The Religion of the Patriarchs

The Patriarchal Age covers the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They saw God as a Person who interacted with them in their daily lives. This is easily seen in the fact that Abraham could trust in a God who would lead his servant to a distant land to find a wife for his son Isaac (Genesis 18). The Lord God was not distant but seems like the best friend of these people, even Abraham was called “the friend of God” (James 2:23). Because of this the Scriptures implies a one to one personal relationship with them that governed every aspect of their lives both religious and social.

Their religion did not consist of rules and regulations, laws or ceremonies, though there were already in place the usual social laws, but these did not influence their religion. The only rite that seems to be part of their religious lives was circumcision to make all males a part of the Covenant family. What mattered above all else was a personal faith in a God who was interested in them and supplied their needs. They would talk to God (the modern day modes of prayer would have be strange to them since we mostly pray as though God is unapproachable and distant) with deep reverence, yet would have the boldness to question Him as if they were speaking with a friend or family member. Not only would they speak directly with God in such a fashion, but they fully expected God to speak directly to them. God does not seem to have communicated with them through visions, impressions or revelations only, but as it were, face to face. The term “Angel of the LORD” in Genesis probably refers to Jehovah’s immediate presence with them (a theophany).

Such a personal relationship with God means that they not only saw Him as a personal God, but were also constantly aware of His presence amongst them. The idea concerning the Lord’s presence may have only have gone as far He being the God of their family, i.e. “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”, but they quickly came to learn and appreciate that Jehovah was the true God not of one family but of the entire world.

There is a possible missionary aspect of their understanding of God after Abraham came to see that He was interested in all nations. They would set up altars and memorial stones in places where God met them. To these they gave special names (16:11-14; 29:31; 32:30; 35:15). These memorial names would stand as a witness and a testimony of the greatness of God to them and others that passed that way. These could be seen as the first Gospel tracts ever printed.

Who God was developed as the Patriarchs lived out their lives. To begin with Abraham would not have had a full revelation of who God was as he left Ur of the Chaldees. God taught him each step of the way, laying down layer upon layer of understanding as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob experienced something more of God. Each new encounter with the Lord God who was leading them built up their faith in the one true God. Yet from the outset they knew that there were not many Gods but one, their religion was firmly monotheistic. With each new experience the Patriarchs learned more of the Lord’s person. Therefore He became to them omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. They knew also that He was a God of love and mercy, yet would pour out His wrath upon those who rebelled against Him as seen with Sodom and Gomorrah.

Abraham would go on to teach his descendants of the many aspects of the God that had called him to follow Him. He would pass down to his children and grandchildren the many ways that God has guided and protected Him. He would teach them about His holiness and power. Again, God was not distant but real, so real that their lives were lived in the knowledge of such a God. It seems that the Patriarchs never doubted the reality of the presence of God as they journeyed through life … “Behold, I ~m with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest.” (Genesis 28:15). They also knew that the presence of the Lord would be passed down from one generation to the next if they followed Him faithfully. We see this idea with the Patriarchal blessings that they conferred upon their children, always it held the concept that God’s presence would be with them. Those who lived for God would be mightily blessed by Him. They believed when God promised to abundantly bless them (Genesis 15:5,14; 13:14-17).

The religion of the Patriarchs was based upon a Covenant (which we call the Abrahamic Covenant), it was a covenant of grace. This Covenant was made between God and Abraham (since it was He who chose Abraham rather than the other way round), and involved the shedding of animals blood (Genesis 15:7-21). Though the Covenant was not founded upon sacrifices Abraham would see that it was set in motion by blood. No laws were involved here, simply Abraham needed to believe in God and accept what God said by faith, “And he believed in the LORD; and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (15:6). Faith included the need for obedience for God said to him, “I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect” (17:1). This obedience was tested when God asked him to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22).

Their faith was forward looking for they saw God blessing their descendants far into the future (17:4-8). It is this faith in God that makes all believers “children of Abraham”, for though his understanding of God’s future blessing of the people may have been limited, out of his faith God would raise up a people from whom would come the one who would bring salvation to the whole world.