This is part of a series of articles, describing each of the 66 books of the Bible and how it relates to the one overall story of God’s relationship with man. The story is examined in terms of the five recurring themes below. The series cover page can be reached here.
The book of Genesis is traditionally considered to have been written by Moses, who lived somewhere around 1300-1400 B.C. 1 However, the events referred to go much farther back — literally to the beginning of time — so the information must have been conveyed orally for generations. The lineage from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was deeply ingrained into the Hebrew people’s history by the time of Moses, though. It was the glue that held the people-group together.
The literary style of the book is literal, historical narrative. The tone is matter-of-fact, even when describing obvious miracles. People and places are named in real-world context, with nothing “once upon a time” or “in a galaxy far, far away”.
This book provides the start of our story, and lays the foundation for everything that comes afterward. It includes all five of the major themes presented in this article series.
Note: Genesis is a long book, covering everything from Creation, through the Flood, through the Israelite patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and ending with the story of Joseph. It has been split into four smaller articles:
- Creation through Abraham (chapters 1 through the first part of 11)
- This article: Patriarchs – Abraham and Isaac (end of chapter 11 through chapter 26)
- Patriarchs – Jacob and Esau (chapters 27 through 36)
- Patriarchs – Joseph (chapters 37 through 50)
God’s Call to Abram
Chapter 11 verses 10-32 focus on the descendants of Noah’s son Shem, ending with a man named Abram. Abram’s father Terah had left “Ur of the Chaldees” in the vicinity of Babel/Babylon on his way to the land of Canaan, but apparently had stopped about halfway there, in a place named Haran (Genesis 11:31).
Chapter 12 starts with God calling Abram to leave Haran and go to Canaan.
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”Genesis 12:1-3
This promise begins the next step in God’s plan to provide a Redeemer. Jesus would be the One of Abram’s descendants through whom “all the families of the earth will be blessed”.
Abram obeyed God, and traveled with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot from Haran to Canaan. When he arrived, God told him “To your descendants I will give this land.” (Genesis 12:7)
Unfortunately, Abram’s faith in God only lasted so far. Genesis 12:10-20 tells us that when a famine came to the land, he moved to Egypt. That might not have been so faithless, but he also told the Egyptians that Sarai was his sister rather than his wife. She was beautiful, and he was afraid that he would be killed so that another man could have her. (Later, in Genesis 20:12, Abram said that she was actually both: his wife and also his half-sister — same father, different mothers.) The Pharaoh of Egypt, assuming she was available, took her into the palace to be his wife. He was prevented from doing so when God sent plagues on Pharaoh’s family. Pharaoh learned the truth and let her go back to Abram.
Chapter 13 tells how Abram and his nephew Lot parted ways. They were both rich, with many flocks and herds of livestock. There was too much for the same land to support both of them. Abram gave Lot the choice of land. Lot chose the area around Sodom, so Abram settled in Canaan, which God again promised to all of Abram’s descendants (Genesis 13:14-17).
Chapter 14:1-16 describes a war between several area kings against several others. The king of Sodom, where Lot had decided to live, lost in that war and Lot was taken captive. Abram took his own men and rescued Lot and his family.
Afterward, there is an incident that was later seen to be highly significant. Genesis 14:17-20 has a “priest of God Most High” named “Melchizedek king of Salem” coming out to pronounce a blessing on Abram. (The name Melchizedek means “king of righteousness” and he was introduced was the king of Salem, which means “peace”.) Abram responded by giving Melchizedek “a tenth of all” 2. Several hundred years later, King David prophesied that God would provide another priest like Melchizedek, one who would be a king even greater than David himself (Psalm 110). The New Testament writer of Hebrews almost 2000 years later saw this mysterious priest/king to whom Abram paid a tithe as a foreshadowing of Jesus (Hebrews 7:1-10).
Chapter 15 is another significant passage of God’s plan and pursuit of relationship via Abram’s family line. God had already promised more than once to give the land of Canaan to Abram’s descendants. However, at this point, Abram had no children; he had named someone else to be his heir. When he questioned God about this, he was told:
Then behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”Genesis 15:4-5
Then Genesis 15:6 says “Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul would emphasize that it was Abram’s belief, not his bloodline or any action that he took, that caused him to be counted as righteous (Romans 4:1-5, Galations 3:6-9). The rest of the chapter describes how, because Abram believed, God went through the formal covenant ritual to emphasize the surety of that promise 3.
Chapter 16 has Abram’s faith fading again. Ten years after he settled in Canaan, he was still childless. So he and Sarai decided to “help” God fulfill His promise — by Abram having a son by Sarai’s servant, Hagar. It didn’t work out so well. Sarai was jealous when the plan worked: Now Hagar had a son but she still did not. She convinced Abram to banish Hagar. God met Hagar in the wilderness, promising that her descendants would also prosper. She and little Ishmael went back to Abram’s household.
Chapter 17 is another appearance of God to Abram, confirming and deepening His earlier promises. In these chapters, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham 4, and Sarai’s name to Sarah 5. He adds the rite of circumcision as a way of identifying those who are a part of His covenant with Abraham. He promises to bless Ishmael also, while guaranteeing that Abraham and Sarah will have a son named Isaac through whom the covenant blessings will be continued.
Sodom and Gomorrah
In chapter 18, immediately after God’s conversation with him, Abraham looked up to find three men standing opposite him. He promptly welcomed them and invited him to dinner. They returned the favor by repeating God’s promise of a son…within the year, even though both Abraham and Sarah were well past their childbearing years.
Starting at verse 16, we find that these were no ordinary men. They were messengers from God, sent to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their great wickedness. (Remember, Abraham’s nephew Lot now lived in Sodom.) Abraham negotiated with God for the cities’ pardon. God agreed to spare the cities if ten righteous men could be found there. Unfortunately, they could not be found.
In chapter 19, the angels who had met with Abraham now entered the city of Sodom. When Lot saw them planning to camp out in the town square for the night, he invited them into his home instead. He tried to protect them from being assaulted by “the men of the city… all the people from every quarter” (Genesis 19:4). The next morning, after a scary nighttime adventure for Lot, the angels told him to get his family out of the city before it was destroyed. They gave him time to run far enough away before the Lord rained down fire on the entire valley and the evil cities within it.
The end of the chapter is a sad ending for Lot. First, his wife had hesitated during the escape, looking back toward the city after being warned not to. She became a pillar of salt. Then, his two daughters — whose fiancés were left behind when they refused to believe Lot’s warning — decided to have children by their own devices: They got Lot drunk and slept with him. From one’s descendants came the people of Moab; from the other, the Ammonites. Both were long-term enemies of Abraham’s covenant descendants.
In chapter 20, Abraham repeated the same lie that he had told the pharaoh of Egypt: That Sarah was his sister rather than his wife. The same pattern repeated: The local king, Abimelech, tried to take Sarah as his wife; God stopped him; Abimelech rapidly reversed course.
Chapter 21 starts wonderfully: Abraham and Sarah welcomed their promised baby boy, Isaac, into the world. Then it turns dark: Sarah once again had a grudge against Hagar, and her son by Abraham, Ishmael. They were driven out, again. This time, though, instead of sending her back, God told Hagar not to worry: He was watching over them and Ishmael would prosper. By the end of the chapter, Abraham made a treaty with Abimelech, promising that they would treat one another fairly. 6
Sacrifice of Isaac
Chapter 22 is a big one. Not only is it a riveting story of faith in its own right; it is also an amazing preview of God’s plan for redemption from sin. God asked Abraham to offer a burnt offering, a sacrifice. But, that sacrifice was to be Isaac, his long-awaited son of promise! Abraham obeyed, taking Isaac and the wood for the offering, going out to the place God specified, and building an altar. On the way, Isaac asked :
…Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.Genesis 22:7-8
Abraham bound Isaac, laid him on the altar, and raised his knife to kill him. At the last second, God stopped him, and provided a ram stuck in a nearby thicket to be the sacrifice instead. Abraham named that place “The Lord Will Provide”. God praised Abraham’s faith, and again reiterated His promise that “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” (Genesis 22:18)
A couple of thousand years later, God did indeed provide. He offered His own Son as sacrifice…and this time He did not provide any kind of last-second rescue. Jesus followed through, taking on the sin of every person in the world along with the well-deserved punishment for it.
Isaac Grows Up
In chapter 23, Sarah dies and is buried there in Canaan. To keep matters honest, Abraham — at the time a nomad who did not own the land through which he traveled — insisted on purchasing the land and cavesite used for her tomb. The location was Hebron, about 20 miles south of Jerusalem.
In chapter 24, Abraham acquires a wife for Isaac, his son of promise. Abraham wants the bride to be of his own people back in Mesopotamia, rather than one of the local Canaanite women. But he is adamant that Isaac continue to live in Canaan, the land that God had promised to his family. He sent a trusted servant back to the old home place to look for a suitable bride. The servant asked God to show him the correct woman to approach, by having her meet a couple of specific criteria (offering to not only draw some water for him, but for his camels also — quite a task). The prayer was barely finished before Rebekah, grand-daughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor 7 easily met the criteria. On hearing of Abraham’s desire and God’s answer to prayer, Rebekah’s family gave their blessing for her to return with the servant to Canaan and to marry Isaac.
Chapter 25 passes the torch to a new generation as Abraham dies and is buried next to Sarah. There is information on both of Abraham’s sons: A brief description of Ishmael’s twelve tribes worth of descendants, and the story of how Isaac and Rebekah start their dysfunctional family. Their twin boys, Jacob and Esau, came out fighting! Esau was first but — as prophesied in Genesis 25:22-23 — gave up his birthright to the younger twin, Jacob.
Chapter 26 shows Isaac to be a chip off the old block: During a famine, he migrated to an area ruled by a king named Abimelech (probably the grandson of the Abimelech that Abraham dealt with in chapters 20 and 21). Like his father, Isaac tried to pass his wife off as a sister for fear that “the men of the place might kill me on account of Rebekah, for she is beautiful”. Like his grandfather, Abimelech found out about the deception, was angry, but commanded that Isaac and Rebekah be left alone.
Isaac prospered, enough to cause conflict with Abimelech over resources, especially water. Eventually, they found a compromise when Isaac dug his third well, finally far enough away to keep the peace. God appeared to Isaac, promising to be with him and to multiply his descendants. When Abimelech saw that Isaac was blessed, he came to propose a treaty that allowed everyone to part as friends. The location became known as the town of Beersheba, the “well of oath”.
|Major Theme||Examples in this Scripture|
|God’s Sovereign Plan||God used Abram to begin the nation that would become the home-on-earth for His Son.|
God continued to tell Abram of the good things planned for his future descendants, even against the evidence at the time.
God had a plan for Ishmael’s life, also. It diverged from Abram’s line, but his sons and their descendants are mentioned later in the Bible (Genesis 25:12-18, for instance).
God provided a non-Canaanite wife for Isaac, and gave him prosperity as he continued the family line.
|God’s Majesty, Holiness & Justice||God gave the Sodom and Gomorrah multiple chances to repent. But when they persisted in evil, He did not let it go unpunished.|
|God’s Love & Pursuit of Relationship||God communicated with Abram, made promises to him, and was intimately involved in his life.|
God took care of Hagar and comforted her.
God spared Lot and his family from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He would have spared more, but they refused to give up their evil.
God made a point of reassuring Isaac that He was with him.
|Man’s Rebellion & Sin||Abram doubted God’s protection. His lack of trust led him to lie, leading to plagues and conflict with the Pharaoh and with Abimelech.|
Abram’s “help” with providing offspring, Hagar’s gloating, and Sarai’s vindictiveness all showed their choice to try to control their own lives instead of trusting God.
The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah became a synonym for sin. Lot’s wife and daughters did not honor God with their lives, either.
Isaac’s deception showed the same lack of faith as Abraham had before him.
|God’s Solution: A Redeeming Sacrifice||In Melchizedek, God gave a 2000-year preview of Jesus’ role.|
God would provide a sacrifice, both for Abraham and Isaac at the time, and also for the entire world through Jesus.
Continue to Genesis – Patriarchs – Jacob and Esau.
Footnotes and Scripture References
- There are differing schools of thought on the exact dates.
- All of the spoils of the battle, most likely
- Normally, the ritual entailed both parties passing through the midst of the sacrificed animals to commit them both to keep their promises. Here, God alone passed through, taking the entire burden of keeping the covenant onto Himself.
- from “exalted father” to “father of a multitude”
- from “princess” to “noblewoman”
- One special point of contention was water rights; the treaty included acknowledgement that Abraham had control of the well in question.
- daughter of Bethuel, the son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor (Genesis 22:20-23, 24:24)