Understanding The Bible
The History of Israel:  Part 1b of 9
Genesis 12-50 Commentary


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Dr. Clarence E. Mason, Jr.
Philadelphia College of Bible


(The student will find a remarkable treatment of this section in The Dawn of World Redemption by Eric Sauer. chapter IV, pp.113-120.)

With Abraham we see a new beginning in God's plan. A redeemer already has been promised (Genesis  3:15). God now begins to set the stage for His coming. With the call of Abraham, the Lord turns His attention to one group of people "Thy seed," having dealt to this point with humanity as a whole. But He did not do this for Israel's benefit alone - "in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed." All the rest of the O.T. tells how this chosen seed was prepared to be the vehicle of blessing to the world.

The chosen people are only a family or tribe until, at Sinai, they receive the law and are constituted a nation. Until the death of Joseph this family is ruled by a patriarch - the father-ruler. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, are patriarchs and their life-time is the patriarchal age. The date of this age is approximately 2000-1785 B.C.

Two principal things are to be considered in this lesson: God's covenant with Abraham, and Abraham's history.

This covenant was often reiterated and enlarged upon as God revealed Himself to Abraham over the years. Here are the principal passages:

Genesis 12:1-3
Abraham's three-fold renunciation, v.1
    God undertakes
        Regarding Abraham. v.2
                great nation
                bless thee
                make thy name great
        Regarding others, v.3
                bless them that bless thee
                curse him that curses thee
                in thee all families of earth be blessed

Genesis 13:14-17
Additional features:
                promise of the land (Palestine)
                and a numerous progeny

Genesis 15:12-20
Additional features:
                seed to sojourn in a foreign land (Egypt)
                solemn renewal of promise of land

Genesis 17
Additional features:
                sign of the covenant (circumcision) instituted
                name changed
                the Lord promises to be a God to Abraham and his seed (SRB. p.24, n.3, and other notes on these pages)


A.    Abraham's Life, Genesis  12-25

1.    Ur to Haran, Genesis  11:27-32; 12:1-3 (cp. Joshua. 24:2-3; Acts 7:2-3)

God's call, recorded in Genesis 12:1-3, was first given in Ur, Abraham's birthplace. Abraham's ancestors were idolatrous Babylonians, but God in His grace revealed Himself to Abraham and called him to leave his idolatrous home (Heb. 11:8-16). Ur, in southern Mesopotamia. has been excavated and found to have been a great port city long before Abraham's time, wealthy and having an advanced culture. We may imagine that Abraham was a wealthy merchant.

Here, and at other places where archaeology is mentioned, Dr. Unger's book Archaeology and the Old Testament and Dr. Free's book Archaeology and Bible History, pp.49-50, mentioned on p.4 of this syllabus, will provide more information. Dr. Free's book puts more emphasis on history than on archaeology. Dr. Free plans a second volume in which archaeology will be stressed. Also see Jack Finegan's Light From the Ancient Past, Princeton, 1946, pp.42-44.

In response to God's command Abraham leaves Ur, sets out for Canaan. At Haran, about half way to Canaan, he stopped until his father Terah died. It has been discovered that at Haran the same deities were worshiped that were worshiped at Ur - the moon god and goddess. Thus, life at Haran would be similar to life at Ur, and Terah evidently wished to settle down in this familiar environment.

For material on MESOPOTAMIA, see ADDENDUM I, on pp.75-78 of this syllabus

2.    In Canaan, Genesis  12:4-9

At Terah's death, Abraham and his family go to Canaan. Note the altar. It was the place of worship and the patriarchs always built altars when they were in fellowship with God.

3.    In Egypt, Genesis  12:10-20

A half truth which is a whole lie backfires. God bails out Abram.

4.    Back to Canaan: Abraham and Lot separate, Genesis  13

The patriarchs were semi-nomads, having a fixed headquarters, but constantly on the move with their flocks in search of grass. Since rainfall is scarce in Palestine, and occurs mostly in the "winter" season, no year-round pastures are available for steady pasturing of flocks.

5.    Battle. of the Vale of Siddim, Genesis  14

This story of four kings from the East (probably Mesopotamia) attacking the region of southern Palestine indicates advanced civilization, which has been remarkably substantiated by archaeological discovery. On Melchizedek, see SRB, p.23, n.1; p.1295, n.1. Salem is another name for Jerusalem.

6.    Birth of Ishmael, Genesis  15-16

It was the custom in ancient times in Mesopotamia for a childless couple to adopt an adult son to care for them in their old age and mourn for them after their death. Eliezer was probably Abraham's adopted son. It was also the custom, when a wife was childless, for the husband to have a son by a slave woman. This was approved legal procedure. Abraham's relationship to Hagar must be understood in this light. Thus, in two ways which were perfectly acceptable in the society in which he lived, Abraham seeks to obtain the heir whom God promised. But these were not God's ways for Abraham, and he would have better waited the Divine action.

For patriarchal customs you may examine the following:
Gordon, Cyrus. The Living Past. New York: 1941. Pritchard, James B. Ancient Near East Texts. Princeton: 1950. Pp.18-22, 25-28, 163-180, 219-220. Van Haitsma, J.P. The Supplanter Undeceived. Grand Rapids: 1941. Gordon, Cyrus. "Biblica1 Customs and the Nuzi Tablets," Biblical Archaeologist. February, 1940. III, 1, 1-2. Wright and Filson. Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible. Philadelphia: 1945. Pp. 23-26. 3(). (hereafter listed as WHA)

7.    Promise of Isaac's birth, Genesis  17

Circumcision was the sign that God had separated Abraham's seed from the pagan world and entered into covenant with them to be their God.

8.    Destruction of the cities of the Plain, Genesis  18-19

It is quite certain that Sodom and Gomorrah and the other three cities (14:2) were located in the southern part of what is now the Dead Sea. At the time of Abraham this was a plain (Siddim). After the destruction of these cities the level of the Dead Sea rose and overflowed the plain of Siddim, thus blotting out the ruins of these sinful cities.

In this connection the interested student may read: Harland, 3. Penrose. "The Location of the Cities of the Plain," Biblical Archaeologist. May, 1942, 2, 17-32. Harland, 3. Penrose. "The Destruction of the Cities of the Plain," Biblical Archaeologist. September, 1943, VI, 3, 41-54.

9.    Abraham deceives Abimelech, Genesis  20

The sin of Genesis 12:12-13 is repeated; Jehovah again in mercy protects him.

10.    Birth of Isaac, Genesis  21

and the results with Hagar and Ishmael.

11.    Trial of Abraham's faith, Genesis  22

Infant sacrifice was common in Canaan at this time. Of course, God does not approve it; He was only testing Abraham's faith. For the typical meaning see SRB, p.33, n.1. (Of course, by this time Isaac was in his teens.)

12.    Sarah's death and burial, Genesis  23

A good illustration of oriental bargaining. The mosque in Hebron today' is said to enclose the cave of Machpelah. The children of Heth are the Hittites, an important people in the ancient Biblical world, often mentioned In the Bible.

13.    Isaac's bride, Genesis  24

It was the custom in ancient time for parents to arrange for the marriage of their children. Note the types, SRB, p.34, n.2.

14.    Abraham's marriage to Keturah; his death, Genesis  25:1-18
(also generations of Ishmael)

B.    ISAAC'S LIFE, Genesis  25:19-26:35 (35:27-29)
Little Is told us about Isaac. His story merges with those of his father and sons. He seems to have been a quiet, contemplative man.

1.    Isaac's sons, Genesis  25:19-34

SRB, p.38, n. 2 explains the meaning of the birthright. From archaeological sources we know that selling the birthright was a rather common thing in the ancient Near East. For example, in the city of Nuzi, in northeast Mesopotamia, a young man named Tupkitilla, evidently hard-pressed financially, sold his inheritance rights to a grove to his brother for three sheep.

2.    Isaac deceives Abimelech, Genesis  26

Cp. his father's previous action, Genesis  20.

3.    Isaac's death, Genesis  35:27-29

Isaac's story after Genesis  26, except for this short account of his death, Is so entwined with Jacob's that the rest is better told In connection with his son's life.

C.    JACOB'S LIFE, Genesis  27-36 (cp. other data in Genesis  37-49)

1.    The stolen patriarchal blessing, Genesis  27

Jacob's birth has already been noted (Genesis  25). The blessing was the final fatherly reiteration. of the birthright. Jacob had better waited until God, in His good time, gave it to him. His dishonest obtaining of it was the source of much sorrow in later life. The oral will, of which this chapter gives an example, was frequently used in ancient time. It had legal validity in law courts.

2.    Jacob leaves for Haran; Bethel, Genesis  28

The sad results of sin are assuaged by God's confirmation of the Abrahamic Covenant.

3.    Jacob's marriage and children, Genesis  29:1-30:24 (See outline above for summary of children, p.11.)

In ancient times men frequently married their more distant relatives, as done here. Before a man could marry, he had to pay his prospective father-in-law a "bride price." This money the bride's father kept in trust for his daughter as a kind of life insurance policy. (Evidently Laban squandered his daughter's bride price, Genesis  31:14-15.) Since Jacob had not yet realized his inheritance, he had to work for Laban, Laban crediting the "wages" to the "bride price."

It will be noted that Jacob had 12 sons. Each son gives his name to the tribe descended from him- -hence, the "12 tribes." However, no tribe was named for Joseph; rather his two sons (Manasseh and Ephraim) gave their names to Joseph's descendants--so there were really 13 tribes. However, the term "twelve tribes" continued to be used, and was, in fact, quite accurate, since the Levi tribe was set aside for God's service and did not have a section of Palestine to live in, nor did it participate in many Israelite activities (such as war) with the rest of the tribes.

4.    Jacob steals away from Laban, Genesis  30:25-31:55

Eastern sheep are generally white; goats. brown or black; spotted and speckled ones are rare. A careful reading of this passage (especially Genesis  31:10-13) will indicate that Jacob's remarkable increase in wealth was due, not to his own machinations, but to God's intervention.

5.    Jacob's Penuel experience, Genesis  32

This event proved a crisis in the life of Jacob. Heretofore he had been trusting in his own strength and shrewdness for success. He now learns that his own strength is of no avail in wrestling with God, and that he must resort to prayer for the blessing he cannot do without. Henceforth the record of his worshiping becomes more frequent.

6.    Jacob meets Esau, Genesis  33 and is forgiven.

7.    Dinah avenged by Simeon and Levi, Genesis  34

See especially v.30 for Jacob's evaluation of this event.

8.    God renews His covenant with Jacob, Genesis  35

Jacob had promised (Genesis  28:20-22) that if brought again to Canaan in peace he would worship God at Bethel. It is not till now, some 8 or 10 years after his return to Palestine, that he goes up to Bethel and pays his vows.

Parenthesis: Generations of Esau, Genesis  36 (see SRB, p.52, n.1).

D.    JOSEPH'S LIFE, Genesis  37-50

1.    Joseph sold into Egypt, Genesis  37

His envious brothers callously ignored his pleadings (Genesis  42:21-23).

2.    Judah and Tamar, Genesis  38

The shame of sin was never more bluntly told.

3.    Joseph imprisoned, Genesis  39

From this chapter to the end of Genesis, Egypt (instead of Mesopotamia, as before) is the Gentile nation most prominent in the story. Egyptologists have noted many items of Egyptian influence in this section.

For material on EGYPT, see ADDENDUM II, pp.79-81 of this syllabus.

4.    Joseph forgotten in prison, Genesis  40 How typical (human nature)

5.    Joseph made a ruler in Egypt, Genesis  41

The Egyptian people are traditionally suspicious of foreigners, and in ordinary times this story would seem quite impossible. These were not ordinary times, however, for from 1700-1570 B.C., the native Egyptian regime disintegrated, and Egypt was overrun with Asiatic foreigners, called the Hyksos. These people were Semites; they ruled the land during this period. Their use of the horse in war was unusual for the times and greatly contributed to their. power. It was during this time that Joseph and his family were welcomed into the land. (For further information on the Hyksos, see Finegan, pp.84-86; WHA, pp.27-29. The persecution of Israel beginning in Exodus 1 was due to the overthrow of the Hyksos by native Egyptians and their resulting distrust of any foreign element in the land.)

Famines are frequent in the Near East, where the annual rainfall is just enough to sustain life, and a dry year is a famine year. Egypt, being watered not by rain but by annual overflow of the Nile, is more fortunate, but in this case it is not exempt from suffering. In the Scriptures, famines are seen to have been sent by God to punish for sin or to test His saints.

6.    Joseph's brothers first go into Egypt, Genesis  42

7.    Joseph's brothers go again to Egypt, Genesis  43

8.    Joseph makes himself known to his brothers, Genesis  44-45

9.    Jacob and his family remove to Egypt, Genesis  46-47

The land of Goshen was in the northeast part of the Nile Delta. The Delta is the best watered and most productive part of Egypt.

According to Egyptian records, at the time of the expulsion of the Hyksos most of the Egyptian lands and fields, apart from the properties attached to the temples, were in possession of the pharaoh.

Study SRB, p.53, n.2, "Joseph as a type of Christ."

10.    Jacob blesses Joseph's sons, Genesis  48

11.    Jacob blesses his twelve sons and dies, Genesis  49 An important prophecy of their future history.

12.    Joseph's Death, Genesis  50


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