The principal ancestors of the Israelites—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whose wives Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel, bore sons through whom the nation continued. Some scholars do not regard the patriarchal narratives as history at all but cast them in a genre more like poetry, no longer relying on disputed archaeological evidence which placed the ancestors within established data of Mesopotamian culture over the wide period 2000–1200 BCE. For example, the custom of Abraham and Isaac passing off their wives as sisters is no longer cited as evidence. However, the narratives may have reached their final form as late as the generation of the Exile (c. 500 BCE) and so have been subject to much editorial construction. It is not therefore easy to disentangle tribal memories from a theological interpretation which imparted a sense of national identity from the basis of a core of individual histories.

‘Ancestors’ is used rather than ‘patriarchs’ in much scholarly literature because of the important role of women in Genesis.