The Bible’s history of the Israelite people is put in the context of a branching family tree of humanity going all the way back to the first humans on earth. At each point where the tree branches, the lineage is traced through a particular son in preference to the other possible lineages. Though the reason for picking one lineage over another is usually not stated explicitly, there are several criteria that determine what line the ancestry of God’s people will follow:
- The default option is for the lineage to pass through the firstborn son.
- If the character of the firstborn son is not suitable, the lineage will pass through the first son whose character is suitable.
- Required character traits include faithfulness to God and tenacity of character.
- And in general, God chose the lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob because the nation that would come from them could serve as a light and a blessing to the other nations of the earth.
These factors can be seen operating in the various points at which one lineage prevails over another in the Bible story. However, the fourth puts the other three in context, and deserves its own special coverage before the rest are taken up in a sequential account following the Bible narrative.
God’s choice of Israel was expansive, not exclusive
There are many statements in the Bible emphasizing that God has chosen Israel out of all of the nations of the earth—which sounds rather exclusive. However, the wider context shows that from the beginning God planned to use Israel as a light and a blessing to all of the nations of the earth, and that ultimately all of the nations are God’s people.
This appears clearly in the call of Abram (later renamed Abraham) in Genesis 12:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1–3, italics added)
God chose Abram not only to bless Abram’s own descendants, but to bless all of the families of the earth.
Isaiah contains this prophecy about the Lord’s future presence not only in Israel, but in Egypt and Assyria—which at that time were mortal threats and enemies to each other and to Israel:
On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts. One of these will be called the City of the Sun.
On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them. The Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians; and the Egyptians will know the Lord on that day, and will worship with sacrifice and burnt offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them. The Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing; they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them.
On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.
On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.” (Isaiah 19:18–25, italics added)
A fulfillment of this prophecy would begin to bring to fruition God’s original promise to Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Moving to the end of the Christian Bible, this promise is broadened to all of the nations of the earth in the form of the new Jerusalem, formerly the capital of the nation of Israel, whose doors are open to all nations:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. . . .
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. Between the main street and the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 21:1–2, 22–27; 22:1–2, italics added)
This represents the final and complete fulfillment of God’s original promise to Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” In John’s vision, Jerusalem, the capital of ancient Israel, has expanded to such a vast extent that it encompasses the entire then-known world, and is the abode of the righteous kings and common people from all nations. (For more on this, see “How Big is the New Jerusalem?”)
To gain the full picture of why in the Bible God chose Israel over the other nations, then, we must put it in the broader context of God’s ultimate plan to use Israel as a blessing for all of the nations of the earth.
The genealogy of Israel
With that in mind, here is a sequential consideration of the genealogy of the Hebrew people as told in the Bible, paying special attention to the key points at which the lineage passed through one son rather than another, and the reasons those particular lineages were chosen.
Cain, Abel, and Seth
Cain was the firstborn son of Adam and Eve. However, his jealousy and his murder of his brother Abel disqualified him for carrying on the lineage of God’s people.
This also meant that Abel, who is presented as a good and righteous man, never had a chance to father God’s chosen lineage. (For more on the much-debated story of Cain and Abel, see “The Cain and Abel Story: Does God Play Favorites?”)
And so it fell Adam and Eve’s third son, Seth, to carry on the lineage. Seth is presented as a replacement for Abel:
Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, for she said, “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, because Cain killed him.” (Genesis 4:25)
From Seth to Noah
The lineage from Adam through Seth to Noah is recorded in Genesis 5. After Seth, in every case the lineage passes through the firstborn son, who is the only child given a name. Here is a typical entry in the genealogy:
When Seth had lived one hundred five years, he became the father of Enosh. Seth lived after the birth of Enosh eight hundred seven years, and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Seth were nine hundred twelve years; and he died. (Genesis 5:6–8)
From Seth to Noah, then, the lineage follows the default option of passing through the firstborn son.
Shem, Ham, and Japeth
The same default option continues with Noah’s three sons:
After Noah was five hundred years old, Noah became the father of Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Genesis 5:32)
It is worth noting here, though, that in the story of Noah’s drunkenness after the Flood, Ham specifically disqualified his firstborn son Canaan from having any part in the blessed lineage of Noah:
The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled.
Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said,
“Cursed be Canaan;
lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”
He also said,
“Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.
May God make space for Japheth,
and let him live in the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.” (Genesis 9:18–27)
Noah’s curse on Ham’s son Canaan reverberates throughout the Bible narrative, providing an origin story for God’s special enmity against the inhabitants of the Land of Canaan that the Israelites conquered and dispossessed in their conquest of the Holy Land.
It also provides another example of how firstborn sons can be disqualified from any part in the lineage of God’s people.
From Shem to Abram
The lineage from Shem to Abram is told in Genesis 11:10–26. It follows the same pattern as the earlier genealogy from Seth to Noah. In each case, the lineage is traced through the default option: the firstborn son. Here is a typical entry in this genealogy:
These are the descendants of Shem. When Shem was one hundred years old, he became the father of Arpachshad two years after the flood; and Shem lived after the birth of Arpachshad five hundred years, and had other sons and daughters. (Genesis 11:1–2)
In the same genealogy, Abram is presented as the firstborn son of his father Terah:
When Terah had lived seventy years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. (Genesis 11:26)
Abram’s position as the firstborn is emphasized by repetition in the next verse:
Now these are the descendants of Terah. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. (Genesis 11:27)
So the simplest answer to the question of why God chose Abraham over his brothers is that Abraham was the firstborn son.
However, the Bible narrative also emphasizes that Abraham was a suitable heir for the lineage because of his faithfulness to God. Abraham’s fundamental character is one of unquestioning loyalty and obedience to God, whatever God commands him to do, even if God’s commandment seems highly outrageous and damaging to Abraham’s own interests.
Let’s look at a few key examples.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. (Genesis 12:1–5, italics added)
Here Abram, though he was already seventy-five years old and presumably settled comfortably in his clan’s adopted land, unquestioningly picks up his entire household and all his possessions and moves to an unknown land simply because the Lord has commanded him to.
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”
But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:1–6, italics added)
Here God makes a seemingly ridiculous prediction: that Abraham, though he and his wife are now very old, will have a son who will be Abraham’s heir, through whom his lineage will be counted. And though what the Lord has told him is unbelievable, Abraham believes it, showing once again his character of belief in and faithfulness to the Lord regardless of the circumstances.
The Lord’s prediction is repeated and then fulfilled several chapters later in Genesis 18:1–15; 21:1–7.
And as one more example, there is the well known story of “the sacrifice of Isaac” told in Genesis 22:1–19.
In this story, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, whom God had previously promised him and given to him by a miraculous birth, and who was to be Abraham’s heir and the bearer of his legacy and lineage.
One would think that Abraham would object. But once again, Abraham simply sets out without a murmur to obey the Lord’s command:
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
And he said, “Here I am.”
He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. (Genesis 22:1–3)
It is not until Abraham has set up the altar, tied up his son Isaac, put him on the altar, and raised the knife to kill him that God intervenes and prevents the sacrifice, substituting a ram, which is to be sacrificed instead of Isaac. God then says to Abraham:
By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice. (Genesis 22:16–18, italics added)
In this disturbing story, Abraham’s faithfulness to God is put to the ultimate test. Abraham’s actions when tested to this extreme show him to have the character of complete faithfulness to God required to be the patriarch and ancestor of God’s chosen people.
So although Abraham is presented as the firstborn son of his father Terah, and the lineage would default to him anyway, Abraham is also presented in the Bible as a man who supremely has the character required to father the lineage of God’s people.
And notice the repetition and strengthening of the statement that “by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves.” God’s intended use of Israel as a blessing to all the nations is a recurring theme in the Bible.
As covered above, Isaac is presented as the firstborn son of Abraham through his legitimate wife Sarah. Though Abraham had earlier, at his wife’s request, fathered a son named Ishmael through Sarah’s Egyptian slave woman, Ishmael was supplanted as heir when Sarah herself had a son.
The story of Isaac supplanting Ishmael as Abraham’s heir is told in Genesis 21:
The child [Isaac] grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, mocking. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”
The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you.” (Genesis 21:8–12, italics added)
The few stories about Isaac in the Bible narrative show him to be a man of peace, but also a man of resolve. So although he would naturally be Abraham’s heir as the only son of Abraham’s wife Sarah, he also showed himself to be worthy of Abraham’s legacy and lineage.
Isaac had twin boys. The firstborn was Esau, and the second to be born was Jacob.
However, Isaac’s sons broke the pattern of the lineage going through the firstborn, as first predicted right in their birth story:
These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.”
When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob. (Genesis 25:19–28)
So far it is looking good for Esau to be the one through whom Isaac’s lineage passes. He is the firstborn, he is a man’s man, an outdoorsman and a hunter, and he is his father Isaac’s favorite.
But that was not to be. And the very naming of Jacob begins to tell the story. The name “Jacob,” you see, literally means “heel-grabber,” or in Hebrew idiom, “supplanter.” And Jacob was destined to supplant his brother Esau as his father’s primary heir.
Though Jacob’s supplanting of Esau involves trickery, deception, and false dealing on the part of Jacob and his mother Rebekah, it also involves a weakness of character on Esau’s part that made him an unsuitable heir for Abraham’s and Isaac’s lineage even though he was Isaac’s firstborn. That unsuitability of character is shown in the first story in which Jacob begins to supplant Esau as heir:
Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.)
Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.”
Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?”
Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Genesis 25:29–34, italics added)
As to Esau’s character, the final line sums up the point of the story: “Esau despised his birthright.”
To our modern ears, this might not seem all that critical. But in ancient Hebrew society, the birthright of the firstborn son was all-important. It entitled him to a double portion of his father’s inheritance (see Deuteronomy 21:15–17), and it gave him the right to be his father’s primary heir and the patriarch of the clan.
For Esau to sell his birthright to his younger twin brother Jacob for something so trivial as a bowl of stew just because he was famished in the moment betrays a great weakness of character. God could not trust such a weak character to be the father of God’s chosen people. This is the background and basis of the well-known poetic saying, quoted in Romans 9:13 but originally appearing in Malachi:
I have loved you, says the Lord.
But you say, “How have you loved us?”
Is not Esau Jacob’s brother? says the Lord. Yet I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau. (Malachi 1:2–3, italics added)
The completion of Jacob’s supplanting of Esau is told in the shocking story of Jacob deceitfully taking Esau’s blessing, as orchestrated by his mother Rebekah, told in Genesis 27:1–28:5. But the story really begins two verses earlier, at the end of Genesis 26:
When Esau was forty years old, he married Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite; and they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah. (Genesis 26:34–35)
Here Esau shows by his choice of foreign women as wives, and not only that, but foreign wives who “made life bitter” for his parents, that once again he does not have the character to be the father of God’s chosen people.
The ensuing story of Jacob stealing Esau’s blessing is too long to quote here. You can read it for yourself at the above link. It shows Jacob to be devious and conniving in getting what he wants. And it also shows him to be his mother’s son; after all, she was the one who planned and orchestrated the whole plot to deceive her husband into giving the all-important blessing to her favorite son Jacob instead of to Isaac’s favorite son Esau.
And that blessing gave Jacob precedence and rulership over his brother Esau:
Ah, the smell of my son
is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed.
May God give you of the dew of heaven,
and of the fatness of the earth,
and plenty of grain and wine.
Let peoples serve you,
and nations bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.
Cursed be everyone who curses you,
and blessed be everyone who blesses you!
(Genesis 27:27–29, italics added)
Certainly Jacob’s actions were dishonest and deceitful. And he was punished by having to flee from his home and his beloved mother, whom he never saw again.
And yet, it also shows Jacob as having the strength of character to do whatever it takes to achieve his goals. It shows the tenacity of character required to to be the father of God’s chosen people in the face of a hostile world, and not give up or give in to outside pressures.
Isaac himself apparently recognized this. Soon after Jacob deceived him and stole his elder and favored son’s blessing, Isaac willingly gave this blessing to his son Jacob as he was about to depart from them:
Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him, and charged him, “You shall not marry one of the Canaanite women. Go at once to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father; and take as wife from there one of the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother. May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and numerous, that you may become a company of peoples. May he give to you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your offspring with you, so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien—land that God gave to Abraham.” Thus Isaac sent Jacob away; and he went to Paddan-aram, to Laban son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, Jacob’s and Esau’s mother. (Genesis 28:1–5)
Here we see that Esau’s marrying of foreign women was a serious issue to Isaac, such that he commanded his son Jacob not to marry a foreign woman, but to marry from his own extended family.
But more importantly, Isaac invokes the name of his father Abraham, the great patriarch, and passes on Abraham’s blessing and God’s promise that Abraham would inherit this land to his younger son Jacob, not to his older son Esau.
And then, in the famous story traditionally known as “Jacob’s Ladder,” told in Genesis 28:10–22, God himself blesses Jacob, and states that Abraham’s destiny and lineage will go through him:
And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:13–15, italics added)
Note once again the repetition of God’s original promise to Abraham that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.” This reaffirms God’s plan not only to bless the Israelites, but to bless all nations through the Israelites.
And in the later story of Jacob wrestling with the angel (or with God) told in Genesis 32:22–32, as a further blessing God changes Jacob’s name to Israel:
Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”
But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
So he said to him, “What is your name?”
And he said, “Jacob.”
Then he said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:26–28)
In the very context of Jacob’s name being changed to Israel, which would be the name of the nation that descended from him—the name of God’s chosen people—we see God giving as a reason for that renaming and that blessing that Jacob “has striven with God and with humans, and has prevailed.” It was, once again, Jacob’s tenacity of character that made him suitable over his weak-charactered brother Esau to carry on the patriarchal lineage, supplanting his brother Esau as the firstborn and becoming the father of the nation of Israel.
This, then, provides the reasons, contained in the Bible narrative, why the lineage of God’s chosen people was traced along the particular lines it went, from Adam through Seth, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—who was renamed Israel and became the father of the Israelite people, chosen by God for a special mission in the world.
Once again, these are criteria for determining the linage:
- The default option is for the lineage to pass through the firstborn son.
- If the character of the firstborn son is not suitable, the lineage will pass through the first son whose character is suitable.
- Required character traits include faithfulness to God and tenacity of character.
And yet, as shown earlier, God chose the lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob not for their own sakes, or as an exclusive blessing only on the Israelites as a nation, but because that nation would serve as a light and a blessing to the other nations of the earth.
For Christians, this theme of Israel as a light to the nations is so important that it is repeated in Simeon’s blessing and benediction pronounced over the infant Jesus as recounted in the Gospel of Luke:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:25–32)
And so in the Christian scriptures Jesus Christ is presented as embodying the spiritual lineage of Israel, and becoming a light for revelation to the Gentiles—meaning the many nations of the earth.
(Note: This post is a slightly edited version of an answer I recently wrote and posted on Christianity StackExchange. You can see the original question on StackExchange here, and the StackExchange version of my answer here.)
For further reading:
If the Garden of Eden and the Flood were not literal, then why does the Word give long lineages going back to Noah and Adam? Is there a point where literal lineages become symbolic?
Or did Swedenborg believe there really was a literal Eden and Flood?
The function of the genealogies was not so much genetic as cultural. They were meant to make a statement about the cultural and spiritual origins of the people of the Bible rather than to trace a genetic lineage to particular individuals. After all, the science of genetics did not come into being until relatively recently in human history.
Swedenborg did not believe there was a literal Eden and Flood. He said that these early stories in Genesis were from an earlier sacred tradition of symbolic (today we would say mythical) stories containing deeper meanings, and were never intended to be taken literally. He sometimes says that the figure of Eber mentioned in Genesis 10:21, 24–25; 11:14–17 was the first historical individual mentioned in the Bible. However, the first figures in the Bible that he treats as clearly historical are Abraham’s clan beginning with Terah, first mentioned in Genesis 11:24–32.
Suffice it to say that the point at which symbolic “history” gives way to actual “history” (really, cultural history) in which the figures involved are historical individuals rather than purely symbolic figures is somewhat fuzzy, but seems to occur somewhere between Genesis 10 and Genesis 12.