The term “patriarch” refers to the founder or ruler of a tribe, family, or clan. The Israelites traced their ancestry to one man—“the patriarch Abraham” (Is. 51:2; Heb. 7:4). They laid claim to Canaan based on the covenant God made with their first three patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob—to “possess the land” (Deut. 1:8).
The phrase “the patriarchs” eventually referred to Jacob’s twelve sons as well (Acts 7:8, 9). Thus among figures of the Bible, the patriarchs were the ancestors of the Israelites from Abraham to Jacob’s son Joseph. Exact dates for the period in which the patriarchs lived cannot be established. The events of the patriarchal narratives in Genesis cannot be synchronized with any events outside of the Bible. As a result, scholars have suggested dates for the patriarchs ranging from 2000 B.C. to as late as 1200 B.C. The biblical context places Abraham long before Moses. In the genealogy of Ex. 6:16–20, Moses is the great-great-grandson of Jacob, who himself was the grandson of Abraham. The line of descent—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Levi, Kohath, Amram, Moses—would set Abraham somewhere around 2000 to 1900 B.C.