As was their custom, one day Peter and John went up to the temple at the time of the afternoon prayer. While they were there they had the opportunity to heal a man who had been lame since birth (Acts 3:1-11). This healing took place in the covered walkway called Solomon’s Portico (i.e., just inside the eastern section of the outer court of the Temple area). As a crowd grew around them and the formerly lame man, Peter took the opportunity to present the gospel to the astonished throng. In so doing, he first denied that the apostles had any power to accomplish the healing that they had just witnessed (Acts 3:12; cf. v. 6). Quite the contrary, it was a testimony to the presence and power of the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our forefathers” who by this act had “glorified his servant Jesus” –the very one whom the Jews had rejected (v. 13).1 Peter and John were merely the Lord’s human instruments.
At first sight, today’s reader of this account may wonder just why Peter used the precise formula, The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in referring to “The God of our forefathers.” 2 It is a fact, of course, that the Jews commonly used this formula in their times of daily prayers. Yet, as we shall see later in the discussion of this passage, there is much more than a formulaic repetition in Peter’s use of this terminology, for this pattern forms an important literary motif in the Scriptures. As Murfin and Ray point out, a literary motif is, “a unifying element in an artistic work, especially any recurrent image, symbol, theme, character, type, subject or narrative detail.”3 Many such motifs occur in the Bible such as: Israel’s wilderness trek; the remnant; the divine warrior; the widow, the orphan, and the poor; the third day; and the call-answer motif.4 In some instances a motif provides unity to a given context. In other cases it may reflect a dominant theme, often one that is well known and thus point to an earlier event.
In the following study we shall suggest that “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” forms just such a motif—one that has important ramifications for Peter’s use in his speech at Solomon’s Portico. We shall explore the use of this pattern in its occurrence with regard to the patriarchs, its importance in relation to God’s covenant with Israel, and its employment elsewhere in the Old and New Testaments. A summary and applications for today’s believers will bring the study to its close.
As Abram (later, Abraham) was instructed by God to leave his own relatives and country to go to one which the Lord would lead him, the Lord gave him some amazing promises:
I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing. (Gen 12:2)
Abram was thus to be the source of a great nation, and personally to become well known and respected. Moreover, he in turn was so to live as to be a source through whom divine blessings could be observed and desired by others. As Hamilton astutely remarks, “Abram must be more than a recipient. He is both a receptacle for the divine blessing and a transmitter of that blessing.”5 Keil and Delitzsch agree, “Abram was not only to receive blessing, but to be a blessing; not only to be blessed by God, but to become a blessing or the medium of blessing, to others.”6 Although there are various views of the meaning of this verse, based on the Hebrew grammar in this verse, it seems best to understand it in the traditional way that Abram was to make himself a source of blessing to all. So central was Abram to God’s purpose that the Lord went on to declare,
I will bless those who bless those who bless you but the one who treats you lightly I must curse. (v. 3)
As Abram entered Canaan in accordance with the Lord’s command, God revealed to him that this land would belong to him and to his descendants (v.7). In a bit later account we are told that when Abram did finally settle down in Canaan, the Lord reaffirmed his promise concerning that land (Gen 13:15). As he did so, God declared,
I will make your descendants like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone is able to count the dust of the earth, then your descendants also can be counted. Get up and walk throughout the land, for I will give it to you. (vv. 16-17)
In later years as Abram aged and he and Sarai still had no son, Abram became increasingly concerned about the realization of the promise of heirs. Therefore, the Lord again assured him that he was indeed Abram’s God and that Abram would not only have an heir but a vast number of descendants (Gen. 15:1-5). In a classic expression of true faith it is said that, “Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD considered his response of faith as proof of genuine loyalty” (v. 6). As Ross observes, “7Abram accepted the Word of the Lord as reliable and true and acted in accordance with it; consequently the Lord declared Abram righteous, and therefore acceptable.” In answer to any concern that Abram might have with regard to the land of Canaan belonging to him, the Lord gave Abram a sign of assurance (vv. 7-17 and covenantal pledge (vv. 18-21) that such would truly be the case.
All of these promises were ratified in a formal covenant (Gen. 17:1-16). Before examining the covenant in Genesis 17, it will be helpful to note certain details about covenant structure and content. In the ancient Near East three main types of covenants were known: (1) a parity treaty between two equal powers; (2) a suzerainty treaty type covenant, in which the enacting, more powerful party placed restrictions and obligations upon a vassal state; and (3) a royal grant type of covenant, in which a beneficent king would either “often freely bestow certain privileges or benefits to a vassal or servant for faithful and loyal service,” or in some cases a king or his successor would reconfirm the benefits of the existing covenant for “continued compliance with the terms of the original grant,” in order for them to be “beneficial for the grantee and/or his heirs.” 8 Royal Grant covenants customarily consisted of four main sections: (1) a preamble, noting the parties involved; (2) the provisions in the grant; (3) restrictions or stipulations for the continuance of certain oaths taken at the time of enactment and (4) some sort of covenantal sign.
Although some have viewed Genesis 17:1-16 as a suzerainty type of covenant, it is best understood as a royal grant type. Thus after the statement of the parties involved, God and Abram, v.1a), there follow statements of covenantal stipulations (vv. 1b, 9a) covenantal enactment (vv. 2, 4a), and covenantal promises provisions (vv. 4b-8). Also included is a threefold sign (vv.9-16)) detailing (1) the changing of the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah (v.15), (2) the rite of circumcision (vv. 9-14), and (3) the promise that Sarah would conceive and bear a son (v. 16). That very day Abraham again demonstrated his faith and faithfulness as well as his compliance with the covenant by instituting the rite of circumcision on all the men of his household (vv. 23-27).
Together all the texts we have considered demonstrate that the Lord was truly the God of Abraham. 9 Thus the Lord assured Abraham:
I will confirm my covenant as a perpetual covenant between me and you. It will extend to your descendants after you throughout their generations. I will be your God and the God of your descendants after you. (Gen. 17:7)
That such was the case is attested throughout the following narratives concerning the life of Abraham. Moreover, Abraham’s faith was one of settled obedience to the Lord and his leading, even to the extent of being willing to sacrifice his only son Isaac if the Lord so commanded it (Gen. 22:1-14). During this active testing of Abraham’s commitment, however, the lord provided a substitute sacrifice and in the process reaffirmed his covenant with Abraham, telling him, “Because you have done this and not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be as countless as the stars in the sky or the grains of the sand on the seashore” (vv. 16b-17a).
In the account of Abraham’s death it is reported that, “Everything he owned he left to his son Isaac.” The most important legacy was that in accordance with the Abrahamic Covenant; the God of Abraham became Isaac’s God as well. Thus at a time when Isaac visited the King of the Philistines in Gerar (Gen 26:1), the Lord appeared to him (v. 2) and entered into covenant with him. The promises given to Isaac are familiar ones: the land, a vast number of descendants, and an avenue of blessing for all people:
I will be with you and will bless you, for I will give these lands to you and to your descendants, and I will fulfill the solemn promise I made to your father Abraham. I will multiply your descendants so that they will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, and I will give them all these lands. All the nations of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using the name of your descendants. All this will come to pass because Abraham obeyed me and kept my commandments, my charge, my statutes, and my laws. (Gen. 26:3-5)
Thus the God of Abraham became the God of Abraham and Isaac. Isaac in turn became a channel of blessing for his descendants. Although both of his twin sons, Esau and Jacob, were to receive the Lord’s blessings, it was the younger son Jacob who was the Lord’s choice as a source of spiritual heritage (cf. Gen. 25:21-23 with Gen. 27:1-29). It is not surprising, then, that in due course of time the Lord appeared to Jacob in a dream, saying:
I am the God of your grandfather Abraham and the God of your father Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the ground you are lying on. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west, east, north, and south. All the families of earth will pronounce blessings on one another using your name and that of your descendants. (vv. 13-14)
The God of Abraham and Isaac now became the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This name was to become a familiar and significant pattern, which appears not only in the patriarchal narratives, but in many places in the biblical record. This formulaic pattern occurs three more times in the Genesis record. Genesis 32 records the account of Jacob’s return to his homeland after many years of service to his uncle, during which he acquired Leah and Rachel as his wives. As he approached Seir in Edomite territory, he began to fear for his life because he anticipated a possible hostile encounter with his brother Esau, whom he had cheated out of his birthright as Isaac’s older son. Therefore, he prayed to the Lord for help: “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O LORD, you said to me, ‘Return to your land and to your relatives and I will make you prosper.’ …You said, ‘I will certainly make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the seashore, too numerous to count’” (vv. 9, 12).
The story culminates by relating how Jacob, after sending some of his herdsmen ahead with gifts designed to appease Esau and after sending his family across the Jabbok River, was left alone (v. 24). During the night, he encountered a “man,” with whom he wrestled until daybreak. Although Jacob wrestled valiantly with the one whom he thought to be a man, he at last received a blow that dislocated his hip. Still he clung tightly to his opponent in order to receive a blessing from him. When his adversary did so, he informed Jacob that, “No longer will your name be Jacob…but Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and prevailed” (v. 28). Jacob/ Israel now realized the he had been engaged in a divinely initiated encounter vv. 29-30).10
For our purposes here, it is sufficient to recognize that the changing of Jacob’s name to Israel is linked with the formula, “The God of Abraham and Isaac.” A bit later, Jacob’s name change and the blessings of the divine presence in accordance with the Abrahamic Covenant are conveyed and confirmed to Jacob upon his successful entrance into his homeland (Gen. 35:9-15). At that time the Lord instructed him, “Be fruitful and multiply! A nation--even a company of nations--will descend from you; kings will be among your descendants; the land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you. To your descendants I will also give this land” (vv. 11-12). Here once again Jacob is linked with the God of Abraham and Isaac.
Thereafter the provisions inherent in the Abrahamic Covenant become associated with the formulaic pattern, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (or Israel). Thus when Jacob’s son Joseph was near death in Egypt (where he had become Pharaoh’s vizier), he asked his brothers to see to it that his body would be carried along with his people when God led the descendants back to the land of promise (Gen. 50:25). This was in keeping with God’s assured promise. Accordingly, Joseph declared, “God will surely come to you and lead you up from this land to the land he swore on oath to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (v. 24).
The next appearance of the formulaic pattern of the patriarchal pattern the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob occurs in connection with the incident of the burning bush. As Moses was at Mount Horeb, he came to a bush that was “ablaze with fire, but it was not being consumed!” (Exod. 3:2). When Moses turned aside to view this spectacle, the Lord spoke to him out of the bush telling him not to come any closer, for he was on holy ground. The Lord then identified himself to Moses: “I am the God of your father, the Abraham, The God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (v. 6). The reason for this miracle was that God was informing Moses that he was about to deliver his people from their 400 years of bondage in Egypt. This was all in accordance with what the Lord had told Abraham many long years before (Gen. 15:12-14; cf. Gen. 50:24). It was now time to make this happen and Moses was to be God’s representative before the Egyptian Pharaoh (vv. 9-10).
After the Lord identified himself further as “I AM that I AM” (v. 14), he told Moses that he was to inform the Israelites that, the “I AM has sent me to you” and that he should explain to the people, “The LORD--the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob--has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and this is my memorial from generation to generation (v. 15).
The Hebrew term for God’s name, LORD (or Yahweh), together with God’s self revelation as the I Am, carries the significance that he is exclusively the One being who is eternally self-existent and who causes everything to be.11 Therefore, the people could rely on him to fulfill all his promises made to the patriarchs to make them his people and to give them their own special land. Indeed, in accordance with his repeated promise, the Lord was about to deliver his people from the power of the Pharaoh and take them out of the land of Egypt. Thus Cassuto suggests that God is saying in connection with his revelation, “I am who I am always, ever alike, and consequently I am always true to My word and will fulfil (sic.) it.”12 For Moses’ part as God’s appointed representative, the Lord gave him special ability to perform certain amazing sign miracles in order that the people might “believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob has appeared to you” (Exod. 4:5). This was doubtless reassuring to Moses as well, for the contest with Pharaoh was about to begin. Thus Kaiser is correct in declaring, “Moses and Israel (and later even the Egyptians) will know what ‘I am the LORD’ means.”13
In the course of Moses’ meetings with the Pharaoh God again spoke to Moses. As he did so, he again clearly identified himself as the LORD and added, “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name “the LORD” I was not known to them” (Exod. 6:3). At first sight God’s message that the people did not know him as LORD stands in stark contrast with the fact that the name LORD appears “162 times in Genesis.”14 The point, however, is that although the name LORD was not unknown to God’s people, now the people of Moses’ day would come to a much fuller knowledge. They would realize that the LORD, the God of their cherished patriarchs, was indeed the one and only true God of the universe. As such he directs all things, including the details of human history, so that as Israel’s covenant God he could be counted on to keep his promises. And greater still, all of his people could now know him in a far richer way, that is, know him personally. 15
This well-known divine formula is found several more times in the Pentateuch, all with special contextual importance. Thus during the Israelite encampment before Mount Sinai, God called Moses up the mountain to give him special instructions concerning proper worship procedures for the people to follow. When Moses was away on the mountain for a long period of time, however, the people became so worried about Moses’ disappearance that they began to lose faith in his continued leadership and even in the Lord himself. This led them to devise a substitute religion and so they fell into idolatry. Therefore, God told Moses to go down from the mountain and confront the people. They would perish, but Moses would yet be the channel for a great nation to come (Exod. 32:10). Upon hearing this, Moses interceded for the people’s safety and in so doing besought the Lord on the basis of his covenantal promise:
Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel your servants, to whom you swore by yourself and told them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land I have spoken about I will give to your descendants, and that they will inherit it forever.” (v. 13)16
Accordingly, God spared the people and did not utterly destroy them. Nevertheless, he did punish them because of their sin by sending a plague (v. 35). When this was done, the Lord commanded Moses, “Go up from here, you and the people you brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’” (Exod. 33:1; cf. 1:6-8). God would yet deal with his people as a nation in accordance with his covenant, so that eventually Israel would enter the land of promise. Although the journey would prove to be a long and difficult one, the Lord did graciously lead the way (Exod. 40:34-38; cf. Num. 9:15-23).
Through these events the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is seen to be a gracious God who at times forgives his people despite their sins, for they are his special possession (cf. Exod. 19:5-6). For their part, God’s people in Moses’ time were to respond properly and like Abraham (Gen 15:6) to be people of faith. Although obeying the law did not produce righteousness (Rom. 9:1-5, 13-16), God’s holy standards were embedded in the regulations of the Mosaic Covenant (i.e., the Law) made between God and Israel at Mount Sinai. Not only was the covenantal law given to regulate society, but it was intended for man’s good, for in keeping the revealed standards of God they demonstrated their faith by following his holy nature in righteous living (cf. Deut 10:12). The same is no less true for God’s people today (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9-12).
The need for covenant faithfulness is emphasized in connection with Levitical stipulations. Disobedience to God’s commandments would result in various punishments, including the possibility of being exiled to the lands of their enemies. This was in keeping with God’s own faithfulness to the terms of the covenant, which included judgment for infidelity. Even then, however, God would never forget his covenant promises to the descendants of the patriarchs:
However, when they confess their iniquity and their ancestors’ iniquity which they committed by trespassing against me, by which they also walked hostility against me… and then their uncircumcised hearts become humbled and they make up for their iniquity, I will remember my covenant with Jacob and also my covenant with Isaac and also my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. (Lev. 26:40-42)
Although the terms of the familiar covenant formula are presented here in a slightly different manner, their reiteration carries distinct significance. Certainly God must discipline his people as the covenant prescribed (cf. Amos 3:2), but Israel is still his own and in accordance with the Abrahamic Covenant he will never forget them (cf. Rom. 11:25-32).
The dual nature of God’s covenant faithfulness (blessings and chastisements) becomes evident in the course of Israel’s journey to the land of promise. On the one hand, he remembered his people, rewarding their obedience, while sometimes even forgiving them of their oft complaining. On the other hand, his covenant obligations demanded that he punish his people for their sins. This is demonstrated in the incident of the twelve Israelites (one from each tribe) who were sent into the land of promise to investigate conditions there. Although on their return Caleb and Joshua brought back an encouraging report, the report of the others was discouraging (Num. 13:21-14:9).
When the people decided to follow the negative report, they aroused God’s anger. Then Moses once again interceded with the Lord on their behalf, in order that God might forgive them (cf. Deut. 9:22-29). The Lord graciously agreed to do so, in order not to destroy Israel immediately. Nevertheless, he warned Moses that those who refused to trust God and his power would “ by no means see the land that I swore to their fathers, nor will any who despise me see it” (Num. 14:23; cf. vv. 26-45). As Cole observes, “Sometimes the consequences of sin and rebellion are irreversible, and one must endure the experience of God’s judgment before a new course of action brings blessing.”17
This incident is later recalled when Moses received the representatives of the tribes of Reuben and Gad who had asked to have their allotment of territory in Transjordan and remain behind while the rest of the Israelites entered the land of promise (Num. 32:1-5). Moses challenged them (vv. 6-10, 13) by reminding them of the God’s sentence against those who feared to trust the Lord’s ability to guide them safely into the land:
Because they have not followed me wholeheartedly, not one of the men twenty years old and upward will see the land I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob except Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenzzite, and Joshua the son of Nun, for they followed me wholeheartedly. (vv. 11-12)
When the representatives agreed to accompany their fellow Israelites, Moses assured them that their tribes would be granted their wish to settle in Transjordan (vv. 25-38). Once again we see that the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob remains faithful to his covenant promises in the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants. This includes both his blessings and his chastisements. He expects his followers likewise to be faithful to covenant requirements.
Much of what is expressed in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers is emphasized in Deuteronomy. As Moses rehearses for the people significant points in the people’s journey to the land of promise (Deut. 1:6-3:29), he reminds them that the land to which they were coming was theirs. God had promised long before to give it to “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to their descendants” (Deut. 1:8). Indeed, it was the Lord who also had enacted the Mosaic Covenant (or Law), while maintaining the promise in the Abrahamic Covenant. The Lord is indeed a faithful God. Therefore, he expects his peoples’ faithfulness as well. This was true not only on their journey, but even also after he has brought them into “the land he promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Deut. 6:10; cf. Deut. 9:5). There they were to revere the Lord and live faithful, obedient lives (Deut. 6:10-15). Yes, the land would yet belong to Israel despite the peoples’ often stubborn, wayward hearts (Deut 9:1-6).
Moses’ task as God’s representative to help guide the Israelites to the land was often a difficult one. Too often he was faced with the peoples’ rebellious hearts. Accordingly, he once again brings up the matter of Israel’s conduct during the incident of the sending of the twelve men to spy out the land of promise (Deut. 9:22-29). At that time he had to intercede passionately with God on behalf of the people so that they would not utterly be destroyed. As Moses had done so, he called God’s attention to his promise with regard to the land to give it to “your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” as their homeland (v. 27). Indeed, if God failed to do so, Moses argued, the Lord’s own reputation could be at stake among the other residents of the land (v. 28). As well, the people of Israel were God’s “valued property, whom you brought out [of Egypt] with great strength and power” (v. 29).
As the Israelites prepared to enter the land of promise, at God’s command Moses charged them to swear allegiance to God and to their covenant with him (Deut. 29:2-12). For his part, God would “affirm that you are his people and that he is your God, just as he promised you and he swore by oath to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (v. 13). Moreover, this is to be an everlasting covenant with the people of Israel (vv. 14-15). The basic covenant made at Mount Sinai was, therefore, being renewed and updated for the generation that was about to enter the land. Moses ended his instructions to the community at this time by charging them not only to be obedient to God’s revealed regulations for righteous living, but by adding,
I also call on you to love the LORD your God, to obey him and be loyal to him, for he gives you life and enables you to live continually in the land the LORD promised to give your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Deut. 30:20)
As an interesting aside, it should be noted that biblical scholars have long recognized that in its entirety the book of Deuteronomy is structured along the lines of a suzerainty treaty, and thus is a conditional covenant: preamble (1:1-5); historical prologue (1:6-4:49); covenant stipulations, including an exposition of the Decalogue (5:1-11:32) and accompanying laws (tipulations, including an exposition of the Decalogue (5:1-11:32) and accompanying laws (12:1-26:19); covenant sanctions (27:1-30:20), including a ratification ceremony (ch. 27), God’s blessings and cursings (ch. 28), and a covenant oath (chs. 29-30); followed by closing arrangements (31:1-33:29). These were concluded by a narrative epilogue detailing some historical notices (34:1-12).
One last occurrence in the Pentateuch of the ancient formula associated with the Abrahamic Covenant is found in Deuteronomy 34. In accordance with God’s previous pronouncements to him (cf. Num. 20:12; 27:14; Deut. 3:26-27; 4:21-22), Moses was told that although the Lord was graciously allowing him (3:25; 4:21) to see the land, he would not be allowed to cross over the Jordan River with the other Israelites. They, however, were about to experience the fulfillment of God’s promise to the patriarchs:
Then the LORD said to him, “This is the land I promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it, but you will not cross over there.” (Deut 34:4)
God was as good as his word, for Moses died there in the land of Moab, across the river from Jericho in the Promised Land (vv. 5-8). What a privilege and joy it must have been for Moses in his final hours not only to view the land to which he had labored so long to bring the people, but to be in intimate contact with the faithful, covenant keeping God of the universe! Subsequently, however, the other Israelites were to experience the Lord’s faithfulness to his promise in the Abrahamic Covenant.18 In all of this the presence of the ancient formula associated with the Abrahamic covenant once again gives assurance of the holy faithful character of the Lord.
Although the precise formula of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (or Israel) does not appear often after the days of Moses, God’s promises associated with this formula occur frequently. One of them is found in the narrative of Elijah’s prophetic ministry. Elijah had a significant ministry for the Lord, so much so that three chapters (chs. 17-19) in the book of I Kings are devoted to it as follows: Introduction (17:1-6); Elijah’s ministry at Zarephath (17:7-24); his continued ministry climaxed by the contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (18:1-46); his retreat to Horeb (19:1-18); and an epilog detailing his part in the call of Elisha to the prophetic ministry (19:19-21).
It is in the account of his contest with the prophets of Baal that we find the familiar patriarchal formula. Because God’s people had been encouraged to follow the god Baal rather than the LORD (Yahweh), Elijah had arranged for a contest on Mount Carmel to demonstrate which of the two was truly God In this contest both Baal’s prophets and Elijah were to place a sacrificial animal upon their respective altars, so that with the consuming of the sacrifice by fire it would be shown who was the true God, Yahweh or Baal. Despite their frenzied efforts, the prophets of Baal achieved nothing in their attempts. Then at the time of Israel’s evening offering, Elijah approached his altar and prayed:
O LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, prove today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me. O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are the true God and that you are winning back their allegiance. (1 Kings 18:36-37)
Elijah’s prayer was answered in a convincing, spectacular fashion (vv.38-39). God sent a fire that not only consumed the sacrifice, but the altar itself and everything surrounding it. The use of the patriarchal formula not only reminded the Israelites of who was their God, but also demonstrated that those who are faithful to the Lord could call upon him and have their prayers answered (cf. Ps. 102:1-2. James 5:16-18). It is noteworthy as well that in the formula utilized here the patriarchal name Israel occurs rather than Jacob. For like Jacob of old, the Israelites of Elijah’s time (i.e., during the reign of Ahab and his wife Jezebel) needed to hold fast to the Lord if they were to experience his favor and blessing.
It is regrettable that despite the spiritual teachings available to the Israelites in the long-standing record concerning the change of Jacob’s name to Israel, as well as in the knowledge of Elijah’s triumph over the false prophets of Baal, the children of Israel continued to be attracted to the worship of Baal and indulged themselves in the religious rites associated with it.19 Therefore, their difficulties only multiplied. Nevertheless, God remained faithful to them in spite of their stubborn hearts. For example, in the early days of the fourth dynasty of the northern kingdom it is reported that,
The LORD had mercy on them and felt pity for them. He extended his favor to them because of the promise he had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He has been unwilling to destroy them or remove them from his presence to this very day. (2 Kings 13:22-23)
The same lack of faithfulness was true during the eighth century, B.C. not only in the northern kingdom but in Judah as well. Nevertheless, a couple of good kings appear in the history of the southern kingdom. One of these is Hezekiah (729-699 B.C.). Hezekiah was remembered for his trust in and loyalty to the Lord (2 Kings 18:5). This also took the form of the instituting of religious reforms (2 Kings 18:3-7). One of these was the reinstitution of the Passover. Thus we read of his royal edict for the people throughout Israel to attend the Passover in Jerusalem, albeit it was being observed one month later than the traditional date (2 Chron. 30:1-9). Interestingly, the king’s summons read:
O Israelites, return to the LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, so he may return to you who have been spared from the kings of Assyria. Don’t be like your fathers and brothers who were unfaithful to the LORD God of their ancestors, provoking him to destroy them, as you can see. Now, don’t be stubborn like your Fathers!. . . If you return to the LORD, your brothers and sons will be shown mercy by their captors and return to the land. The LORD your God is merciful and compassionate; he will not reject you if you return to him. (vv. 6-9)
Thus we can see in Israel’s post-pentateuchal history that the Lord remained faithful to his people, and despite their inconsistent unspiritual walk and at times outright apostasy was available to help them. Throughout the days of the Old Testament, then, The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel was ever his people’s gracious and merciful God -- even though in accordance with his covenant faithfulness he must of necessity judge them for their infidelity and sins. Thus the Psalmist declares:
He always remembers his covenantal decree, the promise he made to a thousand generations—the promise he made to Abraham, the promise he made by oath to Isaac! He gave it to Jacob as a decree, to Israel as a lasting promise, saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan as the portion of your inheritance.”(Ps 105:8-11)
The role of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob continued to be one of great importance to the Jewish people even into New Testament times. Each of the three is mentioned in the New Testament writings not only in the genealogies of Jesus’ family but also as an example of faith. Thus Paul addresses a special section in his Epistle to the Romans (Rom. 4:1-25) demonstrating that Abraham’s righteousness did not come by the works of the Law but by faith. Therefore, he became the progenitor of all people to follow who possess genuine faith, whether Jew or Gentile.
It must be noted, of course, that the Apostle James makes it clear that true faith is demonstrated in doing righteous acts, even as did Abraham (James 2:14-26; cf. Heb 6:1-12). Osborne encapsulates the basic idea in James’ argument by saying, “Works are necessary to prove that one’s faith is valid . . . clarifying that Abraham’s faith and actions worked together.” 20 Abraham is also shown to be a prime example of faith by the author of Hebrews (Heb. 11:8-19) as well as the progenitor of an abundant number of descendants (Heb. 6:13-20). These include not only natural descendants but those of faith, and especially those of genuine faith in Christ Jesus.
Isaac and Jacob are also of interest to Paul. Paul puts forward Isaac as an example of an heir of God’s promise through Abraham (Gal. 4:21-31). Elsewhere Paul challenges his Jewish hearers to remember their great privilege of being descendants of the patriarchs through divine election by their God. Indeed, the Lord has remained faithful to his promise to Abraham, which was channeled through Isaac and Jacob (Rom 9:13).21 Isaac and Jacob are also linked together with Abraham in the incident where Jesus healed the Roman centurion’s servant. Having commended the centurion’s faith, Jesus declares that not only Jewish people but all people of true faith in Christ will enjoy fellowship as God’s family: “I tell you that many will come from the east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11).
Thus the patriarchal formula was yet felt and confessed in New Testament times. One of these is found in a dialogue between Jesus and the Sadducees. When the Sadducees presented to Jesus a theoretical case apparently detrimental to a belief in the resurrection, Jesus taught them about the changed conditions in the post-resurrection life (Luke 20:27-36). Jesus then reminded them of the well-known incident of Moses standing before the burning bush saying,
Even Moses revealed that the dead are raised in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live before him. (Luke 20:37-38)
The Sadducees were thus informed that on the authority of God’s word through Moses, whom they cherished, that “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are also going to ‘rise.’ Therefore, their existence does not lie in the past but in the future as well and God is called, in contemporary terms, their God.”22 Gooding also adds, “The eternal cannot be characterized by something that no longer exists. Resurrection is therefore not a fantasy dreamed up the wishful thinking of less than rigorous theologians; resurrection is a necessary outcome of the character and nature of God.”23 That the patriarchs will enjoy the resurrected life in God’s eternal kingdom is also shown in that true believers will see, “Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:28).
Having examined the Old Testament and New Testament references to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we are now in a position to appreciate more fully Peter’s sermon at Solomon’s Portico. As we noted in our opening remarks, Peter uses the occasion of the healing of the lame man first to deny any personal power of healing (Acts 3:12) and then to deliver a message to the amazed crowd that had gathered around them (vv. 13-22). In that message Peter laid a foundation for identifying himself with his Jewish audience by referring to their common belief in “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our forefathers” (v.12). Peter’s audience would doubtless recall that this formula had special relevance for Israel ever since the incident of Moses standing before the burning bush. Accordingly, in the course of his remarks Peter reminded his hearers that this same Moses (as well as the Old Testament prophets) spoke of a coming prophet whom the people must listen to and obey. That prophet was indeed Jesus the Messiah, the very one whom the Jewish people had crucified rather than obeying. Yet it was not too late, for the Lord stood ready to receive repentant sinners who put their faith in the resurrected Christ Jesus. By doing so they could experience the times of refreshment prophesied in God’s Word.
Therefore, the patriarchal formula held importance in Peter’s remarks by demonstrating that Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of Moses’ teaching and thus was of supreme importance to the Jewish people—the very ones who had rejected him. But there is more, for as we noted above, the patriarchal formula had already been utilized before the incident of the burning bush. As he faced death, Joseph expressed his confident belief in God’s word to give the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob the Promised Land as their everlasting in heritance (Gen. 50:24-25). Moreover, Peter’s Jewish audience should remember that were themselves heirs of that promise. Yet there is even more, for all of this is built upon the foundation of the Abrahamic Covenant, which disclosed to Abraham:
I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you extremely fruitful. I will make nations of you and kings will descend from you. I will confirm my covenant as a perpetual covenant between me and you. It will extend to your descendants after you throughout their generations. I will be your God and the God of your descendants after you. I will give the whole land of Canaan--the land where you are now residing--to you and your descendants after you as a permanent possession. I will be their God. (Gen. 17: 5-8; cf. Gen. 22:18)
It is of further importance to note that the word rendered “descendants” in Peter’s sermon (Acts 3:25) as well as in Genesis 22:18 is more literally, “seed.” This in turn hearkens even further back to the original promise of a redeemer (Gen. 3:15), a promise that finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Accordingly, Larkin observes, “Through the ‘seed,’ who is the Messiah, the blessing was intended to extend beyond the Jews to the Gentiles, but the Jews still had priority in receiving the fulfillment, for God raised up his servant Jesus and sent him ‘first’ to them (3:26).24 The implication is clear. Peter’s hearers should place full confidence in God’s plan, by repenting and receiving Jesus as he truly is, the Savior of all people and their promised Messiah. For it is in Christ Jesus that all of God’s covenantal promises will be realized both in the future and in righteous living here and now. Indeed, Peter’s use of the formula of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was well suited to the occasion and of great spiritual significance.
Our exploration of the patriarchal formula of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has disclosed that, rather than being a mere linguistic or literary feature, it is a recurring and unifying biblical motif, which carries great significance. First and foremost, it reinforces the truth that God is supreme and sovereignly controls all things. Second, the Lord is a faithful God who has been true to his word through all the course of history in his dealings with mankind. This is especially seen in regard to his divinely chosen patriarchs and their Israelite descendants with whom he has established the Abrahamic Covenant with its attendant blessings. God’s faithfulness is further demonstrated in the Mosaic Covenant, whose blessings and cursings he has administered in accordance with the terms of the covenant. Third, both covenants are solemn reminders that the Lord in turn expects faithfulness from his followers. Such entails not only genuine faith in God .but also an adherence to the high standards in his revealed Word. Fourth, even in the midst of administering his chastisements God could and did demonstrate that he also forgives his people when they truly repent of their sin. In still other times God’s patient tolerance of his peoples’ spiritual stubbornness testifies of his graciousness and mercy. Fifth, the repeated use of the patriarchal formula in connection with God’s covenants finds its most significant application in the promised Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, the One in whom all of the assured promises of God will be fulfilled.
Yet, there is still more. The truth of the need of covenant faithfulness has application for today’s world as well, not only for the people of Israel but for Christian believers. God’s people in Old Testament times were to live in accordance with God’s revealed standards of righteousness and proper conduct. It is no less the case for believers today. It is true that Christians, whether Jew or Gentile, are free from the ritual requirements of the Mosaic Law (Gal. 4:21-5:1). Nevertheless, as united to Christ believers must remember that Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). Moreover, the principles of holiness in the law are now written on the hearts of true believers under provisions in the New Covenant, which Christ himself has initiated (cf. Jer. 31:31-34 with Matt. 26:27-29; 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb. 8; 12:24). Accordingly, believers are to live in faithfulness to the Lord and his revealed holy standards (Col. 2:6-10; Titus 2:11-15; 1 Pet. 2:9-12; Rev. 2:10).
As we do, it is of comfort to realize that the Abrahamic Covenant, channeled through the Davidic Covenant (cf. Jer. 33:23-26; Ps. 89:1-4, 20-27), finds its fulfillment in the New Covenant, so that in a special sense as united to Christ all believers are “one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:28-29; cf. Rom. 4:1-5, 23-25). Indeed, as “heirs of God and also fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17) we too look forward to a land of promise, an even better land, to which our Lord will bring us in the everlasting state (Rev. 21-22). And as believers in Christ who await that promised glorious future, we, no less than Abraham (Rom. 4:20-22), may have full confidence in the promise of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel to meet our every need (cf. Deut. 30:20; cf. 2 Cor. 1:19-22; Gal. 3:16).
The God of Abraham praise, who reigns enthroned above;
ancient of everlasting days, and God of love.
He by Himself hath sworn, I on His oath depend;
I shall on eagles’ wings upborne, to Heaven ascend.
I shall behold His face, I shall His pow’r adore,
and sing the wonders of His grace forevermore.25
1 Unless otherwise noted, all scriptural citations will be taken from the NET Bible.
2 For a discussion of the original text as to this formula, see the NET textual note.
3 Ross Murfin and Supriya M. Ray, The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997), 224.
4 See further, A. Altmann, ed., Biblical Motifs (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966).
5 Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 373.
6 C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament: The Pentateuch, ed. James Martin, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956) 1:193.
7 Allen P. Ross, Creation & Blessing (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 310. Abram’s declaration of faith had a far reaching impact upon Hebrew thought. It can doubtless be recognized as embedded in Habakkuk’s prophetic words that, “The person of integrity will live because of his integrity” (Hab. 2:4; cf. Rom. 3:17; Gal. 3:11). See further, Richard D. Patterson, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 221-23; see also reprint edition by Biblical Studies Press (2003), 202-03).
8 Andreas J. Kӧstenberger and Richard D. Patterson, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011), 178. For further details, see pages 174-187.
9 For further helpful details concerning God’s gracious dealings with Abraham, see Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Promise-Plan of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978, 2008), 54-61.
10 The Genesis account would seem to indicate that Jacob had actually wrestled with God and seen him “Face to face” and “survived” (v. 30). This, however seems to be contrary to God’s word to Moses that, “No man can see me and live” (Deut. 33:20; cf. vv. 21-23). As Kenneth A. Matthews (Genesis 11:27-50: 26, The New American Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen [Nashville, 2005], 560) points out, “Much ancient Jewish and Christian speculation arose from this fascinating encounter of Jacob and the ‘man’.” Jewish tradition held that Jacob’s opponent was an angel. Some Christian interpreters suggested that the angel was a type of Christ. Interestingly, the prophet Hosea declares that Jacob, “Struggled with an angel and prevailed” (Hos. 12:4). Accordingly, Thomas Edward McComiskey, (“Hosea,” in The Minor Prophets, ed. Thomas Edward McComiskey, 3 vols.[Grand Rapids; Baker, 1992]1:201), decides that the “manifestation of the divine presence was an angel” sent by the Lord. He goes on to add, “It is best to understand that the angel of the Lord as a self-manifestation of God in a way that would communicate certain aspects of God’s character peculiar to the existing circumstances.”
11 It is also of great importance that Jesus used the term “I Am” not only in revealing to the Samaritan woman that he is the promised Messiah of Israel, but on several different occasions he employed this term metaphorically to emphasize his unique position as the Savior of the world. Thus he declared himself to be: the bread of life (John 6:35; cf. vv. 41, 48, 51), the light of the world (John 8:12), the door (John 10:9), the good shepherd (John 10:11, 14), the resurrection and the life (John 11:25), the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), and the true vine (John 15:1; cf. v. 5).
12 U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1974), 38. For further implications as to the force of Exodus 3:5, see especially the NET text notes, #1 and #4.
13 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Exodus,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, eds. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, 13 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, Rev. ed., 2008) 1:392.
15 See further the helpful discussion in John N. Osborne, “Exodus,” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, ed. Philip W. Comfort, 18 vols. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2008) 1:328-30.
16 The use of the name Isaac here reinforced the covenantal nature of Moses’ request, for it reflects Jacob’s name change at the time of God’s blessing of Jacob as an heir of the Abrahamic Covenant and his name being included as the third part of the covenant formula.
17 R. Dennis Cole, Numbers, The New American Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville, Broadman & Holman, 2000), 240.
18 For further details, see the discussions in Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 404-405; Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, The New American Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 451-54.
19 For further information concerning Hosea’s prophetic teaching concerning Jacob’s struggle with the angel of the Lord (Hos. 12:2-6), see Richard D. Patterson and Andrew E. Hill, Minor Prophets; Hosea-Malachi, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, ed. Philip W. Comfort, 18 vols. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2008)10: 22-24; Richard D. Patterson, Hosea, Biblical Studies Press (Richardson, TX: 2009), 11-18.
20 Grant R. Osborne, “James,” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, ed. Philip W. Comfort, 18 vols. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2011) 18:63. Osborne goes on to add. “Neither faith nor works can function properly apart from each other. The two are ‘co-workers’ in the journey of the Christian life.”
21 Note also the remembrance of Jacob in the narrative of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well (John 4: 5-6, 12).
22 David W. Pao, “Luke,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, eds. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, 13 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, Rev. ed., 2007) 10: 301.
23 David Gooding, According to Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 323. It is of interest to note as well that in his defense before the Jewish council Stephen also refers to the incident of the burning bush (Acts 7:30-34) in which he also cites the familiar patriarchal formula (v. 32).
24 William J. Larkin, “Acts,” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, ed. Philip W. Comfort, 18 vols. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House. 2006) 12: 405.
25 Thomas Olivers, “The God of Abraham Praise.”