The patriarchal age is one of great importance for the people of Israel: it begins with Abraham’s journey, a daring voyage to a strange land led by faith in a then new, single God, who said unto him: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). At a late age of 100, 25 years after having arrived in Canaan, Abraham and Sarah give birth to their son, Isaac, and he and Rebecca then give birth to Esau and Jacob. Jacob, Rachel, Lea and their handmaids give birth to twelve sons. Jacob is renamed Israel, and the family started by Abraham and distinguished by the monotheistic faith starts to become a nation, comprised of twelve tribes. The land of Canaan, to which God led Abraham, becomes the land of the people of Israel.
Historically, the patriarchal age is believed to have begun some time between the 21st and the 15th century B.C.E., and to have lasted for a few hundred years. At this time, the patriarchs were foreigners in the land of Canaan, then inhabited by many small nations. Having originated in Mesopotamia (current Iraq; Abraham’s native city was in the southern part of this region), Mesopotamian traditions and practices, such as dedication of holy places when a revelation has taken place, are described in the Bible as part of the patriarchs’ every-day life. The patriarchs also distinguished themselves from Canaanite practices and social ties by their insistence that the sons of the family not marry local women, and marry only members of the extended family who resided in Haran (current south-east Turkey). This distinction from the Canaanite nations is later apparent in various biblical decrees against intermarriage.
The patriarchs are not only the genealogical fathers of the nation: they are also the first prophets and the founders of the covenant between God and the people of Israel.
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