The Abrahamic Covenant
To spread the gospel blessings abroad, the Lord has centered his work in a people specially chosen for the task. At first this people were the righteous Saints who followed Adam, Enoch, and the other faithful patriarchs. Around 2000 B.C. Abraham was selected to head this covenant race from that time forward. God, on His part, promised to make Abraham the “father of many nations” and to give the land of Canaan to Abraham and his seed “for an everlasting possession” ( Genesis 17:4, 8 ). “And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee” ( Genesis 17:7 ).
But Abraham was also required to make certain promises to God. For one thing, he agreed to walk before the Lord and be perfect (see Genesis 17:1 ). Thus, he promised to live by every word of God and to perform with exactness every aspect of the everlasting covenant between himself and the Lord. As a token of this promise, Abraham further promised to circumcise himself and every male descendant. The Lord explained: “This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee: Every man child among you shall be circumcised. . . . and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you” ( Genesis 17:10–11 ). Abraham was quick to obey: “In the selfsame day was Abraham (age 90) circumcised, and Ishmael (age 13) his son. And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him” (Genesis 17:26-27).
- Remember that Abraham sought the greatest blessings of the patriarchs and desired righteousness and knowledge. In the Doctrine and Covenants:84:14, it says, “Which Abraham received the priesthood from Melchizedek, who received it through the lineage of his fathers, even till Noah.” We also know that Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, who was called the “King of Righteousness.”
- All those who “receive this Gospel shall be called after thy [Abraham’s] name, and shall be accounted thy seed” ( Abraham 2:10 ). In Genesis 12:5 we see that Abraham “gathered souls.” That is, he preached the gospel wherever he went. Abraham 2:15 says, “And I took Sarai, whom I took to wife when I was in Ur, in Chaldea, and Lot, my brother’s son, and all our substance that we had gathered, and the souls that we had won in Haran, and came forth in the way to the land of Canaan, and dwelt in tents as we came on our way.” Thus, people who accept the gospel and live it are called “the children of Abraham.”
The word circumcision comes from the Latin words meaning “to cut around.” It was instituted by revelation as a sign or token that one was of the covenant seed of Abraham. To better understand why the Lord chose this particular sign or token, read the account in the Joseph Smith Translation:
“And it came to pass, that Abram fell on his face, and called upon the name of the Lord.
“And God talked with him, saying, My people have gone astray from my precepts, and have not kept mine ordinances, which I gave unto their fathers;
“And they have not observed mine anointing, and the burial, or baptism wherewith I commanded them;
“But have turned from the commandment, and taken unto themselves the washing of children, and the blood of sprinkling;
“And have said that the blood of the righteous Abel was shed for sins; and have not known wherein they are accountable before me. . . .
“And I will establish a covenant of circumcision with thee, and it shall be my covenant between me and thee, and thy seed after thee, in their generations; that thou mayest know for ever that children are not accountable before me until they are eight years old” ( JST, Genesis 17:3–7, 11 ).
Many things are clarified in this translation:
- Before instituting the law of circumcision, the Lord explained why He was establishing this token of the covenant. The people had left correct principles and forsaken the true ordinances. Baptism was one ordinance being incorrectly observed. The people were washing their children and sprinkling blood in remembrance of Abel’s blood, which they taught was shed for sins. They misunderstood the relationship between accountability of children and the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
- Because of this apostasy, circumcision was instituted. It was a covenant token. It was for the seed of Abraham. It signified that children were not accountable until they were eight years old.
Other scriptures make it clear that it was not the act itself but rather what it stood for that gave circumcision its greatest significance. In many places the Lord speaks of true circumcision as being the circumcision of the heart. The heart that is “circumcised” is one that loves God and is obedient to the Spirit. The “uncircumcised in heart” are wicked, proud, and rebellious ( Ezekiel 44:7 ; see also Deuteronomy 10:16 ; 30:6 ; Jeremiah 4:4 ; Ezekiel 44:7 ; Acts 7:51 ; Romans 2:25–29 ; Colossians 2:11 ).
Though a person may have had the token of circumcision in the flesh, unless he was righteous the covenant was invalidated and the circumcision became profitless. Thus, circumcision was only a sign or token of what needed to happen to the inward man. If the inward change had not taken place, then circumcision was virtually meaningless. (See Jeremiah 9:25–26 ; Romans 2:25–29 ; 1 Corinthians 7:19 ; Galatians 5:1–6 ; 6:12–15 ; Philippians 3:3–4 .)
The Abrahamic covenant makes frequent reference to one’s seed (see Genesis 17:6–12 ). The organ of the body that produces seed and brings about physical birth is the organ on which the token of the covenant was made. The organ of spiritual rebirth, however, is the heart (see 3 Nephi 9:20 ). Thus, when a person was circumcised it signified that while he had been born into the covenant, he need not be baptized until he became accountable before the Lord. But spiritual circumcision, or the circumcision of the heart, must take place once one becomes accountable or one is not considered as true Israel. As Paul said so aptly, “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” ( Romans 2:28–29 ).
Aspects of the Abrahamic Covenant
The land of Canaan was promised to Abraham and his descendants, even though he never personally possessed it (see Genesis 17:7 ; 13:15 ; 17:8 ). “The Lord gave the promise to Abraham that he should have Palestine, or the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession. Yet, as Stephen said at the time of his martyrdom, Abraham never received as much as a foot of it as a possession while he lived” (Smith, Doctrines of Salvation 1:88). The land will become an everlasting possession beginning in the Millennium, when the children of Israel will inherit it. But this promise has further meaning. There are three kingdoms in heaven, and the righteous children of Abraham will inherit the highest (even those who are adopted as Abraham’s seed because of their faithfulness). After the Millennium, the destiny of this earth is to be purified and sanctified. It will become the glorious dwelling place of the most righteous, an eternal inheritance:
Q. What is the sea of glass spoken of by John, 4th chapter, and 6th verse of the Revelation?
A. It is the earth, in its sanctified, immortal, and eternal state (Doctrine and Covenants 77:1);
Therefore, it must needs be sanctified from all unrighteousness, that it may be prepared for the celestial glory. For after it hath filled the measure of its creation, it shall be crowned with glory, even with the presence of God the Father; That bodies who are of the celestial kingdom may possess it forever and ever; for, for this intent was it made and created, and for this intent are they sanctified (Doctrine and Covenants 88:18-20).
Abraham was promised numerous posterity. Abraham was one hundred years old before his covenant son, Isaac, was born. Abraham had eight sons in all; however, from Isaac the covenant people derived; through Ishmael came many of the Arab nations (see Doctrine and Covenants 132:34 ). Through Keturah’s sons came the Midianites and others.
“The vast population of the Arab, Moslem, and Israeli world which claim to be descendants of Abraham numbers approximately one hundred million” (Nyman, in Sperry Lecture Series, 1975, p. 13). Add to that those descendants of Abraham who are deceased, plus those who are found all over the world who come from his lineage, plus those who are adopted into the covenant because they have been gathered into the gospel fold, and Abraham’s seed is indeed numerous.
Abraham received promises with his priesthood. “We go to the promise made to Abraham, which was that in him and in his seed all the families of the earth should be blessed. Moses, as I have said was of his seed, and he was the deliverer of the whole of that nation. And who were the prophets that existed among ancient Israel? They were descendants of Abraham; and to them came the word of God and the light of revelation. Who was Jesus? After the flesh of the seed of Abraham. Who were his Twelve Apostles? Of the seed of Abraham. Who were the people that came to this continent—Lehi and his family, about 600 years B.C. ? Of the seed of Abraham. Who were the Apostles they had among them that spread forth among the millions that then lived upon this continent? Of the seed of Abraham. Who was Joseph Smith? Of the seed of Abraham.” (John Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 20:224.)
*Parts of this article were adapted from the LDS Institute Old Testament Manual.
Go to Abraham, Part 3.