Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: a chronology

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As we seek to understand God’s word better, it is often useful to take the time to sketch out a chronology of the lives of those we are studying. Often, we assume the ages of the characters to be what we saw depicted in children’s Bible classes when we were young. When we start to look at what the Bible says, we often get a far different – and sometimes surprising – picture. A case in point is Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Although most may have a working knowledge of Abraham’s age, we  often do not know how Isaac and Jacob work into the Biblical timeline.

Tree chart 1When we first meet Abraham in Genesis 11, he and his family had just moved from Ur of the Chaldees to Haran. It is in Genesis 12 that we find the first age marker for Abraham. “Now Abram was 75 years old when he departed from Haran” (v.4 NET). The next marker we have is in Genesis 16:16, “Now Abram was 86 years old when Hagar gave birth to Ishmael.” In the next verse, he had advanced to 99 years: “When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord appeared to him…” (Genesis 17:1). It is in this chapter that we also find that Sarah was ten years younger than Abraham (17:43). Sarah was ninety when Isaac was born and Abraham was 100 years old (21:5). Sarah died when she was 127 (23:1) – so Abraham would have been 137 and Isaac would have been 37. It was after this that Isaac married Rebekah and Abraham took Keturah as a wife (possibly a concubine) (see Genesis 24 and 25:1). Abraham then died at 175 years of age (25:7) – Isaac would have been 75 years old. It is of interest that when Abraham lied about Sarah because of her beauty, the first time she would have been in her sixties (Genesis 12) and the second time in her late eighties and possibly pregnant with Isaac (Genesis 20).

After Abraham’s death, the narrative goes back several years to concentrate on Isaac. We discover that Isaac was 40 when he married Rebekah (25:20). We do not have any age markers for Rebekah, although it would probably be safe to say that she was 15-20 when she married Isaac. She seems to have been of a normal marriageable age for that society. She, like Sarah, was unable to have children for years. Finally God intervened (25:21) and granted her twins: Esau and Jacob. Isaac was 60 when their sons were born (25:26).

Tree chart 2Our next time marker occurs at the end of chapter 26 – “When Esau was forty years old, he married Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, as well as Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite. They caused Isaac and Rebekah great   anxiety” (26:34-35). If Esau was 40, his twin brother Jacob was also be 40 and Isaac would have been 100. Chapter 27 opens with Isaac being old and fearing he was about to die, beginning to arrange for the family blessing to take place. This is when Jacob is sent to Laban to find a wife amongst Rebekah’s family. Although he was blind and apparently depressed, it would be many more years before Isaac died – it is another nine chapters before we find his death: “Isaac lived to be 180 years old. Then Isaac breathed his last and joined his ancestors. He died an old man who had lived a full life. His sons Esau and Jacob buried him” (35:28-29). At the time that Isaac died, his sons would have been 120 years old.

One of the things we learn from sketching out the chronology is that Abraham would have been alive when Esau and Jacob were born and that they were fifteen when he died. Assuming they lived in close proximity, Esau and Jacob would have known Abraham.

To construct Jacob’s life in the chronology is a bit more difficult. We are not given any dates until towards the end of his life, so to an extent we need to work backwards. We find in Genesis 47:9 that Jacob was 130 when he arrived in Egypt. Verse 28 of that same chapter tells us that Jacob lived a total of 147 years, the last seventeen being in Egypt. By using the dates we are given for Joseph, we can fit in a bit more of Jacob’s life. We first find a date marker for Joseph when he was 17 years old (37:2) and sold into slavery in Egypt. He was 30 when he became the first minister of Egypt (41:46). There were seven good years of crops in Egypt (41:53). Two of the years of famine passed before he revealed himself to his brothers and the family of Israel moved to Egypt (45:6). Putting all of this together, Joseph would have been 39 at the time that Israel moved to Egypt. This would mean that Jacob was 91 when Joseph was born.

Tree chart 3Although we can pinpoint Joseph’s birth in relation to Jacob’s, and we know that this took place during the last 13 years of Jacob’s stay in Haran working for Laban, it is more difficult to work out what year of Jacob’s stay this would have been. Allowing that Leah would not have had more than one child each year, although there could be overlap with the births with the other wives, Joseph could have been born around Jacob’s 15th year in Haran. There are a few years leeway in either direction, but that gives us a rough estimate of when he was born and also of when the twenty years Jacob spent in Haran took place.

Let us now draw some conclusions about Jacob’s life. If you notice, he would have been in his 70s when he arrived in Haran. We usually think of Jacob as being a young man, falling in love with young Rachel. While Rachel may have been young, Jacob was getting on in years!

Notice, as well, that although Isaac was old and felt he was about to die when Jacob stole the blessing (Genesis 27), the reality is that he still had over forty years of life left! Perhaps this says something about what happens when we lose one of our senses and the depression that follows – Isaac felt he was about to die, but feelings do not necessarily mean that something is about to happen. Jacob left a single man in his 70s owning nothing and returned with two wives, two concubines and 12 children and immense wealth in his 90s. And he still had over twenty years to live in the vicinity of his father.

It would seem that Isaac could have known all his grandchildren that were Jacob’s, as they arrived in that area about 15 years before his death. We also see that Joseph would have been in slavery and presumed dead before Isaac’s death – in fact, Joseph became first minister in Egypt a year after his grandfather’s death. Jacob moved his family to Egypt only ten years after Isaac’s death. If we have placed Rachel’s death and Benjamin’s birth correctly, Joseph would only have known Benjamin as a baby before next seeing him as a grown man – he would have been around 25-30 when Joseph next saw him. Again, this places Joseph treating him as a child when he was a grown man in an interesting light. It is of interest that Benjamin had ten sons when they moved to Egypt – perhaps this was because of his sheltered life and spending all his time at home?

What is the purpose of such an exercise? By placing the Biblical characters in their correct place in history we can better see the time in which they lived. When we learn that some were actually old men as they were going about serving God, perhaps that tells us about our usefulness to God in our later lives. Perhaps it is comforting to notice that both Abraham and Isaac could have spent time with their grandchildren – what lessons could they have passed on to them? And perhaps we need to realign our mental images of these people with the reality that they were quite a bit older than we have been previously taught.

Finally, notice the amount of history that takes place in these three men’s lives. From Abraham’s birth to Jacob’s death is over 300 years. If we take into consideration Joseph’s life, as well, then we have over 360 years taking place. During this time, Abraham’s family went from being just a childless couple to being a small nation that caused other kings to feel they had to deal with them (see Exodus 1:8-10). This may also have an influence on our timeline as we consider how we date the Israelites in Egypt. But that will have to be the subject of a future article.

Jon Galloway

BiBloS 02-July 2015 smallThis article is from BiBloS, a teaching resource of the British Bible School. To read more articles or download the whole of Issue 2, click here.