The accounts of creation and the Flood in Genesis are followed by a series of episodes that describe the lives of the ancient ancestors of Israel. Genesis 12–50 are not a continuous historical account of events but a loosely arranged collection of tales centering on the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), their wives, and their children. This narrow focus on four generations demonstrates the continued connection between God, his people, and the land after the Flood while at the same time setting the stage for the enslavement of the Hebrews in Egypt.
Two dominant themes recur throughout Genesis 12–50. First, these chapters demonstrate how God’s plan was realized through human intermediaries. Through a process of divine testing and guidance, humans founded Israel just as God had intended. Second, the theme of exile and return already manifested in Genesis 1–11 continues to play an important role in the narratives. In Genesis 12–50, however, exile and return now specifically foreshadow the impending Exodus from Egypt.
While the narratives describing the ancestors of Israel are essentially a series of interlocking family histories, these passages are especially complicated to unravel and analyze. In this chapter these texts are first evaluated through source criticism using the Documentary Hypothesis. However, the complexities of the text require us to go beyond source criticism in an effort to recover the prehistory and development of the text. This means that other scholarly methods must be employed; these include form criticism, tradition history, and redaction criticism, all of which are explained and demonstrated in this chapter.
Through source criticism, scholars have argued that much of Genesis 12–50 is derived from the source known as JE. The JE material acts as a series of linked episodes following common themes, particularly God’s threefold promise of land, descendants, and blessing. Since this source is most represented in the text, it also provides significant details about Israel and its ancestors at this period. For example, JE describes the lifestyle of the patriarchs as seminomadic and reliant on the virtue of hospitality. In addition, JE reflects the turbulent relationship between Israel and its neighbors, as it often attributes the origin of rival states to figures of questionable parentage and character.
In addition to the JE source, Genesis 12–50 also feature limited contributions from P. P has few narratives, but it is responsible for the important narratives on circumcision (Genesis 17) and the purchase of the burial spot in Hebron (Genesis 23). As in previous chapters of Genesis, P is usually demonstrated in genealogies, and 12–50 are no exception. Beyond the genealogies, P can be identified commonly through its use of the phrase “be fruitful and multiply.”
While source criticism does help us with the identification of the differing voices that formed the Pentateuch, form criticism goes further by identifying elements of earlier units and traditions within the text. This method attempts to identify the form, or genre, of a block of text and then determines its original function in context. One form that frequently appears in Genesis is an etiology describing the origin or meaning of a name, a place, or a custom. Chapters 12–50 of Genesis demonstrate how valuable this method can be since it can help to explain why repetitions exist. The example of shrines attributed to more than one patriarch may be particularly insightful since these repetitions may illustrate the survival of very ancient myths associated with separate tribes. Moreover, such etiologies help to support the contention that the patriarchs were in fact not related but were legendary figures from different tribes in Israel who were only later connected by an artificial family genealogy to promote unity.
Near Eastern Parallels
Like the earlier chapters of Genesis that we have discussed, parts of Genesis 12–50 also have literary antecedents. In particular the Canaanite epic of Kirta preserves several of the same plot elements as Genesis 12–50; these include childlessness, the promise of children from the deity, the journey to find a wife, and finally the birth of offspring. What the Ugaritic texts demonstrate is that the Israelites and Canaanites shared some common themes in their foundation mythologies. Particularly, both used stock formulae when describing their founding ancestors.
Less direct parallel evidence for Genesis 12–50 comes from northern Mesopotamian texts. Legal documents from Nuzi, Emar, and Mari discuss forms of adoption and the existence of family gods or idols that are passed down through generations, both of which have affinities with Genesis (15.2; 31.19–35). Also found is a cluster of names identical to those in Genesis, including Laban, Dan, and Ishmael.
The Joseph Cycle
Some scholars have posited that much of the Joseph story was an independent narrative or novella. This conclusion is based on the fact that this story is much more developed in plot and is less family-centered than the narratives surrounding it in Genesis. While this is a separate story, it is interconnected to its surrounding narrative by incorporating the figures from Jacob’s family who were already introduced earlier in Genesis. Furthermore, it includes common themes such as dreams, famine, deception, and a journey into Egypt. While this narrative is something of a digression from the main theme of the ancestors and the God of Israel, it is important because it gives a reason for the presence of Israel in Egypt and foreshadows the Israelites’ eventual return to the land of Canaan.
Ancestors of Israel
What, then, can we take away from the stories of the ancestors of Israel? Ultimately our close reading of Genesis 12–50 tells us many things about the people of ancient Israel, their identities, their relationships with each other and their neighbors, and their system of beliefs. Each of the patriarchs may have been a legendary founder of the ancient tribes of Israel. As such, each has a different personality and serves a different function in the final narrative. Abraham is the ideal model believer who stands as an archetype. Isaac is not very well developed, and scholars have suggested that he was connected to a minor southern tribe that was later absorbed into Israel. Jacob is the most colorful character. He is highly flawed, yet he is transformed and effectively utilized by God.
Women play a major role in the narratives and at times are quite independent and even dominant over their husbands. While the world reflected in these narratives is patriarchal in character, the matriarchs often are essential to the story. Perhaps the greatest example of this is Rebekah, whose character is more developed than that of her husband, Isaac. Not only does she receive revelation from God himself, but she changes the course of the family history by conspiring with Jacob against Esau.
The stories of Jacob’s sons are also important because they seem to be a kind of metaphor for the trials and tribulations of the tribes of Israel. Since Judah became the dominant tribe of the south and Ephraim became hegemonic in the north, these two tribes are prominently featured in the narratives. Lesser tribes such as Reuben, Levi, and Simeon are given less complimentary treatment, and tribes on the periphery such as Dan and Naphtali are barely mentioned in the stories at all. Therefore, the creation of these genealogies incorporating all of these tribes and other groups of the area demonstrates a recognition of interconnectedness and kinship among the peoples of the Levant.
Ancestors as History?
It is very difficult to find anything definitively historical relating to the stories of the ancestors of Israel in Genesis 12–50. This problem is exacerbated by the use of multiple sources, editing, and internal inconsistencies. Furthermore, the fact that many of the major figures in these accounts are described as seminomads who are not tied to any specific area means that these figures would be unlikely to appear in corroborating historical documents. Moreover, Genesis is particularly vague in places since it withholds the names of the pharaohs discussed in the Abraham narratives. As a whole, a secure date for these events is impossible to pinpoint, and some scholars have dismissed these narratives as a historical fiction from late in the biblical period. Despite the limitations and the possible inclusion of anachronisms from the first millennium BCE, these narratives may be useful for gaining an understanding of the “god of the fathers.” Specifically, Genesis appears to preserve a tradition dating from the period when Israel’s ancestors prayed to El, the Canaanite god worshiped by Israel’s neighbors.
Implications for Our Study
Chapters 12–50 of Genesis follow two primary themes that will be important going forward. One is the continued blessing and guidance of God, as his people struggle through the troubles that confront them. Second, the theme of exile and return, from Mesopotamia to Israel and from Israel to Egypt and back, continually appears. Both of these themes are about to be played out on a much grander scale in the book of Exodus, in which the Israelites return from Egypt through a most remarkable divine intervention.