The Story of Israel
Abraham: Father of a Nation
The first 11 chapters of Genesis deal with universal beginnings, God’s good creation and humanity’s fall into sin. In ch. 12 the focus narrows to the beginnings of the nation of Israel. Through these people God will work to correct the problem of sin, amply demonstrated in the previous chapters. As the story unfolds, God will provide his people with commandments for living righteously and a sacrificial system to cleanse them from sin, which was a foreshadowing of the ultimate sacrifice of Christ who took all our sins upon himself in a way that no animal sacrifice ever could (Hebrews 9:13-14).
The term patriarchs refers to the founding fathers of the nation of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are the ancestors of Judeo-Christian faith.
As important as they were, the patriarchs were not perfect men. Significantly the Bible does not attempt to cover up the flaws of even the founding fathers. They are there for all to see: Abraham lies and endangers his wife, Isaac lies, Jacob cheats. As the story continues, we see how often God’s people fall into sin. But here’s the point – God continues to be faithful, even when we are faithless. God does not work through perfect people; He chooses to use deeply flawed individuals, in spite of their sins, to accomplish His purposes. While we must strive to rid sin from our lives, we know that God will continue to work through us just as He worked through the imperfect heroes of ancient times.
The Bible teaches that God elects specific individuals through whom He intends to accomplish His will. However, this election is never intended for the purpose of excluding other people from God’s promises. The nation of Israel was chosen to illuminate the way for all mankind. God intended Israel to be His servant (Isaiah 41:8), His witness (Isaiah 43:10) and His messenger (Isaiah 42:19) to the world.
As we will see in the continuing story of Israel, people often misunderstand the purpose of their calling. They think they are called because they are more righteous or have special favor with God. God does not call just a few to know Him, but He does call a few in a unique way so that God can be made known to the world.
Read Gen. 12-13, 15-19, 21-23
The patriarch’s original name was Abram. God gave him a new name after making his covenant with him (ch. 17). Abram means “exalted father” whereas Abraham means “father of many.” This altered name was based solely on God’s promise, for to this point in his long life, he had no children. God tells Abram that his descendants will be like the sand on the shore and the stars in the sky (ch. 15). Even though he was old and had no evidence to support this promise, “Abram believed the Lord [Yahweh], and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Through such faith, Abram became the forefather of “all those who believe” for he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:11, 21).
The text gives no clear indications of when these events took place. Most scholars would date these stories sometime in the early 2nd millennium BC, or the Middle Bronze Age.
Abram was a descendant of Noah’s son Shem. From his name we get the term “Semitic” which describes the people of Israel.
Abram originally lived in Ur, probably the excavated city in southern Iraq. (The author knew of more than one city called Ur in his time, so he identified it as “Ur of the Chaldeans,” people who populated the region later than Abram’s time). Ur is one of the earliest known cities, from 2600 BC at least. An impressive ziggurat or temple still stands there.
After leaving Ur, Abram’s father Terah moved his family to Haran in modern-day western Turkey (Gen. 11). (Abram’s brother was named Haran, but in Hebrew the names are not spelled the same). After Terah died in Haran, God called Abram to take a long and difficult journey to Canaan, but He promised that one day his descendants would rule this land.
Abram eventually settled in the Negev or southern Canaan, near the region of Jerusalem today.
In ch. 12 God makes three promises to Abram: He will give him a land, and many descendants, and most important, God blesses Abraham so that he will become a blessing to others. Ultimately, this blessing came through the birth of Jesus nearly 2000 years later. Abram did not live to see all these things fulfilled, but he trusted God would do as He promised.
God’s covenant with Abram:
Ch. 15 describes an eerie ceremony where Abram dreams of a smoking pot passing between pieces of slain animals. In the ancient near east, sacrificial animals were commonly used in making agreements, treaties, and covenants, implying that if one party of the covenant did not keep their part of the agreement, they would become like the dead animals. In Jeremiah 34:18 God says, “The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.”
One student made this insightful comment about this passage: “I am familiar with this ceremony. It is a contractual ceremony, still used in parts of the Middle East today. In modern usage it is most commonly associated with a wedding ceremony. Usually the ceremony has the bridegroom, an assistant, and the bride’s father present. The bride is not present. The bridegroom asks the assistant to kill the animal, its blood is poured out on the ground, and then the bridegroom wades through the blood. It is a visual aid, a very graphic presentation of a serious promise that the bridegroom makes to the bride’s father – the promise that the new husband will take care of his bride. He is essentially stating that if he fails to keep his promise to properly care for his bride, he will deserve the same fate the animal experienced, and will allow the bride’s father to do to him as has been done to the animal.
“I think it is noteworthy that in Genesis 15 it is God, not Abram, who orders the animals killed and who wades through the blood as symbolized by the smoking pot. Abram had asked “O Sovereign LORD, how can I know I will gain possession of the land?” and God answered by wading through the blood of slain animals. It is God who is making the promise, graphically illustrating that if he fails to keep his promise he deserves bloody murder, and will offer himself up to be slain. Thus, this ceremony is not about Abram’s promise to remain faithful to God; it is about God’s covenant to fulfill his unconditional promise to Abram to give him the land.
“It isn’t just about a piece of land, however. God’s promise was much more than Abram probably understood at the time. In this ceremony described in Gen. 15, God can be seen as the bridegroom, and Abram as the father of the bride who is not present. Having Abram participate in this ceremony in the role of ‘father of the bride’ reinforced God’s promise that Abram would have offspring. In Matt. 3:7-10 Jesus makes it clear that Abraham’s offspring are not merely a group of people who are biologically descended from him. Instead, the bride is the group of offspring by faith – those who share the faith of Abraham (Gal. 3:6-9). The land God promised is not merely a piece of land off the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Instead, the promised land is the New Jerusalem spoken of in Rev. 3:12 & 21:1-2. We have inherited a great promise!”
Even Abram’s faith could waver. He did not trust God to protect him in Egypt, so he lied about his wife, actually putting her in danger of becoming Pharaoh’s concubine (ch. 12), then again he lied to Abimelech (ch. 20). Notice that this was partially true as Sarah was his half-sister.
After many years without a child by his wife, he has another by her slave Hagar. This was not considered adultery; surrogate motherhood with a slave was an accepted practice in those days, when a wife could not produce children. Abram attempted to fulfill God’s promise of a child by his own means, not waiting on God to provide the way.
In ch. 17, when Abram is 99 years old, God renews his covenant with him, changing his name and that of Sarai to Sarah, which means princess. Isaac’s name means “laughter.” The name change symbolizes a changed status before God (as we see in Acts when Saul’s name becomes Paul). God establishes circumcision of all males as a sign of this covenant.
Ch. 19 describes God’s destruction of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Even with their great sinfulness, God was willing to be merciful, promising Abraham that He would spare the cities if only ten righteous people could be found. Only Lot and his family seem to fit that description. Lot’s offer to give his daughters to the men of the city instead of surrendering his guests may seem shocking, but according to Middle Eastern custom, the responsibility of a host for his guests was a sacred bond. Their protection came before even his family. Some scholars believe that the destroyed cities are now covered by the Dead Sea.
The story ends on a sorry note, when Lot’s daughters, fearing they would be barren, get their father drunk and sleep with him. The Bible records these events without condoning them. From this night were born the ancestors of two races, Moab and Ammon, who would plague the Israelites centuries later.
13 years after the birth of Ishmael, and 25 years after the first promise (12:1), God fulfills his promise to Abraham with the birth of Isaac. Soon after in the narrative, He challenges Abraham’s faith again by commanding that he sacrifice his son. The text never hints at the agony Abraham must have experienced; instead he accepted that God must be obeyed. We read only of his humble submission to God’s will. Unlike the other times his faith was tested and he wavered, this time he obeyed. Perhaps he thought that God would give him another son, but the text doesn’t say. Of course, God never intended for the sacrifice to be completed but provided an animal instead. In the course of time, however, God himself gave up his only Son as an atoning sacrifice for us all.
In Gen. 22 God tells Abraham to go to the region of Moriah to make this sacrifice. In 2 Chronicles 3 God tells Solomon to build the temple on Mount Moriah. Jewish tradition equates these two locations and claims that the sacrifice took place on the same spot as the temple, but this is mere speculation.
Notice how the biblical narrator briefly shares the perspective of a character: “Now Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, mocking” (Gen 21:9). Rather than naming Ishmael, the narrator describes him from the perspective of Sarah, as she thinks of him as her rival’s son, an arrangement she had promoted but now regrets.
Hagar’s plight is pitiable, as she has only done what Sarah told her to do in having Abraham’s child. God takes pity on her, and promises that her son will produce a great nation as well.
Muslims believe that Ishmael became the father of Islamic Arabs (although the Bible never says this). The Quran (which records the teachings of Muhammad in the 7th century AD) claims that the well Hagar found in the desert was near Mecca in Saudi Arabia (rather than in Canaan as the Bible describes). Today Muslims celebrate her rescue in the desert by running the path from Mecca to the well.
Ch. 21 mentions Abraham’s dealings with Abimelech in the “land of the Philistines.” Archaeology shows that the Philistines did not arrive in Canaan until around 1200 BC with the migration of the Sea Peoples. The author refers to Abimelech living in the area which the Philistines inhabited centuries later, to identify it to later readers. The land of Canaan later became known as Palestine by the Romans, named after the Philistines.
In ch. 23 we have an interesting example of the custom of negotiation in the ancient middle east which resembles some customs still in practice today. Abraham wanted to buy a piece of land including a cave in which to bury his wife Sarah. The Hittite owner at first offers to give him the land for free, but this is merely a formality in the business dealing. Such a generous offer placed the buyer in the position of being equally gracious, and so Abraham asks the owner to set his own price, which was rather exorbitant for this time period. Rather than continue to bargain, Abraham pays the 400 shekels of silver rather than bicker over the cost of burying his wife.
The story of Jacob
Read Gen. 25:9-34, 27- 31, 32:22-32, 33
Although he was Abraham’s promised son, Genesis does not tell much about Isaac but focuses on his sons Jacob and Esau. The conflict between these two brothers would begin in their mother’s womb. Again we see the significance of names: Esau’s nickname Edom means “red” as he had a ruddy complexion, and Jacob sounds like the Hebrew word for “heel” since he took hold of his brother’s heel when they were born, suggesting his grasping nature.
In the ancient world, birthright was a special privilege, giving the first born a double portion of the estate (Deut. 21:17) and leadership over the rest of the family (Gen. 43:33). Esau, however, thinks little of his birthright when he’s hungry. Like many people he relinquishes the long-term benefits of faithfulness for the sake of instant gratification of our human appetites.
After tricking his father and stealing the birthright from his brother, Jacob escapes to his uncle Laban. He will be away from his family for 20 years, never seeing his father or mother again. During this time, the deceiver is deceived, when Laban marries him to his older daughter Leah (whose name means “wild cow”) before giving him his true love Rachel (“lamb”). Jacob works another seven years for Rachel. Although the OT does not condemn polygamy, the story shows how much trouble it causes within the family, as Jacob does not treat his wives equally.
Jacob is a very human hero, full of faults. Before his encounter with God at the heavenly ladder, there is not much to commend him for. God does not choose to bless Jacob as a reward for his righteousness, but because of God’s own faithfulness: God promised Abraham that a nation will arise from this family. God chooses to use sinful people to accomplish His purposes. Even after hearing from God, Jacob’s response is typical of so many people. He says, “If you will bless me, then I will serve you.” We bargain with God to get something out of Him, rather than obeying Him simply because He is our creator.
Rachel bargains with Leah for some mandrake roots, which were thought to promote fertility. The text however says that God made her fertile, not crediting this superstition.
One night, Jacob wrestles with a “man” who is identified as an angel in Hosea 12:4. Whether this was a dream or an actual physical confrontation, the text does not say. Jacob’s name becomes Israel, meaning “struggle with God.”
Notice the continuing temptation of pagan worship, as Rachel takes the family idols.
Joseph and his Brothers
Read Gen. 37, 39- 45
The story of Joseph is probably familiar to many of you. It was even made into a Broadway musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Although Genesis gives Joseph special attention, the OT does not list him with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. His story is important because it explains how Jacob’s family came to live in Egypt, and it provides in Joseph an example of faithfulness in pleasing God.
Joseph’s rivalry with his brothers is the culmination of a pattern of family jealousy and favoritism, as seen previously between Sarah and Hagar, Rebekah’s favoritism toward Jacob over Esau, rivalry between Rachel and Leah. Joseph and Benjamin were the sons of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, causing his brothers to hate him.
Throughout the story notice the importance of dreams and their interpretations. These remind us of earlier dreams by Abraham and Jacob, through which God revealed his promises. “If Joseph’s dreams indicate God’s great plans for his life, subsequent events will test that notion” (Briley).
When Joseph seeks his brothers, he first goes to Shechem but finds they have moved to other pastures. Perhaps the text mentions Shechem to remind the reader of the bloody events in ch. 34, when the brothers treacherously avenged their sister Dinah’s rape. This violent episode foreshadows their harsh treatment of Joseph.
After throwing him in the pit, the brothers sit down to eat, a sign that they lack any conscience about what they have done. Note that Reuben the eldest brother hopes to come back and save Joseph, knowing that his father will be crushed if he loses him.
Who purchased Joseph, Ishmaelites or Midianites? (see Gen. 37:28, 36, and 39:1) The text seems to use these terms interchangeably although Ishmaelites were descendants of Abraham’s son by Hagar, and Midianites came from Abraham’s son by another concubine Keturah (Gen. 25:1). The term Midianite may refer to a confederation of tribes descended from Abraham.
The slave price for Joseph is correct for that period. We know from external sources that by 1800-1700 BC the price of a slave was 20 shekels.
One student wrote: “It is easy to read Genesis and forget that there were no written scriptures yet. Joseph’s only faith community was his family. When Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, he still held onto his faith even though the brothers who confessed belief in the same God betrayed him. Joseph continued to believe that God spoke to him in dreams when none of his dreams had come true yet. This kind of faith is mind blowing. Joseph never wavered in what he believed.”
Joseph’s story is interrupted by the sordid tale of Judah and Tamar in ch. 38. When Judah’s first son dies without providing a child for Tamar, his next son is responsible for giving Tamar a child, but he refuses this responsibility. This obligation, called levirate marriage, was common in the ancient Middle East so that the family line would not die out. Eventually, Tamar disguises herself as a cult prostitute and has a child by her father-in-law. When he finds out she’s pregnant, he threatens to kill her until she reveals him to be the father, when he admits that she has right on her side.
Why is this peculiar story here? Judah becomes the most important of Jacob’s sons, because of the blessing that he receives in Gen. 49:10: “the scepter will not depart from Judah.” This is interpreted as a prophecy that a line of kings would come from the tribe of Judah, which became true with David many centuries later. The New Testament lists Judah as the ancestor of Jesus. He was not chosen, however, because of his special righteousness. Judah was callous and calculating. He made the suggestion to sell Joseph to the slave traders. He then sleeps with a prostitute (he thinks), but comes to admit that he was more wrong than Tamar. We see a changed man by ch. 44, where Judah pleads to protect his brother Benjamin and offers to take his place as a slave. So with this important role, Genesis shows us some of the transformation of Judah’s character.
Although God never speaks to Joseph directly, as he did to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the text says repeatedly that the Lord was with him throughout his ordeal in Egypt. Joseph might not have felt this divine guidance was with him, considering his bad fortune. When he tries to do the right thing and refuses to have an affair with the wife of Potiphar, his “reward” is jail. Joseph probably spent many lonely nights in prison, wondering where was God? However, God had better plans for Joseph in the long run.
Notice the unfortunate pun: just as the Pharaoh will “lift up the head” of the cupbearer and return him to his place of service, he will also “lift up the head” of the baker by capital punishment.
Despite Joseph’s favor to the cupbearer, he did not remember Joseph for two more years.
In Gen. 40:15 Joseph says he was taken from the “land of the Hebrews.” This term was probably the Egyptian Hapiru, found in other Egyptian texts, which referred to the unidentified people of Canaan at this time. Later the term refers specifically to the people of Israel.
Notice that Joseph takes no credit for interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams but gives God the glory.
When Joseph’s brothers meet him again in Egypt, he had been gone for 22 years; no wonder they did not recognize him, especially dressed as an Egyptian lord. If one were reading this story for the first time, you might expect that Joseph would now take his revenge on his brothers, but instead we have a touching story of forgiveness. Even though he loves them, Joseph cannot resist playing a childish prank on them, hiding his cup in his younger brother Benjamin’s sack.
Where is God when we suffer?
Many people feel trapped by life’s circumstances — a family facing divorce, incurable illness, or loss of a job. When life seems unfair, it is normal for us to look for someone to blame, and eventually the blame works its way back to God. When life goes wrong, it is easy for doubts to arise about whether God really is in control. And if He is, how can He be good, wise, or just, and allow bad things to happen to us?
The example of Joseph helps us to see life’s troubles from a different perspective. Sold into slavery by his brothers, imprisoned through false accusation and forgotten by those who had promised to help him, Joseph was probably tempted to wallow in self-pity and wonder what he had done to deserve these misfortunes. Where was God who had made the covenant with his ancestors? Eventually he discovered God’s higher purpose for his life but only after fifteen years of hardship and painful doubts.
The prophet Isaiah reminds us that we are not in a position to argue with God about why He allows the difficult things that come into our lives: “Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker, to him to is but a potsherd among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ (45:9)
In times of suffering and trial, we need to turn our attention away from asking about the cause of our troubles and focus on the purpose. Unless there is some obvious, identifiable cause for the problems (such as infidelity leading to divorce, drunk driving leaving an accident victim paralyzed), we should try to look not to the past but the future, and consider how God can use these circumstances to bring something good out of them (Gen. 50:20). In Romans 8:28, Paul reminds us, “In all things God works for the good of those who love him.” If God can turn something as evil as the cross into the blessing of salvation, then He can use us in our misfortunes to bring something good out of bad times. With God there are no dead ends.
God does not promise to shield us from all of life’s troubles, but we can believe that whatever evil may come, God is able to accomplish good through it.
–John Walton, Old Testament Today, 2004, pp. 323-6