Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are pretty much the starting point for any developed theology about God and Christianity. Without these patriarchs there would be no Bible, no people of Israel, and no theological basis for Jesus to come into the world and save the Jews and Gentiles. But through these three men, God has reached the whole world with a New Covenant of salvation: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now all who turn from sin, and live by faith in the cross of Christ, are sons and daughters of Abraham by faith. Their heritage is our heritage; their God is our God; their experiences relate to ours; their lives are completely relevant to our own lives as Christians, and how we can expect to relate to God.
1. Abraham’s Background. Abraham was the father of Isaac and grandfather of Jacob. He was a Semite, which means he descended from Shem, the son of Noah; and was born 292 years after the flood (Gen. 11:10-26). By then the world had embraced paganism and polytheism, and had turned away from God (probably culminating in the Tower of Babel in Babylon). Abraham’s father Terah was a worshiper of false gods (Josh. 24:2). Jewish tradition even says that Terah was a wicked (Numbers Rabbah 19:1; 19:33), idolatrous priest (Midrash HaGadol on Genesis 11:28) who manufactured idols (Eliyahu Rabbah 6, and Eliyahu Zuta 25). If the rabbis are to be trusted, then it means Abraham was the son of a mean-spirited pagan priest who made idols for a living. Abraham questioned the authenticity of his father’s religion and was perhaps still aware of the faith that Noah held to centuries before. Coming from a priestly family, he was probably literate, and was aware of the history and mythology of his people. He was from a city called Ur of the Chaldees, which scholars believe is located in the southern part of Iraq. The culture was Sumerian. Coincidentally, creationist scholars believe this same area might be the original location of the Garden of Eden, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet (Gen. 2:10-14), right above the Persian Gulf. Seeing that a ziggurat has been recovered in Ur, it is likely that Abraham’s father was there worshiping the moon god Nanna, who was later named Sin, by the Semites. Terah moved his family to Haran, which was another center for the worship of this moon god, but quite a bit north of Ur, near the border of modern Turkey and Syria.
2. Charismatic Experiences. Abraham is the third prophet in the book of Genesis, with Enoch and Noah apparently being the first and the second. This is not to say that many other men and women were without direct revelations in these times, but it seems these were the main representatives of the faith in the early history of the world, much like Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and the apostle Paul later came to be. All we know about Enoch is that he “walked with God” and was apparently raptured (Gen. 5:21-24); Noah heard God’s voice about the flood and the need for an ark, because of the violent and wicked nature of mankind–we see that Noah knew the difference between “clean” and “unclean” animals and performed an animal sacrifice for atonement (Gen. 8:20); Noah was also aware of signs from God, such as the rainbow, being a sign and a symbol that God would not flood the earth again in wrath, but would preserve it by His grace.
Charismatic experiences come much more into the picture when we look at the lives of Abraham and Jacob (but not so much Isaac). In this ancient theology of the patriarchs, we can clearly see God communicating with them directly through voices, open visions, dreams, meaningful coincidences (signs), and supernatural provisions (providences). Prayers for healing could be based on God speaking through a dream (Gen. 20:6-7, 17). What are not mentioned as means of revelation are things like impressions, closed visions, numerology, and pagan divinations. While it is possible the Holy Spirit spoke to the patriarchs through impressions, intuitions, and closed visions–these experiences were apparently not spectacular or noteworthy enough to merit being recorded in the book of Genesis as miraculous gifts.
3. The Life Contexts of Abraham and Jacob When They Received Revelations. I think this is the most interesting part of the lives of Abraham and Jacob. This is where things get really relevant to the lives of Christians today.
When we look at Abraham’s life, we see he heard God’s voice tell him to leave his pagan family in Haran and go to Canaan (Gen. 12:1); God promised him that his name would be great (vv. 2-3). Once he reached Canaan, he had an open vision of God (v. 7); and he built an altar to God at that location as a memorial to honor God for the experience. Shortly after this, a famine swept over the land (v. 10); and he took his family down to Egypt where they could survive better. Pharaoh took Sarai, Abraham’s wife, away from him, but God intervened with a dream and made Pharaoh sick, and sent them out of Egypt with riches (v. 17). Lot, Abraham’s nephew, eventually began to quarrel with him about property lines, but Abraham wanted to live in peace, and proposed that they live in different areas (Gen. 13:8-9). Lot chose to live nearby Sodom and Gomorrah, which eventually corrupted him. Immediately after Lot left, Abraham heard God’s voice promise the whole land of Canaan to him and his descendants (vv. 14-17); he then had another open vision of God (15:1) and again he was promised the land of Canaan and a son. In this vision, God commanded him to do animal sacrifices (vv. 4, 9); after he was done, he was “slain in the Spirit,” fell asleep, and had a dream where God told him that his descendants would be slaves in Egypt for 400 years; then he woke up and saw an open vision of a fire pot floating between the separated animal parts that he cut apart for the sacrifice, and God promised him again (vv. 12-18). Abraham had an open vision of God where he was told to establish the covenant of circumcision (17:1); and after this experience God flew up from him (or ascended into Heaven) (v. 22). God saw Lot in the midst of Sodom and Gomorrah, with their mean-spirited homosexuals, and decided to destroy these cities with fire and brimstone from heaven. Abraham was told about this beforehand by an open vision of God and two angels (18:1)–God was determined to preserve a righteous line of descendants through Abraham (18:19). Again, there was another occasion where a pagan king named Abimelech took Sarah from Abraham, but God intervened with a dream and sickness and healing prayer from Abraham, and Sarah was delivered (20:3, 6-7, 17). Although God had previously promised that the righteous lineage would continue through Isaac, Abraham’s obedience to God was tested one day when he heard God’s voice command him to sacrifice Isaac on an altar (22:2), but when he was about to kill him, he saw an open vision of God (the angel of the Lord) tell him to stop, and that he had passed the test of obedience (v. 11, 15). Abraham walked in the fear of God (v. 12) and God took care of him through providence, or supernatural coincidences resulting in provisions for needs (v. 13).
When we look at Isaac’s life, there is very little of the prophetic that is mentioned in Genesis, but it is likely he had miraculous gifts like words of knowledge and the gift of prophecy from time to time, because his father and his son certainly did.
When we look at Jacob’s life, we see that God and angels appeared to him in a dream and promised him the land of Canaan (Gen. 28:10-15). Jacob, still unsure of his faith in his younger years, vowed an oath of lifelong commitment to the Lord provided that God would take care of all of his material needs (providence) (vv. 20-22). Jacob had an unbelieving and hostile brother named Esau, from which he escaped to live in Haran with his uncle Laban, and soon to be father-in-law. Just like Abraham, Jacob lived in pagan Haran with pagan relatives and questioned their practices in his heart. But he worked for Laban, a rude and deceptive farm manager, for a total of 20 years. Still unclear about what did and did not please God, Jacob accepted the pagan custom of polygamy (as did Abraham with Hagar), and was given a total of four wives from Laban: Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah (these last two being servants of the first two) (Gen. 29-30; 30:14; 31:19, 27). But Rachel was the only wife that Jacob had a genuine romantic relationship with. (God later clarified through revelation to Moses that polygamy is against His will, see Lev. 18:18 regarding sisters not sharing the same husband and Deut. 17:17 regarding the kings of Israel not multiplying wives. This goes to show the tremendous grace of God toward Jacob’s ignorance of God’s ways! But all his great-grandkids ended up as slaves in Egypt for 400 years. Paul later clarified: the pastor is to be “the husband of one wife,” 1 Tim. 3:2.) But through these four wives, Jacob begat the twelve sons from which we get the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. Joseph turned out to be the only son that was prophetic (and incidentally enough,) the only son that a tribe was not named after. Jacob had love at first sight when he saw Rachel and a coincidental sign of providence when she said she was Laban’s daughter, the very man he was searching for (Gen. 29:6, 11). The time came when Laban became more hostile towards Jacob and God’s voice told Jacob to leave Haran and go back to Canaan (31:3). Before this, Jacob miraculously out bred Laban’s share of livestock by faith in a dream he received from God (31:10-12)–when Laban found out, he was very angry and began to pursue Jacob after he left in secret. God spoke to Laban in a dream, telling him to leave Jacob alone (31:24); upon arriving in Canaan, Jacob saw an open vision of angels (32:1-2); in between Laban and Esau, and coming up to see Esau after 20 years, Jacob saw a physical open vision of God, known as a theophany, where he wrestled with Him and saw God’s face up close and personal all night long, ending in God twisting the socket of his thigh, and giving him a limp for the rest of his life (32:22-32)–this experience was to show Jacob that God was with him and that his fight with Laban and Esau would soon be over with and he would survive. Both Jacob and Rachel came from dysfunctional families. Jacob had a brief, but terrifying, diplomatic “tea party” encounter with Esau (Gen. 33), and then never saw him again until their father’s funeral. There is another occasion when Jacob heard God’s voice (35:1) and saw an open vision of God (vv. 9-13).
4. What Can We Learn From the Patriarchs?
(1.) Abraham had a mean-spirited father who was a pagan priest. He obviously did not get along with his dad, let alone his other family members, especially once he started questioning his family’s religion. God not only allowed, but directly commanded Abraham to leave his family permanently (Gen. 12:1). One Jewish tradition even says that Abraham’s father took him to Nimrod to have him thrown into a fiery furnace, but just like in the book of Daniel, he escaped the flames. Lesson learned? Abraham came from a pagan and dysfunctional family, but his heart wanted to know the true God in the midst of this. This often happens to rejected family members who don’t feel loved: they reach out to know the true God, the one source of love from whom they can find true acceptance and support.
(2.) We see that God has wrath for the wicked (namely, the violent, the unkind, the homosexual): that God’s wrath has a tipping point, which turns into physical punishments and even death. Animal sacrifices were revealed by God through dreams and visions as a way of expressing a desire to have sins atoned for, repented of, and forgiven by God. The wrath of God, a repentant heart, and the need for atonement–all Gospel themes–have existed since the earliest days of earth’s history.
(3.) God communicated with men directly through voices, open visions, dreams, meaningful coincidences (signs), and supernatural provisions (providences). He still does this today (Acts 2:17). Other than the Bible, I’d say the best book on this subject would be Jack Deere’s Surprised by the Voice of God.
(4.) Those who follow God will have enemies inspired by Satan, who will try to attack you, wear you down, and steal from you. Whether it’s someone like Pharaoh, Abimelech, Lot, Esau, or Laban, you can be sure that the devil will put enemies in your path (whether family members, in-laws, co-workers, or government leaders). But if you are faithful to God in your heart, then He will deliver you from them all eventually. How? Righteous lying, dreams from God, separation, and cutting off communication. Those who follow God don’t have time to let themselves live their whole lives abused, mistreated, and living without peace. Its too distracting. You can’t focus on God if you’re around such people.
(5.) God wants our children to be nurtured and trained to be a righteous lineage of descendants. One thing though: avoid adultery, sexual immorality, polygamy, and pornography. Look what happened with Ishmael and the sons of Jacob: look what happened to the sons of David and Solomon–total division and hostility in the family relations. We need to keep the family line as sexually pure as possible, and monogamous. Nurturing the children, teaching them about the law of God, and the Gospel of Christ.
The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) – This is the best movie about Noah, the Tower of Babel, and Abraham. There are, however, quasi-pornographic scenes (Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden) and a scene with Sarah in the bedroom.
Jacob (1994) – Partial nudity in bedroom between Jacob and Leah; several d-words used. Other than this, its a pretty good rendition of Jacob’s life (charismatic experiences too).
The Bible: The Epic Miniseries: Episode 1: In the Beginning (2013) – This is a pretty good rendition about Abraham, but the angels in Sodom use swords to kill people (artistic license).
F. B. Meyer’s Abraham: The Obedience of Faith.
C. F. Pfeiffer’s The Patriarchal Age.