Lesson 2: God Knew Abraham #BCCSundaySchool2018

Readings

Abraham 3, Moses 4:1-4

Learning Outcomes

By the end of class, class members will be able to

  1. Describe strategies for profitably reading Abraham.
  2. Evaluate what it means that God knew us before we were born.

Introduction

Eight years ago, I was sitting in a Sunday School class in Chicago with my daughter in my lap. I was probably half paying attention to the lesson, when suddenly the discussion started getting heated. People were arguing that we definitely, most certainly don’t believe in predestination. We’re foreordination people! Then others would pipe in that they didn’t see any substantive difference between predestination and foreordination.

Actually, maybe this is a lame attention-grabber. Because honestly, I don’t know what the end result was; the beauty of having a one-year-old on your lap in a Sunday School class is, there’s always a reason to slip out. And slip out I did. What I do know is, the next week, our ward had some sort of discussion about contention and not having it, a discussion that, iirc, didn’t directly reference the Sunday School class, but everybody knew what it was talking about.

This lesson is entitled “Thou Wast Chosen Before Thou Wast Born,” and spends a lot of time looking at foreordination. But it doesn’t mention predestination at all and, if I were teaching this lesson, I’d probably follow its lead. Why? A couple reasons. One is, as Mormons, we don’t really have a solid grasp about what predestination is. And, in fact, “predestination” is not a single thing; rather, it is a doctrine interpreted and taught differently by different religions (and, likely, within different religions). If we don’t have a solid grasp of what predestination means, our discussion condemning it will be tilting at straw men.

Also, if we believe in the KJV of the Bible, we necessarily believe in predestination. I did a quick search; neither “predestine” nor “predestination” provides any hits, but “predestinate” gives us a couple, in Romans and Ephesians. Meanwhile, “foreordain” gives us a single hit. But here’s the funny thing: “foreordained” shows up in the LDS-written headnote to Rom. 8 (where vs. 29 says “predestinate”) and to Eph. 1 (where vs. 5 says “predestinate”). Which is to say, when the church was producing the new chapter headings in the late 70s, it saw predestination and foreordination as rough synonyms.

God Chose Abraham

The idea of choseness permeates the Hebrew Bible (and, for that matter, all sorts of religious discourse). We often misinterpret what it means to be chosen, maybe in part because of Abraham. Because in the Book of Mormon and the Hebrew Bible, the idea of choseness generally seems to refer to a group of people, not an individual. In Abraham (specifically 3:23), God tells Abraham that he specifically was chosen. And he was chosen, not because of covenant or lineage, or even choices that he made, but because he was a good soul before the world was formed, and God chose him.

So, even though I said I’d skip the predestination thing, the choseness in Abraham looks a whole lot like predestination; God made a choice, not based on worthiness (or, at least, not based on worthiness in this life). And it was a choice God could and did make because He is God.

I actually really like this, because it forces us out of a rote liken-this-to-ourselves hermeneutic of scripture. (That’s not to say that this is a bad way to read scripture, but it’s certainly not the only way.) Because honestly, what’s the point in likening this to ourselves? If God chose Abraham (and other noble and great ones) before they were born, it’s too late. There’s nothing we can do to become premortally chosen. Either we were or we weren’t.

And yet the scripture is here. (Moreover, it’s buoyed by the end of the chapter: in vs. 27-28, God asks who He should send, two volunteer, and God choses one. There’s no reason to believe, based on the text, the He chose the one He chose because of merit; both say precisely the same thing, and neither offers an agency-destroying plan. That all happens in Moses 4, but this is not Moses 4.)

So what does it mean that God makes arbitrary choices, based on things that we apparently did? were? prior to our birth, and perhaps prior to our organization as beings? (N.b.: I don’t think we’ll come to a satisfying answer, because I think it’s a hard question. It seems unfair, right, that it’s already too late to become a noble and great one, and a ruler. But it may be worth guiding the class toward an idea of grace here: we’re not chosen because of what we do in this life, and, in the same manner, we’re not saved because of what we do in this life (even though what we do in this life may have some bearing on our salvation). Rather, we’re saved because of choices God and Jesus made.) (Also, if the class starts trying to assert that we’re the chosen ones, that we were noble and great before this life, and that we’re God’s chosen rulers, I’d probably shut that down. Abraham knows it because God came and told him, face to face. I haven’t been told face to face, and I suspect the vast, vast majority of people in our classes likewise haven’t.)

Contrasting Moses

This may be a nice way to get into the idea that we don’t have to harmonize scripture. Because Moses 4:1-4 tells a similar premortal story: Jesus vs. Satan volunteering to be our savior. But in Moses, Satan’s looking for the glory, where Jesus offers it to God. In Abraham, by contrast, two people say, “Here I am, send me.”

Now certainly we can read Moses and Abraham as telling the same story, just one with more detail than the other. But if we do that, why have the two stories? Why not just delete Abraham 3:27-28, and use the more-detailed version in Moses? The two stories are doing different work, and we owe it to scripture to understand what that work is. (That can profitably go to reading differing versions of history in both the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels, too.)

Hierarchy in Abraham

Abraham 3 gives us a really weird cosmology. It basically creates a hierarchical cosmos, where the Earth is under the moon, which is under the sun, which is under other, greater suns, which eventually are all under Kolob, which is the nearest to God, and governs all of the other stars.

So WTF? (Maybe write the letters “W” “T” and “F” on the blackboard? That seems like an attention-grabbing activity. Alternatively, when you get to this part of the lesson, you could show this video.)

Now, as a description of how space works, this makes absolutely no sense at all. Stars aren’t above each other. They’re not greater than each other, and certainly don’t rule each other. And yet Abraham spends a lot of time assigning names, hierarchy, and even time to these various heavenly bodies. What are we to make of it?

It’s probably worth again contrasting Abraham 3 with Moses; even though Moses 1 was last week’s lesson, you’ll note that God showed Moses the earth and everything on it. He mentions to Moses that He also created the heavens, but is focused on the Earth.

So why does Moses get the Earth, and Abraham the cosmos? And what’s the relevance of a description of the cosmos that’s totally foreign to reality?

Maybe that holds a clue for how we’re supposed to read Abraham. And how is that? It’s a fair discussion for class, but it certainly suggests to me that reading it’s not meant to be taken literally as a description of nature. So the various levels of hierarchy must have some other meaning, and it never hurts to try to tease that out in class.

From the Archives

Steve Evans: Kolob and Kokaubeam

Kevin Barney: Kolob as Sirius

BHodges: Intelligences and the Mythology of Coherence

 

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for these thoughts on the lesson material.

  2. Putting aside the question what could be accomplished in a typical Sunday morning class session, it would be interesting to tease out the logic of the Protestant work ethic on the back of Calvinist predestination, and then ask whether we Mormons use ordinances and ordinations in a similar fashion, as an earthly demonstration or test of who was in fact predestined/foreordained.

  3. Ha! Who knew being Uncle Jesse would get you a gig with The Beach Boys? 😆

  4. Aussie Mormon says:

    I think people get hung up linking predestination with fate rather than the logical destiny which links (as per the scriptures above) to fore-ordination, or being given the opportunity.

    The Lion King (with Simba returning to be king), Lord of the Rings (with Aragorn returning to be king), and the oldest offspring of Monarchs (who will become a king/queen) are all examples of destiny (or being chosen). They are not going to be the future king because they have been good people/lions. They are going be be given kingship because their parent made a choice to chose them for that role.
    Simba could have ignored Nala and just stayed with his mates in the jungle having fun. Aragorn could have decided to marry Arwen and then moved into the shire to train ponies. Prince Charles could abdicate his right to the throne (like his dad did in relation to the Greek Monarchy).
    Similarly, Abraham could have said, “nope. too much work”, and just gone about his business.

  5. If anyone actually uses the linked video, they ought to let everyone here know about it, so we can move into their ward

  6. I second that; I want to hear about all the uses of the Kokomo video at church Sunday!

  7. When a friend recently said she was not especially enthusiastic about preparing to teach this lesson, my immediate response was “Whatever you do, don’t go the usual route of contrasting “foreordination” with “predestination” the way so very many previous lessons on the premortal world have gone. Nothing is more boring than a semantic argument when everybody is just winging it without access to references in the moment, and in this case it quickly becomes an excuse to slam other churches for what they supposedly believe (as if most people in your class really had any clear understanding of what others believe!)

    I actually like — love — your lines leading up to this bit: “So why does Moses get the Earth, and Abraham the cosmos? And what’s the relevance of a description of the cosmos that’s totally foreign to reality?” If you could lead class members to appreciate the idea that Abraham’s cosmology is doing something else — whatever that “else” is — than serving as a scientific textbook according to our current understanding of science, then perhaps the understanding would stick once we get to Genesis 1. Sometimes approaching a problem through a less familiar context, like Abraham, allows people to actually hear the ideas, rather than immediately jumping to long-programmed biases and responses.

  8. I think part of the reason people think they were among the noble and great ones is because the Lesson manual AND the class member study guide both refer to us being part of that process.

    “However, in Abraham 3:22–28 we do not have to put ourselves in someone else’s place because these verses are about important events in which we participated. These events took place during our premortal life.”

    “What might you have been foreordained to do? (See D&C 138:56.)”

    I think people confuse this (we were present during these events AND being present with some noble and great ones who were taught and prepared) with being “a noble and great one”.

  9. Interesting take. Our Sunday School class, candidly, would benefit from a little more participation – passionate (re: contentious) or otherwise. I confess I’ve come to some different conclusions regarding these passages.

    In our theology, I’ve often seen predestination as relating to events (ie, Restoration of the Gospel, Second Coming, etc) that aren’t dependent on a single mortal person. The event is destined to happen as part of God’s Plan, and ain’t nobody gonna stop it. Foreordination, on the other hand, relates to people and opportunities / callings / trials(?) during their existence. Joseph Smith was foreordained to be the Prophet of the Restoration…but the Lord made it quite clear to Joseph that he could lose his role and the Lord would replace him. Oliver Cowdery might have been foreordained to beautiful and excellent things, but lost his way for a time and forfeited many of those blessings / opportunities. A terribly harsh consequence…but one that followed his choices. Foreordination is not set in unyielding stone.

    To me, the concept of foreordination ties in well with the idea of receiving some pre-mortality lessons. God preps us for some of what’s to come, and those lessons somehow permeate our souls as to pass through the veil right along with us. Of course there are still some surprises down here, but God pays attention to our desires. Even if our calling in mortality is “small” (ie, not a member of the “noble and great ones”), if we desired lessons and pre-mortality preparation, I’m willing to bet we received as we asked. Whether or not we continue as we commence – and live up to our foreordination – is up to us.

    So why not liken Abraham to ourselves? Why couldn’t we, too, be chosen? Where is it said that being “chosen” only relates to high-profile, high-visibility life callings? And who says being “chosen” is a permanent state, irrespective of agency on earth? And why is being “chosen” interpreted as an arbitrary choice by God? Is it such a stretch to think that, as a consequence of a long series of righteous choices in the premortal life, many of the noble and great ones *became* great and noble and were subsequently chosen?

    You raise some thoughtful questions on the cosmology component. I wonder if the difference between Moses getting the Earth and Abraham getting the cosmos also came down to personal desire. Lehi wanted to taste the fruit; Nephi wanted to know what it meant. The revelations aren’t thorough enough to know the detailed specifics of Abraham’s and Moses’ desires, but I’m glad we have both accounts. I see them as complementary and affirming, not redundant.

  10. Aussie Mormon says:

    Bensen says what I was trying much better than I did.

  11. So why not liken Abraham to ourselves? Why couldn’t we, too, be chosen? Where is it said that being “chosen” only relates to high-profile, high-visibility life callings?

    Yeah — so — I thought there was this belief, or maybe belief is too strong a word (in the sense that I’m not sure anyone actually believes it) but it’s one of those things people say — that every calling in the Church is as important as any other. So couldn’t we all be the noble and great ones? (Not to leave out people not in the Church; I certainly know at least a few who I’m betting were noble and great ones.)

  12. Russell M. Nelson said: “Your Heavenly Father has known you for a very long time. You, as His son or daughter, were chosen by Him to come to earth at this precise time, to be a leader in His great work on earth. You were chosen not for your bodily characteristics but for your spiritual attributes, such as bravery, courage, integrity of heart, a thirst for truth, a hunger for wisdom, and a desire to serve others.”
    I think it’s disingenuous to imply other (lesser?) people weren’t chosen. Multiple prophets and apostles state we are chosen. It also backs up a lot of what Brensen said. People were chosen for their spiritual attributes, not just an arbitrary decision God made.

  13. I have been trying to square the use of the word “chosen” as described in the SS lesson and OP with the phrase used in D&C 121:34-35 and elsewhere that “there are many called, but few are chosen”. In D&C 121 the impression is conveyed that being “chosen” is not something pre-determined but rather depends on life choices. Maybe this is just a separate idea/meaning of the word completely, or maybe it has something to add to this discussion.

  14. Thanks for the comments and thoughts, everyone.

    One quick thought, Bensen, et al.: you ask, “Where is it said that being “chosen” only relates to high-profile, high-visibility life callings?”

    There’s something tricky here, because when we talk about chosenness (or foreordination or some kind of Mormon-y version of predestination), we conflate a whole lot of different ideas. Honestly, even the idea of “life callings” (or of callings, period) doesn’t strike me as terribly related to Abraham 3. But why am I focusing on high-visibility stuff here? Because God tells Abraham that the “noble and great ones” would be made His “rulers.”

    And why do I say it’s because of an arbitrary choice made by God, and not by some kind of premortal actions? First, because I find the idea at best deeply uncomfortable. We’ve used the idea of premortal righteousness—an idea that’s folk doctrine at best—to justify racist theology.

    But it’s not just the idea that we’ve misused it—it’s that there’s textual support for that idea. The text merely tells us that God saw that certain souls were good. What does it mean that they were good? The text doesn’t tell us. We don’t know if they exercised agency in a good way, or even if they had agency. It doesn’t tell us that they rejected Satan’s plan and adopted Jesus’ plan (again, in Abraham, there were no alternative plans, just two who said, “Here I am, send me”). We can read ideas into the text. We can make stuff up from the text. Heck, we can probably even receive clarifying inspiration about the text. But for these purposes, I’m interested in engaging with what the language of scripture tells us, and, where it doesn’t tell us, I’m interested in exploring why.

  15. “And why do I say it’s because of an arbitrary choice made by God, and not by some kind of pre-mortal actions? First, because I find the idea at best deeply uncomfortable.” We know that our premortal choices/action had an affect on our even coming here (instead of being “cast out”), why would it make you uncomfortable to think that it also plays a role in our callings here? It seems a natural thing to conclude and assume to me.

  16. So now it’s after-the-fact (in terms of SS lessons). A couple of observations:
    1. That some version of “we” are the chosen seems to be a strongly desired reading.
    2. That the “noble and great ones” include or is equivalent to the set of all general authorities seems to be a part of Mormon mythology.
    3. Harmonization is the name of the game. (Hurrah for the OP on this score, in rejecting a harmonization requirement.)
    4. Drawing up a cosmology that makes sense of every word and every subtle and not so subtle difference (including in that effort the first couple of chapters of Genesis and everybody’s memories of the endowment) reminds me of nothing so much as epicycles in a geocentric universe.
    5. Personally, I’m intrigued by the idea that the great vision the prophets are describing includes/included action but not explanation, and that the explanations are all man-made. That the vision shows one of two selected, and some going to earth and some not. But cause-and-effect remains the mystery, to be contemplated and debated but not concluded.

  17. your food allergy is fake says:

    christian, your #5 is fascinating. I wonder to what extent other visions we read about in the scriptures might have had this same quality when originally presented, then subjective interpretations arise later from either the recipient or otherwise author (Mormon, years later) that make their way into the text or even become the text. Thanks

  18. Very interesting thoughts Sam. Seems that there is a lot of justification for many chosen or foreordained people in the last 8 verses of D&C 138. Not sure why it makes sense to read Abraham in isolation from all other scripture like you seem to apply.

  19. Thanks, Chris, for your thoughts.

    Bro. B, you’re right that D&C 138 provides an interpretive gloss on Abraham 3. And, given that it’s canonized in our scriptures, it’s an important interpretive gloss. So why read Abraham 3 in isolation? Because Abraham 3 is also canonized scripture; I don’t believe that its scriptural value is dependent solely on the interpretation provided in D&C 138. That is, there’s value, in my mind, in engaging scripture on its own terms in addition to engaging it on the terms of another’s interpretive gloss. Otherwise, we could largely ignore chapters in Isaiah in favor of the Matthew gloss on them. So yes, 138 provides additional information, but there must be some relevance to the fact that Abraham doesn’t provide any information about who (other than Abraham) the great and noble ones are, how they were chosen, or what they would do.

    Jax, you can certainly read premortal valor into where we are today, but I think that’s a poor reading. It’s one that was explicitly used to justify withholding priesthood and temple blessings from individuals of African descent; it’s one that is used to explain why we’re wealthy and others aren’t. It potentially leads to invidious places, and it’s not backed by scripture. Like I said, Abraham makes no mention of why. Moses kind of does—it says that some followed Satan’s plan, and those spirits were cast out. But other than that single choice, scripture doesn’t provide any commentary about what premortal moral choices we made, and I’m not sure how we justify different gradations of goodness on that single choice, given that, per Moses, everybody who’s reading this (and also everybody who’s not) made the same moral choice. Which is to say, I don’t see any scriptural reason to believe that chosenness has anything to do with premortal choices, other than one single one that everybody who has ever lived made, and I see plenty of potential harm from making the big interpretive leap that there were additional moral choices that determined our situations in this life.

  20. And one more thought: in many ways, the relevant verses of Abraham 3 and D&C 138 do the same thing: they provide a nonexclusive list of the noble and great ones. In Abraham 3, it’s Abraham plus others. In D&C 138, the list is longer: it’s JS, BY, Hyrum Smith, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, plus others. But neither says how many people long the “others” list is, or how to determine (other than by revelation) whether an individual is part of that “others” list. So am I among the noble and great? I certainly could be. You? Why not. A non-Mormon Christian? It’s certainly possible. A devout atheist? Why not? Other than the fact of being chosen, we don’t know the criteria or the scope or, for that matter, the consequences. So yes, there are more than one (which is clear even from Abraham 3), but that’s about the extent of what we can know from the scriptural texts.

  21. Good points Sam. I also agree that it is much more useful to read the cosmology parts as symbolic, just as with Genesis.