Let us look at those three men in greater detail. God made a promise to Abraham on which Christians still rely. God began creation with one man and he began redemption with one man. We are told that God made a covenant with Abraham, a theme which continues through the Bible to Jesus himself, who institutes a new covenant commemorated at the Lord’s Supper.
It is important to grasp the meaning of “covenant” clearly. Some confuse it with the word “contract”, but it is not a bargain struck between two parties of equal power and authority. A covenant is made entirely by one party to bless the other. The other party has only two choices: to accept the terms or to reject them. They cannot change them. When God makes covenants he keeps them and swears by them. Where a human being might say “by God I promise to do that”, God says “by myself I have sworn”, because there is nothing above God to swear by. So he swears by himself and he tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
In his promise to Abraham, God repeats the words of intention “I will” six times in Genesis 12, rather like a husband marrying a bride. The truth is that the God of the universe married himself to this particular family and his first promise was to give them a place to live in (a little patch of land where the continents meet – the very center of the world’s land mass is Jerusalem and that is where the roads from Africa to Asia and from Arabia to Europe cross, near a little hill called Armageddon in Hebrew, the crossroads of the world). God said, in effect, “This is the place I am going to give you for ever.” They hold the title deeds to that place, whatever anybody else says, because God gave the title deeds to them, to Abraham and his descendants for ever.
His second promise was to give them descendants. He said there would always be descendants of Abraham on the earth. And he said this in spite of both Abraham’s and Sarah’s advancing years.
The third promise was that he would use them to bless or to curse every other nation. The calling of the Jews is to share God with everybody. It is a calling that can cut both ways, for God said to Abraham, “Those who curse you will be cursed, those who bless you will be blessed.” In return God expected first that every male Jew would be circumcised as a sign that they were born into that covenant, and second that Abraham would obey God and do everything God told him to do.
This covenant is at the very heart of the Bible and is the basis upon which God said, “I will be your God and you will be my people”, a phrase which is repeated all the way through the Bible until the very last page in Revelation. It tells us that God wants to stick with us. At the very end of the Bible God himself moves out of heaven and comes down to earth to live with us on a new earth for ever.
We know less about him than about his father Abraham or his son, Jacob, but he is the vital link between them. His faith is to be seen in his accepting God’s choice of a wife, staying in the land of Canaan when famine struck and leaving the land to his son even though he did not possess it in fact, only in promise. Sadly, his loss of sight in old age led to deception by his own family.
Jacob is perhaps the most colorful of the three men. Even when he was being born he was holding the heel of his twin brother Esau, he was grasping from the very beginning. Esau went to live in a place we now call Petra, where it is still possible to view amazing temples carved out of the red sandstone. It was here that Esau formed the nation of Edom. The hatred between Ishmael and Isaac still exists in the Middle East in the tension between Arab and Jew, but the hatred between Esau and Jacob has disappeared. The last Edomites were known by the name of Herod and it was a descendant of Esau who was King of the Jews when Jesus was born. He killed all the babies in Bethlehem to try to get rid of this descendant of Jacob who was born to be King.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all showed their faith in one extraordinary, final way. They each left their sons what they did not actually possess. Abraham said to Isaac that he was leaving to him the whole land around them. Isaac also said to Jacob that he was leaving him the whole land, and Jacob said to his 12 boys that he was leaving them the whole land of Canaan. But not one of them possessed what they bequeathed. Only Abraham actually owned any land and this was just the cave at Hebron where Sarah lay buried. They each believed that God had given to them what they were bequeathing, and that one day the whole land would be theirs.
When we read about these men much later in the Bible in Hebrews 11, we discover that “all these people were still living by faith when they died”. They were all commended for their faith, “yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect”. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not dead. We can see the tombs of their bodies in Hebron, but they are not dead. Jesus said that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – not was but is. He is not the God of dead people: he is the God of the living.