What is different about these stories, however, is that God talks with the people in them and they talk to him. So we find that the God of the entire universe makes a special friend called Abraham. Indeed, God calls him “Abraham my friend”. This is the scandal of particularity. People cannot cope with a God who makes personal friends. They feel that somehow it is inappropriate, and yet that is the truth of what happens here.

The big question is: Why should God choose to identify himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? What is so special about them? This has been the question asked by other nations, other peoples, down through the ages. What is so special about the Jews? Why should they be the chosen people and not us?

The answer lies in God’s sovereign choice. These three men had no natural claim on God. He freely initiated the relationship with them and they could not claim that the relationship was due to them. Indeed, in each of the generations it is striking how the typical rights of inheritance are overturned.The first son would normally inherit the family wealth from the father, but in each generation God chooses not the eldest but the youngest son. He chooses Isaac, not Ishmael, and Jacob, not Esau. He is thus establishing that no one has a natural claim on his love: it is just his love to give as he chooses. It was not, therefore, a question of a straight hereditary link through the eldest son. Neither Isaac nor Jacob were the firstborn. What they inherited was a free gift.

More striking is the fact that none of these three men had a moral claim on God either, for they could not claim to be better than anyone else. In fact, the Bible states how each man lied to get himself out of a tricky situation. Both Abraham and Isaac lied through their teeth about their own wives to save their skins, and Jacob was the worst of the three. Not only were these men liars, they also took more than one wife. We are given a picture of very ordinary men like us who all had their weaknesses.

The only thing they had which did mark them out was faith. These men believed in God. God can do wonders when a person believes. God would rather have a believing person than a good person – he even said to Abraham that his faith went down in his book as “righteousness”. Good deeds without a belief in God count for nothing.

Isaac and Jacob shared that faith, although they were very different in personality and temperament. The one common thing between the three men was that they had faith.

The faith of the patriarchs

Abraham’s faith was especially evident when he left Ur of the Chaldees. The city was a very impressive, sophisticated place, one of the most advanced anywhere in the world, but God told Abraham he wanted him to live in a tent for the rest of his life. Not many of us would leave a comfortable city and live in a tent up in the mountains where it is cold and snows in winter, especially at the age of 75. God told him to leave a land he would never see again in order to go to a land he had never seen before. He must leave his family and friends (although in the event Abraham actually took his father and other members of his family halfway as far as Haran, from where he and his nephew Lot continued the journey). Abraham obeyed. He even believed God when he told him he would have a son despite his wife Sarah being 90 years old. (When the boy came they called him “Joke”. Isaac is Hebrew for “laugh”. When Sarah first heard that she was going to be pregnant at that age she just roared with laughter.)

Abraham’s faith had considerable knocks along the way. Eleven years passed after God’s promise and there was still no sign of a son. Abraham, at Sarah’s suggestion, sought offspring through her maidservant Hagar. The Bible makes it clear that Ishmael was not a “child of faith”, but a “child of the flesh” whom God did not choose (although God went on to bless him too with many generations of offspring which make up the Arab peoples today).

When Isaac eventually came, Abraham exercised faith when he was prepared to sacrifice him on an altar at God’s request. The Bible tells us that Abraham was willing to kill Isaac as a sacrifice because he believed God would raise him from the dead after he had killed him. Considering that God had never done that before, this was some faith! He reasoned that if God could produce life (Isaac) from his old body, he could surely bring Isaac back from the dead if he wanted.

Most of the pictorial representations of the sacrifice of Isaac paint him as a boy of 12. But if we examine the text surrounding this event we see that the very next thing that happens is Sarah’s death at the age of 127, which would make Isaac 37. So Isaac was probably in his early thirties at the time of the sacrifice. He could therefore have resisted easily, but he submitted in faith to his father Abraham, an old man. (The location is also significant, for the mountain of sacrifice was called Moriah, which later became Golgotha, or Calvary.) Isaac also demonstrates faith in other ways, principally in trusting Abraham’s servant to find him a wife.

Jacob too had faith, but initially this was only faith in himself. The narrative records how he manipulated his father into passing on the blessing to him rather than Esau by scheming and deception. But at least it showed that he wanted the blessing, in contrast to Esau’s disregard for what would have been his. Later in his life, God had to “break” Jacob. He limped for the rest of his life after wrestling with God all night. But this was the turning point for his faith in God. From that moment on he believed God’s promises that his 12 boys would become 12 tribes.

These three men, in spite of all their weaknesses and their failures, shine out as men who believed in God. They had faith, in sharp contrast to their relatives, who were people of flesh rather than people of faith.

Lot comes across as a materialist, choosing to go down into the fertile Jordan valley rather than live in the barren hills. He trusted his eyes, while Abraham, with the eyes of faith, knew that God would be with him in the hills. Esau decided he would rather have a bowl of “instant soup” than the blessing of his father. The letter to the Hebrews tells us not to be like Esau, who regretted his bargain and afterwards sought the blessing with tears, though without genuine repentance. There is, therefore, a stark contrast between the men of faith and their relatives of flesh – a distinction which runs through many families today.

This contrast is also seen in the men’s wives. Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel had one thing in common: they were all very beautiful. The three wives of the patriarchs had the lasting beauty of inner character and they all submitted to their husbands. The wives of the others are again a contrast. Lot’s wife, for example, looked back to the comfortable life they were leaving but which was going to be judged by God, and having disobeyed God’s word was turned into a pillar of salt.