Cover image: Pondering God’s Promise, by Courtney Matz.
Abraham is revered by countless numbers as the “father of the faithful” (Doctrine and Covenants 138:41) because of the covenant he made with God. Yet Abraham himself came from a troubled family—his father, who had abandoned the true worship of God, tried to have Abraham sacrificed to false gods. When Abraham says, “I saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence” (Abraham 1:1) he is making the ultimate understatement. Abraham wanted “to be a greater follower of righteousness” (Abraham 1:2), so God invited him into a covenant relationship. He sought for “the blessings of the fathers” which had been offered to those who sought them diligently since the time of Adam and Eve. It seems likely that he learned of these blessings from “the records which had come into [his] hands” (Abraham 1:28). Could this have been Adam’s book of remembrance which recorded the chronology “from [Abraham] to the beginning of creation?” Abraham’s life is a marvelous illustration that no matter what negative influences your family environment has imposed upon you, they can be overcome by having righteous desires.
God’s covenant with Abraham promised wonderful blessings: an inheritance of land, a large posterity, access to priesthood ordinances, and a name that would be honored for generations to come. But the focus of this covenant was not just on the blessings Abraham and his family would receive but also on the blessing they would be to the rest of God’s children. “Thou shalt be a blessing,” God declared, “and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:2–3). Rather than giving Abraham and Sarah’s descendants privileged status, this covenantal relationship gave them the responsibility to bless others. The members of Abraham’s family were to “bear this ministry and Priesthood unto all nations,” sharing “the blessings of the Gospel, which are the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal” (Abraham 2:9, 11). This covenant was the blessing Abraham had been yearning for. After receiving it, Abraham said in his heart, “Thy servant has sought thee earnestly; now I have found thee” (Abraham 2:12).
Abraham was tireless in preaching the gospel in Haran. He had seen what had happened to his father Terah as he had allowed the influences of the world to corrupt his faith. There is protection in proclaiming the gospel. I love this quote from Pulitzer prize winning author Elie Weisel about preaching the gospel in Sodom and Gomorrah.
A just man comes to Sodom hoping to save the city. He pickets. What else can he do? He goes from street to street, from marketplace to marketplace, shouting, “Men and women, repent! What you are doing is wrong. It will kill you; it will destroy you!” They laugh, but he goes on shouting, until one day a child stops him. “Poor stranger, don’t you see it’s useless?” “Yes,” the just man replies. “Then why do you go on?” the child asks. “In the beginning,” he says, “I was convinced that I would change them. Now I go on shouting because I don’t want them to change me.” [i]
When the Lord made His covenant with Abraham, he promised that this covenant would continue in Abraham’s posterity, or “seed,” and that “as many as receive this Gospel shall be … accounted thy seed” (Abraham 2:10–11). This means that the promises of the Abrahamic covenant apply to members of the Church today, whether they are literal descendants of Abraham or adopted into his family through baptism and conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ. To be counted as Abraham’s seed, an individual must obey the laws and ordinances of the gospel.
Blessings Promised in the Abrahamic Covenant
The earthly blessings promised to Abraham and Sarah, such as inheriting a promised land and being parents of a innumerable posterity, have eternal parallels. The earth will become the ultimate “promised land” when it becomes celestialized, and thus this blessing includes an inheritance in the celestial kingdom (see Doctrine and Covenants 132:29). Through the sealing blessings of eternal marriage and the “welding link” of eternal posterity the blessing of posterity as innumerable as the stars becomes a reality. (see Doctrine and Covenants 131:1–4; 132:20–24, 28–32). It is “in the temple,” President Russell M. Nelson taught, that “we receive our ultimate blessings, as the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (“The Gathering of Scattered Israel,” Ensign or Liahona, November 2006, 80). As we participate in the sealing ordinances and make temple covenants, we participate in ordinances which entitle us to the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. President Russell M. Nelson has encouraged anyone who wants to be a “follower of righteousness” to take part in the great work of “gathering Israel.”
At baptism, we all made a covenant with God and we renew it weekly as we partake of the sacrament. Each of us is privileged to receive a patriarchal blessing in which we are given a statement of our lineage. Why would God want us to have a direct statement of our lineage? What does it have to do with the Abrahamic covenant?
“Patriarchal blessing” can have two meanings—(1) a blessing given by a patriarch, and (2) the statement that the blessings of the ancient patriarchs are upon us. We are chosen, not because we are better, but because we have been given blessings and responsibilities. The baptismal font in the temple resting on the backs of twelve oxen symbolizes the responsibility of the twelve tribes of Israel to see that the world receives the gospel. 1 Nephi 15:18 states that this covenant will be fulfilled in the latter days. The four-fold mission of the Church fulfills this covenant—preach the gospel, redeem the dead, perfect the saints, and care for the poor and the needy. Abraham was a great example of welcoming all in need to partake of what he had to offer, both temporally and spiritually.
It seems that every time that Abraham left the place of his residence, it was under pressing circumstances, such as famine in the land. Under such pressure and stress, Abraham sought the Lord’s help, until he finally received the wonderful promises recorded in Abraham 2:9-11. Abraham had always been a minister of the gospel, as an adjunct to his life as a shepherd. Now it seemed that his shepherd work would become an adjunct to his work in the ministry .
How many missionaries have been frustrated as they returned home to face the realities of everyday life in a secular environment? Those who have found true happiness have made the same discovery that Abraham did. You do not disassociate yourself from the pressures of life, but you see in your life’s work a means to a greater end—the building up of God’s kingdom.
Abraham’s Tireless Service
The Book of Jasher records that Abraham was always teaching the children of the earth to know the Lord. It says that he kept a vineyard and always provided meat in his tent to those who passed through the land that they might be filled in his house. It says, “And the Lord God delivered the whole earth on account of Abraham.” (Book of Jasher 26:32-37)
In the biblical text, few details are disclosed concerning the activities of Abram[ii] and Sarai while they were in Haran, but tradition fills in the blanks from many sources.[iii] Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer relates, “[Abraham] made for himself a house opposite to Haran and he received everyone who entered into or went out from Haran, and he gave him to eat and to drink. He said to them: Say ye, the God of Abraham is the only one in the universe.”[iv] Abram provided not only phenomenal hospitality but profound preaching as well.
The accounts of the magnitude of Abram’s hospitality are abundant.[v] Angelo Rappoport writes that Abram is a master of hospitality, feeding hungry wanderers as they journeyed. He builds a “sumptuous palace” where he plants a garden with fig and other fruit-bearing trees, and offers of his abundance to all. Hungry and thirsty travelers are offered food and drink as they pass by, and are invited to rest their weary bodies upon one of the couches. Beneath his shady trees,
weary travelers can always find rest and protection from the “burning sun of the east.”[vi]
Not only does Abram reach out to weary wayfarers with life-sustaining sustenance and nourishment, he offers them spiritual succor as well. Rappoport describes how Abram would greet a guest who worshipped idols. After greeting and offering them refreshment, he would say, “Eat and drink, my friend, and bless the Lord who feeds the needy.” He would wait upon each guest as a servant waits upon his master, and speak to him about the “loving kindness of the Lord, of Him who had created Heaven and earth, and all its creatures.” Rappoport emphasizes that Abram would never leave a man who worshipped idols until the man had “opened his eyes and begun to understand the power and love of the Lord of the Universe.”[vii]
In all of this ministering labor, Sarai is not one whit behind Abram in giving service to those in need. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz states, “[Abram] and [Sarai] were not just a ‘married couple’ but a team, two people working in harmony.”[viii] He comments upon the meaning of the phrase “the souls that they had gotten in Haran,” found in Genesis 12:5. He asserts that the “souls they had gotten in Haran” does not refer to “slaves” but rather to those they had converted—those who have acquired their faith through their ministering efforts, Abram converting the men and Sarai the women. They have worked as partners, laboring together for the same goals, “walking together along the same path, united in thought, word, and deed.” He observes that “this is the kind of relationship that was common only in a much later age, perhaps only in modern times, and was certainly extremely rare in ancient times.”[ix] Midrash Rabbah corroborates the tradition that “Abraham converted the men and Sarah the women.”[x]
The legend of the good works of this noble couple was widespread in the ancient Near East. Rappoport notes that as Abram’s fame spread far and wide, “all the lowly and oppressed, the needy and miserable, the suffering and the downtrodden, the hungry and the naked, came to him to seek solace and help.” These he received with open arms, feeding and clothing them, comforting and consoling them, and tenderly wiping away their tears. Sarai was ever present in “sharing the charitable work of her aged husband.” Tirelessly, she worked day and night assisting Abram, waiting upon travelers, offering them food and drink. During the night she worked diligently, “weaving, with her own hands, garments to cover the naked.” She “sought wool and flax and worked willingly with her hands,” although she was aged and wealthy by the standards of the day. “Her candle never went out at night, from Saturday to Saturday.”
The more these two labored for the benefit of the poor and needy, the miserable and the afflicted, the greater their fame grew and the “Lord blessed their work, and they became a blessing.” When his guests would kiss his hand and thank him for his consolation, he would reply, “The Master, mine and yours, my friends, is the Lord of the Universe.”[xi]
Service is a great way to bless “all the families of the earth.” It is true that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” We can learn much from Abraham’s great example of seeking out those who we can serve.
The Journey from Haran to the Land of Canaan
One of the interesting aspects of the Book of Abraham is the insight gained into Abram’s journey from the land of his birth to Canaan. Genesis provides us with a very brief condensation of the early events in Abram’s life, although expanded versions are had in apocryphal literature. In Genesis, we learn that Abram obeyed the Lord’s commandment to leave the land of his nativity and journey to a land that would be shown him by the Lord. In the Book of Abraham, the journey was neither made in haste, nor with seeming desperation. They dwelt in tents along the way south, and the Lord was with them as “eternity was [their] covering and [their] rock and [their] salvation” as they traveled. (Abraham 2:16) [xii]
As Abram traveled, he built altars to the Lord, and as they entered the land of the Canaanites, he built yet another altar and offered sacrifice and “called on the Lord devoutly, because we had already come into the land of this idolatrous nation.” We can take another lesson from Abram here—when surrounded by idolatry, “call on Lord devoutly.”
Impending famine poses serious complications for a seminomadic shepherd, and Abram “concluded to go down to Egypt, to sojourn there, for the famine became very grievous.” (Abraham 2:21) The Lord warns him that the Egyptians will try to kill him when they see his beautiful wife, and he should say that she is his sister, that his “soul shall live.” In the Genesis account of this situation, Abram himself suggests the idea that Sarai say that she was his sister. In this light, it seems as though he is only looking out for himself. Commentators have struggled with Abram’s reported actions for millennia. When I read the Old Testament and find something that is glaringly irrational, I ask myself, “What could make sense of this seemingly inconsistent behavior? Could something be left out here?” And indeed, that is exactly the case. The Book of Abraham makes perfect sense of Abram’s actions. The suggestion is God’s idea, not Abram’s.
And I, Abraham, journeyed, going on still towards the south; and there was a continuation of a famine in the land; and I, Abraham, concluded to go down into Egypt, to sojourn there, for the famine became very grievous. And it came to pass when I was come near to enter into Egypt, the Lord said unto me: Behold, Sarai, thy wife, is a very fair woman to look upon; Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see her, they will say—She is his wife; and they will kill you, but they will save her alive; therefore see that ye do on this wise: Let her say unto the Egyptians, she is thy sister, and thy soul shall live. And it came to pass that I, Abraham, told Sarai, my wife, all that the Lord had said unto me—Therefore say unto them, I pray thee, thou art my sister, that it may be well with me for thy sake, and my soul shall live because of thee. (Abraham 2:21–25)
The conundrum is easily solved by the restoration of the complete text. But this document has only been available for about 170 years. The Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen), which was discovered with the Dead Sea Scrolls, provides an explanation for Abram’s actions that has much in common with the account in the book of Abraham. This is not Abram’s idea; it is given to him in a dream, presumably from God.
And on the night of our entry into Egypt, I, Abram, dreamt a dream; [and behold], I saw in my dream a cedar tree and a palm tree … men came and they sought to cut down the cedar tree and to pull up its roots, leaving the palm tree (standing) alone. But the palm tree cried out saying, “Do not cut down this cedar tree, for cursed be he who shall fell [it].” And the cedar tree was spared because of the palm tree and [was] not felled.
And during the night, I awoke from my dream, and I said to Sarai my wife, “I have dreamt a dream … [and I am] fearful because of this dream.” She said to me, “Tell me your dream that I may know it.” So I began to tell her this dream … [the interpretation] of the dream … “that they will seek to kill me, but will spare you. … [Say to them] of me, he is my brother, and because of you I shall live, and because of you my life shall be saved.”[xiii]
Further Lessons Taught by Abraham
Genesis 13:5–12 Abraham can teach us another important lesson by the way he handled a difficult family situation. When the land he and Lot were using for grazing their animals “was not able to bear them, that they might dwell together,” Abraham refused to let strife enter in. He settled the matter peacefully, and found a solution that satisfied everyone. He let Lot decide where he wanted to dwell, and he was happy to take whatever land Lot did not choose. We would do well to follow his example and look for peaceful ways to resolve problems, and avoid contention in our family relationships.
Abram and Lot part. Lot chooses the “well-watered” plain of Jordan,” and Abram dwelled in the land of Canaan. He has a fairly large following, consisting of “the souls that they had gotten in Haran.” (Genesis 12:5) He has enough men to fight and win battles. When Lot is captured, he takes 360 men and recaptures Lot. With that many fighting men, and their families, he must be a nomad of some importance. When he comes into an area, he makes the kings of the city-states very nervous. Each city had a King—a king of Sodom, a king of Gomorrah, etc. And they formed federations.
We can also learn a lesson from Lot’s decision to settle in the “cites of the plain.” He paid a great price for “pitching his tent toward Sodom.” (Genesis 13:12) We soon learn (Genesis 14:12) that Lot dwelt IN Sodom. Next, we hear that Lot and all his goods have been taken captive by a coalition of four kings in a battle with the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah.
When Abram learns of this, he arms his trained servants and pursues the enemy kings, and rescues Lot and the other captives, and brings back their stolen goods.
He is met by two kings—the king of Sodom, symbolic of the world, and Melchizedek, which in Hebrew means “king of righteousness.” (Genesis 14:17-18) Melchizedek brings bread and wine
and blesses Abram, as “the priest of the most high God.” Abram gives to Melchizedek tithes of all he had. (Genesis 14:20 and JST Genesis 14:39) The king of Sodom urges Abram to give him the people and keep the goods. Abram replies, “I have lift up mine hand unto the Lord . . . I will not take from a thread even to a shoelatchet” of what he is offering. (Genesis 14:22-23) His meaning? “I won’t take a threadsworth of the world.” Abram gave all he had to righteousness and would have nothing to do with a threadsworth of the world.
How much is a threadsworth of the world? How much is a threadsworth of sin? A thread can lead to a bigger twine, and eventually to the “cords of vanity” (Isaiah 5:18 or 2 Nephi 15:18), and eventually to the chains of hell. (Alma 12:11)
When Abram received the promise that his posterity would be as numerous as the dust of the earth, stars in the sky, or sand on the seashore he and Sarai did not yet have children, and they were already old, and it seemed impossible. Here is a man who was promised a posterity forever, and a land, and he has neither. He was preaching about the one true God, and yet the things that God had promised him have not come to pass. He is surrounded by pagan kings with many sons and daughters, and lands. It doesn’t seem to make sense.
How many times does the Lord reassure him and reconfirm the covenant with him? This happens numerous times as Abram gets older and older, and it must have been difficult to maintain his faith. And yet, he trusted in God’s promises. How can we trust God’s promises even when they seem impossible? This is an insight into the nature of our God. We learn that God gives Abram promises, but does not tell him how or when they will be accomplished. We find ourselves like Abram, wondering how it will happen, and if it will occur. We want a God who commands and the way is made clear for us to do it. We want to be able to easily see the beginning from the end. But we don’t have that kind of a God. He gives promises and blessings, and then allows all kinds of things to get in the way, so it looks like the promises will never happen. But God is wise, and knows how to build faith in his children. We need to trust the Lord’s timing.
God Cuts a Covenant
Genesis 15 is one of my favorite accounts of this covenant being reconfirmed, because the visual image it paints cannot be easily forgotten. When Abram reminds God that he was still childless, and suggests an alternative, he is told, “he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.” (v. 4) The Lord tells him to number the stars, and says, “So shall thy seed be.” Abram believes in the Lord’s words, “and he counted it to him for righteousness.” (v. 6) God reminds him that he will inherit the land, and Abram asks, “Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?” (v. 8)
The Lord commands Abram to gather a heifer, a she goat, and a ram, plus a turtledove and a pigeon. He is then told to cut them in half lengthwise, and lay each piece opposite each other. Notice that Abram spends all afternoon keeping the fowls of the air off the carcasses.
Then, at night, he seems to endure a “horror of darkness,” where the Lord then tells him the story told in Exodus, which is in his future. (The word used here for “horror of darkness” תרדמה tardemah, is the same word which is used to express the deep sleep into which Adam was cast, previous to the formation of Eve; Genesis 2:21.)[xiv] His posterity will be slaves in Egypt for four hundred years, but after that, God will bring Abram’s seed, the children of Israel, out of Egypt with “great substance” in their possession. He will bring them back to “this land” to possess it. To show he covenants to do this, “when the sun went down and it was dark,” the Lord, as a “smoking fire and a burning lamp,”[xv] passed between the pieces of the slain animals. After Abram sees this column of fire and smoke pass between the pieces on the ground, he was satisfied. He knew that the promises of God were sure, and that he would be receiving a posterity as numerous as the sands on the seashore, and a land of inheritance for his posterity.
To our Western minds, this scenario is difficult to understand. Why is Abram now satisfied? Because God just “cut” a covenant with him. The word in Hebrew is כרת ברית carath berith “charth” meaning “to cut,” and “berith” meaning a covenant. You didn’t make a covenant in those days, but you cut covenant. We still have remnants of this idea when we say “cut a deal.”
The Adam Clark Commentary says that when they cut the sacrificial animal in half, they started at the mouth, cutting through the skull, down the middle of the backbone, separating every joint and the marrow. This was a long process that was labor intensive. No covenant was made without a covenant sacrifice, and the animal was cut in two that the contracting parties might pass between the pieces, symbolizing what would happen to them if they were unfaithful to the covenant. [xvi] [xvii] The Anchor Bible Dictionary defines a covenant as an agreement enacted between two parties in which one side or both make a promise under oath to perform or refrain from certain actions stipulated in advance.” [xviii]
Only In Genesis 15:17 do we see the Lord binding himself by covenant through this ritual—the eerie vision of the smoking fire and flaming torch passing between the parts of the sacrificial animals. We are not told that Abram passed through halves of the animals, only the Lord. He wants Abram to know of the certainty of the fulfillment of the promises. [xix]
A similar practice is attested in Jeremiah 34:18, which indicates that this was a very archaic ritual form for the ratification of a covenant. God is upset with those who have not set their servants at liberty after seven years, as they had covenanted to do. As a result of this failure to keep their covenant, he promises to deliver them into the hands of their enemies. These are “the men that have transgressed my covenant, which have not performed the words of the covenant which they had made before me, when they cut the calf in twain, and passed between the parts thereof.”
A Father of Many Nations
Chapter 17 of Genesis begins with the sudden appearance of God to the aged Abram: “And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly” (Genesis 17:1-2). Abram immediately prostrates himself before God Almighty and listens to the extraordinary covenants he makes with Abram, telling him that he will become a “father of many nations” (Genesis 17:4). Then God declares: “Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee” (Genesis 17:5-6).
Not only is this covenant between God and Abraham, but it also extends to Abraham’s seed after him in their generations “for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee” (Genesis 17:7). God promises Abraham the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, which will continue throughout the generations. As evidence of Abraham’s acceptance of the covenant, he is commanded to circumcise all males in his household, and all newborn males when they are eight days old. Another example of “cutting” a covenant. This commandment, the rite of circumcision, is the sign of God’s everlasting covenant, and each ensuing generation must comply with it. [xx]
If Abraham is to be the father of nations, the implication is that his partner will be a mother of nations. Sarai is to be a part of these marvelous promises at last! “As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. And I will bless her, and [moreover] give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her” (Genesis 17:15-16). These promised blessings are markedly similar to the blessings promised to Abraham. In fact, the blessings are precisely parallel. The son that is born to Sarah will be the one we all have been waiting for since the promise was first given to Abraham in Genesis 12. Since the first chapter of Genesis, the purpose of creation has been the reproduction of each species after its kind. Sarah will at last be able to play the part that she was created for. She will be a part of the promises delivered by the mouth of God.
For the first time, Abraham discovers that Sarah will have a son. His aged wife will actually conceive a biological son with her husband. Abraham is astonished at God’s declaration. “Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?” (Genesis 17:7). Abraham, instead of responding with unmitigated delight at the prospect of the long-barren Sarah bearing a son, wonders what will happen to the son he already has. [xxi] What place will Ishmael have in God’s plan? “And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!” (Genesis 17:8). He pleads with God that Ishmael have a part in this covenant, but God must explain to him that there is no covenant without Sarah, and her son will be the covenant son. Ishmael will also be blessed, but in a different way. Patiently, God addresses both of Abraham’s concerns—the first, that Sarah is too old to bear a child, and second, that Ishmael will be cast off.
And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year (Genesis 17:19-21, emphasis added).
To Abraham’s reservations about Sarah’s being able to conceive a child, God promises that he will father a son with Sarah, and in fact he gives him a name, Isaac – which means “laughter.” Isaac is the son through whom the covenant will be established. Abraham need not fear for Ishmael. He will be blessed with a great posterity, even twelve princes, and will become the father of a great nation. But God emphasizes the importance of the covenant which he will establish through Isaac, who will be a patriarch of God’s chosen people. God makes it clear to Abraham that Ishmael is not this heir of the covenant.
Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik defines the words in this conversation between God and Abraham. God emphasizes to Abraham that Sarah is to play a significant role in the transmission of the covenant. Abraham, despairing of having a child with Sarah, wonders whether God intends that the heritage be transmitted through Ishmael. “But [aval] your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you shall call him Isaac, and I will keep My covenant with him as an everlasting treaty, for his descendants after him” (Genesis 17:18). The key emphasis is the word aval. “God is explaining that His covenant cannot be realized without Isaac. Why? Because Isaac is the son of Sarah. . . Isaac will emerge out of both of you, but Ishmael is only derived from you. And there can be no covenant without Sarah.”[xxii]
The word aval is an older Hebrew word with the force of “verily,” or “of a truth.”[xxiii] To me, this is a far cry from the insipid but of the King James translation. God here is telling Abraham, “Trust me, Abraham. Sarah will have a child and he will survive, and he will become the heir of the covenant. You need to trust me.”
Abraham’s audience with the Lord is over. Let the circumcision begin. Immediately, Abraham circumcises himself, his thirteen-year old son Ishmael, and all the males of his household.[xxiv] Abraham and his God have established an unbreakable affiliation. At this time in the ancient Near East, this type of indissoluble bond was always contracted by blood, usually the blood of a sacrificial animal.[xxv] But the blood of this covenant is to be Abraham’s own blood, and the blood of every male that enters the covenant. Thomas Cahill offers his thoughts on why this is so. “It is impossible for any man to forget his [organ], his own personal life force. By this covenant, the children of Avram will be virtually unable to forget the god who never forgets them.”[xxvi]
Carolyn Custis James expresses her own views about circumcision, which have long been a question in her mind. I need to offer a disclaimer here. This quote is very long, but I predict that you readers will understand why I chose to include it. It offers a woman’s view of the rite of circumcision, which is unique in and of itself, and it offers many poignant insights as well.
We [as women] want to know why the sign of God’s covenant was so male? What is God trying to tell us? Was his covenant for men only? Are men more important in his covenant than women?
Once again, God knew exactly what he was doing. The rite of circumcision is rich with symbolism intended to distinguish God’s people from the rest of the world. Circumcision teaches us our need for soul surgery – the radical, costly, and bloody process of removing our sin that Jesus accomplished when he bled and died on the cross. It is a reminder of the painful battle against sin and the awful price of victory – for God and for his people. But there is much, much more to the sign of God’s covenant.
Circumcision takes us back to the beginning – back to God’s great creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply. God was to reiterate the glorious creation mandate to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” in a way that included, but went beyond, the call to reproduce physically. When he first called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans, God promised to make a great nation from Abraham’s descendants. Now God revisits the subject and reveals the kind of nation he plans to produce through Abraham: a nation of people who walk with God. The rite of circumcision came with the call to “walk before me and be blameless . . . you and your descendants after you for generations to come.”
Circumcision cuts in a man’s flesh a permanent reminder of his call to walk with God. Through circumcision, Abraham affirmed his personal intention to walk with God and do everything in his power to ensure that his children after them followed the same path. Far from excluding women, the rite of circumcision made women indispensable. Obviously no man can reproduce physically by himself. But Abraham’s need for Sarah went well beyond sexual intimacy and the physical birth of a child. According to God’s word in Genesis, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Abraham needed Sarah’s help for the bigger and even more impossible job of reproducing spiritually.
If God were trying to exalt men or show his preference for men over women, there were better, more visible ways of doing so. He could have made the sign of the covenant a symbol on the man’s head – like a crown letting everyone know the man was chief, that he was supposed to do all the thinking, deciding, and leading. Or he could have marked a man’s arm – symbolizing strength, power, and rule. Instead, God chose circumcision, not as a symbol of manhood, but of intimacy, vulnerability, and fruitfulness. Circumcision spoke of a man’s intimate relationship with his wife and of their union in producing children, both physically and spiritually.
Rather than being excluded, a woman could actually be represented twice by circumcision – first, as her father’s descendant and one he guided to walk with God, and second, as a wife who united with her husband in fulfilling the call to raise up the next generation to follow God. By circumcising Abraham’s household servants too, God’s covenant broke the boundaries of biology, extending the Abrahamic covenant laterally to encompass Gentiles even at this early stage. Both Abraham and Sarah had responsibility to direct the hearts of their servants and their servants’ children toward God. Circumcision isn’t male-centered, but descendant-centered and community-centered. The sign of the covenant impressed upon the man his enormous spiritual responsibility to walk before God and be faithful and to influence others, especially those under his roof, to do the same. This burden was too great for any man to shoulder alone.[xxvii]
Everything about God’s covenant is descendant-centered. That is why Sarah’s role in the covenant is so important. The prophet Isaiah invited all Israel to remember their origins. “Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the Lord: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged. Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you” (Isaiah 51:1-2). Abraham and Sarah together are the parents of the covenant people. In his lifetime, Abraham will beget eight sons, Sarah only one. One hundred percent of Sarah’s descendants are heirs to the covenant. The percentage of Abraham’s covenant progeny is only twelve and a half.
As part of the establishment of the everlasting covenant, Abraham receives a new name. Abram means “exalted father,” Abraham means “father of a multitude.” The matriarch of this covenant people was also to have a new name, Sarah, meaning “princess,” instead of Sarai, meaning “she that strives.” The root of this name has similarities to the root from which “Israel” is derived.
The Talmud explains the significance of these name changes. “The addition of the Hebrew letter he to Abram’s name makes him a ruler not just over the land or Aram, but over all nations. Similarly, regarding Sarai, the Talmud elevates her to a princess over not merely her own nation, but over the entire world.”[xxviii]
Another important aspect of these name changes is the fact that both Abraham and Sarah are theophoric names—names that contain part of the name of God. The name of the Israelite God in Hebrew is spelled yod he vav he – YHVH in English. Douglas Clark observes, “The rabbis pointed out that the additional letter added to Abraham’s name, the he (pronounced “hey”) is one of the letters from the personal name of the God of Israel, Jehovah (Yahweh), a fact perhaps symbolizing that God was sharing part of His glory and divine nature with Abraham”[and Sarah].[xxix]
Rabbi Soloveitchik answers the question, “When was Sarah’s name changed?” He asserts that It occurred at the very moment that Abraham’s name was changed because there was “an inherent interdependence between them both. The name change of both involved the addition of a letter from God’s name, the Tetragrammaton, signifying that they will share a spiritual role which will reach out unto the nations of the world.” He was to become “the father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:4) and she “a princess to the entire world.” He could not do this with any other woman. Abraham could not be “a father of multitudes” if Sarah were not crowned as a “mother” of this multitude.[xxx]
By entering into sacred covenants through ordinances, we become God’s people. He has said, “I will take you to me for a people” (see Exodus 6:7.) God “has chosen thee to be a special people unto himself,” Deuteronomy 7:6.) He has “avouched thee to be his peculiar people.” The Hebrew word used here is segullah, which means “a treasured possession” Deuteronomy 26:18.” Of those who walk in God’s statues and keep his ordinances, the Lord says, “they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” Ezekiel 11:20). We stand out from the world around us. Our covenants give us strength to become true, committed disciples of Jesus Christ. “Our covenants,” President Nelson explained, “bind us to Him and give us godly power.” With this power, we are expected to bless all the families of the earth” (Abraham 2:9, 11).
I am so grateful for the Restoration of the Abrahamic covenant through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Because of this understanding, when we read about covenants in the Old Testament, besides just thinking about God’s relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we can think about our own relationship with God, because we too are part of the Abrahamic covenant. When we read about the promise of numberless posterity (see Genesis 28:14), we can remember God’s promise to us of eternal families and eternal increase (see Doctrine and Covenants 131:1–4; 132:20–24). When we read about the promise of a land of inheritance, we remember that it is much more than the land promised to Abraham. It about the celestial destiny of the earth itself—an inheritance promised to the “meek” who “wait upon the Lord.” As descendants of Abraham, we too have the opportunity to “bless the families of the earth” in our own ways. [xxxi]
[i] Reader’s Digest, November 1987, 158.
[ii] The names Abram and Sarai will be used to correlate with the biblical text.
[iii] These next few paragraphs are excepted from my book, Biblical Lionesses: Protectors of the Covenant, (2014), 14-15.
[iv] Gerald Friedlander, Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer: The Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer the Great According to the Text of the Manuscript Belonging to Abraham Epstein of Vienna, (New York: Hermon Press, 1965), 184.
[v] S. Baring-Gould, Legends of the Patriarchs and Prophets and Other Old Testament Characters From Various Sources, (New York: John B. Alden, 1885), 214.
“Abraham planted a grove in Beer-sheba, one hundred ells long and one hundred ells broad, (an ell equals 45 inches) and he planted it with vines and figs, pomegranates and other fruit trees; and he built a guest-house adjoining this garden, and he made in it four doors, one towards each quarter of the heavens; and when a hungry man came by, Abraham gave him food; if there came a man who was thirsty, he gave him to drink; if one who was naked, he clothed him; if one who was sick, he took him in and nursed him; and he gave to every man who passed by what he most needed for his journey.
“He would receive neither thanks nor payment; and when any one thanked him, he said hastily, ‘Give thanks, not to me the servant but to the Master of this house, who openeth His hand, and filleth all things living with plenteousness.’
“Thus Abraham instructed those whom he relieved. And if a traveller asked further, how he was to worship the great God, Abraham answered, ‘Say only these words, Praised be the Eternal One who reigns over heaven and earth! Praised be the Lord of the whole world, who filleth all things living with plenteousness.’ And no traveller went on his way without thanking God.
“Thus that guest-house was a great school, in which men were taught the true religion, and gratitude to the Almighty God.”
[vi] Angelo S. Rappoport, Myth and Legend of Ancient Israel, Volume 1, (The Gresham Publishing Company: London, 1928), 276. Original spelling preserved.
[viii] Adin Steinsaltz, Biblical Images: Men and Women of the Book, (Basic Books: USA, 1984), 21.
[ix] Steinsaltz (1984), 24.
[x] H. Freedman, Midrah Rabbah: Genesis, Volume One, (New York: The Sconcino Press, 1983), 324. See also S. Baring-Gould, Legends of the Patriarchs and Prophets and Other Old Testament Characters From Various Sources, (New York: John B. Alden, 1885), 186.
[xi] Angelo S. Rappoport, Myth and Legend of Ancient Israel, Volume 1, (The Gresham Publishing Company: London, 1928), 276-277.
[xii] Footnote c to Abraham 2:16 gives this information: There is a possibility that Abram traveled southward on the ancient route by way of Damascus to the site of ancient Jerash (Jershon), thence down the Jabbok, across the Jordan, and up the Wadi Farah to Sechem (also spelled Shechem, Sichem, and Sychem).
[xiii] G. Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, (London: Penguin Books, 1987), 253-254.
[xiv] See Adam Clark Commentary on this verse. Available online at studylight.org.
[xv] Adam Clark Commentary: Smoking furnace and a burning lamp — Probably the smoking furnace might be designed as an emblem of the sore afflictions of the Israelites in Egypt; but the burning lamp was certainly the symbol of the Divine presence, which, passing between the pieces, ratified the covenant with Abram, as the following verse immediately states.
[xvi] Adam Clark Commentary, Exodus 6:18 Rabbi Solomon Jarchi taught, “It was a custom with those who entered into covenant with each other to take a heifer and cut it in two, and then the contracting parties passed between the pieces.”
[xvii] Ibid, Genesis 15:10, St. Cyril, in his work against Julian, shows that passing between the divided parts of a victim was used also among the Chaldeans and other people. As the sacrifice was required to make an atonement to God, so the death of the animal was necessary to signify to the contracting parties the punishment to which they exposed themselves, should they prove unfaithful.
[xviii] Anchor Bible Dictionary, (New York: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1992),Volume 1:1179.
[xix] Anchor Bible Dictionary, (New York: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1992),Volume 1:1190
[xx] This section on circumcision and name changes is from chapter 4 of my book, Biblical Lionesses: Protectors of the Covenant, (2014).
[xxi] In Abraham’s defense, Jubilees’ rendition of this account is “And Abraham fell on his face and he rejoiced and pondered in his heart whether a son would be born to one who was one hundred years old or (whether) Sarah, who was ninety years, would give birth.”
Jubilees 15:17 in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume 2, (Garden City, New York, 1985), 86.
[xxii] Abraham R. Besdin, Man of Faith in the Modern World: Reflections of the Rav, Volume Two adapted from the lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Hoboken, New Jersey: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1984), 85.
[xxiii] Francis Brown, The New Brown – Driver – Briggs – Genesius – Hebrew and English Lexicon, (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1979), 6a, entry 61.
[xxiv] Abram shows his great faith in God by his quick obedience and by his willingness to circumcise all the males in his household at the same time. Such action would leave him especially vulnerable to an attack by outsiders, as his entire military force would be recovering from surgery and in a weakened condition.
[xxv] Anne Roiphe gives her opinion of circumcision as part of the covenant of blood sacrifice:
“This circumcision was a far better blood-letting than the more common practice of human sacrifice. We have reports that the tribes around Abraham had offered their small children to their gods in hopes of evoking good fortune. Large graveyards have been found with the buried bones of tiny children assumed to have been sacrificed at the dawn of human history. Abraham’s God only asked for a small piece of the foreskin as a token of loyalty.”
Anne Roiphe, Water from the Well: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, (New York: William Morrow, 2006), 66.
[xxvi] Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, (New York: Nan A. Talese (Doubleday), 1998), 72.
[xxvii] Carolyn Custis James, Lost Women of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005), 74-76. (Emphasis in original)
[xxviii] Brachot 13a of the Talmud as quoted in Shera Aranoff Tuchman and Sandra E. Rapoport, The Passions of the Matriarchs, (Berrien Springs, MI: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2004), 23.
[xxix] E. Douglas Clark, The Blessings of Abraham: Becoming a Zion People, (American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 2005), 166.
[xxx] Besdin (1989), 86.
[xxxi] See “Thoughts to Keep in Mind” in the Come Follow Me lesson.