The first Patriarch of Israel, Abraham, was not originally a worshiper of the true God; he dwelt the land of Ur, worshiping many false gods (Josh 24:2). God initiated his contact with Abraham (Gen 12:1), confirming a central that principle that all true worship begins with the God who reveals himself to his people.
Each specific act of worship during what is known as the patriarchal period of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a response to God’s revelation to his people. For example, Abraham built an altar to the Lord after God commanded him to leave his land (Gen 12:7). He also worshiped Yahweh when he expressed his willingness to sacrifice his son (Gen 22:1–14). Likewise, Isaac built an altar to the Lord (Gen 26:24–25), and Jacob set up a stone altar after his vision of the ladder to heaven (Gen 28:18).
During this time of the nation of Israel’s beginnings, the worship of God’s people came naturally as they responded in faith to God’s self-revelation. Worship practices, traditions, and liturgies were apparently passed on by tradition and took place in the family setting. The book of Genesis does not record God giving his people clear directions concerning how he was to be worshiped (that wouldn’t happen until Sinai), yet they observed standard practices of sacrifice, offering, and meal in worship to the Lord, just as had Adam’s sons and Noah (Gen 8:20–21).
Two events in Abraham’s life are worth noting for their descriptions of patriarchal worship. The first occurred when Abram encountered the king of Salem (the future location of Jerusalem), Melchizedek, who Moses calls a “priest of God Most High” (Gen 14:18). Not much is known about this mysterious king-priest, but God must have revealed himself to Melchizedek since he worshiped the same God as Abram (v. 22). This holy man pronounced a blessing from God upon Abram:
Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!
Melchizedek gave this blessing in the context of a meal, which signified the communion these men shared with one another and with their common God. In response, Abram performed an act of worship that would later become part of Israel’s worship: “Abram gave him a tenth of everything,” a “tithe” that would later be used to fund worship in the tabernacle and temple. Importantly, Melchizedek prefigures Christ as king-priest (Ps 110:4; Heb 7:17, 21), and it is no coincidence that in this context, God establishes a covenant with Abraham in which he promised Abraham (Gen 17:5) a posterity (15:5), a land (15:18), and blessing to other nations through his family (12:3).
The second event is God’s command for Abraham to offer his son, Isaac, upon an altar (Gen 22:1–19). God had finally given Abraham and Sarah the son he had promised them, only to command Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (v. 2). Confident that “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (v. 8), Abraham followed God’s command, obeying even to the point of binding Isaac upon the altar and raising his knife to kill him. God did, indeed, provide a ram as a substitutionary sacrifice (v. 13) and reaffirmed his promises to Abraham (vv. 15–18). Again no coincidence, this same mountain is where Solomon will later build the temple (2 Chron 3:1), and the concept of a substitutionary sacrifice continued to be central in Israel’s later worship theology.