Stories of the Patriarchs

Stories of Jacob and his sons continue the story of the patriarchs from the Book of Genesis we’re reading in our lectionary these days. They trying to get food to eat in a time of famine.  Inheritors of God’s promise to Abraham, the patriarchs are searching for a land of their own, but they’re not going to find it in Egypt with Joseph and his connections to Pharoah. They’ll leave Egypt and cross the desert, indeed, their search never seems to end. But that’s God’s plan; the search is not theirs but planned from above.

The stories of the patriarchs might be called the Jewish phase of the Book of Genesis. The first 10 chapters of Genesis describe the origins of the world and the beginnings of the human race. Chapter 11 introduces Abraham, followed by stories of his descendants, the other patriarchs. Then, we read from the Book of Exodus.

One Jewish tradition says that because the peoples of the world, from Adam and Eve on, resist God’s invitation to be one with him, God decides to concentrate on one nation hoping to eventually bring in all the rest. So then, the experience of Abraham and the other patriarchs affects the whole human race. Their stories are also ours and have lessons for us.

Abraham is our “father in faith”. The patriarchs, especially Abraham, are examples of faith and trust in God as they face an unknown future. That’s what keeps them going from place to place searching for a final homeland, and that’s what keeps all humanity going. Faith and trust keeps the Church going as she makes her pilgrim way. Those virtues also keep all peoples of the earth going as on their journey through time.

Besides faith and trust we need to accept the humanity we find in the patriarchs, their wives, their children, their friends, their servants and their enemies. They’re far from perfect. They live in a world of cruel wars and famine, stubborn enemies, political instability and unpredictable events. There are family fights, jealous brothers and sisters and sneaky deals at every step.

The early Christian writer Marcion wanted to do away with the Old Testament because it wasn’t spiritual enough. But there’s reality in the Old Testament. It’s a sinful reality God accepts and a humanity the Word of God embraces. “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”

In my opinion our Old Testament readings at Mass from the lectionary tend to feature the nobler, more spiritual parts of the Old Testament and unfortunately neglect the raw parts that Marcion and other critics complain about. Are we past this ugly reality in our times? Will we ever? Yet, God’s promise in never withdrawn.

Old Testament stories, like the New, have a wonderful way of speaking to our own world. Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt at a time of widespread famine. “In fact, all the world came to Joseph to obtain rations of grain, for famine had gripped the whole world.” (Genesis 41,57) Egypt wisely opened its food supply to eveybody. Was it just from kindness, or was it good politics too?

The New York Times recently carried an article questioning present US policy to cut foreign aide to poorer nations of the world, especially those experiencing climate related shortages of food. Inevitably, violence in those countries will spill over to ours, so we must take care of them now, the writer said.

I remember reading that the Byzantine Empire fell so quickly to the armies of Mohammed because the Byzantines neglected to care for the Bedouin tribes at their borders and along their trade routes.

We’re all bound together, whether we know it or not.

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