Keturah, who bore him six children. Before his death Abraham gave gifts to his concubine's sons, and sent them away from Canaan. The aged patriarch died aged 175 years, and was buried in the cave of Machpelah purchased originally for Sarah's interment (Genesis 25:9 ).

At an early period, Abraham had testified that God was the Most High God (Genesis 14:22 ), the righteous Judge of humankind (Genesis 15:14 ), and the Guarantor of the covenant of promise. He experienced close communion with God (Genesis 18:33 ; Genesis 24:40 ) and worshiped Him consistently to the exclusion of all other gods. His fidelity and obedience were characteristic features of his personality and made this renowned forefather of Israel (compare Romans 4:1-4 ) an example of the way in which men and women are justified before God. See Abraham ; Nuzi .

The line of descent by which the covenant was to be perpetuated consisted solely of Abraham's son Isaac; through him the covenant promises were continued. Isaac's name is generally thought to mean “laughter,” but it possibly also conveys the more subtle sense of “joker.” It commemorated the occasion when both Abraham and Sarah laughed at God's promise to provide them with a son in their old age (Genesis 17:17-19 ; Genesis 18:9-15 ).

We have very little information about the maturing years of Isaac except that he was used as the supreme test of Abraham's faith in the covenant promises. Under the patriarchal system, the father had the power of life or death over every living person and thing in his household. At the very moment that Isaac's life was about to be taken, his position as covenant heir was safeguarded by the provision of an alternative sacrificial offering (Genesis 22:9-13 ). The circumstances attending his marriage to Rebekah afforded Isaac great comfort after the death of his mother (Genesis 24:67 ). Isaac prayed earnestly to God for covenant heirs, and in due time Rebekah became pregnant with twins when Isaac was 60 years old. Esau grew up to be a hunter, while Jacob followed the more sedentary life-style of his father by supervising the family's flocks and herds, moving with them when it was necessary to find fresh pasture (Genesis 25:27 ). Isaac unfortunately provoked sibling rivalry by favoring Esau above Jacob. The former brought his father tasty venison, whereas Jacob's culinary expertise seems only to have extended to preparing lentil soup (Genesis 25:28-29 ). In a moment of desperate hunger, Esau traded his birthright for some of Jacob's soup, thereby transferring to his brother a double portion of Isaac's estate as well as other rights.

In old age, Isaac's sight failed; and, when it became apparent that Esau might inherit the extra birthright provision after all, Rebekah conspired with her favorite son Jacob to deceive Isaac into blessing him rather than Esau. The success of the scheme made Esau extremely angry. To escape his vengeance Jacob fled to Mesopotamia on his father's instructions. Before he arrived he received a revelation from God which confirmed his inheritance in the covenant. Jacob later encountered the family of Laban, son of Nahor, and in due course married two of Laban's daughters. After some years absence Jacob finally returned to Mamre, where his father was living, and along with Esau buried him when he died aged 180 years.

Isaac's life, though less spectacular than Abraham's, was nevertheless marked by divine favor. He was circumcised as a sign of convenant membership, and owed his life to timely divine intervention when a youth (Genesis 22:12-14 ). He was obedient to God's will (Genesis 22:6 ,Genesis 22:6,22:9 ), a man of devotion and prayer (Genesis 26:25 ), and a follower of peace (Genesis 26:20-23 ). He fulfilled his role as a child of promise (Galatians 4:22-23 ). See Isaac .

The life of Jacob, the last of the three great patriarchs, was marked by migrations, as had been the case with his ancestors. Although he lived successively at Shechem (Genesis 33:18-20 ), Bethel Genesis 35:6-7 ), and Hebron (Genesis 35:27 ), Jacob was basically a resident alien who did not have a capital city. His experience of God at Bethel caused him to dedicate the site to the Lord, and on his return he erected an altar there (Genesis 35:6-15 ).

Jacob's title as supplanter was fulfilled most noticeably in his dealings with his twin brother Esau. Yet in other respects he was described commendably by comparison with Esau, the semi-nomadic skilled hunter, as being a “quiet” (RSV) man. The Hebrew word (Genesis 25:27 ; “plain,” KJV) has unfortunately been translated badly, because it means one who has all sides of his personality developed, and is the Hebrew equivalent of the “perfect” person which Christ urged His followers to be (Matthew 5:48 ).

The deception which Jacob perpetrated upon his father and Esau made Jacob afraid of his brother for many years. Ironically, Jacob himself was the victim of deception by Laban of Nahor, a stubborn and greedy men.

Jacob's relationships with his wives were complicated when Leah gave birth to a total of six sons and a daughter (Genesis 30:20-21 ), whereas Rachel remained childless for years. The situation improved slightly for Rachel when Jacob, following Abraham's example, had two sons by Bilhah, Rachel's maid (Genesis 30:3-8 ). Not to be outdone, Leah also gave her handmaid Zilpah to Jacob, and she bore him two sons. Finally, Rachel conceived and bore Jacob a son named Joseph, who as a son of Jacob's old age was to become his favorite.

By this time Jacob's flocks had increased as well as his family. Meanwhile Laban's two daughters felt that they, as well as their husband Jacob, were being treated badly by Laban (Genesis 31:15 ), and all of them plotted to leave Paddan-Aram quietly. Laban pursued them, hoping to regain what he rightfully regarded as his own property. God intervened in a night vision, and a restrained Laban made a covenant of peace with Jacob.

Perhaps the greatest crisis in Jacob's adult life was that of his reconciliation with Esau (Genesis 32:1 ). When Jacob finally met his brother, he observed all the traditional courtesies and was reunited with Esau in a tearful greeting. Esau accepted Jacob's gift after the usual denial of need and offered to escort Jacob home. Jacob declined and moved to Succoth, an ancient settlement in Transjordan where he stayed for a time before moving to more permanent quarters in Shechem (Genesis 33:18 ).

Just before Isaac's death, God appeared again to Jacob (Genesis 35:9 ) and renewed the promise of his new name. Jacob resided in Canaan thereafter, and only left when a famine overtook the land. Jacob and his sons were invited to live in Egypt by Joseph. As his life drew to a close Jacob, like his father Isaac, became blind; but he blessed his sons by means of a spoken last will and testament, after which he died peacefully. His body was embalmed in the Egyptian manner, and he was buried subsequently in the cave of Machpelah along with his ancestors (Genesis 49:30-50:13 ). Despite his apparent materialism, Jacob was a person of deep spirituality who, like Abraham, was esteemed highly by his pagan neighbors. Despite his fears, he behaved honorably and correctly in dealing with his avaricious father-in-law Laban and was equally consistent in fulfilling his vow to return to Bethel. Jacob trusted the God whom he had seen at Peniel to implement the covenant promises through him; and when he died, he left behind a clearly burgeoning nation. See Jacob .

Archaeological discoveries at certain Near Eastern sites have helped to illumine the background of the patriarchal narratives. See Archaeology; Nuzi .

The date of the patriarchal period has been much discussed. A time before 2000 B.C. (Early Bronze Age) seems too early and cannot be supported easily by reference to current archaeological evidence. The Middle Bronze period (2000-1500 B.C.) seems more promising because of contemporary archaeological parallels and also because many of the Negeb irrigation systems date from that period. Some scholars have suggested the Amarna period (1500-1300 B.C.) as the one in which the patriarchs lived, but this presents problems for any dating for the Exodus. The same objection applies to a Late Bronze Age (1500-1200 B.C.) period for the patriarchs. The least likely date is in the Judges period or the time of king David. All such dates do not allow time for the patriarchal traditions to have developed and make it impossible for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be fitted realistically into an already-known chronology. A date in the Middle Bronze Age seems to offer the most suitable solution to a complex problem of dating.

R. K. Harrison


Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Patriarchs, the'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/p/patriarchs-the.html. 1991.

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