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Fall 1995 · Vol. 24 No. 2 · pp. 65–74 

Literary Structure and Theology of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Three-fold Blessing

Mary Anne Isaak

When studying the accounts of the fathers of the faith in Genesis 12-50, I asked myself: What guiding principle determined which information was highlighted in these passages? For example, why didn’t the story of Judah, the ancestor of David, receive more attention than a mere thirty verses? My conclusion is that stories of the patriarchs are guided by a strong central message about who God is and how he interacts with people. This central message is the theology that drives the patriarchal section of Genesis. In this article I use the literary structure of Genesis 12-50 as a tool to discover the underlying message that connects the stories.

Stories of the patriarchs are guided by a strong central message about who God is and how he interacts with people.

When searching for a theology of Genesis 12-50, it is logical to ask why we should treat these chapters as a separate unit within the larger context of the whole book. What does the overall structure of Genesis indicate? After an opening section, Genesis is divided into eleven sections which are generally delineated by a pattern of opening and closing formulas. The opening formula, “this is the account of X”, is missing from the story of two significant characters, Abraham and Joseph. The closing formula, an account of {66} the individual’s death including his age and some indication of how or where he was buried, is omitted from the account of the heavens and the earth, Adam, and Noah’s sons. 1 Because the main characters did not always die at the point where the plot picks up the story of the succeeding character, the actual story of one person may overlap the boundaries of the structure, as in the case of Jacob. In general however, the structure of Genesis can be outlined as follows:

  1. Prologue—Creation (1:1-2:3)
  2. The account of the heavens and the earth (2:4-4:26)
  3. The account of Adam’s line (5:1-6:8)
  4. The account of Noah (6:9-9:29)
  5. The account of Shem, Ham and Japheth (10:1-11:26)
    The account of Shem (11:10-11:26)
  6. The account of Terah (11:27-11:32)
  7. Abraham (12:1-25:11)
  8. The account of Ishmael (25:12-25:18)
  9. The account of Isaac (25:19-35:29)
  10. The account of Esau (36:1-36:43)
  11. The account of Jacob (37:1-50:13)
  12. Joseph ([37:2]-50:26) 2

The above pattern shows that chapters 12-50 are not radically separated from chapters 1-11. Instead they form a continuation of the story of “Yahweh’s attempt to come to terms with the world which he has created.” 3 However, we can also see that the Genesis narrative narrows from a cosmic and general concern in the first eleven chapters to the specific and personal story of one family in chapter 12 and following.

With the unity of the book in mind, we may expect that the themes from the beginning of Genesis are also emphasized in the stories of the patriarchs as well. Blessing is one such theme. The theme of blessing, accompanied by its antithesis of cursing, bubbles up throughout the first eleven chapters of Genesis. We find it in God’s initial blessing of humanity (1:28-29), in the curses after the fall, in God’s post-flood promise never to curse the ground again, in God’s blessing on Noah and his sons, and in Noah’s curse and blessings on his sons. The question now is how the theme of blessing is carried, or perhaps how the theme of blessing carries the narrative from chapter 12 to 50.

The patriarchal section of Genesis has often been seen as a series of three cycles. Even though the above structure outlines six characters, the story line is developed around three individuals: Abraham, Jacob and Joseph. {67}


Beginnings are important. Thus as the Genesis narrative narrows from a cosmic concern in the first eleven chapters to a story of one family, it is important to pay attention to the blessing God bestows at the initial calling of the father of that family.

In Genesis 12:1-7, God calls Abram to leave his country and people and go to the land that God would show him. God promises to make Abram into a great nation (12:2), to bless all peoples on the earth because of him (12:3). Later when Abram actually arrives in Canaan, God promises to give the land to his offspring (12:7). At this point, the three features of the blessing are: 1) descendants, 2) a blessing to other nations through Abram, and 3) ownership of the land. How do these three aspects of blessing work their way out in the rest of the story of Abram and his family?

We begin by exploring the structure of the Abraham cycle (12:1-25:11). The following chiasm appears in the opening chapters of the Abraham narrative. This suggested structure is reinforced by the location of the name change for Abram and Sarai. Thus the first panel narrates the story of “Abram and Sarai,” while the second panel develops parallel events for “Abraham and Sarah.”

A.   Command and Blessing (12:1-9)
    B.   Sarai as Sister (12:10-20)
        C.   Abram and Lot (13:1-14:16)
  • separation of land
  • rescue of Lot and family
  •             D.   Melchizedek meets Abram, blesses him (14:17-24)
                    E.   Covenant Ceremony (15:1-21)
                        F.      Hagar and Ishmael (16:1-16)
                    E’.   Covenant of Circumcision, name change (17:1-27)
                D’.   Three men (Lord) meet Abraham, give promise (18:1-21)
            C’.   Abraham and Lot (18:22-19:38)
  • Abraham pleads with God
  • rescue of Lot and family
  • Lot is debased
  •     B’.   Sarah as sister (20:1-18)
    A’.   Birth of Isaac (21:1-8)

    A chiasm is a device of ancient literature whose function corresponds to modern graphic signals such as paragraph indentation, section headings, or tables of contents. 4 A chiastic pattern focuses our attention on the end points and the pivot as key events in interpreting the significance of the whole pattern.

    When outlining this chiasm, I was very surprised to discover the account of Hagar and Ishmael as the pivotal section. My assumption had always been that the story of Hagar and Ishmael was an unfortunate incident in Abram’s life, not a key to interpreting these chapters of his story. However, by taking into consideration the end points of the chiasm the significance of the pivot section also became clearer. 5

    First of all, it is important to recognize that section A opens both the {68} Abraham cycle as well as the entire patriarchal narrative. Therefore, it is the closing section, the birth of Isaac, which clarifies the intent of the chiastic structure. The pattern is zeroing in on the promise of descendants, in other words, on the first feature of God’s blessing to Abram. The pivot section then becomes understandable as it reinforces God’s promise of descendants by drawing the readers’ attention to a misguided human effort to bring this blessing to fruition.

    The account of Abraham continues even after the closure of the chiastic pattern. The events of the Abraham cycle which follow round out the story, and each event relates to at least one aspect of the original blessing in chapter 12.

    1. Hagar and Ishmael sent away (21:9-21)
    2. Covenant with Abimelech (21:22-34)
    3. Abraham tested, the blessing reaffirmed (22:1-24)
    4. Sarah dies, Abraham buys land (23:1-20)
    5. Wife for Isaac (24:1-67)
    6. Death of Abraham (25:1-11)
      (Abraham’s remarriage, sons sent away, Isaac blessed.)

    First of all, Abraham must deal with the consequences of taking the promise of a descendant into his own hands. Even though Hagar and Ishmael are sent away so as not to interfere with the blessing that is passed on to Isaac, God does bless Ishmael as well.

    Secondly, the covenant with Abimelech touches the other two aspects of Abram’s blessing—the promise that he will be a blessing to other nations and the promise of the land. The formal agreement affirming mutual honesty and integrity is beneficial to both Abraham and Abimelech; it involves “a potential share of Abraham’s blessing for Abimelech, and for Abraham, the chance to improve his status as an alien by gaining legal recognition from a native.” 6

    In the third section, we return to God’s promise of descendants through Isaac. Abraham, who earlier took this particular blessing into his own hands, is now tested. He demonstrates that he does trust God.

    Fourthly, when Sarah dies, Abraham buys property in Canaan to bury his wife. This means that he now legally owns a portion of the land that God has promised will one day belong to his descendants.

    Fifthly, a wife must be found for Isaac to continue the line of the blessing.

    Finally, as the Abraham cycle finishes the readers are told that “after Abraham’s death, God blessed his son Isaac” (25:11).

    The Abraham cycle revolves around the blessing that God imparted to Abraham when God first called him. Although all three aspects of the blessing are addressed, the chiastic structure at the beginning of the cycle underlines that the main focus of the blessing to Abraham is the promise of descendants. {69}


    According to the structure of Genesis outlined above, there is a short account of Ishmael (25:1-18) followed by the account of Isaac which spans ten chapters (25:19-35:29). On closer observation, however, Isaac operates as an independent character only in chapters 26 and 27. “In the former he is little more than a reflection of Abraham, and in the latter he is already an old man on his deathbed.” 7 Furthermore, in chapter 27 the story is already beginning to focus on Jacob.

    In reality Jacob’s story runs from 25:19 to 54:13 with a bracketed insertion at the beginning for the story of his father, Isaac, and a similar bracketed insertion near the end for the account of his brother, Esau, and the story of his son, Joseph.

    The Jacob cycle can be outlined as below. Note the two panels that parallel each other A,B,C,D || A’,B’,C’,D’.

    A.   Jacob in the Land (25:19-28:9)
    1. Jacob and Esau (25:19-28:9)
      1. Birthright (25:19-34)
        [The story of Isaac (26:1-34)]
      2. Jacob is blessed by his father (27:1-40)
      3. Sent from the land (27:41-28:9)
        B.   Bethel Experience (28:10-22)
            C.   Jacob leaves the Land (29:1-30:43)
    1. Marriage (29:1-30)
    2. Children (29:31-30:24)
    3. Acquisition of Property (30:25-43)
                D.      Return to the Land (31:1-55) {70}
    1. Bethel Recalled (31:1-21)
    2. Covenant between Laban and Jacob (31:22-55)
    A’.   Jacob in the Land (32:1-34:31)
    1. Jacob prepares to meet Esau (32:1-21)
    2. Jacob Wrestles with God-name change (32:22-32)
    3. Jacob and Esau (33:1-20)
    4. Shechem (34:1-31)
        B’.   Bethel Experience—name change repeated (35:1-15)
    Ending to section of Jacob in the Land (35:16-29)
    1. Rachel dies (35:16-20)
    2. Jacob’s sons (35:21-26)
    3. Isaac dies (35:27-29)
      [The account of Esau (36:1-43)]
      [The story of Joseph (37:1-45:24)]
            C’.   Jacob leaves the Land (45:25-47:27)
    1. God promises Jacob will return (45:25-46:27)
    2. Jacob meets Joseph (46:28-34)
    3. Jacob meets Pharaoh (47:1-12)
      [Joseph is administrator of Egypt (47:13-26)]
    4. Acquisition of Property (47:27)
                D’.      Return to the Land (47:28-50:14)
    1. Bethel Recalled (47:28-48:4)
    2. Jacob blesses his sons (48:5-49:28)
    3. Jacob is buried in Canaan (49:29-50:13)

    The above structure is supported by the observation that in the Jacob pattern, just as in the Abraham pattern, the name change occurs at the beginning of the second panel of the parallel structure.

    The above outline draws our attention to the importance of the theme of the land in Jacob’s story. Jacob leaves and returns to the promised land of Canaan, not just once but twice. Just as God’s interaction with Abraham often focused on the promise of a son, so God’s interaction with Jacob concentrates on the issue of Jacob’s presence in the land. The first time God meets Jacob at Bethel, God’s blessing includes all three features of the blessing to Abraham. The blessing of land is referred to as a promise to bring Jacob back to this land. The second time that God meets Jacob at Bethel, God again blesses him with the promise of many descendants and the land. Furthermore, each time that Jacob begins his return to Canaan he bases his decision on God’s appearance to him at Bethel, sometimes called Luz, and the promise of the land.

    In the Jacob cycle, just as in the Abraham cycle, there is tension between human and divine actions as the blessing moves toward realization. In Jacob the human striving becomes even more pronounced. Especially in the first panel of the above structure, almost every event is marked by deceit. Jacob’s birthright, blessing, marriage, children, acquisition of property and even his return to Canaan are characterized by deceit and quarrelling. In the second panel, the significance of the event of Dinah and the Shechemites is understood more clearly through the themes of deceit and land. Jacob’s sons, like their father, operate deceitfully. The result threatens the blessing as Jacob explains to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me by making me a stench to the Canaanites and Perizzites, the people living in this land” (34:30). In consequence, Jacob and his family are forced to move after they had just settled back into their promised land. It is an understatement to say that Jacob’s response to God’s blessing is less than ideal.


    The Joseph cycle stands apart from the Abraham and Jacob cycles for several reasons. First of all, the pattern in the patriarchal section of Genesis has been to focus on families. Yet Joseph’s story basically considers one individual; the family theme is picked up again when Jacob’s story is resumed. Structurally as well, the Joseph narrative demands attention; it is almost completely embedded within the Jacob account. As seen above, the {71} major part of Joseph’s story appears as an insert near the end of the Jacob narrative in such a way as to balance the Isaac account at the beginning of that narrative. Most striking, however, is the question of why it is the history of Joseph and not Judah which is traced. The Israelite hero David and the coming Messiah are connected to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through Judah and not Joseph.

    What understanding of blessing emerges from the Joseph account that could not be elucidated from Judah’s story? At this point, it is interesting to observe that God never directly communicates his blessing to Joseph as God did repeatedly to his forefathers. Thus, to explore the issue of blessing in this account we turn to the structure of the story.

    The narrative can be divided into four sections based on Joseph’s location. In each location Joseph rises to a position of prominence and then is faced with a complication. Unlike his father Jacob, Joseph consistently responds faithfully. However, the results of Joseph’s faithful responses to sticky situations do not always feel like blessings.

    1. Joseph at Home (37:1-36)
      1. Rise to prominence—Jacob’s favourite (37:1-3)
      2. Complication—brothers are jealous (37:4-11)
      3. Outcome—sold to Ishmaelites (37:12-36)
      [Judah and Tamar (38:1-30)]
    2. Joseph in Potiphar’s House (39:1-20)
      1. Rise to prominence—In charge of household (39:1-6)
      2. Complication—temptation (39:7-12)
      3. Outcome—imprisoned (39:13-20)
    3. Joseph in Prison (38:21-40:23)
      1. Rise to prominence—In charge of prison (39:21-23)
      2. Complication—opportunity for release (40:1-19)
      3. Outcome—forgotten (40:21-23)
    4. Joseph in Pharaoh’s Court (41:1-50:26)
      1. Rise to prominence—In charge of Egypt (41:1-57)
      2. Complication—encounter with brothers (42:1-45:24)
      3. Outcome—family reunion, Jacob’s blessings (45:25-50:13)
      4. Conclusion (50:14-26)
        1. forgiveness, restored family relationships (50:14-19)
        2. reason for the Joseph story (50:20-21)
        3. Joseph’s death (50:22-26)

    In Hebrew narrative, a disruption of a regular pattern of alternation is a call for attention. 8 Thus the Judah and Tamar interruption should cause us to probe for something of significance. In response to the question of why the disruption occurs at this point in the Joseph story, we notice a stark contrast between the actions of Judah and the actions of Joseph which immediately follow in the second panel of the outline. The adulterous {72} Judah in chapter 38 emphasizes even more Joseph’s faithful, uncompromising stance in chapter 39. Another disruption of the alternating pattern also focuses attention on the second panel of the Joseph story. Because each of the other three panels employs a sequence of two dreams to carry the plot forward, the absence of dreams in the second panel again signals something unusual.

    What is there about the second panel that the author wishes to highlight? Listening to the account of Joseph’s temptation by Potiphar’s wife brings recognition of echoes of a similar temptation account in the garden of Eden. 9 Both cases begin with God’s blessing and with the responsibility of being in charge. In both cases the tempter/temptress invites the protagonist to commit one act that is clearly outside of God’s will. In both cases the main character(s) have freedom to do everything else but that one act. However, in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve succumb to temptation and their decision results in God’s curse which will touch the lives of all peoples forevermore. Joseph, on the other hand, resists temptation. What is the result? The expected contrast would be a blessing to all peoples. Nevertheless, the immediate result is imprisonment. The reader is left wondering whether Joseph will be a blessing to all peoples.

    A review of the four episodes leads to the inescapable conclusion that Joseph is indeed a blessing to all those he comes in contact with. Joseph explains to his brothers that God sent him ahead of them to Egypt “to save your lives by a great deliverance” (45:7). Because of Joseph, “the blessing of the LORD was on everything that Potiphar had” (39:5). In prison, “the LORD was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did” (39:23). All the people of Egypt said, “You have saved our lives” (47:25). Just as the stories of Abraham and Jacob each focused on one of God’s blessings, so also Joseph’s story highlights one blessing in particular, God’s promise of being a blessing to all nations.

    The summary of the Joseph cycle also forms the conclusion to the book of Genesis. As such, we may look to it for a review of the driving force behind the book of Genesis. The threefold conclusion begins with restored family relationships which thus point the way for the creation of a strong nation. Secondly, Joseph’s explanation of his story centers on the blessing of many nations. He says to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (50:20). Thirdly, the account of Joseph’s death differs quite markedly from the accounts of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who were buried in the land of Canaan. Joseph was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt. This description and the request for Joseph’s bones to be carried up from Egypt point forward to a return to the promised land. Thus the resolution of the patriarchal section of Genesis accords with the {73} opening three-faceted blessing—descendants, a blessing to all nations and land.


    The theme of blessing that bubbles under the surface of the first eleven chapters of Genesis bursts forth in the patriarchal section. The literary structure of Genesis shows how the three features of God’s blessing are each focused in turn in the three cycles of narrative. Thus Abraham’s story highlights the blessing of descendants and a great nation. Jacob’s account revolves around the blessing of the land, and Joseph’s story centers on the blessing of being a blessing to all peoples on earth.

    In each of the stories the tension develops between human and divine activity in respect to blessing. When Abraham and Sarah take the initiative to make the blessing come true, there is heartache and eternal consequence. Later God tests Abraham to see whether he trusts God completely with the blessing. The Jacob cycle is characterized by deceit as, over and over again, Jacob takes the blessing into his own hands. The astonishing outcome is that of all the three characters, Jacob experiences the material blessing most unquestionably. He has twelve sons who found the twelve tribes of Israel, he amasses property wherever he goes, he enjoys life in the promised land and later is buried there as well. Joseph, on the other hand, embodies the model of a steadfast and faithful response to God and his blessing. Despite this faithful response, Joseph experiences betrayal, imprisonment, neglect and perhaps even a sense of distance from God. Many times, I am sure, Joseph did not feel like he was participating in God’s blessing. The patriarchal narrative clearly illustrates that there is never a one-to-one relationship between human and divine involvement in blessing. Blessing begins with God and is carried on by God. Human participation and response is crucial, yes, but it is not the hinge on which God offers and sustains blessing.

    God’s plan is to bless people. God promises and fulfills the blessing according to that plan. However, just as that blessing cannot be manipulated by people, neither can it be rushed. From the human standpoint, at moments it may seem that the blessing has been bestowed on the wrong people, come to a standstill, or even disappeared altogether. Yet the book of Genesis confirms that the story of God’s interaction with humanity is a story of blessing. {74}


    Scripture quotations are from the New International Version of the Holy Bible.

    1. Although many scholars structure Genesis around this idea of accounts, there is no agreement as to the exact divisions. For example, Thomas W. Mann in The Book of the Torah: The Narrative Integrity of the Pentateuch (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), p. 12, uses the opening formula to designate five, perhaps six stories. Allen P. Ross in Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), pp. 69-74, uses the opening formula to structure Genesis into an initial section followed by ten further sections. However, by using only the opening formula and not the closing formula, both men are forced to leave Abraham and Joseph out of the overall outline of Genesis.
    2. The story of Joseph has no opening formula. Furthermore, in the structural outline the large part of Joseph’s story is embedded into the account of Jacob. Joseph’s story is recorded in 37:2-45:24; 47:13-26; 50:14-26.
    3. Mann, Narrative Integrity of the Pentateuch, p. 13.
    4. Henry Van Dyke Parunak, “Oral typesetting: some uses of biblical structure.” Biblica 62, 2 (1981), pp. 153-168.
    5. Yehuda T. Radday in “Chiasmus in Hebrew Biblical Narrative,” Chiasmus in Antiquity: structures, analyses, exegesis, ed. John W. Welch (Hildesheim: Gerstenberg, 1981) proposes a similar chiasm. His pivot and closing sections differ from the one I have proposed. However Radday’s chiasm is more complicated as it must introduce two noncorresponding elements, X and X’, and must readjust the order in the second cycle.
      A.   Abram renounces his past (12:1-9)
          B.   Sarai in Pharaoh’s palace (12:10-20)
              C.   Abram parts from Lot (ch 13)
                  D.   Lot delivered from captivity (ch 14)
                      X.   The Covenant “between the pieces” (ch 15)
                          E.      Hagar’s flight (ch 16)
                          E’.      Circumcision (ch 17)
                      X’.   Annunciation of Isaac’s birth (ch 18)
                  D’.   Lot delivered from perdition (ch 19)
          B’.   Sarah in Abimelech’s palace (ch 20)
              C’.   Abraham parts from Ishmael (ch 21)
      A’.   Abraham renounces his future (ch 22)
    6. Mann, Narrative Integrity of the Pentateuch, p.44.
    7. Mann, Narrative Integrity of the Pentateuch, p. 51.
    8. Radday, Chiasmus, p. 166.
    9. The use of the technique of intertextuality for biblical interpretation is both explained and modeled by Richard B. Hays in Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).
    Mary Anne Isaak is a graduate of Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary and has just completed a Bible teaching assignment at St. Petersburg Christian University in Russia under the sponsorship of Mennonite Brethren Missions/Services.

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