Heritage of Righteousness
Chapter 12, part 2 of The Blessings of Abraham: Becoming a Zion People
By E. Douglas Clark
The angel also commanded Isaac to “teach your sons your ways and the commandments of your father – all of them which he commanded you … so that the faithful may observe them and by them attain to the life eternal, which is forever.” 1
This was Abraham’s legacy to his posterity: not the substantial property that Genesis says he had divided up among his heirs (25:5-6), 2 but rather the counsel to keep the commandments and to do “righteousness and justice” – the two “precious jewels” that Abraham bequeathed his children, says Jewish tradition. 3
It was a legacy much prized by his posterity, as poignantly remembered by the children of Ishmael. According to the Qur’an, “This very thing did Abraham bequeath unto his children . ‘O my children! Behold, God has granted you the purest faith; so do not allow death to overtake you ere you have surrendered yourselves [or ‘submitted’ 4] unto Him.” 5
Likewise among the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s true legacy is still remembered as “a spiritual inheritance … a legacy of moral lessons, wisdom, a right way to live.” 6 One of Judaism’s greatest rabbis, Hillel, taught that the value for Jews of their Abrahamic lineage is to help them “emulate the qualities of Abraham … Deeds are important, not mere birth.” 7 Other ancient Jewish sources likewise affirm: “If you are worthy, you are the children of Abraham.” 8
This same Abrahamic legacy was passed on by Abraham’s great-grandson Benjamin on his own deathbed:
You know then, my children, that I am dying. Do the truth, each of you to his neighbor; keep the law of the Lord and his commandments, for I leave you these things instead of an inheritance. 9 Give them, then, to your children for an eternal possession; this is what Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did. They gave us all these things as an inheritance, saying, “Keep God’s commandments until the Lord reveals his salvation to all the nations.” And then you will see Enoch and Seth and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob . . . at the right hand in great joy. 10
As we approach that “great and dreadful day” (Mal. 4:5; D&C 2:1; 110:14, 16) when all nations will see the Lord’s salvation and Abraham at the Lord’s right hand, the world seems to become more and more like Abraham’s. As his world was as wicked as Noah’s, so shall be ours: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it shall be also at the coming of the Son of Man” (JS – M 1:41).
And as Abraham’s world becomes ours, his life is not just history but a guide, as it has always been for those aspiring to be the people of God. Isaiah’s words are more relevant than ever: “Look to Abraham your father” (NRSV Isa. 51:2).
What do we see when we look to Abraham? We see first a boy in an incredibly wicked world from which Zion had long since fled, a boy who refuses to go along with the evil practices but prayerfully seeks his Creator in purity and humility.
We see a marriage of two people building Zion at home, and then reaching out to gather all to Zion. We see answers to prayers but also increasing persecution, for Abraham’s life “was a continuous tale of sacrifice and suffering for his cause.” 11
And through it all we see a profound faith in the Almighty, a faith carefully cultivated and richly rewarded, as W. F. P. Noble described in the nineteenth century (decades before the emergence of the Genesis Apocryphon that would compare Abraham to a mighty cedar of Lebanon):
Of Abraham and his whole life . of every journey he undertook, every march he made, every footprint he left . it was true of him as it never was of any other man – ‘He walked by faith’ … But what explains it ? What fed the faith wherein his great strength lay? Challenging comparison with any, and excelling all . we may apply to him the glowing terms and bold figures of the prophet [Ezekiel]: “He was a cedar in Lebanon, with high stature and fair branches and shadowing shroud . nor was any tree in the Garden of God like unto him for beauty: his root,” he adds, explaining how this cedar towered above the loftiest trees, giant monarch of the forest – “his root was by the great waters.”
And what that root found in streams which, fed by the snows and seaming the sides of Lebanon, hottest summers never dried and coldest winters never froze, the unequaled faith of Abraham found in close and constant communion with God.
Like Enoch, he walked with God. Each important transaction of life was entered on in a pious spirit and hallowed by religious exercises. His tent was a moving temple; his household was a pilgrim church. Wherever he rested, whether by the venerable oak of Mamre, or on the olive slopes of Hebron, or on the lofty, forest-crowned ridge of Bethel, an altar rose, and his prayers went up with its smoke to heaven.
Such daily intimate and loving communion did this grand saint maintain with heaven that God calls him his “friend;” and honoring his faith with a higher than earthly title, the Church has crowned him “Father of the Faithful.”
He lived on terms of fellowship with God such had not been seen since the days of Eden. Voices addressed him from the skies, angels paid visits to his tent, and visions of celestial glory hallowed his lowly couch and mingled with his nightly dreams. He was a man of prayer, and therefore he was a man of power.
Setting us an example that we should follow his steps . to revert to language borrowed from the stateliest of Lebanon’s cedars – thus was he “fair in his greatness and in the length of his branches, for his root was by the great waters.” 12
Nourished by the Almighty – whose commandments he kept, whose ordinances and priesthood he received, whose scriptures he searched, whose gospel he preached, whose love he shared, whose Zion he built, and of whose Beloved Son he testified – Abraham was not only blessed by God but also chosen, along with his posterity, to be instruments in carrying those same blessings to all mankind, the blessings of Zion. Zion is what Abraham sought, what he built, and what he qualified for, as Zion above actually partnered with him to protect him, bless him, teach him, empower him, and help in his mission.
As we look to Abraham, we also see him constantly seeking Zion’s King, the Savior, through righteousness, prayer, and faith, even as he invites all to Christ and Zion by unwearying missionary labor and abundant kindness and hospitality. We see Abraham living the laws of obedience, sacrifice, the gospel, chastity, and consecration, and constantly doing temple work.
“To be sure,” wrote the poet Coleridge, “if ever man could, without impropriety, be called, or supposed to be, ‘the friend of God,’ Abraham was that man.” 13 We see, in other words, the epitome of friendship and the pure love of Christ.
No wonder the Lord “revealed unto him,” stated John Taylor, “some of the greatest and most sublime truths that ever were made known to man,” 14 and gave him, added Orson Hyde, some of the most sublime “promises that no other man has obtained . the Son of God excepted.” 15 In short, we see in Abraham’s life a remarkable fellowship with the Almighty and a powerful pattern for obtaining the blessings of Zion.
“For what reason,” asked Clement, “was our father Abraham blessed? Was it not because he wrought righteousness and truth through faith?” 16
The pattern is especially important for Latter-day Saints, Abraham’s latter-day posterity aspiring to the blessings of their great forefather, whose example they are expressly commanded to emulate: “Do the works of Abraham” is the Lord’s latter-day commandment (D&C 132:32). God blessed not only Abraham, explained Erastus Snow, but also “his seed after him … on condition that [they] should abide in the truth, follow the teachings and examples of their fathers, and prove themselves worthy.” 17
Or, as stated by Orson Hyde, “if we will do the works of Abraham, we are the children of Abraham.” 18
Accordingly, as James Harris observes, “How can we become a Zion people? The same way that Abraham became a Zion man.” 19 In the words of Hugh Nibley, “We are commanded to do the works of Abraham and told that there is no other way for us to go, ” for “only by ‘doing the works of Abraham’ can we hope to establish a better order of things on the earth, that order of Zion” long lost from the earth. 20
For only in Zion does one find charity, that greatest of all things and sine qua non of godliness, which Abraham possessed in full measure and for which he is still remembered in Judaism as the very embodiment. 21
We further see in Abraham’s life remarkable foreshadowings of Zion through the ages, including the King of Zion, whose birth and Atonement are so clearly prefigured in the life of Abraham. We see foreshadowed the great events of the latter-day Zion – from Joseph Smith’s prayer at age fourteen, to his translation of ancient scriptural records, to the gathering of the Latter-day Saints, to the building of temples, to the Lord’s glorious Second Coming when He will deliver His people as dramatically and decisively as He once did Abraham from death on a pagan altar in Ur. Abraham’s life is truly “a lesson of the future.” 22
And we see Abraham receiving covenants guaranteeing that Zion as it would exist through the ages would be built by his posterity. John Taylor remarked:
From [Abraham’s day] forth, by that lineage the blessings of heaven have flowed to the children of men … Who were Isaac and Jacob? Heirs of the same promise as himself. Who was Joseph, who was sold into Egypt? A descendant of Abraham. Who was Moses, who delivered the people from Egyptian bondage? A descendant of Abraham. Who was Aaron, who was associated with the Aaronic Priesthood, and who presided over it? A descendant of Abraham. Who were the Prophets that we read of in this Bible? They were descendants of Abraham. Who was Jesus, who as the Son of God, taketh away the sins of the world? A descendant of Abraham according to the flesh. Who were the Twelve Apostles, commissioned to preach the Gospel to all nations? Descendants of Abraham. And who were the [Nephite] Twelve Apostles that lived upon this continent? Descendants of Abraham. Who was Joseph Smith, to whom the Gospel was revealed in these last days? A descendant of Abraham. 23
Parley Pratt similarly emphasized that from “the lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob … sprang the Prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles; and from this lineage sprang the great Prophet and restorer in modern times … In this peculiar lineage, and in no other, should all the nations be blessed.” 24 Indeed, it was so determined in the premortal councils, said Brigham Young: “Joseph Smith … was foreordained to come through the loins of Abraham.” 25
And if descendant, then heir; the Lord declared to Joseph Smith that “Abraham received promises concerning his seed, and of the fruit of his loins – from whose loins ye are” (D&C 132:30). And if Abraham’s distinguishing quality was love, so it was with his descendant Joseph Smith, whose love for mankind drew thousands to him. 26
As Abraham the Friend transformed the world by his love, so would Joseph Smith: “Friendship,” he declared, “is one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’; it is designed to revolutionize and civilize the world, and cause wars and contentions to cease and men to become friends and brothers. Even the wolf and the lamb shall dwell together.” 27 Hence President Hinckley’s continuing counsel to Latter-day Saints to reach out with “greater love for our fellowmen” 28 by “feeding and clothing the hungry and the needy, extending love and neighborliness to those about us.” 29
And who are the Latter-day Saints? Like their founding prophet Joseph Smith, they also are seed of the great Patriarch, as the Lord has declared: “ye are the children of Israel, and of the seed of Abraham” (D&C 103:17). They in turn are called to go gather out their fellow Abrahamic descendants.
“We are now calling upon the Elders to go and gather up Israel,” declared President Brigham Young. “Will we go to the Gentile nations to preach the gospel? Yes, and gather out the Israelites, wherever they are mixed among the nations of the earth.” And “if any of the Gentiles will believe, we will lay our hands upon them that they may receive the Holy Ghost, and the Lord will make them of the house of Israel.” 30
By this process, all who are gathered are of Abraham’s seed, whether actual descendants or by the change that, according to Joseph Smith, is actually physiological. 31 “By obeying this Gospel,” explained Elder Parley Pratt, “or by adoption through the Gospel, we are all made joint heirs with Abraham … and we shall, by continuance in well doing, all be blessed in Abraham and his seed … The blessing is broad enough to gather all good, penitent, obedient people under its wings, and to extend to all nations the principles of salvation. We would therefore . cordially invite all nations to join … this favored lineage.” 32
Abraham’s latter-day descendants thereby follow their forefather in inviting all to become heirs of Abraham by accepting the gospel that he himself preached, building the Zion that he foresaw, and qualifying for the blessings he received. And thus, in the words of John Taylor, “will the Zion of our God be built up.” 33
1Testament of Isaac 2:27-28, in Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:906.
2Commenting on the statement that Abraham gave the residual property all to Isaac, the Zohar states that Abraham bequeathed to Isaac “the holy heritage of faith to which Abraham clave.” Zohar, Vayera 100b, in Sperling and Simon, Zohar, 1:325.
3Kasher, Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation, 3:37.
4Qur’an 2:132, in A. Ali, Al-Qur’an, 27.
5Qur’an 2:132, in Asad, Qur’an, 27.
6Schram, Stories within Stories, 299.
7Buxbaum, Life and Teachings of Hillel, 74-75.
8Kasher, Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation, 3:50, citing various sources.
9Another translation reads here: “For these things, I tell you, are of greater value than anything else I can bequeath to you.” Testament of Benjamin 10:4, in Sparks, Apocryphal Old Testament, 599.
10Testament of Benjamin 10:2-7, in Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:828. The tribe of Benjamin is not only the source of this statement and the Revelation of Stephen, but perhaps also the letter to the Hebrews (containing the passage telling that Abraham sought the heavenly city), which seems to have been written by someone who “doubtless came under the influence of the teaching of Stephen.” Paul – who Clement thought may have written the original version (in Hebrew) of the letter, and who Origen thought was the author of the letter’s thoughts, although the letter itself was written by someone else – was of course present at Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 7:58), and was also of the tribe of Benjamin (Philip. 3:5; Rom. 11:1). Guthrie and Motyer, Eerdmans Bible Commentary, 1191. On Abraham’s teaching his posterity to keep the law of the Lord, see also Genesis 18:17-19.
11Mawadudi, Towards Understanding the Qur’an, 111.
12Noble, Great Men of God, 65-67. I have taken the liberty of breaking up Noble’s wonderful lengthy passage into paragraphs that are not in the original. I hope he will pardon me.
13Coleridge, “Table Talk,” May 16, 1830, in Goldman, In the Beginning, 539-40.
14Journal of Discourses, 21:160.
15Ibid., 2:78. “Who has lived since that day who has been thus blessed? I will venture to say not one.”
16Clement, The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians 31, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:13.
17Journal of Discourses, 24:160.
18Ibid . , 11:152, echoing the Savior’s statement to His Jewish contemporaries that “if ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham.” John 8:39.
19Harris, Commentary on the Pearl of Great Price, 231.
20Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 651-52.
21Ginsburg, Essenes, 122 (in The Kabbalah ); and see generally Chavel, Encyclopedia of Torah Thoughts, 42-26; Cohen and Mendes-Flohr, Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, 299-302.
22Soloveitchik, Man of Faith, 68.
23Journal of Discourses, 22:304-305.
26Galbraith and Smith, Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 350.
28Gordon B. Hinckley, “Reaching Down to Lift One Another,” Ensign, November 2001, 54.
29Gordon B. Hinckley, “Living in the Fulness of Times,” Ensign, November 2001, 6.
30Journal of Discourses, 2:268-69.
31Galbraith and Smith, Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 170-71.
32Journal of Discourses, 1:262.