The God of the Fathers

The second part of Genesis (chapters 12-36) records the stories of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Given that the final form of the text known to us dates from many centuries after the era of the patriarchs, what can we learn from Genesis about the era of the patriarchs? As with the Pentateuch more broadly, much study of this question has focused on the various names and titles for God found in the text.

God Almighty, The God of Bethel; God Everlasting; God Who Sees

The first question we face is what to make of the various names or titles that identify God by a certain attribute or place, such as El Bethel, “God of Bethel” (Gen 31:13) or El Sadday, “God Almighty” (Gen 17:1). Writing a major study in 1929, Albrecht Alt treated these titles only briefly, preferring to focus instead on the paternal titles such as “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.”

Considering the occasions in Genesis where God is given, or gives himself, a title associated with a particular place, Alt saw these occurrences as relics of earlier forms of worship, localized to such sanctuaries: for example, “I am the God of Bethel” at Bethel (El Beth-el; Gen. 31:13, 35:7); “God Everlasting” in a grove at Beersheba (El Olam; Gen 21:33), “the One who sees”  (El Ro’i; Gen. 16:13-14) at a well “between Kadesh and Bered” (Alt, 10-11). In fact, the mere mention of a sanctuary was enough for Alt to detect an ancient form of religion. But Alt did not attach any particular significance to the titles. He simply viewed them as designating the particular cult of that particular location (of Bethel, of Beersheba, etc.)

By contrast, H. G. May noticed parallels outside the Bible for titles such as el elyon qoneh samayim wa-ares (“God Most High, Creator of Heaven and Earth”). In Genesis 14:19 this term is used by Melchizedek, king/priest of Salem, then in Genesis 14:22 it is used again by Abram. May found a parallel in Philo of Byblos‘s account of the ancient Phoenician pantheon: “Elioun, called ‘Most High'” (118).

Also, citing associations betwen El Sadday(God Almighty) and cuneiform sadu (“mountain”), May observed that:

Shaddai or El Shaddai does not seem to have been associated with any particular sanctuary, and may have been a general title of El… The tradition that Shaddai or El Shaddai was a pre-Mosaic title of Deity, is valid, supported by the names Ammi-Shaddai [Num. 5:12], Suri-Shaddai [Num. 2:12], and Shaddai-Or [Num. 7:30], all names of fathers whose sons are said to be contemporary with Moses, and so confessedly pre-Mosaic and doubtless pre-Yahwistic. (122)

Then in 1962, Frank Moore Cross also argued on the basis of comparisons with other ancient Semitic traditions that the God of the patriarchs was known especially by the name El Sadday. Lewy (in 1934) had found Old Assyrian references from the early second millennium to “Ilabrat, the god of our father,” while Cross later found additional such references, in Cappadocian cuneiform tablets, to “Amurru, the god of my father” and “Ishtar, god of our fathers,” as well as Amorite parallels (Cross, 8-11). The antiquity and similarity of these references convinced Cross that El Sadday was the proper name of God known to the patriarchs.

Such references to El Sadday and the patriarchs include:

  • God appears to Abraham saying “I am God Almighty; walk before me” (Gen. 17:1).
  • When Isaac blesses his son Jacob, he says, “May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and numerous” (Gen. 28:3).
  • When Jacob returns to Bethel, God says to him, “I am God Almighty; be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 35:11).
  • When Joseph’s brothers return from Egypt, their father Joseph says to them, “May God Almighty grant you mercy before the man” (Gen. 43:14)
  • Later, Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz” (Gen. 48:3)
  • Finally, at the end of Jacob’s life when he blesses his son Joseph, he refers to “The God of your father who will help you / The Almighty who will bless you” (Gen 49:25).

Writing in 1980, Gordon Wenham observed that “El Shaddai [Sadday]” appears only in the patriarchs’ dialogue (and thus is perhaps more likely to stem from an original source), and never in the narrative framework surrounding the dialogue (where later editors are perhaps more likely to have added their interpretations). By contrast, in the Joseph cycle, “Yahweh” is found only in the narrative framework, and never in the dialogue, suggesting the reverse (Wenham, pp. 159-160).

El in Canaanite and Hebrew Religion

Another challenging question is when, or whether, the word El in Genesis means simply “god,” or instead names Elthe high god of the Canaanite religion. Alt (writing in 1929) following the older view, considered these instances of el as generic appellatives, i.e. el bet-el, means simply:the god of Bethel.” Also at that time, scholars saw El as one among many Canaanite gods, with no sense of El’s preeminence in that pantheon.

However, by 1941, Herbert Gordon May stated confidently that these titles belonged to “El, head of a pantheon” (114). By 1962, Cross argued most strongly that “in the Canaanite pantheon ‘Il [later Semitic El] was the proper name of the god par excellence, the head of the pantheon” (12). He did concede that strictly in terms of grammar, the el-epithets could be read either as the proper name of God (i.e., El) or as a generic appellative meaning simply “god” (i.e. el; 47).

However, Cross was convinced that since Alt’s time, the weight of comparative evidence in Canaanite religion, especially from Ugaritic texts published since 1929, determined that they must instead refer to El, the high God or “cosmic deity” who would eventually be identified with Yahweh. Thus, Cross reads el elohe yisra’el as “El, god of (the Patriarch) Israel” (Gen. 33:20) and el elohe abika as “El, god of your father” (Gen. 46:3). Reviewing a vast range of ancient evidence, Cross concluded:

We see ‘El as the figure of the divine father. ‘El cannot be described as a sky god like Anu, a storm god like Enlil or Zeus, a chthonic god like Nergal, or a grain god like Dagon. The one image of ‘El that seems to tie all of his myths together is that of the patriarch. Unlike the great gods who represent the powers behind the phenomena of nature, ‘El is in the first instance a social god. He is the primordial father of gods and men, sometimes stern, often compassionate, always wise in judgment.
While he has taken on royal prerogatives and epithets, he stands closer to the patriarchal jduge over the council of gods. He is at once father and ruler of the family of gods, functions brought together in the human sphere only in those societies which are organized in tribal leagues or in kingdoms where kinship survives as an organizing power in the society….
‘El is creator, the ancient one whose extraordinary procreative powers have populated heaven and earth, and there is little evidence that his vigor has flagged.

Finally, Cross concludes: “‘El is rarely if ever used in the Bible as the proper name of a non-Israelite, Canaanite deity in the full consciousness of a distinction between ‘El and Yahweh, god of Israel. This is a most extraordinary datum” (44) This is, of course, in contrast to Ba’al, who is frequently denounced in the Bible.

In light of the attributes of El in Canaanite religion, combined with the lack of anti-El polemic in the Bible, Cross concluded that the titles considered here were “epithets of El preserved in Patriarchal tradition” (60) and that:

Many of the traits and functions of El appear as traits and functions of Yahweh in the earliest traditions of Israel: Yahweh’s role as judge in the court of ‘El (Psalm 82; Psalm 89:6-8) and in the general picture of Yahweh at the head of the Divine council; Yahweh’s kingship (Exodus 15:18; Deuteronomy 33:15; Numbers 24:21); Yahweh’s wisdom, age, and compassion… and above all, Yahweh as creator and father (Genesis 49:25; Deuteronomy 32:6). (72)

The God of the Fathers: The Benefactor of Abraham, the Fear of Isaac, the Mighty One of Jacob

Alt was most concerned with the several occasions in Genesis when God appears to the patriarchs and identifies himself as “the God of [your father].” For example:

  • God appears to Isaac at night, saying “I am the God of Abraham your father (elohe abraham abika); fear not” (Gen 26:24).
  • When Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching up to heaven, God appears above the ladder, saying: “I am the LORD God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac (elohe abraham abika welohe yishaq)” (Gen. 28:13).
  • Later, when Jacob confronts Laban, Jacob refers to “The God of my father, the God of Abraham and the fear of Isaac” (elohe abi elohe abraham upahad yishaqGen 31:42).

In Alt’s interpretation of the book’s sources, although the later Yahwist editor was responsible for these sections–and would have preferred to simply refer to God as YHWH, here as elsewhere–this Yahwist editor nevertheless felt compelled to use the archaic titles. Alt explained the use of these titles by saying that:

  1. It would make no sense for the Yahwist to invent such titles, and
  2. The editor and his readers would have been aware of an older tradition, under which God was known by those titles.

In Alt’s view, later tradition would understand “The God of Abraham” etc. simply as an occasional identifications for God, similarly to Elisha’s reference to “The God of Elijah” (2 Kings 2:14) or Nebuchadnezzar’s reference to “The God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego” (Daniel 3:28), not recognizing the more ancient layer of religion underneath these titles (Alt 32). In fact, Alt believed that the titles originated in separate cult sites associated with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, respectively, and only later combined.

Alt analyzed the “god of the father” references according to geography. He found references to the “God of Jacob” in the area conquered and settled by the tribe of Joseph (Bethel, Shechem, Dothan, Mahanaim, Pnuel, Succoth). In contrast, the “God of Isaac” was only worshipped at Beersheba, settled by the tribe of Simeon but the site of pilgrimage from across Israel, and similarly, the “God of Abraham” was associated with Mamre, also the site of widespread pilgrimage (Alt, 66-69).

Whereas Alt had imagined that the “god of the father” was associated the local cults at each patriarch’s associated site (i.e. Bethel, Beersheba, etc.), and propagated more widely by traveling pilgrims who visited such sites, by contrast, later scholars discounted the “god of the father” with any particular place. Herbert May emphasized that “the God of My Father” was:

A personal deity… not at all an ancestral or clan deity, but stood in more specific relationship to one’s immediate parent (123)… there is no hint that this personal deity was identified with one of the gods of the pantheon (125)… Jacob, who worshiped ‘the God of His Father’ would hardly have founded the cult of a different personal deity, the Abir of Jacob [i.e. the Mighty One/[Bull] of Jacob; see below] (126)

Then in 1961, William F. Albright wrote about the archaeological discoveries of Nelson Glueck, which he associated with a flourishing donkey caravan trade in the 19th century BC, at the time of Abraham. Albright described Abraham as one among many prosperous traveling merchants of this time, and noted in relation to Alt’s thesis on “the god of the fathers” that:

All the close parallels to Hebrew Patriarchal ideas in this area come from contemporary and later merchant communities [i.e. Cappadocian, 19th century BC, and later Nabataean and Palmyrene], whose members spent most of their time away from their native towns and tribes. Under such circumstances it is obvious that reliance on paternal and family divinities gave both traders and caravaneers a religious basis quite independent of geographical location. (49)

In considering this type of title, Cross called attention to the difference between generic titles such as “God of Isaac,” which he saw as a later harmonization, and those such as “Fear of Isaac,” which he saw as of older origin. Cross observed that several of the several divine titles include a “frozen archaism, terms which did not survive in later Hebrew in their early, ordinary meaning” (Cross 6). These are:

  • In a vision, God says to Abram “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield (magen), your very great reward” (Gen. 15:1 NIV). In comparison, Cross cited the Ugaritic ma-gan-i and Phoenician magon, “from the root mgn, ‘to bestow (favor),'” hence here God is “Benefactor of Abram” (4n5).
  • Jacob refers to God as “the Fear (upahad) of his father Isaac” (Gen. 31:42,53).
  • At the end of the Joseph story, when Jacob is blessing his sons, he blesses his son Joseph by “the Mighty One of Jacob” (abir yaaqob; Gen. 49:24). This title is also used later in Isaiah and in the Psalms (Isaiah 49:26, 60:16; Psalm 132:2,5).

Cross observed that animal names were often used as titles for human leaders in Old Hebrew and Ugaritic (4n6; perhaps like sports teams today, e.g. “Chicago Bulls”; citing Patrick D. Miller, “Animal Names as Designations in Ugaritic and Hebrew,” 1971). Such examples include:

In like manner, Cross saw a parallel between abir (“mighty one”) in reference to Jacob, and abbirwhich can be translated as “the mighty” (Job 34:20) or as “bulls” (Psalm 68:30; Psalm 50:13) or even as “stallions” (Jeremiah 8:16, 47:3, 50:11).

The Oath of Jacob and Laban

For Alt, the covenant oath of peace sworn by Jacob and Laban after their confrontation is especially of interest in showing the nature of the “God of the father.” The received text reads: “The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us. So Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac” (Gen. 31:53 ESV).

According to Alt’s theory, the first half of the verse must have come from the Yahwist, reading “Let the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor be judges between us,” and was later combined with the second half of the verse, referencing “the fear of his father Isaac”. This, however, seemed to impute polytheism to the patriarch Jacob, and thus would have been unacceptable to the later traditions. Therefore, the later scribes responsible for the Greek (Septuagint), Samaritan, and Hebrew (Masoretic) versions tried to resolve this problem in different ways, and make the reference to a singular God, as by the insertion of “the God of their father” (as above, from the Masoretic Text). Alt concluded:

All these abortive attempts to improve the text only show the great antiquity of what is revealed by the original form: like Jacob, Laban also had a theos patroos, referred to by the name of his ancestor, and for both parties these numina were their own gods, apart from whom no other could serve to bind permanently by an oath the men belonging to the leaders (23).

YHWH, the God of the Fathers

For Alt, the appearance to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3) demonstrates how the “God of the Father” is incorporated into later tradition. There, the voice of God first says to Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (elohe abraham elohe yishaq welohe yaaqob; Ex. 3:6).

But then, Moses responds with a request: If Moses were to return to the Israelites saying, “The god of your forefathers has sent me to you,” the people would then ask for the name of the god who sent him (Ex. 3:13). In response, God says: “I AM WHO I AM. Say this to the sons of Israel: I AM has sent me to you” (Ex. 3:14). (According to Sigmund Mowinckel in 1961, the Israelites’ request for the divine name would be a way of ensuring that Moses had not been tricked by one of the many deceptive deities who might claim falsely to be “the God of your father.”)

For Alt, this explanation by God was necessary in order to show the equivalence between the older titles (elohe abraham, etc.) by which God was known to the patriarchs, and the divine name (YHWH ) newly revealed to Moses. This is shown by the immediately following verse (“a later addition”), in which God says: “Say this to the sons of Israel: ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob (Yahweh elohe abotekem elohe abraham elohe yishaq elohe yaakob), has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and this is my memorial to all generations” (Ex. 3:15; Alt 13-15).

Further, Alt (like Cross later) believed that the titles that named a characteristic of God (e.g., “The Fear of Isaac” in Gen 31:42 and “The Mighty One of Jacob” in Gen 49:24) were older titles or names, later harmonized to simply “The God of Abraham, The God of Isaac, The God of Jacob” as in Exodus 3:6,15.

However, the theophany (self-revelation of God) to Moses here presents a problem, as confirmed by Exodus 6:3, where God says: “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty (el sadday), but by my name The LORD (YHWHI did not make myself known to them.” The problem is: How can this statement be squared with the earlier references to “YHWH” in Genesis, preceding this theophany to Moses?

One solution to this problem would be: the references in Genesis to YHWH were added at a late date by the Yahwist editor, for the benefit of that later community who by this time already knew God by name as “YHWH.” (An analogy might be to discussions today of ancient archeological sites that refer to them as located in “Iraq” or “Turkey.” We all know that those countries did not exist in ancient times; nevertheless, the reference helps us understand the locations. Similarly, references in Genesis to “YHWH” might be read to mean: “the God YHWH (whom your ancestors knew as El Sadday).”

Another approach to the problem is seen in the late antique and medieval commentaries discussed by Gordon Wenham (1980; p. 178). Attempting to harmonize Exodus 6:3 with the Genesis identifications of God as YHWH, these commentators argued that the “name” which God had not revealed to the patriarchs actually referred to some aspect of God’s character that God had not made known to them. For example, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan reads “in the character of my Shekinah [glory] I did not make myself known.” Medieval Jewish commentators took similar approaches:

For Rashi, the divine characteristic implied by Yahweh was the fulfilment of promises. The patriarchs received promises, but did not experience their fulfilment. For Rambam the difference between God as El Shaddai and God as Yahweh lay in the difference between the providential power of God and his miracle-working power. Thus the patriarchs simply experienced God controlling their circumstances and protecting them in ordinary natural ways, while Moses experienced supernatural miraculous divine interventions. (Wenham, 178)

Surveying these as well as other proposed solutions to the problem, Wenham concluded that none of them is entirely satisfactory (179). After considering at some length the question of whether the name YHWH could have been known to the patriarchs, Wenham concluded:

What seems more compatible with the evidence is that the Yahwistic editor of Genesis was so convinced of the identity of Yahweh and the God who revealed himself to the patriarchs, that he not only used Yahweh in the narrative, but also more sparingly in reporting human and angelic speech. He showed even more restraint in modifying divine utterances. Often the old title of God was left unaltered. When the editor wanted to express the identity of the patriarchal God with Yahweh, he usually did it by adding Yahweh to an older epithet. Only in one case does Yahweh replace an older epithet, for which (I have suggested) there is a particular theological reason.

If this is the correct understanding of the Genesis editor’s method, it sheds fresh light on Exodus 3 and 6. Taken together these passages do suggest that a genuinely new name of God, Yahweh, was vouchsafed to Moses. And this is the way the ancient translators took it. However, this did not mean that there was a clash with the Genesis traditions, because they are not always verbatim reports of divine revelation. Where it suited his theological purpose the Genesis editor could add and even once substitute Yahweh in the divine speeches. However, the great reserve with which in practice he modified the wording of the speeches of God, as far as the use of the divine names is concerned, could well extend to the promises contained in these speeches.  (Wenham 183)

Considering this as well as other aspects of Genesis, Wenham concluded by noting four main features of patriarchal religion that suggested an early date:

  1. First, there is the use of the term El instead of Yahweh in divine revelation… The exclusiveness, holiness, and strictness of the God of Exodus is absent from Genesis. Though the patriarchs are faithful followers of their God, they generally enjoy good relations with men of other faiths. There is an air of ecumenical bonhomie about the patriarchal religion which contrasts with the sectarian exclusiveness of the Mosaic age and later prophetic demands.
  2. Secondly, the complete absence of Baal from the patriarchal tradition points to its antiquity. In the second half of the second millennium BC Baal took over from El as the leading god in the west Semitic pantheon, yet he is never mentioned in Genesis.
  3. A third feature distinguishing patriarchal religion is its unmediatedness. God spoke to the patriarchs directly in visions and dreams, and not through prophets. In their turn they built altars and offered sacrifice themselves without priestly aid. Such religious immediacy fits in with the nomadic way of life of the patriarchs, but is quite different from the religion of the monarchy period where priests and prophets were the usual mediators between God and man. …
  4. The final striking difference between the patriarchal period and the first-millennium scene is the non-mention of Jerusalem. … Psalms 76 and 110 identify Salem (Gen. 14) with Jerusalem, while 2 Chronicles 3:1 identifies Moriah (Gen. 22:2) with Mount Zion. But in Genesis itself there is no hint of these identifications(Wenham, 184-185)

An Invention from the time of the Exile?

An entirely different interpretation was advanced by John Van Seters, who questioned all of the justifications for early date advanced by the scholars named above. In general, Van Seters sees all of this material as dating to the Exile. For example:

The el epithets in Genesis may be explained entirely on the basis of the inner Israelite liturgical tradition… the increasing use of el and epithets compounded in el in the Old Testament during the exilic period would seem to suggest a tendency to adopt language for the deity that had more universal application since the term el had become a general term for deity for a rather wide range of Semitic languages and dialects. But it also retained in some sense hte meaning of supreme deity. It was for this reason, I believe, that the term was so popular with Second Isaiah while it is fairly rare with the prophets before his time. It is in this prophet of the exile that one finds the most universalistic and monotheistic outlook. All these references to el epithets are not archaic survivals of an earlier age but represent an increasing effort to identify Yahweh with the one universal deity reflected in the use of the term el. In the logic of Second Isaiah there can be only one el creator of heaven and earth and Yahweh is this deity. (Van Seters 1980, 230)


  1. Albrecht Alt, “The God of the Fathers,” in Essays on Old Testament History and Religion, trans. R.A. Wilson (Doubleday, 1967), 1-100. Originally published as Der Gott der Väter (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1929).
  2. Herbert Gordon May, “The Patriarchal Idea of God,” Journal of Biblical Literature 60:2 (June 1941), 113-128.
  3. W. F. Albright, “Abram the Hebrew: A New Archaeological Interpretation,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 163 (October 1961), 36-54.
  4. Sigmund Mowinckel, “The Name of the God of Moses,” Hebrew Union College Annual 32 (1961), 121-133.
  5. John Van Seters, “Confessional Reformulation in the Exilic Period,” Vetus Testamentum 22:4 (October 1972), 448-459.
  6. Frank Moore Cross, “The Religion of Canaan and the God of Israel,” in Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Harvard University Press, 1973): 1-75. First part originally published as “Yahweh and the God of the Patriarchs,” Harvard Theological Review 55:4 (October 1962), 225-259.
  7. N. Wyatt, “The Problem of the ‘God of the Fathers,'” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 90:1 (January 1978), 101-104.
  8. John Van Seters, “The Religion of the Patriarchs in Genesis,” Biblica 61:2 (1980), 220-233.
  9. Gordon J. Wenham, “The Religion of the Patriarchs,” in A. R. Millard and D. J. Wiseman, eds., Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives (Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), 157-188.
  10. Ronald A. Hendel, “Finding Historical Memories in the Patriarchal Narratives,” Biblical Archaeology Review 21:4 (July-August 1995), 52-59, 70-71.

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