Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Mormon Perspectives on Ishmael and the Abrahamic Covenant: An Open Letter

Dear Akram,

There is nothing that I like better than a good question, so I’m grateful that you chose to attend Gospel Principles some weeks ago when I taught lessons 15 and 42 from the old manual on the nature and gathering of Israel. You asked whether Ishmael and his descendants were included in the Abrahamic covenant, and I couldn’t answer you on the spot, though I suspected they were not. After spending some time with the scriptures and other resources, I think I have a more thorough answer for you.

When I first read the account in Genesis, I was confirmed in my initial opinion, that Ishmael is not included in the Abrahamic covenant, but I found someone willing to argue the opposite case in volume three of Studies in the Book of Abraham: Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant. Janet Hovorka cites ancient Mesopotamian religious practices to argue that “Hagar and her son were disinherited from Sarah’s wealth but not necessarily from Abraham’s” (155). Hovorka also claims that Hagar was included in the covenant because she received similar promises from the Lord: “Like Abraham and Sarah, Hagar obeyed the commandments of the Lord, was deemed righteous by Him, and shared in the same blessings of the Abrahamic covenant: a great posterity, a land of inheritance for her children, and the companionship of the Lord. . . . Yahweh negotiates a covenant with Hagar and Abraham which is virtually identical to the covenant negotiated with Sarah and Abraham” (158). As further evidence that Ishmael was included in the covenant, Hovorka points to the circumcision of Ishmael: “This will guarantee him participation in the history of salvation, and will give him rights of inheritance in the house of Abraham” (159). The final piece of evidence presented by Hovorka comes from noncanonical sources. She notes that “in Jewish tradition Hagar’s name is later changed to Keturah, the name of the third wife of Abraham (Genesis 25:1). In light of the first covenant token of Abraham and Sarah [the token being the new names given to Abram and Sarai], a name change to Keturah could suggest Hagar’s entry into the covenant” (161). There is also, from modern revelation, at least one verse that supports Hovorka’s case. In the revelation on the new and everlasting covenant of marriage in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord instructs Joseph that “Abraham received promises concerning his seed, and of the fruit of his loins . . . God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law; and from Hagar sprang many people. This, therefore, was fulfilling, among other things, the promises” (D&C 132:30, 34).

To summarize the case for including descendants of Ishmael in the Abrahamic covenant: 1) Hagar was dismissed from Sarah’s service, but the bond between her and Abraham was never broken. 2) Ishmael received, through Hagar, promises analogous to those made to Abraham—promises of a great posterity, a land of inheritance, and the companionship of the Lord. 3) Ishmael was circumcised, a sign of the covenant. 4) Hagar may have received the new name Keturah (and, if this is true, she returned to live with Abraham after Sarah’s death—see Genesis 24:67, 25:1). 5) Modern revelation explains that Hagar’s children fulfilled, at least in part, the covenant made between God and Abraham.

Hovorka’s evidence seems fairly solid, but she ignores important passages in the Bible and modern revelation. When the Lord first covenants with Abraham, he tells him to “Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto [Abraham], So shall thy seed be.” Abraham is also told that this promised seed “shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years . . . and afterward shall they come out with great substance” (Genesis 15:5, 13). Isaac’s descendants were enslaved in Egypt before emerging laden with Pharoah’s wealth, but I (admittedly no historian of Middle Eastern history) can think of no parallel for Ishmael’s descendants—so the promised seed seems here to refer exclusively to the Israelites. Another point that Hovorka elides in her analysis of the blessings [land, posterity, favor with God] promised to Hagar is the fact that these blessings are promised to Hagar herself (Genesis 16:10), not to Abraham; she might be a participant in a parallel covenant, but there is no indication she was ever included in the covenant made to Abraham. Indeed, when the Lord renews his covenant with Abraham in chapter 17 of Genesis, Abraham explicitly petitions for the inclusion of Hagar’s son, Ishmael, saying “unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!” The Lord crushes Abraham’s hopes and responds with the news that

"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." (Genesis 17:18-21)

You have to feel for Abraham. The man is told—fairly explicitly—that the covenant does not apply to Ishmael (who will be the recipient of other blessings) and what does he do in response? Immediately after this rejection of his request for Ishmael to “live before” God and be included in the covenant, he “took Ishmael his son . . . and circumcised the flesh of [his] foreskin in the selfsame day.” Ishmael’s circumcision is not a sign from God that he is a partaker in the covenant, but 1) at the least an act of obedience by Abraham, who circumcised all the men in his household and 2) at most the last ditch effort of a parent to reverse the Irreversible. When things come to a head years later and Sarah tells Abraham that “the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac,” the Lord reaffirms His earlier judgment: “in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called.” Then he reminds him that Ishmael has been designated to receive a kind of consolation prize—“And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed” (Genesis 21:10-13). Ishmael might be the seed of Abraham, and he might become a great nation, but he is not to be called the seed of Abraham.

Things look even worse for Ishmael when you get to modern revelation. Paul writes in Galatians that everyone who has faith in Jesus Christ and participates in the ordinances of the gospel through the priesthood of God is adopted into the Abrahamic covenant: “if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29). In the ensuing explanation of this adoption, he turns the positions of Ishmael and Isaac with respect to faith and the covenant into an extended allegory:

"For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which two things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written, Rejoice thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband. Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of the promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free."

In his reading of Genesis, Paul sees the efforts of Abraham and Sarah to fulfill the Lord’s promise through Hagar in the same way that he sees the efforts of Pharisees to save themselves through obedience to the law of Moses. Ishmael’s birth technically fulfills the promises made to Abraham, but he is a product of human strivings, not divine grace. In other words, Ishmael’s birth is, in part, a product of Abraham’s failure to have faith in God’s promises. Naturally, then, the promises made to Abraham are not fully inherited by Ishmael, in the same way that the Lord rewards basic obedience but reserves the fullness of his blessings for those who receive grace in and through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. It’s never good when you become an allegory for Pharisaical strivings to be saved on your own merits.

To sum up the biblical evidence against Ishmael’s inclusion: 1) Ishmael’s descendants don’t seem to have experienced the prophesied bondage that the Israelites did in Egypt. 2) Promises of land and posterity are made to Hagar and Abraham, but that doesn’t mean that Hagar’s child (Ishmael) receives the same promises made to Abraham; that would be like saying that you received a $100,000 inheritance from your parents, and I received a $100,000 inheritance from my parents, so we must have the same parents. Not good logic. More importantly, the Abrahamic covenant is about more than just land and posterity—we’ll get to that soon. 3) The Lord refuses to identify Ishmael as a part of the Abrahamic covenant, and even seems to exclude him. 4) Ishmael’s circumcision is the act of Abraham (who doesn’t get to decide whether or not he is covered by the covenant), not God. 5) Paul excludes Ishmael from the covenant, using him as a negative example of works without faith.

Based on the evidence presented thus far, I think the consensus has to be that Ishmael was excluded; Hovorka’s claims won’t stand up without additional evidence. But since we “believe the Bible to be the word of God [only] as far as it is translated correctly,” I am actually of the opinion that Ishmael—and all of Abraham’s other physical descendants—are included in the covenant, that the covenantal blessings are not limited to the children of Israel.

The last and most important point about Ishmael’s relationship to the Abrahamic covenant is made in the book of Abraham, where the blessings of that covenant are made more explicit than in the corrupted version of Genesis. There, the Lord promises Abraham “a blessing unto thy seed after thee, that in their hands they shall bear this ministry and Priesthood unto all nations . . . and in thee (that is, in thy Priesthood) and in thy seed (that is, in thy Priesthood), for I give unto thee a promise that this right shall continue in thee, and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body) shall all the families of the earth be blessed, even with the blessings of the Gospel” (Abraham 2:9, 11). The priesthood—not land or posterity—is the most important part of the covenant. If you hold and honor it, you’re in. If you don’t, you’re out. More importantly, check out the language in verse eleven: “this right [to the priesthood] shall continue in thee, and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body).” We have to presume that all of Abraham’s literal, physical offspring are included in the covenant unless they disqualify themselves.

There is also circumstantial evidence (at least a little) that Ishmael and his descendants may have had the priesthood. As exhibit one, I bring forward Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law. We know that Jethro had the Melchizedek priesthood (D&C 84:6) even though he probably did not receive it from an Israelite. Instead he received it through an alternative line of descent. Presumably Jethro was eligible (at least in part) because he was related to Abraham; he was a Midianite, the descendant of Keturah’s son (possibly Hagar’s son) Midian, and “the literal seed” of Abraham’s physical body. Main point: there are holders of the priesthood descended from Abraham that we know not of, and Ishmael/his descendants very well may have held the priesthood in fulfillment of the promise that the right to the priesthood continues with all those who are Abraham’s literal seed.

As a second piece of evidence for this possibility, I present the weddings of Esau. Esau’s first marriage was to a pair of Hittite women who “were a grief of mind unto Isaac and to Rebekah”(Genesis 26:35). The grief is presumably over the fact that Esau married outside the covenant. When a wiser, older Esau marries a second time, he goes to “Ishmael and took the wives which he had Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebajoth, to be his wife” (Genesis 28:9). There’s no expression of parental disapproval regarding this marriage, so it seems reasonable to assume that Esau married within the covenant—that Ishmael’s daughter was well versed in the gospel and received its ordinances. There is no proof that Ishmael possessed the priesthood and that he was, therefore, included in the covenant, but there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that this was the case.

So if Ishmael—and “Zimran, and Jokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuah” (Genesis 25:2)—and their descendants are all part of the Abrahamic covenant (and I now believe they were/are), why does the Bible seem to limit covenantal blessings to Isaac? To answer this question, I think you have to look at the motivations of the authors and editors of that volume. The Bible is both sacred scripture and a nationalist history. It certainly seems possible to me that Paul’s perspective on Ishmael—or that of Ezra, who edited Genesis—may have been shaped by nationalist indoctrination that negatively influenced the way in which they portrayed Ishmael. But with the clarifications offered in modern revelation, it seems clear to me that Ishmael was indeed covered under the Abrahamic covenant.

Probably more than you wanted to know. Still—thanks for such a stimulating and interesting question!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

In Celebration of Jesus Christ's Birth

In the councils of heaven that preceded the creation of this earth our Father announced the need for a Savior—a volunteer who would live a life unblemished by sin and then willingly lay it down on our behalf. “And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me.” Jehovah, the Firstborn of the Father and “the holiest of all” His children, agreed to descend “below all things” so that you and I might be lifted up and return to the Father’s presence; he is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” for our sake.

Even before His birth prophets testified of his coming. After the Fall, “the Lord said unto Adam: Behold I have forgiven thee thy transgression in the Garden of Eden,” and “[t]his is the plan of salvation unto all men, through the blood of mine Only Begotten, who shall come in the meridian of time.” While many plain and precious truths concerning the coming of Jesus Christ have been lost from the Old Testament, Jacob testifies in the Book of Mormon that “none of the prophets have written, nor prophesied, save they have spoken concerning this Christ.”

Those who heed this prophetic message have always looked to the Savior for deliverance. Isaiah promised the ancient Israelites that “a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Even now in the spirit world, “the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison,” and we regularly implore Jesus Christ to “Come, O Thou King of Kings.” Whether the wait is for his birth, for temple ordinances or for his Second Coming, the anticipation of Christmas—of redemption through Jesus Christ—is a consistent aspect of worship among Christ’s covenant people, Israel.

For those who look forward to the Christmas season “with an eye single to the glory of God” it seems as though “all things denote there is a God”; they find types and shadows of Christ in “the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it.” The sight of a well-formed tree calls to remembrance Isaiah’s words concerning “the stem of Jesse” and the “Branch [that has] grow[n] out of his roots.” The twinkling Christmas lights strung on such a tree and the stars in the heavens are just two of the many reminders that Jesus Christ is the “light of the world.”

Those who have “ears to hear” will find an audible testament of their own dependency on the Christ in the sound of a bleating sheep as it searches for the “Lord Jesus, that great shepherd” or in the sound of a gavel as a magistrate passes sentence in the same way that Christ will when we meet him and the servants he has sent to guide us through mortality “before the pleasing bar of the great Jehovah, the Eternal Judge of both quick and dead.” Indeed, for those who will open their “ears to hear,” even the ringing of chimes or the pealing of a bell can be a beautiful “melody in your heart to the Lord” as you contemplate the perfect example of and the transcendent gifts given us by “The Prince of Peace.”

With the Christmas season comes an extra measure of good will. Remembering the “condescension of God,” when the “only Potentate, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords,” “descended below them all” and was born into a stable, it is easier to make good choices and to bless the lives of others, even at the expense of our own pride. It is easier to be patient with those who try our patience, to serve those who take our service for granted, and to love those who love only themselves. This extra measure of good will is both a spiritual gift available through the enabling power of Jesus Christ’s perfect Atonement and the only gift that we can possibly give to him in return.

During his mortal ministry the Savior taught that “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” This is a principle that resonates with us throughout the Christmas season as we share our time, talents, and material possessions with others more willingly than at other times of the year. As our increased good will stimulates our generosity, let us not forget to be generous with our most precious possession: our testimonies of the gospel, the good news that Jesus Christ lives and that he has restored his Church to the earth! This is good news indeed, and as Christians—men and women who have pledged to “stand as witnesses” of his name “at all times and in all things, and in all places”—we ought to share our knowledge and joy with all those around us.

When Jesus Christ was born more than two thousand years ago, angels descended from heaven to announce his coming. The angel Gabriel appeared to Elizabeth and to Mary, to Zacharias and to Joseph. An angel likewise appeared to shepherds in a field and proclaimed “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” On the night of Christ’s birth the very heavens bore witness of his divinity as a star appeared in the sky and angels descended to earth.

In acknowledging the angelic hosts that testified of the infant Immanuel’s eternal identity, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland offered this reminder: “I have spoken here of heavenly help, of angels dispatched to bless us in time of need. But when we speak of those who are instruments in the hand of God, we are reminded that not all angels are from the other side of the veil. Some of them we walk with and talk with—here, now, every day. Some of them reside in our own neighborhoods. Some of them gave birth to us, and in my case, one of them consented to marry me. Indeed heaven never seems closer than when we see the love of God manifested in the kindness and devotion of people so good and so pure that angelic is the only word that comes to mind.”

In this, the dispensation of the fullness of times, you and I are responsible for sharing the love of God and the news of his Son’s birth and life, his death and resurrection. Alma wished that he “were an angel, and could . . . speak with the trump of God, . . . and cry repentance unto every people,” but realized that “the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word.” We are called to be ministering angels to those we live with, to teach those of our own nation and tongue the gospel. Having heard the angels’ song, we must now go forth and share it with others.

Of all those who eagerly awaited the birth of Jesus Christ, surely no one felt more love and devotion for the Savior than Mary, the mother of his mortal body. It was Mary’s privilege and responsibility to rear the Christ child as her own son, to provide an example of obedience and faith to the great Exemplar, who was obedient even unto death and by whose faith “the worlds are and were created.” We know that Mary took this responsibility seriously, making regular visits to the temple and doing “all things according to the law of the Lord.” Because of her efforts, at least in part, Jesus “grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.”

The late Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained that “we see in Mary a pattern of piety and submission to the will of the Lord which is the perfect example for all” parents. As Mary taught her son and Savior “to love and serve” others, provided for his “physical and spiritual needs,” and demonstrated by example the need “to observe the commandments of God,” so too must we “raise [our] children in love and righteousness.”

The little ones for whom we have a sacred responsibility—whether by virtue of familial relationships or church callings—are no less innocent and pure than Jesus Christ was on the night he was born, and we are responsible for preserving that holy connection to heaven in their hearts for as long as possible. The tender feelings of Mary must be our feelings, and we must treasure our little ones in the same way that she treasured hers.

In addition to caring for the children placed in our custody by our Father in Heaven, you and I also have a responsibility to learn from their example. When his apostles asked the mortal Messiah “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? . . . Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

When the mightiest of all God’s children condescended to enter mortality as a small, helpless infant, he voluntarily left his place at the right hand of the Father to set a perfect example for us. We honor Jesus Christ for the exemplary life he lived after his baptism, but it is appropriate that the one sent to save us from our sins came in the guise of a little child. He came as a baby in purity and light so that we might reach our potential as children of God. As we commemorate his birth and remember that he has come to save, let us look forward to the day when we shall once more be like him as he was both at his birth and at his death—pure as he is pure, holy as he is holy.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

It's that time of year again...

No, not Christmas, although it's always a good time to celebrate Christ's life.

Nope--It's time for frank conversations. A forthcoming study of BYU students found that 35% of male students use pornography on a regular basis and that 9% view pornography daily. This doesn't even include occasional users.

If pornography is such a problem in an environment conducive to purity, how can you be sure that the problem hasn't affected the man (or woman) you love? By asking. Time for another PPI: a Personal Pornography Interview.