Genesis 12–50 relates in the fullest form the traditions about the ancestors of Israel, frequently called the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and the matriarchs (Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah). These chapters are part of a larger narrative that covers the period from the creation of the world (Gen. 1) to the fall of Jerusalem in 587/586 BCE (2 Kings 24–25), and they have the specific purpose of presenting the story of the Hebrews from their beginnings, with the call of Abraham, to their presence in Egypt following Joseph's rise to power.
Within Genesis 12–50 can be discerned the Abraham cycle (12.7–25.11), the Isaac cycle (25.19–26.34), the Jacob cycle (27.1–35.29), and the Joseph story (37–48; 50). Each section differs markedly from the others. The Joseph story is a highly artistic and skilled narrative, leading to a climax in which Joseph, the ruler of Egypt, discloses his identity to his brothers, who had sold him into slavery. The Isaac cycle is by far the shortest, and the only one of its narratives that deals exclusively with Isaac (chap. 26) closely resembles two stories about Abraham (12.10–16; 20.1–17). While the Abraham and Jacob cycles show every sign of having been compiled from traditions that were originally separate (See Pentateuch), the Jacob cycle has the more integrated narrative structure.
The predominant theological theme that runs through these disparate sections is that of the fulfillment of God's purpose and promise in spite of all hindrances. After God has promised to Abraham that he will become a great nation (12.2), Abraham goes to Egypt, where God must intervene to rescue Sarah from the Pharaoh's harem. Sarah is next presented as being sterile, and in order to get offspring, Abraham considers adoption (15.1–6), only to produce a son by Sarah's Egyptian maid Hagar (16.1–6). When Sarah finally produces a son it is in her old age (21.1–7); almost immediately (22.1–19), though, Abraham is ordered to offer the son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Abraham's obedience is rewarded by the sparing of Isaac's life, and the first cycle ends with Rebekah being brought from Abraham's home of northeast Mesopotamia as a wife for Isaac.
Rebekah is also sterile (25.21), so that her children, like Sarah's child, are a special divine gift. The Isaac cycle is quickly swallowed up into the conflict between his sons Jacob and Esau, with the latter threatening the life of Jacob, who is designated as the successor of Abraham and Isaac (chap. 28). In Haran, Abraham's original home to which Jacob flees (chap. 29), Jacob comes into conflict with his uncle Laban, and is tricked into marrying Leah before he can obtain his true love, Rachel. Like Sarah and Rebekah, Rachel turns out to be barren (29.31); the son she eventually does have, Joseph (30.23–24), will later be sold into slavery by his brothers, some of whom would have preferred to kill him (37.18–28). In the meantime Jacob, who has fled from Laban and is returning home, must survive the danger of being reunited with Esau (chaps. 32–33). Prior to this meeting, his name is changed by God to Israel.
Joseph's words to his brothers, “It was not you who sent me here, but God” (45.8), sums up the main theological theme of the ancestral narratives: God's fulfillment of his purpose and promise. But there are subsidiary themes, prominent among which is God's rejection of parts of Abraham's family. His nephew, Lot, has two sons who are the ancestors of the nations Moab and Ammon; but their rejection is indicated by their incestuous origin (19.30–38). Similarly, Esau, the ancestor of the nation of Edom, is rejected for marrying non‐Hebrew wives (28.34–5, 28.6–9, 36.1–43). Jacob's triumphs over Laban (chaps. 30–31) indicate the rejection of the northeastern branch of the family.
This subsidiary theme no doubt reflects the political realities of the time in which the narratives were being combined, the period of David or Solomon. In the tenth century BCE, Ammon, Moab, Edom, and kingdoms to the northeast were subject to Israelite rule (2 Sam. 8.1–14; 10.15–19; 12.26–31). This raises the question of the relation between the ancestors as historical figures and the traditions about them. Although some scholars argue that the ancestral narratives were not written until after the exile (which is certainly when they reached their final form), a majority would accept that Abraham and Jacob were ancestors around whom traditions gathered in Israel's premonarchic period. It should be noted that Abraham is associated with Hebron (Gen. 23) while Jacob is connected with Bethel (Gen. 28) and his sons with Shechem (Gen. 34). This suggests that Abraham was an ancestor of the tribe of Judah, and had migrated from northeast Mesopotamia together with groups that later became Moab and Ammon. Jacob was the ancestor of Israel, which was originally an association of tribes, not including Judah, in the central highlands of Canaan. The odd fact that, whereas Jacob is the ancestor of Israel, the real father of the nation is the Judahite figure Abraham, is best explained by Judah's dominant position over Israel when the Abraham and Jacob traditions were united in the tenth century BCE. For a people experiencing relief from oppression for the first time in many decades, the figures of the ancestors provided the focus for stories that articulated the identity of the people, marked them off from their neighbors, and interpreted their peace and their possession of the land as the fulfillment of a divinely executed promise.
See also Genesis, The Book of.
J. W. Rogerson