Patriarchs (Bible)

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The bosom of Abraham - medieval illustration from the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg (12th century)

The patriarchs (Hebrew: אבותAvot or Abot, singular Hebrew: אבAb or Aramaic: אבא Abba) of the Bible, when narrowly defined, are Abraham, his son Isaac, and Isaac's son Jacob, also named Israel, the ancestor of the Israelites. These three figures are referred to collectively as the patriarchs, and the period in which they lived is known as the patriarchal age. They play significant roles in Hebrew scripture during and following their lifetimes. They are used as a significant marker by God in revelations[1] and promises,[2] and continue to play important roles in the Abrahamic faiths.

More widely, the term patriarchs can be used to refer to the twenty male ancestor-figures between Adam and Abraham. The first ten of these are called the antediluvian patriarchs, because they came before the Flood. Judaism, Christianity and Islam hold that the patriarchs, along with their primary wives, known as the matriarchsSarah (wife of Abraham), Rebekah (wife of Isaac) and Leah (one of the wives of Jacob) – are entombed at the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, a site held holy by the three religions. Only Rachel, Jacob's favorite wife, is said to be buried separately at what is known as Rachel's Tomb, near Bethlehem, at the site where she is believed to have died in childbirth.[3]


Shortly after the death of Moses, Joshua drew attention to himself for his leadership. He was selected by Moses and was instructed to lead the Israelites to the promised land.[4] There were many obstacles that the people needed to overcome. Canaan was a city-state ruled by a powerful king and the people needed to journey across the river, making a difficult trek. Through much hard work and leadership, Joshua lead the people to success. The land that was conquered had to be divided among the people. Since he helped lead the Israelites to conquer Canaan, Joshua is still viewed as one of the Patriarchs of Israel.[4]


A covenant is an agreement made between God and His people. This agreement is an important factor when it comes to the Patriarchs because this it is what establishes a person as a Patriarch. The term covenant is first mentioned in Genesis 6:18 where God instructs Noah to build an ark in order to prepare for the great flood[5]. In this verse God says, “But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons' wives with you.” This covenant is God’s promise to carry forth his relationship with humans to fulfill His goal of creation[5]. Therefore, in a way,  these words connect all covenants made throughout the Bible with the continuation of humanity through God’s contact with His followers.

There are many other covenants God makes with his followers throughout the Bible, the other major one being with Abraham. In this covenant God says, “ I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17: 7-8). He then goes on to say, “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.” (Genesis 17:10). Other important covenants in the Bible include: the Sinai and Mosaic covenants, the Davidic covenant, the New covenant, and others[5].

Wives and sons of Abraham[edit]

Abraham, also known as Ibrahim, is the main patriarch that connects the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) through his wives. In a previous covenant made between God and Abraham, God promised Abraham and his wife, Sarah, land and offspring. However, even after traveling to Canaan, the Sarah was still barren. For this reason, in Genesis 16, Sarah offered Abraham their slave, Hagar, to be a surrogate[6]. “Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall have a child through her,” Sarah says (Genesis, 16:2). This led to much controversy between the Abrahamic religions about who the true ‘matriarch’ of the Bible is.

Not only is there controversy over the wives of Abraham, but his sons as well. Hagar ended up birthing Abraham’s oldest son, Ishmael, and Sarah eventually birthed his son, Isaac. Muslims believe Ishmael is the rightful son of Abraham and Jews/Christians believe that Isaac is in terms of inheriting the covenant. In some cases, the New Testament diminishes Ishmael’s reputation as the son of Abraham. For example, in Genesis 21:9, Sarah says to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” This reputation then ended up reflecting poorly upon Ishmael’s descendants[7]. In Christianity, Isaac and Jacob, Isaac’s son, were granted the covenant since they were deemed Abraham’s rightful heirs in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. However, for Muslims, Ishmael would be granted this power rather than Isaac. The rightful wife and son of Abraham is up to interpretation based on the three Abrahamic religions.

Hagar's role[edit]

During this time period, it was a common practice for a slave to be gifted as part of a bride’s dowry. This would make Hagar Sarah’s own property. Sarah could not have children, making it very complicated since motherhood was very respected and a necessary part of a woman’s life[8]. Since Sarah could not carry children, it seemed logical for Hagar to have children with Abraham. This causes conflict in the family because the slave is now bearing the children of Abraham. Hagar despised her mistress because was carrying a child. Her role as a concubine pregnant with Abraham’s child complicates her behavior because she must obey her master[8].


The lifetimes given for the patriarchs in the Masoretic Text of the Book of Genesis are: Adam 930 years, Seth 912, Enos 905, Kenan 910, Mahalalel 895, Jared 962, Enoch 365 (did not die, but was taken away by God), Methuselah 969, Lamech 777, Noah 950.[9] The lifespans given have surprising chronological implications, as the following quotation shows.

"The long lives ascribed to the patriarchs cause remarkable synchronisms and duplications. Adam lived to see the birth of Lamech, the ninth member of the genealogy; Seth lived to see the translation of Enoch and died shortly before the birth of Noah. Noah outlived Abram's grandfather, Nahor, and died in Abram's sixtieth year. Shem, Noah's son, even outlived Abram. He was still alive when Esau and Jacob were born!"[10]

AbrahamTerahNahorSerugRehuPelegEberShelahKenanArpachshadShemNoahLamech (father of Noah)MethuselahEnochJared (biblical figure)MahalalelKenanEnos (biblical figure)SethAdam

Explanation of color-codes:


The Matriarchs, also known as "the four mothers" (ארבע האמהות), who were married to the biblical patriarchs:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Exodus 3:6
  2. ^ Leviticus 26:42
  3. ^ "Dark Mirrors of Heaven - Timeline of the Patriarchs". 2008-04-30. Retrieved 2019-03-03.
  4. ^ a b Goodspeed, George S. “The Men Who Made Israel: II. Abraham and the Forefathers of Israel.” The Biblical World, vol. 29, no. 2, 1907, pp. 133–137. JSTOR,
  5. ^ a b c Dumbrell, William J. Covenant and Creation: an Old Testament Covenant Theology. Revised and enlarged ed., 2013.
  6. ^ Zucker, David. "Seeing and Hearing: The Interrelated Lives of Sarah and Hagar." Women in Judaism 7.1 (2010): 1-14. Web.
  7. ^ Zucker, David. “Conflicting Conclusions: The Hatred of Isaac and Ishmael.” Judaism, vol. 39, no. 1, 1990, p. 37.
  8. ^ a b Gunkel, H. “THE TWO ACCOUNTS OF HAGAR. (Genesis Xvi. and Xxi., 8–21.).” The Monist, vol. 10, no. 3, 1900, pp. 321–342. JSTOR,
  9. ^ Ages of the patriarchs in Genesis Archived 2008-10-22 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ Von Rad, G. (trans Marks, J. H.) 1961 Genesis - a commentary Philadelphia: Westminster Press

External links[edit]