Abraham was born in the city of Ur, in the Land of Chaldea. With his father and the other members of the family, he left the city to become a wanderer in the desert.
Chaldea, where the city of Ur was, today is called Iraq. And the Land of Canaan, where Abraham finally brought his family, today is called Israel.
Long, long ago there were only a few Jews. As a matter of fact, they were all one family or tribe. Abraham was the wise father of this family. And because the family was so large, we can think of Abraham as a desert chieftain.
When the family of Abraham found good pasture land for their flocks, they would settle down for a while perhaps a week or a month. They would set up a little village of black goatskin tents. It usually would be on an oasis. An oasis is a shady place in the desert where there are a few trees, some green grass, and a spring or well of cool water.
Abraham and his son, Isaac, and his grandson, Jacob, are called the patriarchs. This word simply means father. Each of these three men was the head of a great family of wanderers. They moved from place to place, wherever the grass was greenest, so that their goats and sheep could eat and grow fat.
Sometimes it is hard to think about a long, long time ago. Well, we know that our fathers are older than we, probably twenty years older. We know that our grandfathers probably are twenty years older than our fathers. So we have .a picture of another man being born each twenty years.
We call this period of years a generation. And the number of generations the Jewish people have lived through since the time of Abraham is one hundred and fifty.
We know that today there are many famous Jews who are men of learning and distinction. Albert Einstein was a Jew. Surely we have all heard of that great scientist. Jonas Salk who discovered the wonderful vaccine which prevents Infantile Paralysis is also Jewish, as are many other wise and famous people.
But at the time of the patriarchs, the Jews were a young and primitive people. They were one of the tribes living in the Land of Canaan.
Some of these tribes lived in cities. Some, like the Jews, were wanderers.
None of these tribes believed in God as we do today. Even Abraham's family at times prayed to little idols, images of clay, which they called Ba-els.
Some tribes made sacrifices of human beings to their idol gods. It was not thought wrong to kill little children for these clay gods. That was dreadful, but we must remember that it happened a very long, long time ago.
It was Abraham, the first Jew, who said that such practices were wicked. The story is told that when he took his little son, Isaac, up to the altar of sacrifice, a lamb appeared. Abraham felt that he heard the voice of God telling him to sacrifice the lamb, not his little boy.
So did Abraham put an end to human sacrifice. He was the first man to believe in a God of justice and love.
Abraham grew old. Now his son, Isaac, was a man and soon Isaac would be the new head of Abraham's family or tribe. Though Abraham had lived in the Land of Canaan for many years, moving from place to place with his family, his tents and his flocks, he still felt the Canaanites were strangers to him.
They worshiped idols. They still made human sacrifices and did other things Abraham disliked. He did not want his son, Isaac, to marry a Canaanite girl.
Abraham sent a faithful servant back to Chaldea, the land of his father. There a part of his father's family still lived. Abraham told the servant to find a wife for Isaac from that family.
We must always try to remember that these desert families we speak of were not like the families of today. They included hundreds of people. They were really tribes.
The story of how the servant found a wife for Isaac is known everywhere today. It is called the story of Rebekah at the well.
In that land water was very precious. The country was very dry, and only where there was water could people live.
The servant came to a well just outside the place where his master Abraham's father lived. A lovely young girl had just filled a pitcher with water from the well. The servant asked her if he could have water to drink.
That may seem a small favor to ask, for we have all the water we need. But in that desert land water was highly valued.
The girl was sweet and kind. She not only gave water to Abraham's servant, but also gave him water for his thirsty camels. This was Rebekah. When the servant saw how good and kind she was, he asked her father to let her go with him and become Isaac's wife.
The father agreed, and Rebekah went back to the Land of Canaan with Abraham's servant.
When Abraham died, Isaac became the second patriarch. Abraham was an old man when he died. We are told he was one hundred and sixty-five years old. Whether this is true or not, he was a very old man, and he lived a good and wise life. We remember him as the first Jew.
He had taught his people not to worship idols. He taught them that God was a great, mysterious force. No picture ever could be made of the real God.
Isaac now was the head of the family and chief of the tribe. We can imagine that he must have looked much like his father, Abraham. We think of him as a tall man in a long striped robe, bearded and erect.
He lived happily with his wife Rebekah whom he always loved. Under his rule, the tribe grew in strength and wisdom.
Isaac had two sons who were twins. One was called Jacob and the other Esau. Though they were twins, Esau was born perhaps a minute before his brother Jacob.
In those days all of a man's wealth, all his sheep and goats and camels, went to his oldest son when the father died. This was called the birthright since it came to a son by right of birth. Since Esau was born first and so was a little older than Jacob, when Isaac died Esau was entitled to all of Isaac's wealth.
Now, although Jacob and Esau were twins, they were very different. Jacob was a quiet, thoughtful man. Esau was wild and daring. Jacob loved to remain among the tents or with the flocks. Esau was never so happy as when he was out hunting. Jacob was smooth of skin. Esau was rough and hairy.
Isaac loved both sons, but he had a great tenderness for Esau. He admired Esau's daring. He loved the flesh of the wild deer Esau shot and brought to him.
One day when Jacob and Esau were young men, Esau came back from a hunting trip. He was very tired and hungry. Jacob was cooking a pot of lentils and Esau asked him for some.
"Will you sell me your birthright for a bowl of lentils" Jacob asked him.
Perhaps Esau thought his brother was joking. Or, perhaps being wild and carefree, he thought little of his birthright. He said he would sell his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentils.
When Isaac was very old and almost blind, he felt that soon he would die. He asked his wife, Rebekah, to send Esau to him for his blessing.
But Rebekah loved Jacob more. So she wrapped a hairy piece of kidskin around Jacob's smooth hand and sent him to receive Isaac's blessing. Thus Isaac blessed Jacob instead of Esau.
Jacob had won both the birthright and the blessing of his father through trickery. But it did him no good, for he knew he had done wrong. And because Jacob knew he had done wrong, he was afraid his brother Esau would kill him.
So Jacob left his father and his mother, the tribe and its tents and flocks. He fled across the desert, back to Chaldea where a part of Abraham's family still lived.
And all the wealth of the tribe belonged to Esau.
Now Jacob had nothing. One night as he lay in the desert, he dreamed he saw a ladder stretching up to the sky. Angels moved up and down the ladder.
In his dream he thought God spoke to him and told him that even though he had nothing now, he would someday lead a great tribe. When Jacob woke, he felt his sin was forgiven.
He traveled on to the old home of Abraham. Here the tribe of Abraham's father still lived. Jacob's uncle ruled this tribe. His name was Laban.
Laban had two daughters, Rachel and Leah. Rachel was beautiful, but Leah was plain. Jacob fell in love with Rachel.
Laban said he might have Rachel for his wife, but first he must earn her hand by working seven years. Jacob agreed and worked seven years for Laban. At the end of that time Laban tricked him into marrying Leah, instead. He said that if Jacob worked seven more years he could marry Rachel.
In those days, desert chieftains like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were allowed to have more than one wife if they wished.
Jacob worked for Laban seven more years, and then he was able to marry Rachel. Meanwhile, he had taken good care of Laban's sheep and goats, and the flocks had grown very large. Since he had taken care of the flocks for so long, Jacob felt part of them should be his.
But Laban said he must work six years longer before part of the flocks of sheep and goats could be his.
So in the end Jacob worked twenty years for Laban. But in those twenty years he had become powerful and wealthy. He had wives and servants. He had twelve strong sons. He had thousands of sheep and goats. Twenty years before, when he had fled from his home in the Land of Canaan, he had had nothing.
There is a legend that as Jacob led his family back to Canaan, he met an angel, and the angel said to him,
"Your name will now be Israel. You will be the father of a great people."
That is why the Jewish people are sometimes called the Israelites. It is also why the country of the Jews today is called Israel.
As Jacob and his tribe neared the borders of Canaan, he heard that his brother Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred armed men. Jacob still remembered the wrong he had done Esau, and he felt that Esau and his men were coming to kill him.
So he sent messengers ahead of him with rich gifts for his brother.
But Esau had forgiven Jacob long ago. Now he was coming to welcome him. The brothers embraced after all the years.
"Live here in Canaan," Esau urged his brother. "There is room enough."
So Jacob and his tribe settled in the Land of Canaan which was known thereafter as the Land of the Jews.