Patriarchs of Faith, Hope and Love

John Navone SJ FAITH Magazine January-February 2003

The Founding Fathers

The stories of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph had been handed down by word of mouth in Israel for generations. Before their written formulation, these stories went through a process of selection and interpretation, which aimed at setting in the clearest possible light the essential truth of the events through which God worked out His plan in human history. The traditional stories of the patriarchs are more than mere biographies; rather, they articulate the faith of the people of God, they personify the basic relationship of the chosen people to the God who had chosen them.

If Abraham is an historical individual, he is also the personification of faith. His faith stands as a constant reminder to the people of God that faith establishes them in their most basic relationship to God. St. Paul views Abraham in this way when he calls him the father of all those who believe in God (Rom 4:16). Jacob, on the other hand, symbolises Israel’s consciousness of her own moral shortcomings, which play a constant counterpoint to her comforting realisation of God’s patient forbearance and saving goodness. In Joseph, finally, the people of God express what they think the love of God is like. Abraham, Jacob and Joseph thus personify man’s basic relationship to God. (Joseph, however, also personifies God’s saving covenant love for His people.)

The call of Abraham is an event of supreme importance in both Old and New Testament history. Just how the relationship between Abraham and his personal God began, and in what it consisted, remains mysterious. But the Bible leaves no doubt that it was personal and not shared by his kindred (Jos 24:2). Genesis does not present us with a distillation of the heroic exploits of Abraham, but rather stresses the initiative, the actions and the purpose of God in His choice of the patriarch. It is God who calls and God who makes the covenant. It is Abraham who responds in faith to the divine initiative. But this relationship of election, covenant and responsive faith is remembered not only for what it was, but also for what it continued to be. The people of God read of themselves in the stories ofthe patriarch. They understand the terms of their own existence, and its essential meaning, in the relationship between God and Abraham.

Faith and Promise

To Abraham is made the promise: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…and through you all the peoples of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2-3). To possess a land, to become a great nation, to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth is the threefold promise which runs like a golden thread through the tapestry of the Genesis epic, from Abraham to the conquest.

The divine promise is a challenge to Abraham’s faith by the very vagueness with which the goal is indicated and by the magnitude of God’s demands, which appears in the simple enumeration of what Abraham must voluntarily surrender: “Go from your country, your kindred, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1). Abraham’s first step must be a gesture of renunciation of all the support and security normally provided by a man’s kinsfolk and neighbours. The very essence of this vocation, as of every other, is trust in God (Mt 10:37)

Abraham's faith - the answer to Babel

The promised destiny, though still vague, is stated with equal emphasis: “I will make your name great.” A “great name” was the very thing that motivated the builders of Babel: “Let us make a name for ourselves” (Gen 11:14). God now grants that which men had tried to gain by their own resources, but to the man of His choice and on His terms. Abraham will be the instrument and means of blessing, not for himself and his descendants alone, but for “all the peoples of the earth.” “So Abraham went as the Lord had told him” (Gen 12:4), obedient to the word of God as were the elements at the time of creation. Such is the faith, which makes possible the fulfillment of the promise.

Abraham’s call and response initiate salvation-history for all mankind. From the story of creation and the first man, Genesis had constantly narrowed the centre of its interest until it focused on the solitary figure of Abraham, the father of the people whom God had chosen for His universal redemptive plan. Coming almost immediately after the Babel story, which presents the total denial of God in the absolute assumption of self-sufficiency and the dark picture of divine judgement on mankind, the story of Abraham’s call is like a burst of light that illumines the whole landscape. The people of God realise that Abraham’s response must be their own appropriate response to the divine initiative in their regard.

Faith in Trial

In episode after episode, Genesis shows how Abraham’s faith is severely tested. Yet, when everything seems lost, God intervenes. In Egypt, for example, Sarah is in danger of being taken into Pharaoh’s harem. Had this mishap befallen the ancestress of Israel, the promise of a great progeny would not have been fulfilled. But the divine plan, so solemnly initiated, is not to be thwarted, and God’s hand intervenes. The God of Abraham is Lord in Egypt; the protection of His chosen ones is not circumscribed by space.

Again, when it is necessary for Lot and Abraham to part, Lot is given the freedom to choose where to go. The future of Israel depends upon his decision. Lot chooses, not the land of promise, but the Jordan Valley that would later know the Moabites and Ammonites. The promise of the one land, made to Abraham, has been safeguarded and the promise is now renewed (Gen 13:14).

The totality of Abraham’s response of faith is demanded when God tells Abraham: “Take your son, your only son Isaac whom you love…and offer him there (in the land of Moriah) as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen 22:2). It seems that God is asking him to destroy in faith the only concrete evidence that faith could be fulfilled. Isaac is the only visible hope for the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise. Although Abraham realises that God has the right to demand this sacrifice, the test to his faith is unimaginable. God is satisfied with his readiness to obey; a ram is substituted.

The near-sacrifice of Isaac is understood by Abraham and the people of God to mean that, unless we are willing to lose our life for God’s sake, we shall neither find nor save our life. This total demand of faith expects a complete, unqualified response, a total commitment. We find a strong echo of this in the succinct statement of Isaias: “If you will not believe, surely you shall not be established” (7:9b). For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength”. And you would not…(30:15). Just as the history of the people of God begins with Abraham, so too, the spiritual life of this people begins with faith. Salvation comes to him who believes in God’s promise and accepts life on His terms. Onlythus can the promise be fulfilled.

Jacob – Patriarch of Hope

Genesis tells us little about Isaac who seems to be a replica of his father; but it has much to say about his son Jacob-Israel. Jacob is a most dislikeable character – treacherous, deceitful, acquisitive, proud and self-centred. The disreputable Jacob tricks his brother Esau out of his birthright and his father’s blessing. Although Esau is magnanimous, forgiving and noble in character, God, in His supreme and unfathomable liberty, has made Jacob the object of His special providence. Jacob may cheat his brother and outsmart his father-in-law Laban, but dishonest as he is, he is still the object of God’s loving covenant-promise. Jacob’s morality is like that of any Middle-Bronze-Age sheik, but God takes him as he is, working with him and slowly educating him.

At a time of despair Jacob has a dream at Bethel (Gen 28:Ioff). God appears to him and renews the threefold promise made to Abraham. Now Jacob can hope in the goodness of God. Assured of the divine Presence, he journeys to his kinsmen in Haran where, through the providence of God, he acquires great wealth and two wives, and is enabled to return in safety to his own land. Again at Bethel, but now at a time of prosperity, he has another dream. He wrestles with the angel of God until daybreak, when he receives the angel’s blessing and a new name, “Israel,” indicating his new mission in life as the father of the chosen people.

Israel struggles with God

For this chosen people Jacob is both an historical individual and a symbol of their own relationship to God. In Jacob-Israel they recognise their own wayward nature, through him they realise that their own election is neither ethically nor morally merited. Election, the call, God’s favour is not theirs because of any intrinsic nobility and goodness of their own, but rather, as it would appear, despite the deviousness of their ways, in the grace and purpose of God. They have no claims on God; they cannot “force His hand” with human efforts. The people of God realise that the righteous man is not he who conforms his conduct to what is right but he whom God recognises as righteous. It is for him whom God loves to learn to love. Jacob was not chosen because he was righteous. He is righteousbecause he is chosen. Jacob eventually receives his comeuppance for his sins and becomes a wise and mellow old man.

Jacob expresses the tension between human perversity and divine love. In Jacob the people of God read the shame of their own sinfulness, and the hope offered by God’s eternal goodness and saving love. Jacob grew in faith at Bethel, “Surely God is in this place; and I did not know it”. The history of the people of God, too, is one in which they understand themselves to be supported only by the grace of God, a story of sustained hope and confidence in a beneficent, life-giving Providence, communicating His goodness to all.

The gratuitous choice of God

The people of God live in the light of His countenance, humbly realising that God has not chosen them because of their own qualities or goodness. God’s act of saving love is for “His name’s sake”; the reason for His choice and deliverance of His people is to be found in God alone. This is the mystery of election and grace. God loved Jacob, and the ground of His love lies solely in His own goodness, not in the
lovableness of Jacob. God’s love is agape for those who have nothing to offer in return, as opposed to eros which is based on the attractiveness of the object loved. God has not chosen them because they are righteous; rather, because God has chosen them they must be righteous.

Mindful of His covenant with Abraham to bless all the nations of the earth, God elects Jacob-Israel, not to privilege, but to service, to further His saving purpose among the nations. Israel, too, is appointed to be “a kingdom of priests,” a kingdom set apart to represent God to the world and the needs of the world to God. She is to be a dedicated nation, a light for the Gentiles (Is 42:6).

Above all, Jacob is the symbol of Israel’s own humble hope. And because he continues to hope, he (and the people of God) becomes the hope of all the nations who would receive God’s blessing through him. Everything is against Jacob, except the mysterious ways of God, and these eventually triumph in him. He is the youngest brother in a land where pre-eminence is naturally given to the oldest son. In contrast with Esau, Jacob is clearly the lesser vehicle; yet he bears the promise and the blessing. Israel, too, the “least of all the nations,” is the most unlikely candidate for God’s election. And yet, like her ancestor, Jacob-Israel, she is chosen by God to be the instrument of salvation[1].

Joseph-Patriarch of Love

Joseph is very different from his father. He is Jacob’s first and favourite son by Rachel, a master of dream, sold into slavery by jealous brothers. He becomes a lord of Egypt who saves the nations in time of famine, leads his brothers to repentance before revealing his identity in a magnanimous act of reconciliation, and fulfils his father’s last wish by burying his remains in the land of promise. He is the consolation of his father’s old age, after having been the indirect cause of his broken heart[2].

The Joseph-saga (Gen 37-50) is a superb presentation of the biblical doctrine of vicarious suffering, for Joseph, when triumphant, saves his brothers who had cruelly wronged him. Salvation comes through suffering; God makes the moment of Joseph’s apparent destruction the starting point of his ascent to glory. The whole story of how God overrides men’s evil purposes and out of their misdeeds works their salvation is found in both the Joseph-saga and in the passion and death of Jesus Christ. The wickedness of Joseph’s brothers is overcome by the goodness of Joseph. The act whereby they attempted to destroy him, eventually leads to their salvation in time of famine. Through love Joseph and Christ “destroy” their enemies by converting them into friends, and in this remarkable way show how thepsalmist’s frequent prayer for the “destruction” of God’s enemies is actually accomplished. Love is the way God “destroys” His enemies, when the very crucifixion of the Messiah is turned by divine wisdom into the means of salvation for all mankind[3].

No tension between nature and grace, disbelief and faith is found in Joseph. He suffers patiently when treated with malice because his is the peace of a true friend of God, “Yahweh was with Joseph and was kind to him” (Gen 39:21). Thus God’s loving friendship sustains him in prison, and enables him to accept ill fortune as well as good. There is no wrestling with the deity (Jacob: Gen 32:23-33). No tensions between faith and unfaith (Abraham) or sinfulness and grace (Jacob) appear in Joseph, but rather in his brothers.

Joseph's Dream

Joseph’s first dream is fulfilled when his brothers, seeking grain in Egypt, bow to him as the sheaths of wheat had done. When Joseph jails them for three days, his brothers begin to repent because their harsh treatment reminds them of their past cruelty to Joseph (42:44). Joseph insists on the presence of Benjamin for his own purposes. The old crime against Joseph is still on their consciences when, accused of stealing the sliver cup, they throw themselves down in guilt and penance. Joseph leads his brothers to an effective penance and conversion of heart. By re-enacting the first scene (and setting up the very same circumstances) Joseph wishes to see whether his brothers will for a second time abandon the other son of Rachel, their youngest brother, Benjamin, and return home to theirfather telling him that his son is lost. If they refuse to abandon Benjamin, their moral renewal and penitence will be proven. It their hearts are changed, they are forgiven. This is their judgement in which Joseph identifies himself with Benjamin to test his brothers, just as Christ identifies Himself with the least of men when He comes to judge at the Final Judgement. In each case the judge determines his relationship to the judged by their freely chosen relationship to others. Only when they have shown their love of Benjamin in their refusal to depart without him does Joseph reveal himself as their brother, and restores their friendship.

While his brothers recover from their shock, Joseph (45:4ff) explains the divine plan behind all these incidents. Despite famine and their sins God has been looking after the family of Jacob-Israel to insure their survival. Salvation is bestowed on the group because of the suffering of one just man. Salvation for both criminal and victim is seen in this amazing insight into Providence.

Joseph is seen as a type of philosopher-king, the ideal of Israel’s wisdom teaching. He is the type of Messiah in whom the people of God believe and hope. With Joseph, the people of God easily make the transition from the historical individual to the corporate personality. Joseph saves his brothers. He is the loving, beneficent ruler who not only cares for the physical needs of his people, feeding them in famine, but also for their moral rebirth, leading them to a change of heart and reconciliation.

A Messianic Figure

In Joseph there is a fulfillment, in a certain sense of the divine promise made to Abraham: “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed”. Against fantastic odds, God preserves his life and brings him to a position in which he is responsible for saving, not only the life of the family of Jacob, but of the whole world. The universal nature of the original promise made to Abraham is recalled in the statement: “Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth” (Gen 41:57).

Because the Joseph-saga comes out of Israel’s ancient past and was for centuries transmitted orally before its written formulation, it is possible that the germ of the later development of messianism was found in these early traditions. Perhaps the people of God came to see in Joseph the salvation motif which, after the fall of the nation, was expressed in the Servant of God: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; so I will make you a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Is 49:6).

In any case, Joseph is everything Israel loves most. Joseph is the living personification of covenant love: the gracious, saving love of God for those whom He rules, and the steadfast love of the people of God for their Lord. Because Joseph expresses Israel’s concept of the perfect ruler, he also expresses, in human terms, what Israel thinks of its Lord with whom she is bound in the mutual adhesion of covenant love.

The Covenant of Faith, Hope and Love

God had taken the initiative in establishing the covenant alliance with His people. He has conferred His benefits upon them and requires their loving obedience and undivided loyalty in return for His continued support and protection, “you shall not have other Gods besides me” (Ex 20:3). His chosen people bound themselves to “love, honour and obey” only the Lord. Because the Lord is a Person, His worshippers are bound to a personal response of loyalty, service and devotion that is summed up in love; and because His covenant is with the people as such, individuals are bound in similar loyalty to each other. For example, Deuteronomy 4-11 repeatedly exhorts the people to grateful love toward the divine Benefactor, insisting that the motive underlying the Covenant was not any merit on Israel’spart (7:7; 9:6), nor the Lord’s advantage (10:14) but simply the overwhelming mystery of His arbitrary love (7:8). This is the meaning of Joseph for the people of God.

Today we tend to express our basic relationship to God in terms of faith, hope and love, whereas the men of the Bible preferred to express these same concepts in the concrete terms of a corporate personality. Instead of “I have faith,” they would say, “I am a son of Abraham.” Faith for them, is the way Abraham lived; hope is the way Jacob lived; love is the way Joseph lived.

The living God was the sole source of life and to depart from Him was death. The various aspects of this covenant life, which they had received as a gift of God, were understood in terms of their patriarchs.


Each patriarch lived his covenant-life with God in a personal way that was peculiar to him and shed new light on man’s fundamental relations to God, on his life with God. When Israel, the people of God, made a total commitment of faith in God’s promise (Abraham); when they lived in the awareness of their sinfulness, recognising that the fulfillment of the promise transcended them and depended entirely on the gracious love and power of God (Jacob); when they lived lives of steadfast covenant-love with God in solidarity with their brothers (Joseph) – then were they incorporated into the lives of their fathers. Then they truly became “sons of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph.” The patriarchs became corporate personalities unifying the people of God[4].The solidarity of the people of God in their corporate relationship to God through their fathers foreshadows the revelation of our relation to God through Jesus Christ, who is at once a person and a corporate personality. Through baptism we are incorporated into Christ the Redeemer who is the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham: “For you are all sons of God by faith in Christ Jesus. All of you who have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ……. All of you are one in Christ. Now if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs to the promise” (Gal 3:26-29). The men of the Bible, in expressing their solidarity with God and with one another in terms of a person, have helped us to understand the nature of our solidarity with Jesus, through whom, with whom, and in whom weare united with God and with all mankind.

[1] Pre-eminence is also the lot of Joseph, Gideon, David and Solomon all younger sons.  The mysterious ways of God in electing those who are, humanly speaking, the least eligible finds an echo in Paul: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.   God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nought the things that are, so that no human being might boast in His sight” (I Cor 1:27:29).
[2]Jacob had cheated his father in his old age by acquiring the birth-right.  The law of talion is seen operating when Jacob is cheated by the loss of his favourite son Joseph.
[3] The Joseph-typology may very well appear in the Marcan passion story: as Joseph the Patriarch buries the old Israel (Gen 50:4-6), so Joseph of Arimathea buries the new Israel (Mk 15:42).  (The NT does not explicitly set forth Joseph as a type of Christ.)
[4]What had been the characteristically personal mark of Abraham’s, Jacob’s and Joseph’s relationship to God, now became the universal hall-mark for all the people of God living the same lives of faith, hope and covenant love.  Their father’s way of life with God was now incorporated and extended among his numerous progeny according to the spirit, if not also the flesh.  The patriarchs in this way became truly corporate personalities unifying the people of God.
              Thus the Old Testament patriarchs were but dim shadows of the reality to come, for in the humanity and Person of Jesus, God has shown and given to his people the Way, the Truth, the Life.  We have seen the Wisdom and Glory of God, which force us to declare the good news of St. John that “God is love.”  Our Israelite fathers have prepared us for understanding the profound truth that love, wisdom, life, and truth are ultimately, not mere empty concepts, but are found in a Person: Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
We hope to have shown the need for understanding how the men of the Bible thought of their patriarchs in order to grasp the significance of both the Old Testament and the context of the New Testament teaching about Jesus as an individual and as Head of the Mystical Body.  We have shown how people of God personified their consciousness of their solidarity with their fathers in their basic relation to God.
Jacob-Israel not only represents an historical person, but what is vastly more important, Israel (the people of God) itself.  Therefore, when we read that Joseph was the son whom “Jacob-Israel loved.. more than any other of his children”  (Gen 37:3), we must employ the same principle: Joseph, too is not only an historical individual, but the people of God’s (Jacob’s) idealised, personal representation of what their life of covenant love with God should be.  Joseph is everything the people of God (Jacob) love most.  Joseph expresses the hunger of their souls for the idealised fulfillment of covenant love in his perfect obedience and fidelity to God, his redemptive suffering which is turned to the good of his people, his merciful forgiveness, his solidarity with hisbrothers, the children of Jacob-Israel (the people of God), his providential care for them, feeding them in famine, leading them to repentance, his fulfillment of his father’s last wish to be buried in the Promised Land.  If we recall that Jacob-Israel is also the people of God, then Joseph is the fulfillment of the people of God’s last wish, too; he is their ultimate hope for a Messiah.  Thus, in Joseph, the people of God are not only looking back to the meaning of covenant love as expressed in one of their fathers; they are also looking forward to the type of a person who could save them.  Joseph is their last wish.  Joseph will bring them to eternal repose in the Land of Promise.  Joseph does bury Jacob-Israel in the Promised Land.  But thisJoseph only reveals himself to the sons of Israel, (people of God) after they have repented of their past wickedness.  From Moses to the last of the prophets, John the Baptist, Israel is always being called to repentance.  Only when they have been converted from their infidelity, will the Messiah (Joseph) become known to them, reveal himself.  Only after reconciliation will Israel’s (Jacob) last wish be granted.
Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Israel’s messianic hope.  We cannot fully appreciate our relation to Him unless we understand the corporate aspects of this relationship foreshadowed in the Old Testament.  Just as the men of the Bible expressed their solidarity with God and one another in terms of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, we find the fulfillment of ours in Christ Jesus.

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