During this teaching series we will be surveying the lives of the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. It probably seems a little strange to observe the Advent season by considering the lives of people who lived before Jesus, but Advent is really the mirror reflection of the anticipation for the coming Messiah that gave us the Hebrew Scriptures.
I encourage you to plan to read through the stories of these four men (Genesis 11-51) at least once during the coming weeks. It will help give you the context of the things we discuss, especially if you are unfamiliar with the Biblical details of the lives of these men. Popular recounting of their lives is often caricatured and based on extra-biblical flourishes.
These narratives occur at the very beginning of the Biblical story. The Patriarchs are the originators of much of what would become the nation of Israel and the Jewish religion. The nation and religion, in turn, give us the Messiah – Jesus of Nazareth. Within the Patriarchs’ story, we find the seeds of expectation of the Messiah.
As a whole, the Book of Genesis gives us several major arcs or narratives:
- Adam Narrative (1-4)
- Noah Narrative (5-10)
- Abraham Narrative (11-25)
- Isaac Narrative (24-26)
- Jacob Narrative (27-36)
- Joseph Narrative (37-51)
These narratives form a much larger arc – the foundation of the people who became Israel. (It is anachronistic to refer them as a nation at this point. They do not become a single nation until much later.) Most importantly, it provides a narrative context for the differences between the Hebrews (later the Israelites) and the closely related peoples of the region.
The earlier narratives of Adam and Noah set distinctions between Hebrews and most of the major people groups like the Egyptians, Philistines, Arameans and Hittites.
The last four narratives (the Patriarchs) settle more subtle questions. Particularly, archaeology has revealed that the people groups named in these narratives were very similar to the Hebrews in language and culture. While the Moabites, Ammonites, Arabians and Edomites were all Semitic peoples, the Hebrews distinguished themselves from them by showing they descended from other strands of the same family.
For the Hebrews, the points of the narrative explained why these other peoples spoke essentially the same language or shared similar cultures but were not Hebrews. It also explained why these people did not embrace the worship of YHWH – the Hebrew God.
This is the primary function of these narrative arcs, so it is sometimes precarious to draw moral rules from the conduct of the patriarchs. For example, all of the patriarchs practice polygamy but that does not mean that polygamy was condoned.
It is only secondarily that we might draw what we consider “life lessons” from these narratives. For this reason, nothing you read in this meditation guide will recommend living as these men did.
But that does not mean we cannot learn something other than national context from these narratives. One of the most amazing things about the Biblical narratives is the way they show us real human beings. Rather than characters in mythology who take on almost one-dimensional personalities, the patriarchs are majestically flawed. They are inconsistent and broken. In short, they are human.
So while we cannot necessarily look to the narratives as normative for our lives, we can still look to them and see ourselves. We seek the reflections of our own humanity. After thousands of years of history, human beings are still human beings.
Therefore, look to these men and women as your brothers and sisters. Do not analyze them or exegete them. Instead, identify with them. They struggled as you and I struggle. They overcame adversity with God’s help. They both failed and succeeded. Their messy existence and our messy existences are not all that different.