Repeating Stories in Genesis and Hints of the Shared Identity of the Patriarchs

This blog post is on a subject which I find fascinating, but most readers will find a bit obscure, that being Higher Biblical Criticism. It’s the first draft of a 19 page/8,000 word paper where I lay out my theory that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were once considered the same person. Well, I’ve got to do something with my time…

If you have about an hour to spare, give it a read.

Repeating Stories in Genesis and Hints of the Shared Identity of the Patriarchs.

Introduction: Traditional causes of repeated stories.

In Genesis, and the other books of the Torah, many individual stories and story elements are repeated. Sometimes these repeated story elements are for thematic or literary effect, written by a single author, and might only be noticed by a knowledgeable reader. These repeated story elements tie together two meaningful events, such as Moses and Aaron’s ascent of Mount Sinai (Exodus 24) using much of the same phrasing as Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22).

Another source of repeated stories stem from the fact that the Torah was not written by a single author as a single piece of history or legend. Different theories have been posited to explain the many contradictions within the text itself, the different names of God, the differing importance of characters and themes, and many other factors.

The Supplementary Hypothesis says that the Torah was once a much, much shorter document, and over centuries many different authors added new material, expanding stories, changing others, adding new passages from other sources, and so on.

The Documentary Hypothesis posits that the Torah is made up out of four distinct and once-independent texts. The three main texts are known as the J, E and P texts, and each was written by a different author, or group of authors. At one point J and E were combined by a redactor to make a single document (RJE). Later RJE was combined with P, D and other sources to make the Torah as we know it today. As the source texts were widely known, the final redacted text had to include all (or a significant proportion of) the original texts. For this paper I’ll be holding to the Documentary Hypothesis. (To find out more see Who Wrote the Bible?, by Richard Elliot Friedman.)

The source texts often recount the same events, though the theme or the character or the exact details may differ from source to source. Sometimes it is impossible to have each story told two, three or four different times due to it being a defining point in the overall history. In these cases, the Redactor combined the stories into a single narrative.

For example, at the end of the story of Noah’s flood, God promises that he will never destroy the Earth again. He actually promises this twice! But the flood only happened once. Of course it did, because if it happened twice, one of God’s promises would have been broken (Genesis 8 & 9).

So the redactor has combined the J and P flood stories into one story. Within the single story we find many, many contradictions. For example, did Noah take one pair of each animal onto the arc (P) or seven pairs of clean animals and one pair of unclean animals (J)? Did the flood last for a year or more (P) or for just forty days and nights (J)? Why did Noah release a raven (P) and then a dove (J)?

At other times, the stories can be repeated, one after the other. For example, the story of the creation of Adam is in both Genesis 1 (P) and Genesis 2 (J).

And, to use a previous example, the story of Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai is repeated many times. The Ten Commandments are given once in Exodus 20, again in Exodus 34 (with seven of the commandments being different), and with yet another retelling in Deuteronomy 5 (similar wording to the first Ten Commandments, but told in past tense and with many factual differences).

With the following arguments I’d like to show a third possible cause for repeated stories, in Genesis in particular.

Why combine sources?: The Torah as a Document of Common National Identity.

When founding a new country from disparate groups of people, it is good to have a single common shared history. Before they split, the northern kingdom of Israel and southern kingdom of Judah would have had a single historical founding population. They would have had a single set of founding legends, but over the years of separation the details of each of the legends would have changed.

In the case of the Torah, the E source contains the northern versions of the stories, the J source contains the southern versions of the stories, and the P source contains the priestly version of events.

However, each source has a different focus, a different theology, and a slightly different cast of characters.

The character of Abraham is common to all three sources, though his name changes from Abram to Abraham. In J, the character of Judah is given special attention, saving Joseph from his brothers (Genesis 37) and involved in other significant events, while he is hardly mentioned in P and E (in E it is the oldest brother, Rueben, who saves Joseph in Genesis 37). Aaron, a priest, is given special significance in the P source, as is expected, yet is hardly mentioned in J and E. Isaac, while very important in J, isn’t mentioned at all in E after his near-sacrifice at the hand of Abram.

So, to help unite the new nation of Israel, all of the different stories were combined into one document.

The next step: individual sources have different sources.

This theory can be similarly applied to the individual source documents. Albrecht Alt put forth the theory that the main characters in Genesis were the patriarchs of different nomadic tribes within the same region, whose stories were combined into a single narrative. This happened long before the separation of Israel into a northern and southern kingdom, so the characters’ events in J and E are still the same.

The general idea is that Abraham was the patriarch, the founder, of one tribe. Isaac was the founder of another. Jacob another, and maybe Judah and Joseph of others.

The different tribes would fight and conquer each other, with the largest and most important, the Abrahamic tribe, being most important. This newly created nation, made up of many tribes, needed a single unifying story. They probably had similar creation myths, maybe even the same flood myth, but the their founders were all different.

So, to include all of the patriarchs, a fake genealogy was created, one that tied all the characters into a single family. Abraham, being the patriarch of the most important tribe, was made into the grandfather. Isaac became the father. Jacob became the son. The patriarchs of other minor tribes were represented by certain grandsons and extended family members.

Equally importantly, the patriarchs of the tribes and nations outside the new borders were brought into the narrative too. For example, Esau could have represented a nation next door (Edom), with whom the new nation had a bad relationship, maybe slightly submissive, but eventually lived with in peace.

The story lays out all the citizens need to know about each other, who is most important, and how to relate to the nations surrounding their home lands.

This theory can also be applied to the role of James and John the Baptist in the story of Jesus. From historical records, it seems that James and John had religious sects surrounding them, independently of the very earliest Christians who followed Jesus. Later, the followers of James and John were brought into the fold, and James became the brother of Jesus, and John his cousin.

The final step: The Individual Patriarchs are the Same Person.

In the same way that the Genesis is made up from three sources, E, J and P, all portraying the same events from different perspectives, I’d like to suggest that the same thing happened at the lower level, within the sources themselves, particularly the J source.

The history of the writing of Genesis, and the people who wrote it, would look something like this:

1. A single tribe arrives in Canaan.
2. This tribe has a single patriarch, which I’ll call the Proto-Patriarch.
3. As the tribe grows, it splits into three main tribes, with other minor tribes besides.
4. Each of the three tribes defines its own territory; land which has special importance to their own history.
5. To distinguish their own identity from those of the others, the tribes begin to refer to the characters in their previously-shared founding legends with new names.
6. Many generations pass, and the names and geography within each founding legend changes so much that the fact that they all tell the story of the same Proto-Patriarch is obscured.
7. The tribes are reunited into a single nation, and their legends are combined into a single unifying narrative, the rough story that we find in Genesis.
8. Later, the nation splits into two halves, the northern and southern kingdoms.
9. The once-shared founding legends again diversify, concentrating more on local geography and important characters, and the facts begin to differ.
10. The J source is written in the southern kingdom of Judah.
11. The E source is written in the northern kingdom of Israel.
12. The Assyrians invade the northern kingdom, and people from the north flow south across the border.
13. A redactor combines the two sources into a new document (RJE).
14. A priest retells the same story, but from a more theological/religious viewpoint, setting the story straight for the purposes of ceremony and law.
15. In the time after the Babylonian exile the ultimate redactor combines J, E and P (or RJE and P), into the text we now know as Genesis, and along with other sources (most importantly D), into much of the rest of the historical parts of the Old Testament.

Steps 7 through 15 are generally accepted steps in the Documentary Hypothesis

As for steps 1 through 6, this is where I’m heading into new territory (new to me), so I better get onto some evidence to back up the Proto-Patriarch theory.

A note on methodology.

When looking for repeated stories among the patriarchs, I decided to make sure that the repetitions couldn’t be explained simply by the J, E and P source discrepancies. I used the The Bible with Sources Revealed by Richard Elliot Friedman to note which in which source each is mentioned.

As I completed my first pass, I noticed that the vast majority of references I’d made had the initial “J” next to them. Why so many repetitions in J, and not the other sources? I’ll leave that question for now, but I found the many repetitions within J so compelling. Elements were also repeated many times in P, but to a lesser extent. The E source has the least repeated elements.

Initial results: a possible story of the Proto-Patriarch.

PP lived in Canaan. As a young man he had problems with his older brother, taking his blessing, and this rocky start lead to them living in different places.

Despite trouble with his family, he was blessed by God and was generally very wealthy in terms of money and livestock. When I say “blessed” I mean being sneaky when it comes to gaining property.

God made a covenant with PP, promising that his line would become a great nation. At this time God told him to change his name. He also built an altar or two to give thanks to God.

To be the father of a nation, PP needed a wife. His father command him not to take a wife from among the Canaanite, but instead from Haran.

The woman unlucky enough to become PP’s wife was, through a cute story, his own cousin. I say unlucky, because PP’s wife didn’t get a good deal.

For a start, there was a famine. And when there was a famine they ended up going to Egypt for food. Even if they didn’t go to Egypt during that particular famine, PP and his wife did go somewhere with an overly sexed king. PP was afraid that the king would kill him for his wife, and so introduced her as his own sister. Through a series of comic events, this leads to the king paying him off, leaving PP richer than before.

Meanwhile, PP’s wife was barren. Instead of waiting for God to fulfill his promise via his wife, PP shacked up with his wife’s maid instead, leading to troublesome offspring of his own. Finally, in her old age, his wife gave birth. PP outlived his wife.

PP was a very old man when he died, and was buried by his sons in a cave in the field of Machpelah, that faces Mamre, in the land of Canaan.

A closer look at 14 repeated elements.

1. Trouble between brothers/sons, younger son comes out on top.

There are two ways to look at stories between a patriarch and his brother. The first is as just that, trouble with his brother. The second is trouble between a patriarch’s two sons.

Looked at in the second way, a repeating pattern is how a the younger son prevails over the older in terms of birthright or blessings from the father.


Abram’s brothers are hardly mentioned in Genesis. Haran, the father of Lot, dies in Terah’s lifetime. The cause is unknown, but Abram seems to adopt Lot as a kind of son. Strangely, Abram’s other brother, Nahor, seems to have married his own niece, the daughter of Haran and sister of Lot.

So while trouble with his brother isn’t mentioned explicitly in the text, all we have is the trouble between his people and Lot’s people. They divide Canaan between them and go their separate ways (13:8 J). While the P source says explicitly that Lot was Abram’s brother’s son, 13:11 (P) reads “And they separated, each from his brother.”


Isaac’s half brother, Ishmael, isn’t a source of considerable trouble as portrayed in Genesis, but an angel says he will be. 16:12 (J) says “And he’ll be a wild ass of a man, his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him, and he’ll tent among all his brothers.”

Ishmael is interesting, as here we get a glimpse at an also-ran patriarch. Like all three main patriarchs, God promises to make him into a great nation (21:13 E). Like Isaac and Jacob, he takes takes foreign wife (21:21 E). Like Jacob he had 12 sons (25:13 P).

In this case, Isaac, the younger son, is blessed over his older brother, though Ishmael is only his half-brother, born from the wrong mother.

Finally, like Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers, Ishmael seems to have made up with his brother, at least to point where they bury their father together.


Jacob’s troubles with his brother are more directly related in Genesis, to such an extent that I won’t go through it all here. However, right from the start, God says to Rebekah “Two nations are in your womb” (25:23 J).

Esau is portrayed hairy, a man of the field, who knew hunting (25:27 J), echoing Ishmael, who was called a wild ass, and who lived in the wilderness and was a bowman (21:20 E).

Again, Jacob, the younger son, is blessed over his older son.

Here the parallels to Ishmael and Esau could be either seen as PP’s relationship between himself and his brother, or between PP’s two sons. I suggest that the second reading is more important, as we can use the story of Jacob’s sons to show more troubles between sons.

Joseph et al.

Again, there are many issues between Joseph and his brothers. One particular incident that stands out is their use of a goat. They take his coat and dip it in goat’s blood to trick their Jacob into thinking a wild animal has killed Joseph (37:31 J), and in this way they win the favor of their father.

Jacob himself used a goat to win his father’s favor. When Isaac wanted delicacies from Esau to give him his blessing, Rebekah and Jacob conspired to use goat skins as a disguise, and goat meat as the delicacies to trick Isaac. While this is a thematic link, it shows a repeating pattern from one generation to the next.

We read in the blessing of Jacob’s sons, in chapter 49 (J), that the oldest brother, Rueben, lost favor with Jacob due to sleeping with his maid. See 35:21-22 (J). We also read that, due to their violence, the next two sons, Simeon and Levi, lost favor too. See chapter 34 (J). The result of this, in the J source, is that the younger Judah gains the blessing over his older brothers. Only the births of these first four sons of Jacob are told in the J source. This echos the theme in J of the younger son taking the blessing from the older, as Jacob did over Esau, and Perez did over Zerah.

However, in the E and P source we see parallels between Joseph and his half-brothers and Isaac and his half-brothers. Between Leah, Zilpah, Bilhah and Rachel, Rachel was Jacob’s own first choice. This was why Joseph and Benjamin were his favorite sons. This is a repeat of how between Hagar, Keturah and Sarai, Sarai was Abram’s own first choice, and Isaac was his most blessed son.

Jacob’s grandchildren.

Judah had twin sons by his daughter-in-law, Tamar. 38:27-30 (J) tells the story of how there is a mixup between the first and second-born twin. We don’t know how the story of Perez and Zerah plays out, but you can see trouble of Jacob-Esau proportions on the horizon; Perez’s ancestors include the kings of Judah, and Zerah’s don’t.

Finally, when Jacob blesses Joseph’s two sons, there is yet more confusion as to who is the older and who is the young. Due to Jacob’s bad eyesight, he places his hand on Ephraim’s head to bless him. Joseph points out that Manesseh is the older son, but 48:19 (E) reads “I know, my son, I know… But in fact his little brother will be greater than he, and his seed will be full-fledged of nations.” The next verse states “And he set Ephraim before Manasseh.”

It is no surprise that the J source, written in Judah, tells this older-younger-son-mixup story about the sons of Judah, and that the E source, written in the northern kingdom, tells a similar story about the sons of Joseph, where their name-sake tribes resided.


While some of these verses are from different sources (J, E and P) the narratives arise within each source. Over the story of each of the patriarchs, we can see PP and his brother end up living in different countries. Or, to look at it the other way, PP’s younger son gains the blessing over the older son, the sons are then estranged, yet always reunite by the time of PP’s death, ready to bury him.

2. Covenant with God, Father of Nations.

God’s covenant with the patriarchs is repeated in each case, and sometimes in more than one source.


12:2 (J) reads – “And I’ll make you into a big nation, and I’ll bless you and make your name great.” In 12:7 (J) God adds – “I’ll give this land to your seed.”

Abram gets a second covenant conversation with God, though this is from a different source. 17:4 (P) read “I: here, my covenant is with you, and you’ll become the father of a mass of nations.”


The covenant with Isaac is a reaffirmation of Abram’s covenant. 26:3 (J) read “Stay on in this land, and I’ll be with you and bless you, for I’ll give all these lands to you and your seed, and I’ll uphold the oath that I swore to Abraham your father, and I’ll multiply your seed like the stars of the skies…”


Jacob’s Ladder (E) sets the scene, but the covenant is again given in the J source. 28:13 (J) reads “I am YHWH, your father Abraham’s God and Isaac’s God. The land on which you’re lying: I’ll give it to you and your seed. And your seed will be like the dust of the earth…”

In each of these we see a covenant, with God promising the land to PP’s seed.

However, it could be said that each of these is a reaffirmation of the previous covenant, confirming that God means, out of Isaac’s and Ishmael’s seed, Isaac’s is the important one. And out of Jacob and Esau’s seed, Jacob’s is the seed to watch. So maybe this is not evidence for Abram, Isaac and Jacob being the same person. But then, if this is the case, why have two generations of non-specific seed-line covenants before the one that really matters, Jacob’s is confirmed, all the while having to bless Esau and Ishmael too?

Joseph et al.

Once the blessed seed-line becomes non-specific, in the generation of Joseph, judging who will be most blessed becomes trickier.

Joseph dreams of his brothers bowing down to him, echoing Rebekah’s dream that one son will serve another. This could be read as a prophesy fulfilled by the end of Genesis, in the scenes where Joseph’s brothers bow to him in a literal sense.

However, in Jacob’s blessing in chapter 49, after those events, Joseph receives the longest blessing, at 18 lines. Notable are the lines from 49:25 (J) that read “… from your father’s God, and He’ll strengthen you, and from Shadday, and He’ll bless you, blessings from the sky above…” and so on. Joseph is the only son whose blessing references the god of his father. Also, the final line, 49:26 (J), reads “…on top of the head of the one separate from his brothers.” This may mean Joseph will be seen as greater than his brothers in the future, or might be a reference to his current position as a leader in Egypt.

Meanwhile, the second longest blessing from Jacob in chapter 49 (17 lines) goes to Judah. His blessing begins at 49:8 (J) with “Judah: You, your bothers will praise you.” This is quite unambiguous! Also, in verse 10 we read the lines “The scepter won’t depart from Judah, or a rule from between his legs…” The imagery here is again quite unambiguous. While Joseph is the most blessed, Judah will become the most important. This is no coincidence; Judah was a patriarch figure in his own right, especially in the southern kingdom bearing his name, where the J source was written.

As mentioned earlier, compared to these blessings, the eldest sons, Rueben, Simeon and Levi, are passed over for their earlier bad behavior.

Finally, in the E and P sources, Joseph’s sons, Mannassah and Ephraim, receive a great blessing from Jacob (chapter 48).

3. God changes the PP’s name.

This shared feature is from the P source only.


Directly after the P covenant, 17:5 (P) reads “And your name will not be called Abram any more, but your name will be Abraham…”


35:10 (P) reads “Your name is Jacob. Your name will not be called Jacob anymore, but rather Israel will be your name.”


There is no evidence that God changed Isaac’s name. However, Isaac’s early story is surprisingly vague compared to Jacob, Esau, and even Ishmael.

In the P text Isaac is born, is circumcised aged 8, and marries Rebekah. There is no account of Jacob’s and Esau’s birth in P, and this one of the only gaps in the P source, which can be read as an otherwise complete and unbroken story when separated from J and E. The P source next mentions Isaac at the blessing of Jacob, and then at Isaac’s death.

Why is there so little about Isaac in P? Do the gaps show material that might have shown him as more important, that weren’t included by the redactor?

In the E source Isaac is even more invisible. He is born and blessed, then taken by Abraham to the altar to be sacrificed. After that he disappears from the E source completely. He isn’t even mentioned as returning from the altar with Abram, leading to the remarkable question “Did Abraham kill his son as God first commanded?”

With so little known about Isaac outside of the J source, it is difficult to say if his name was changed like Abraham and Jacob in P, or not. This might have happened, with the just the pre- or post-change name being used throughout. We know that the redactor would change names within the different sources, to keep them consistent with the narrative.

For example, Abram’s name is change to Abraham only in P, but after the fact he is Abraham in all sources.

Conversely, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel in P only, but after the fact he is referred to many times as Jacob, many times as Israel, and many times with the non-specific Joseph’s/Rueben’s father title in both J and E. And in P, the only time Jacob is called Israel is in the very SAME verse in which he is renamed. The word Israel is mentioned once more in P, in 46:8, but only as a reference to “the children of Israel”.

So it is entirely possible that Isaac may have gone by two different names, and when the name-changing story from P was not included, the redactor harmonized the remaining few P passages to keep his J name only (and not needing to harmonize the E passages, as Isaac doesn’t reappear in E).

Even if not, we still have a two out of three hit for God changing PP’s name.

4. PP builds altars.

After his covenant with God, or after his name changing, PP builds altars to God. The places he did this change throughout, often with many altars being built by the same patriarch in the same source. These stories were probably created by preists in Canaan to give significance to certain locations that became their own places of worship.

P has no stories of altars or sacrifice until after the establishment of the priesthood in and the Tabernacle in Exodus, so altar building references can only be found in J or E.


Abram builds a series of altars to God in chapters 12 and 13. First he goes to Shechem. 12:6-7 (J) reads “And Abram passed through the land as far as the place of Shechem, as far as the oak of Moreh… And he built an altar there to YHWH who had appeared to him.”

In the next verse he goes to a place near Beth-El “…and he built an altar there to YHWH and invoked the name of YHWH.” In 13:3-4 (J) returns to Beth-El.

13:18 (J) reads “And Abram took up his tent and came and lived among the oaks of Mamre which are in Hebron, and he built an altar to YHWH there.”

Mamre and Hebron are important places in J because of this altar. In P they become even more “holy” due to Abraham buying a plot of land facing Mamre, where he buries Sarah and, later, is buried there himself.


Beer-sheba is an important location to Isaac. In 26:24 (J) he gets a confirmation of the covenant from God. The next verse reads “And he built an altar there and invoked the name of YHWH. And he pitched his tent there, and his servants dug a well there.”


After Jacob’s covenant with God, there is no altar building in J. However, in the same narrative, he does so in the E source. 28:18 (E) reads “And he got up early in the morning and took the stone that he had set as his headrest and set it as a pillar and poured oil on its top.” The next verse continues in J. “And he called that place’s name Beth-El, though in fact Luz was the name of the city at first.”

Having two names for a single location is handy, especially if the same event was claimed by two different communities, or two events, which are said to happen in two different locations, are later said to happen at the same place. Later in E, Jacob builds another altar in the same location. See 35:7 (E). The J source may or may not have shown Jacob building an altar before the JE redaction or the final redaction.

We have four distinct mentions of an altar at Beth-El, two visits by Abram in J, and two visits by Jacob in E.

Going by the J source only two out of three of the patriarchs build altars, yet the Beth-El altars, even if mentioned in two different sources, suggest another connection between Abram and Jacob.

One final note on altar building. This element is not only a common feature of these related patriarchs in Genesis. There is one non-patriarch altar; the one Noah built after the flood, 8:20 (J). However, its location is not noted, so might serve a different purpose in the story as compared to those of the patriarchs.

5. PP was blessed with much wealth.

God blessed PP with great material wealth, using trickery or miracles, depending on your point of view.


After pulling the “meet my sister” trick, Pharaoh lavishes Abram with gifts on Sarai’s behalf. 12:16 (J) reads “And he was good to Abram on her account, and he had a flock and oxen and he-asses and servants and maids and she-asses and camels.”

Once Abram leaves Egypt we read in 13:2 (J) “And Abram was very heavy with livestock and silver and gold.”


Again, after pulling the “meet my sister” trick, Isaac is blessed. 26:14 (J) “and had livestock of flocks and livestock of herds and a large number of servants.”

While Isaac lying about his sister and him gaining wealth are not connected in the same way as it was for Abram, one event does follow the other. Because of the “meet my sister” trick, Abimelek commands that nobody harm Isaac, on the pain of death. Immediately following that, Isaac seems to take advantage of the Philistines’ land while there is a famine back in Canaan, and the Philistines can’t stop him.

The link here is subtle, but I suggest there’s more than a temporal connection between the two events; the trickery, and then wealth despite the famine. The antagonist in Abimelek’s other run-in with a patriarch is Abram. In this account, from the E source, the deal that Abimelek strikes is laid out in clearer terms: 20:15 (E) reads “Here is my land in front of you. Live wherever it’s good in your eyes.”

As the Abraham/E and the Isaac/J account of this story have most in common, it isn’t a stretch to say the unspoken deal between Abimelek and Isaac mirrors the spoken deal between Abimelek and Abraham.


Unlike Abram and Isaac, Jacob’s trickery is premeditated, and involves breeding sheep and goats with spots and streaks. At the end of the story, 30:43 (J) reads “And the man expanded very, very much, and he had many sheep and female and male servants and camels and asses.”

While being rich with livestock and servants isn’t an element exclusive to the patriarchs, PP would probably have gained his wealth in a unconventional manner.

6. PP had a non-Canaanite wife, from Haran.


Sarai’s place of birth is not mentioned. Like Abram himself, the P source suggests she is from Ur. Confusingly, J suggests Abram and Sarai come from a place called Haran, though Haran is also the name of Abram’s brother and Lot’s father. E mentions Sarai is Abram’s father’s daughter, and as his half-sister, she would probably come from the same place.


Abraham commands his servant to find a wife for Isaac from the land of his birthplace. 24:3-4 (J) reads “… you won’t take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanite among whom I live, but you’ll go to my land and my birthplace and take a wife for my son, for Isaac.”

The servant goes to “Aram Naharaim, to the city of Nahor.” In this case, the Nahor in question is the father of Terah, grandfather of Abraham, who comes from Ur in P, but Haran in J.


This same story is repeated for Jacob, though this time it is from the P source, and Isaac commands Jacob directly, rather than via a servant. 28:1-2 (P) reads “You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan. Get up. Go to Paddan Aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife from there, from the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother.” This story is from P, and the previous command not to take a wife from the daughters of Canaan is from J.

Even if not commanded to by his father, Jacob takes a non-Canaanite wife in the J source. P says Paddam Aram, but J shows Jacob going to Haran.

6. Through a series of comedic events, PP marries his own sister/cousin.

Abram and Sarai

While making excuses for saying his wife was his sister, Abram lets mentions she is actually his sister. 20:12 (E) reads “And also she is, in fact, my sister, my father’s daughter but not my mother’s daughter, and she became a wife to me.” We don’t get the same information in J or P.

Isaac and Rebekah

In J, Abraham commands the servant to get a wife for Isaac from the land he was born, not specifically a relative. Even so, we read that Rebekah is a cousin in 24:15 (J), “… and here was Rebekah–who was born to Bethuel son of Milcah, wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother…”

Jacob and Rachel (and Leah)

At first, Jacob marrying his cousins doesn’t seem like a coincidence, as Isaac commands Jacob to take a wife from the daughters of Laban, his mother’s brother. However, this command is in P, and the longer story of Jacob meeting Rachel is in J, which is missing any commandment to marry a daughter of Laban. In 27:43 (J) it is Rebekah who tells Jacob to go to Laban, but she mentions nothing about marrying the daughters of her brother.

In P we also see Esau picking up on the command to not marry a Canaanite. He takes a cousin for a wife too, this time Ishmael’s daughter, Mahalath.

PP married his cousin, with a two out of three hit for the main patriarchs, and hints from the stories of minor characters that cousin marriage was the way to go. Maybe cousin marriage was a common occurrence at the time, but J shows two particular cousin marriages as special, notable events.

8. Famine in the land, and a connection to Egypt.

For the patriarchs, famines are catalysts for moving to a new location and the gain of wealth. And for some reason, Egypt always features.


12:10 (J) reads “And there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to reside there because the famine was heavy in the land.”


26:1 (J) reads “And there was a famine in the land…” This could mean that famines were a common occurrence in Canaan, but the author puts in a note here to show this isn’t the case. Verse 1 continues “… (other than the first famine, which was in Abraham’s days)…” That these two events are so similar, even with identical wording, meant that the author had to add this note to make sure the reader didn’t get them mixed up.

Normally repeated events in the Torah aren’t commented on in this way, mainly because the events repeat across different sources. Here the repetition is within J.

The connection to Egypt is similarly strange in this story. God commands Isaac directly in 26:2 (J) “Don’t go down to Egypt. Reside in the land that I say to you…” Is this command added to distinguish the story further from that of Abram’s? Maybe, before the author of J made these stories clearly different, the destination or place of return, or the person the patriarch meets there, could have overlapped, as does the similar story from the E source.


While a there is drought in Egypt, there is also a famine in Canaan. The first mention in J is in chapter 42. It begins “And Jacob saw that there was grain in Egypt…” he commands his sons to go buy some of that grain.

The story of the famine in Canaan continues in chapter 43 (J): “And the famine was heavy in the land…” and again Jacob sends his sons to buy more food.

Again, staying with J, Jacob himself decides to go to Egypt in 45:28 (J), sets off in 46:5 (J), sends Judah ahead in 45:28 (J), arrives in the next verse, and stayed there to live in 47:27 (J).

PP will experience a famine. And it seems that during the famine, PP will go to Egypt. It’s his default option. That God must command Isaac not to do so, or else he too would have gone, like Abram and Jacob, is quite telling.

9. The “she’s my sister” trick.

PP’s wife is so beautiful that he’s afraid people will kill him for her. Jacob doesn’t get his own version of this story, but it happens twice with Abram and once with Isaac.


In chapter 12, the J source tells how Abram’s fears of the Egyptian’s wanting Sarai for themselves are well founded, and in verse 14 we read “… and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house” Pharaoh pays Abram for his sister. It is only when God sends big plagues against Pharaoh and his house that Pharaoh tells Abram to take Sarai and go.

In chapter 20, the E source tells a similar story, this time with Abimelek as the king. Again the king takes Sarah for himself. However, by the time God comes for vengeance, Abimelek hasn’t yet touched Sarah, and so Abimelek escapes punishment.


The story in chapter 26 (J) has the same setup. However, this time Abimelek doesn’t even take Rebekah for his own. All he does is see her fooling around with Isaac. In verse 10 (J) he says “One of the people nearly could have lain with your wife…” Because Abimelek doesn’t actually sleep with or pay for Rebekah, this story has more in common with the E version in chapter 20 than the other J version in chapter 12.

Two stories this similar, repeated in the same source (J), is a rare event, and the author goes to extra lengths to show that they really are different stories, and not the same thing happening to two different people. This is undermined by the fact that the author of E used characters from one J story, and facts from the other, when composing his own text. That isn’t to say the author of the E source had read J, but that the facts of the story, even down to who the main character might be, hadn’t yet been tied down. The author of E didn’t worry about it too much, and only included it once. J wanted to include both versions, but had to point out they were different events.

10. PP’s wife was infertile, until God decided she wasn’t.

This is a strong element with each of the three patriarchs. It is seen as a test of faith and obedience in God, to keep following his commands even when it doesn’t look like any heir is on the way.


11:30 (P) reads “And Sarai was infertile. She did not have a child.”

The J source mentions this first in 15:2. “… what would you give me when I go childless…?” It confirms it in 16:1. “And Abram’s wife Sarai had not given birth by him…”

In chapter 18 (J), Abram is visited by three messengers from God. When they mention Sarah would have child, she bursts out laughing.


25:21 (J) reads “And Isaac prayed to YHWH for his wife because she was infertile…” God answers him right away, and she soon gets pregnant.


29:31 (J) reads “And YHWH saw that Leah was hated, and He opened her womb, and Rachel was infertile.” This happens later in the narrative than Jacob’s seven year labour for Rachel. Does this mean it took Leah seven years to get pregnant? Even if not, it shows that Leah could only give birth after God intervenes. The same verse also tells of Rachel’s infertility.

This is repeated in 30:1 (J). God opening Rachel’s womb is recounted in the E source, 30:22, but the story picks up again in J right away, with the naming of Joseph.

This shows that PP’s wife was infertile until God decides it’s time for her to give birth.

11. Meanwhile, PP was getting it on with the maid.


Chapter 16 (J) tells the story of Abram and Sarai’s Egyptian maid Hagar. The outcome is Ishmael.


There is no story of Isaac sleeping with a maid of his wife in any of the three source documents.

There is, however, an intriguing verse in chapter 35. In among the the story of Jacob, verse 8 (E) reads “And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died and was buried beneath Beth-El, beneath an oak, and [Jacob] called its name Oak of Weeping.” Who is this nurse of Rebekah’s? And why do we learn of her death and burial, and not Rebekah’s herself? These questions can’t be answered within the text.


Both the J and E sources tell how Rachel gave her maid to Jacob. 30:4 (J) reads “And she gave him Bilhah, her maid, as a wife.” 30:3 (E) reads “Here’s my maid, Bilhah. Come to her, and she’ll give birth on my knees, and I too will get a child through her.”

Having two wives, Jacob gets the same treatment from two angles. 30:9 (E) reads “And Leah saw that she had stopped giving birth, and she took Zilpah, her maid, and gave her to Jacob as a wife.”

So, with a two out of three match, I’d say PP had some action with his wife’s maid.

12. PP outlived his wife.

We only read about the deaths of the patriarchs’ wives in P and E.


23:2 (P) reads “And Sarah died in Kiriath Arba – it is Hebron – in the land of Canaan. And Abraham came to grieve for Sarah and to weep for her.”

However, Sarah is mentioned in J after her death in P, as Isaac takes Rebekah to Sarah’s tent, 24:67 (J).


There are no reports of the time of Rebekah’s death in any source. This is unsurprising due to the fact that E doesn’t mention Isaac after Abraham takes him to be sacrificed, and P is concerned with Isaac and Rebekah only when they relate to Jacob. It is only in 49:31 (P), when Jacob is instructing his sons where he should be buried, that we read that Rebekah is dead and buried.


35:19 (E) tells of the death Rachel as she gives birth to Benjamin, while on the road to Ephrat. It includes the line “It is Bethlehem.” 48:7 (P) tells that Rachel died on the road to Ephrat, with similar wording, and contains the line “That’s Bethlehem.”

That the P and E sources have such similar wording is peculiar. But the P source continues at 49:29, and 49:31 (P) also mentions Jacob buried Leah, meaning she too died before he did.

So, while it might have been a common occurrence witn non-patriarchs too, PP probably lived longer than his wife.

13. Lived to an old age and died of natural causes.

Only the P source do we read about the deaths of all three of the patriarchs.


25:7-8 (P) tells of Abram’s death, including the lines “And he expired. And Abraham died at a good old age, old and full, and was gathered to his people.” He died aged 175 years.


Isaac died aged 180 years. Using much the same phrasing as the death of Abram, 35:29 (P) reads “… and Isaac expired. And he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days.”


While the deaths of Abram and Isaac are dealt with in a cursory manner, Jacob’s death is long and drawn out, and because God hadn’t made an exclusive covenant with any one of his sons, it’s interrupted with many accounts of him blessing his children.

First, we find out in 47:28 (P) that Jacob lived to 147 years old.

Next we have the J version of Jacob making Joseph swear to him to bury him outside of Egypt. This ends in 47:31 (J) with “And Israel bowed at the head of the bed.” If we skip the poetic blessing of his sons, the next line of J (50:1) reads “And Joseph fell upon his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him.” Taken uninterrupted this tells the events of Jacob’s death.

A similar thing happens in E. 48:21 (E) begins “And Israel said to Joseph. ‘Here, I’m dying…'” The E source continues, after the blessings and burial stories in J and P, with 50:15. It begins “And Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead…” Again, we have another interrupted account of Jacob’s death.

P tells of Jacob’s death in 49:33, “And Jacob finished commanding his sons, and he gathered his feet into the bed, and he expired, and he was gathered to his people.” We get the repeat of “he expired” and “gathered to his people” but not “old and full of days”. It seems that 147 just isn’t that old compared to 175 and 180.

14. PP was buried by his sons in a cave in the field of Machpelah, which faces Mamre, in the land of Canaan.

The P source is very insistent that all of the patriarchs were buried in the same place, a cave in the field of Machpelah.


The whole of chapter 23 (P) tells the story of how Abraham buys it from Ephron to bury Sarah. 25:9 (P) tells how Abraham himself was buried in the same place by his two sons.


35:27-29 (P) tells how Isaac was at Mamre when he died and his two sons buried him, even though it doesn’t mention Ephron or the cave. However, in 49:31 (P), Jacob confirms that’s where Isaac was buried. At the report of Isaac’s death it says that Jacob and Esau buried Isaac, though when Jacob recounts the same event he says “There they buried Isaac and Rebekah, his wife.” Why Jacob doesn’t say “There we buried Isaac” or “There I buried Isaac” like he does with his own wife (“There I buried Leah”), is unclear.


Again, 50:13 (P) goes to great lengths to confirm that Jacob was buried in the cave that Abraham bought from Ephron, in the field of Machpelah, that faces Mamre, in the land of Canaan.

However, J disagrees with P on this point. Jacob asks Joseph, just before he dies, to be buried with his fathers. 47:30 (J) reads “And I’ll lie with my fathers, and you’ll carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.”

50:5 (J) shows Joseph recounting his father’s command as “Here I’m dying. In my tomb, which I dug for me in the land of Canaan, you shall bury me there.” So not a cave, but a tomb that Jacob dug for himself, and with no mention of Isaac or Abraham.

This insistence by P that all the patriarchs were buried in the same place probably has more to do with the tourist industry of Mamre, a way to keep pilgrims coming to the land that the priests claim they bought from Ephron, than anything to do with a historic burial location.


Some repeated story elements may be intentional variations within the text by the authors of J and P. However, many repeats within the same source are flagged up by the authors themselves, trying to avoid confusion, rather than trying to be subtle with just wording or thematic similarities.

Other repeated story elements may be common to all fathers in Canaan. But if this was the case, why are so many repeated stories presented as notable events, rather than normal, everyday occurrences? The answer is that each event is extraordinary for people in 900 BCE, so much so that when they happened to each of the patriarchs they had to be included in the narrative.

The sheer number of unifying elements seems to hint at a single underlying identity and story shared by Abram, Isaac, and Jacob.

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