Conversations make you think, especially conversations with people who see things differently to you.
Last year, I was chatting with a Rabbi about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She knew Christians emphasize Abraham, but for Jewish people the emphasis falls on the third person of the patriarchal triad. Jewish identity is children of Israel — literally, descendants of Jacob. The man Jacob was Israel in the first generation.
That’s why the name Jacob regularly referred to the nation of Israel in later generations, especially in poetic passages. The nation is not Abraham, but it is Jacob. Examples:
Psalm 53 6 … let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!
Isaiah 43 1 … he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel …
In the Psalms and latter prophets (Psalms – Malachi), Abraham’s name appears only 11 times, while Jacob’s name appears 127 times. The nation’s identity was primarily in Jacob, not Abraham.
So, why are Christians more focused on Abraham?
The situation in the New Testament is reversed: Abraham’ name appears 75 times, while Jacob’s is found just 27 times. Paul has extended discussions on Abraham’s significance (Romans 4 and Galatians 3), but Paul never mentions Jacob’s name — except when quoting the Old Testament (Romans 9:13; 11:26). He is aware that Israel’s genetic identity is in Jacob (Romans 9:6; Philippians 3:5), so why does he avoid using the name?
Paul believes that what God has done in Christ is not limited to Jacob’s descendants. It is not just for the people who were previously God’s nation, but for the people of all nations (gentiles). The promise God gave to Abraham was not to bless only Jacob’s descendants: “all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3).
Don’t miss the context of the Abrahamic promise. Abraham was called to leave the region of the Babel-builders where humanity tried to take over God’s reign (Genesis 11). The nations had gone their own way (Genesis 10), though God had covenanted he would never give up ruling the whole earth no matter how difficult we were to manage (Genesis 9). Genesis sets the Abrahamic promise in a global, international context. It continues to stress the breadth of the Abrahamic promise beyond Jacob, e.g. Lot’s descendants (Genesis 19), Ishmael’s blessing (Genesis 21), Esau’s nation (Genesis 36), and divine wisdom for Egypt through Joseph that saved many lives.
In Paul’s theology, the Abrahamic promise results in the nations coming back under divine kingship, so the whole earth is restored as God’s kingdom. With the resurrection of Jesus, God has given the kingship to his anointed ruler (the Christ), so the call is going out to bring the nations into trusting obedience to him. That hope encapsulates Paul’s gospel (Romans 1:5; 16:26).
For this reason, what God has done in Christ is so much bigger than genetic Israel. The descendants of Jacob were defined by the Sinai law covenant that established them as God’s representative nation. That was a good thing for its purpose, but what God has done in Christ cannot be contained within that limited national Law covenant. The good news of Christ’s kingship does not call the nations to submit to that covenant, for in Christ God has created something far bigger than what he created at Sinai. He has fulfilled the promises to Abraham. The nations enter the promise of blessing given to Abraham, without entering the Sinai covenant given to descendants of Jacob.
This is the heart of Paul’s letter to Galatia (Galatians 3–4). It’s why the old communal boundaries must no longer be employed to exclude people (Galatians 1–2). Community has been reconfigured under Christ in the Spirit (Galatians 5–6).
The reason Paul never spoke of Jacob is that descendancy from Jacob no longer defines the people of God. God’s reign has been extended from nation of Jacob’s descendants who accepted God’s reign over them in the Sinai Law covenant. God’s reign now includes all the peoples of the earth — just as God promised Abraham.
Does that explain Paul’s interest in the multi-national promises given to Abraham rather than the national Law covenant given to Jacob?