Written by: Marc A. Krell
The traditional view of Jewish origins is based on the patriarchal narratives found in the Hebrew Bible. These narratives reflect an attempt by the ancient Israelites, the ancestors of the Jewish people, to trace the birth of their nation to one family that began to distinguish itself from those of other ancient near eastern cultures through the worship of one God. Although these texts were written about a thousand years after the events described, they are an outgrowth of the myths associated with the historical origins of a people passed down orally through the generations.
These narratives associate the origin of Judaism with Abraham, a nomadic herder who entered into an unconditional covenant with God based on two interrelated divine promises of unlimited progeny and possession of the land of Canaan. The narrative then sets out to chronicle the trials and tribulations of this clan, depicting a continual conflict over who will be the promised heir to the covenant, with the younger son always prevailing. First there is a conflict between Abraham's wife Sarah and her maidservant Hagar over their sons Isaac and Ishmael. Ultimately it is Isaac who perpetuates the Abrahamic covenant symbolized by his miraculous birth by the elder and infertile Sarah, while Ishmael becomes the father of another great nation later associated with Islam.
The narrative later recounts the story of the twin brothers Jacob and Esau who engage in a sibling rivalry over who will receive their father's birthright, with the slightly younger and clever Jacob outsmarting the dim-witted oaf Esau by deceiving his senile father with the help of his mother, Rebecca. This common "disqualification" motif is more than just a literary tool; it is also an historical justification of Israel's self-acknowledged status in history as a youthful nation that has the divine right to conquer the land of the stronger and more established Canaanite cultures.
Ultimately it is Jacob who acquires the name Israel, "one who wrestles with God," through his mysterious encounter with an angel, and it is he who becomes the father of twelve sons who are the eponymous ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel. These tribes ultimately form the nucleus of the Israelite nation that enters into a conditional covenant with God predicated on the divine redemption of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage and contingent upon Israel's continued observance of God's commandments. This national covenant further confirms the promises made by God to Abraham in his familial covenant.