Genesis 12–50, one of the most familiar parts of the Old Testament, is also one of the least understood. These chapters center on the lives of Abraham and two of his descendants, Jacob and Joseph. Isaac appears also, though only briefly. But what are these narratives all about? Here there is confusion, for often we read them without a clear awareness of the kind of information we ought to be discovering.

The Bible must be approached as we would approach any book, that is, with respect for what it intends to do. Scripture is not a magical document unrelated to all other literature. As God’s revelation took on human form in Christ, so in Scripture it has been clothed in human speech and writing. Therefore we must investigate the Old Testament by the literary methods we would use for any other piece of literature. Foundational to these methods is the determination of the intent or purpose. What are the patriarchal narratives intended to communicate to us?

Scholarship has shown us, by a mass of corroborating details, that Genesis 12–50 has at least a twofold purpose. First, it shares in the general intent of Scripture: to show you and me how to find full life. The Apostle Paul writes: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16, 17). This says that the primary purpose of the Bible is to make whole men and women out of us by showing us the basic divine ingredients of wholeness and leading us to encounter the living God who brings this kind of existence. And so, knowing the Bible’s self-confessed concern to lead us to life with God, we know from the start that patriarchal history will not be simply a record of events of the past but will have a predominantly theological meaning. This does not mean that we will not be able to learn about such matters as topography or chronology, but only that these are always secondary to the main concern. The author wants to communicate theological ideas, and he uses his material to accomplish this. Our task in reading the patriarchal accounts is to ask the theological question: What do these narratives say to me about God and about my rebellion to him and to my world?

God’s Promises

Second, Genesis 12–50 is part of a large historical block with one main message: History is in the charge of a loving God who has a good purpose for mankind. Or, to put it another way, all the narratives in Genesis 12–50 are intended to show, by numerous examples and from many perspectives, that despite what men do, God lovingly controls this world and fulfills his promises, so that men can become what God created them to be: whole persons. That is why one discovers as he reads the patriarchal narratives that each is basically a tale about two main protagonists—God and man. God is seen as the sovereign ruler of the world with a loving purpose to fulfill. Man either believes that promise and thus finds the rewards of obedience to God or else disbelieves it and reaps the heartache and troubles of disobedience. Either way, whether man works toward or against the fulfillment of promise, the point is that he cannot ultimately thwart it.

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There are certainly other facts to learn from these narratives, for the Bible is profound and many-layered. But the note that is meant to sound in our ears through each story is: History is in the charge of a loving God who has a good purpose for mankind. Let us turn to the patriarchal narratives and see what this means.

1. The patriarchal promise. The first clue to the meaning is found in the beginning verses. Genesis 12 starts with a tremendous promise by God to Abram that his descendants will be numerous, will become a great nation, and will be a vehicle of worldwide blessing. This promise is the link between Genesis 1–11 and the succeeding chapters of the Bible. Genesis 1–11 had shown us the problem of the world—that man is a rebel and runaway from God and because of this has reaped murder, hate, immorality, disunity, strife. Now God steps in and chooses one people, Abram’s seed, through whom all nations might be brought back to him. In response to this call, Abram leaves his home and his country to begin fulfillment of the promise in a land about which he knows nothing. As he wanders here and there, as his descendants take up the account and have the promise repeated to them (26:4; 28:14), we see the point constantly being made: God promised something, and nothing is going to prevent his fulfilling that promise. He is in charge of the world.

Sealing Ceremony

2. The patriarchal covenant. The second clue to the meaning of these accounts is found in an odd occurrence described in Genesis 15:7–21. God, having reiterated the promise to Abram, seals it by a strange ceremony that shows us again that it is he, and not the patriarchs, who is playing the leading role. Apparently one method by which men confirmed an agreement in those days was to cut the bodies of certain animals in pieces, lay them in two rows, and then pass together through the parts. The implication was that they were calling upon themselves a similar fate if they failed to keep their word (cf. Jer. 34:18). But here something important takes place: God alone passes through the pieces (symbolized by the “smoking fire pot” and “flaming torch,” 15:17). Abram takes the animals, splits the carcasses, and lays them in a row, and then God puts him in a deep sleep and performs the rite himself. By this we are told simply that God alone is able to bring the promise to fulfillment. Man is to have his part—faithful obedience—but God alone is the covenant-fulfiller.

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We see this again in Genesis 17:1–27, when the covenant is expanded by addition of the rite of circumcision. Here as before the emphasis is almost completely on God. Again repeating the promise to Abram (now Abraham), God commands him to circumcise every male as a “sign” of the covenant (17:11). Nothing has changed in the divine initiative; it is still God alone who gives the promise. But now through a means in keeping with ancient culture men can show outwardly that they have accepted by faith the promise of God. “It is not often enough seen that no obligations are imposed upon Abraham. Circumcision is not originally an obligation, but a sign of the covenant.… It serves to identify the recipient(s) of the covenant, as well as to give a concrete indication that a covenant exists” (G. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East, The Biblical Colloquium, 1955, p. 36).

How Lives Are Shaped

3. The patriarchal responses. Given these clues to the dominant theme of the narratives, we can see how this theme shapes the lives of the patriarchs. For as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph respond or fail to respond to God’s gracious promise, God acts to ensure its fulfillment.

We see this almost immediately after the initial promise. Abram has gone to Egypt because of a famine in the Negeb (12:10–20). As he is about to enter the land, he persuades his beautiful wife Sarah to say she is his sister, lest the Egyptians kill him in order to take her. As a result Abram is spared, but Sarah is taken into the Pharaoh’s harem. Then all of a sudden the Lord steps in and rescues Sarah by afflicting the Pharaoh’s house with plagues (12:17). Discovering the cause, the Egyptian king sternly reprimands Abram and sends Sarah and him out of the country under military escort.

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What are we supposed to learn from this account? A bit of historical information? No, for notice the dominant theological point: God is in charge of men and events and fulfills what he promises. That is why the narrative concludes so abruptly after verse 17. All sorts of questions pop up. What were Abram’s feelings in all this? How did the Pharaoh connect the plagues with Sarah? Did the plagues go away after Sarah left? But the narrative gives no answer to questions like these, because they are unimportant to the main point. God intervenes in the affairs of men to ensure fulfillment of his promise; although man has freedom, he cannot ultimately thwart God’s purposes. This is what the author is trying to get us to see. No sooner has the grand promise of worldwide blessing through Abram’s “seed” been given than the fulfillment is placed in jeopardy by Abram himself. “The bearer of promise himself is the greatest enemy of the promise; for its greatest threat comes from him” (G. von Rad, Genesis, Westminster, 1961, p. 164). Sarah seems lost—once in the harem, always in the harem. But the Lord will not allow his work of bringing worldwide blessing to men to go astray because the recipient of the promise has failed.

What We Must Do

The author is clearly driving home a theological message. God’s word is always to be believed, because he is Lord of history. No matter what happens, this is what we can cling to. And thus we are shown what we must do to gain full life through the knowledge of God’s sovereign, loving, purposive rule of this world. We are simply to have faith. But what is faith? It is first the knowledge of what God has promised, then the assurance that he will do what he has promised, and then trustful obedience in every situation in light of this. Later Abram was to demonstrate this kind of faith many times; but here, at the start, he had to learn it.


Sleet in my face, merciless, biting and blinding,

Wind battering, tearing, all but knocking me over,

Body bowed to the storm’s teeth, cutting and savage,

Thin ice under swirling snow, treacherous in its drifting,

Footsteps more and more insecure, fumbling, faltering, falling—

Sudden, a shelter, a refuge, and life-giving warmth and refreshment:

Numbly I stumble in, dumb, overwhelmed with thanksgiving.

Pitiless sun in a brazen sky, beating relentless down on me,

My blistered back naked, my head dizzy and throbbing,

Burning sands underfoot, my feet unshod to their searing,

My lungs gasping, bursting, scorched by the breath of the desert,

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Blinded my aching eyes by glare of sand and sunlight—

Sudden, a shadow, a rock, a cavern of coolness and dimness:

Grateful, I sink to its floor, dumb, overwhelmed with thanksgiving.

“A refuge from the storm,

A shadow from the heat,

A Man shall be A hiding place from the wind,

A covert from the tempest,

As rivers of water in a dry place,

As the shadow of a great rock In a weary land.”


This same note, God’s loving care for his promise as the foundation upon which man may build their lives, pervades the rest of the patriarchal accounts. It is seen vividly in the problem of childlessness faced by Sarah (Gen. 16–18) and Rebekah (Gen. 25). Each has been barren for a long time, and thus the promise seems blocked; then God graciously intervenes and opens their wombs. It is emphasized in Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22). Believing that God wants him to sacrifice his son, Abraham is at the point of plunging in the knife, and thus apparently ending the means of the fulfillment of promise. Then God dramatically steps in and provides a substitute sacrifice.

The same theme courses through the life of Jacob. Forced to leave home because he cheated Esau out of his birthright and primary blessing (Gen. 26–28), Jacob seems to have thrown away all chance of being the bearer of promise. But once again God breaks in. Through the dream of a ladder to heaven, he shows the wayward scoundrel that despite his sin, the way to service is still open. And to make it absolutely plain, God renews for Jacob the promise he made to Abraham and Isaac (notice also the divine concern in 31:5, 7, 8, 11, 13, 24, 48, 49), and Jacob responds with a vow of faithful obedience (28:20, 21). So here it is again—God is in charge of this world and has a purpose for it. He will not let men’s weakness and failure cause him to fail; he will work through even a rogue like Jacob. A lot of details are missing from the account, because we are intended to learn one dominant thing: God will provide salvation in the way he has appointed.

Finally, the same theological theme controls the life of Joseph (Gen. 37–50). Constantly we see evidence of God at work. Joseph acknowledged this in his last words to his brothers: “As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good …” (Gen. 50:20). This fact is made clear in each episode in Joseph’s life. Thrown into a pit by his brothers, doomed to die a slow death, Joseph is miraculously rescued by some passing traders. Sold into slavery in Egypt, he is purchased by a man who is willing to allow him to develop his abilities, and this begins a chain of events that eventually leads Joseph to a position of national leadership. The chance encounter with the king’s butler in prison, the severe famine in Egypt, the shrewd stockpiling of grain, the reunion with his brothers—all these bear the marks of God’s protection of his promise. As Joseph tells his brothers: “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God …” (Gen. 45:7, 8). The promise has been preserved, the Abrahamic line continued, and the worldwide blessing assured.

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That is what the patriarchal narratives meant to those who heard them in Israel, and what they mean to us today. There is only one power in our world with which we have to reckon—God. He has a purpose for mankind, for you and for me, and he graciously, persistently, sovereignly keeps working so that this purpose will be fulfilled. He has promised us; nothing will stand in his way. With this kind of God, what faith we can have, what obedient trust! And when we do, the patriarchal accounts, tell us, we will find that fullness of life for which we long.

Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

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