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A.R. Millard & D.J. Wiseman, eds., Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives. Leicester: IVP, 1980. Hbk. ISBN: 0851117430. pp.11-42.
[Reproduced by permission]
To read the other essays, click here.


The focus of this paper is an attempt to interpret the patriarchal narrative itself. This was, of course, a concern of study of the patriarchs in the pre-critical period, but after that it was long an unfashionable enterprise. It is now becoming once again an object of scholarly interest, as is evidenced by works such as J.P. Fokkelman's Narrative Art in Genesis.[1] Such study can now build on insights that have emerged from other critical approaches, and I hope, for instance, in the way I approach the patriarchal narrative, also to consider some aspects of the ongoing significance of the patriarchal traditions as this was developed in different ways in the period up to the exile.

But I have also another aim. The essays in this volume are concerned with clarifying the historical background of the patriarchs in the second millennium BC. This was an important feature of Old Testament study in the 1950s but is now itself an unfashionable enterprise; thus in the last section of the paper I shall draw attention to the rationale for this interest which arises from my attempt to interpret the narrative itself.


What is the patriarchal narrative about? What is it saying? The answer at one level, of course, is that it is saying what it says, and to discover what that is you must read it. But a narrative may express some overall vision of the meaning of the events it relates, and we may be able to verbalize this vision. We must not let our purported grasp of this vision become more important than the narrative itself, yet putting it into words may help


us to appreciate the actual narrative as we read it. It is possible, of course, to impose 'visions' or structures on a work. As it happens, however, certain concrete verbal themes and patterns recur in the fabric of the patriarchal narrative, and these seem to be the narrative's own pointers to the meaning it sees in the story it tells. The individual scenes in the narrative all relate to the theme expressed in the verbal pointers.

1.1. The story of Abraham

The story of Abraham is prefaced in 11:10-26 by a summary history in genealogical form from the family of Noah (the second major figure in Genesis, after Adam) to the family of Terah, which included Abram (Genesis's third major figure). It is then introduced in 11:27-32 by Terah's family history. The information this family history offers (the birth of Lot, the death of his father Haran, Abram's marriage to Sarai, her inability to have children, the name of his brother Nahor's wife, the family's departure from Ur to Haran and Terah's death there) provides the background to various incidents in the chapters that follow, and seems to be included for this purpose rather than for its intrinsic interest. In the Hebrew Bible a new lection begins with Yahweh's summons to Abram (12:1), and the real opening of the Abram story lies here.

Grammatically, chapter 12 begins less emphatically than RSV may imply (there is no 'Now' in the Hebrew). But in terms of contents, there is an air of moment about 12:1 in that at this point Yahweh himself speaks, for the first time since the Tower of Babel story, and thus for the first time in the Abram narrative, since 11:10-32 has not referred to his involvement. Now he intervenes with a command (12:1) and an undertaking (12:2-3). Abram expresses his commitment by doing as Yahweh told him (12:4-5a), a note which recurs later in the story (with 12:4a cf. 17:23b, 21:4b - though the verb is different each time). And when Abram has travelled to the country he was directed to, Yahweh then reasserts his commitment by renewing his promise (12:5b-9). He will give this land to Abram's descendants. Abram himself completes a preliminary tour of the land, building an altar to worship Yahweh in the (relative) north at Shechem, another in the centre of the land between Bethel and Ai, and moving on to the south to the area of Hebron which will be his home.

But it is not until 13:18 that we are told of the building of a third altar there. In the meantime some odd notes are struck, such as to introduce discord into the theme which opened up somewhat idyllically in 12:1-9.


Actually, obstacles to the fulfilment of Yahweh's undertaking have been referred to already. 'To your descendants I will give this land' (12:7a). But the land is occupied by someone else (12:6b), so how can Abram have it, and his wife cannot have children (11:30), so how can he have descendants?

12:10 - 13:4 relate a further threat to the promise. Yahweh intends to make Abram a great nation, to make him a blessing to the nations, and to give the land of Canaan to his descendants. But as a result of an entirely human response to a real crisis, each element in this promise receives a kind of anti-fulfilment. Abram leaves the land of Canaan, watches the potential mother of his descendants join the Pharaoh's harem, and causes Yahweh to bring affliction on the Pharaoh and his house. All ends well (very well, indeed: see 12:16; 13:2), yet the story is a sombre one.

13:5-13 provides another surprise. There is strife within the (wider) family of Abram itself, arising out of the presence of other peoples in the land promised to them And Abram's generosity in proposing a solution to the problem deprives him of the part of the land that most resembles not only the Egypt from whose prosperity Abram has recently profited but also the Eden from which Genesis's first major figure was expelled. Sombrely, the land which is like the one Adam lost is inhabited by people like those among whom Noah lived (with 13:13 cf. 6:5), and this fact is to be picked up later (Gn. 18 - 19). Meanwhile Yahweh reaffirms the promise of land and descendants (13:14-17) and Abram begins to enter into his inheritance as he makes the home and offers the worship at Hebron that brings the narrative, interrupted after 12:9, to the end of a section (13:18).

The key theme which emerges from these opening two chapters of the Abraham story is that Yahweh made certain commitments to Abram, commitments which met some measure of fulfilment but were ever threatened by circumstantial and human factors. And every major element in the rest of the Abraham narrative relates to this theme stated in these opening chapters. Yahweh has undertaken to bless Abram with descendants and land and to make him a blessing for other peoples. But the path to the fulfilment of this undertaking is littered with obstacles.

The theme of Yahweh's blessing appears clearly in Genesis 14. In other respects the chapter portrays Abram in a very different way from the other patriarchal stories, and this highlights the theme's appearance when the chapter comes to its narrative climax in its final scene (14:17-24). Here the kings who occupy the stage for the


first scene (14:1-12) and Abram and his allies who occupy, it for the second (14:13-16) at last appear together. But the centre of the stage is taken by Melchizedek the king of Salem, who appears suddenly in the denouement, though he had been absent from the earlier scenes. And his words bring the chapter directly into the theme announced and first developed in chapters 12 - 13, because they are words of blessing on Abram (see 14:18-20). They draw our attention to what amounts to a fulfilment of the original promise of blessing in 12:2-3, and coming from the king of Salem constitute a further fulfilment of the words there about Abram's name becoming great among the nations.

The end of the story, however, relates Abram's refusal to be made rich by the king of Sodom (14:21-24). How then is he to become prosperous? 'After these things' Yahweh tells him not to be afraid. The one who delivered Abram's enemies into his hand (14:20) is Abram's deliverer (15:1).[2] Abram has refused possessions gained through his involvement with the king of Sodom (14:21-24), so Yahweh promises that his descendants will be given great possessions (15:14).[3] Abram has been in covenant with human allies (14:13),[4] but now Yahweh commits himself to a covenant relationship with him. Thus Genesis 15 takes up several features of Genesis 14.

Genesis 15 itself focuses on the questions of offspring (15:2-6) and of land (15:7-21). The problem with the first is that Abram 'continues childless', but he accepts Yahweh's renewed promise. Then, as Abram finds it difficult to believe in the second undertaking, Yahweh renews this in a more emphatic way in the form of a covenant, though also solemnly revealing how long it will be before the chief obstacle to its fulfilment (the presence of other peoples in the land) can justly be removed.

Chapter 16 returns to the promise of children. Abram begets a son by his wife's maid. The action has been seen as a sinful human attempt to anticipate the fulfilment of Yahweh's words, though the story contains no hint of this judgment. Indeed, Yahweh reasserts his undertaking to Abram with regard to Hagar and her son (16:11; cf. 13:14-17, 15:4-5). The birth of Ishmael is a step towards one aspect of the fulfilment of that undertaking.

Genesis 17 opens with a very full statement of the theme. It begins with God's revelation (17:la; cf. 12:1a; but especially 15:1a), his self-announcement (17:1b, cf. 15:1b), and his challenge (17:1b; cf. 12:1b; 15:1b). It speaks of descendants and land (17:2-8), but the key-word 'blessing' is replaced by the key-word 'covenant' - which in effect means 'a commitment to bless'. Descendants are


explicitly promised as 'blessing' both for Sarai/Sarah through the birth of a son (17:16) and for Hagar's son Ishmael (17:20).

The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah also keeps relating to the theme of blessing and descendants. The three visitors declare specifically that Sarah will have a son next spring (18:1-15). Abraham's dialogue with Yahweh (18:16-33) arises out of the promise (18:17-19). Although he fails to rescue Sodom (19:1-28), it is not because he is not seeking to be a blessing there, and at least he succeeds in rescuing Lot (19:29). Even the narrative about Lot and his daughters, with which the story closes (19:30-38), relates to the theme of descendants.

Chapter 20, however, reveals that Abraham's capacity for imperilling the promise is not yet exhausted. Although the chapter may not imply that Abraham is outside the promised land (as he was in 12:10-20; cf. 26:1-3) and shows that he can still be a means of blessing as a man of prayer (20:7, 17; cf. 18:22-33), at first he brings trouble to Abimelek instead (20:9, 18).

Then at last the promise of a son is fulfilled (21:1-7). This raises the question of the relationship between Abraham's two sons. 21:8-21 reaffirms that both will become nations, though Isaac will have a special significance (21:12-13, cf. 17:20-21); the pattern is repeated in the story of Esau and Jacob (cf. 27:28-29, 39-40). 21:22-34 returns to Abraham and Abimelek, with a narrative which tacitly illustrates the fulfilment of another aspect of God's undertaking. Abraham is significant enough to be in a special relationship with the king of Gerar, who acknowledges, 'God is with you in all that you do' (21:22). Abraham's name has become great.

Chapter 22 again comes to its climax with a restatement of God's words of blessing (22:15-18). The narrator does not see the command to sacrifice Isaac as a puzzling imperilling of God's purpose to give Abraham descendants through this son, but as God's testing of Abraham (22:1-12). It is when Abraham passes the test that the words of blessing are again reaffirmed.

After a flashback to Haran (22:20-24) which provides the background to chapter 24, Genesis 23 tells of the death of Sarah and of Abraham's purchase of a burial place for her in Hebron. Like the begetting of a child by Hagar, Abraham's purchase of this plot of land might seem a sinful, human act. Why should the one to whom God said he would give the land pay money for it? Is Abraham looking for a false kind of security in the actual legal possession of a foothold (rather, a skeleton-hold!) on the


land itself? But the narrative passes no negative judgment. Sarah dies 'in the land of Canaan' (23:2) and the 'possession' of the land of Canaan (17:8; cf. 48:4) begins in the 'possession' of a burial place for her there (23:4, 9, 20; cf. 49:30; 50:13).

Chapter 24 (introduced by 22:20-24) is the last narrative proper in the Abraham story, and, indeed, the longest and most finely worked one of them all. It begins by telling us that the undertaking with which the Abraham story opened has actually been fulfilled: 'Yahweh had blessed Abraham in every way' (24:1; cf. 24:35). But blessings can be lost and inheritances sacrificed. So measures need to be taken to ensure that the descendants are born 'within the family' (24:2-4) and without leaving the land (24:5-8). The chapter is then the account of how the right mother for Abraham's grandchildren is found within these conditions. All that remains is to close off the story of the blessed man Abraham (25:1-11).

The theme of the Abraham narrative, then, is that Yahweh undertook to bless him with descendants and land and to make him a blessing for other peoples, that obstacles to the fulfilment of this commitment presented themselves from many quarters, but that Yahweh kept reaffirming his undertaking and saw it to its partial fulfilment in Abraham's own lifetime.

1.2. The story of Isaac

The question now arises whether the Isaac story continues the same theme. That it does is hinted by the closing verse of the Abraham narrative: 'after the death of Abraham God blessed Isaac his son' (25:11). But before the story of Isaac is developed, that of his elder brother is summarized (25:12-18)., In his descendants God's words find part, if not the central part, of their fulfilment.

The first real Isaac narrative follows in 25:19-26. In contents, of course, chapters 22 and 24 (and others) have already centred on Isaac. Yet in the structure of Genesis those chapters belong to the Abraham story. Strictly, indeed, it was the Terah story, since 25:12 and 19 are the first formal section headings since 11:27. But the report of Terah's death in 11:32 and Abraham's prominence henceforth suggest that de facto 12:1 - 25:11 is the Abraham story. As the Abraham story has a central concern with his sons, so the Isaac story, which extends from 25:19 to 35:29, includes - indeed, is dominated by stories about Esau and Jacob. The nature of God's promises no doubt explains the Genesis narrative's preoccupation with the question of descendants and the consequent prominence of stories about children in the narratives


about their parents.

25:19-26 thus constitutes an unexpected but understandable beginning to the Isaac narrative. The event it relates took place in connection with the birth of his twin sons when he was sixty (25:26), and first the author has to summarize for us the first sixty years of his life and the background to this birth, in two or three verses (25:19-21). We are then told of an event from (?) twenty years later (25:27-34), before coming in the next chapter to incidents that seem to have happened before the twins' birth.

So the Isaac narrative unfolds in a rather jerky way. But this gives added emphasis to 25:22-26 and 27-34, and on examination these paragraphs turn out to state the way the blessing theme is to be developed in the Isaac story. As in the Abraham narrative, a word from Yahweh is set at the beginning of the Isaac story. But whereas the word to Abram includes the promise that he will be made a great nation, the word to Isaac's wife speaks of her mothering two nations. In the event, the word to Abram (though often imperilled) also received a double fulfilment, through Ishmael and Isaac; it was the younger of the half-brothers who was to be preferred (17:21; 21:12), but there is no suggestion of rivalry between them though there was tension between their mothers (16:4-6; 21:9-10). The word to Rebekah, however, already speaks of the preferment of the younger of the two sons she is to bear, and hints at the trouble there will be between them (25:23). Their actual birth sees the beginning of the fulfilment of Yahweh's word (25:26), the differences between them as they grow up relates to it (25:27-28), and the actual supplanting of the elder by the younger begins through the latter's throwing away the right of primogeniture (25:29-34).

The original blessing theme is explicitly resumed in chapter 26. Here Yahweh appears, commands, and promises, as he had to Abraham (26:2-5; cf. 12:1-3). Although Isaac made mistakes very like his father's (26:6-11; cf. 12:10- 20; 20:1-18), he also received blessings very like his father's (26:12-14; cf. 13:1-4). He was involved in strife like his father (26:15-22; cf. 13:5-13; 21:25-32), but he was reassured by Yahweh and he worshipped like his father (26:23-25; cf. 13:14-18; 21:33) and was acknowledged by the nations like his father (26:26-33; cf. 14:19-20; 21:22-24). Indeed, it is explicitly because Yahweh committed himself to Abraham, because Abraham obeyed him, and as the God of Abraham, that Yahweh appears to Isaac (26:3,5,24). Nevertheless, there is one distinctive motif characteristic of the Isaac narrative, the promise 'I will


be with you' (26:3) or 'I am with you' (26:24). It reappears in the form of Abimelek's acknowledgment of Isaac, 'Yahweh is with you' (26:28), as it had featured in Abimelek's acknowledgment of Abraham (21:22). It reappears in the Jacob material in the chapters that follow (28:15, 20, 31:3, 5, 42, 35:3),[5] and constitutes the distinctive aspect to the promise and experience of Yahweh's blessing as this is portrayed in the Isaac narrative.

After chapter 26 the relationship between the two sons dominates the story of Isaac, as 25:19-34 has advertised it would. In chapter 27 at least, however, the theme of who is to receive the blessing is central (27:4, 7, 10, 12, 19, 23, 25, 27, 29, 30, 31, 33, 34, 35, 36, 38, 41), and the specific terms of Isaac's actual blessing recall Yahweh's words to Abraham (26:29, cf. 12:2-3). The modern reader is appalled at Jacob's deceit, and the narrative hints at the poetic justice of his subsequent deceit by Laban, yet it is not so concerned to draw moral lessons as it is to invite us to read the story in the context of 25:23 and to marvel at how Yahweh's word is fulfilled in extraordinary ways.

27:46 takes up another theme of the Abraham story, the provision of a wife for his son. 26:34-35 form the background to this section. Formally set in the context of his diplomatic self-exile from home, Jacob's quest for a wife becomes a central concern of the rest of the Isaac narrative. Yet, although Jacob looks once again to the family of Nahor for a bride, and finds her in the household of the Laban who had so graciously received Abraham's servant seeking a bride for Isaac, the finding of Rachel is so different from the finding of Rebekah. Isaac's father implies that it is simply inappropriate for his son to marry a Canaanite woman (24:3), Jacob's father acts under wifely pressure that itself arises from a mere concern for domestic harmony (27:46, 28:1). Isaac was on no account to leave the promised land, but Jacob does so to distance himself from Esau (chapter 28). Abraham's servant undertakes his journey by the step-by-step direction of Yahweh and his angel (24:7, 12-21, 27, 50-52), but Yahweh is unmentioned in Jacob's journey once he leaves Canaan (29:1-30). No hitch deprives Isaac of Rebekah, but Jacob is for a while cheated by a trick worthy of his own cunning - and one which reasserts the rights of the first-born (29:26).

Nevertheless, Jacob's journey is set in the context of Yahweh's commitment to him. Before he leaves home Isaac prays for him that he may indeed be fruitful and inherit the land (28:3-4). Before he leaves the land itself Yahweh appears to Jacob in a dream and declares, as he had to Abraham and to Isaac, that he will give Jacob the land,


that Jacob's descendants will be very numerous, that other nations will bless themselves by Jacob, and that he will be with Jacob wherever he goes (28:12-15), and Jacob commits himself to Yahweh on the basis of this promise (28:20-22). And indeed the sojourn with Laban sees the fulfilment of Yahweh's undertakings to Jacob. He becomes the father of many sons (29:31 - 30:24) . He is a means of blessing to Laban (30:27, 30). He gains wealth and possessions despite Laban's attempted fraud and despite or through the superstitions that he and Laban seem to have shared (30:25-43). If there is a moral ambiguity about some of Abraham's acts (12:10-13; 16:2-4; 23:1-18), there is no ambiguity about the deceit and theft of the Jacob stories. Yet once more the narrative is more concerned with the conviction that these human acts were the means of Yahweh fulfilling his purpose than it is with moral judgments. Jacob's cocky assertions (31:9-13, 42) are true. God has indeed dealt graciously with him, and he has enough (33:11). Yahweh protects him from the deserved wrath of his father-in-law and turns Laban into his covenant-brother (31:17-55).

But to succeed in escaping from Laban is only to have to face Esau. The fear of Laban (31:31) is replaced by the fear of Esau (32:7, 11), despite the encouragement not to be afraid under whose protection Jacob stands (26:24, cf. 15:1). It is to the blessing that Yahweh gave Jacob as he left the land, and to the command that Yahweh gave him to return to it, that Jacob himself actually appeals at this point (32:9-12). Land and descendants are once again the focus. And when God (?) appears, Jacob insists on a blessing, and receives one (32:26, 29). Then he finds Esau gracious and welcoming rather than still harbouring revenge. But if Esau is a changed man to make sure that Yahweh's commitment to Jacob is fulfilled, Jacob (for all his changed name) is clearly still the same trickster - and this, too, is the means by which Yahweh prospers him, for Jacob not only buys his piece of land, at Shechem (33:18-20), but also finds reason and means to beat the Shechemites at their own game and to dispossess them of all they own (34:23, 27-29). Then, as the story of Isaac draws to a close, God calls Jacob back to Bethel, where he goes to build an altar to the one who had appeared to him there in his moment of need and had kept his promise to be with him wherever he went (35:1-3), and we are again told of the renaming of Jacob as Israel and of the blessing of descendants and land (35:9-12). Like Abraham, Isaac dies with his two sons together to bury him (35:29; cf. 25:9).

The Isaac narrative, then, is by no means identical with the Abraham narrative. It is more tightly structured


and less episodic, there is more irony, and it introduces fewer heroes and more villains. Yet the major themes we perceived in the Abraham narrative appear here too. It relates that Yahweh reaffirmed to Abraham's son and grandson his undertaking to bless Abraham with descendants and land and to make him a means of blessing to others, and that he kept this undertaking despite and frequently through the vagaries of those he committed himself to. This theme holds the narrative together by constituting both a thread running through it and the key motif to which the individual scenes relate.

1.3. The story of Jacob

The awareness that the Isaac story, like the Abraham story, centres on the theme of God's blessing, naturally predisposes us to look for the same theme in the Jacob story. We are not disappointed, though the latter, like the two earlier narratives, has at the same time its own distinctiveness.

As was the case with 'the Isaac narrative', to entitle the sequence 'the Jacob narrative' feels somewhat whimsical, since most of the chapters refer explicitly to the life of one of his sons rather than to Jacob himself. Yet it is clearly marked as 'the Jacob story' at its beginning and on its return to Jacob for the closing chapters (47 - 50), and, indeed, the point about the Joseph material in its context is to explain how Jacob's family came to be in Egypt. Only in 50:22b-26 is Jacob really left behind and Joseph the focus.

Like the Isaac story, the Jacob narrative is preceded by a brief account of the supplanted elder brother, which ties off that aspect of the preceding narrative (36, cf. 25:12-18). It includes the note that Esau surrenders the land to his brother (36:6-7). The further note that in contrast Jacob himself 'dwelt in the land of his father's sojournings, in the land of Canaan' gains its significance from what has come before (his exile in Haran) and what will follow (his exile in Egypt).

After that, the story proper gets under way in a surprising fashion - though in this respect it again resembles the Isaac story. Like the opening summary verses of the latter, the opening summary verses here (37:2b-4, cf. 25:19b-21) lead in to an event which sets the keynote for the bulk of the story as a whole. Isaac's wife receives a word from God which defines the overall parameters for the chapters that follow; Jacob's son has a dream which reveals the parameters for the chapters that follow it (37:5-11; cf. 25:22-23 and 24-34). Although Jacob and his family respond to the dream in a way that


the modern reader is tempted to see as entirely appropriate (37:8,10-11a), at the same time Jacob, the narrative implies, knows the word of God when he hears it (37:11b, cf. Rebekah's response to the word about Jacob, 25:28b). The Jacob now deceived over Joseph (37:31-35) is a softer character than the one we have met before, but the narrative's interest is not in character development from one set of stories to the next but in the function of Jacob's personality in connection with the theme announced by the dream.

Yet immediately the scene which follows the dream (37:12-36) sets up a contrast with its promise. The main theme of the story from Genesis 37 - 47 is then how Joseph's dream comes true despite and even through the affliction and humiliation brought about by the brothers who resented him, by the woman who loved him, by the master who misjudged him, and by the steward who forgot him. The theme is expressed in the patterned sequence of the story, which forms an extended narrative unparalleled in Genesis and with few equals elsewhere in the Old Testament.

But it is still the Jacob story, and this is reflected in the transition of attention to Judah in chapter 38. Since Reuben, and Simeon and Levi, have disgraced themselves (34, 35:22), Judah is in a sense Jacob's senior son. Now Joseph, supposedly destined to be leader, seems to out of the way. So Judah becomes the focus for a while.[6] Marriage and children dominate his story, as we would now expect, and the chapter ends with the birth of twin sons, of whom once again the elder is displaced by the younger (38:27-30). But this pattern affects Judah himself. The chapter's function is once again to tie off the story of a supplanted older brother by telling us of the fulfilment of the promise in the birth of his sons. It seems that Judah is disqualified from leadership by his marrying out and his recourse to an apparent prostitute: in the realm of marriage and sex he behaves more like Reuben (and Shechem, who provoked Simeon and Levi's sin) than Joseph, as chapter 39 will now portray him.

The first verbal markers to the narrative's burden also come in chapter 39, which three times reiterates that Yahweh was with Joseph and thus he met with success (39:2, 3, 23; cf. 21).[7] Then lo and behold, it further reiterates that Joseph was the means of bringing Yahweh's 'blessing' to his owner, Potiphar (39:5). Once a further reverse is behind him, Joseph becomes a blessing to the Pharaoh himself too (40 - 41), though the term itself does not appear.

But success for the Pharaoh of course also means


success for Joseph himself. This is highlighted when his brothers appear in Egypt to bow before him, and Joseph recalls the dreams with which the narrative opened (42:9). Yet the triumph which fulfils the dream has not yet been fully understood. Why has Yahweh elevated the (?arrogant) Joseph in this way? Joseph himself is allowed to tell us, when the story comes to a climax as he reveals himself to his brothers. This was Yahweh's way of providing for the needs of Jacob's whole family (45:5-8).

So Jacob himself is to follow Joseph to Egypt. And immediately the familiar (yet again updated) divine undertakings made to each of the patriarchs reappear. Once more God speaks to Jacob in a vision, identifies himself, and bids Jacob not to fear to go to Egypt, because there he will make Jacob into a great nation and from there he will bring Jacob back to the promised land again (46:2-4). Whether or not Abram's journey to Egypt and Jacob's to Mesopotamia were sinful human initiatives, Jacob's journey to Egypt takes place entirely within the purpose of God. And there in Egypt Jacob blesses Pharaoh (47:7,10) and the promise of fruitfulness is kept (47:27). As Jacob's death draws near, recalling God's blessing of him, he gives a father's blessing to Joseph's sons, and as he had himself received the elder's blessing from his father so he gives it to Ephraim rather than to Manasseh (48:1-20). He passes on to Joseph (treated as his own senior son, in accordance with Joseph's dream) both the promise that God will be with him and will bring him back to the land of his fathers, and his own personal possession in the land of Shechem (?) (48:21-22). The 'deathbed scene' is prolonged by Jacob's blessing on all his sons in chapter 49 (see 49:28), with a specific reference to blessings for Joseph (see 49:25-26), before Jacob actually dies and returns to the land himself (50:12-13). Genesis closes with Joseph's own final affirmation that the whole story we have been reading (Genesis 37 - 50) belongs within the purpose of God to keep many people alive, despite the sins of his brothers in their part in the story (50:20), with Joseph's own final passing on of the promise of the land to 'the sons of Israel', and with his dying in living hope of sharing in the fulfilment of that promise himself (50:24-26).

It is possible, then, to read through the patriarchal narratives as a whole and perceive one clear theme linking them. The theme is explicit in the actual words of God which promise blessing, land, increase, and influence. These explicit words then form the key which explains the function in their context of the stories which make up the bulk of the narratives as a whole. These stories


illustrate the theme, often by showing how God overcomes the obstacles to the fulfilment of his commitment of himself which arise from circumstances that surround those who received God's commitment or from the people that they had to deal with or from the recipients of God' s promises themselves.


In asking about the theme of the patriarchal narrative, we have presupposed that understandings of the whole and of the parts interact. Now it may be the case that individual patriarchal stories have their own themes as well as relating to the theme of the whole. Genesis 22, for instance, may be setting up Abraham as a model of faith and obedience, may be giving one of the reasons why the temple was eventually built where it was, and may be explaining why Israelites do not offer human sacrifices. In the absence of explicit indications in the narrative itself it is difficult to be sure whether such concerns are intrinsic to the narrative, but they are not alien to it. It was the oath to Abraham (22:15-18) set in the context of parallel words running through the wider patriarchal narrative which suggested that the concern with the blessing of the patriarchs was the starting-point for understanding it.

But the patriarchal narrative as a whole is itself set in a context; it is not a complete literary unit, but part of a longer work. To appreciate its meaning more fully, then, we need to examine it in this internal literary context. This may also help us to see how the particular theme of Genesis 12 50 relates to other themes of Old Testament faith which are dealt with in the work to which it belongs.

A fuller insight into a narrative (or into any other kind of statement) can also be achieved through the parallel study of its external historical context. By its historical context I mean that set of circumstances of a political, social, economic, and religious kind which form the background to the statement we are concerned with and which thus reflect the needs it had to address, the mistakes it had to correct, and the sins it had to confront. The meaning of Amos's declaration, 'You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities' (3:2) becomes clearer in the light of the social and economic circumstances of the time (for which the book of Amos is itself our chief source). Again, there are radically


different attitudes in different prophets regarding the nature of Yahweh's attitude to his people and regarding the importance he attaches to their corporate worship. It would be possible to misunderstand these differences as conflicts between the prophets, were it not for the differences in the historical and religious circumstances they are addressing which in part account for the consequent differences in emphasis that they manifest. Establishing a work's historical context enables us to see more precisely the point it is making by the words it uses.

This may be even more the case with narrative than it is with (for instance) prophecy. The date of the prophecy of Joel is quite uncertain and we are thus quite unclear as to its historical background, yet the message of the work and the response it seeks from its hearers are nevertheless clear because it is of the nature of prophecy to make them explicit ('Return to me' Joel 2:12). But it is not of the nature of narrative to make explicit the response it seeks. The story informs us that God called Abram from Haran to Canaan, but it does not reveal how it wishes this statement to engage us except, presumably, by our being interested. Seeing a biblical narrative in its historical context may at least enable us to see what response the narrative actually received or what response was encouraged in circles that seem sympathetic to the thrust of the narrative.

Many of the postulated connections between Genesis and later historical contexts are a matter of inference. It is often suggested, for instance, that the stress on the sabbath, on abstaining from blood, and on circumcision, in the creation, Noah, and Abraham stories, is to be connected with the importance in the exile of these distinctive outward marks of being a Jew. But this is a matter of inference, with little backing outside the Pentateuch in the actual exilic literature.

As some form of control on postulated links between the patriarchal material and later historical contexts, then, I propose to use the actual references to the patriarchs later in its own internal narrative context, the incidences of similar themes or language there, and also specific references outside this from the period to which this narrative as a whole refers or belongs. The first two tell us what points of connection with later contexts are urged by the work as a whole itself, the last tell us what lessons were seen in the patriarchal material by at least some Israelites of this same period.

But what is this narrative context, and to what period does it belong? What is the literary work to which the patriarchal stories belong, and what is its historical



There is no controversy over locating the beginning of this literary work, in Genesis 1 - 11. But where does it end? Even if the material in Genesis once existed on its own, in its present form Genesis looks forward to events that follow, and Exodus presents itself as a continuation of Genesis. Even more clearly the story of Exodus is continued in Leviticus and Numbers (the instructions in Ex. 25 - 31 are partly fulfilled in Ex. 35 - 40, partly in Lv. 8 - 9). Again, Numbers is not the end of a narrative, and Deuteronomy equally leaves us still in the middle of the story of Israel's beginnings, even though it brings the end of the story of Moses.

With the book of Joshua the story comes to some kind of end. Dramatically, the promises made in the patriarchal stories receive a substantial measure of fulfilment (see Gn. 12:1-3; Jos. 23:14), and at the end of Joshua the story as a whole is reviewed (Jos. 24:2-13). But is Joshua 24 the end of the work which Genesis begins? Several considerations make one hesitate to assume this. Although Deuteronomy and Joshua look backward to the story of the patriarchs and exodus, they also look forward to the life to be lived in the promised land. They note that the fulfilment of promises may be succeeded by trouble (e.g. Jos. 23:15-16), and the end of the story of Israel's origins issues its challenge to the next generation (24:14-27). Now the book of Judges takes up precisely these issues, beginning with the other side of the story as regards Israel's occupation of the land (Jdg. 1), and the style and theological concerns of Judges are broadly similar to those of Deuteronomy and Joshua 1 and 23 - 24. So Judges represents a continuation of Joshua. Similarly the books of Samuel and Kings each take the same story further until the awful warnings of Deuteronomy are finally fulfilled.

The literary context of the patriarchal stories, then, is the narrative from Genesis to Kings as a whole. Against the background of world history it takes Israel from Ur of the Chaldaeans to the peaks of the occupation of Palestine and the story of David and Solomon, and then down to the trough of exile at the hand of the Chaldaeans from whose midst Abram had once been called. It is this total story that is the internal literary context against which we may most fully appreciate the meaning of the particular stories about the patriarchs.

So what is the external historical background of the patriarchal stories? If they form part of the narrative which runs from Genesis to Kings, then in this final form they cannot date from before the exile. John van Seters


has recently reasserted the view that they were in fact composed then.[8] The more usual view for the last century has been that the first connected patriarchal narratives belong to quite early in the period of the monarchy,[9] perhaps even to the Judges period.[10] The traditional view, however, attributes the origin of Genesis, with Exodus to Deuteronomy, to the time of Moses.[11]

There seems no prospect of an early consensus on the dating of the patriarchal material, a question of considerable importance in connection with tracing the pre-history of Israel and of Israelite religion. But I do not think that we necessarily need to know which approach to dating is right in order to be able to interpret the stories against their historical background. For if the patriarchal narratives are to be read in the literary context of Genesis to Kings as a whole, this suggests that the whole historical period covered by this narrative is the right historical context against which the stories are to be understood, no matter what period they first came into being. Since they ultimately came to belong to a work that culminates in the exile, then it is appropriate to interpret them against this historical context. But since this work pays considerable attention to the exodus-conquest period and to the monarchy, it is also appropriate to ask what the stories mean against those historical contexts, even though we cannot be precise as to the degree of fixed form they had reached in the time of (say) Moses or Solomon.

I want, then, to consider the patriarchal narrative in the literary or historical contexts of pre-history as this is described in Genesis 1 - 11, of the exodus-conquest period as this is described in Exodus to Joshua, of the monarchy as this is described in Judges to Kings, and of the exile with which the work as a whole ends. And to amplify our understanding of the points that the narratives were then taken to make we will note allusions to the patriarchal material in other contemporary literature, which means mainly the prophets.[12 ]

2.1. The context of universal pre-history

So how is the meaning of the patriarchal stories made more specific by their being set in the context of universal pre-history in Genesis 1 - 11? The theme of God's blessing, which is of central importance in Genesis 12 - 50, is in fact resumed from Genesis 1 - 11, where it already plays a key role.

Here indeed is where Genesis opens. Genesis 1:1 2:3[13] relates a series of divine commands through which the world's creation comes about, leading to a double climax


(or a climax and a coda) in 1:26-31 and 2:1-3. Here God blesses man and speaks of his being fruitful and filling the land (1:28),[14] thus itemizing the blessing in a way which anticipates the patriarchal narrative (cf. especially 17:20; 28:3-4; 35:11-12; 48:3-4). He also blesses the seventh day (2:3). The life of man was to be one lived under God's blessing.

2:4-25 might be seen as further detailing the command and the blessing, but it also leads into the reversal of blessing into curse through man's resistance to the command. As a result of this the serpent is cursed (3:14), the ground is cursed (3:17; 5:29), and man is cursed (4:11). The picture of gloom is lightened by various notes of God's mercy (e.g. 3:21; 4:1, 15, 25-26), and then by the recollection of God's blessing (5:2) with its outworking in the fruitfulness of the race (5:3-32). But man's life is one under a curse which comes to fruition in the destruction of the time of Noah.

But after that act of judgment the curse is lifted (8:21) and the blessing of fruitfulness in the land is restored (9:1-7; cf. 8:17). As will be the case in the experience of Abraham, the divine commitment with regard to descendants and land is then sealed by covenant (9:8-17). Yet immediately the blessing on Noah and his family is partly undone and Noah declares Canaan cursed, though Shem is blessed (9:25-26) and Noah's descendants multiply to fill the earth again (chapter 10).

Genesis 1-11, then, describes the blessing and the curse on Adam, and the blessing and the curse on Noah. Now in the promise in Genesis 12:1-3 there is an ambiguity about the reference to the nations (12:3). Are they the recipients of blessing themselves, or only the admirers of Israel's blessing? When we perceive that Genesis 1 - 11 is centrally concerned with the theme of the blessing of the whole world, this leads us to conclude that this context resolves the ambiguity of 12:3. As far as Abraham (and later Israel) was concerned, the focus of concern lay in his own blessing. But in the purpose of God, the narrative affirms, Abraham received God's call and the promise of God's blessing as a means of God's restoring the blessing of creation to a lost world. The curse does not have the last word; blessing is reasserted in Genesis 12:1-3, though the patriarchal narrative goes on to make it clear that the curse continues ever to threaten the blessing. And the blessing on Abraham is a re-statement of the blessing of creation.

2.2. The patriarchs in the context of the exodus and conquest


The nature of the theme of Genesis 12 - 50 makes one form of link with Exodus to Joshua inevitable. God's undertaking to bless Abraham with many descendants and to give them the land of Canaan (albeit after a time away from it) is here fulfilled (see e.g. Ex. 1:7; 12:40; 13:19; 33:1; Nu. 23:10; Dt. 1:8; 9:5). The exodus happens because God remembers his covenant with the patriarchs (Ex. 2:24; 6: 2-8), and Moses' appeal to Yahweh not to cast Israel off bases itself on Yahweh's undertakings to the patriarchs (32:13; Dt. 9:27). It is for this faithfulness to his commitments that Israel is to worship Yahweh in the land (Dt. 26:3).

As the fulfilment of God's undertakings, the exodus and the conquest form the conclusion of a story begun in the life of Abraham. This point is made by some of the narratives' geographical references. Abram first arrives in the land at Shechem (Gn. 12:6), Jacob buys land at Shechem (33:18-19) and passes this on to Joseph (48:22), and the story of the patriarchs, exodus, and conquest ends in the land where it began in an assembly of Israel at Shechem (Jos. 24), where Joseph's bones are re-interred as he had planned (24:32). The completing of the series of acts stretching from the call of Abraham to the giving of the land is then the reason why Israel serves Yahweh in the present (24:2-14; cf. Dt. 26:5-l1).

But a second form of link between the patriarchal and the exodus-conquest narratives involves the latter picturing Israel in a position before God parallel to that portrayed in the former. God's undertakings and blessings are repeated, as well as being fulfilled and completed. This theme appears particularly clearly in the account of Israel in the plains of Moab, after her wilderness wanderings (Nu. 22 - 24). There the Moabite king sends for an Aramaean seer, Balaam, to curse Israel. But Balaam cannot do this, because Yahweh himself has declared Israel blessed. All Balaam can therefore do is bless Israel, reasserting the patriarchal promises of descendants (23:9-10), of God's active presence with them (23:21-24), of possessing a land (24:5-7), and of having kings and defeating enemies (24:17-19). There are particular verbal parallels in 24:9 with Genesis 27:29 and 49:9. The immediately following account of Israel's worship of Moabite gods (Nu. 25:1-5), however, illustrates the obstacles to the fulfilment of this blessing, as the patriarchal stories often do.

The theme of blessing is further reaffirmed in Moses's address to Israel in Moab in the book of Deuteronomy, and the blessing is often specified here as involving increase in numbers and enjoyment of the land. Moses urges


Israel to obey Yahweh's commands because then she will experience these blessings (e.g. 7:13; 30:16), he prays for further fulfilment of God's promises (26:15), he looks forward to the worship Israel will offer when she does experience them (e.g. 16:15), and he makes Yahweh's blessing the standard for Israel's generosity to others (15:14). The theme of blessing (and curse, if she disobeys) is particularly prominent in Moses's closing exhortation (chapters 27 - 28). Other specific parallels with patriarchal promises appear in the closing chapters of Deuteronomy. Moses promises that Yahweh will be with Israel as he was with Jacob (31:6-8; cf. Gn. 28:15). He blesses the twelve tribes as Jacob had (33:1-29, cf. Gn. 49:1-28), acknowledging Joseph's dominion foreshadowed in his dream (33:13-17; cf. Gn. 37:8; 49:22-26; there is another particular verbal parallel in 33:13 with Gn. 27:28). On the other hand, we are now the other side of the fulfilment of many of the patriarchal promises, while the remaining fulfilment is imminent. Israel is thus in a new situation before God, enjoying a covenant relationship that was promised to the patriarchs and may be regarded as foreshadowed by the patriarchal covenant, yet one which was not actually fully experienced by the fathers (Dt. 4:31; 5:2-3; 29:10-15). Deuteronomy thus emphasizes the obligations that follow from actually experiencing the covenant relationship, the blessings of Yahweh, the fulfilled promises. The patriarchal promises, addressed to people for whom the blessings are future, make little reference to such obligations. Deuteronomy stresses the commitment to Yahweh which must be the people's response to their experience of the commitment of Yahweh if the blessing is to abide.

The parallel between Israel's relationship with God during the patriarchal period and at the time of the exodus is expressed theologically in both narratives. On the one hand, the God of the patriarchs is referred to as Yahweh, although this actual name may not have been known until the exodus period.[15] On the other hand, the God of the exodus is identified as 'the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob' (Ex. 3:16). The parallel is also expressed typologically in Genesis 12:10 - 13:2. Abram 'goes down' into Egypt as Jacob's family later would and 'goes up' from Egypt as the Israelites would, 'plundering the Egyptians' in the process.

In the context of the exodus-conquest narrative, then, the patriarchal narrative appears both as an instructive parallel to what living before God means for Israel in that later period, and also as the beginning of a story


which will be completed then and the giving of an undertaking which will be fulfilled then. The people's place in Canaan is explained by Yahweh's promise of blessing to their fathers and by the sin of those who lived in the land before them. They were promised and given the land by God himself.

2.3. The patriarchs in the context of the monarchy

In the structure of Genesis to Kings the period of the monarchy in turn links sequentially with the patriarchal period. It takes the same story a stage further. This linking is expressed at the micro-level in Samuel's address to Israel at the anointing of Saul (1 Sa. 12:7-15). What God has done from Abraham to the monarchy challenges Israel to obedience now, as earlier in the narrative what God has done from Abraham to the conquest challenged Israel to obedience at an earlier point (Jos. 24).

The motif of the fulfilment of Yahweh's undertakings to the patriarchs is less prominent and less explicit in Judges-Samuel-Kings than it is in Exodus to Joshua, but it is present. Abram was promised an empire that would extend from Egypt to the Euphrates and would include the territory of ten peoples (Gn. 15:18-21), and the time of David is the one in which this vision comes nearest to realization. Then 'the princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields[16] of the land belong to God; he is highly exalted' (Ps. 47:9). The peoples contemporary with Davidic Israel (see especially 2 Sa. 8) are broadly those whose origins and activities are spoken of in Genesis, though the parallel is not exact.

Again, Abraham is told that kings will be among his descendants (Gn. 17:6). Although this comes about in Edom before it does in Israel (36:31-39), the narrative itself probably sees the Davidic monarchy as the most important fulfilment of this promise, which is meanwhile repeated to Jacob (35:11). After the institution of the Israelite monarchy Edom is at first subordinate to but then in rebellion against Israel (1 Ki. 11:14-22; 2 Ki. 8:20-22), and this, too, takes up a patriarchal blessing (Gn. 27:40).

At this point the experience and destiny of the man foreshadows that of the people. The same is true of the sons of Jacob. Many of the details of Jacob's blessing (Gn. 49) are of uncertain significance, but some central points are clear. As in the actual story Joseph - one of the youngest sons comes to be the leader, so here Joseph receives the fullest blessing, and later among the tribes Joseph, divided into Ephraim and Manasseh (n.b. Gn. 48) gains a dominant position after the division of the


kingdom, so that 'Ephraim' becomes a natural title for the dominant northern kingdom which already inherits the very title 'Israel' (e.g. Is. 7; Ho. 5).

Yet this dominance of Ephraim is something of an anomaly. After all, God 'rejected the tent of Joseph, he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim; but he chose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion, which he loves ... He chose David his servant' (Ps. 78:67, 68, 70). This conviction has its foreshadowing in the patriarchal story. Judah becomes Jacob's senior son, and even after being displaced by Joseph acts as leader and spokesman among his brothers (see Gn. 43; 44; 46:28). Then Jacob's blessing declares that the brothers will actually bow down before Judah; he is the one to whom sceptre and staff belong and whom peoples will obey (Gn. 49:8, 10; 10c is difficult, but the verses as a whole are clear enough).

This vision is fulfilled in David, a descendant of Judah's son Perez (Ru. 4:18-22) who himself supplanted his elder brother (Gn. 38:27-30). David's own original centre was Hebron (2 Sa. 2 - 5), and a connection with Hebron is one of many points at which David parallels Abraham as well as experiencing the fulfilment of his promises. It was at Mamre/Hebron that Abram really settled in the land (Gn. 13:18) and here he entered into his token legal possession of it (Gn. 23).

When Abraham received the promise of an empire, this was sealed by a covenant (15:18-21), and when he was promised that kings would be among his descendants, God made an everlasting covenant with him (17:1-8). Both narratives probably imply Mamre/Hebron as their location (and cf. Gn. 18). With David, too, God sealed his promises by making an everlasting covenant (2 Sa. 23:5; Ps. 89; cf. 2 Sa. 7:16; Ps. 132:12). To Abraham God promises that he will make his name great, to David he promises a great name (Gn. 12:2; 2 Sa. 7:9). To Abraham he promises that nations will pray to be blessed as his descendants are blessed (Gn. 22:18; repeated for Isaac 26:4; cf. 12:3; 18:18; 28:14), for the Davidic king the psalmist prays that his name may endure and men pray to be blessed as he is (Ps. 72:17).[17] (Otherwise, however, the explicit blessing theme is not prominent in Samuel-Kings though note David's prayer for blessing, 2 Sa. 7:29, and Solomon's prayer of blessing, 1 Kings 8). Psalm 72 also emphasizes the king's responsibility for justice and righteousness, which Abraham shares, too (Gn. 18:19).

In the story of the monarchy, David and the temple are closely linked (cf. Ps. 78:68, 70 quoted above; Ps. 132). In Genesis, Abraham passes his supreme test on a mount in the land of Moriah (Gn. 22:2), and the temple site is


called Mount Moriah in 2 Chronicles 3:1. The place comes to have attached to it the phrase, 'On the mountain of Yahweh he will appear' (Gn. 22: 14),[18] which to a later generation can only imply the temple mount.

Earlier Genesis 14:17-20 raises the question of the relationship of Abram and the royal-priesthood of Salem - identified at least by Psalm 76:2 with Jerusalem. The supplementary identification of the valley of Shaveh as the King's Valley (Gn. 14:17) also presupposes that the scene here is Jerusalem (cf. 2 Sa. 18:18). But here the implicit relationship with David is a different one. As king of Jerusalem David inherits the position of Melchizedek (Ps. 110). But in Genesis 14 Abram acknowledges Melchizedek, paying tithes to him, as, later, Jacob promised to pay tithes at Bethel (28:22). In applying Genesis 14 and Psalm 110 to Jesus, Hebrews makes explicit the argument that is implicit here. David's authority in Jerusalem is buttressed by the fact that Abram acknowledged his predecessor in Jerusalem.

But the typological relationship between patriarchal figures and those of the monarchy can work both ways. If there are encouraging (though implicit) parallels between the monarchy and Abraham, there are also uncomfortable (and explicit) parallels between the monarchy and Sodom. Sodom is a paradigm of sin and judgment not only in respect of the nations (Is. 3:9, 13:19) but also in respect of Israel (Is. 1:9, 10); Genesis 18 - 19 sets us its challenge (and its invitation to prayer) regarding the Israel of the monarchy. And there is an explicit and uncomfortable parallel between Jacob and later Israel (see Ho. 12:2-5, 12; also Is. 43:27). As in the patriarchal narrative itself, the reason for Yahweh's continuing forbearance towards Israel is not their deserve but his own covenant commitment (2 Ki. 13:23).

Finally the Joseph story resonates with the account of the monarchy, in the latter's picture of the archetypal wise man Solomon. Joseph is the man who proves that success comes from having Yahweh with one and acting honourably (notably, resisting the seductions of another man's wife), and these are emphases of the wisdom tradition which finds its link with Israel's history in the person of Solomon.

So the story of the monarchy and the story of the patriarchs are told in similar terms, as are the story of the exodus and conquest and the story of the patriarchs. The Abrahamic and Davidic covenants mirror and interpret each other. Israel prays for the Davidic king to continue to experience what God promised to Abraham (Ps. 72 :17).


The parallel suggests that the Abrahamic covenant foreshadows the Davidic as it foreshadows the Sinai covenant - hence, perhaps, the fact that the prophets usually refer back to one of the latter two (Sinai or Davidic covenant) rather than to the one that foreshadows them. And further, the achievements of the monarchy are explained by the divine undertakings of the patriarchal period, as the exodus and conquest were. Yahweh himself had promised to make Abraham's descendants famous and destined them to rule over Canaan, and this is the explanation and basis of the fact that they now do.

2.4. The patriarchs in the context of the exile

The narrative that begins in Genesis by creating order from formlessness and then by taking Abram out of Ur of the Chaldeans into the promised land ends in 2 Kings with chaos triumphant and Israel back in the power of the Chaldeans.[19] What does this literary and historical context add to an appreciation of the patriarchal narrative?

Yahweh's words to the patriarchs had spoken of blessing, but the possibility of the curse had remained in the background. In Deuteronomy 27 - 28 the two possibilities are straight alternatives, and by the time of 2 Kings 25 the curse seems to be triumphant. In this context, what is the narrative inviting us to make of those words about blessing? The question is sharpened by the fact that some of the promises speak of the blessings being given for ever. The covenant was eternal (Gn. 17:7, 13, 19) and the land was to be enjoyed as a permanent possession (13:15; 17:8; 48:4). These assertions are particularly striking in a context when the covenant seems to be broken and the land lost. Do the promises stand? How permanent is permanent?

In warning of the possibility of exile, both Leviticus and Deuteronomy declare that this need not be the end. Deuteronomy promises that if Israel returns to Yahweh, he will bless them again as he did their fathers (30:9). They can appeal to his covenant with their fathers (4:30-31). A reference to the patriarchs is also explicit in Leviticus 26:40-45. If Israel repents, Yahweh says, he will remember his covenant with Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, and will remember the land (26:42). The permanencies can be permanent. The defection that led to exile is perhaps foreshadowed in the defection even at Sinai, and there One basis for appeal to God's mercy was that he should remember Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Dt. 9:27).

The promise that by the grace of God the permanencies can be permanent is explicit in the prophecies which


either look forward to exile or arise from it. The God who redeemed Abraham cares for sinful Israel now (Is. 29:22). The commitment Yahweh swore to Abraham and Jacob still applies to their sinful descendants (Mi. 7:20). Jacob's shame will be put to an end when Yahweh restores his children (Is. 29:22-24) and Rachel's grief can be assuaged because Yahweh is going to bring her children back to the land (Je. 31:15-17).

The re-application of the patriarchal traditions is most systematic in Isaiah 40 - 55. These chapters begin and close with the proclamation that Yahweh's word stands 'for ever' and will achieve its purpose (40:8; 55:10-11). Yahweh has stirred up a new Abraham from the east (or north) to win victories over the Mesopotamian kings like Abraham's own (41:2-4, 25; cf. Gn. 14).[20] Because Jacob/Israel is the offspring of Yahweh's friend Abraham, and in him is taken from the ends of the earth, she need not fear, for he is with her and is her God; Yahweh reiterates his undertaking to Jacob (41:8-10; 43:5; cf. Gn. 28:15, 21; 46:3-4, etc.).

Various specific features of Yahweh's relationship with the patriarchs appear in Isaiah 40-55: the blessing itself (44:3, 51:1-3), the covenant commitment (42:6; 49:8; 54:10; 55:3), the acknowledgment of the nations (45:14; 49:7, 23; cf. especially Gn. 27:29), the return to the land (43:5-6; cf. especially Gn. 28:15). But it is striking that the theme of descendants, and not that of the land, is the one which is most developed. At the beginning of the exile Ezekiel warned Israel not to appeal too easily to Yahweh's promise to Abraham when he was but one man (Ezk. 33:24) But in the context of the exiles' now having suffered enough (Is. 40:2) Yahweh encourages them by the precedent of Abraham: 'For when he was but one I called him, and I blessed him and made him many'. This he will do for Israel now (Is. 51:1-3; cf. 44:1-5; Je. 3:16; 23:3). The apparently barren, forsaken wife will bear miraculously, as Sarah did (Is. 49:14-21; 54).

In the context of the end of Genesis to Kings in exile, then, the patriarchal narratives carry a simple, clear message. The commitments Yahweh made to the patriarchs and their descendants were permanent and thus they apply to the exile generation, too. The promise of blessing, of land, of increase, of God's own presence, of the acknowledgment of the nations, sealed by the covenant relationship, were not based on the patriarchs' achievements but on the gracious initiative of Yahweh, and they are not brought to an end by Israel's sins, because the divine commitment still stands. This is the basis for hope when the covenant is broken and the blessing gone, the


people is decimated and the land lost, and when Yahweh has left them and they are the laughing-stock of the nations.


One of the aims of the attempt to interpret the patriarchal narratives above has been to see what kind of implied vested interest they may have in the historicity of the events they narrate. Are they the kind of stories that could be completely fictional but still be coherent and carry conviction? A parable is fictional, but nevertheless carries conviction on the basis of who it is that tells it and of the validity of his world-view as it expresses it. A gospel, however, invites commitment to the person portrayed in it, and in my view this implies that it cannot be both fictional and true. The kind of response it invites demands that the events it narrates bear a reasonably close relationship to events that took place at the time. Without this it cannot be coherent and carry conviction. In the absence of reference, it cannot even really have sense.

The patriarchal stories seem meaningful. Do they have to be fundamentally historical in order actually to be true? Are they more like a parable or a gospel?

Thomas L. Thompson closes his book The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives[21] by suggesting that they do not have to have any historical value in order to be true. He contrasts his own view with that expressed by scholars such as G.E. Wright,[22] who believe that the true locus of God's revelation to Israel is the events of her history, not the Bible itself. Logically, Wright then assumes, the factuality of Israel's account of these events is of key importance to the believer, and to establish it is a prime task of the historian. In opposition to this understanding, Thompson suggests that Israel's faith is rather a response of hope in God in some present situation, which expresses itself by drawing an imaginative picture of the past to embody its present hope. It is in this sense that salvation history is not something which actually happened but is a literary form arising out of a particular historical context (p.328). The present is affirmed by creating a past of which it is the fulfilment. The believer therefore has no interest in the historical factuality of an Old Testament narrative. The Bible is a revelation of Israel's faith (embodied in an imaginative portrayal of the past) which makes it possible for us to share the experience of God that she had in the present and to respond with our own faith.


As Thompson's historical views represent an extreme form of the current reaction against the Wright-Bright-Albright approach to biblical history, so his theological views represent an extreme form of the current reaction against the Wright-Cullmann approach to salvation history. This latter reaction is expressed in F. Hesse's desire to say goodbye to salvation history,[23] in the trenchant critique of the idea of salvation history in A.H.J. Gunneweg's Understanding the Old Testament,[24] and in R.E. Clements' scant attention to it in his Old Testament Theology A Fresh Approach.[25] In various respects this reaction is quite justified, and in particular Thompson is correct that Wright's approach to history ignores the revelation in word or in language embodied in the Bible itself. Event and word are both part of revelation.

But Thompson's own position is as open to criticism on one flank as Wright's is on the other. The way in which the biblical testimonies to faith refer us to past historical events for their explanation and justification makes it difficult to believe that they imply no claim for their story's factuality.

Let us consider again some aspects of how the patriarchal traditions are set in a subsequent literary and historical context. First, Yahweh's words to the patriarchs constitute the divine undertaking fulfilled in exodus and conquest. They constitute Israel's charter for her possession of the land of Canaan. They explain how this was Yahweh's gift rather than the Israelites' desert. They set Israel's position in the land in the context of the sweep of a divine purpose concerned with the destiny of the nations. If the patriarchal narrative is pure fiction (which Thompson suggests it may as well be), is anything lost? Surely much is, because the exodus-conquest narrative grounds its statements of faith in these events. If the events did not take place, the grounds of faith are removed.

We should note that Thompson is right that the mere factuality of certain patriarchal events would not in itself prove the validity of the faith perspective set up by the patriarchal narrative. We have seen that the narrative involves a perspective or an interpretation (the theme of blessing) as well as an account of events, and the historicity of the events does not prove the truth of the narrative. But while the historicity of the events is not a sufficient evidence of the truth of the narrative's interpretation, it is a necessary evidence of its truth. The narrative builds its interpretation on the factuality of the patriarchal events, so that without this factuality, faith in Yahweh as the giver of blessing,


the one who keeps his promises, the God of grace, and so on, may be true but is nevertheless groundless. If they are not fundamentally factual, the patriarchal narratives have sense but not reference.

Similar considerations apply to the patriarchal narrative in the context of the monarchy and - with more tragic force - in the context of the exile.

Hearken to me, you who pursue deliverance,
you who seek Yahweh,
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were digged.
Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you,
for when he was but one I called him,
and I blessed him and made him many. (Is. 51:1-2)

But on Thompson's thesis it does not matter that the call, the blessing, and the increase of Abraham are imaginative creations of faith! The prophet's position seems to be the opposite - not that faith creates Abraham, but that Abraham creates faith.

The debate in Old Testament scholarship in which Thompson sets his own position over against Wright's is by no means one confined to the United States. Indeed, much of the past two or three decades' discussion of the relationship between faith and history has taken place on the continent and refers back to Gerhard von Rad's exposition in his Old Testament theology[26] of the problem of the 'two histories' - one related by faith, in the Bible itself, the other related by the use of critical historical method. This exposition is anticipated in the Introduction to his commentary on Genesis[27] where von Rad describes the patriarchal stories as 'saga'. By the use of this term, he seeks to hold two convictions together. One is that a story in Genesis 'narrates an actual event that occurred once for all in the realm of history.' It is not 'a product of poetic fantasy' (p.31/[3]p.32). But the other conviction is that saga is not concerned with history as mere this-worldly events of the past which are now dead and gone. It represents an intuitive response of faith that sees the activity of God in events, and portrays them accordingly. And it assumes that these events are thus relevant to and mirrored in the experience of later believers. 'These narratives express everything that Israel had learnt from her association with Yahweh right down to the narrator's own time' ([3]p .40). This does not mean 'that these figures and the traditions about them are nothing more than subsequent projections of popular faith back into the primeval period. It means,


rather, that this material did not lie in the archives untouched but was moulded and substantially enlarged by being handed down for centuries' (p.34/[3]p.35). 'At the beginning, the saga in most cases certainly contained a 'historical' fact as its actual crystallizing point. But in addition it reflects an historical experience of the relevant community which extends into the present time of the narrator' (p.33/[3]p.34). Thus, for instance, the story of Jacob at the Jabbok (Gn. 32:22-32) is 'the witness of a past, and at the same time completely contemporary, act of God' (p.34/[3]p.35).

Von Rad's use of the word 'saga' parallels Karl Barth's. For Barth, saga is 'an intuitive and poetic picture of a pre-historical reality of history which is enacted once and for all within the confines of time and space'.[28] Both von Rad and Barth can give the impression that they have abandoned the historical nature of biblical events. Yet Barth emphasizes their objective factuality, and in discussing the factuality of Christ's resurrection contrasts his own position with Rudolf Bultmann's.[29] Von Rad, similarly, responds to his critics on this point by affirming that the nature of Israel's faith is such that 'there is little reason to fear..., that in these descriptions of her early period Israel may have lost contact with actual history. They are rather utterances... of a people obsessed with its actual history'.[30]

Barth and von Rad can give the impression that the events they discuss did not happen, because they recognize the limitations that, for good or ill, are imposed by modern assumptions regarding what can be described as 'historical'. Such 'history' cannot include events or statements that the historian cannot control, such as God calling Abraham from Mesopotamia or raising Jesus from the dead. So to say that these events are not historical is not to imply that they did not happen; it is only to imply that they cannot be investigated by the historical method. We can in principle investigate whether Abraham moved from Ur via Haran to Canaan or whether a body disappeared from a tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea; we cannot in the same way check the transcendent interpretation which the Bible gives to these events. Part of the difficulty of investigating the factuality of the Bible's history lies in the this-worldly assumptions of the historical method.

Yet this insight does not deal with all aspects of the question of the historicity of the patriarchs. Let us consider statements that are in fact capable of being checked by the historical method. Does the ancestry of the Israelites go back to certain pre-Israelite figures


who believed that God promised them many descendants and the possession of the land of Canaan, so that the Israelites' own possession of the land could be explained by a promise believed to have been given then? In principle this question can be investigated 'historically' and indeed it has been so investigated, and the conclusion of many scholars is that the answer is 'no'. Does the faith that has based itself on these historical statements then collapse? To describe these stories as saga testifies to their background in some historical event, but if in the stories there is really more of the faith of the tellers than there is of actual events, we still seem to have faith creating Abraham rather than vice versa.

Von Rad himself hints at one resolution of this dilemma. Where did the material in the Genesis sagas that is not strictly 'historical' come from? 'It reflects an historical experience of the relevant community which extends into the present time of the narrator' (p.33/[3]p.44). One could say that the narrative of the jeopardizing of Sarah 'is not 'historical', but the experience that God miraculously preserves the promise beyond human failure was eminently historical (geschichtlich) for the community' (p.39/[3]p.41).

In contributions to the 1961 von Rad Festschrift, Studien zur Theologie der alttestamentlichen Überlieferung,[31] and in subsequent writings,[32] R. Rendtorff and W. Pannenberg have developed this point. The growth of Israel's traditions (in which Israel's faith is expressed) was itself part of her history. So the faith did arise out of the historical activity of Yahweh his activity in the development of her understanding of him. Indeed, Israel's national experience included Yahweh proving himself as her protector and provider, an historical experience that could then be seen as retrojected into the patriarchal narrative. Again, there is real historical experience here. From another perspective, Paul Ricoeur has pointed out that 'fact' and 'fiction' should not be distinguished by suggesting that only the former is historical. 'History's reference and fiction's reference intersect upon the plane of the basic historicity of human experience'.[33]

All these points are valid, but they actually reinforce rather than dissolve the significance of the fact that large tracts of the Old Testament such as Genesis are put in the form of narrative about the factual past. Israel was capable of producing fictional parable and present testimony, but in the patriarchal stories she did not: she makes a point of telling a story about the factual past,


and refers to it (in a passage such as Is. 51) in such a way as to make it rather clear that she understands the story to be fundamentally factual.

The fashion of current Old Testament scholarship is to replace 'history' by 'story' as the best category for Old Testament narrative, and my own approach will have made clear that I accept the validity of this insight. It is the story told in Genesis to which we are invited to listen and respond in faith, not whatever bare events of ancient near-eastern history lie behind it. And when (as is currently the case) it is difficult to be sure on historical grounds what actual events lie behind the Genesis narrative, this realization enables us still to interpret and profit from this story even when we have to be agnostic about at least some aspects of the history.

On the other hand, while (as R. J. Coggins puts it[34]) 'we should laugh out of court anyone who approached Hamlet primarily with a view to improving his knowledge of Danish history, or Henry V as a source of knowledge of fifteenth-century England' and ought to query a parallel approach to Genesis, this does not mean that the investigation of the historical facts to which Genesis refers is irrelevant to the value of Genesis, as may be the case with Shakespeare's plays. In Genesis (and in cross-references to Genesis) the Bible appeals to factual history as the overt grounds of its faith statements, and it does therefore invite investigation by the historical method.[35]

In his closing paragraphs, Thompson (pp. 329-330) notes that Wright's approach, which bases faith on history, thereby places a severe strain on faith when it is difficult (intellectually) to accept the factuality of the events that faith is supposed to be based on. The same observation applies to the position being defended here, that historical factuality is a necessary though not a sufficient basis for faith. It is not possible to have the advantages of history without its risks. But the pentateuchal narrative, like the preaching preserved in the book of Isaiah, invites us to take this risk.[36]


[1] Assen: Van Gorcum, 1975.

[2] magen (RSV 'shield'). fron the a root as the verb miggën in 14:20. These are the only occurrences of either word in Genesis to Numbers, so that the link is hardly coincidental.

[3] The word rekus comes five tines in 14.11-21 and thin in 15:14; cf. 12:5, 13:6, 31:18, 36:7, 46:6.

[4] B[e]rit appears in the Hebrew expression for allies.

[5] The preposition translated 'with' etc. vary.

[6] J. Goldin, 'The youngest son or Where does Genesis 38 belong?', JBL 96 (1977), pp.27-44.

[7] RSV obscures the reiteration; 'successful' and 'prosper' represent fame of the one Hebrew root s-l-h.

[8] Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven and London: Tab U.P., 1975).

[9] e.g. J. Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel (ET reprinted Gloucester, MA. Peter Smith, 1973; German original 1878, [2]1883), O. Eissfeldt, The Old Testament, An Introduction (ET New York: Harper end Oxford: Blackwell, 1965, German original 1934, [3]1964).

[10] So M. Noth, History of Pentateuchal Traditions (Englewood Cliffs end London: Prentice-Hall, 1972, German original 1948).

[11] E.g. R.K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969; London: Tyndale, 1970).

[12] It would be appropriate to include a section on the patriarchal stories in the context of the patriarchal period itself, which would involve consideration of the assertions they make (e.g. about the relationship between Abraham's religion and that of the people he meets) in response to aspects of the situation in the period to which the patriarchs belonged, but this is more directly the focus of other essays in this volume.

[13] Or perhaps 1:1 - 2:4a: for the view that sob formulae in Genesis are conclusions, not introductions, see P. J. Wiseman, New Discoveries in Babylonia about Genesis (London: Marshall, 1963), reprinted in Clues to Creation in Genesis (London: Marshall, 1977).

[14] The Hebrew word 'ere means both 'earth' and 'land'.

[15] See Gordon Wenham's paper in this volume.

[16] On 'shields' see note 2 above on Gn. 14:20, 15:1.

[17] The hitpeel of the verb bara is used in Gn. 22:18, 26:4, Ps. 72:17.

[18] The translation of the verb is uncertain, but the noun phrase is enough.

[19] 'Chaldeans' is a term that strictly belongs only to the first millennium (cf. its prominence in Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.), and in Genesis 11 it may deliberately make the point that Israel has returned to the land that Abram was called from.

[20] I take it that Isaiah 41:2-4, 25 refers neither to Abraham as opposed to Cyrus, nor vice versa, but to Cyrus (as 44:28, 45:1 will make explicit) pictured in Abrahamic terms.

[21] BZAW 133; Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 1974; pp.326-330.

[22] E.g. God Who Acts (Chicago: Regnery and London: SCM, 1952), pp.126-127.

[23] See his Abschied von der Heilsgeschichte (Zurich: TVZ, 1971); also J. L. McKenzie, CBQ 34 (1972), pp.504-505.

[24] Philadelphia: Westminster and London: SCM, 1978.

[25] London: Marshall and Atlanta: John Knox, 1978.

[26] Volume 1 (ET Edingurgh: Oliver and Boyd and New York: Harper, 1962), pp.106-108.

[27] London: SCM and Philadelphia, Westminster, 1961, [2]1963, [3]1972 (German original 1949).

[28] Church Dogmatics III, 1 (ET Edinburgh: Clark and New York: Scribner's, 1958), p.81.

[29] Church Dogmatics III, 2 (ET Edinburgh: Clark and New York: Scribner's, 1960), pp.440-445.

[30] Old Testament Theology 2 (ET Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd and New York: Harper, 1965), p.424.

[31] Neukirchan: Neukirchener Verlag der Buchhandlung des Erziehungsvereins, 1961. ET of Pannenberg's essay in his basic Questions is Theology 1 (London: SCM and Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970), pp.81-95.

[32] E.g. Rendtorff's Gesammelte Studien zum Alten Testament (Munich: Kaiser, 1975).

[33] 'The narrative function', Semeia 13 (The Poetics of Faith: Essays Offered to Amos Niven Wilder Part 2, ad. W. A. Beardslee; Missoula: SBL, 1978), p.195.

[34] 'History and story in Old Testament study', Journal for the study of the OT 11 (1979), p.43.

[35 ]Cf. A. Jepsen, 'Tho scientific study of the Old Testament', Essays on Old Testament Interpretation (ed. C. Westermann; ET London: SCM; = Essays on Old Testament Hermeneutics, Richmond: John Knox, 1963), pp. 267-271).

[36] See further my paper ' "That you say know that Yahweh is God": a study in the relationship between theology and historical truth in the Old Testament', Tyndale Bulletin 23 (1972), pp.58-93. I hope shortly to publish a study of recent critical approaches to salvation history in a volume on 'Interpreting the Old Testament'.

© 1980 A.R. Millard & D.J. Wiseman, reproduced by permission. Prepared for the web by Robert I. Bradshaw, January 2004. Please report any typographic errors.