"What's the big deal about the ancient patriarchs of the Old Testament?" some may ask.
"Who cares if they existed or not - what does it really matter?"
It matters a great deal. In fact, Stephen Cracknell suggests this: "The historicity of the patriarchs is absolutely and unequivocally critical to Christians. It is our SALVATION which depends on them being historical realities."
That's a big call! Why does he believe this?
Please read on to read this article by Stephen Cracknell...
I have divided the following article into 4 sections. They are as follows:
1. Archaeology: In this section I discuss various significant archaeological finds which point to the existence of the patriarchs.
2. The New Testament: Here, I discuss the significance of the patriarchs in various New Testament authors’ thinking. The patriarchs played an important part in the messages of Christ and Paul, to name just two.
3. Later Israelite Faith: The patriarchs play a very critical role in the Jewish faith. In this section I discuss some reasons why this is so.
4. The Christian: It is my belief that if there were no patriarchs then our faith is a fraud. In this section, I put forward my arguments for holding such a position.
Due to the discovery of 70,000 inscribed clay tablets found at Alalakh and Mari in Syria, and Nuzi in Iraq, much interest has been generated to confirm the historicity of the patriarchs. Although earnest scholars differ in the chronological setting (due largely to the dating of Hammurabi of Babylon) their knowledge of the historical, legal and economic background of this age has greatly increased.
I would like to cite some examples from Scripture which have been confirmed or ‘enlightened’ by archaeological discoveries. Genesis 11:10ff refers to an area in which are named Abraham’s ancestors. Wiseman writes,
Harran flourishes at this time and the Mari texts link Turakhi (Terah), Serugi (Serug) and Nahur (Nahor) as names of districts perhaps derived from the families or tribes who once inhabited them.
Archaeological evidence has proved enlightening in the area of customs, e.g. in Genesis 15:2-4 Abram asks if God would make Eliezer heir. By studying the Hurrian tablets of Nuzi this is explained. Other customs are explained too; Genesis 21:12 (Abraham seeks God in reference to driving Hagar away); Genesis 31:19 (the role of household gods); Exodus 21:7-11 (marriage, legal customs and adoption customs).
The Alalakh texts have cast much light on this period, as do the Nuzi texts. The culture is composed of mixed peoples (as can be ascertained from the Old Testament (O.T.)) and this has been confirmed by archaeology, e.g. the application of Hittite laws, found in the Alalakh texts, are involved in Abraham’s purchase of the cave of Machpelah (Genesis 23). Here, cultures cross and meet and bargain.
Ur has been discovered and the excavations by Sir Leonard Woolley have enabled us to further our knowledge of the patriarchal age.
Some scholars even believe the patriarchs Abraham and Jacob have been named in the Mari tablets – Abam-ram (Abraham) and Jacob-el (Jacob). Even the Mari term ‘Hapiru’ has been equated with ‘Hebrew’.
So great has this archaeological witness been that Wiseman writes,
This increase in the knowledge of the patriarchal age from the texts, combined with the archaeological evidence, has led many scholars of many shades of religious opinion to affirm the ‘historical’ nature of the patriarchal narratives.
Archaeological evidence continues to support the divine truth of the historical reality of the patriarchs. Joseph is seen to be an historical figure by evidence such as the texts from the Second Intermediate Age (1786-1550 B.C.). Customs found in Genesis chapters 34-50 are confirmed by this evidence. A papyrus has been found which describes the prison system and names of prisoners which have west-Semitic names. Other evidences, particularly the Ras Shamra texts, point to the knowledge of the Hebrew culture. Certain customs and details found in Genesis pertaining to Joseph, can be compared with tomb paintings and other objects.
I will conclude this section with the words of Donald J. Wiseman in whom I have drawn much for this article. He writes,
It is hoped that it will be obvious that archaeological researchers have done much to illustrate the Biblical record, its life and times, its places, peoples, customs, literature and even words…this has tended to bring a return to a more conservative attitude in some questions, notably the historical credibility of the patriarchal age….
2. THE NEW TESTAMENT
It is worth noting that Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy of Jesus, mentioning Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Matthew 1:1-2). The patriarchs are listed in Luke 3:34. Luke, as we know, is an historian who ‘carefully investigated everything from the beginning…’ (Luke 1:3). He had no doubts as to the historicity of the patriarchs.
John the Baptist appeared to his listeners to heed the example of the patriarch Abraham. Just because they were descended from him gave them no right to assume they were in a right relationship with God (Matthew 3:9; Luke 3:8).
Our Lord, Jesus Christ, confirms the historicity of the patriarchs on a number of occasions. This is evident in the gospel records. His rebuke to certain Jews that Abraham was not their father at all – their father being the devil. The historicity of Abraham is in no doubt as a verbal ‘brawl’ erupts between Jesus and these Jews. In fact, Abraham’s historicity and subsequent elevation as almost demi-god, results in Jesus nearly being stoned (John 8:59).
Jesus referred to the patriarchs in his proclamation to his listeners. After praising a gentile soldier’s faith, he mentions that many would fellowship with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 8:10-11; Luke 20:37).
In Luke’s Gospel we can read how, in great rejoicing, Mary and Zechariah remembered how God had promised, that through the patriarch Abraham, God would bless Israel (Luke 1: 55, 73).
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Abraham is a crucial figure (Luke 16: 19-31). In the conversion of Zaccheus, Jesus claimed that salvation had come to a man who was ALREADY a son of Abraham (Luke 19:9).
Not only in the gospels is the historicity of the patriarchs, in a sense axiomatic, but also in the writing of Paul. They play a critical role in Pauline theology. In the letter to the Romans we read how Paul refers to the patriarch Abraham as an example of those who are justified by faith alone. The cruciality of the use of Abraham in his argument is of paramount importance (Romans 4).
This can also be seen in the letter to the Galatians (Galatians 3:6-14, 4:21-31). Again, the patriarch Abraham is crucial in his discourse on justification by faith in relation to the law.
In Romans 9, we would do well to examine closely the argument Paul uses for the elective purposes of God. Paul refers to Isaac and his two sons Jacob and Esau. The younger would be served by the older (Romans 9:12).
Paul had no doubts as to the historicity of the patriarchs.
Nor did the writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 6:13, 7:1-10). In fact, when illustrating the lives of great men of faith, he mentions Abraham (11:8-10, 17); Isaac (11:17-20); Jacob (11:20-21) and Joseph (11:22).
James expresses his belief in their existence (James 2:21-23), as did Peter (1 Peter 3:6; Acts 3:13).
3. LATER ISRAELITE FAITH
The importance of the patriarchal historicity on later Israelite faith can be verified by examining certain O.T. scriptures.
In Hosea 12:1-14, Hosea charges Israel of sin. By referring directly to the patriarch Jacob, Hosea draws parallel with Jacob’s life and that of Israel. Hosea’s purpose is that Israel be warned and encouraged by events in Jacob’s life. As Jacob ‘struggled with God’, so could Israel; Jacob gained God’s favour and so could Israel; Jacob therefore experienced God’s pardoning love and so could Israel. This occurred historically AFTER Jacob had sinned; so had Israel. In Hosea 12:12-14 Jacob is referred to again, for he worked hard to obtain a wife. Israel, in comparison, ‘worked hard’ in the land of Egypt but God in his love brought His people out. These lengthy interpretations serve to demonstrate the importance of the patriarchs.
In Isaiah 51, Isaiah challenges the people to examine the patriarch Abraham and observe their humble beginnings. Their nation began as one and due to God’s sovereign purposes became one.
Nehemiah, David, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos, Obadiah, Micah and Malachi all refer to the patriarchs as being historical men. This impressive array of prophets further demonstrates the importance of the patriarchs.
The psalmist referred to the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Psalm 105:9-10). This is vital to the understanding of the later Israelite faith because the Jews regarded themselves special because they were a covenant people. This covenant relationship with God can be further understood in light of God’s words found in Jeremiah 33:23-26, where the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are mentioned because they are the ancestors of Jeremiah’s listeners.
Israel regarded themselves as the chosen people of God (Isaiah 41:8) in whom God would send the Messiah. The Messianic blessings would come through the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
It was the undying hope of many exiles that they would be gathered back to their land; the land which was given to the patriarch Jacob (Ezekiel 28:25 and 37:25). Even today this is very relevant in Israel’s claim to her autonomous existence.
There are many references in the O.T. which refer to Israel as ‘Jacob’. We know Jacob’s name was changed to 'Israel' but the point I am making is the nation’s name is based upon an historical character. In fact, the Most High referred to 'Israel' as ‘Jacob’ many times in the O.T. (e.g. Amos 6:8) and He refers to Isaac (Amos 6:9) and Abraham (Isaiah 41:8).
Israel was, and is, a nation because of the historical reality of the patriarchs. The Israelites knew this and that is why their faith is rooted in them.
The prophets referred to them when calling for the need of reformation. Even the Almighty did so, directly through the prophets (Isaiah 41:8ff).
If there are no patriarchs, there is no Israel and the revelation they never received is a fraud!
4. THE CHRISTIAN
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17, N.I.V.).
This section of my assignment obviously has some ‘overtones’ from the section of The New Testament (see section 2). I do not wish to duplicate certain relevant scriptures etc, so I have decided to look at other areas, e.g. I have already written about the importance of faith.
The historicity of the patriarchs is absolutely and unequivocally critical to Christians. It is our SALVATION which depends on them being historical realities (refer to The New Testament).
In Galatians 3:29 we read, ‘If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise’ (N.I.V.). This means that the seed of Abraham are those who believe in Christ; therefore the blessings are for Christians. In Romans 9:6b-8 we read,
For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned”. In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. (Emphasis mine)
Therefore, if there are no patriarchs then we who are ‘Christians’ are a very deluded and foolish people. The promise of eternal life is as far from us as the north is from the south. Furthermore, the Scriptures are untrustworthy; Jesus Christ’s words cannot be trusted; Pauline theology is a myth; God, as we know Him, does not exist; and the horrific list goes on.
The Christian’s hope rests upon the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He, the Messiah, has come through (i.e. the seed) the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is in accordance with the plan and purposes of God promised and revealed in Scripture. The genealogies in Matthew and Luke, as referred to in The New Testament confirm this.
The patriarchs are portrayed to us in the Scripture as men of faith and obedience. Christians are to learn, from their lives, how God used them in various types of situations. At times they were men of ‘unfaith’ too. (A term Francis Schaeffer uses to describe the disbelief of Christians). Christians should learn from their ‘unfaith’. They should learn from their failures because they actually happened in time and space – they were not wriiten about as fantasy tales in unreal situations.
Their beliefs (i.e. the patriarchs) demonstrate the much-needed-revival concept of a Sovereign God in modern Christendom. This is illustrated wonderfully in the patriarchal life of Joseph when he was sold into captivity. In Genesis 45:5-8 we read,
Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life…So it was not you who sent me here, but God.
God is sovereign in the affairs of men. Lessons like this to the Christian rest crucially upon the fact that these men were historical realities.
Evangelicals believe that the Scriptures are the Word of God and can be trusted in matters of belief and our daily walk. If the patriarchs did not exist, then our faith would crumble around our ears. It does not to the true Christian. A true faith is one of real learning (historically) and God’s promises are proven in a Christian’s life - especially about the Messiah descended from the patriarchs.
The link regarding the patriarchs and the Gospel is inextricable.
In my opinion the patriarchs did exist. As archaeology continues to shed more light and confirm the existence of the patriarchal age, Christians can continue to be encouraged and exhorted by the lives of these men - knowing they really did exist and were used by God for His greater purposes - especially the purposes surrounding His Son.
For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4, N.A.S.B.)
Bennet, T. Miles. Hosea: Prophet of God’s Love, (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House Co., 1975).
Ellison, H.L. The Message of the Old Testament, (Exeter, The Paternoster Press Ltd., 1976).
Pfeiffer, C.F. An Outline of Old Testament History, (Chicago, Moody Press., 1978).
Poole, M. A Commentary on the Bible. Vol. 2, (Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust., 1975).
Thompson, J.A. “The Patriarchal Age.” The New Bible Dictionary, (Leicester, Inter Varsity Press, 1978).
Wiseman, D.J. “Archaeological Confirmation of the Old Testament.” Revelation and the Bible, (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House Co., 1980).
 D.J. Wiseman, “Archaeological Confirmation of the Old Testament.” Revelation and the Bible, p 304.
 ibid, p 305
 ibid, p 315