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).
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
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).