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Session 3: Methods of Study and The Patriarchs


By the end of this session you should be able to: 

  • demonstrate an understanding of how Hebrew narrative works, including its dynamics and theological perspectives;

  • identify what we might learn about the time and culture of the Patriarchs from their stories;

  • consider different critical approaches to the texts;

  • apply key aspects of the text to the contemporary church.



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Blessed are you Lord our God,

for you come to us and seek to make your home in us.

As we study now, let our eyes and our ears be open to you

let our hearts find their rest and their joy in you

that we may grow in grace and live to your glory.

Blessed are you, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.



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In this session we will explore some of the ways that biblical scholars have used to open up the Old Testament and shed new light on this amazing spiritual resource. We will be particularly concentrating on Source Criticism (otherwise known as The Documentary Hypothesis) which will help with our exploration of the Pentateuch. Please note that the word 'criticism' when used in this way does not mean something negative. It is more about thinking deeply about something and using our God-given intellect to analyse and reflect thoughtfully on things.

The Authorship of the Pentateuch

For a long time, in fact right up to the 17th Century, it was thought that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament). Although a few scholars still hold to this view, most now believe that these books were a combination of the writings of a number of different authors. As this is the most widely held understanding it is the one we will concentrate on for the purposes of this course. Some Christians find this concept concerning but, as we saw in the video 'Who Wrote the Bible', it is no different to the accounts in the four gospels being woven together rather than split up. This could easily have been how we received the gospels and they might have been simply called “The Gospel of Jesus Christ 1, 2, 3 & 4”. The first book might have begun, for example, with John chapter 1 and then moved on to the genealogy from Matthew 1 and the birth narratives from Luke etc. In the Pentateuch we see a similar thing happening with several different authors' hands at work, some who may have been writing long after the events they describe, possibly during or even after the exile. This makes little difference to the truths the texts are telling us but it can help to shed some light on the emphases placed on different parts of the message at different points, and it can also explain some of the differences of style, grammar and occasionally, contradictions. As we go through the next few weeks we will keep these ideas in mind and you will begin to see how the different 'hands' might be at work as you read through the texts. The names given to these 'hands' are Jahwist (J), Elohist (E), Deuteronomist (D) and Priestly (P) and each has its own particular style - downlaod the pdf file 'Ways into the OT' to read more about this.

Now read Genesis Chapters 10-11 then watch lecture 5 or read chapter 5 of the text book.




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Make a note of the possible different sources outlined in this chapter of Hayes. What do you think about the Documentary Hypothesis?


Make notes of your thoughts for discussion at the next Study Day.


Read again Genesis Chapters 1 and 2. They are very different in style which makes us believe there were two different 'hands' at work on them.


Which of the possible sources do you think wrote each chapter?

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Image by Mark Rasmuson

The Patriarchs

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There appears to be a distinct threefold theme in the book of Genesis: God's grace is followed by humankind's sin which is then followed by God's grace. God acts in grace, humans sin, God forgives and responds in grace. Chapter 12 is the beginning of another repeat of this theme with the calling of Abraham and the promise of blessing to him and his descendants. The story of Abraham is one of the most well known in the Old Testament, particularly because of the sacrifice of Isaac, which is one of the most problematic OT scriptures for most Christians. Hopefully Hayes has shed some light on this difficult passage but it is also worth remembering that again the passage was about transforming something that was common in ANE religious practise – namely the sacrifice of human beings. In this passage God prevents Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, making it clear that this is not something required by Yahweh, a God who cares for humankind. The Abraham narrative also introduces the threefold promise of progeny, blessing and land which, as Hayes notes, underpins the whole of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.


Reflect on the stories of both Abraham and Isaac. What picture of God does the author paint in this story? What can we learn from this story today?


Make notes of your thoughts and post them on the discussion Forum.

The Story of Jacob

The story of Jacob is one which gives us much hope. Jacob is not by any means a typical hero! He is a liar, a cheat, a coward and a thief and yet God's uses this frail human being to help bring about God's purposes for the whole of the Hebrew peoples. God sees potential in Jacob that perhaps we do not and that brings hope for all of us, each with our own failings. Jacob's dream at Bethel (Genesis 28:10-19) is a pivotal point in the Jacob narrative and is worth reading closely.


Reflect on the story of Jacob - what pictures of God are portrayed and what can we learn from this story for today?


The Story of Joseph

Read Genesis 37 – Exodus 4. The story of Joseph has many resonances with the stories that have preceded it. Although not one of the Patriarchs, Joseph is again pivotal to the story of the Hebrews. In many ways Joseph is like Jacob - Hayes calls him 'a spoiled, arrogant brat who provokes his older brothers with his delusions of grandeur' (2012, p95). She has a point! He is not the firstborn (and neither was Isaac or, of course, Jacob) which flies in the face of the ANE custom of the firstborn being the one who inherits the blessings of the father (known as primogeniture). Yet it is Joseph who enables the rest of the sons of Jacob to survive and helps to carry Israel into the future. God's providence is clearly evident and this is the major theme of the stories of the Patriarchs and the story of Joseph, one which will continue into the next stage of Israelite history: the Exodus.

Spotlight on Doctrine

Turning again to the Apostle's Creed, we start it with the phrase "I believe in God the Father Almighty ..."  There is much in the stories of the Patriarchs about the faithfulness of God as well as descriptions of earthly fathers (Abraham and Jacob). Take some time to think about the different pictures of fatherhood portrayed in these stories and particularly the nature of the fatherhood of God.

Spotlight on Spirituality

The stories of the patriarchs offer much to many different spiritualities in the Christian Church.  The story of Jacob in particular offers much hope for all Christians, demonsrating that God loves us all in spite of our failings and not only sees our potential but is always ready to use whatever we can offer, meeting us wherever we are on our journey.

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Spend some time prayerfully thinking about what you have discovered in this session.  Below, in the Resources section, you will find a second timeline which is in table format.  Download it and keep it handy along with the Simple Timeline as you progress through the module.


Blessed are you, Lord our God, all things come from you:

from you come our life, this world and all that we have and are.

Teach us to love and respect your creation and give glory to you.

Blessed are you, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  Amen

To Do in Church This Week

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Make a note of whether your church reads a lesson from the Old Testament this week. If so, what was it?  Make a note of whether you recite the Apostle's or Nicene creed or a different form of Affirmation of Faith in your service.

Share some of what you have found on the discussion board in the Forum.