Lesson 7: The Abrahamic Covenant #BCCSundaySchool2018

Readings

Genesis 12:1-8 (KJV, NRSV), 15 (KJV, NRSV), 17 (KJV, NRSV)

Romans 2:25-29 (KJV, NRSV), 4 (KJV, NRSV), 9:1-18 (KJV, NRSV) [fn1]

Learning Outcomes

I’d hope that class members come away from this lesson with circumcised hearts, believing God’s promises to all people so that they can have that belief reckoned to them for righteousness.

Introduction

For me, the tension animating this set of texts is one between exclusivity and inclusivity. The manual includes a quote from Joseph Fielding Smith conveying the idea that most (but, implicitly, not all) members of the Church have the literal blood of Abraham flowing through their veins. This gesture works to make us as Mormons genetically part of an exclusive club to whom particular promises are due, and the manual uses quotes from Pres. Benson and Elder Packer to emphasize the responsibility that people in the club have to evangelize the people outside. Taking this stuff literally, though, requires disregarding the probability that if a man who lived ca. 5000 years ago has any living descendants at all, then every person on earth is likely to be among their number. (It also has messed up racial implications; see fn1.) Whom shall we proselyte if everyone’s already in the club?

If that particular version of exclusivity cracks apart on the shoals of genetics and statistical genealogy (to say nothing of the sense that all of God’s children share a common humanity that is worthy of our reverence), the scriptural accounts of the covenants that God made with Abraham similarly promise exclusivity, only to undermine it with more inclusive visions. Maybe the Abrahamic covenant, then, is an invitation to look beyond whatever parochial perspectives we might inhabit and stretch toward a more capacious understanding in which God, rather than trafficking in “chosen peoples” or favoring particular nations, means to bless all nations and peoples.

A Great Nation vs. All the Earth

Start the lesson by drawing out this exclusive/inclusive tension. Read Gen. 12:1-8 and 17:1-8. Ask the class about what it means to be a nation—good and bad. In both chapters, the promise includes land; what comes, good and bad, from the idea of having an ancestral homeland? Think about these questions from the perspective of the Canaanites, too. (If anyone says they were wicked and deserved what they got, ask if said person has read the rest of the Old Testament.)

Gen. 12:3 is curious, in that God there promises to bless those who bless Abram and curse those who curse him, while simultaneously promising to bless all the families of the earth in him; surely “all the families of the earth” includes those who might get into tribal skirmishes with Abraham’s family from time to time. So, how might we understand this aspect of the promise?

The sign of the covenant is circumcision (Gen. 17:9-14); ask the class how this practice plays into the tension between the idea of a special covenant people and the promise that all the nations of the earth will be blessed through Abraham. This passage extends circumcision across class lines, including two different kinds of slaves, but not across gender lines. What place do women have in the covenant, besides as mothers of sons? (The “seed = Priesthood” business in Abraham 2 also invites this question. If your class has a real taste for the esoteric, you could get into the whole Aristotelian female seed thing, but that would also entail the whole “women as defective men” thing, and at that point you might as well just read Simone de Beauvoir or (gasp) Luce Irigaray, in which case I’d advise just scheduling an appointment with your bishop for sometime after class, to save everyone else the trouble.)

Stars

Read Gen. 15:1-6. This passage begins with doubt and culminates with Abram believing God and having it reckoned to him for righteousness. How might Abram be a model of faithful doubt?

Here, God promises Abram descendants as numerous as the stars; how does this play with the seeming exclusivity of the covenant? Does an apparent infinity leave anyone out? If not, then what do we make of various efforts to define the covenant exclusively? This could be a place to read the JFS2 quote critically in light of historical Mormon racial theology, which unfortunately remains alive in the Church today. The infinity of stars proves incompatible with the exclusivist notion of “believing blood,” I think.

Circumcision of the Heart

Read Romans 2:25-29; ask the class how Paul is responding to the exclusivist tendencies we’ve been exploring. It’s complicated, because circumcision of the heart challenges the usual basis for exclusion (having the right lineage, or “believing blood”) while potentially introducing a new basis, albeit one not readily discernible by external means.

Abraham and the Law

Read Romans 4:1-12, noting the allusion to Genesis 15. Paul’s point here is that Abraham could believe God and have it reckoned to him for righteousness before he received the external marker of the covenant—meaning that gentiles can do the same. Again, ask the class how this plays with the covenant’s exclusivist tendencies.

Read Romans 4:13-25; ask how Paul in these verses is redefining covenant belonging.

A More Inclusive Covenant?

Finally, read Romans 9:1-18. These verses show, perhaps more than any other, Paul straining toward a more inclusive version of the covenant. Ask class members to identify the points of tension and reflect on Mormonism’s own (fraught) attempts to make the covenant inclusive through vicarious ordinances. What’s at stake in Mormon efforts to identify as “Israel”?

Conclusion

For my part, what’s interesting about Paul’s approach to the Abrahamic covenant is that he attempts to develop an inclusive model that is nevertheless not universalist (playin the sense that heart-circumcision remains necessary). I wonder, though, whether part of heart-circumcision includes refusing to play  the exclusivity card. The faithfulness that makes the covenant work is God’s, after all, not our own. (Making that point clear requires getting deeper into Romans than this lesson, or indeed any lesson in the curriculum, permits, because it means dealing with the complexity of what Paul means by pistis.) As food for thought, you might leave the class with the question of what it might mean to invite people into lives of heart-circumcision without making the kinds of exclusivist claims upon which Mormon missionary work usually relies.

Notes

[fn1] The readings in the manual are: Abraham 1:1-4; 2:1-11; Genesis 12:1-8; 17:1-9. The Book of Abraham readings depict Abraham as seeking after Priesthood, which the text equates with “seed.” In tandem with the manual’s quote from Joseph Fielding Smith insisting that most members of the Church are literal descendants of Abraham and the (hopefully diminishing) practice of LDS patriarchs not declaring lineage for members of African descent, these readings quickly take a turn from amusing esoterica into a dangerous racialized theology that’s arguably at odds with the Abrahamic covenant itself, or at least Paul’s more inclusive reinterpretation of it. If you think that your class is willing to face down this morass, go for it, but for my own purposes here I think it’s better to lay the foundations for a different approach. That’s what I would do if I were still teaching Primary. Man, I miss teaching Primary.

The manual also includes D&C 132:19-24, 29-32 as additional reading. Must we, must we include polygamy in our modern understanding of the Abrahamic covenant? This is another case where our Sunday School classes probably need to go there, in the sense of holding this stuff up for scrutiny. When McConkie (in the manual) talks about Abraham and exaltation, this is what he means. Read together with the weird semen=Priesthood stuff in Abraham, this passages raises serious and troubling questions about women’s place in our theology of exaltation. If you can get your class to talk frankly about this issue, I salute you.

Also, the current curriculum gives us 40 minutes every four years to talk about Romans, which is an utter travesty. This lesson affords one good opportunity to compensate for that, at least in part, given Paul’s explicit engagement with Genesis 15 (which the manual inexplicably omits from the assigned readings).

Comments

  1. The D&C verses in this lesson talk about covenants, the conditions that bind covenants after death and eternal marriage, but not plural marriage. Read them carefully – v. 1 mentions Joseph Smith’s question on plural marriage, but plural marriage is not brought up again until v. 34 – the readings for this lesson end with verse 32. There is so much more in that section besides plurality.

  2. I’d argue that in its historical context, the entire revelation is bound up with plural marriage, and verse 1 establishes plural marriage as the subject of the whole thing. Even now, we only read those intervening verses as being about single marriages within a context of celestial polygamy (which President Nelson and President Oaks both openly practice, and which informs sealing policy to this day). So no, I’m sorry, but that section is about polygamy from start to finish. And among the “things” that Abraham receives in verse 29 are wives and concubines. Whatever one may think of polygamy itself, I’m not ok with the estimation of women that informs this entire section. YMMV.

  3. Gene England advanced that interpretation of section 132: that the beginning of the revelation was about eternal marriage in general, and that only the end was about plural marriage. Anyone know whether he was the first, or did others make that argument before him?

    I think the good that interpretation does is that it gave us a way to ground temple sealings in non-polygamous relationships within the context of the founding written revelation on those sealings. As a historical and textual matter, I don’t find it very convincing. But as a matter of theology, I’m sympathetic to the idea that whatever its origins, non-polygamous eternal marriage is a principle that has transcended the polygamy-bound context in which it was revealed. If we have to do some creative reading of the revelation to get there, it’s not all that different, I think, from reading messianic prophecies into Isaiah, for example.

  4. Jason, I love how you bring Romans into the discussion. I’d also suggest that a discussion of the Abrahamic promises may be incomplete without prominently considering Jesus’ statement that God can make children of Abraham out of stones—it’s a pretty direct attack on notions of racial theology. Maybe also Jacob 5, and the statement from the priesthood revelation about becoming the sons of Moses and Aaron through priesthood service.

  5. Jason and JKC,
    I also agree with England’s take on 132. Plural marriage is within the context of celestial marriage.

  6. JKC (and Old Man): I’m sympathetic to that interpretative move as a way of adapting the revelation to a current, post-polygamy context. That would require, though, that our current context actually become post-polygamy, which it isn’t, much as we might wish it were. (See again the two polygamists in the First Presidency, both of whom have seen fit to make a point of asserting that they are, in fact, sealed to multiple women for eternity. See also two of my female friends who are currently polygamous wives against their wills, in that they are sealed to men who are sealed to other women and the FP won’t grant the desired sealing cancellations.) So, I’m fine with making that move, especially if it means de-canonizing the last half of the section, but only insofar as it isn’t just window-dressing and we get rid of polygamy, root and branch.

    Amen to Jesus making children of Abraham out of stones. Great suggestion, that.

  7. Jason,
    Monogamy was part of the revelation. Monogamist marriages were in the majority as a form of marriage before the Manifesto.

    De-canonizing the instructions for polygamy in 132 entails great difficulty. What of the widower who marries a woman who has not previously been married? (Nelson and Oaks both fit this category.) Which wife does he abandon for eternity? The Patriarchal covenant was attached to marriage by revelation. Plural marriage is the “flex point” that covers some modern contingencies.

    As you likely know, that patriarchal paradigm is is the reason that temple divorces are not readily granted by the First Presidency. Sure they could dissolve the sealings for your two friends. But that dissolution would place those women outside that covenant. The First Presidency therefore recommends that the sealing remain intact until another opportunity for a sealing to a second husband arises. I perceive the difficulty, and I also have friends in the same painful situation. And one woman who was abused severely fortunately did get a sealing dissolved long before she remarried. I also wish there was another option, but unless there is a direct revelation adjusting the paradigm, I don’t see it happening.

  8. Sure, polygamy is a “flex point”—but only for men. The woman who marries two men must choose to abandon one of them for eternity. The gendered structure of polygamy informs even monogamous marriages. Mormon women talk about this among themselves: they live with the prospect of being obliged to share their husbands with someone else. Mormon theology means that monogamy is never absolute, even when the partners want it to be.

    I don’t claim to have all the solutions here, but I think that the problems (particularly as they bear on the lives and experience of women) deserve much more serious consideration than we typically give them.

  9. Old Man, those are reasons you might give to persuade a woman not to request cancellation of a sealing to a man she’s no longer married to, but shouldn’t that be her choice?

  10. Actually, President Monson changed the policy and allowed women to request and receive sealing cancellations without losing the covenant blessings. I know because I did it a few years ago. My stake president told me about the option; I applied and within two weeks received a letter confirming the cancellation. I was not dating anyone and had no plans to remarry anytime in this life. But I have not been placed outside the covenant. My stake president carefully explained that President Monson said that was not the case.
    I think you need to update your understanding of the current practice of the Church.
    And why do people always bring up the case of the second wife who will be left alone if we do away with plural marriage? I know a good many second husbands who are facing that very situation in eternity and no one considers their cases as the deciding factor that should sway the debate. Should we allow their wives to have multiple husbands so that they do not need to remain alone for eternity? Or do we glibly assume that losing the woman they loved in mortality and the rights to the children they had with her is just something they will have to get used to. Too bad for them.

  11. Perhaps this policy change has been unevenly implemented. Both of the cases I’m thinking about are also fairly recent. This issue could use some clarity. In any case, I’m glad that you got the cancellation you sought.

  12. Sure they could dissolve the sealings for your two friends. But that dissolution would place those women outside that covenant.

    You mean, they would be placed in precisely the same position as single women like me who have never been sealed in any marital relationship?? Quelle horreur!

  13. Aussie Mormon says:

    “Should we allow their wives to have multiple husbands so that they do not need to remain alone for eternity?”
    A deceased woman sealed to all men to whom she was legally married. However, if she was sealed to a husband during her life, all her husbands must be deceased before she can be sealed to a husband to whom she was not sealed during life. So there are no issues with remaining alone.
    I do admit though, that there is still the disparity where if a man divorces or has his wife die, he can be sealed to his new wife (after he remarries).

  14. I’ve been thinking of you and your “better off dead” argument throughout this, Ardis.

  15. Thanks, Jason K.

    Lest anyone who doesn’t know me misunderstand, my remark did not come from self-pity or self-loathing or from any contempt or anger toward doctrine or those who declare it or who set policies for matters such as whether or not a woman should be freed from a sealing that is no longer valid. I merely point out that we don’t know as much as we think we know, even after nearly 200 years of the Restoration. I don’t believe for a moment that God has or will cut me off from his eternal family — or any part of the Abrahamic Covenant — because of my marital status in mortality. The Restoration is an ongoing process, and we believe that God will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.

  16. Yes, Ardis, I should have made that clearer. Thank you.

  17. Great comment, Ardis.

  18. your food allergy is fake says:

    God raising seed unto Abraham out of stones was John the Baptist, not Jesus.

  19. Of course it was, food allergy. Thanks. I was confusing it with “if I commanded these people to be quiet, the very stones would cry out,” which I see as a sort of subtle allusion to John the Baptist’s “children of Abraham from stones” comment.

  20. your food allergy is fake says:

    Another one often mistakenly attributed to Jesus was “I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it.” That was also John the Baptist (:

  21. Jenna,
    Thanks for your comment, I was completely unaware of the change.

  22. I, too, have always been uncomfortable teaching this lesson because this story has been misused by religious fanatics over the centuries to justify horrific acts because 1) God commanded them to do so, and 2) it was necessary to demonstrate their unconditional faith. My personal heresy is that the Abrahamic test was, by definition, having to choose between conflicting commandments — “Thou shalt obey God” and “Thou shalt not kill.” It was the same kind of test Eve had to go through in deciding between becoming mortal in order to multiply and replenish the earth and not partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Eve chose to break the latter in order to accomplish the former. If Abraham’s test were graded like a school test, I believe he would have received a C for agreeing to sacrifice his son; he showed great faith. On the other hand, he would have received an A for refusing to sacrifice his son, thereby honoring the sanctity of life and showing unconditional love for Isaac. Perhaps he would have said, in all humility, “Lord, if a sacrifice is necessary to show my unconditional love for you, then take me instead.” I somehow think the Lord was disappointed in Abraham’s choice. When we relate the Abraham story in the traditional fashion — extolling Abraham’s great faith — we establish an impossibly high standard of faith, something no parent could or would want to achieve. We also portray God as as a cruel and heartless entity who would require Abraham to kill his own son to pass some divine test. Abraham’s test is sometimes rationalized as a way for God to teach Abraham about the pain He would suffer when His own Son is sacrificed on the cross. But that analogy breaks down because God isn’t personally sacrificing His Son; he allows it to happen in order for the resurrection to occur.
    Joseph Smith, I believe, was faced with his own Abrahamic test — to re-institute polygamy and betray Emma — or be struck down by an angel. Again, I would give him a C for agreeing to restore the ancient practice of polygamy but an A if he had said, “I cannot hurt Emma that deeply. Please strike me down if that is the penalty for disobedience.”
    This whole Abraham test episode is evidence that we should look skeptically at Old Testament stories that conflict with the morality reflected by Christ in the New Testament and Book of Mormon. There’s no way I believe the Lord ordered Saul to murder every Canaanite man, woman and child. Saul undoubtedly ordered his scribes to assert that “the Lord made me do it” to make himself look better.