The Abrahamic Covenant
January 1998

“The Abrahamic Covenant,” Ensign, Jan. 1998, 42

Old Testament

The Abrahamic Covenant

Through his covenant with Abraham, the Lord has promised to bless all the faithful with truth, priesthood ordinances, exaltation, and eternal increase.

One of the unique benefits we receive as members of the Church is the privilege of receiving a patriarchal blessing. These blessings are named “patriarchal” because they are administered by ordained patriarchs. But there is another reason this title is appropriate, and it has to do with one of the most significant things given to us in our patriarchal blessings—lineage.

Regardless of our race, nationality, or ethnic background, our patriarchal blessings declare that we are of the lineage of Abraham and therefore heirs to all the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. A patriarchal blessing is a great and remarkable assurance that if we remain faithful, we may receive all the promises made to the great patriarchs of old. It is also encouragement to fulfill the responsibilities that accompany those and associated promises. It is imperative then that we understand the Abrahamic covenant, with its blessings and attendant responsibilities.

Inheritor of Promises from the Fathers

Although we generally speak of the Abrahamic covenant beginning with Abraham, he was actually the inheritor of promises, passed down through the lineage of his fathers, that began with Adam. Abraham himself wrote: “And, finding there was greater happiness and peace and rest for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same; having been myself a follower of righteousness” (Abr. 1:2). Abraham desired and “sought” the priesthood with all its accompanying promises. These blessings “came down from the fathers, from the beginning of time” (Abr. 1:3).

From the beginning of time, our Father in Heaven has made it clear he desires all of his children to receive the “greater happiness and peace and rest” that come from the ordinances of salvation and the truths of the gospel. When an angel explained to Adam that the sacrifices he and Eve were making were “a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father,” Adam was promised “that as thou hast fallen thou mayest be redeemed, and all mankind, even as many as will” (Moses 5:7, 9; emphasis added in this and other scriptures cited in this article).

With this knowledge enlightening his soul, “Adam blessed God and was filled, and began to prophesy concerning all the families of the earth” (Moses 5:10). Eve then added her own witness, testifying to “the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient” (Moses 5:11). Adam and Eve then “made all things known unto their sons and their daughters” (Moses 5:12).

When the Lord taught Adam the saving principles and ordinances of the gospel, he concluded by saying, “This is the plan of salvation unto all men. … Behold, thou art one in me, a son of God; and thus may all become my sons” (Moses 6:62, 68).

Three years before he died, Adam called a number of the great patriarchs together along with others of his righteous descendants and bestowed upon them a last blessing. “And the Lord appeared unto them, and they rose up and blessed Adam, and called him Michael, the prince, the archangel.

“And the Lord administered comfort unto Adam, and said unto him: I have set thee to be at the head; a multitude of nations shall come of thee, and thou art a prince over them forever” (D&C 107:54–55).

Phrases similar to those above—“all the families of the earth,” “they rose up and blessed Adam,” and “a multitude of nations shall come of thee”—are repeated to Abraham relative to his covenant with the Lord (see Abr. 2:10–11; Gen. 17:4–5; Gen. 48:19).

Since priesthood ordinances are critical in receiving the promises of the patriarchs, Abraham “sought for [his] appointment unto the Priesthood according to the appointment of God unto the fathers concerning the seed” (Abr. 1:4). He “became a rightful heir … holding the right belonging to the fathers” (Abr. 1:2). This priesthood with its attendant blessings was “conferred upon [Abraham] from the fathers; it came down from the fathers, from the beginning of time” (Abr. 1:3). With the firm assurance in our minds that the promises and the responsibilities of the Abrahamic covenant were sought for and applied long before Abraham, we can proceed to seek an understanding of the exact nature of this critical covenant.

“As Innumerable as the Stars”

Every covenant involves two parties. First we’ll begin with the Lord’s part of what we often call the Abrahamic covenant—the blessings the Lord promised to Abraham. The major blessing was the promise of eternal increase through obedience to “the law of my Holy Priesthood” (D&C 132:28), or eternal marriage.

The Lord promised great blessings to the Prophet Joseph Smith and to other righteous Saints: “Abraham received promises concerning his seed, and of the fruit of his loins … , which were to continue so long as they were in the world; … and out of the world should they continue as innumerable as the stars; or, if ye were to count the sand upon the seashore ye could not number them.

This promise is yours also, because ye are of Abraham, and the promise was made unto Abraham; and by this law is the continuation of the works of my Father, wherein he glorifieth himself” (D&C 132:30–31).

Because our patriarchal blessings declare us to be of Abraham, we know the Lord is saying to each of us, “This promise is yours also, because ye are of Abraham.”

The Father is glorified by the exaltation of his children, and that exaltation depends on eternal marriage. This is one of the reasons marriage within the Lord’s covenant is emphasized so strongly in the Old Testament. It was so critical that Abraham sent his servant on the long journey to search among his own people for a wife for his son Isaac, and Isaac sent Jacob to find a wife among the same people. By virtue of being members of the Church, part of our birthright is the privilege of going into the temple to be sealed to our companions, thus ensuring we too will have seed “as innumerable as the stars.” This blessing will be realized in the eternities, or, as the Lord said, “out of the world … they continue.” This promise is ours inasmuch as we are willing to enter “into my law. … But if ye enter not into my law ye cannot receive the promise of my Father, which he made unto Abraham” (D&C 132:32–33).

When Abraham left Ur, the Lord told him he would make his name “great among all nations.” He then added that “as many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name, and shall be accounted thy seed, and shall rise up and bless thee, as their father” (Abr. 2:9–10). He further indicated that all those who hold the priesthood would be accounted Abraham’s seed (see Abr. 2:11).

The oath and covenant of the priesthood further testifies that all who receive the priesthood “become the sons of Moses and of Aaron and the seed of Abraham, and the church and kingdom, and the elect of God” (D&C 84:34). In addition then to “the literal seed, or the seed of the body” (Abr. 2:11), all those who accept the gospel and all those who hold the priesthood are considered by the Lord to be the seed of Abraham, or the elect and chosen children of the Lord.

As if to emphasize that people of all nations, races, kindreds, and tongues can become part of Abraham’s “seed,” the Old Testament includes the story of Ruth. Ruth was from Moab, a land of unbelievers, but she adopted the beliefs of her righteous mother-in-law’s people. She became one of David’s ancestors, and Matthew mentioned her by name in the genealogy of Jesus. Thus, as is seen in the story of Ruth, “all who accept God’s plan for his children on earth and who live it are the children of Abraham” (John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, arr. G. Homer Durham, 3 vols. in 1 [1960], 400). John the Baptist understood this very well. He taught, “Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” (Luke 3:8).

Other blessings were promised to Abraham’s descendants, including promised lands, but the blessings of the truths of the gospel and the ordinances of the priesthood that bring exaltation were the most critical, because these blessings alone result in seed as numerous as the sands of the sea or the stars of heaven.

All the Families of the Earth Shall Be Blessed

The Lord granted unto Abraham’s seed the great blessings of truth, priesthood, and the ordinances of exaltation, but he expected the recipients of these blessings to covenant to do something in return. “For of him unto whom much is given much is required” (D&C 82:3), the Lord explained to the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Immediately after Abraham was saved from the priest of Elkenah in Ur, the Lord explained what he required of Abraham and his seed: “I will … put upon thee my name, even the Priesthood of thy father, and my power shall be over thee. As it was with Noah so shall it be with thee; but through thy ministry my name shall be known in the earth forever” (Abr. 1:18–19). Abraham would be given the priesthood and the Lord’s power, but his role or responsibility was to share the knowledge he received throughout the earth.

Directing Abraham to leave Haran, the Lord reemphasized this missionary responsibility, promising he would “make of thee a minister to bear my name in a strange land” (Abr. 2:6). At the same time the Lord spoke of Abraham’s seed; they, too, would have the responsibility of sharing the truths and ordinances of the gospel with all the world. “Thou shalt be a blessing unto thy seed after thee, that in their hands they shall bear this ministry and Priesthood unto all nations” (Abr. 2:9). Notice that in each instance, the Lord used a form of the word minister.

Not only would Abraham’s seed minister unto all nations but all families. The Lord later explained that through Abraham’s seed “shall all the families of the earth be blessed, even with the blessings of the Gospel, which are the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal” (Abr. 2:11).

The responsibility of blessing all the families of the earth is repeated numerous times throughout the scriptures. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph all received the same charge in Genesis (see Gen. 12:3; Gen. 18:18; Gen. 22:18; Gen. 26:4–5; Gen. 28:14). When Jesus taught the people at Bountiful, he restated this same responsibility, applying it to them: “Ye are of the covenant which the Father made with your fathers, saying unto Abraham: And in thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed” (3 Ne. 20:25).

In brief, then, through the Abrahamic covenant, the Lord has a message for all of us who have received the gospel and are therefore Abraham’s seed. The message could be said to be: I promise you the blessings of the priesthood that lead to exaltation with eternal increase, but in exchange you must take my gospel to every family in every nation in all the world so that they, too, can receive the same blessings of the priesthood.

Fulfillment in the Latter Days

Though this covenant of the Lord was being fulfilled even from the days of Adam, Lehi and Nephi taught that those in the latter days would see its greatest fulfillment. There is, therefore, a great weight of responsibility upon each person who is of Abraham. Nephi wrote: “Wherefore, our father hath not spoken of our seed alone, but also of all the house of Israel, pointing to the covenant which should be fulfilled in the latter days; which covenant the Lord made to our father Abraham, saying: In thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed” (1 Ne. 15:18).

Once we have a clear understanding of the Abrahamic covenant, it is easy to see how it enters into many different areas of the gospel. We often speak of the threefold mission of the Church: proclaiming the gospel, perfecting the Saints, and redeeming the dead. To whom do we proclaim the gospel? Are we not charged to bless all the families of all the nations of the earth with the blessings of the gospel? Which dead will we redeem? By doing ordinance work for our forebears, are we not striving to bless all the nations of the earth in the spirit world with the blessings of the gospel?

In our day, when we are granted the fulness of the gospel and when we actively participate in both missionary and temple work, we are fulfilling the Abrahamic covenant to its fullest.

Planting the Promises in the Hearts of the Children

The first recorded revelation of the latter days, the words of Moroni to Joseph Smith as found in Doctrine and Covenants section 2, spoke of the Abrahamic covenant. Rewording Malachi’s concluding promise, Moroni said: “I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.

“And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers” (D&C 2:1–2; see also JS—H 1:38–39). There are multiple meanings to Malachi’s prophecy, one of which centers on temple work for our individual fathers, or ancestors, who await in the spirit world.

However, this text also refers to the promises made to the great patriarchs. In section 27 the Lord speaks of partaking of the sacrament with a number of ancient prophets—with Elijah “and also with Joseph and Jacob, and Isaac and Abraham, your fathers, by whom the promises remain” (D&C 27:10). In the latter days, the hearts of the seed of Abraham will turn to their patriarchal fathers and remember the promises made to them. They will desire the blessings of those promises as well as desire to fulfill the responsibilities associated with those promises.

In the Sight of All the Nations

Because the seed of Abraham was elected, or chosen, to minister to and bless all the families of the earth with the blessings of the gospel, early in history the Lord placed them in a land conducive to fulfilling this responsibility. The Holy Land was situated in the middle of the ancient world. Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Greece, Rome, and other empires each came into contact with the Lord’s covenant people. In this position Abraham’s seed had the opportunity to exert their beneficial influence on others and be an example to all the nations of the earth.

Moses referred to this responsibility by saying: “Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the Lord my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it.

“Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deut. 4:5–6).

Some of the people in the Bible accomplished this objective in large measure. The Old Testament relates the positive influence that Abraham, Joseph, and Moses tried to exert on Egypt; Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abed-nego, and Esther on Babylon and Persia; Jonah on the Assyrians; Elisha on Naaman of Syria, and so on. The New Testament follows the same principle with the influence that Peter, Paul, and the other disciples had on the Greeks, Romans, and Samaritans. As long as the seed of Abraham fulfilled this part of the covenant, the Lord promised to protect them.

There is, however, a chance that an elect, covenant people may allow the world’s cultures, laws, values, and standards to infiltrate their own. They may become like the world rather than blessing the world as the Abrahamic covenant anticipated. For example, instead of serving Jehovah in Sinai, the Israelites desired to return to the golden calves and fleshpots of Egypt. Ahab was influenced by Jezebel, Samson by the Philistines, and the people under Samuel by other nations wanting a king.

Throughout the history of the Old Testament, the Abrahamic seed frequently embraced the standards and desires of the world. For this reason the prophets constantly reminded all who would be of Abraham of their responsibility to choose between being distinguished from the world and being part of the world. Joshua issued this challenge: “Choose you this day whom ye will serve” (Josh. 24:15). Elijah offered the same choice on Mount Carmel: “How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kgs. 18:21). Obviously if the Lord’s elect become like the world, they can no longer fulfill the Abrahamic covenant of blessing the world. This is what the Lord Jesus Christ meant when he spoke of the salt of the earth losing its savor.

This challenge can remain a stumbling block for Abraham’s seed today. The temptation to be “like all the nations” is ever present. The standards and images of the world are not to become the ideals of Abraham’s seed. The Old Testament in particular offers a warning to the Lord’s covenant people of today as it chronicles the people of the past. In it we see the results of failing to bless all the families of the world because one desires to be like the world. Eventually Abraham’s seed were lost, scattered, and taken captive by the world they so anxiously tried to imitate.

“Whosoever Believeth in Him”

When they returned from Babylonian captivity, some remnants of the covenant people overcompensated for the mistakes of the past. They became aloof to the world. By the time Christ came, the “elect” had turned around their attitude—instead of embracing the world as their forebears had done, they shunned it and considered themselves superior to the extent that they were not able to minister to the nations.

With this self-righteous attitude, they believed contact with the world rendered them unclean. So strong was their attitude that Nicodemus listened and marveled as the Savior explained to him, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

“For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:16–17). Nicodemus and most of the Jews looked for a Messiah who would come as a conquering warrior to put an end to their oppressors and install Judah in its rightful place, as they saw it. The concept of a Messiah who would die to save all men—Greeks, Romans, and Samaritans included—was foreign to them. The idea that their covenant relationship with Abraham made them responsible to share the truths they had received with all the world was not accepted.

This residual attitude of remaining separate from the world was evident even among Christ’s disciples. After the Resurrection and the command to take the gospel to all the world, it still took the dream of the unclean animals before Peter understood and preached the gospel to Cornelius. When apprised of his actions, other early Christians were dismayed, saying, “Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them” (Acts 11:3). After Peter’s careful explanation they concluded with wonder, “Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18).

Today a self-righteous attitude of superiority will also prevent Abraham’s modern seed from fulfilling our covenant responsibility. We are to radiate to the world a spirit of love in order to bring others to the truths of the gospel. Sometimes, if we are not careful, our neighbors and friends who are not of the Church may think we are aloof or feel superior. Wisdom and love will help us avoid repeating the mistake made by Abraham’s seed during New Testament times.

“Do the Works of Abraham”

As recipients of Abraham’s covenant today, we have the delicate challenge of blessing all the families of all the nations of the world without assimilating their values, traditions, beliefs, standards, or behaviors. We are not to repeat the mistake of either the Old or the New Testament people.

In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord counsels us to “do the works of Abraham” (D&C 132:32). Abraham’s life offers counsel on how to strike the delicate balance needed to fulfill the covenant that bears his name. The world in which he lived is similar in many ways to the world we must cope with today. Notice how the following statements made by Abraham give insight on how he and his family fulfilled the covenant. “Thy servant has sought thee earnestly; now I have found thee. … I will do well to hearken unto thy voice” (Abr. 2:12–13); “Therefore, eternity was our covering and our rock and our salvation” (Abr. 2:16); “I offered sacrifice … and called on the Lord devoutly, because we had already come into the land of this idolatrous nation” (Abr. 2:18).

The Lord points out one of Abraham’s most important qualities: righteous leadership. After reiterating his covenant to Abraham, the Lord explained, “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him” (Gen. 18:19).

Just as we noted earlier that Adam and Eve “made all things known unto their sons and their daughters,” so too would Abraham pass on the promises, truths, and responsibilities of the covenant to his descendants. This quality of Abraham is as essential for us today as it was 4,000 years ago. Along with our responsibility to bless all the families of the earth comes our need to perpetuate the covenant from generation to generation that it may continue to be fulfilled. The Lord expects Abraham’s seed of today to respond to the charge given of old: “And thou shalt teach [the commandments] diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deut. 6:7). Teaching the gospel is one of the most important responsibilities laid upon the shoulders of Abraham’s seed, for if we fail in this crucial assignment, the entire covenant is placed in jeopardy.

Perhaps Peter best summed up the Abrahamic covenant in his First Epistle, one addressed “to the strangers scattered throughout” the ancient world (1 Pet. 1:1) who had accepted the truths of the gospel and could therefore call Abraham their father. Peter’s words speak pointedly to Abraham’s seed wherever they are found in the world today, regardless of nation, race, or ethnic background. “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).

  • S. Michael Wilcox is an instructor at the Salt Lake City Utah University Institute.

Abraham on the Plains of Mamre, by Harry Anderson

Ruth and Naomi, by Judith Mehr

Latter-day Saints have the responsibility of sharing the truths and ordinances of the gospel with all the world—beginning with those of our own families. (Photo by Steve Bunderson; posed by models.)