The greatest and most surprising paradox of the religion of the patriarchs given in the biblical account is that it is not Judaism. While the Israelites and Jews who wrote and transmitted the Bible all lived under the law of Moses, their patriarchal forebears are consistently described as having a distinctively different religion.
The fundamental features of patriarchal religion are sacrifice and prayer, and they are intimately interconnected. The first explicit mention of sacrifice in the Bible is the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:3-4) — though scripture from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints adds mention of a primordial sacrifice by Adam (Moses 5:5-7). (This is implied in the Bible, since Cain and Abel seem to be acting according to an accepted practice rather than innovation.) In this story, God accepts Abel’s offering (“minchah”) of animals but rejects Cain’s offering of plants, pointing to the primacy of exoteric blood sacrifice in future Israelite temple rituals.
Hebrew makes a distinction between “offering” (“minchah” or gift, present, tribute) and “burnt offering” (“olah”). It should be emphasized that “burnt offering” in Hebrew is a single word, with no linguistic connection to “offering”/”minchah.” It means a sacrifice that is completely burned to ashes upon an altar. Noah offered a burnt offering at the landing of the ark (Genesis 8:20). Abraham also offered one (Genesis 22:6-14).
The most famous patriarchal sacrifice is Abraham’s offering of Isaac (Genesis 22:6-14), often called the “binding” (“akedah”) of Isaac. From this account we get the most details of the actual practice of patriarchal sacrifice: the spontaneous building of an altar of stones (22:9); the use of wood to burn the meat of the sacrifice (22:6); of a pot with coals to start a fire (22:7); of a rope to bind the animal to keep it still (22:9); and of a knife to slit the throat of the animal (22:6, 10).
The binding of Isaac is connected with two fundamental aspects of Israelite thought. The first is that, contrary to widespread contemporary practice in the ancient Near East, human sacrifice is not wanted by God. Second is the idea of substitutionary sacrifice — that the blood of an animal can be offered as a substitute for human sacrifice. Hence, a substitutionary sacrifice can be offered as atonement for the sins of a person, rather than direct punishment of the sinner, a key concept in Christian concepts of the Atonement of Christ.
The altars upon which the sacrifices were made were called “mizbeach,” literally meaning a “place of performing a ‘zebach’” or “sacrifice” (Genesis 31:54). Patriarchs frequently built altars for sacrifices (Genesis 8:20, 12:7, 13:4, 13:18, 22:9, 26:25, 33:20, 35:1-7). Raised stone pillars (“massebah”) are frequently associated with altars (Genesis 28:18, 31:13, 31:45, 35:14). The pillars are frequently named, such as “the House of God” or Bethel (Genesis 28:22).
Interestingly, no patriarch is ever called a priest in the Bible. The one possible exception is Melchizedek, priest and king of Salem, who is not explicitly described as a Hebrew patriarch (Genesis 14:18-20). According to the first century Jewish historian Josephus, Melchizedek “was the first priest of God, and first built a temple, and called the city Jerusalem” (Josephus “Wars” 6.438). From the Israelite biblical perspective, priests always served in temples.
The most common and probably the most important form of worship among the patriarchs was “calling upon the name of the LORD” (“yiqra’ shem YHWH”) (Genesis 4:26, 12:8, 26:25). “Yiqra’” means the invoking of the personal name “Yahweh” (“Jehovah”), often in worship or in a ritual sense. For intercessory prayer, asking God for a blessing, the Hebrew term “tefillah” was used (Genesis 19:17, 20:7, 20:17).
The fundamental relationship between the patriarchs and God was that of covenant (“berit”), in which the patriarchs promised to worship only Jehovah, and in return for which the Lord promised progeny, protection and prosperity to the patriarch. The covenant was generally passed on to succeeding generations. These covenants were often accompanied by a sign or token (“ot”) — some type of visual or physical reminder or perpetual commemoration of the covenant. Among the patriarchs, such tokens included visible heavenly lights (Genesis 1:14), the rainbow (9:12-13, 17) and, most notably, circumcision (17:11).
Such covenants were often sealed by a theophany — a visual or aural manifestation of God. These are often associated with the revelation of God’s name and the giving of a new name to the covenanter — such as Adam, Abram/Abraham, and Jacob/Israel (Genesis 31:13, 32:28, 33:20, 35:11; Exodus 3:5-6, 3:13-14, 6:3).
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.