Summary: The patriarchs were saints like us, venal, self-serving and often flawed, but devoted to doing the will of God as revealed to them.
Abraham’s Call and Covenant
Abram ben Terah was in Haran when he first heard the call of the Lord: “Go from your country and kindred and father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” (Gn 12: 1-3)
The call comes almost immediately after the “scattering” recounted as the story of Babel (Gn 11). The Catechism tells us “in order to gather together scattered humanity God calls Abram from his country. . .and makes him Abraham, that is, ‘the father of a multitude of nations.’” (par 59) From the beginning, the vocation of Abram/Abraham was intended by God to be a summoning of the entirety of humanity to make a new community, to restore the oneness of humanity that was God’s original intent (Gn 2). “The people descended from Abraham would be the trustees of the promise made to the patriarchs, the chosen people, called to prepare for that day when God would gather all his children into the unity of the Church. They would be the root onto which the Gentiles would be grafted, once they came to believe.” (CCC 60)
The promise of land was complemented by a promise of fecundity. “I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your descendants also can be counted.” (Gn 13: 16) This fertility is contrasted with the steady-state population of Egypt by juxtaposing a story (Gn 12) of Abram and Sarai going to Egypt, where the Pharaoh attempted to take her as wife. The story is one not of a desire for progeny but of lust after another man’s wife (Pharaoh was told she was Abram’s sister, but was Pharaoh that much of a sequestered idiot?) Indeed, Sarai/Sarah was to be the woman by whom the uncountable descendants would come (Gn 17:16). An identical story comes down in Gn 20 of Abraham trying to deceive King Abimelech of Gerar in the same way.
The story of Abram/Sarai in Egypt paints a picture of weak and sinful human beings acting in what appeared to be their own best interests, breaking divine commandments yet being spared. Fleeing drought and famine, the couple take their retinue to the only reliable bread-basket of the Middle East, Egypt. In the course of their stay, we must admit, Abram pimps out his wife to the corrupt local ruler. As a result, Abram prospers (!) and Pharaoh is cursed by plague (Gn 12: 16-20). Ultimately, like his descendants four hundred years later, Abram is banished from Egypt.
It is wise to keep this story in mind, and the later one of Abram the bloody warlord (Gn 14), because we might be tempted otherwise to fool ourselves into the notion that God rewarded Abram for his goodness and virtue. As St. Paul later wrote (Rm 4), God blessed Abraham because of his acted-out faith (which itself was a divine gift), and his faithfulness to the covenant, not because of any good he did or evil he avoided.
The same can be said for the other two major patriarchs. Isaac, living in Gerar because of another famine, passed off his wife Rebekah as his sister, just as his father had done (Gn 26:6-7). The ruse worked on the ruler, Abimelech, until he looked out the window of his palace and espied the two “fooling around.” Not much more was recorded about Isaac–his place in salvation history was assured by an earlier incident we shall soon examine. But Jacob, his younger twin son, was the grand master of deception and betrayal.
The “struggle” between Esau and Jacob is documented in multiple places. It began in Rebekah’s womb (Gn 25: 22), continued at birth (verse 26), and included the famous incident of Esau selling off his birthright for a “mess of pottage” (verses 29-34). A whole chapter (27) of Genesis is devoted to relating the story of Jacob’s defrauding dim-visioned Isaac of that birthright and blessing due the firstborn, and of Esau’s hatred of Jacob and plot to kill him (Gn 27:41). Despite this, during Jacob’s exile, he saw and heard the Lord confirming at Bethel the bestowal of the covenant of Abraham and Isaac on his treacherous self, and Jacob’s “iffy deal” with God, which included tithing of his goods (Gn 28:18-21). Jacob continued his contentious relations with his relatives in Mesopotamia (Gn 29-31), and perpetrated a major fraud on his father-in-law. He then plotted a scheme to bribe his angry brother so that he could return home. In the midst of all this convoluted drama, however, he renewed his oath to be faithful to the one God of his fathers (Gn 32:9-12), by a prayer that set up one of the most remarkable scenes in the Bible.