ISRAEL STORY 01 – Age of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob


Albertz, Rainer.  A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period.  Volume I: From the Beginnings to the End of the Monarchy.  Translated by John Bowden in 1994.  Part of the Old Testament Library series edited by James L. Mays, Carol A. Newsom, and David L. Petersen.  (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 1994).

Albertz, Rainer.  A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period.  Volume II: From the Exile to the Maccabees.  Translated by John Bowden in 1994.  Part of the Old Testament Library series edited by James L. Mays, Carol A. Newsom, and David L. Petersen.  (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 1994).

Bright, John.  A History of Israel, second edition.  (Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1972).

Cotter, David W.  Genesis.  Part of the Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry series, edited by David W. Cotter.  (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 2003).

De Vaux, Roland.  The Early History of Israel.  Translated by David Smith. (Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1978).

Gordon, Cyrus H. and Gary A. Rendsburg.  The Bible and the Ancient Near East, fourth edition.  (W. W. Norton, New York, 1997).

Hayes, John H. and J. Maxwell Miller.  Israelite and Judaean History.  Part of the Old Testament Library series edited by John H. Hayes and J. Maxwell Miller.  (Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1977).

Mazar, Amihai.  Archaeology of the Land of the Bible : 10,000 – 586 B.C.E.  Part of the Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library edited by David Noel Freedman.  (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1990).

Myers, Eric M. and Mark A. Chancey.  Alexander to Constantine: Archaeology of the Land of the Bible.  Volume 3 of the Anchor Bible Reference Library edited  by John Collins.  (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2012)

Propp, William H. C..  Exodus 1-18: A new translation with introduction and commentary.  Volume 2 of the Anchor Yale Bible, William F. Albright and David Noel Freedman General Editiors.  (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1999).

Provan, Iain, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III.  A Biblical History of Israel.  (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2003).

Sarna, Nahum M.  Genesis.  Part of The JPS Torah Commentary, edited by Nahum M. Sarna.  (The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1989).

—————–.  Exodus.  Part of The JPS Torah Commentary, edited by Nahum M. Sarna.  (The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1991).

Silver, Daniel Jeremy.  A History of Judaism: Volume 1, From Abraham to Maimonides.  (Basic Books Inc., New York, 1974).

Stern, Ephraim.  Archaeology of the Land of the Bible.  Volume II: The Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian Periods (732 – 332 B.C.E.).  Part of the Anchor Bible Reference Library edited  by David Noel Freedman.  (Doubleday, New York, 2001)


For Jews the Book of Genesis is called Bereshit – because that is the first word of the text.  “In the beginning”.  Many cultures did this.  As part of the weekly synagogue service Bereshit / Genesis is read for the first 12 weeks of the year (with accommodations for important holidays).

Sarna p. xii: “Genesis is a book about origins: the origins of humankind, the origins of Israel, and the origins of the unique relationship between God and a particular people.”

The Book of Genesis covers 2,309 years by the Jewish calendar (calculating with genealogies and other clues).  This might lead one to think that Jews must, therefore, read the bible literally.  They do not.  They acknowledge many levels of interpretation of the text and believe that God is revealed in all of them.  The rabbi I study with says that there are at least 50 levels of interpretation – with 49 of them known and one not.  The “one not” leaves room always for a new idea, a new insight.   Sarna p. xv: “The Hebrew Bible is a prism that refracts varieties of truth.’

The early chapters set the scene / context for God acting in history with the people of Israel.

Sarna p. xii: “The narratives about the patriarchs of Israel are framed by two historic migrations: into the promised land and out of the promised land.  Between those migrations we are not given a continuous history but cycles of individual episodes about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The book closes with the assurance of redemption.”

Sarna p. 377: The covenant with Noah / laws for Gentiles: (not settled, widely agreed though)

  • Idolatry
  • Blasphemy
  • Bloodshed
  • Incest and adultery
  • Robbery
  • Commanded to establish courts of law
  • Prohibition of eating flesh cut from a living animal

The stories of Genesis 1 through 11 have strong roots in Mesopotamian culture.  BUT have been modified to a monotheistic faith.

The patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) are reliably dated to 2000 to 1600 BC.  Archeology and texts of the times demonstrate consistency with customs and names.  There is no evidence beyond the bible (like references to these particular individuals or clans in other people’s histories) that proves their existence or the events associated with them.  De Veaux agrees (pp. 250-266).

Bright p. 67:  “The stories of the patriarchs (Genesis 12-50) form the first great chapter in that great theological history of Israel’s origins which we find in the first six books of the Bible.  They tell us that centuries before Israel took possession of Canaan her ancestors had come from faraway Mesopotamia and as semi-nomads had roamed through the land, supported by the promises of their God that it would one day belong to their posterity.”

Provan p. 118: “As we read on in the narrative, Abraham keeps traveling, never settling in one place for very long.  Isaac and Jacob continue this pattern.  The patriarchs sound like tent-dwelling nomads.  They lead their flocks from place to place to secure the best pasturage and water supply.”

De Vaux p. 221:  They observe the unwritten (but known) laws of the desert:

  • Preserving the purity of blood (Gen. 24:3, 28:1)
  • Hospitality (Gen 18:1, 19:28)
  • Collective revenge (Gen 34:25)

Gen. 24:2,3:   2 Abraham said to the senior servant of his household, who had charge of all his possessions: “Put your hand under my thigh, 3 and I will make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I live.     (NOT A LITERAL ‘HAND UNDER MY THIGH’ – A EUPHEMISM)

Gen. 28:1, 2:    1 Isaac therefore summoned Jacob and blessed him, charging him: “You shall not marry a Canaanite woman! 2 Go now to Paddan-aram, to the home of your mother’s father Bethuel, and there choose a wife for yourself from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother.

Gen. 18:1,2:  1 The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oak of Mamre, as he sat in the entrance of his tent, while the day was growing hot. 2 Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them; and bowing to the ground,

Gen 34:25, 26 – 25 On the third day, while they were still in pain, two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, brothers of Dinah, each took his sword, advanced against the unsuspecting city and massacred all the males.  26 After they had killed Hamor and his son Shechem with the sword, they took Dinah from Shechem’s house and left.

De Vaux p. 192 – Ur as Abraham’s birthplace?  Possible.  Ancient Ur is in lower Mesopotamia, there are some indicators that Abraham may have been from upper Mesopotamia.  Perhaps a different Ur, or he moved from lower to upper Mesopotamia.  He is likely to have been of “Amorite” stock (p. 200).

Provan p. 119: “In sum, we are not to envision Abraham and his descendants as wandering aimlessly through the land; constantly at odds with the settled inhabitants.  Rather, maintaining good relationships (cf. Gen. 26) with the inhabitants of the land was in their best interest.  In the words of Cornelius, “the way of life of the nomadic tribe is seen as a symbiosis of pastoral nomadism and village agriculture.””   (1960’s era  commentaries postulated a hostile relationship between nomads and settled peoples, reading many of the stories in the bible through that lens.)

Theological themes in the narratives of Genesis include:

  • God makes promises
  • God keeps His promises – though it may involve waiting, trusting
  • God protects the bearer of the promises
  • The youngest can supplant the oldest

Cotter p. xxvii summarizes themes thusly; “we are here because we are wanted; life is full of pain but we must endure and move on through it; an ultimate justice exists; and sometimes, perhaps most of the time, we are in the dark.”

Provan p. 123: “… the story itself (Joseph in Egypt) is designed to show the reader how God can work in the historical process to overrule acts of evil to bring about his redemptive purposes.   Another aspect of the story’s design is to bring encouragement to those whose lives seem to be at the mercy of brutal chance.”

Bright p. 70, 71 argues that while the written stories are much later, there is plenty of evidence that they are ancient stories, passed along by oral tradition.  And also shaped, sifted, and augmented by that oral tradition.

Bright p. 73: “All that can be said with assurance is that the stream of transmission reaches back to the patriarchal age itself, and that the traditions, recited and handed down among the various clans, had by the earliest period of Israel’s life in Palestine (the time of the Judges) reached normative form as a part of a great epic narrative of Israel’s origins.”  Came together first as oral units, then was written down late 700’s.

“Apiru / Hapiru” and Hebrews – not, in ancient times an ethnic group but the lower class, the landless wandering class.  The kinds of people that would be semi-nomadic when possible, sell their labor in difficult times (hence going to Egypt in a time of famine or drought).   DeVaux disagrees, considers them an ethnic group, primarily of mercenary fighters.  Possible that “Hebrew” as used in Genesis a handful of times is not related to the other terms at all.  (DeVaux p, 213)  DeVaux concludes a fairly long analysis this way (p.216) “The use of these names in the bible is justified if the suggestion that has been made here is accepted, namely that “abiru / apiru” was an ethnic term describing a group or groups of western Semites, “Amorites” or “proto-Arameans”, with whom the patriarchs were connected.”

Genesis provides numerous names for God:

  • El
  • Elohim
  • El Shaddai
  • El Elyon
  • El Olam
  • El Roi
  • El Bethel
  • Elohe ha-shamayim

Do these names indicate the various traditions and disparate people brought together as Israel?  Are they simply alternative names for God shared by many?

Bright p. 100: “The patriarchal religion was thus a clan religion, in which the clan was quite really the family of the patron God.  Although we may assume that within the clan the patron god was worshiped above, if not to the practical exclusion of, all other gods, it would be wrong to call this type of religion a monotheism.  Nor do we know that it was a religion without images; Laban’s certainly was not (Gen. 31:17-35).  Yet it resembled neither the official polytheisms of Mesopotamia nor the fertility cult of Canaan, of whose orgies there is no trace in the Genesis narrative.”

Bright p.97: there is substantial evidence that the making of a covenant between a clan and a god was widespread and ancient in the larger regions.  Not unique to Moses / Israel and God.

The patriarchs enter Canaan and are depicted as semi-nomads who moved from place to place as the grazing land was exhausted – but who did not move casually.  They developed relationships with land owners, supplied them with goods and vice versa.  As they added cattle they moved less and less, then bought land and settled in.

De Veaux p. 283: “According to Gen. 12:7, 12:8; 13:18; 26:25; 33:20; 35:7, the patriarchs erected altars.  As we have already said, however, this was a way of saying that they adopted sanctuaries that were already in existence.  This thesis is confirmed by the fact that the patriarchs’ altars served no practical purpose – we are never told that they made sacrifices on them, apart from the case of Gen 22…”

They did establish certain sacred stones, had sacred trees









Sarna p. 401:

Sons of Leah

1 Reuben

2 Simeon

3 Levi

4 Judah

9 Issachar

10 Zebulun


Sons of Bilhah (Rachel’s maid)

5 Dan

6 Naphtali


Sons of Zilpah (Leah’s maid)

7 Gad

8 Asher


Sons of Rachel

11 Joseph

12 Benjamin



Comments are closed.