We go back in history to a period of about 2000 to 2500 BC (BCE if you are more comfortable with that term)
Two neighbouring civilizations based on rivers (Egypt on the Nile and the various Chaldean empires on the Tigris and Euphrates) are bright centers of world culture.
These civilizations exert a great deal of control over their environments due to their technology, and seek to replicate this control over the weather (and their crops) by means of polytheistic religions referred to as fertility cults. In other words, anyone who can create the impression that he can control the weather and ensure the crops grow will be given status as a priest of some deity or other.
The fertility cult practices, described by James Frazer in his book, 'The Golden Bough', amount to an attempt by man to control his environment (or the gods that control the environment). To make sure it rains in winter and the sun ripens the crops in summer. Anyone who seems to be able to do that and can engage in suitably theatrical incantations to convince everyone of his ability to continue to do that will be made a priest (p 47 'The Golden Bough') and then a king. For 'suitably theatric' read lots of attractive young maidens just dying to have sex (sometimes literally), thereby imitating the effect of rain and sun on the crops in the soil. (p 34 'The Golden Bough')
In other words, the fertility cults enable a man to force the gods to perform his demands. But the Yahweh religion of the Jews seems to require that man just takes whatever comes his way - there is not a lot he can do about it.
Of course it is no use growing magnificent crops if marauding raiders take them from you after they have been harvested. So persons with military skills are also required to organize the population to protect the boundaries of their territory. If you are good enough, and you can organize enough weak men into fighting units, it is likely you will be able to exclude raiding parties comprised of strong men. Such organizers becomes chiefs and kings, and will retain that status as long as they can ensure the weak men they have organized into armies respect the rights of their compatriots and do not themselves become bands of raiders. To do this, rules of acceptable conduct, or codes of law must be instituted. Both civilizations had highly developed codes of law. In fact the laws of the Chaldeans exhibit a striking similarity to much of the Law of Moses - more on that in the next section.
And then, no matter how good your laws, they will not be effective if the crops do not grow and the people are hungry. So a close connection between priest and king (church and state) is necessary.
Abraham's family belonged to the Chaldean civilization ('..Your fathers lived of old beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods….Joshua 24:2). They decided to turn their backs on that rich area and head south in search of new land.
God appeared to Abraham on seven occasions telling him his righteousness had been observed and promising him three things:
Many offspring but the blessing was to flow through the descendants of Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 35:11,12)
By Abraham, the families of the earth shall bless themselves
Abraham nephew Lot accompanied him to Canaan, where they both prospered to the extent that their servants were involved in internecine squabbles. Abraham suggested they separate and allowed Lot to nominate his choice of pastureland. Lot chose the green plains watered by the Jordan River (also the locality of Sodom and Gomorrah) (Genesis 13:5-11). God commended Abraham's unselfish action when he appeared to him the second time (Genesis 13:14-17) and promised him much land and many children
Lot prospered and acquired a town house and wife and family in Sodom. However God was indignant at the behaviour of his fellow citizens and on the sixth occasion upon which he visited Abraham (to announce the impending birth of Isaac - his son with Sarah) he also announced his intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot and his family fled and ended up living in a cave (Genesis 19:13), where, in a measure of desperation, his daughters got him drunk and slept with him, the results being Moab and Ammon. These children fathered kingdoms that reappear throughout the Old Testament, usually as less than friendly distant relatives of the Children of Israel.
In the meantime, Abraham seems to have despaired of producing offspring with his wife Sarah and had resorted instead to her handmaiden with who he produced Ishmael, ' a wild donkey of a man; his hand against everyone and everyone's hand against him, living in hostility toward all his brothers." (Genesis 16:12) His descendants settled in the area from Havilah to Shur, near the border of Egypt, as you go toward Asshur. And they lived in hostility toward all their brothers (Genesis 25:18).
As previously mentioned, when God visited Abraham the fifth time, he foretold the impending birth of Isaac (Genesis 17:21) and promised that the covenant he had made would be kept with Isaac's descendants
Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61."
Bob Dylan "Highway 61 Revisited"
The full story can be found in Genesis 22. God tested Abraham by telling him sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. Abraham proceeded to obey God's command but was stopped just as he was reaching for his knife to slay his son and told to substitute a ram, caught by its horns in a thicket. In other words, a ram's life (sheep) was substituted for that of a man.
Christian teachers suggest that this is a type (metaphor) for the death of Jesus as a substitute for the death of mankind - Jesus being the figurative ram (or Lamb of God) and Abraham being God the Father. There are other connections between the two stories:
They travel three days (Isaac being as good as dead) to the mountain. (The mountain is the site of the Muslim temple in Jerusalem today, though it has been suggested by some that the actual site is the mountain next to that one - Golgotha or Calvary, where Jesus was crucified.) Jesus was said to be dead for three days
Abraham tells Isaac that God himself will provide the lamb for the offering.
No mention is made of Isaac on the return trip - only the young men who had accompanied them. In fact the next time Isaac is mentioned is in Genesis 24:62, when he is united with his bride - Rebecca - a possible type (metaphor) for the relation between Jesus and the church The marriage was negotiated by Abraham's servant Eliezer (Gen 24:2) whose name is said to translate as Comforter (Gen 15:2) - the name ascribed to the Holy Ghost (or Spirit of God)
Jacob produces 12 sons,
one of whom leads his offspring into Egypt
On his fifth visitation (Genesis 17:1-21) God told Abraham the blessings he had promised would flow through Isaac.
Isaac's wife, Rebecca, produced twins and was told that, "Two nations are in your womb, and two perples, born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger (Genesis 25:23)
Jacob used unfair means to gain his brother Esau's birth right He refused to share the stew he had cooked (an mess of pottage) with his famished brother, unless his brother ceded to him his birth right.
He later tricked his father into granting him the blessing intended for the first born, Esau. (Genesis 27).
(Esau became father of the Edomites) (Genesis 25:29-32)
However God appeared to him and assured him the promise made to Abraham and Isaac would continue through his descendants. (Genesis 28:13-15, 31:3, 34:28) Jacob (or Israel as God renamed him) produced 12 sons with his two wives (sisters) and their handmaidens. These 12 sons later gave their names to the 12 tribes of Israel.
One of these sons, Joseph, was something a favourite of Jacob's and very much not the favourite of his siblings. (Genesis 37:3-4). Genesis 37 records two of Joseph's dreams
11 sheaves of wheat (Joseph's brothers) bowing down to one sheaf (Joseph), and much to Jacob's annoyance,
the Sun(Jacob), the moon (his mother) and the stars (his brothers) bowing down to him
The brothers decided to kill him but instead sold him as a slave to some traders heading for Egypt. After a while Joseph obtained a position of prominence in Egypt and encouraged members of his family to sojourn there when a famine made conditions difficult in the land of Canaan.
Promised Benefits Unconditional
Abraham demanded nothing from God, but was promised some rather enticing blessings without the need to ask. It is important to note that the covenant God entered into with Abraham was pretty well unconditional - it could not be negated.
Apart from a requirement that he get himself and all his retainers circumcised, it was unconditional. Abraham had already met all the conditions by moving to Cannan.
It was a covenant - Ancient Near-Eastern covenant making customs required animals to be cut up in pieces and lined up in two parallel rows. Then both parties to the contract would pass between the carcasses, rendering the contract mandatory on both parties. (Israelology p573) But to emphasize that the contract was non-conditional, God put Abraham into a deep sleep, and then passed through the carcasses as Abraham watched.
Genesis records seven meetings between God and Abraham, but the promised blessings can be summarised as:
Many offspring but the blessing was to flow through the descendants of Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 35:11,12)
By Abraham, the families of the earth shall bless themselves
God referred to these blessings as a covenant (a contract) but the terms of the contract required Abraham to do nothing further. In fact, God reckoned his very belief (faith) in the eventual performance of the terms of the contract, to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6).
Genesis 12 :1-3 Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your 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."
What God promised to Abraham the third time they talked.
Genesis 13:14-17 The LORD said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, "Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you."
Genesis 15:1-21 After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: "Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, [your very great reward." But Abram said, "O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir." Then the word of the LORD came to him: "This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir." He took him outside and said, "Look up at the heavens and count the stars--if indeed you can count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be." Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. He also said to him, "I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it." But Abram said, "O Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?"
So the LORD said to him, "Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon." Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away. As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the LORD said to him, "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure."
When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.
On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates-- the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites."
Genesis 17:1-21 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, "I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers." Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God."
Then God said to Abraham, "As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner--those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."
God also said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her."
Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, "Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?" And Abraham said to God, "If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!"
And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation.
But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year."
Genesis 18:17-19 Then the LORD said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him."
Genesis 22:15-18 The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, "I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."