Patriarchs in the Bible | List & Significance | Study.com (2024)

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Abraham Isaac Jacob

There are three Biblical Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These are not the first nor only men in the Bible or even the only men in the book of Genesis (the first book of the Bible). However, all other men in Genesis were used in the Biblical stories for different reasons than these three. In the case of Adam, for example, the first man (and human being) mentioned in the Bible, his purpose is not to found the religion of the Israelite people but to establish the human race on Earth. It is only when the Bible gets to Abraham in chapter 11 of Genesis that God begins to explicitly lay the foundations for the covenant with the Israelite people that establishes the Israelite's monotheistic religion.

Abraham

The first and most prominent of the three Patriarchs is Abraham (אברהם). When he is first introduced, his name is Avram (אברם, also transliterated as Abram). Abram was born in the land of Ur, Babylon. According to Jewish tradition, he was born in the Jewish year 1948, equivalent to 1800 B.C.E. in the secular calendar.

One of the first promises God makes to Abraham is that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars of the night sky. (Artwork by Ephraim Moses Lilien, 1908)

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The first promise God makes to him is in Genesis 12:1-3:

  • "G-D said to Abram, 'Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you And curse the one who curses you; And all the families of the earth Shall bless themselves by you.'"

At 100 years old, Abram and his 90-year-old wife, Sarah (Hebrew: שרה), are promised a son. Just before making this promise, God changes Abram's name to Abraham, meaning ''The Father of Many Nations'':

  • "As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you; and kings shall come forth from you." (Genesis 17:4-6)

Miraculously, Sarah does bear a healthy son by Abraham: Isaac, the next Patriarch. Abraham is said to have lived until he was 175, meaning he would have finally passed away in the Jewish year of 2123, and in the secular year 1625 B.C.E. Sarah is believed to have died at age 127.

Isaac

The second Patriarch is Isaac (Hebrew: יצחק), the son of Abraham and Sarah. Isaac would have been born in the Jewish year of 2048, or 1700 B.C.E., as Abraham was 100 years old at the time. The promises given to Abraham are repeated to Isaac. These promises are for land, sons, and that he will be a leader.

Isaac's story begins in the book of Genesis, chapter 25, though he is mentioned before this as part of Abraham's narrative. The most well-known story of Isaac and Abraham is when God decides to test Abraham's faith and commands Abraham to offer Isaac to him. Abraham obeys, bringing Isaac to the altar and, having bound Isaac to the altar and raised the knife, is interrupted by an angel who tells Abraham to stop. This story, known as the Binding of Isaac, is in Genesis 22.

The Binding of Isaac is a popular subject for Biblical artwork. (The Sacrifice of Isaac by Rembrandt, 1635)

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Like Abraham's wife, Sarah, Isaac's wife, Rebekah (Hebrew: רבקה), is unable to bear children except with divine intervention. After pleading with God for children, God allows Rebekah to become pregnant, and she bears two sons, Esau and Jacob, who are twins. They fight with one another even within Rebekah's womb, but both are declared leaders of nations by God. Rebekah and Isaac both have a preference for one son or the other, with Rebekah's favored son being Jacob. She helps Jacob trick Isaac into blessing him over Esau.

Jacob

Isaac's son Jacob (Hebrew: יעקב) is the third Patriarch. Jacob is said to have been born when his father, Isaac, was 60 years old, making his birth year 2108 (1640 B.C.E). Again, God repeats the promises given to Abraham and Isaac, promising Jacob land, sons, and that he will be a leader.

As an adult, Jacob has two wives: Rachel (Hebrew: רחל) and her sister, Leah (Hebrew: לאה). He had wanted to marry Rachel but was tricked into marrying Leah first, but was still allowed to marry Rachel as well. Jacob has twelve sons (the Twelve Tribes of Israel) by his two wives and their handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah. The sons (from oldest to youngest) are Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. Leah is the mother of half of them: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. Like Sarah and Rebekah before her, Rachel initially could not bear children, but God intervenes and Rachel becomes the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, the youngest of the twelve sons. Bilhah birthed Dan and Naphtali; Zilpah birthed Gad and Asher.

Later, in Genesis 32, Jacob is renamed. He goes to find Esau to try and make amends with him but requests time alone with God first. During the night, Jacob wrestles with an angel, and when the angel cannot defeat him, Jacob becomes Israel. This new name — Israel (Hebrew: ישראל) — means to wrestle, or contend with, God.

  • "Jacob was left alone. And a figure wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob's hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, 'Let me go, for dawn is breaking.' But he answered, 'I will not let you go, unless you bless me.' Said the other, 'What is your name?' He replied, 'Jacob.' Said he, 'Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.'" (Genesis 32:25-29)

Jacob wrestling with an angel in Gen. 32:24-32 earns him the name of Israel, still used to describe the Jewish people to this day. (Art from c.1866)

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