Editor’s Note: A much more in depth discussion of this topic is available in Kerry’s book God Will Prevail: Ancient Covenants, Modern Blessings, and the Gathering of Israel. Buy your copy HERE or at your local Seagull or Deseret Book stores.
In October 2020 General Conference, President Russell M. Nelson asked us to undertake a specific course of study. He said “As you study your scriptures during the next six months, I encourage you to make a list of all that the Lord has promised He will do for covenant Israel. I think you will be astounded! Ponder these promises. Talk about them with your family and friends. Then live and watch for these promises to be fulfilled in your own life.”[i]
A year before he had asked the Saints to study the First Vision.[ii] We responded with vigor. I believe we want to respond with the same vigor in this case, but it is more difficult. Most found it somewhat easy to find accounts of the First Vision, and the Church’s website and the Joseph Smith Paper’s project made it all the easier for us to respond to that challenge. In contrast, as I have lectured and written on the topic of the Abrahamic Covenant and the blessings promised to Israel, I have found that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have a more difficult time recognizing the blessings promised to Israel during our scripture studies. As a result, it has not been as easy to wholeheartedly follow the prophet’s advice this time.
There are a few places in the scriptures where we can find the blessings promised to Israel packed densely into a chapter or two. For example, Genesis 12 and 15, or Abraham 2, or Leviticus 26, or Deuteronomy 28-30, are all chapters where the covenant and its blessings are powerfully spoken of. Studying such chapters can be an important part of fulfilling the prophet’s challenge. Yet it seems that he was not just asking us to look for the blessings promised to Israel in a few places, but rather to find those blessings as they are scattered throughout all of scripture. How can we find success in doing that?
The answer is at the same time both simple, and complicated. The simple answer is to become familiar with the Abrahamic covenant and the language used to describe it, and then recognize that language in the scriptures. Yet that is easier said than done. I have spent over 25 years studying and teaching the Abrahamic covenant, and have studied it intensely for over six years now, and have written articles and a book on it, and still last week I found myself coming to understand it better. Still, there are a few key elements that will help the reader be more successful in identifying the blessings promised to Israel in the scriptures.
One of those keys is to become familiar with the most prominent promises that are part of the covenant, and then look for when those ideas are referred to in the scriptures. Promises about prosperity, protection, posterity, land, and priesthood are some of the highlights of the covenant that prophets often refer to when they speak of the blessings promised to Israel. I have written elsewhere of the value in recognizing those covenantal references in the scriptures, and hope that those writings may be helpful to people.[iii] At the same time, there is another element that I find to be crucial, yet it is harder to identify because, while it overarches every other aspect of the covenant, it is not as easily spelled out as some of the other covenantal promises.
When I first taught Old Testament at BYU, in September of 1994, I wanted to teach my students about the Abrahamic Covenant. I scoured what other scholars had said about it, and I searched throughout the scriptures looking for the blessings and promises that were part of that covenant. I made a bullet point list that I could show them and provide as a handout. Over the years I have come to understand the covenant better, and have added to or refined that bullet point list, using it in lectures and as handouts in hundreds of classes, lectures, devotionals and firesides. I felt like it served me and my students well.
Then I started to write the book God Will Prevail: Ancient Covenants, Modern Blessings, and the Gathering of Israel. As I was writing, I felt like such a list didn’t work as well for a book. I thought I should try to arrange it in some other way. The first thing I did was start to categorize blessings, looking for what blessings seemed to go together, and how one set of blessings might flow into, or interact with another set.
In the process of doing this, I made a discovery that was startling and significantly changed the way I saw the covenant. I came to understand that the first and foremost aspect of the covenant, the concept on which everything hinged and from which everything flowed, was that God wanted an increased relationship with His children. This was both the purpose behind the covenant, the primary obligation of the covenant, and the most powerful blessing that flowed from it.
God wants to have a different relationship with His children than they are capable of when they are both in and of this world. He wants us to take a step away from the world and towards Him. Because of this desire, He willingly binds Himself to us if we are only willing to bind ourselves to Him. This binding happens through an ordinance administered covenant, which allows His sanctifying power to enter us and change us into beings that are capable of being closer to Him, and which ties us to Him in an intimate and empowering relationship.
We enter this covenant at baptism, where we become the seed of Abraham and Israel.[iv] We enter into it more fully in the temple. In all of these ordinances, priesthood power infuses us, sanctifying us and allowing us to have an ever-increasing relationship with God. Understanding this aspect of the covenant is crucial to understanding all the blessings that are promised to Israel.
The foundational element of the covenant is that God will be God to Abraham and his seed (Genesis 17:7, 8; Exodus 6:7; Leviticus 26:12; Deuteronomy 29:13; Abraham 1:19, 2:7). This means so many things. It means that Abraham and his seed will worship God and God alone. It means that God will prevail in their lives above all other things. In return, God will take care of Abraham and his seed in the way that only God can. It also welds a special connection between covenanters and God, one in which they behave more like God and develop/receive a more godly nature as God aids them in this process. Covenants are about connections, and the primary connection is the one we make with God. This is one of the main reasons why the path God has chosen for us is the covenant path, because it has within it the ability to help us become what we need to become by helping us create an exalting connection with God.[v]
There are two covenant phrases that best capture this heightened relationship God is seeking for. The first is that God will be Israel’s God, and the corresponding second phrase is that they will be His people. These phrases are the most common way that the covenant is referred to. Whenever we read any form or part of these phrases, we should recognize it as a way of referring to the covenant. We should then pause and try to identify just what we are being taught about the covenant by the use of a covenant phrase. Yet beyond that, we should recognize that the phrase itself is teaching us something about the blessings of the covenant. It is teaching us about our relationship with God and how that relationship changes our very nature.
This special relationship and changed nature is what makes Israel God’s people. As a result, they are promised that they will be a peculiar treasure, or a special people, to God (Exodus 19:5). They will also be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). This is another way of describing and explaining that more godly nature and relationship we have been speaking of. As we form a new relationship with God, we become a new people. In fact, the new relationship created by being begotten of God can provide us with His nature as our new nature. We can become like Him. That is the idea behind the new relationship and why Israel is described as a holy nation or a kingdom of priests. The concept of a new and higher nature based on a new relationship with God was supposed to, and usually did, shape Israel’s identity. It should continue to do so today. The bond that the covenant forges causes us to interact with God differently, which causes us to enter into a higher plane and thus into a higher form of relationship.[vi]
It is important to note that while experiencing a closer relationship with God is a glorious blessing that comes from the covenant, it is also our primary obligation within the covenant. The principal obligation for covenant holders is to keep the commandments. Within those commandments we know which is the greatest, and therefore which is the most important and primary of our obligations. “Ultimately, loving God is the fullest realization of what it means for Abraham, Sarah, and their seed to have God as their God (Genesis 17:7).”[vii]
When we remember that the purpose of the covenant is to increase our relationship with God, then it comes as no surprise that the great obligation is one that is designed to heighten that relationship.
It is the connection with God that counts. In other words, the defining duty of covenant holders is to remember what God has done for them, to be grateful for it, and to serve God. But above all, both in terms of duty and how it defines them, covenant holders are to love God. This love is to be the primary feeling of their heart, the central emotion of their consciousness, the consuming core of who they are.[viii]
Because this covenant connection is so important, we will best understand the scriptures that speak of the blessings promised to Israel when we keep in mind the relationship God is trying to build with those blessings. The ultimate expression of that relationship will be when He has changed our natures so substantially that we have become Christlike, or godly, and thus will finally be capable of having the kind of full, close, and understanding relationship that God has been seeking for. If we understand passages about prosperity, protection, posterity, land, and having God as our God and being His people with this in mind, then we will find a greater recognition of those blessings in our lives.
[i] Russell M. Nelson, “Let God Prevail,” October 2020 General Conference.
[ii] Russell M. Nelson, “Closing Remarks,” Octoboer 2019 General Conference.
[iii] See Kerry Muhlestein, God Will Prevail: Ancient Covenants, Modern Blessings, and the Gathering of Israel (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2021). Also Kerry Muhlestein “Recognizing the Everlasting Covenant in the Scriptures,” Religious Educator 21/2 (2020): 41–71; found online at https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/facpub/4487//.
[iv] Kerry Muhlestein, God Will Prevail: Ancient Covenants, Modern Blessings, and the Gathering of Israel (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2021), 4-7; 19-24. See also Kerry Muhlestein, Joshua M. Sears, and Avram R. Shannon, “New and Everlasting: The Relationship between Gospel Covenants in History,” Religious Educator 21/2 (2020): 21–40.
[v] Muhlestein, God Will Prevail, 45.
[vi] Muhlestein, God Will Prevail, 46.
[vii] Muhlestein, God Will Prevail, 62.
[viii] Muhlestein, God Will Prevail, 62.