Vol. 4, No. 2
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The Patriarchal Age or Dispensation is the first period of God-authored religious history, which was subsequently followed by Judaism and Christianity, respectively. The type of interaction between God and mankind that was characteristic of Patriarchy began immediately following creation of Adam and Eve. Until the institution of Judaism for the descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob, Patriarchy was a universal religion. After God gave the descendants of Jacob Judaism, Patriarchy continued for the rest of humanity not included in God's covenant with the Israelites. Upon the establishment of Christianity, Patriarchy seems to have continued for a time also parallel to Christianity, until the Gospel of Christ was proclaimed to non-Jews (the Gentiles, Acts 10-11).
Patriarchy, then, commenced with the dawn of human residency upon planet earth and was, at first, applicable to all of mankind.
Yet God is revealed as God not merely of a tribe, but of all the earth (Gen 18:25). All nations were to be blessed in Abraham. The Gentile Pharaoh and Abimelech have revelations. God is called "almighty" (Gen 17:1; 28:3; 35:11). Melchizedek, of Canaanite Salem, is His king priest, and He punishes Canaanite Sodom and Gomorrah.1
It is applied in the NT to Abraham (Heb 7:4), to the sons of Jacob (Acts 7:8-9), and to David (2:29). In common usage the title patriarch is assigned especially to those whose lives are recorded in Scripture previous to the time of Moses.2
All of the Book of Genesis and part of the Book of Exodus contain information relative to the Patriarchal Age. Additionally, the Book of Job is the oldest biblical narrative and likewise portrays everyday Patriarchy of antiquity. For the offspring of Jacob, Patriarchy concluded with the inauguration of Judaism at Mt. Sinai. Whereas Judaism was "ready to vanish away" (Hebrews 8:13) when it was completely fulfilled (Matthew 5:18), Patriarchy continued for Gentiles for about ten years after the establishment of our Lord's church in A.D. 33.
Patriarchy is usually styled a family-type religion, whereas Judaism was a national religion and Christianity is a universal religion. As such, Patriarchy bore a family structure where each head of a family was responsible to God for the management of his kinsmen. Especially some of the biblical patriarchs received divine revelation, which they were obligated to pass along to their clan. The very word "patriarchy" denotes the relationship sustained between this head of house and his family.
1 : social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line.3
In the early history of the Hebrews we find the ancestor or father of a family retaining authority over his children, and his children's children, so long as he lived, whatever new connections they might form. When the father died the branch-families did not break off and form new communities, but usually united under another common head. The eldest son was generally invested with this dignity. His authority was paternal. He was honored as the central point of connection, and as the representative of the whole kindred. Thus each great family had its patriarch or head ...4
Heads of races, tribes, clans, and families. Abraham (Heb 7:4), Jacob's sons (Acts 7:8-9), David (Acts 2:29). The "patriarchal system" before Moses developed itself out of family relations, before the foundation of nations and regular governments. The "patriarchal dispensation" is the covenant between God and the godly seed, Seth, Noah, Abraham, and their descendants ...5
… the founder or ruler of a tribe, family, or clan; the forefathers of the Israelite nation. The phrase the patriarchs usually refers to the tribal leaders of Israel who lived before the time of Moses. Specifically, it is used of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the 12 sons of Jacob.6
The Patriarchal Age is the most difficult period of religious history to validate with extra-biblical resources. This is owing to the often-nomadic tendencies of patriarchs in antiquity. Nomads do not leave edifices to be discovered beneath the ruin and dust of the ages like the great cities of long forgotten world empires. They simply pitched their tents along the route of travel as they moved their flocks and herds from one grazing site to another. However, biblical references to the Patriarchal Age correspond to the type of names of persons, the names of particular cities, the names of particular rulers, etc. that can be matched through archaeological discovery to contemporary names of persons, names of particular cities, the names of particular rulers, etc.
… there can be no doubt that archaeology has in recent decades performed a splendid service in vindicating the essential historicity of the patriarchal period of Genesis, besides marvelously illustrating its background.7
Some of the notables, then, who lived under Patriarchy included Adam and Eve, Cain, Abel, Seth, Noah, Abraham, Melchizedek, Abimelech and Cornelius. The fact that Cornelius lived under the only law (Patriarchy) given to the Gentiles (before Acts 10-11) explains how his "prayers and … alms" could "come up for a memorial before God" (Acts 10:4) when he was neither a Jew nor yet a Christian.
However, the world in which Job lived thousands of years before the time of Cornelius intrigues us. Matter-of-factly without any more explanation than appears in Genesis 1:1 to explain God himself, Job appears as an ancient patriarch. Through the Book of Job, we can glean some sense of the Patriarchal world. Melchizedek steps on to the historical page and off again with the little information recorded in Genesis 14; Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 5-7. Nevertheless, Melchizedek provides a brief glimpse into the Patriarchal world, the large part about which we know little to nothing. Who hasn't desired to know more about this mysterious king and priest of Patriarchal era Jerusalem (Genesis 14:18)?
"For this Melchisedec, king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him" (Hebrews 7:1).
He had preserved in his family and among his subjects the worship of the true God, and the primitive patriarchal institutions; by these the father of every family was both king and priest, so Melchizedek, being a worshipper of the true God, was priest among the people, as well as king over them.8
And he was the priest of the most high God. The Hebrew text not having the article here, the clause should stand a "priest of the most high God." This title does not imply that he was a functionary in a material temple, whose official duty consisted in the offering of animal sacrifices, or the performance of ceremonial services. The discharge of these offices was not, in patriarchal times, confined to a consecrated class; because the heads of houses rendered them for their families; and in this respect Melchizedek may have acted as the patriarchs.9
On the very threshold of the doorway between Judaism and Christianity, more patriarchs mysteriously appear only to shortly thereafter disappear from the inspired record. Have you ever considered the wise men who came seeking the Christ child (Matthew 2)? These wise men or magi came from the east, possibly Persia or Chaldea (in the vicinity of modern Iran at the northwest corner of the Persian Gulf). The word "magi" was associated with astronomers and astrologers, which may explain their association with the unique star they followed to Judaea. The star alone would be ineffectual communication from God respecting their search for the child king. Therefore, the wise men's familiarity with prophetic records (Numbers 24:17) or new and direct revelation from God, or both, necessarily prompted their pilgrimage to find baby Jesus. These wise men did receive new revelation from God immediately following their discovery of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:11-12). "The term magi was used as the name for priests and wise men among the Medes, Persians, and Babylonians."10
However, others, desiring more information than is apparent about the wise men, attempt to deploy Old Testament passages for that purpose. Hence, they suppose that Psalm 72:10, 15 and Isaiah 60:6 foretell the visit by the wise men, which would necessitate, according to those verses, that the wise men were natives of Arabia, instead of some eastern country to Palestine.
Also, references to Psalm 72; Isaiah 49:7, 23; 60:16 recast the magi from astronomers, astrologers and priestly sort to princes or royals. Irrespective of whether those verses apply to them, the magi may well have been princes from some country further east of Palestine. Daniel and his fellows, for instance, were classed among the wise men of Babylon and were highly placed in that nation's government. The gifts that the wise men presented to Christ were typical of the tokens a subject country presented to its ruling nation.
Besides all this, the wise men were Gentiles, often identified as the first Gentile worshippers of Jesus Christ. They were not amenable to Judaism, but lived under Patriarchy. God's law for the Gentiles was effective and parallel to God's law of the Jews. Whereas God's hundreds of years of divine silence for the Jews was broken as the Gospel records unfolded, divine revelation also visited the Gentiles at the same time. Immediately preceding his Ascension, Jesus prophesied that the Gospel would be taken first to the Jews, after which to the Samaritans and finally to the Gentiles. "But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8). The balance of the Book of Acts bears out that the Gospel proceeded just as our Lord said it would. Therefore, the apostle Paul remarked that the Gospel was taken to the whole world in the first century (Colossians 1:23).
It is not important whether the reader concurs with all the observations above. The beginning and ending of Patriarchy and the details in between are relatively moot. What matters is that all accountable souls now living have always been amenable to the Gospel of Christ alone. It is imperative that everyone obeys the Gospel to be saved (Hebrews 5:8-9) to enjoy eternity in heaven and avoid the awful consequence for disobedience (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9).
1 "Patriarchs," Fausset's Bible Dictionary, Electronic Database Copyright (c)1998 by Biblesoft.
2 "Patriarch," The New Unger's Bible Dictionary (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Press) 1988.
3 "Patriarchy,"Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, (Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated) 1993.
4 "Patriarch," McClintock and Strong Encyclopedia, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 2000 by Biblesoft.
5 Fausset's Bible Dictionary.
6 "Patriarch," Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright (c)1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers.
8 Adam Clarke, "Genesis 14:18," Adam Clarke's Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 1996 by Biblesoft.
9 "Genesis 14:18," Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 1997 by Biblesoft.
10 "Magi," McClintock and Strong Encyclopedia, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 2000 by Biblesoft.
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