Pondering on Isaiah and the Abrahamic Covenant

For the past few years, I’ve tried to take some time each year to focus in on a specific subject related to the section of scriptures covered in Sunday School.  Last year, for example, I tried to scratch the surface of understanding Paul in the New Testament and look at some of how scholars approach him.  This year, I focused on understanding how the Isaiah texts are used within the Book of Mormon—particularly in Nephi’s writings.  I shared some very preliminary thoughts from studying Isaiah in 1 Nephi earlier this year, but since then I’ve done a lot more reading and thinking.  I think the most insightful book I read was Joseph Spencer’s The Vision of All, but I also enjoyed pondering on a few other books too.

One issue that came up over and over in literature about Nephi’s use of Isaiah was his efforts to reaffirm the Abrahamic Covenant.  Nephi does say, after all, that the “marvelous work” of the Lord in the Latter-days shall be of worth “unto the making known of the covenants of the Father of heaven unto Abraham,” while he explained his interpretation of Isaiah’s words to his brothers.  He also stated that his “soul delighteth in the covenants of the Lord which he hath made to our fathers” as part of his explanation for including the large block of Isaiah text in 2 Nephi.[1]  What is interesting to me, however, is that while the various authors I read acknowledged the importance of the Abrahamic Covenant in Nephi’s writing, they did not precisely align on what the Abrahamic Covenant is or means.

Traditionally, we’re used to looking at Genesis and the Book of Abraham to learn about the covenant and drawing a list of what was promised.  For example, we might consider President Russell M. Nelson’s summary that he has given multiple times in general conference talks as an example of this approach:

The covenant that the Lord first made to Abraham and reaffirmed to Isaac and Jacob is of transcendent significance. It contained several promises:

  • Abraham’s posterity would be numerous, entitled to eternal increase and to bear the priesthood;
  • He would become a father of many nations;
  • Christ and kings would come through Abraham’s lineage;
  • Certain lands would be inherited;
  • All nations of the earth would be blessed by his seed;
  • That covenant would be everlasting—even through “a thousand generations.”

Some of these promises have been accomplished; others have yet to be. I quote from a prophecy given nearly 600 years B.C.: “Our father hath not spoken of our seed alone, but also of all the house of Israel, pointing to the covenant which should be fulfilled in the latter days; which covenant the Lord made to our father Abraham.”[2]

This approach is good at summarizing what the specific promises God made to Abraham, but sometimes makes it difficult to see why it is important to us today.

Church leaders have made efforts to link lists like the one above to us today.   For example, in the talk cited above, President Nelson focused on the priesthood and families as fulfillment of the covenant, stating that: “We have the right to receive the gospel, blessings of the priesthood, and eternal life. Nations of the earth will be blessed by our efforts and by the labors of our posterity. The literal seed of Abraham and those who are gathered into his family by adoption receive these promised blessings—predicated upon acceptance of the Lord and obedience to his commandments.”[3]  This is pretty standard for how I’ve seen the Abrahamic Covenant treated by recent Church leaders and Church manuals—we are part of the family of Abraham and Israel through bloodlines or adoption and build that family further by expanding our own families.  We also receive the priesthood and bless the earth through sharing that priesthood and the gospel in missionary labors, etc.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie took this further and made the Abrahamic Covenant fit to the pattern of how the Church operates today.  He wrote that Abraham was baptized, received the higher priesthood and entered celestial marriage, making covenants of salvation and exaltation as he did so.  Then Elder McConkie stated that these covenants are “renewed with each member of the house of Israel” as they participate in the appropriate ordinances, and “though that order the participating parties become inheritors of all the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”[4]  In a way, it could be stated that this approach makes Abraham a prototype of making covenants with God that we must follow to be covenant people (even if we don’t have an explicit description of Abraham being baptized or being sealed to his wives and families in the scriptures).

From the authors I studied this year, Terryl L. Givens seems to have taken Elder McConkie’s idea to its logical conclusion in expounding an idea that the Abrahamic Covenant was a reaffirmation of an original covenant that God made with human beings, encompassing what we call the gospel, the Plan of Salvation, or the New and Everlasting Covenant.  As he wrote in his volume of the Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introduction series: “The everlasting covenant is not a part of the gospel; it is the master framework that encompasses the entire gospel, or what Alma2 will call ‘the great plan of happiness’ (Alma 42:8).”[5]  He looks to the statement of Joseph Smith from the King Follett discourse that: “God Himself found Himself in the midst of spirits and glory. Because He was greater, He saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest, who were less in intelligence, could have a privilege to advance like Himself and be exalted with Him,” as the basic articulation of this everlasting covenant—that if we worked with God and obeyed His laws, we would be exalted and become like Him.[6]  Taking the idea presented in the Book of Abraham that God would bless Abraham and his descendants with priesthood as part of his covenant (Abr. 2:9-10), Givens explains that “the priesthood associated with Abraham is temple priesthood, the priesthood of sealing and uniting the human family. In that sense, too, the keys associated with Abraham and his descendants represent the ultimate amplification of the covenant to encompass all people.”[7]

Joseph Spencer took a different approach to understanding the meaning of the Abrahamic Covenant.  Approaching it through the writings of Isaiah, Spencer writes that the Abrahamic Covenant is “about the responsibility given to Israel to introduce peace to the whole world, reworking the world’s deep tendency toward violence. That is, they’re organized around Isaiah’s vision of the ultimate fulfillment of that responsibility—the day when all nations will join Israel in the worship of the true God, beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks.”[8]  Spencer looks at the world history outlined in the early chapters of Genesis, focusing in on how after the fall, humans quickly turned to violence (beginning with Cain killing Abel), and by the time of Noah: “The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11).  This, as he understood it, became a primary motivator for the flood and a subsequent series of laws outlined in Genesis 9 aimed at curbing violence, but those measures didn’t succeed in doing away with humankind’s violent tendencies.

Spencer writes that the next step in this process occurs when “God calls Abraham. He takes one man and through him launches a new nation—or really a non-nation, a nation that won’t work like a nation.” Ultimately, Abraham’s children are called:

To rework the very order of the world, replacing the national with the familial, war with peace. This is what the stories of Abraham in the Book of Genesis are all about, remember. Abraham is the figure of hospitality and peace. He’s the guy who makes peace with Egypt, with Lot, with the king of Sodom, with Melchizedek, with Abimelech, with Ephron the Hittite. He’s the guy who welcomes the strangers in and feeds them, the same strangers that nearby nations (Sodom, Gomorrah) treat with terrible violence. … Abraham is the figure of faith and obedience, but also of hospitality, of peacemaking.[9]

Thus, to Joseph Spencer, the focus of the Abrahamic Covenant is to create a family that remakes the world into one of peace rather than violence.

Each of these approaches is different but I don’t think they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive understandings of the Abrahamic Covenant.  I can see ways to harmonize them—i.e., it could be said the list approach like the one used by President Nelson captures the specifics of what God covenanted with Abraham, Terryl Givens’s approach captures the broader context and goals of that covenant, and Joseph Spencer captures what abiding by the Abrahamic Covenant looks like in practice.  Regardless, I thought it was interesting how different aspects of the covenant that Nephi was working to explain were emphasized by different writers and the different ways that covenant has been made to apply to us as members of the Church today.

 

Potential questions for discussion:

  • How do you understand the Abrahamic Covenant?
  • How do you think does the Abrahamic Covenant apply to us today as Latter-day Saints?
  • What do you think about the various approaches to the Abrahamic Covenant discussed above?

 

Footnotes:

[1] 1 Nephi 22:9, 2 Nephi 11:6.

[2] Russell M. Nelson, “Children of the Covenant,” CR April 1995, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1995/04/children-of-the-covenant?lang=eng, see also “Covenants,” CR October 2011.

[3] Russell M. Nelson, “Children of the Covenant,” CR April 1995, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1995/04/children-of-the-covenant?lang=eng, see also “Covenants,” CR October 2011.

[4] Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. [1966], 13.

[5] Givens, Terryl. 2nd Nephi (A Brief Theological Introduction) . The Neal A Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Kindle Edition.

[6] Stan Larson, “The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text,” BYU Studies 18, no. 2 (Winter 1978): 204.

[7] Givens, Terryl. 2nd Nephi (A Brief Theological Introduction) . The Neal A Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Kindle Edition.

[8] Spencer, Joseph M.. The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record . Greg Kofford Books. Kindle Edition, location 5805 of 9766.

[9] Spencer, Joseph M.. The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record . Greg Kofford Books. Kindle Edition, location 1795 of 9766.

7 comments for “Pondering on Isaiah and the Abrahamic Covenant

  1. God made a covenant with Abraham for God’s purposes, not for Abraham’s purposes. So to understand the Abrahamic covenant, one needs to forget about Abraham and think about God.

    God chose one man, Abraham, and told Abraham that God would use Abraham’s seed to bless all the peoples of the earth. Why did God choose one man? I don’t know. Why did God choose Abraham? I don’t know.

    When Moses brought the children of Israel (seed of Abraham) out of Egypt, God then decided that only the sons of Aaron would be priests. Why did God chose one line? I don’t know. Why Aaron? I don’t know.

    Later, the Messiah was born from Judah’s lineage (seed of Abraham). And today, as the lost tribes (seed of Abraham) are being gathered in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they/we (seed of Abraham) are blessing the whole earth. We are the salt of the earth — a little salt as a preservative can save (keep from spoilage) a huge mass of whatever needs to be saved.

    So to me, our God’s plan from the beginning is coming towards completion. The covenant I make with God today is different than the covenant God made with Abraham — but still, my participation in God’s work today is part of the coming to pass of the covenant God made with Abraham.

  2. Chad, thanks for this write up. It’s interesting and valuable to see several authoritative and expert interpretations side-by-side, lest we fall into the trap of thinking that ancient scripture has one and only one interpretation and application in the modern world.

    Regarding BRM’s claims of Abrahamic baptism and ordination, do you see these as anything other than presentism? It reminds me of the 19th century LDS claims that Jesus must have been a polygamist.

    It seems to me that Spencer’s argument is really one of how Isaiah interpreted the Abrahamic covenant, which is an important distinction. Isaiah advised Hezekiah repeatedly to opt for peace and to disengage from national alliances. I don’t think Abraham was so concerned with such politics. Spencer’s summary of the Abrahamic stories doesn’t address the outlying episode, Genesis 14, in which Abraham leads an army to recapture Lot and returns home with the spoils of war.

    A big part of the Abrahamic covenant seems to be land, and I don’t know what the modern analog to land is. Obviously, we still have land and land ownership today, but the Church doesn’t own contiguous property with well-defined and policed borders. The Church and its members only own land within governments that recognize and enforce property rights. Perhaps, the modern analog is the right to assemble?

    ji wrote “God chose one man, Abraham … Why did God choose one man?” The question at the end of this statement reads to me as if you’re saying that God chose one and only one man out of all of human history to make a covenant with. I don’t think that’s the case (and may not be what you meant). Genesis describes God making covenants with Adam & Eve, with Noah, and with Moses. These covenants don’t get nearly as much traction in LDS circles as the Abrahamic covenant, but in Biblical commentaries I read of the Adamic covenant, the Noahic covenant, and the Mosaic/Sinaitic covenant. Moreover, the Book of Mormon demonstrates that the Bible does not record all of the covenants God has made with man or woman.

  3. Ryan,

    I did not write or imply that “God chose one and only one man out of all of human history to make a covenant with.” Please re-read what I wrote.

    For some reason that we don’t understand, in the days of Abraham, God chose to establish a particular covenant with Abraham — and Abraham is the only man with whom God made that covenant. It was a very important covenant, and for all of human history since, God has accomplished His work through Abraham’s seed while seemingly ignoring everyone else in the world. Moses and the children of Israel were Abraham’s seed. David, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Lehi, Nephi, the Savior, and all of Christ’s apostles were Abraham’s seed. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are Abraham’s seed. God covenanted with Abraham that through his seed all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. And God has remembered and honored that covenant through all of these years.

  4. ji, thank you for sharing your perspective. I appreciate how you leave a lot of room for not knowing all the reasons behind the Abrahamic Covenant while still indicating that our “participation in God’s work today is part of the coming to pass of the covenant God made with Abraham” because of how the earth is blessed by our participation in God’s work.

    Ryan, I would tend to agree that Elder McConkie’s approach is presentism. It’s certainly not unique to him to take a presentist view–Latter-day Saints do it a lot based on our assumption that if we’re a restoration of the primitive Church (i.e., Article of Faith 6), then the ancient people who we look to as our spiritual/religious ancestors must have done things basically the same way we do. I leave space for the possibility that they (including Abraham) may have performed some of those ordinances, as the Joseph Smith Translation indicates Adam did, but I also don’t see a lot of evidence to support that claim for Abraham specifically.

    I’ve thought a bit about the land issue as well. Claiming specific boundaries within the Levant area does seem like a central concern in the Genesis text that we tend to downplay in our efforts to make the Abrahamic Covenant applicable to modern Latter-day Saints. If we accept the thesis that the Hebrew Bible as we have it today was largely recorded, edited, and developed during the Babylonian Captivity and Second Temple period of Israelite history, then the focus on land claims makes a lot of sense for what the editors would have been concerned about (they wanted to solidify their claim to the land in the face of uncertainty and exile). And, as you note Ryan, while the Church and many of its members do own property (including BYU-Jerusalem within the land promised to Abraham), it’s not something we usually focus on when we discuss Abraham in Sunday School. I think the better effort I’ve seen to make sense of that claim for land in the Church today was one teacher I had who stated that those who are exalted will gain a land inheritance on the earth once it becomes the Celestial Kingdom. Even that doesn’t seem like a particularly good fit, though.

  5. Chad,

    The BYU Jerusalem Center sits on land that is more than halfway through a 49-year lease that can be renewed for another 49 years.

    Thanks for pointing out multiple approaches to understanding the Abrahamic Covenant. My patriarchal blessing, almost 49 years ago, advised me to seek to understand the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as they apply to our day. It probably is a good time to think about renewing my undestanding of this topic, and you have provided a helpful reminder and signpost.

  6. ji,

    Thank you for clarifying. I certainly did not mean to put words in your mouth.

    “for all of human history since, God has accomplished His work through Abraham’s seed *while seemingly ignoring everyone else in the world*” (emphasis added). I can’t even imagine how one would go about proving the final clause of this statement. Are you just saying that you reject how non-Abrahamic populations conceptualize and ritualize God? That’s not unexpected for a LDS, but really it says more about your understanding of God than it does about God’s working with or through non-Abrahamic peoples. Obviously, the Abrahamic covenant is important for those communities who trace their theology back to Abraham, and not important for those populations who don’t, but that’s more a tautology than an insight.

  7. Chad, great topic.

    The eternal/everlasting covenant that Isaiah refers to, Joseph gave us in full. However, the institution that manages the Church seems to have lost meaning for covenant. The temple narrative reduces covenant to conjured oaths and fetish-like contract. Hope to see this evolve.

    In Isaiah, the “everlasting” or “eternal” covenant is described as a pattern of “right living” that aims to restore or fulfill Creation–transform Earth into an “Eden 2.0.” Isaiah sees neglect of the covenant as responsible for upheaval and entropy–political, economic, social, and environmental disorder. It could be said that the covenant encompasses discernment of production and consumption in the Garden-Kingdom-Earth. Family is implied as the “treasure” of economy.

    The eternal/everlasting covenant: Enoch mediated the part pertaining to water, through Noah. Melchizedek mediated the part pertaining to fire, through Abraham. There a covenant mediated by Adam through Eve pertaining to the birthright of the entire Creation. All aspects of the same whole. Each echo the next. Joseph understood it so clearly.

    I agree with Isaiah’s criticism of the institution that managed the Church in his time and in our time. Reconciling our perception of covenant is as challenging as reconciling our perception of apocalypse: one contains the image of Christ descending from the clouds readying evangelical rapture. Another contains the image of a thief-in-the-night bidding invitation to a wedding.

    In the one, saints are watching and waiting for some glorious manifestation to appear and bring heaven down to earth. In the other, saints recognize that He is already here.

    Zion’s covenant is righteous economy.

    Robert Murray (Cosmic Covenant, 2007), Margaret Barker (Creation, 2010), and Avraham Gileadi (Apolcalyptic Commentary on Isaiah, 2013).

Charitable Comments Welcome. Please follow our comment policy

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.