During the early part of the second millennium B.C., the patriarchs lived in the midst of Near Eastern cultures.
Abraham emigrated from the Tigris-Euphrates Valley to Palestine, and Jacob and his sons settled in Egypt at the close of the patriarchal era.
The area between the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates is known as the Fertile Crescent.
At that time the great pyramids had already been constructed in Egypt.
In Mesopotamia various codes of law regulating commerce and social relationships had already been written.
Merchants traveling with camel and donkey caravans frequently passed through Palestine to carry on trade between the two great cultural centers of the ancient world.
The patriarchal period is covered in Genesis 12–50.
It may be outlined as follows:
Isaac and Jacob
Abraham is one of the greatest and best-known characters in history.
In both Judaism and Islam Abraham is a patriarch.
In Christianity he is remembered as a man of great faith and as the father of the faithful.
The chapters dealing with Abraham will be outlined in this way:
Background and Time
Abraham was born into an idolatrous family and environment Josh 24:2-3 “2 And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘Your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times; and they served other gods.
3 Then I took your father Abraham from the other side of the River, led him throughout all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his descendants and gave him Isaac.” .
His father may have participated in the worship of the moon at Ur and later at Haran.
In response to God’s call, Abraham left Haran and traveled into Palestine, about 400 miles away.
Abraham’s moves may be traced in the Genesis narrative.
Most of the places he visited can be identified today.
Shechem, some thirty miles north of Jerusalem, was his first stopping place.
Later he lived at nearby Bethel.
Near Hebron tourists can still see the oaks of Mamre where Abraham built an altar and had fellowship with God.
Other cities where he lived were Gerar in the Philistine country and Beersheba to the south.
A trip to Egypt is also noted in the Scriptures.
Most of these chapters deal with the twenty-five years of Abraham’s life prior to the birth of Isaac (12–20).
Chapters 21–25 give us relatively little detail from the seventy-five remaining years of his life.
Genesis tells of the great wealth of Abraham.
The statement in 12:5, “all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran,” merely suggests the extent of his riches.
But the fact that he could muster a force of 318 trained servants to deliver Lot indicates that he had vast resources (14:14).
The ten-camel caravan used by Abraham’s servant on his trip to Mesopotamia points to extensive wealth, since one camel represented a larger investment than the average person could afford (24:10).
Servants were added to Abraham’s household by purchase, gift, and birth (16:1; 17:23, 27; 20:14).
Local chieftains recognized Abraham as a prince, and they made alliances and concluded treaties with him (14:13; 21:32; 23:6).
Customs and culture
Abraham was a man of his times.
His decision to sojourn in Egypt when pressured by famine may indicate a lack of faith, and his behavior before pharaoh definitely represents a period of spiritual declension.
As Sarah’s husband, he might have been killed.
But as her brother, he expected to be honored.
Decency and strict truthfulness were both bypassed, and Abraham was later ushered out of Egypt in disgrace (12:11–20).
Laws prevalent in the Mesopotamian culture from which Abraham came also explain why he considered making his eldest servant Eliezer his heir (15:1–3).
Nuzu laws provided that if a man and his wife were childless, they could adopt a servant as a son with full legal rights and the assurance of receiving the inheritance in return for constant care and proper burial at death.
As Abraham weighed this possibility, God renewed His promise (15:4, 5).
At Sarah’s suggestion, Abraham accepted the idea of having a son by Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid.
This, too, was in agreement with the custom of the age.
A childless couple could also adopt the son of a handmaid as a legal heir.
After ten years in Canaan, without any prospect of the promised son, Abraham and Sarah may have expected that this method would bring about the fulfillment of God’s promise.
Thirteen years later, when Abraham was ninety-nine, God rejected these plans and this time assured him that Sarah would bear him the promised son.
At this time the covenant was renewed, and circumcision was instituted as its visible sign (17:1–27; cf.
12:1–3; 13:14–18; 15:18–21; Col. 2:11).
There was another spiritual lapse in Abraham’s life, when he lied about his wife to Abimelech at Gerar (20:1–18).
However, God intervened on Abraham’s behalf so that he was enabled to pray for the king and his household.
From the expulsion of Hagar (21:9–21) and Abraham’s concern for her welfare, it appears that he had contemporary laws in mind.
It was illegal to sell a handmaid into slavery after she had given birth to a child for her master.
While the case is not strictly parallel, Abraham expelled Hagar only after he had God’s assurance that this was His will.
Even then he made provision for her and her son when they departed.
Again when Sarah died, Abraham is seen as a man of his times.
When he bargained with the Hittites for a burial place (23:1–20), he wanted to purchase only the cave of Machpelah.
However, Ephron insisted on selling the field with the cave.
In this way Abraham also became subject to taxation under Hittite law.
Had he acquired only the cave, he might have been free from that liability.
A Man of Faith
Through faith in God’s promises, Abraham rose above the religious level of his times.
From the beginning he responded with obedience.
Wherever Abraham sojourned in Canaan, he erected an altar and gave public testimony of the fact that he worshiped “the God of heaven and earth” (24:3) in the midst of a pagan environment (cf.
Consider the sixfold promise God made to Abraham:
1. “I will make of thee a great nation.”
2. “I will bless thee.”
3. “I will make thy name great.”
4. “Thou shalt be a blessing.”
5. “I will bless them that bless thee and curse him that curseth thee.”
6. “In thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”
This multiple promise has had far-reaching implications in history down to the present time—more extensive than Abraham could comprehend during his lifetime.
It is true that Abraham was richly blessed while he lived, and before his death he could understand that many nations could yet be born through Ishmael, Isaac, and his other sons.
Today, by way of contrast, the name of Abraham is held in great honor among Jews, Muslims, and Christians.
The promise that Abraham would be a blessing to all the families of the earth unfolds in Christ.
Matthew begins his gospel with the assertion that Jesus—the Savior of the world—is the “son of Abraham” (1:1; cf.
The Abrahamic Covenant
As we study the life of Abraham in subsequent chapters, it is apparent that Abraham’s grasp of the promises was progressively enlarged.
In times of crisis Abraham gained fuller understanding of them.
He showed great generosity when he offered Lot the choice of the land (Gen.
While Lot’s decision was based on the prospects of immediate material gain in a godless environment, Abraham received confirmation from God that the land was to be his and for his posterity.
When Abraham rescued Lot, he refused to accept a reward from the king of Sodom and was concerned about the legal arrangements for the future.
But God revealed to Abraham more about the time to come.
He promised that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of heaven, but that they would dwell in Egypt for 400 years.
We read that Abraham believed God, and that it was accounted to him for righteousness (cf.
God’s covenant with Abraham was enlarged and confirmed when Abraham was ninety-nine years old.
The terms of the covenant were distinctly given (17:1–27).
While the birth of the promised son was still a year away, circumcision was given as the distinctive sign of the covenant for Abraham and his descendants (cf.
A Friend of God