The biblical account in Genesis depicts Abraham as the father of the Jewish nation. Initially known as Abram, he came from Ur of the Chaldeans – a Sumerian city of Mesopotamia. Together with his father Terah, his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot, he went to Harran, a trading centre in northern Syria. There his father died, and God told him to go to Canaan: ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you. And I will make of you a freat nation’ (Genesis 12:1-2). during a famine in Canaan he went first to Egypt and then to the Negheb. Finally he settled in the plain near Hebron, where he experienced a revelation confirming that his deliverance from Ur was an act of providence: ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to posess’ (Genesis 15:7).
Because Sarai was barren Abram had relations with her servant girl, Hagar, who bore Ishmael. However, when Abram was ninety-nine and Sarai ninety, God gave them a son, Isaac. It was at this time that Abram received his new name Abraham (‘the father of a multitude’), and Sarai was renamed Sarah (‘princess’). When Isaac was born, Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away at Sarah’s insistence. During this period God made a covenant with Abraham symbolized by an act of circumcision: ‘You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you (Genesis 17:11). Subsequently God tested Abraham’s dedication by ordering him to sacrifice his son Isaac, only telling him at the last moment to desist. When Isaac grew older, Abraham sent a servant to his kinsfolk in Hebron to find him a wife. The messenger returned with Rebecca. Later God answered Isaac’s prayers for a son, and twins (Esau and Jacob) were born. Jacob bought his brother’s birthright for fodd, and with his mother’s help secured Isaac’s blessing, tehregy inflaming Esau’s wrath. Fleeing from his brother, Jacob travelled northward toward Harran; en route he had a vision of a ladder rising to heaven. There he heard God speak to him, promising him that his offspring would inherit the land and fill the earth (Genesis 28,12-14). After arriving in Harran Jacob laboured for his uncle Laban for twenty years as a shepherd. There he married Laban’s daughters, Rachel and Leah; they and their maids (Bilhah and Zilpah) bore him twelve sons and a daughter. Eventually Jacob returned to Canaan. On this journey he wrestled with a mysterious stranger in the gorge of the Jabbok river, a tributary of the Jordan, where God bestowed upon him the new name, ‘Israel’.
When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. The he said ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking’. But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me’. And he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob’. Then he said, ‘Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed. (Genesis 32:25-8)
Eventually, Jacob was welcomed by Esau, butb then the brothers parted. Jacob lived in Canaan until one of his own sons, Joseph, requested that he and his family settele in Egypt, where he deid at the age of 147.
The history of the three patriarchs is followed by a narrative of Jacob’s son, Joseph. As a young boy, Joseph was given a special long-sleeved robe as a sign that he was his father’s favourite. With his brothers he tended his family flocks in Shechem, but he infuriated them by recounting dreams in which they bowed down to him. Furious at this presumption, they plotted his death. However, Reuben, one of the brothers, persuaded them to wait, and another, Judah, suggested that Joseph should be sold as a slave rather than be killed. Eventually Joseph was taken as a slave in Egypt; his brothers dipped his coat in a kid’s blood, declaring to Jacob that he had been mauled by a wild animal. In Egypt Joseph first served in the house of Potiphar, but was falsely accused by Pothifar’s wife of rape. As a result he was cast into prison. In time he was released by the reigning pharaoh in order to interpret his dreams; subsequently he became chief minister of the land. After the outbreak of famine, he enabled the country to become rich. When his brothers came before him to buy grain, he revealed to them his identity, assuring them that all was guided by God’s providential care:
I am your brother Joseph whom you sold in Egypt. And now do not be distressed because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life (Genesis 45:4-5).
At the age of 110 Joseph died, and his family remained in Egypt, where they prospered. Yet with the arrival of a pharaoh ‘who did not know Joseph’ (Exodus 1:8), the Jewish people were forced to labor as slaves on the construction of the royal cities of Pithom and Raamses. According to Scripture, this pharaoh declared that all male offspring should be killed at birth: ‘Every son that is born to the Hebrews – you shall cast into the Nile, but wou shall let every daughter live’ (Exodus 1:22). (From Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Atlas of Jewish History, Routledge 1994, pp. 4-8)