Genesis 1–11 took us through four major events: the formation of the universe, the fall of man, the flood, and the fallout from mankind’s rebellion. Beginning in chapter 12, we see the beginning of the Hebrew race, God’s chosen people, through the stories of four great men.

We call these men the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Though the Bible is historical, it is also biographical. It centers not just on events but on people. Events are important, but God is all about people. When His people came to Mount Sinai, the Lord said to them, “If you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people” (Exodus 19:5).

God is always reaching out to people. He began by walking with Adam and Eve in the cool of Eden, then preserving humanity from the flood through Noah, and eventually reaching out to the Hebrew nation and ultimately the entire world through Jesus Christ. Genesis is where all of this began—though God Himself, of course, has no beginning and no end. Genesis shows the beginning of the universe and the earth; of mankind, marriage, and family; of the Sabbath and sacrifice; of human government, nations, languages, and Israel.

Let me bring you back to the grand theme, the scarlet thread running through the entire Bible: God selected a nation so that He could bring the Messiah into the world through that nation, and save the world through that Messiah, His Son. Remember the four events we’ve looked at: the world’s formation, the fall, the flood, and the fallout of man’s rebellion. God responded to man’s rebellion by doing what He said He was going to do back in chapter 3: produce the Seed of the woman, who would come and bruise the head of the serpent, Satan. That was always in God’s mind, and this part of His plan involved the formation of Israel.

There’s a distinct shift that takes place between Genesis 11 and Genesis 12 as God began to build Israel through the lives of four great men: We go from studying great events to studying great people. For the remaining thirty-nine chapters of Genesis, we will look primarily at the biographies of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Just to give you an idea of their significance to God, the first eleven chapters of Genesis cover some 2,000-plus years historically. The next thirty-nine chapters cover only 350 years. God could have said a whole lot more about cosmology and creation, but He left that out. What is of primary importance to the story is the genealogy and generations of a guy named Shem, and how his lineage continued through Abraham and culminated in Jesus Christ. Genesis 1–11 covers about nineteen generations. The next sixteen chapters, the middle of Genesis, deal with one person—Abraham. He’s called the father of faith, the father of those who believe. Genesis 12 covers two important parts of his story: his testimony and his testing.

There are three major world religions that trace their spiritual heritage, at least in part, back to Abraham: principally, Judaism, followed by Christianity and Islam. All of them revere Abraham. However, the Qur’an tells Abraham’s story a bit differently. The Islamic account replaces Isaac with Ishmael as Abraham’s promised son who was almost sacrificed to God in Genesis 22. But, even though they have rewritten the story, the Muslims join Jews and Christians in paying homage to Abraham.

The bulk of the material that focuses on Abraham is in the Old Testament, but his influence carries on into the New Testament. Paul wrote Galatians 3–4 featuring Abraham’s example, and Romans 4 lists Abraham as a prime example of justification by faith, quoting Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Romans 4:3).

Abraham is the example of what it means to be justified by trusting in God apart from your own works. Three times in the Bible, Abraham is called the friend of God—in 2 Chronicles 20, Isaiah 41, and James 2. To this day, Arabs call Abraham el khalil—God’s friend. It’s hard to have a better testimony than that. And while his son and grandson—Isaac and Jacob—wouldn’t quite have the same relationship with God that Abraham did, Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph would be a lot like the future Messiah whom God had promised. All four of these patriarchs shaped history, and we can learn a lot from them.

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Skip Heitzig, author of The Bible from 30,000 Feet, is pastor-teacher of Calvary Church, ministering to more than 15,000 people weekly. He holds a DD and PhD from Trinity Southwest University and has a popular multimedia teaching ministry that includes print, audio, and online resources. Skip and his wife, Lenya, reside in New Mexico and have one son and two grandchildren.