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Beginning in Genesis 12, the Bible takes a decided turn in its focus on historical events. World history fades into the background of the biblical narratives, and only occasionally are events of global importance recorded (cf. Gen. 14). For the most part, the focus centers on the lives of certain key individuals and their families---the first of whom was
Abraham was born in the twenty-second century B.C. During that time, the great Akkad empire in Mesopotamia was coming to an end. Political power in both Canaan and Egypt were fragmenting. We first meet
Abraham in the city of 'Ur of the Chaldeans'---a major city occupied by the Babylonians, that is, the Chaldeans. Perhaps the biblical author wants us to identify the city of Ur with the city of Babylon, mentioned in Genesis
10:10; 11:1--9. If so, then Abraham's leaving Ur of the Chaldeans and traveling westward to the Promised Land is linked to God's forced return of the people of that city back into the land, as 11:8 suggests: 'The LORD
scattered them from there over all the face of all the land' (NIV, earth).
On his way to the Promised Land, Abraham first settled in a region in northern Mesopotamia called Haran, where he remained until the death of his father. The Lord then called on him to leave his family and continue his journey to the Promised Land (cf. Acts 7:2).
Abraham was seventy-five years old when he entered the land.
Recent studies of seasonal agricultural changes suggests that the migration of Abraham may have been associated with a more general migration of peoples throughout the Near East as a result of widespread famine. In fact,
Abraham himself felt forced to travel beyond Canaan into Egypt because of famine (Gen. 12:10). He entered Egypt during its First Intermediate
Period, a time of great social unrest. After a brief sojourn there, he settled in the land of Canaan as a farmer and shepherd. While there, he was called on to defend its inhabitants against a cruel attack by four kings from the east, who had formed a coalition to launch a military raid against the cities of Canaan. The purpose of the raid was to loot and pillage the region.
Abraham, more or less a cultural outcast at the time and hence called a
'Hebrew' (most likely meaning 'outcast'), rallied his own household of
318 men and defeated the eastern kings as they fled. Such international conflicts and raiding parties were a common fact of life throughout the
Near East in Abraham's day.
The biblical writer uses the account of Abraham's victory as a picture of the Lord's blessing of Abraham. Just as God delivered Canaan through the house of Abraham, God would also, in the future, deliver all the nations from the curse of the Fall. God sealed his promise to bless the nations in Abraham by entering a solemn oath with him.
The Bible devotes little attention to the events in the life of Isaac. And in the events that are recorded, only a few details are given. But these details are essential to the development of the basic themes of the book.
Since a central theme of the Bible is the promise to Abraham that his descendants would become a great nation, much attention is given to the birth of Isaac and to the search for his wife, Rebecca.
Isaac was born after Abraham had lived in Canaan for over two decades. Isaac's wife, however, came from Abraham's relatives in Haran.
In typical Near Eastern fashion, Abraham sent out his trusted servant to search for a bride for his son. When he found her, he brought her back to
Isaac in Canaan. Thus the people of God, as the Bible sees it, did not come from the inhabitants of Canaan, nor did they gain possession of the land through family ties. They had no natural rights to it. Their dwelling in the land of Canaan was based solely on God's promise to Abraham.
With the birth of the third generation of Abraham, Jacob and Esau,
a new element is introduced into the biblical story---conflict within the family of Abraham. Jacob struggled with his brother Esau in the same way that their descendants, Israel and Edom, later struggled in the land. It was,
in fact, the result of the struggle between Jacob and Esau that forced Jacob to leave the land of Canaan and seek a home with his mother's family in
Haran. While living there, Jacob met and married two sisters---Leah, the older one, whom he was tricked by his father-in-law into marrying, and
Rachel, her younger and more beautiful sister.
The struggle that characterized Jacob's relationships within his family were mirrored in the political events of his day. In Mesopotamia, the kingdom of Mari in the northwest and Babylon in the south were beginning to defend themselves through alliances with the many city-states throughout the Near East. Political power was beginning to assert itself in Canaan too in a close-knit alliance of city-states. Egypt had also been reunited under the rule of a series of powerful dynasties. The struggles that ultimately marred the relations between the sons of Jacob can thus be seen within the context of a growing assertion of power throughout the entire region.
What is remarkable about the biblical accounts of those struggles is the way in which God used them to further his own covenant promises.
Conflict sent Jacob into Mesopotamia to seek a wife. Conflict sent Joseph into Egypt where, years later, the entire promised seed of Abraham was saved from famine. The biblical writer wants to show that God's promises are not limited or thwarted by human conflict, be it within God's own people or on a global scale. Joseph's final words to this brothers at the conclusion of the book of Genesis serve as a fitting conclusion to the events and struggles of the lives of the patriarchs: 'You intended to harm me,
but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives' (Gen. 50:20).