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The Patriarchs and the Matriarchs

The Ancestral History: An Overview

  • Set in the Middle Bronze Age (2200-1500 BCE). In the larger ANE context, Egypt is the superpower and Canaan is under its control.
  • Genre: saga with narratives about the eponymic ancestors.
  • Central Characters: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Esau and Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers.

Abraham and Sarah

  • Abram was raised in a typical polytheistic environment (Joshua 24:2-3) and this may be reflected in the names in his family (e.g. Terah = Yareah or “moon”, Sarai = Sharratu or the moon god Sin’s wife, Milcah = malkatu or Sin’s daughter).
  • The unconditional Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12:1-3): posterity, land, blessing
  •  The covenant ratification ceremony (15:1-21) and the gift of new names along with the covenant of circumcision (17:1-27).
  • Threats: Pharaoh taking Sarai (12:10-20), Lot’s departure and capture (13:1-18; 14:1-24), Abimelech taking Sarah (20:1-18), Hagar and Ishmael (16:1-16, 21:8-21), the command to sacrifice Isaac (22:1-19).

Isaac and Rebekah

  • Isaac’s name means “laughter” since he was born when Abraham was 100 years old.
  • The Akedah or “binding” of Isaac: Jewish midrashic interpretations and Christian typological interpretations.
  • Isaac marries Rebekah (24:1-67) and there is a similar story about the threat to the marriage from the ruler Abimelech (26:6-11).

Jacob and Esau

  • The Toledot of Isaac (25:19-35:29).
  • There is a pre-birth oracle about the older son serving the younger.
  • Esau is the ancestor of the Edomites: the Hebrew term for “hair” shares the same consonants as the term for Mount “Seir” and the Hebrew term for “reddish” plays on the name for Edom.
  • Jacob may be a shortened version of a Hebrew name ya’qub-alel (“may El protect”), but the text relates it to the term for “heel” (aqeb) and explains it in reference to Jacob grasping Esau’s heal or trying to supplant his older brother since his birth.
  • Stealing Esau’s birthright and deceiving his aged father to steal the blessing. Jacob flees from Esau’s murderous rage and Rebekah dies without a memorial.
  • Jacob sees a staircase to heaven at Bethel (“house of God”) where the Abrahamic covenant is re-affirmed and he makes a bargain with God.
  • Jacob is cheated by his uncle Laban, working for him seven years to marry Leah and another seven to marry Rachel.
  • At the river Yabbok, Jacob wrestles a man (i.e. Canaanite river god, angel, or Yahweh) and is called Israel (from El and the verb sarah or “struggle”).
  • Jacob is reunited with Esau, bows to him seven times, and returns Esau’s blessing (27:36; 33:11).

Joseph and his Brothers

  • Jacob has 6 children with Leah (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun), 2 with Rachel’s servant Bilhah (Dan, Naphtali), 2 with Leah’s servant Zilpha (Gad, Asher), and 2 with Rachel (Joseph, Benjamin).
  • The Toledot of Jacob (37:2-50:26) is like a novella.
  • It features indirect divine intervention through dreams and providence.
  • Jacob’s favouritism to Joseph who stays at home and wears a coat with long sleeves while his brothers are labourers.
  • Providence is at work even when Joseph is cast in a well, sold into slavery, and imprisoned after a false accusation. Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams causes him to ascend to power in Egypt and rescue his family from a famine that he predicts.
  • The story continues the Abrahamic promise to bless the world, but the ancestral family has settled in Egypt where they will be enslaved.
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