Monday, November 4, 2013

A Covenant Example

When Abram was around the tender young age of 75, and that really isn't so old when you live to be 175, it's safe to say that he began to have a few family troubles. The root of the trouble was his father, Terah, and possibly others in his family, who had turned against the gospel taught by Adam, Enoch, and Noah to instead worship the wood and stone idols of the Egyptians.

A part of Egyptian idol worship included sacrificing men, women and children on an altar to their idol gods. As the scriptures begin their account of Abram's life, idol priests had just sacrificed three virgins because they were virtuous and refused to bow down to the idols. Abram had spoken out against the atrocities being committed, but writes that his fathers 'utterly refused to hearken to my voice' and 'laid violence upon me, that they might slay me also, as they did those virgins upon this altar'. At the last moment, as the priests were about to sacrifice Abram, an angel appeared, untied him from the altar and helped him escape.

This context sheds some light into one of the greatest understatements in all of scripture as Abram wrote of his circumstance that he, 'saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence; And finding there was greater happiness and peace and rest for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers'. The sought-after blessings included great knowledge, increased capacity to obey the commandments, to be a father of many nations, and ultimately the priesthood (Abraham 1:1-2).

With this background in mind, the story of the man who would become Abraham, the great patriarch, shows us how we can live in an evil world yet remain steadfast and loyal to the one true God. The scriptures are filled with stories that provide similar examples, yet Abraham's account is unique because of the clarity and detail given to the covenant process as he attains the blessings he desired.

Like Abram, our hearts may yearn for greater happiness and peace and rest. We may long to be reunited with relatives who have passed on, to have greater spiritual strength for the trials we face, or to better understand the Lord and His love for us collectively and individually. Abram, more than anything, wanted posterity. With Abram, as with us, desire for the blessings that come from covenants with God is a first step toward finding what we seek.

The next step is to prepare to receive the Lord's blessings. Abram was taught about the blessings of the covenant he would make on at least four separate occasions over the next 24 years (see Genesis 12:2-3, 13:14-16, 15:5, 15:18). Along the way he made smaller covenants and his faith was tested. He moved his family several times, risked his life in Egypt, experienced famines, knew prosperity, resisted Sodom and Gomorrah, rescued his nephew from a foreign army, paid tithing, experienced frustration at continued infertility and dealt with all the emotional and relationship challenges of taking a plural wife who bore a son while his first wife remained childless. Through it all, Abram 'believed in the Lord; and the Lord counted it unto him for righteousness' (JST Genesis 15:12).

When Abram had acted on his desires, learned about the covenant he would make, trusted in the Lord and proved his faith and obedience through all manner of difficulties, he was finally prepared enough to covenant with the Lord. This sacred occasion is differentiated from his previous encounters with divinity by the presence of the Lord himself. Though Abram had talked with God several times previously, this is first time the Lord appeared to Abram. It is also the first time the Lord predicated covenant blessings on specific requirements.

'Walk before me,' the Lord said, 'and be thou perfect' (Gen 17:1). The commandment to be perfect has been a covenant requirement to the faithful in all ages. Among other places, the command to be perfect is repeated each week as we renew our covenants through the sacrament. The presence of this requirement is evidence of the covenant nature of Abram's conversation with the Lord. Covenants are two-way promises with God-- it's not a covenant if we don't have to do anything-- so we can understand that earlier mentions of covenant blessings must have been made as instruction and encouragement preparatory to the time when Abram would be ready to enter into the covenant with the Lord.

Another evidence of Abraham's covenant is the new name he received. Names are often associated with covenants. We take the name of Christ upon ourselves when we are baptized, for example, and wives often take the surnames of their husbands when they are married. Similarly, Abram was told that he would now be called Abraham, which means 'father of many nations', reflecting his greatest desires and the nature of the covenant he was making with the Lord.

The Lord also repeats the blessings of the covenant. Abraham is to become the father of many nations, heir of the chosen land of Canaan, and the head of God's covenant people. He is also promised that these blessings would be everlasting, providing access for Abraham's posterity to receive the covenant and blessings of Abraham while also admonishing Abraham and his posterity to keep the covenants given to preceding generations.

In other words, Abraham will not only have so many posterity that they are as difficult to count as stars in the sky, but this covenant allows those unending generations of posterity to be linked together with all previous generations retroactively back to Adam, being bound by the same requirements and receiving the same blessings. Fittingly, this strong family element that appears to satisfy and exceed Abraham's desires also allows for each new generation to learn and progress upon the last, line upon line, covenant upon covenant, here a little and there a little toward the Lord's requirement for perfection.

Since we're responsible for keeping all of the covenants given through the Lord's prophets, it's worth knowing what those covenants are. Three significant covenants predating Abraham include the covenants made with Enoch, Noah, and Adam. Interestingly, these great men are also seen as fathers in the covenants they made with God-- Enoch as the father of Zion or of the righteous, and Noah and Adam, whose experiences are remarkably similar, as the fathers of all people that came to Earth after them.

The Lord covenanted with Enoch that when men should keep all of God's commandments, Zion should again come on the earth. Noah covenanted that when all of his posterity (all people everywhere) embrace the truth, and look upward, 'then shall Zion look downward, heaven and earth shall tremble with joy, and the general assembly of the church of the firstborn shall come down out of heaven and possess the earth until the end come'. Adam's covenant is revealed to us through temple ordinances.

In each case, covenants are accompanied by tokens or signs. For example, Noah was given the rainbow as a token or sign (reminding us to 'look upward') that the earth would not be destroyed by flood again until his covenant was fulfilled.

The Lord introduced circumcision as the token of Abraham's covenant. This was a particularly appropriate sign given the sins of Abraham's generation, most notably infant baptisms and false teachings of Abel as a Savior rather than the coming Christ. Circumcision performed at eight days old was a reminder that a child was not old enough for baptism, nor accountable before the Lord because of the Atonement of Christ, until they were eight years old. The number eight in Hebrew importantly symbolizes the first in a new series, such as the first day of a new week, or more relevant to baptism, resurrection or rebirth. Baptismal covenants are likewise renewed through the sacrament ordinance administered on the eighth day of the week.

Circumcision was also a fitting token for Abraham's covenant because of the covenant's strong family focus. Abraham lived close enough to Sodom and Gomorrah that he could see them, so circumcision may have been a relevant reminder of sexual purity and the law of chastity. More importantly, Abraham's covenant includes both the promise of posterity and the ability for that posterity to be born into that covenant. Thus, the organ of the body that produces posterity and brings about physical birth is the organ on which the token was made. Later on, when Christ fulfilled the Law of Moses, the token is changed to a 'circumcision of heart', which references the organ of spiritual rebirth. Though the token changed, the covenant remains the same.

In keeping with that strong family focus, it is important to note that Abraham's covenant was not made in isolation. Genesis 17 clearly shows that Abraham's wife also covenanted with the Lord. She too was given a new name-- now Sarah instead of Sarai-- and with it a similar promise that she would be the mother of nations and kings. She also received the very personal promise that, though she had been barren 100 years, she would yet give birth to a son.

Sarah's covenant also explains why it is Abraham's second son, Isaac, that is chosen to carry forward the Lord's covenant. Ishmael was Abraham's oldest son, but he did not inherit the right to the covenant because his parents had not yet entered into that covenant themselves. Though Abraham later would, there is no indication that Hagar, his mother, ever did. Isaac, on the other hand, was born fourteen years after Ishmael to a mother and father who had entered the Abrahamic covenant with the Lord.

Even after desiring the Lord's blessings, preparing for them, and entering into a covenant with the Lord, the blessings of the covenant are not certain. Covenants provide a vehicle by which desired blessings can be achieved, but we, as Abraham, still have to live up to the terms of the agreement we have made to reach our final destination.

For Abraham, filling the terms of his covenant required more than thirty years of additional tests and trials. He fought an uphill battle to save the wicked city of Sodom, had family members die, and was compelled to exile his second wife and oldest son. Then Abraham, who had nearly been sacrificed to idols by his own father, who wanted posterity most of all, was asked to do the unthinkable and sacrifice Isaac, his son of miraculous birth, the symbol of his covenant posterity and the son Abraham called his 'beloved'.

There can be no doubt that the command to sacrifice his son was heartbreaking for the 'father of many nations'. He had received promises from God that may have confused him or made this commandment seem like it did not make sense. Yet, this experience would be the climax of Abraham's life and the capstone on the covenant the Lord gave his posterity through him. It is no coincidence that so many details of this account foreshadow the Atonement of Christ, also an only son miraculously born to a father of many nations and who put the capstone on the covenants of salvation with his sacrifice.

Despite the sorrow that must have been in Abraham's heart, the scriptures say that he rose early in the morning to obey the Lord's command. Traveling three days to the place the Lord had appointed, Abraham took his son to Mount Moriah, a major hill now located in the city of Jerusalem where Solomon's temple would later stand and on the same range of hills as Golgotha, the place where Christ was crucified.

For the last part of the journey, Isaac carried the wood for his own sacrifice on his back. Noticing they did not have an animal to sacrifice, Isaac inquired of Abraham, who could only reply, 'My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering'.

Isaac was to be that lamb, and he submitted to his father with the meekness of that gentle animal. Now in his thirties, as the Savior was at the time of his crucifixion, Isaac was certainly capable of overpowering or escaping Abraham, now more than 130 years old, but instead he laid on the altar to be sacrificed. At the last moment, an angel of the Lord stopped Abraham and a ram was offered in Isaac's place.

It is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of Abraham's relief and joy at the angel's interference or Sarah's delight when she learned her only son would be allowed to live. Family was the most important thing in their lives. They had been separated from their parents by apostasy and struggled for multiple decades to have children of their own. So it was only after Abraham was willing to do the Lord's will in all things, even giving up the thing he had righteously desired most all of his life, that the Lord pronounces the blessings of the covenant they had made upon him.

'Because thou has done this thing,' the Lord says of Abraham's perfect obedience in the way of the Lord, 'I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven... And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.'

As we desire the blessings of the gospel, we must also prepare to enter and keep covenants with the Lord. We will also be tested and tried to help us learn to trust in the Lord and become perfectly obedient to his commands.

President John Taylor taught these words he heard from the Prophet Joseph Smith:

You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God, and God will feel after you, and He will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings, and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial Kingdom of God... If God had known any other way whereby he could have touched Abraham's feelings more acutely and more keenly he would have done so (Journal of Discourses, 24:197; 24:264).

When we are ready to give up our own will and the things that we desire most, the Lord is prepared to bless us with the greater happiness, peace, and rest that we seek, and all the blessings of exaltation promised by covenant to the great patriarchs of the scriptures.

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