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Who are the biblical patriarchs?

The biblical patriarchs are the line of men God used to establish the nation of Israel and to bring His promised presence to the world. These men include Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham (then Abram) had left his homeland of Ur traveling with his father Terah, wife Sarah (then Sarai), and nephew Lot until they settled in Haran. When Abraham's father passed away, God said to Abraham, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:1–3). Because Abraham trusted God and obeyed, God fulfilled His promise and established the "great nation" of Israel from Abraham's descendants and blessed "all the families of the earth" through Jesus who was born into his family lineage.

Because Abraham was the first to receive these promises, he is referred to as "Father Abraham." However, his becoming a father has a sordid history. Because she was barren, Sarah suggested that Abraham father a child through their maidservant Hagar in order to bring God's promise to fruition. In this way, Abraham became the father of Ishmael (Genesis 16). However, the promise was not for Ishmael because God planned to miraculously open Sarah's womb. Fifteen years after Ishmael's birth, Sarah gave birth to Isaac (Genesis 21). Years later, after Sarah's death, Abraham married Keturah and fathered six more sons (Genesis 25). However, Isaac was the son through whom God's promise would continue.

Isaac had great faith, trusting his father when it looked as if Abraham would have to sacrifice him (Genesis 22) and trusting his servant to bring him the wife God would choose (Genesis 24). Isaac and his wife Rebekah had a loving relationship (Genesis 24:67; 26:8–9). Their union resulted in twins: Esau and Jacob. Esau emerged first and was therefore the elder, firstborn son. However, just as God's promise was not meant for Ishmael, so too that promise was not to be passed on to Esau. Instead, God chose Jacob as the man to continue establishing "a great nation" and blessing "all the families of the earth."

God's choice of Jacob can seem astonishing considering he swindled his brother out of his inheritance and tricked his father into blessing him (Genesis 25; 27). Due to these indiscretions, Jacob had to flee for his life to his uncle Laban's house (Genesis 28). There he fell in love with Rachel, but was duped into marrying her older sister Leah first (Genesis 29). Because Leah was unloved, God comforted her by giving her sons. When Rachel found herself barren, she asked Jacob to give her children through her handmaiden. Leah then requested the same thing through her handmaiden, adding even more children to the family. Finally, God opened Rachel's womb and Jacob ended up with twelve sons and at least one daughter (Genesis 30). Each son eventually became the father of one of the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel.

After bearing all these sons in Laban's home, Jacob wanted to return home. Laban talked him into staying longer, but as Jacob's wealth continued to increase, their relationship became strained. God told Jacob to return to his homeland and promised to be with him (Genesis 31). On his way there, Jacob prepared to meet Esau and reconcile with him. He became afraid that Esau would attack him and prayed, "O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, 'Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,' I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. But you said, 'I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude'" (Genesis 32:9–12). He sent gifts and his family ahead of him while he spent the night in the camp. That night, Jacob encountered God in human form and wrestled him through the night (Genesis 32). God then changed Jacob's name to Israel, meaning "he who strives with God." It was this name that the nation of Israel used in reference to the man who fathered the nation.

Jacob's sons and the heads of the tribes of Israel were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulon, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Benjamin, and Joseph's sons the half tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. From these twelve, the tribe of Levi was specially chosen to be priests and mediators between God and the people, but the tribe of Judah was the chosen tribe to be part of the Messiah's lineage.

The promise God made to Abraham has been fulfilled, most specifically through Jesus Christ. The promise was given to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and they believed God. The promise was to their descendants as well. In fact, God identified Himself to His people as "the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" many times throughout Scripture, beginning in Exodus 3:6. This reference reminded the people that God is a personal God, knowing the names of the individual men; that He is a God who keeps His promises; and that they belong to this family where God has been at work for generations. By God's grace, non-Israelites can be adopted into Abraham's family through faith. Galatians 3:7, 26–29 states, "Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. ... for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise." Thus, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not only the patriarchs of the Jews, but are also the patriarchs of Christian faith. May we look beyond these mortal men and trust fully in their God.


Related Truth:

What is the biblical account of Abraham?

What is the biblical account of Isaac?

What is the biblical account of Jacob?

What are the twelve tribes of Israel?

Why is knowing about the various characters in the Bible important?


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