Two persons are considered founders of Judaism, Abraham (2000 BCE) and Moses (1391-1271 BCE). It was with Abraham that God made a covenant or contract that would define the relationship of the Jews with God. Basically, the covenant was that God would bless and protect the lives of those who would obey Him. And it was through Moses that God made his commandments known to the people, the specific rules that God wanted his people to obey for their part of the covenant. These rules make up a significant part of the Torah, the sacred text of Judaism. In what follows, let us go over the highlights of the lives of Abraham and Moses in relation to their significant roles in the development of Judaism.
Abraham was the first patriarch (which originally means “father-source”) among the three patriarchs of the Jewish people. The second was Abraham’s son, Isaac, and the third was Isaac’s son, Jacob. Abraham was first called Abram but he was later on called Abraham by God after God made his covenant with him and his descendants. His wife was first called Sarai but was later on called Sarah by God also after this covenant. Abraham lived in Ur of the Chaldeans (in present-day Iraq). His family included Terah (his father), Sarah (his wife), Nahor (his brother), Milcah (Nahor’s wife), and Lot (his nephew, the son of Haran, his deceased brother).
God’s covenant was revealed to Abraham in several occasions. The first encounter of Abraham with God was when God spoke with him in Harran (where he was settled at the time along with his family), asking him to leave Harran and go to Canaan to be the father of a nation. God said to him (Gen.12: 2), “Go from your country, your people, and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all the people on earth will be blessed through you.” Abraham followed without any question and he brought with him his wife Sarah, his nephew Lot, and all his possessions. In return for his obedience, God would make him the father of a great nation and God would bless and protect him and his descendants.
There was, however, one big problem. How would Abraham be the father of a great nation when he was childless? Sarah could not conceive a child. Abraham told God that if that were the case, his only heir would be his servant. But God assured him that he would later on have his own son who would be his heir, and that his descendants would be as many as the stars in the sky. Meanwhile, Sarah urged Abraham to have a child with her Egyptian slave or maidservant named Hagar. Hagar got pregnant with Abraham and gave birth to a boy whom they named Ishmael. Ishmael would later on grow to become the patriarch of the Arab nations.
God expressed his covenant again with Abraham, but this time he made it clear that this covenant would be everlasting between him and Abraham, along with Abraham’s descendants. As a sign of obedience for this covenant, God required every male in the family of Abraham and his descendants in the generations to come to be circumcised (Gen. 17:1-16). It was after this event that God changed the name of Abraham (from Abram to Abraham), and Sarah (from Sarai to Sarah). In obedience to God, Abraham, Ishmael, and all the males in Abraham’s household were circumcised. But later on, Abraham and Sarah, though already very old, conceived their own child, whom they named Isaac. Being the son promised by God to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac became the heir of Abraham in his covenant with God. But, God also blessed Ishmael, Isaac’s brother, and also made him a father of a great nation (the Arab nations).
God tested Abraham’s obedience, presumably to see whether he was worthy of the covenant, by asking him to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham obeyed but when he was about to slay Isaac with the sacrificial knife, an angel appeared and asked Abraham to stop. Then Abraham saw a ram whose horns were caught in a thicket. He took the ram and offered it to God as a sacrifice instead of his son. Then God, upon proving the faithfulness of Abraham, reiterated his promise that Abraham would be the father of a great nation and that his descendants would be blessed and protected by him (Gen. 22:1-18).
Isaac married Rebekah and they had twins, Esau and Jacob. Esau was older than Jacob and was the favorite of Isaac, while Jacob was the favorite of Rebekah. Esau, being the eldest, was the rightful heir of Isaac, but due to the connivance of Rebekah and Jacob, Jacob was able to get the blessings of Isaac to be his heir. But though Jacob acquired the blessings of Isaac in this way, he had a dream in which God approved of him being the heir of Isaac. In Gen. 28:12-15, this dream is told this way:
He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All people on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to the land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
And so Jacob became the third patriarch to whom the covenant was passed on. Jacob had two wives, Leah and Rachel. With his two wives and with the maidservant of each of his two wives, Jacob had a total of twelve sons (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebelun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph, and Benjamin) and one daughter named Dinah. Each of his sons would later be the patriarch of a tribe, and their tribes would later be known as the twelve tribes of Israel. The name “Israel” here refers to Jacob for he was given that name, which means “he who struggles with God,” after wrestling with a man till daybreak and overcoming him (see Gen. 32:22-29). The man did not give his own name when Jacob asked for it, but the man is traditionally considered to be either an angel or God himself. The man said to Jacob: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” And the man blessed Jacob.
So God entered into a covenant with Abraham, and through his son Isaac and grandson Jacob, the covenant extended to all their descendants. God promised to make Abraham and his descendants into a great nation, giving them land and prosperity. In return, Abraham pledged that he and his descendants would be loyal to God, following all of his commandments. During the time of Abraham and his sons and grandsons, God made His desires known to them by directly communicating with them and appearing in their dreams. It was during the time of Moses that God gave the Jews his commandments, which would constitute the Jews’ specific part of the covenant.