The Patriarchs

The second major section of Genesis focuses on the beginnings and the establishment of the nation of Israel. There are four major individuals: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. The primary attention is on Abraham and the covenant God makes with him and his descendants (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:18-21). The Covenant God makes with Abraham is a reversal of the curse issued in Genesis 3. So this section dealing with patriarchal history provides the reader with great hope (despite the many failures of the characters) of God’s plan of redemption. 


The story of Abraham spans from Genesis 11-25 and is foundational of what follows. Abraham grew up in a pagan family (Joshua 24:2) and was called by God to go to a Land of God’s choosing. Through Abraham will come a blessing to many, a blessing that will result in an undoing of the curse and the crushing of the serpent’s skull. Though there was much failure in the life of Abraham, the Scriptures present him as a man of faith. Abraham’s life functions as an example of a whole life lived by faith (Heb. 11:8-19). We will observe that by God’s sovereign grace, Abraham had a willing faith, waiting, and watching faith.

A Willing Faith

According to His perfect timing, God appeared to Abraham and said,

Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3)

This is an amazing promise. In this covenant God promises Abraham land, descendants, and blessing (as noted earlier, a reversal of the curse issued in Genesis 3). We need to understand that in order to act in obedience to this command of God, this would involve faith. He would have to leave his home, friends, family and familiar surroundings. How did he respond? The writer to the Hebrews said, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (11:8).

Abraham’s actions of packing up and leaving Haran (located in modern day Iraq) and making his journey to Canaan revealed a willing faith. If we are going to live the life of faith, we must be willing to go or do what the Lord requires of us. Sometimes doing what the Lord commands will involve sacrifice and struggles. But the life of faith responds with willingness.

A Waiting Faith

Abraham’s life of faith didn’t mean instant fulfillment. As Abraham walked the life of faith he learnt that it involved waiting and watching. That is to say, he not only had to be willing to do what God said, but he had to also be willing to wait for what God had said.

He was willing to wait for descendants. God made Abraham a promise that he would have descendants. However, there was a huge problem. Abraham and Sarah were both very old and Sarah had been barren her whole life. Sadly, they took this problem into their own hands and tried to solve it using human wisdom. This of course led to many problems that are still in existence today. The LORD then spoke to Abraham and promised that He would give Abraham and Sarah. Abraham laughed because he was 100 and Sarah was 90. However, the Lord made it clear that this is what He was going to do.  Though both Abraham and Sarah did not demonstrate trust, eventually they did and God fulfilled His promise (Heb. 11:11-12). In the end, they waited on God and what was laughing of distrust became laughter of delight when they held their son Isaac.

Abraham was also willing to wait for the Eternal City. Abraham eventually made it to the Promised Land, however they lived in tents and were nomads. In one sense, life may have been easier if they went back to Haran or some other place. But he was willing to wait for what God has promised. For Abraham, this world was not his home, for he was just passing through. He was willing to wait for the eternal city (Heb. 11:9-10, 13-16).

A Watching Faith

The final lesson we learn from the life of Abraham is that he had a watching faith. That is, he expected God to do what He had promised. This was demonstrated in a situation that would have been intensely difficult. The LORD called out to Abraham and said,

Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you (Gen. 22:2)

As difficult as this would have been, we are told that he arose and went. Abraham fixed his eyes on the Lord and responded with a watching faith. He was willing and ready to offer the sacrifice with the view of watching God raising Isaac from the dead (Hebrews 11:17-19). Abraham knew God promised Him many descendants and that God promised to make an everlasting covenant with Isaac and his offspring (Gen. 17:19). Sometimes things in life might not seem to work out the way we think it should, but a watching faith looks to God and trusts Him.


Isaac, the child the Lord promised to Abraham, continues the line in which God will fulfill the covenant promises of blessing made to Abraham. Isaac marries Rebekah and together they have twin sons, Jacob and Esau. The life of Isaac includes both faithfulness and failure. His faithfulness is seen in submission to his father (Gen. 22), in his trust in God for children (Gen. 25:21-26), and in his prayer life (Gen. 26:25). The New Testament affirms his faith in the Lord (Heb. 11:20). Isaac also failed (we will consider this below). Despite his failures, God remained faithful to His promise to Abraham, which was repeated to Isaac (Gen. 26:4).


Isaac didn’t get married until he was 40 years old. When Abraham was advanced in years he instructed his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham wanted the wife for his son to be from his homeland (this journey was over 800 kilometers). Abraham’s servant goes on the long journey and seeks guidance from the Lord and makes a specific request (Gen. 24:12-14). Once he arrives Rebekah shows generous kindness and does exactly what the servant had prayed. God is then praised (Gen. 24:27-28), Rebekah and her family acknowledge this to be God’s will, she is blessed, and she leaves her home and family to marry Isaac (cf. Gen. 12:1-3). When she arrives she covers herself with a veil before the wedding. Isaac is informed and then the two marry (Gen. 24:62-67). This marriage is a highpoint and shows the reader that God’s promises made back in Genesis 3:15 and 12:1-3 are coming to pass. 


For twenty years, Isaac and Rebekah were unable to have children, as Rebekah was infertile. Isaac prayed for his wife and God answered his prayer (Gen. 25:21). This shows the consequences of the curse (Gen. 3) and God’s plan to undo the curse through the blessing promised to Abraham (Gen. 12). Rebekah conceived and she was carrying twins! The Genesis account records that “the children struggled together within her” (Gen. 25:22). This is a theme repeated in Genesis (and throughout the Bible) of conflict (cf. Gen. 4). It is the playing out of the conflict between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. God reveals to Rebekah His sovereign plan for the children – the older will serve the younger: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided;the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23). This sets the stage for God’s plan to pass on the promise made to Abraham, repeated to Isaac, in the life of Jacob.

When they were born, we learn about their different personalities and temperaments. Esau was a more outgoing outdoorsman, whereas Jacob was a more reserved homebody. Problems occur when Isaac favoured Esau and Rebekah favoured Jacob (Gen. 25:27-28). This is followed by the birthright incident. Esau displays disregard and Jacob deception. Despite Isaac’s initial act, in the end, he acknowledged that what happened is what was supposed to happen. This reveals that he ultimately submitted to God’s plan (Gen. 27:33 and Heb. 11:20).


We now come to the third major character and that is Jacob, the second born child of Isaac and Rebekah.


After deceiving his father and infuriating his brother, Jacob leaves home and at his parent’s counsel seeks a wife from Paddan-aram from the house of Laban (Rebekah’s brother). This is similar to the instructions Abraham gave his servant for Jacob (Gen. 24:3-4).

Jacob goes on his journey and along the way stayed at a certain place to sleep and rest. As he slept he had a dream of a ladder on the earth that reached to Heaven. Angels were going up and down. Then the Lord stood above it and said,

And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’” (Gen. 28:13-15)

 This amazing announcement of the Lord repeat the promises made to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3) and Isaac (Gen. 26:4). This again reveals God’s grace and faithfulness to bring about His eternal plan. Jacob awoke and knew God was in this place, so he named it Bethel, which means “House of God”.

Jacob finally arrive sat his destination and seeks out his uncle Laban. Laban had two daughters (Leah and Rachel), and Jacob set his affection on Rachel. Jacob agreed to work for Laban for seven years in order to be able to marry Rachel. His affection was so strong; these seven years “seemed to him but a few days” (Gen. 29:20). After the seven years the time had come for the marriage. However, Laban deceives Jacob and gives him his other daughter Leah. Jacob didn’t realize until the morning after the wedding. With the combination of darkness and the veils worn, this explains why he didn’t know. After complaining, Laban agrees he can marry Rachel, but if he worked another seven years for him.


With a bad start to married life, family life becomes dysfunctional and divided. A battle of births takes place. Jacob loved Rachel and didn’t show the love toward Leah he should have. The Lord then allowed Leah to have children and Rachel to be barren. Over time, Leah gives birth to four sons (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah). Rachel was crushed by this and was filled with envy, so she sent Jacob to go in to her maidservant (cf. Gen. 16:1-4). Two boys were born (Dan and Naphtali). Responding to this, Leah sends Jacob in to her maidservant. Two boys were born (Gad and Asher). After having a dispute, Leah buys the opportunity to lie with Jacob, and she bears her fifth son, Issachar. After this she conceived again and had her sixth son, Zebulun and then had a daughter named Dinah. Then God opened Rachel’s womb and allowed her to conceive and she gave birth to a son named Joseph. During this dysfunctional time, eleven sons and one daughter is born to Jacob. Later on Rachel has one more child, and she dies giving birth. His name is Benjamin. In total, Jacob had twelve sons.

Later God blesses Jacob and changes his name to Israel. He reaffirms the promise made to Abraham and Isaac (Gen. 35:11-12). 


Joseph was the eleventh of Jacob’s twelve sons and was Rachel’s firstborn. Due to Jacob’s deep love for Rachel, Jacob had a special love for his son Joseph (Gen. 37:3). The story of Joseph spans from Genesis 37-50 and explains how God preserved this family (from which will come blessing) through Joseph. The life of Joseph also provides the reader with many practical principles for trusting God’s sovereignty and obedient Christian living.

Sold into Slavery

The Joseph narrative begins when he is seventeen. Jacob’s special love for Joseph was seen in his treatment of him, an example of that is the robe of many colours he gave him (Gen. 37:3). Immediately he is seen as living a righteous life in contrast to his brothers (Gen. 37:2) and he received revelation from God by means of dreams (Gen. 37:5-7, 9). When Joseph shared the first dream with his brothers they hated him even more (vv. 5-7). They understood the implication of the dream to mean that he will one day rule over them. This is actually fulfilled later in Egypt. The second dream of Joseph confirms that Joseph will rule over his family, and it contains imagery used to symbolize Israel (cf. Revelation 12:1). Filled with fury, the brothers of Joseph plan and plot to kill him. At different times, both Rueben and Judah argue that he shouldn’t be killed. Though Reuben is seen as the kinder of the two. In the end, Joseph is sold as a slave for twenty pieces of silver (Gen. 37:28). So as to provide a cover up, they killed a coat and soaked the robe of many colours in the blood. They deceived their father with the news that Joseph died by means of a wild animal attack. Meanwhile, Joseph was sold as a slave in Egypt, to an officer of Pharaoh named Potiphar (Gen. 37:36).

Service in Egypt

Life changes radically for Joseph now that he is in Egypt. In this narrative Joseph goes from being a slave in Egypt to being the superintendent of Egypt. Despite the difficulties Joseph faces, it is clear that the Lord is with him (Gen. 39:2, 3, 21, 23). Joseph’s tragedy turns to triumph as a result of God’s sovereign grace. Joseph is promoted in the house of Pharaoh and becomes an overseer. Potiphar greatly trusted Joseph. Things go bad when Potiphar’s wife is attracted to Joseph’s handsome “form and appearance” (Gen. 37:6). After many attempts at seduction, Joseph refuses her offer to lie with her and flees from the situation. This is very different to Reuben and Judah (Gen. 35:22; 38:15-18). Potiphar’s wife then creates a fabricated story to make it look like Joseph had made advances toward her (Gen. 39:11-18). Potiphar responds with swift action and has Joseph sent to prison. Though the situation seems bad, the Lord was with him and enabled him to prosper. He was promoted to being in charge of the other prisoners (Gen. 39:21-23).

While in prison, Joseph meets two men who formerly worked for Pharaoh, a cupbearer and a baker. Joseph rightly interprets their dreams, revealing that one of them will be reinstated to serving Pharaoh whereas the other will be killed. Joseph asked the cupbearer to remember Joseph when he is reinstated, but he forgot him (Gen. 40:23).  After two years, Pharaoh has a troubling dream and no one could interpret it for him (Gen. 41:1-8). The cupbearer remembers Joseph, and shares his experience in prison with Pharaoh (Gen. 41:9-13). Pharaoh then summons Joseph, and Joseph gives glory to God (Gen. 41:16) and interprets the dream reveals a time of prosperity and then famine in the land (41:25-32). He then provides a proposed plan of survival (Gen. 41:33-36). Pharaoh was pleased with what he heard, so he promoted Joseph to being second in charge over all in the Egypt (Gen. 41:39-40). Joseph was now thirty years old and went about his new role (Gen. 41:46).

Salvation in Egypt

The famine had also reached the land of Canaan, where Jacob and his eleven sons were living. By the providence of God, Jacob sent ten of his sons to Egypt to obtain some grain. He held back Benjamin his youngest son, for fear of any harm (Gen. 42:1-5). When his brothers arrive in Egypt, they bow down before Joseph. This happens in fulfillment to dreams (Gen. 37:5-9). They didn’t recognize as twenty years have passed, but Joseph recognized them. After the first visit, they were accused of being spies. So as to prove their innocence, Joseph requested that they prove it by bringing back their youngest brother from Canaan. Simeon was then held in custody. After journeying back, this news broke Jacob’s heart. With the effects of the famine still occurring, they needed to return, this time they had Benjamin with them. Joseph put on a grand feast for them. Then as they prepared to leave Joseph arranges for a silver cup to be placed in Benjamin’s sack. After being accused of theft and being told that Benjamin must remain in Egypt, Judah pleads with Joseph. Judah’s speech reveals that he is a changed man. Unable to control himself any longer, he reveals to them that he is Joseph (Gen. 45:1). In the end, his entire family relocates to Egypt, and by means of Joseph, the whole family is saved and experience blessing in the land of Egypt. What was meant for evil against him, God meant for good, so that many would be kept alive and saved (Gen. 50:20). Joseph dies in the land of Egypt at the age of 110.

The stage is now set to see how God’s plan unfolds by taking this family, which has now become a large group of people and turns them into a nation.