Those who are faithful to their covenants are promised all the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What are these blessings? According to the scriptures, the blessing is to “enter into exaltation and glory in all things . . . a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.”1
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob received these blessings because of their faithfulness to the covenants of the Lord-“because they did none other things than that which they were commanded, they have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods.” We are told that “the promise is yours also. “2
In this lesson we explore the significance of these covenants that were so deeply important to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and ought to be important to us.
The Birthright Blessing
Readers of Genesis are often puzzled by all of the emphasis on the “birthright,” which was such a source of misunderstanding and contention. Why was the birthright such an issue? What does it have to do with us?
In the Old Testament, the birthright belonged to the oldest son of the family. At the death of the father, each son received an equal portion of the father’s goods, but the eldest received headship of the family and a double portion of goods. He was to use this extra portion to provide for the needs of more dependent family members, such as his widowed mother and sisters who might not marry. Thus, with the double portion came the responsibility to care for those who could not care for themselves.
But the birthright was far more than just an economics arrangement. It was a token of the covenant God made with Adam, that a Savior-the Firstborn Son-would come into the world to provide salvation for us, to deliver us from death and to atone for sins we could not pay for ourselves. The symbolism of the Firstborn Savior was deeply significant to the patriarchs:
“Behold, my Beloved Son, which was my Beloved and Chosen from the beginning,” the Father said to Adam, as he introduced to mankind the Gospel founded in “the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father, which is full of grace and truth.”3 So the birthright blessing was a constant reminder of the Atoning Savior who would come.
Known as “primogeniture,” the birthright also conferred the responsibility to preside in the priesthood. Beginning with Adam, the patriarchal order provided that the oldest man of each generation should preside. Joseph Smith taught, “The Priesthood was first given to Adam; he obtained the First Presidency, and held the keys of it from generation to generation . . . the oldest man, our father, Adam.”4 (An interesting corollary: seniority in the first Quorum of Twelve called in this dispensation was determined by chronological age.5) According to Jewish lore, the firstborn in the patriarchal line was invested with the garment God gave to Adam in the Garden of Eden.6
Thus, great and glorious responsibilities came with the birthright blessing: first, the promise of eternal increase; second, the privilege to preside over and minister to a righteous posterity forever; third, the promise of an inheritance in a choice and fertile land. This blessing was meaningful in temporal terms, but far more meaningful in spiritual terms. The Firstborn Son was never to arrogate to his own use the extra portion-it was all for the benefit of those who could not help themselves. The spiritual significance of this extra portion lay in the responsibility to bless through the ordinances of the priesthood and to receive revelation for the family.
Of course, if the firstborn son became unworthy or unable to carry out this responsibility, it fell on the second born, and so forth. Apparently, Abraham received the birthright blessing through ordination by Melchizedek, because Abraham’s own fathers had lost it because of apostasy.7 We know of other instances in history when elder sons forfeited the birthright through disobedience, beginning with Cain. Others included Reuben, who dishonored his father Israel8; Laman and Lemuel, who were unfit because of their disobedience9; and, of course, Esau.
Jacob and Esau, though twins, were not much alike. According to Andrew C. Skinner, “Jacob is described in the Hebrew text as an ish tam, a man whole, complete, perfect’ (Gen. 25:27)” who did not trifle with sacred things. He was sober and obedient. “It is not difficult to imagine that as children Jacob and Esau were taught about their father’s and grandfather’s supreme faithfulness. As the brothers matured, however, they took different paths.”10
The intriguing story of Esau’s sale of his birthright in exchange for a bowl of Jacob’s lentil soup reveals that Esau put little value on this sacred responsibility. His language is even more revealing: “What profit shall this birthright do to me?”11 His choice of words tells us what was important to him-profit. In today’s language-and truer to the Hebrew-his question would be, “What’s in it for me?” The soup bowl symbolizes self-centeredness, instant gratification, material success, and worldly satisfactions.
According to Jewish legends, “With the purchase of the birthright Jacob came into possession of the garments which Esau had inherited from Adam and which were the official robes of the officiating minister.”12 For the Jews, this garment had profound symbolism.
The selling of the birthright thus symbolized Esau’s rejection of the promises it betokened.
It symbolized indifference to his chosen, blessed status. It also symbolized a lack of respect and love for those closest to him-not for Esau was the responsibility of caring for others. Even more seriously in light of the instruction he no doubt received from his parents, it was a flippant, thoughtless rejection of the Atonement.
You might be asking yourself, as Elder H. Ross Workman asks, “Why should you be interested in this birthright, Esau being long dead? Because God has offered the birthright to you. Through temple ordinances every man and woman can receive the birthright blessing.” 13
R. Val Johnson has said, “The birthright given anciently to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also yours. Your patriarchal blessing identifies your lineage in the house of Israel and describes many of the blessings and responsibilities you will receive if you live worthy of your birthright.” 14
Today we are tempted to make Esau’s mistake, choosing transitory gratifications over eternal joy. We might feel, as Esau did, unequal to or unwilling to accept the responsibilities that come with the covenants. We might become indifferent, as Esau did, to the blessings we could enjoy by remaining “faithful over a few things.”15 We must ask ourselves, what would we give in exchange for the blessings enjoyed by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? What is worth forfeiting those blessings?
The Importance of Marriage in the Covenant
When Jacob took possession of the birthright, he also inherited all the blessings of his fathers, conditioned on his faithfulness. The supreme blessing of the fathers is, as we have seen, to “enter into exaltation and glory in all things . . . a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.” According to the scriptures, this blessing is available only to those who “enter into this order of the priesthood (meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage).”16
So important is the marriage covenant that much of the account of the patriarchs is focused on it. Genesis 24 is almost exclusively about the critical mission of Abraham’s servant to find a suitable wife for his son Isaac. Chapters 28 and 29 are about Jacob’s search for a suitable wife. Clearly, this covenant must have been supremely significant for so much of the Bible narrative to be devoted to it.
Because of apostasy, knowledge of the significance of this covenant was lost to the world for ages-and is even more today a subject of confusion. But Abraham was very clear about it. He required his servant to swear “that thou shalt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell.”17 When Esau married outside the covenant, it grieved Isaac and Rebecca. As Andrew Skinner explains, “Without doubt, Esau’s behavior was on his mother’s mind when she exclaimed: I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Heth: if Jacob [also] take a wife of the daughters of Heth . . . what good shall my life do me?’ (Gen. 27:46) In other words, Rebekah saw all her life’s work, all her planning and teaching about the importance of the Abrahamic covenant, all her care in guarding and guiding its perpetuation according to divine desires, as worthless and wasted if Jacob were to follow in Esau’s footsteps.”18
It was not that the patriarchs were somehow prejudiced against Canaanite women. It was the fact that they were idolaters. They were not worshipers of Jehovah. Their lives and culture were incompatible with the covenant. We know that the later patriarch Joseph found in his wife Asenath a Gentile woman who did value the covenants,19 so it was not a question of finding a wife from a “suitable family.” As Andrew Skinner says, “It was a matter of understanding and appreciating the significance of the covenant.”20 Even when Esau took another wife who was from Abraham’s lineage, it was no solution-the woman apparently placed no value on the covenant. Esau’s marriage choices placed him outside the covenant, and he forfeited the promises made to his grandfather Abraham.
Jacob, by contrast, valued the birthright blessing and the marriage covenant so much that he searched and worked for years to find a companion with whom he could share eternal life. Before sending him on this crucial journey, Isaac blessed his son: “Take thee a wife . . . of the daughters of Laban thy mother’s brother. And God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be a multitude of people; and give the blessings of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee.”21
On his journey, Jacob had a vision that clarified for him the vast significance of the covenant. Lying down to rest in a lonely, rock-strewn place, he dreamed. “And behold,a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac. . . thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth. . . . and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”22
In this “first vision” of Jacob, he learned from the Lord Himself the extent of the blessings promised to the faithful. Jacob saw the eternal consequences of fidelity to the covenant-life everlasting and a continuation of his family forever.
He also learned that through his lineage all families of the earth would be blessed. That promise was fulfilled when Jesus the Savior came through his family. It continues to be fulfilled, as Andrew Skinner points out, as “Jacob’s seed have become Melchizedek Priesthood ministers and missionaries of the name and gospel of God, which gospel will ultimately bring salvation, even eternal life, to everyone who receives it.
When Jacob awoke, he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; . . . . This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” He set up the stone he had used for a pillow and anointed it with oil; then he made a covenant of sacrifice: “This stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.”24
Elder Marion G. Romney taught that Jacob’s singular experience-the ordinances, covenants, and promises-are available to us all through the temple:
“Jacob realized that the covenants he made with the Lord there were the rungs on the ladder that he himself would have to climb in order to obtain the promised blessings-blessings that would entitle him to enter heaven and associate with the Lord. . . .
“Because he had met the Lord and entered into covenants with him there, Jacob considered the site so sacred that he named the place Bethel, a contraction of Beth-Elohim, which means literally the House of the Lord.’ He said of it: this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’
“Jacob not only passed through the gate of heaven, but by living up to every covenant he also went all the way in. Of him and his forebears Abraham and Isaac, the Lord has said: because they did none other things than that which they were commanded, they have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods.’ (D&C 132:37) Temples are to us all what Bethel was to Jacob.” 25 It appears, then, that Jacob received his endowment at Bethel.
According to one Biblical scholar, “The tradition that God showed the heavenly and earthly Temple to Jacob is very old.” According to Jewish legend, “When the angel Israel descended to earth and became Jacob, he forgot his divine origin. God tried to remind him when he sent him the dream of the ladder . . . so that he might glimpse the celestial world he had left behind.” The Jews believed that the rungs of Jacob’s ladder symbolized the various covenants of the temple required to attain the goal of returning to a heavenly home we have left behind.26
According to Jewish commentaries on the Torah, the location of Jacob’s Bethel is not the present-day village in Palestine known as Bethel, but is “none other than Mount Moriah, the same spot where Isaac was bound by his father so many years ago. . . . In a sense, here, he enacts that terrifying moment that Isaac endured, setting a stone on the ground, as if it was the altar, and laying himself down on top of it.”27
Clearly, the ancient Jews understood the temple significance of Jacob’s Ladder. On the site where Jacob’s vision took place, Solomon in later years built the great temple of Jerusalem.
Armed with this new understanding, Jacob continued his mission and achieved it, founding the family of promise. The birthright blessings, as Elder Workman points out, “cannot be achieved by man alone and no man will realize the birthright blessings unless he is accompanied with an equally faithful and capable wife, sealed in the New and Everlasting Covenant. The birthright blessings are conferred in the temple upon all who take upon the New and Everlasting Covenant and keep it. This is your birthright.”28
1 D&C 132:19, 29.
2 D&C 132:31, 37.
3 Moses 4:2; 5:7.
4 Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 106.
5 See Doctrine and Covenants Institute Student Manual, “Section 112: The Word of the Lord to the Twelve.”
6 Louis Ginzberg, “The Blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh,” Legends of the Jews.
7 D&C 84:14.
8 Gen. 35:22
9 See John A. Tvedtnes, “My First-Born in the Wilderness,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 3 (1994):1:208.
10 Andrew C. Skinner, “Jacob in the Presence of God,” Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, ed., Paul Y. Hoskisson, Deseret Book, 2005, 118.
11 Gen. 25:32.
12 “Jacob’s Ladder,” Jewish Encyclopedia.
13 H. Ross Workman, “Devotional,” Oct. 28, 2008, BYU-Hawaii.
Val Johnson, “You Have a Birthright,” New Era, Nov 2005, 9.
15 Matt. 25:21.
16 D&C 131:2.
17 Gen. 24:3.
18 Skinner, 117.
19 Gen. 41:45.
20 Skinner, 117.
21 Gen. 28:2-4.
22 Gen. 28:11-14.
23 Skinner, 120.
24 Gen. 28:16-22.
25 Marion G. Romney, “Temples-The Gates to Heaven,” Ensign, Mar. 1971, 12.
26 Howard Schwartz, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, Oxford University Press, 2007, 358, 364.
27 Rabbi Stephen Schwartz, “Shadowy Memories,” Dec. 5, 2008, Baltimore Jewish Times.
28 Workman, op. cit.