Had a retreat Tuesday led by a rabbi. She did a good job. She used Numbers and the desert as the model for the spiritual life. I loved the Hebrew... She said the root word for desert and word are the same (mebar and dabar). Only in Hebrew does this happen. SO the desert/wilderness in its emptiness is the place where Israel hears God speak and also where they learn to speak in response. Americans do not see language the way the ancient Jews do. Our Bible is a translation, devoid of the most important part of the communication! We are kept out of more deeply hearing revelation because we cannot hear it as spoken. I have shared before that commentaries constantly speak of the puns and connected roots of the Jewish Scriptures. The letters are sacred to them. The words are holy to them. The assumption that there is a deeper meaning in the words goes far beyond the idea of imagery or symbol or metaphor (we have that in English). Instead, because the Hebrew text is just a series of consonants, the words have (literally) more potential within them. Sadly, I cannot read Hebrew, I'm not good at language and at my age and with my schedule, such study is beyond me. So I must peer over the shoulders of others and listen in on their conversations to catch a glimpse of the wealth that is there. The Bible is more awesome to me, because the digging to find deeper meanings is not simply an act of creativity on the readers part. It is the power of Hebrew and no doubt connected to God's purpose in revelation.
So? What this means is the importance of the text is less about what happened than it is with what is being said. In other words, it is literature, and the message, in this case a message with many layers of meaning, is the point. Does "what happened" matter? Yes, but only a fool thinks the meaning of an event is found in data and facts. The meaning of any communication is always always always more than that!
So the stories of Abraham contain so many deeper meanings that we need the help of a Hebrew scholar to find. And a brief overview of the texts cannot supply such a thing. As much as the individual words and letters (micro level) are full to fullness with God's self revelation, we cannot go there here. However, at the macro level (story) there is still much to be gleaned. We notice that the chapters read more like a collection of stories about the same sorts of thing. The main theme is God's promises to Abram. In ancient literature, the people saw themselves in "the father" (Jacob is called 'Israel', Essau is 'Edom', other tribes/nations are derived from a single person) and it is common for the literature to reflect the children's experience in the father's story.
Abram is told to go to a place unknown, leaving all behind. This is a type of the Exodus. Abram goes and never complain, his faith/trust are secure. His nation is less inclined to trust and like to murmur! So Abram is a model of right response! He also goes to Egypt where Pharaoh causes him trouble, but God intervenes and Abram leaves a wealthy man. Mention of the plagues and Abram leaving with great wealth provide another foreshadowing of coming events. One foil of Abraham is his nephew Lot. In parallel stories about "hospitality" divine guests arrive to see both men. Abraham prepares a huge feast while Lot is less generous. In the first case Abraham argues to spare the city, while in the second case the gross behavior of the inhabitants brings down that judgment. Once again, there are bridge words and parallel images which imply the stories are meant to be read together (to compare and contrast). Abraham's intimacy with God is certainly offered as a model as well. Threats to the promise include the story of Isaac's near-sacrifice. The parallels in language to the Jesus story are an entire lesson in itself, and the location of the event is of surprise significance!
While Isaac is a patriarch, his truncated story is a reminder that the Biblical Author (Divine and human) are not providing us an in-depth history. The stories serve another purpose, so pay close attention. The quick transition to Jacob, the trickster, introduces an more involved and broader narrative which concludes with Joseph. Echoed in the text we hear an ancient voice which leads us to think that in some times and places Joseph was viewed much like David will come to be viewed.
As we read through Genesis in preparing to study Exodus, the reader is invited to ask, "What did this story mean to the ancient Jews who told it?" "What did it mean to those in exile, their temple in ruins, their king throne-less and their land far away in the hands of others?" "How do these words shine meaning on the Savior Jesus?" "What am I called to be, to do, how am I to pray and believe, in light of all this?