Patriarch

PATRIARCH (Gr. patriarchēs, the father of a family, tribe, or race). A title given in the NT to those who founded the Hebrew race and nation. In the NT it is applied to Abraham (Heb.7.4), the sons of Jacob (Acts.7.8-Acts.7.9), and David (Acts.2.29). The term is now commonly used to refer to the persons whose names appear in the genealogies and covenant histories before the time of Moses (Gen.5.1-Gen.5.32 and Gen.11.1-Gen.11.32, histories of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, et al.). In the patriarchal system the government of a clan was the right of the oldest lineal male. The patriarchal head was the priest of his own household.

While past scholars have often tended to regard the biblical accounts in the patriarchal dispensation as legendary, recent archaeological discoveries have confirmed the truthfulness of the narratives and have thrown much light on puzzling customs of the time, such as Abraham’s taking Sarah’s slave Hagar as a concubine, his making his steward Eliezer his heir, and Rachel’s carrying away her father’s household gods. Excavations at Ur, where Abraham lived, reveal it to have been a rich commercial center, whose inhabitants were people of education and culture.

See also Abraham; Isaac; Jacob; Joseph.


The Septuagint translators of Chronicles had coined patriarchems to define royal officers (always plural) variously expressed in Hebrew (1 Chron. 24:31; 27:22; 2 Chron. 19:8; 23:20; 26:12); Hellenistic Judaism applied the concept to those special ancestral progenitors narratively identified in Genesis-Abraham (Heb. 7:4), with Isaac and Jacob (4 Macc. 7:19), the latter's twelve sons (Acts 7:8,9; cf. Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs)-and to David (Acts 2:29). While pre-Nicene authors retained this usage, enlarging its significance by their prevailing typological exegesis, in the late fourth century Epiphanius* also indicated the word was being used for the hereditary chief office of Judaism, from which by analogy it was introduced for the highest ecclesiastical office within Christianity. Patristic citation thereafter employs “patriarch” for the sees of Old and New Rome, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, though Socrates used it more widely to cover all imperial dioceses, and Gregory of Nazianzus for senior bishops (presbuteroi episkopoi) in general.


PATRIARCH. The patriarch was the father or head of a family, tribe, or clan. In Biblical usage the term normally refers to the ancestors of the people of Israel from Abraham to Joseph. Occasionally it has a wider usage, however. In Acts 2:29 the term patriarch is used of King David. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his sons (Acts 7:8, 9) usually are meant when the term patriarch is used.

The patriarchs lived semi-nomadic lives in the lands of the Fertile Crescent. From Ur in Mesopotamia to Egypt they journeyed with their flocks and herds, counting their wealth in movable property. The only real estate which Abraham owned was the burial plot purchased for Sarah, his wife. The patriarchs were not a part of the major currents of life in the ancient Near E. The only time when they became involved in the power struggles of the day was when Abraham fought a coalition of kings from the E in order to rescue his nephew Lot (Gen 14:12, 16). Otherwise we may assume that the patriarchs went about their daily tasks, leaving no impress on the world of their day.

Biblical information is supplemented, however, by discoveries of modern archeology. While the patriarchs themselves have not been identified, similar names have been discovered among texts listing Amorite names. The Amorites were western Semites, some of whom moved into lower Mesopotamia, forming the Old Babylonian Empire, of which Hammurabi was a major ruler. The Amorites, or Amurru, “westerners” were so named because they entered Mesopotamia from the NW. Amorites also appear in the Bible as one of the peoples in Canaan at the time of the patriarchs. They may be regarded as close relatives of the patriarchs.

In speaking of the origin of Jerusalem, Ezekiel in his allegory of the unfaithful wife, taunts, “Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite” (Ezek 16:3). Although the prophet was not making a pronouncement on ethnic origins, he did recollect something of the mixed background of the Israelite people.

According to the Biblical account, the age of the patriarchs was one of great mobility. By the 19th cent. b.c. Assyrian merchants had penetrated Asia Minor for purposes of trade. The Cappadocian Tablets illustrate business practices of the day. Contacts between Palestine and Egypt were frequent. Palestinian tombs of the period from 2000 to 1800 b.c. contain numerous Egyp. artifacts. The Egyp. Sinuhe Story, from the 20th cent. b.c., tells how a noble of high rank fled from Egypt and went to Kedem (“the East”) where he was received favorably by a prince in Upper Retenu (the Egyp. name for Syria and Palestine). There he prospered until at a later date he was invited back to Egypt. The Beni Hasan tomb painting (c. 1900 b.c.) depicts thirty-seven Semites entering Egypt for trade. The dress and equipment of these Asiatic Semites prob. was similar to that of the Biblical patriarchs. Abraham entered Egypt with Sarah in quest of food about the same time.

Customs of the Patriarchal Age are paralleled in the cuneiform tablets discovered at Nuzi, near Kirkuk, in the 1920s. Abraham’s fear that his slave Eliezer might become his heir may be understood in the light of Nuzi adoption procedures. Frequently, a childless couple would adopt a son. This might be a favored slave, as appears to have been the case with Abraham. Laban, on the other hand, who had daughters but no sons, appears to have adopted Jacob, his son-in-law, again in typical Nuzi fashion. If a natural son were subsequently born, the adopted son would yield his rights to the natural son, although certain rights of the adopted son were guarded carefully.

Abraham had natural sons, who thus superseded Eliezer as chief heirs. Laban also had sons, presumably after the marriage of Jacob to Leah and Rachel. Rivalries were such that Jacob and his wives left Laban, taking along the household gods (teraphim), which seem to have been the possession of the chief heir. Stealing the teraphim was tantamount to refusing to relinquish the rights of the chief heir.

In Nuzi marriage contracts a childless wife was required to provide her husband with a girl who might become the mother of his children. This is the background for Sarah’s suggestion to Abraham, “....go in to my maid; it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (Gen 16:2).

The Code of Hammurabi foresees a situation in which such a maid would bear children to the husband of her mistress, and then aspire to a higher position in the household: “If a man takes a priestess and she gives to her husband a maidservant, and she bears children, and afterward that maid servant would take rank with her mistress; because she has borne children, her mistress may not sell her for money, but she may reduce her to bondage and count her among the female slaves” (Paragraph 126). After Hagar had conceived, Sarah “dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her” (16:6). Later, Abraham was grieved when Sarah urged, “Cast out this slave woman with her son” (21:10, 11), a request contrary to prevailing law and custom.

Abraham’s purchase of a burial plot from Ephron the Hitt. may be understood in the light of Hitt. law (Gen 23:10). The code, discovered at the Hitt. capital at Boghazkoy in Turkey, stipulates that a buyer must render feudal services if he purchases all of the seller’s property. If only a portion of the property was sold, the seller would continue to bear the obligation. Although Abraham required only the cave at the edge of Ephron’s field as a burial place (23:9), Ephron insisted that he take the entire field (23:11). Ephron evidently saw an opportunity to rid himself of his obligations, making Abraham feudatory for the entire field.

As a result of a cent. of studies in the culture of the Near E we can now see the Biblical patriarchs as men of history, living in a Sem. cultural situation which they shared in many aspects with their neighbors. Religion was the one aspect of the patriarchal life which was different from that of neighboring peoples. Discoveries at Ugarit make it clear that the Canaanites worshiped a pantheon of gods, with El as the oldest. He was the father of a progeny of seventy gods and goddesses. Among these seventy was Baal, the god who was particularly attractive to the Israelites in times of apostasy. The Biblical record affirms that the patriarchs knew in a very personal way the God later revealed as the God of Israel, or the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This God appeared to Abraham (12:1-3) and promised him posterity and an inheritance in the land of Canaan (17:8). Patriarchal religion was very personal, the patriarchs talking to God in a very personal way. Abraham’s intercession for Sodom (18:22, 33) shows how the patriarch reasoned with God—almost bargaining—with the conviction that the Judge of all the earth would do what is right (18:25). The fact that Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, and received a blessing from him, shows that the patriarchal concept of God was not tribal. Melchizedek was priest of El Elyon, God Most High, yet Abraham identified El Elyon with the God he and his family worshiped.

The chronology of the Patriarchal Age presents numerous difficulties. Archeologists use the term Middle Bronze Age to describe the period. Abraham has been dated anywhere from the 19th cent. b.c. to the 14th cent. b.c. He seems to fit best in the earlier period during the time of the Amorite migrations. Israel was definitely in Canaan by the 13th cent., as is shown in the Israel stele of Merneptah, successor to Rameses II of Egypt. The pharaohs mentioned in connection with Abraham and Joseph are not named, indicating that the Biblical writers were more concerned with the events than with the chronology of the period. Scholars have a greater respect for the Patriarchal narratives in the light of discoveries at Nuzi and elsewhere. The patriarchs appear as living men of faith in a historical context. Details may elude us, but the main outlines are growing clearer with the development of better tools of research.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


See ANTEDILUVIAN PATRIARCHS; ANTEDILUVIANS (GENEALOGY).

James Orr