The fathers of faith

The patriarchsThe term Patriarch comes from the Greek and Latin words for ‘father'. To Jews and Christians, the Patriarchs are the great ancestors, or fathers, of the Jewish people. Many times in the Old Testament narrative, God is described, or describes himself, as ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob', three generations in the same family (Abraham was previously known as Abram). These three men are regarded as Patriarchs. It is recorded in the Old Testament that they were given promises by God which were later fulfilled in the history of the Jewish people. Christians also look back to those promises and see many of them fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, who they believe is the Messiah. Muslims also trace their spiritual line of descent back to the Patriarchs.

God's promises to the Patriarchs related to their future, based on the record of their faithfulness in the past. For example, when God speaks to Moses from the burning bush, to commission him to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, God says,

‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob' (Exodus 3:6).

God commands Moses to tell the Israelites,

‘I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians … to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob' (Exodus 6:6-8).

See Big ideas: Journey of faith, Exodus, pilgrims and sojourners; Jews, Hebrews, Children of Israel; Moses; Promised Land, Diaspora, Zionism; Slavery.


Abraham prepares to sacrifice IsaacAbraham is particularly remembered for his faith, obeying God's call to set off for an unknown land (Hebrews 11:8). His nomadic wanderings brought him, after various adventures, to settle in Canaan. Abraham was promised by God that he would become the father of many nations (Genesis 12:2-3; Genesis 13:14-17; Genesis 15:5; Genesis 17:1-8; Genesis 22:15-18). God established a covenant with Abraham, of which the outward sign was circumcision. This is still practised today by Jews (Genesis 17:9-14). The greatest test of Abraham's faith and obedience was when he was willing to sacrifice Isaac, the long-awaited son through whom God's promises were to be fulfilled. At the moment when he raised his hand to kill Isaac, however, an angel stopped him. A ram was then provided for Abraham to sacrifice instead of his son (Genesis 22:1-14). See Big ideas: Atonement and sacrifice; Goats; Journey of faith, Exodus, pilgrims and sojourners; Sheep, shepherd, lamb.

Because Abraham ‘believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness', he is seen in the early Christian writings of the New Testament as the ‘Father of all who believe' (Romans 4:11). Accordingly, Paul calls the Christian church the ‘Israel of God', meaning that it is the inheritor of the promises originally made to the nation of Israel, the Jews (Galatians 6:16). Paul explains that Christ ‘redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles though Christ Jesus' (Galatians 3:14).


Jacob was Abraham's grandson and Isaac's son. His life was far from exemplary: he stole his brother Esau's birthright or inheritance, and also his father's blessing. Nevertheless, after his reconciliation with his brother, God gave Jacob the new name ‘Israel', and renewed to him the promises first made to Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 35:9-12). Consequently, Jacob's twelve sons and their descendants became known as the ‘Children of Israel', and their families became the ‘twelve tribes' of Israel. Jacob's favourite son, Joseph, became Grand Vizier of Egypt and managed the supply of corn in a time of famine. Consequently, Jacob and his whole family moved to live in Egypt, and his descendants remained there until the Exodus led by Moses (Genesis 46:26-27). See Big ideas: Slavery.

Abraham in literature

Jesus told a story of a rich man who neglected a beggar at his gate. When he died, the poor man was said to go to ‘Abraham's bosom', which in those days was a metaphor for paradise (Luke 16:19-31).

Shakespeare uses this expression in Richard III, IV.ii.1115: ‘The sons of Edward sleep in Abraham's bosom.'

In Henry V, II.iii.8-10, Bardolph wonders whether Falstaff has gone to heaven or hell. The Hostess, whose memory of Bible names is obviously mixed up with English folklore, replies, ‘Nay, sure, he's not in hell: he's in Arthur's bosom, if ever man went to Arthur's bosom.'

Related topics

Big ideas: Atonement and sacrifice; Goats; Jews, Hebrews, Children of Israel; Journey of faith, Exodus, pilgrims and sojourners; Moses; Promised Land, Diaspora, Zionism; Sheep, shepherd, lamb; Slavery

Other cultural references

Shakespeare's Richard III, Henry V

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