History and Use of the Term
iv Maccabees 7:19 refers to "our patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," but the same work (16:25) also speaks of, "Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the patriarchs." (The New Testament applies the term to Abraham (Heb. 7:4), to the 12 sons of Jacob, and to David (Acts 7:8–9 and 2:29).) However, the rabbinic restriction of the designation to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ber. 16b) follows the biblical Hebrew pattern which frequently features this triad and never extends it to include others.
The development of the concept may be traced through the *Genesis narratives (28:13; 32:9) to its first usage in Exodus 2:24. The Hebrew term ha-avot in its absolute form, meaning "the [three] fathers," par excellence, is never used in the Hebrew Bible, only the possessive suffixed form, either in conjunction with the three names (Deut. 1:8; 6:10; 9:5; 29:12; 30:20; i Chron. 29:18. Not quite analogous is the usage in Ex. 3:6, 15, 16; 4:5), or alone in unambiguous reference to the Divine promises (Deut. 1:21, 35 and passim 26 times; Ex. 13:5, 11; Num. 14:23; Josh. 1:6; 5:6; 21:41; Judg. 2:1; Jer. 11:5; 32:22; Ezek. 20:42; 47:14). In fact, mention of the patriarchs in the Bible is predominantly in this connection.
The Chronological Background
The joint lifetimes of the three patriarchs cover a period of just over 300 years (Gen. 21:5; 25:26; 47:28). However, in the absence of external synchronistic controls, their place within the framework of history was formerly sought relative to the date of the Exodus and the duration of the Egyptian slavery. But given that both of these are now thought by most scholars not to be historical events, it is more productive to examine the individual tales of the patriarchs to determine when each might have been written and for what purpose. (For current thinking on the historicity of the Patriarchal Period see *Genesis, *History, Beginning.) In general, the patriarchs and their activities are reflections of life in later Israel projected backward into ancient times.
The Mesopotamian Background
One of the peculiarities of the patriarchal narratives is the consistent association with *Mesopotamia. The family originated in Ur (Gen. 11:28; 15:7; Neh. 9:7; cf. Josh. 24:2–3), then moved to Haran in the north (Gen. 11:31). Abraham found a wife for Isaac there (24:4ff.) and Jacob fled there from Esau's wrath (28:2, 10). He spent a good part of his adult life there and all the tribes except Benjamin originated in that area. This association ends abruptly with Jacob.
The patriarchs are descended from Shem son of Noah through the line of Eber (Gen. 10:21–32; 11:10–32). Of 38 names connected with the family, 27 never recur in the Bible. A large number conform to the onomastic patterns common to the Western Semites during the first half of the second millennium b.c.e. and later. Of special interest is the identity of the personal names, Peleg (10:25; 11:16–19), Serug (11:20–23), Nahor (11:22–27; 24:10), and Terah (11:24–32), with place names in the vicinity of *Haran, mentioned as early as the *Mari and Kultepe texts. Haran shows a high degree of aramaization in the eighth to seventh centuries (Dion., cane ii, 1284), reflected in the importance of this area and its Aramean connections in Genesis.
Given that the patriarchal narratives were composed over centuries, they vary in their depictions of the patriarchs in society. Sometimes the patriarchs are shown as ass-nomads (Gen. 12:16; 22:3, 5), constantly on the move, primarily raisers of sheep and cattle (12:16; et al.), and, as such, restricted in the scope of their wanderings (33:13). Other traditions refer to large numbers of camels (Gen. 12:16; 24:10). They are tent-dwellers (12:8, et al.), but their travels take place between great urban centers into which they rarely venture. These peregrinations are confined to sites in the sparsely populated central hill country and the Negev, viz., Shechem, Beth-El, Hebron, Beer-Sheba, Gerar, and, in the case of Jacob, also central Gilead. Some traditions picture the patriarchs in the first stages of agriculture (26:12; cf. 37:7). Grave traditions associate them with the cave of Machpelah in Hebron (49:29–30; 50:13). There are also traditions of the patriarchs as warriors. Abram the noble warrior in Genesis 14 (Muffs) commands a professional fighting force, which successfully defeats an international invading army. Jacob boasts of having taken land from the Amorites with his sword and bow (Gen. 48:22).
Sometimes the contacts of the patriarchs with their neighbors are peaceful. They make pacts with them (14:13; 21:22–32; 26:28–31) and purchase land from them (23:2–30; 33:19). In another account, though (Genesis 34), Jacob's family wipes out a city of *Hivites. The closeness of the patriarchs with the Arameans mirrors periods of Aramean-Hebrew cooperation during the monarchy (cf. Gen. 32:44–54 with ii Kings 16:5). Social institutions unattested in the Torah outside of the patriarchal narratives are paralleled elsewhere in ancient Near Eastern sources. Concubinage in cases of childlessness (16:2; 30:2) is well attested (15:2–4) and transference of the birthright (25:29–34; 27:1–29, contrast Deut. 21:15ff.) is also found.
The Religion of the Patriarchs
The Bible represents the patriarchs etiologically as religious figures. Circumcision is traced back to Abraham (Gen. 17:9–27), who also founds religious sites at Shechem (Gen. 12:6), Hebron (Gen. 13:18), and Moriah (Gen. 22:14). He also recognizes the sanctity of (Jeru)salem (Gen. 14:18–20). The vision of Jacob and his vow (Genesis 28) serve as the foundation legend for Jeroboam's temple at Bethel (i Kings 13:26ff.). The tradition of Joshua 24:2 mentions the idolatry of Abraham's forebears (cf. Gen. 31:19, 30, 32; 35:2–4), which inspired the later accounts of Abraham the idol smasher wholly absent from Genesis. The appellation, "the God of my [your/his] father" has earlier and later parallels. The possessive suffix is used in reference to each and all of the patriarchs (Gen. 26:24; 28:13; 31:42; 32:10; 46:1, 3; 50:17; Ex. 3:6), but is never employed by or to Abraham in respect of Terah.
The patriarchal narratives are extraordinary in the depiction of experiences in direct variance with the moral and religious ideas and cultic norms found in the legal sections of the Torah. Abraham married his paternal half-sister (Gen. 20:12; contrast Lev. 18:9, 11); Jacob was simultaneously married to two sisters (contrast Lev. 18:18); Abraham planted a sacred tree (Gen. 21:33; contrast Deut. 16:21); Jacob set up sacred stone pillars (Gen. 28:18, 22; 31:13, 45–52; 35:14; contrast Ex. 23:24); there are no festivals; and the fathers build altars, never using existing ones, and they offer sacrifices without priest or temple (Gen. 12:7–8; 13:4, 18; 22:9, 13; 26:25; 31:54; 30:20; 35:1, 3, 7; 46:1).
The patriarchal accounts are distinguished by the employment of numerous divine names, several of them unique (see Names of *God): El Elyon (Gen. 14:18, 22), El Ro'i (16:13), El Olam (21:33), El Beth-El (31:13; 35:7), El Elohei Yisrael (33:19–20), and, most frequent of all, El Shaddai (17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; Ex. 6:3). In addition, one finds Paḥad Yiẓḥak (Gen. 31–42; cf. 31:53) and Abbir Ya'akov (49:24). It should be pointed out that the El element is a widespread Semitic word for God and occurs as a component in theophoric names beyond the Canaanite sphere. In the patriarchal narratives it always appears as a generalized name which becomes personalized only in combination with an identifying element. For these reasons, it is unlikely to be identical with the proper name El, designating the head of the Canaanite pantheon. It is significant that Genesis, unlike the rest of the Bible, contains no reference either to Baal or to fertility cults.
[Nahum M. Sarna /
S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]
Patriarchs and Matriarchs in the Aggadah
Only Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob may be designated as the patriarchs, and *Sarah, *Rebekah, *Rachel, and *Leah, the matriarchs (Ber. 16b; Sem. 1:14). Sarah conceived on Rosh Ha-Shanah (Ber. 29a). The patriarchs were born and died in Tishri (R. Eliezer) or Nisan (R. Joshua, rh 11a) except for Isaac, who was born on Passover. They were indeed the "Fathers of the world" (Shek. 8a). Although they eventually begot children they were originally sterile (Yev. 64b). The matriarchs were also at first barren because the Almighty longed for their prayers (Song R. 2:14, no. 8). The merit and faith of the patriarchs were great. The Almighty rebuked Moses by contrasting his lack of faith with their unwavering faith (Sanh. 111a). They were the first to make the Almighty known to man (Men. 53a), and they instituted the daily services (Ber. 26b). All three patriarchs were on an equal spiritual level (Gen. R. 1:15). Yet in a sense Jacob was the choicest of the patriarchs: Abraham and Isaac both begot wicked sons – Ishmael and Esau, respectively – whereas all Jacob's sons were loyal to God ("his bed was complete"; Lev. R. 36:5; Zohar, Gen. 119b). The three patriarchs were tested in many ways, including by famine, so that their descendants would be worthy of receiving the Torah (Midrash Sam. 28:2). Neither the yeẓer ha-ra (the "evil inclination" – hypostasized) nor the Angel of Death had mastery over them, and in death they were not touched by worms; they were given a foretaste of the bliss of the hereafter here on earth (bb 17a). They constituted the divine chariot of Ezekiel's vision (Gen. R. 47:6). God turned their meditations into the key that opened the road to freedom for their descendants (Gen. R. 70:6), and it was for the sake of the patriarchs and matriarchs that He liberated the Israelites from Egypt (rh 11a).
The virtue of the patriarchs stood their descendants in good stead; and it was for their sake that God hastened their redemption (rh 11a; see also *Zekhut Avot). When the Israelites sinned with the golden calf, Moses prayed for forgiveness on their behalf, but only when he recalled the patriarchs were they forgiven (Shab. 30a; Deut. R. 3:11).
There are differences of opinion whether "Merit of the Fathers" (zekhut avot) would always operate in favor of their descendants. One view is that it would continue forever (Lev. R. 36:6), while another held that it would come to an end, and that it had even ceased already (ibid.); another view boldly declared that labor was more precious than the "Merit of the Fathers" (Gen. R. 74:12). Mamre-Hebron was called Kiriath-Arba ("the City of Four"; Gen. 35:27) because four couples were buried there: Adam and Eve; Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebecca; and Jacob and Leah (Eruv. 53a).
See also *Pentateuch: The Traditional View.
Albright, Stone, 200–72; Alt, Kl Schr, 1 (1953), 1–78; F.M.T. Boehl, Opera Minora (1953), 26–49; Cross, in: htr, 55 (1962), 225–59; Gibson, in jss, 7 (1962), 44–62; C.H. Gordon, The Ancient Near East (1945), 113–33; idem, in: ba, 3 (1940), 1–12; Haran, in: Sefer D. Ben-Gurion (1964), 40–70; idem, in: Annual of the Swedish Theological Institute, 4 (1965), 30–55; J.M. Holt, The Patriarchs of Israel (1964); Kaufmann Y., Toledot, 2 (1960), 1–32; Rowley, in: bjrl, 32 (1949), 44–79; N.M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (1966), 81–231; Segal, in: jqr, 52 (1961/62), 41–68; de Vaux, in: rb, 53 (1946), 321–46; 55 (1948), 321–47; 56 (1949), 7–36; G.E. Wright, Biblical Archaeology (1962), 36–52; Yeivin, in: rso, 38 (1963), 277–302. patriarchs and matriarchs in the aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, index; B. Mazar (ed.), World History of the Jewish People, 2 (1970). add. bibliography: Y. Muffs, in: jjs, 33 (1982), 81–107; See also bibliography to *Genesis; *History: Beginnings.