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!


Jo Jo said...

Does this mean you're home? Quite the answer to the question, more than I knew at all. More than I think I could even find.

The Royal Buffington's said...

Very insightful, thank-you. I enjoyed reading this.

Anonymous said...

If Hagar was an Egyptian (Gen. 16:3) and probably a descendant of Ham, how could Ishmael hold the priesthood?
Ishmael also married an Egyptian
(Gen. 21:21) so again, how could his posterity be priesthood holders if Ham's male children were forbidden that privilege?
Just curious.

The Mormon Monk said...


Your analysis seems to focus on the mothers of potential priesthood holders--Hagar, Ishmael's wife. Since this is a "patriarchal" priesthood, I think you're looking at the wrong side of the family tree. But that's just a quick reaction to your objection.

My primary reasons for supposing that Ishmael had the priesthood are outlined above, and if they're not convincing, I'm not sure I can come up with new evidence; we might just have to disagree.