Sunday, February 21, 2010

Supplement to OT Lesson #9: Ishmael, Our Brother

POP QUIZ:  WHO IS THIS GREAT MAN?
  • He saw that the people of the world had rejected the values of the Bible, and through his teachings, he raised them to a higher plane of personal and social morality.
  • He inspired the utmost love and devotion in his disciples, who were ready to give their lives for his cause.
  • He and his first converts were shunned, persecuted, and tortured for their beliefs.
  • He was considerate of slaves, freed them when he could, and forbade the separation of captive mothers and their children.
  • He taught that at a great council in the heavens at the creation of the earth, God set forth His plan and Satan rejected it and was cast out of Heaven, falling to the earth, where he now undertakes to tempt the children of men during their time here below.
  • Members of his community plotted to kill him.
  • He eventually won the loyalty of men of superior intelligence and high social standing.
  • He had a dream in which he was carried into heaven and there met Moses, Christ, Abraham, John the Baptist, Enoch, and Aaron, and he there saw Adam presiding as judge over the great assembly of all his children.
  • Early LDS apostles gave lengthy sermons speaking highly of his leadership.
  • He was especially fond of children, and was criticized for playing with them, rather than acting in the role of a prophet.
  • He helped to bring forth a book, supplementary to the Bible and considered sacred to his followers.
  • He was born into a nation of people debased and superstitious, but left them united in faith, destined to become world leaders in religion and all forms of culture.
  • The religion he founded is one of the fastest growing in the world.
THE CHILDREN OF ABRAHAM

As stated in the previous post, God was with both of Abraham's sons, Ishmael and Isaac.  Both were blessed by the covenant made to Abraham, although Isaac was the birthright son and therefore received both greater blessings and greater responsibilities.  Through Ishmael's twelve sons the Arab nation was born.  Through Isaac's twelve grandsons, the Israelites came.  Both nations have always kept the covenant of circumcision, even to this day.  Both nations live in the Holy Land and claim it as their Promised Land.  Both nations believe that Abraham was asked to offer their ancestor (Isaac or Ishmael) as a sacrifice to God.  The site of the sacrifice is sacred to both nations and is now the site of the Dome of the Rock, a beautiful Muslim mosque.


All the families of the earth have been blessed (Gen. 12:3) because of the descendants of Isaac, the House of Israel, who preserved the Bible, and who bear the gospel to the world through the Priesthood, as well as the one great Descendant, Christ, who offered the infinite Atonement for the sins of all mankind.  But the families of the earth have also been blessed by the great nation which eventually came forth from Ishmael: the Muslims.  The Muslim people have influenced the course of world history in many great ways.  There are more than one billion Muslims in the world, almost one-fifth of the world population.

To understand the Arab nations, the children of Ishmael, one must understand Islam, their predominant religion, because every activity in the life of a Muslim (one who practices the Islamic religion) is spiritually oriented.  The word Islam means "submission to Allah;" the word Muslim means "one who submits."  This is not a passive but an active state, actively seeking righteousness, something Father Abraham did (see Abr. 1).  They are not secularized or compartmentalized as most Westerners are, reserving religion for certain areas of life, separating church and state.

So, now, the answer to the pop quiz above:

MUHAMMAD, THE PROPHET

The founder of Islam, Muhammad, was born in Mecca about 570 A.D., in the midst of the Great Apostacy.  He was an influence for good, always trying to resolve difficulties between people.  Muhammad prayed to the same God his ancestor Ishmael cried unto in the desert, the God of Abraham, our Heavenly Father, in Arabic: Allah.  At about 40 years of age, after spending much time in meditation and prayer, he reported experiencing a vision in which the angel Gabriel appeared and told him he would be a prophet.  Although he was constantly unsure of his ability to be a prophet, his wife and uncle encouraged him (James A. Toronto, "A Latter-day Saint Perspective on Muhammad," Ensign, Aug. 2000; see also Hugh Nibley, "Islam and Mormonism--A Comparison," Ensign, Mar. 1972.)

Muhammad saw that his people had rejected Abraham's values and were steeped in idolatry, worshipping multiple gods, rather than the one true God.  The Ka'ba, an altar which they believed Abraham and Ishmael had made to God, was now the site of various pagan practices.  This worship involved alcoholic and sexual orgies, and possibly also human sacrifice.  The killing of unwanted infants was common, especially of females.  There were gambling and blood feuds as well.

Muhammad recognized that both Judaism and Christianity had become corrupt and apostate.  Although at first he met with great opposition, before his life was over, Muhammad's following was great, and the change he effected was tremendous.  "In the short span of 20 years between his calling as a prophet and his death, Muhammad uplifted an entire country, on every side.  He not only persuaded all Arabia to worship only one God, but to apply their religion to every aspect of morality, law, and social organization...In this world, waiting for the liberating voice of God, Muhammad had the eloquence, conviction, and intensity of an inspiring preacher; the courage, chivalry, and success of an admirable soldier" (James B. Mayfield, "Ishmael, Our Brother," Ensign, June 1979). 

So was Muhammad really a prophet?  Well, yes, in a way.  Not a prophet in the sense of holding the keys of a dispensation of the gospel; he had no priesthood authority, living as he did during the time of the Great Apostacy.  But as a messenger of God who brought a great deal of truth and light to the world, a resounding yes.  "For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, [people] of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have" (Alma 29:8).

"While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is established for the instruction of men; and it is one of God's instrumentalities for making known the truth, yet he is not limited to that institution for such purposes, neither in time nor place.  God raises up wise men and prophets here and there among all the children of men, of their own tongue and nationality, speaking to them through means that they can comprehend...All the great teachers are servants of God, among all nations and in all ages.  They are inspired men, appointed to instruct God's children according to the conditions in the midst of which he finds them" (B.H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and Saints, 1:512-51).

THE ISLAMIC RELIGION

There are many, many Muslim sects with variations on beliefs, but the following are basic to all:

The Five Pillars of Islam
  1. Repeating and fully accepting the Muslim creed included in the call to prayer:  "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His prophet."
  2. Prayer five times daily, summoned by the prayer caller (muezzin), at home, at work, or in the street. 
  3. Almsgiving, 1/40th of possessions annually.
  4. Daily fast, sunrise to sunset, during the month of Ramadan.
  5. A pilgrimage to Mecca. 
Their holy book, the Qur'an, or Koran, means "recitation."  Its origin comes from Muhammad's recitations while in his frequent translike states, words he said he received from the angel.  The Qur'an itself affirms that the Old and New Testaments are a part of their religion, as it says in the second chapter: "We believe in Allah and that which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the tribes, and that which Moses and Jesus received, and that which the Prophets received from their Lord" (Qur'an 2:136).  The Qur'an also contains stories about the prophets of the Old and New Testaments.

So do Muslims believe in Jesus?  Yes, but not as the Christ.  They believe he was the greatest prophet prior to Muhammad, but they do not believe he was the literal Son of God who atoned for our sins.  They think that he was taken into heaven, and another was substituted for him on the cross.

What is the message of the Qur'an?  That God is the Creator and Judge of man, that God spoke to prophets (although Muslims now believe that Muhammad was the last and God never spoke again), that we will be held accountable for what we do, and that everyone should obey God's laws.  Reading the Qur'an and becoming familiar with its contents would help LDS people to communicate the gospel message to Muslims.  It is full of beautiful and inspired messages, such as:  "Charity extinguishes sin as water extinguishes fire."

The Muslim fast has an almost identical purpose to the LDS fast:  To bring one in submission to God, and to foster care and compassion for the needy.  Almsgiving is inseparably connected to the Muslim fast, as fast offerings are connected to the LDS fast.

GOD OFFERS LIGHT TO ALL HIS CHILDREN

"The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammad, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God's light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals" (First Presidency Statement, Feb. 15, 1978)

Apostles George A. Smith and Parley P. Pratt lectured extensively on Muhammad's leadership qualities in 1855. Elder Smith testified that Muhammad was "descended from Abraham and was no doubt raised up by God on purpose" to preach against idolatry. Elder Pratt asserted that "[Muslims] have better morals and better institutions than many Christian nations" (Deseret News, Oct. 10, 1855).

"In a...meeting with Muslim dignitaries, Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles focused on the common spiritual heritage of Mormons and Muslims. After quoting a verse from the Qur’an, he observed:  'God is the source of light in heaven and on earth. We share the belief with you. We resist the secular world. We believe with you that life has meaning and purpose. … We salute you for your concern for the institution of the family. … Mutual respect, friendship, and love are precious things in today’s world. We feel those emotions for our Islamic brothers and sisters. Love never needs a visa. It crosses over all borders and links generations and cultures'"  (James A. Toronto, "A Latter-day Saint Perspective on Muhammad," Ensign, Aug. 2000).

A cabinet minister in Egypt said to Elder Howard W. Hunter, then an apostle, "If a bridge is ever built between Christianity and Islam, it must be built by the Mormon Church" (Hugh Nibley, Ensign, Mar. 1972, p. 55).  Indeed we can do this, because we can confidently tell our Muslim friends that we belong to a church that affirms the truths taught by Muhammad. "Every truth found in every church in all the world, we believe. But we also say this to all men--come and take the added light and truth that God has restored in our day.  The more truth we have, the greater is our joy here and now; the more truth we receive, the greater is our reward in eternity. This is our invitation to men of good will everywhere" (Elder Bruce R. McConkie, quoted in Russell M. Nelson, "Teach Us Tolerance and Love," Ensign, May 1994, p. 70).  That is the message that we, as Isaac's children, are obligated, through the Abrahamic Covenant, to offer to our cousins, the Muslims, the children of Ishmael.

Old Testament Lesson #9 "God Will Provide Himself a Lamb"

(Abraham 1; Genesis 15-17; 21-22)

As Latter-day Saints and members of the House of Israel, we share a common ancestry with the Muslims, who also descend from Abraham, and who also were blessed of the Lord with a great promise.  I'm going to approach this lesson in two parts.  First, this blog entry, with the story of the fulfilling of the Abrahamic Covenant through Abraham's heir, Isaac.  Then, my next blog entry will touch on the fulfilling of the promises made by the Lord to Abraham's older son, Ishmael, and the founding of the great nation of Islam.

THE PROMISES TO ABRAHAM

Abram was promised a great posterity which would bless all nations of the earth.  (See The Abrahamic Covenant in a previous post.)  Years went by with no indication that this promise was going to be fulfilled.  The heir of Abram's house was a steward, a servant.  The Lord assured Abram that an heir would be born to Abram himself (Gen. 15:1-5).

ABRAHAM'S WIVES

As time went on, Sarai, still childless, apparently began to consider whether she should do something in order to fulfill this covenant made to her husband.  Laws of the period gave a solution to this dilemma, stating that should a woman not bear a child, she was required to provide her husband a concubine, a legal wife who was previously a servant.  The child born to the concubine would be under the authority of the first wife, and the concubine would remain a servant to the first wife.  However, being the means of providing the first child often confused the status of the concubine and she would sometimes elevate herself.  If this happened, creating confusion and contention in the household, there were three options available to the head wife:  "1) free the concubine and send her away, 2) brand her a slave and return her to servitude, or 3) punish her.  The first option is arguably the most generous course of action" (Camille Fronk Olson, Women of the Old Testament, p. 37, 42; also Encyclopedia of Mormonism, p. 1260).

Sarai followed the custom of the time and the command of the Lord (D&C 132:65), and gave her Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar, to her husband to wife.  Before the baby was even born, Hagar elevated her status and "despised" her mistress (Gen. 16:4).  Sarai consulted with her husband, he gave her authority in the situation, she punished Hagar, and Hagar ran away (Gen. 16:5-6).

But the Lord loved Hagar, too, and heard her despair.  An angel visited her, promised her to be the mother of a great nation who would dwell among their brethren, and commanded her to return and submit herself to her mistress, which she did (Gen. 16:7-16).  When her son was born, she named him Ishmael, "God heareth" (LDS Bible Dictionary, p. 707). Abram was 86.

When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord restated the covenant, and expanded upon it.  He changed Abram's name, which means "honored father," to Abraham, which means "father of many nations," and Sarai's name to Sarah, which means "princess," and promised a child through Sarah.  As Abraham rejoiced in this announcement, still his thoughts turned to his beloved eldest son, and he said to the Lord, "O that Ishmael might live before thee! (Gen. 17:18). The Lord promised that Ishmael also would be a great nation, through twelve princes, but that through Isaac would come the Priesthood leadership (Gen. 17:18-20).  And indeed, Abraham became the father of many nations: the Jewish and Christian nations through Isaac, the Islamic nation through Ishmael, and other nations through the six sons of his third wife, Keturah, most notably the Midianites.  The blessings of the priesthood applied to all the descendants of Abraham (for example, Moses was ordained by his father-in-law, Jethro, who was a Midianite), but the leadership, the House of Israel, would come through the birthright son, Isaac (Gen. 17:21).

When Isaac was born, 13 years after Ishmael, there was a culmination of strife between Sarah and Hagar, and Ishmael "mocked" or "persecuted" his little brother (Gen. 21:9-10; Gal. 4:29).  According to the well-respected ancient historian Josephus, Sarah loved Ishmael "with an affection not inferior to that of her own son," but she began to fear that Ishmael might take the life of Isaac after their father died, in order to supplant him (quoted in Olson, p. 42).  Perhaps she was, again, doing her best to make sure the covenant was fulfilled.  She chose the kindest recourse of the law, freeing Hagar and sending her away with her son.  In this first recorded divorce, as in any divorce, there was sorrow.  "And the thing was very grievous in Abraham's sight because of his son.  And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called.  And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed" (Gen. 21:11-13).  God was with Ishmael and Hagar, as well as with Sarah and Isaac, and saved and blessed them in the wilderness in answer to Ishmael's prayer (Gen. 21:20).

Ishmael remained in contact with his father and brother, or returned to it at some point in life, because when Abraham died, Ishmael and Isaac, as brothers, buried their father (Gen. 25:9).

THE BIRTHRIGHT SON




(Picture from LDS.org)


Although Isaac was the second son of Abraham, he was first son of the first wife, giving him the birthright.  This means he had greater blessings in order to carry out the responsibility of caring for the entire family.  He had been promised 1) land, 2) posterity, 3) and priesthood through which to 4) carry the gospel to the world.  He was also promised 5) the protection of the Lord.

With these promises in mind, we come across the story of the sacrifice (Gen. 22:1-2).  The Lord calls Abraham to go to the mountain, which is the temple, and offer Isaac as a sacrifice.  "And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him" (Gen. 22:3).  We receive an insight into Abraham's emotions: rather than merely chopping wood, the word clave denotes extreme violence in the action.

"And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together" (Gen. 22:7-8). 

Having been in Isaac's position himself as a youth, this must have been extremely traumatic for Abraham to be the one holding the knife.  He may have hoped that an angel would intervene and save his son's life, as his had been saved on the altar of the idol.  (See "Abraham's Dysfunctional Family" in a previous post.)   Another possibility also seems likely:  The Lord had assured Abraham, in Gen. 15, that the promise of posterity would be fulfilled through a child born to Sarah, despite her advanced age.  When we read Abraham's response to the Lord (verse 6), "And he believed in the Lord; and the Lord counted it unto him for righteousness" we see in the footnotes a link to the JST. In this inspired insert, as Abram asks the Lord how this will be fulfilled, the Lord says, "Though thou wast dead, yet am I not able to give it thee? And if thou shalt die, yet thou shalt possess it, for the day cometh, that the Son of Man shall live; but how can he live if he be not dead [first]? he must first be quickened. And it came to pass, that Abram looked forth and saw the days of the Son of Man, and was glad, and his soul found rest..." (JST Gen. 15:9-12, p. 798 of LDS Bible).  I think it is likely that Abraham expected Jehovah to raise his son from the dead.  But when, and how?  Trusting in this resolution would have required an incredible amount of faith.
 
Fortunately, he did not have to lower the knife.  Abraham's statement to his son was literally prophetic:  The Lord did provide a ram.  Isaac's life was spared, and the covenant was fulfilled (Gen. 22:9-13).
 
THE GOD OF ABRAHAM, ISAAC, AND JACOB
 
Ever after, when the phrase "The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" is used in the Bible, it refers to the Abrahamic Covenant, and specifically to God's ability to save his children in any circumstance.  Although God requires us to submit everything to him, even (and especially) the fondest desires of our heart, yet he will preserve us and reward us for so doing.  No matter what God asks us to do, if we obey, it will always turn out right.  Eventually.
 
Of course, the offering of Isaac was a type of Christ (Jacob 4:5).  Isaac and Christ were both the promised, covenant, birthright sons.  The site known traditionally as the place where Abraham offered Isaac is now the site of the Dome of the Rock.  A few hundred yards to the north on a higher point of that same ridge system is Golgotha, the place where God offered his Only Begotten Son as a sacrifice.  It is likely that Isaac was in his thirties as the time of the sacrifice (see Gen. 23:1), and old enough to be able to overpower his father and refuse to be placed on the altar, but "they went both of them together" (Gen. 22:6).  Likewise, the Savior of the World submitted himself to the will of his Father.  Elder Dallin Oaks tells us, "This story...shows the goodness of God in protecting Isaac and in providing a substitute so he would not have to die.  Because of our sins and our mortality, we, like Isaac, are condemned to death.  When all other hope is gone, our Father in Heaven provides the Lamb of God, and we are saved by his sacrifice" (Ensign, Nov. 1992, p. 37).

Friday, February 12, 2010

Old Testament Lesson #8 Living Righteously in a Wicked World

(Genesis 13-14; 18-19)

Abraham and Lot left Ur and traveled to Haran, Canaan, Egypt, and then back to Canaan.  No matter where he lived, Abraham remained on fire with testimony and faithfulness.  Lot seemed to be influenced by the environment which cooled his faith to lukewarm.  Here are some comparisons:

ABRAHAM AND LOT
  • Putting God first.  The first thing Abraham did upon reentering Canaan was to visit his former altar, and call upon God (Gen. 13:3-4).  Everywhere he went, this is what he did (Abr. 2:17-20).  No worship of any kind is mentioned in regard to Lot at this time, but he used to be active in his religion (Abr. 2:6).  After they became wealthy, it seems that he changed.
  • Valuing people more than things.  When a conflict arose between the servants of the two relatives, Abraham offered Lot the choice of land because peaceful relationships were more important than property to him.  Lot took his preference, rather than defer to the elder Abraham.  He "beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered every where...even as the garden of the Lord."  Land was his priority (Gen. 13:6-11). 
  • Standing in holy placesAbraham took the land the Lord offered to him, in the plain of Mamre, in Hebron, and of course, he "built there an altar unto the Lord" (Gen. 14-18).  He was promised a great posterity.  Lot, however, "pitched his tent toward Sodom" even though "the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly" (Gen. 13:12-13).  It wasn't long until Lot moved right into Sodom, and became one of its citizens (Gen. 14:12).

(This beautiful image of the Salt Lake City Temple
was taken by Bob Brown
and is used with his permission)
TWO KINGS

In a war of many kingdoms, Lot was taken captive along with the city of Sodom and others on the plain.  Abraham and his household of 318 servants went to battle to rescue them (Gen. 14:14)-15.  Neither Lot nor the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah were turned to the Lord after having been saved.  Lot moved right back into the city, and Sodom's wickedness ripened for destruction. 

After the battle, Abraham had dealings with two kings almost simultaneously, the king of Salem (Melchizedek), and the king of Sodom (Bera).  Once again, we see contrasting examples of righteousness and worldliness.
  • Forming an alliance with God, not men.  Melchizedek was the High Priest.  He administered the sacrament to Abraham, blessed him, and reminded him that the Most High God had won the battle for him, whereupon Abraham, recognizing his covenant with the Lord, voluntarily paid tithes of all he had taken (Gen. 14:18-19, including JST footnote).  The king of Sodom was the king of the worldliest of cities.  He offered all his goods recovered from the enemy to Abraham as payment for winning the war .  Abraham refused because he had covenanted with God, the "possessor" of everything, that he would take nothing from the king of Sodom; this prevented him from being bonded in any way to the king of Sodom and his evil citizens (Gen. 14:21-23).
  • Being sanctified or damnedSalem means "peace, righteousness, Heaven." Sodom means "their secret."  Salem later was translated and taken into Heaven (JST Gen. 14:34, p. 798 of LDS Bible).  Sodom later was buried in lava from an earthquake, and is thought to have eventually been covered by the salt of the Dead Sea, making it forever uninhabitable (O.T. Institute Manual, p. 77).
ABRAHAM, LOT AND THE VISITORS

Three priesthood brethren visited Abraham and then Lot to warn them of the coming destruction.  The way that the two men responded to these brethren is also indicative of their faithfulness:
  • Respecting the Lord's messengersAbraham's entire household took upon themselves the covenant of circumcision as directed (Gen. 17), then Abraham was visited by the Lord (Gen. 18:1-2).  (Joseph Fielding Smith in Doctrines of Salvation, 1:17, states that there should be a new paragraph after "The Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre," because it was a separate visit than that of the three men. Notice the name "Lord" is in all capitals, the King James translators' way of writing the name "Jehovah." They made this substitution in reverence to the Jews' custom of never speaking the name of the Lord [Bible Dictionary, p. 711].)  After the Lord's visit, three men who held priesthood authority over Abraham, visited him, then later visited Lot in Salem.  Both men recognized them, and revered them by "bowing low toward the ground" (Gen. 18:2; 19:1).  (In verse 3, "Lord" is in lowercase, indicating that Abraham is not refering to God, but just speaking respectfully to his priesthood leader.  In the footnotes to 19:1, the JST says there were "three angels," and the Hebrew word for "angels" equates to "messengers.")
  • Supporting the BrethrenAbraham offered to bring the men water for washing their feet, allowed them to rest under his tree, offered to feed them bread, and to comfort their hearts before they passed on their journey.  Abraham "hastened" to get Sarah to "quickly" make cakes of "fine meal." He "ran" to the herd and fetched a calf "tender and good," and gave it to a servant who "hasted" to dress it. He took butter, milk, and the calf and "stood by them," as a servant would, under the tree while they ate (Gen. 18:3-8).  Lot also offered them water for washing their feet, a feast, and bread, and "pressed upon them greatly" to stay in his home, rather than in the street, knowing the dangers of the city (Gen. 19:2-3).
  • Staying out of "Babylon."  The men blessed Abraham by their priesthood power and promised his wife a child (Gen. 18:10-15).  When they visited Lot, however, they had a polar opposite experience.  Lot insisted the brethren stay in his home for safety, but the men of the city, claiming that Lot had moved in with them and therefore shouldn't condemn their actions, attacked the house, insisting he allow them to rape the visitors and Lot's daughters.  Lot had mistakenly assumed that he had the power to keep his home safe, despite being in Sodom.  He tried to protect his guests, but was not successful.  The holy men ended up protecting themselves and Lot by dragging him back inside the house and using their priesthood power to blind the assailants so that they couldn't find the entrance (JST Gen. 19:4-11, p. 798).  (Note that the JST says that Lot did not offer his daughters to the men of Sodom, as the Bible reports.)
  • The prophet as an advocateThe brethren told the prophet, Abraham, their mission: to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. "Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7).  Abraham went with the holy men to show them the way to Sodom, thereby helping them with their mission. Abraham went toward Sodom (remembering his nephew, Lot) and asked the Lord if he would spare it if there were 50 righteous, or 45, or even only 10, undoubtedly hoping his nephew's family would qualify (Gen. 18:16-33, also JST Gen. 18:23), but it was in vain.  The men also warned Lot of the destruction of Sodom and allowed him to warn his married children, but this was also in vain; they didn't believe him (Gen. 19:12-14).
  • Lingering in sin.  After the messengers gave their warning to Lot, they "hastened" Lot out of Sodom, but Lot "lingered."  They had to "take" him, his wife and unmarried daughters "by the hand" to "bring them forth" and "set them outside the city" (Gen. 19:15-16).  Lot's family was not in a hurry to go.  The messengers told Lot to flee to the mountain (which is often a symbol of a temple-type place), and not look back toward the city. But Lot was afraid of the mountain and asked for another asylum.  Did he feel he was not worthy to be in a mountain-temple, was he just frightened of wild animals, or did he have doubts that the destruction would actually occur so he wanted to stay close for an easy move back?  Who knows? At any rate, he begged to instead go to a town that was more humble and less worldly than Sodom (Gen. 19:17-20).  The holy men accepted Lot's plan; it was an improvement upon living in Sodom.
  • Looking back on sin.  "Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven."  Lot's wife turned back and was caught in the destruction, eventually becoming a figurative "pillar of salt" as the Dead Sea likely overtook the ruins (Gen. 19:24-26).  After this, Lot was afraid to stay in the little town of Zoar, but moved to the mountain, as initially instructed. Could that be because he changed his ways and desired to be closer to God, or did he just want to distance himself from the destruction on the plain? (Gen. 19:-21-30).
  • Visiting the temple in times of fear. Early the next morning, Abraham went to the mountain "temple" ("the place where he stood before the Lord") and from that elevated point saw that Sodom and Gomorrah had been consumed.  God then spoke comfort to Abraham, letting him know that he had saved Lot from the destruction (Gen. 19:27-29).
  • Teaching the family to trust in the LordAbraham carefully taught his family and servants to keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment, and to honor the covenants they had made (Gen. 18:19).  He waited upon the Lord for decades for the long-promised blessing of posterity.  In contrast, Lot's daughters left Sodom with him, but having grown up in that environment, they retained those wicked ways in their hearts, and in their incredible short-sightedness, committed incest in order to create progeny (Gen. 19:31-36).  From the children they bore in this wicked manner, came two of the most evil, idolatrous nations of Bible times:  The Moabites and the Ammonites.
THE MERCY OF THE LORD

Abraham asked the Lord if he would spare the City of Sodom if 50 righteous people could be found, or if 40 could be found, and so on down to 10.  Not even 10 were found.  Only Lot was found as marginally righteous, with his wife and two daughters who really weren't.  But the Lord in his mercy was willing to go to extra effort to save just Lot, even though Lot was not obedient enough to leave the city quickly, or to travel directly to the mountain.  Simply because he was willing to go partway in the right direction (although at first he had to be dragged there), he was saved from destruction--that's how merciful and kind the Lord is. 

The intensely and constantly faithful Abraham, however, was given many more blessings than just the avoidance of destruction.

WHICH EXAMPLE DO WE FOLLOW?

Latter-day Saints live in a promised land (even if just in a pocket of Zion), under covenant with God, but surrounded by worldly influences.  To remain safe, we must be vigilant in our faithfulness like Abraham, and not lukewarm, like Lot.
  • Like Abraham, we need to worship at the altar of the Lord often and renew our covenants through the sacrament.
  • Like Abraham, we need to acknowledge the hand of the Lord in all our successes.
  • Like Abraham, we need to get out of "Babylon" by going to the "mountains of the Lord's house" (D&C 133:10-15).  The only place in the scriptures in which this phrase is plural is in latter-day scripture.  We have 130 temples now, and 22 more under construction.  The best "fire insurance" is a temple recommend!
  • Like Abraham, we need to earn our money honestly and pay our full tithe willingly.
  • Like Abraham, we need to honor and support our priesthood leaders as "angels" or messengers of God.
  • Like Abraham, we need to plead in prayer for those who succumb to the world's influence, and go with His power to rescue them, while never "moving into Sodom" ourselves.
  • Like Abraham, we need to continue to love and care for them, even when they do not seem to learn from their mistakes.
  • Like Abraham, we need to provide a home and work environment in which our families and employees are safely taught to "keep the way of the Lord" (Gen. 18:19).

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Old Testament Lesson #7 The Abrahamic Covenant

(Abraham 1:1-4; 2:1-11; Genesis 12:1-8; 17:1-9)

THE IMPORTANCE OF ABRAHAM

"Genesis" is a plural word meaning "many beginnings" (Robert J. Matthews, Old Testament Symposium, Logan, Utah, Jan. 2002).  The Bible Dictionary says, "Genesis is an introduction to the rest of the Bible."  Also, "The Book of Genesis is the true and original birthplace of all theology."  Theology is, of course, the study of God.  Genesis is the first book in the Old Testament.  "Testament" means "covenant."  The ancient covenant begun in the Book of Genesis is the Abrahamic Covenant.

Chapters 1-10 of Genesis cover thousands of years and three dispensations of the gospel.  Chapters 11-25 cover only 175 years:  Abraham's life.  Obviously, Abraham is extremely important in understanding the rest of the Bible, but is he important to us today?  The answer is: Absolutely!  A large body of text is given to Abraham in Genesis, but surprisingly, "Abraham is mentioned in more verses of modern revelation than in all the verses of the Old Testament.  Abraham...is inextricably linked to all who join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" (Elder Russell M. Nelson, Sydney B. Sperry Symposium, BYU, 1997).

THE ABRAHAMIC COVENANT

Once again, the latter-day revelations are the best commentary on the Old Testament, and make it easier to understand.  Let's look at the Abrahamic Covenant as found in the Pearl of Great Price:

"My name is Jehovah, and I know the end from the beginning; therefore my hand shall be over thee. And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee above measure, and make thy name great among all nations, and thou shalt be a blessing unto thy seed after thee, that in their hands they shall bear this ministry and Priesthood unto all nations; And I will bless them through thy name; for as many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name, and shall be accounted thy seed, and shall rise up and bless thee, as their father; And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee; and in thee (that is, in thy Priesthood) and in thy seed (that is, thy Priesthood), for I give unto thee a promise that this right shall continue in thee, and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body) shall all the families of the earth be blessed, even with the blessings of the Gospel, which are the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal" (Abr. 2:7-11).

Why was Abraham privileged to receive this great covenant?  As always, the reason for any revelation is a request; Abraham desired righteousness with all his heart, and asked the Lord to make him "a father of many nations, and a prince of peace" (Abr. 1:2).  (See "Abraham's Dysfunctional Family" in previous post.)  Abraham's response to the blessing of this covenant is inspiring:  "Now, after the Lord had withdrawn from speaking to me, and withdrawn his face from me, I said in my heart: Thy servant has sought thee earnestly; now I have found thee...I will do well to hearken unto thy voice" (Abr. 2:12-13).

The covenant was initially promised when Abraham was 75 years old (Gen. 12). When he was 99 years old (Gen. 17), the Lord restated the covenant, because the people had not been following it correctly.  They were baptizing infants with sprinkling, rather than baptizing by immersion at the age of accountability, and they were giving Abel the credit for the Atonement. (See the footnote to Gen. 17:3, which refers to JST Gen. 17:3-7, p. 798 of the LDS Bible.)

THE ABRAHAMIC COVENANT TODAY

All of the covenants we make as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, from baptism to temple sealing, are part of the Abrahamic Covenant; the Abrahamic Covenant is just the Gospel of Jesus Christ, with the added emphasis of the responsibility to share the gospel with other potential heirs.  When any person joins the church through baptism, he becomes an heir of Abraham; then it becomes his duty and joy to share that gospel with others.

Four Ways the Nations are Blessed by the Abrahamic Covenant:
1) Jesus Christ's Atonement
2) Priesthood
3) Leaven of Righteousness
4) Opportunity to join Abraham's family, or discover that they already belong, and receive the Holy Ghost
(Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3:246)

The last three of these blessings are administered by us as we keep our part of the Abrahamic Covenant.  "The responsibility of the seed of Abraham, which we are, is to be missionaries to bear this ministry and Priesthood unto all nations" (Pres. Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign, May 1987).

THE LEAVEN OF RIGHTEOUSNESS


Jesus spoke of the children of Abraham in a parable when he said, "The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened" (Matt. 13:33).

When you add yeast to warm water, the yeast softens, bubbles up and grows much large than its original size.  In the Old Testament, by the time of the Exodus, Abraham's posterity numbered 1 million plus.  Their 40 years in the wilderness provided a time of trial and preparation in which they could grow spiritually.  (See "The Journey" in a previous post, for the symbolic meaning of the 40 years.)  In the latter days, the saints gathered to Kirtland, Jackson County, Nauvoo, and Salt Lake City in order to have the manpower, land, and finances to build temples, which provided them with access to the full Abrahamic covenant.  The trials that drove them from one place to another refined them.

When you mix the yeast in with the other ingredients of the bread, it influences the dough and makes it rise.  In the diaspora (the scattering of Israel) the covenant people were spread throughout the middle east, placing pockets of believers throughout the nations.  In the latter-days, once the initial gathering to Salt Lake was accomplished and the U.S. mountain west was settled, the saints in other nations were counseled to stay where they lived and build up Zion in their own countries.  For this reason, temples now "dot the earth."

If the leaven does not soften and develop at first, it does not have the power to raise the bread.  The same is true of the covenant people.  Their testimonies must be firm in order to bless those around them with the gospel.

HOW TO LIVE THE ABRAHAMIC COVENANT TODAY

By definition, then, the children of the Abrahamic Covenant live in environments that are spiritually inferior.  It is their calling, as leaven, to elevate those surroundings.  The Book of Genesis set ups the overall theme of the Old Testament in these 15 chapters on Abraham and the following 14 chapters on Jacob, which is the question of whether the Lord's people will keep their covenants to influence others toward righteousness, or whether they will allow the environment to influence them.

"Abraham received promises concerning his seed, and of the fruit of his loins...This promise is yours also, because ye are of Abraham, and the promise was made unto Abraham; and by this law is the continuation of the works of my Father, wherein he glorifieth himself.  Go ye, therefore, and do the works of Abraham; enter ye into my law and ye shall be saved" (D&C 132:30-32).