By Christopher Reese
One of the best ways to get better acquainted with the Bible is to become familiar with some of its main characters. In this series we’ll take a brief look at 11 major people of the Old Testament, learning who they are and why they’re important. In future articles, we’ll also survey main personalities of the New Testament. We begin with Adam and Eve, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph.
Adam and Eve
The first two human characters that appear in the Bible are Adam and Eve. The first chapter of Genesis relates that God made Adam and Eve in his own image (Genesis 1:26-27). As Bible scholar Warren Wiersbe explains [NOTE: click the links to view the Bible study resources quoted in this article by reading the full resource in the STUDY tab that appears on your screen], because we’re made in God’s image, “humans can have a very special relationship with God. He not only gave us personality–minds to think with, emotions to feel with, and wills for making decisions–but he also gave us an inner spiritual nature that enables us to know him and worship him.”
God also appointed Adam and Eve as his representatives to cultivate and rule over the earth (Genesis 1:28), beginning with the garden in Eden. Having created this paradise for them, God had only one rule: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:16-17). Tragically, they did eat the fruit and as a result experienced a spiritual death that’s been passed on to all of their descendants (Romans 5:12). Because of this great fall into sin, God put a rescue plan in motion to save mankind by sending his Son, Jesus, to deliver human beings from the power of sin and death (Romans 5:17).
Abraham is the founding father of the Israelite nation, the father of Isaac, and the grandfather of Jacob—all famous patriarchs whose lives are described in the book of Genesis. Abraham’s birth name was Abram, but God changed it to Abraham (Genesis 17:5), which in Hebrew means father of many nations. When he was 75 years old, God appeared to him and promised to give him a new homeland, to make him into a great nation, and to bless him (Genesis 12).
Significantly, God’s call of Abraham was part of the rescue plan for mankind mentioned earlier. The last part of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 was that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3). As the NIV Storyline Bible explains, “God’s promise to bless all the nations through Abraham follows from an earlier promise to crush the head of the serpent and reverse the effects of sin (Genesis 3:15). Thus, through Abraham, God begins to establish a way for himself and humankind to dwell together again.” Through Abraham’s descendant, Jesus, all peoples of the world would be blessed through Jesus’s sacrifice (1 John 2:2).
Jacob was the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham. His name in Hebrew means deceiver, and deception characterized the early years of his life. He notoriously tricked his twin brother, Esau, into trading his inheritance for a bowl of stew (Genesis 25:29-34). He also tricked his father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing that was meant for Esau (Genesis 27:1-29). Fleeing from his brother’s wrath to a different region, Jacob encountered God in a dream, and God assured Jacob that he would inherit the promises that God had made to Abraham (Genesis 28:13-15).
Over a period of 20 years God gradually taught Jacob to trust and wait on him rather than scheming to gain an advantage over others. God then called him to return to Canaan, the Promised Land, where he hoped to reconcile with Esau. Along the way he spent a night physically wrestling with God, who appeared in human form, and God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, which means wrestles with God (Genesis 32:22-31). God adds, “You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” As the Reformation Study Bible observes, “The new name indicates that the elect patriarch had matured in his faith.”
Jacob’s 12 sons became the 12 tribes of Israel, and his names—both Jacob and Israel—became synonymous with the nation itself (for example, Numbers 24:5). At the end of his life, despite all of the conflict he had either instigated or endured, he recognized that God had been his “shepherd all my life to this day” and had “delivered [him] from harm” (Genesis 48:15-16).
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Being the eleventh (out of 12) son of Jacob, Joseph’s and Jacob’s stories are interconnected. Jacob showed favoritism to Joseph and this created friction with his 11 brothers. Most famously, Jacob made an ornate robe for Joseph, which the King James Version of the Bible describes as a “coat of many colours” (Genesis 37:3). This situation was further inflamed when Joseph began telling his brothers about his dreams in which his brothers bowed down before him (Genesis 37:5-11). Angry and jealous, the brothers began hatching a plan to kill Joseph. In the end, they decided to sell him as a slave to a group of traders who were heading to Egypt, and told their father that he had been killed by a wild animal (Genesis 37:26-33).
But “the Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered” (Genesis 39:2). He was put in charge of the household of an Egyptian official, and God blessed his work. Unfortunately, the official’s wife attempted to seduce him, and when Joseph resisted, she claimed he had tried to rape her. Joseph was imprisoned, but even there he was put in charge of the other prisoners (Genesis 39:20-23).
During this time, one of the prisoners discovered that Joseph could interpret dreams, and later, when Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, had two mysterious dreams, this former prisoner remembered Joseph’s ability and Pharaoh summoned him. Pharaoh was so impressed by Joseph’s abilities that “he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt” (Genesis 41:43).
As time went on, a severe famine broke out that also affected Joseph’s family in Canaan. Having heard grain was plentiful in Egypt, Jacob sent his sons there to buy some. The 11 brothers met Joseph, but didn’t realize it was him. Joseph arranged a series of tests to determine whether his brothers had changed and discovered they were now willing to sacrifice their own welfare to help each other. Joseph finally revealed his true identity, and his brothers and father came to Egypt to live under his protection (Genesis 42-47). The Israelites would live in Egypt for the next 430 years (Exodus 12:40-41), and would eventually become slaves to the Egyptians until the time of Moses.
Joseph’s life reminds us of God’s providential control over everything that happens in our lives. Though Joseph didn’t excuse what his brothers had done, he also acknowledged that “God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). In the same way, Paul assures believers in Christ that “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). As the Asbury Bible Commentary points out, “God had providentially used [the brothers’] evil designs to work a plan of redemption. . . . God’s plans cannot be thwarted ultimately. His plans are for humankind’s good. Such a God is worthy of trust.”
Also see these articles in this series:
- Getting to Know the Major Characters of the Old Testament: Part 2 (Moses, Joshua, David)
- Getting to Know the Major Characters of the Old Testament: Part 3 (Solomon, Daniel, Ezra)
- Getting to Know the Major Characters of the New Testament: Part 1 (Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist)
- Getting to Know the Major Characters of the New Testament: Part 2 (Peter, Stephen, Paul, John)
BIO: Christopher Reese (MDiv, ThM) (@clreese) is a freelance writer and editor-in-chief of The Worldview Bulletin. He is a general editor of the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017) and Three Views on Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2021). His articles have appeared in Christianity Today and he writes and edits for Christian ministries and publishers.
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