JMS Sunday School Lesson #7

February 10, 2006 | 23 comments
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I plan on focusing my lesson on this question: Was Abraham really a historical person or would we do better to understand him as a metaphor for the human condition?

I’m kidding, of course. (I figured there was no way on earth a lesson on the Abrahamic covenant could compete with last week’s lesson on the flood without a really provocative opening line.)

Genesis 17

–Read Genesis 17:1-9.

–V1: Note how old Abraham was when the covenant was given. Why?

–V1: the word translated as ‘before’ is the same word translated as ‘before’ in v18, where it seems to have the connotation of . . . what, exactly? What does this word suggest and what would it mean, therefore, to walk before the Lord?

–V1: ‘perfect’ has the connotation of “complete, whole, entire, sound.â€? Point: The Lord isn’t asking him to do something impossible, or for the future, but something now. If you read the verse as, “walk before me, and be thou complete/whole/entire/sound,â€? what is it that the Lord is asking Abram to do and how is this relevant to us?

–V2: Point: the covenant isn’t new (the JST and Moses clarify this); it is given anew.

–V5: His name is changed. There is a difference of opinions among scholars as to whether:

(a) Abram and Abraham are variants with the same meaning.
(b) The first means ‘exalted father’ (as in, ‘the Father is exalted’) and the second means ‘father of nations.’ (The same is true for Sarai/Sarah, where they may also be variants or could mean ‘princess’ and ‘noblewoman.’)
(c) The inclusion of the Heb letter ‘heh’ in both changed names serves as an abbreviation for the name of God.

In either case, name changing is a common element of covenant making. What do you think we could learn from the idea of a new name in association with covenant making?

–Cf. taking on the name of Christ at baptism.
–It suggests that taking on a covenant alters your basic identity.
–In the ancient world, to have the power to name something was to have power over the thing/person, so it suggests that when we covenant with God we are acknowledging God’s authority over us.

–V6: This is the 4th repetition of the idea of abundant progeny in all of six verses total, yet this is only one aspect of the covenant. Why do you think that it is getting so much attention at this point? (Perhaps because it would be the part that would require the most faith on Abraham’s part?)

–V8: Promised lands are a frequent part of covenant making but perhaps not immediately relevant to us. In what ways might it be relevant to us?

–Read v15-16. Note that the Lord makes it specific that the covenant extends to and includes Sarah. Note the repetition of the idea of her being blessed.

–Big picture: timeframe. The Lord will fulfill the covenants, but not anytime soon.

Abraham 2:1-11

–Background: Abraham is praying about what to do because his own father is continuing in idolatry.

–Read v6-11, thinking about what you learn here that you didn’t find in Genesis.

–What do you find here but not in Genesis?

–priesthood
–missionary work

–V6: ‘a strange land.’ Presumably, the Lord could have given him a nice, quiet, out-of-the-way place, but instead plunked him down on the main highway of the ancient world (cf. the Saints in Utah). What could we learn from this that is relevant to today?

–V7: Why do you think the Lord uses the description found in v7? How would you summarize it? What is the point of it?

–Read v12. It may be the most important thing to know about the entire covenant: Abraham was earnestly seeking the Lord!

Abrahamic Covenant after Abraham

–1 Nephi 15:18: Part of covenant will be fulfilled in latter days.

–D & C 132:30-31: Fulfillment in latter days.

–D & C 103:17: Those who are not literally Abraham’s seed are adopted into it as they accept the gospel.

Conclusion

–We are unique among Christians for our emphasis on covenants (baptism and temple; according to the GDTM, baptism and temple sealing contain the fullness of the Abrahamic covenant). What difference do covenants make?

“Abraham is a model for us in other important ways. For example, Abraham’s faithfulness in all things qualified him to receive revelation for his family; indeed, he often spoke with the Lord “face to face.â€? (Abr. 3:11.) The blessing of revelation is one that all should seek for. Righteous men and women find that they have the spirit of revelation to direct their families and to aid them in their other responsibilities. But, like Abraham, we must seek to qualify for such revelation by setting our lives in order and by becoming acquainted with the Lord through frequent and regular conversations with him.â€?– Spencer W. Kimball, “The Example of Abraham,â€? Ensign, June 1975, 3.

23 Responses to JMS Sunday School Lesson #7

  1. Clinton on February 11, 2006 at 12:33 pm

    “Abram and Abraham are variants with the same meaning.”

    Aleph-Bet-Resh-Mem is exalted father while Aleph-Bet-Resh-Heh-Mem has the meaning of Father of many. The difference here is in having progeny instead of just potentiality.

    “The same is true for Sarai/Sarah, where they may also be variants or could mean ‘princess’ and ‘noblewoman.’”

    You are right that there are similar changes going on here. Shin-Resh-Yod however, although it can be translated as “princess,” is an oddly masculine construction of the word and has a distinctive male conotation of prince or elder. The substitution of the Heh for Yod renders it as queen or noblewoman. What is the difference being described here? Additionaly there are further plays on words going on here as Sarah’s name resembles Isreal (Yod-Shin-Resh-Aleph-Lamed). Finally we can’t miss the finally allusion to Asherah (Aleph-Shin-Resh-Heh) the wife of Elohim.

    “The inclusion of the Heb letter ‘Heh’ in both changed names serves as an abbreviation for the name of God.”

    I guess you could view it as an abbreviation of the tetragammatron (Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh). However it would be more accurate to say that Heh is symbolic of the devine feminine. The first Heh in YHVH is symbolic of what Mormons would call Heavenly Mother while the final Heh is symbolic of the bride of the Messiah or the Shekinah. (See Raphael Patai – The Hebrew Goddess.) Does this add to our understanding of the nature of their name change?

    Additionally Heh means window in Hebrew. This is the site of the house where the Sun enters and brings light. How does this help us understand their name changes?

  2. Julie M. Smith on February 11, 2006 at 12:36 pm

    Clinton, this is all very interesting. I think you have given it much more thought than I have. I had always heard (b) as the undebated truth, so I was interested to see Robert Alter take up (a), but that’s as far as I had gone with it.

  3. BrianJ on February 11, 2006 at 5:33 pm

    Julie,

    Thanks for your work in posting these lessons. After I have prepared a rough draft for my own lesson, I always come here to see what I missed. Thanks for the thoughts on name changes: “heh”, baptism, etc. Also, I love how you brought Sarah into the covenant–I will absolutely devote time to that in my lesson!

    I find it interesting that the scriptures tell us that the ancient prophets prayed and how the Lord responded, but they do not always tell us why they prayed in the first place. (A good example of this is in Moses 5:4.)

    Here you say, “Abraham is praying about what to do because his own father is continuing in idolatry,” but I am not sure about that (although I agree that that is a good explanation). Could he be praying to be relieved of the famine? Is he anxious to get on to the land the Lord promised him in Abraham 2:3? I plan to ask my class this question, not because it can be answered definitively, but because I think that pondering people’s motives helps us to identify with them.

    Does the “cf.” in your “cf. the Saints in Utah” mean “just like” or “contrast”? The Land of Canaan was and always has been in the middle of civilization–the trade routes, politics, the news headlines. Utah, on the other hand, was out of the way for centuries, and even now remains fairly unknown, not only in the world but also in the US. True that the golden spike joined the railroad there and Delta put a big hub there, but Utah really is still on the fringes, both geographically and socio-politically. I don’t think this is worth debating for itself, except for the larger point to be made: God put Abraham right in the middle of things so that (I think) he could be a missionary. Utah’s relatively unknown position means that the Saints there must go out of their way to be missionaries. My question: are the Saints doing this as well as they could/should?

  4. BrianJ on February 11, 2006 at 5:44 pm

    Clinton,

    I am totally unfamiliar with Asherah as the name of the wife of Elohim. I always associated Asherah with idol worship, both as the name of an idol-god and the word used to describe groves for idol worship. Can you explain this for me?

  5. Julie M. Smith on February 11, 2006 at 7:43 pm

    BrianJ writes, “Here you say, “Abraham is praying about what to do because his own father is continuing in idolatry,â€? but I am not sure about that (although I agree that that is a good explanation). Could he be praying to be relieved of the famine? Is he anxious to get on to the land the Lord promised him in Abraham 2:3?”

    Well, this is just my quick reading of Abraham 2:5 to set up the passage–I honestly didn’t give it as much thought as I probably should have. Since that verse states that the famine abated, I don’t think that is why he is praying (although he could be thanking God for ending the famine). Your second option is more likely. I will note this with my class; thanks for the observation.

    “Does the “cf.â€? in your “cf. the Saints in Utahâ€? mean “just likeâ€? or “contrastâ€?? ”

    [cf. is an abbreviation for the Latin confer, which means compare]. I was thinking that it was just about the opposite of Utah–we tell that story as if the Lord led them to a place where they could grow in faith away from the evils of the world–but in the OT, the Lord gives them a land right smack in the crosshairs of the world. But I think your insight is just where I hope the discussion will go: Why might the Lord have done it once one way and another time another? What are the strengths, weaknesses, and dangers of each locale?

  6. Mike Parker on February 12, 2006 at 12:02 am
  7. Mike Parker on February 12, 2006 at 1:28 am

    My lesson notes:

    Gospel Doctrine lesson 7: The Abrahamic Covenant (PDF format)

  8. Clinton on February 12, 2006 at 3:11 pm

    Brian,
    For the Mormon take on this I would suggest “Nephi and His Asherah” which can be found at http://farms.byu.edu/display.php?table=jbms&id=223. However there are much better sources. The most common source Mormons use when talking about this subject is Raphael Patai’s “The Hebrew Goddess” and it is a GREAT read. From an anthropological (Not Mormon Theological) point of view the Hebrews’ were heavily influenced by the Cannanite theology whose henotheistic head God was El. His wife’s name Asherah. One of the minor dieties whithin the Cannanite pantheon is the Volcano god YHVH (Jehovah). It is from the Cananite El that we get our Elohim. Asherah was indeed a central figure within the temple and was continually in the temple except for the few times when what has humourously been called the “Rabid Yahwists” took control.

  9. Robert C. on February 13, 2006 at 12:27 am

    As a follow up to the “Nephi and His Asherah” article, this looks interesting: “Asherah, the Tree of Life and the Menorah : Continuity of a Goddess symbol in Judaism?” by Asophodel P. Long. Any comments on this article or the author by anyone who knows enough to make an intelligent comment, for the benefit of those of us who are new to these ideas?

  10. BrianJ on February 13, 2006 at 9:10 am

    Julie,

    You’re absolutley right about the famine having ended; thanks for the correction. I should tell you that I made the promises to Sarah a major part of my lesson and it was very well received (so thanks again).

    Mike Parker,

    Thanks for the notes. I especially enjoyed the comaparison of “What Abraham got” and “What we get” from the covenant. My brother told me that in the class he attended the teacher started by having students write down what the covenant meant to them. He reported that most students looked rather stumped, so I think your lesson is quite needed.

    By the way, In regards to the token of the Abrahamic Covenant, I think it is interesting that both Jews and Muslims practice circumsion today.

    Clinton,

    That looks like good resource; thank you for the link.

    To All,

    Here’s a question I asked my class but no one answered (so I left it unanswered): Why did the Lord give Abraham the Land of Canaan after the Lord had utterly cursed the land (see Moses 7)? Does this play into the comparison of Canaan and Utah that Julie was making?

  11. Mike Parker on February 13, 2006 at 12:05 pm

    Brian,

    There is nothing in the scriptures which connects the pre-flood Canaanites of Moses 7 with the post-flood Canaanites of Abraham’s time, other than the name. Assuming that Noah was in the western hemisphere before the flood and in the eastern after the flood, we’re talking about two different lands and two different peoples.

    It’s similar to Enoch and the city of Enoch … the wicked ones, that is (Moses 5:42). It’s just a coincidence that a later righteous man named Enoch also built a city that was called after his name.

  12. BrianJ on February 13, 2006 at 2:05 pm

    Mike Parker,

    Good point–especially in that it reveals my premise when asking the question. IF it is a different land/same name scenario, then your answer is good enough for me. IF the Land of Canaan in Moses 7 is the same Land of Canaan in Abraham 2, then my question remains. (I don’t wish to revive the discussion on “the Flood: global or local” from Julie’s previous lesson, but it is relevant to my question.)

  13. Robert C. on February 13, 2006 at 7:52 pm

    BrianJ and Mike Parker: But after the flood in Gen 9:25 Noah curses Canaan, which many think is a curse on the land of Canaan (at least Cassuto argues it this way; see discussion here). So I think BrianJ’s question remains….

  14. Robert C. on February 13, 2006 at 8:03 pm

    By the way, I just noticed the link I posted in #9 didn’t work. Here is the correct link: Asherah, the Tree of Life and the Menorah : Continuity of a Goddess symbol in Judaism?

  15. Mike Parker on February 14, 2006 at 11:51 am

    Robert C #13: It seems to me (and I suspect there will be some pushback from the literalists on this) that the cursing of Canaan in Genesis 9 was the author’s way of explaining why the Israelites were superior to the Canaanites, and therefore had full right to take the land by force during Joshua’s time. In this case, it’s similar to the confusion of the tongues in Genesis 11 — this story is included to explain why there are so many different languages in the world. Both of these episodes form a foundation for the Israelite worldview.

    In any event, there is no connection — expressed or implied — in LDS scripture between the antediluvian Canaanites and the postdiluvian Canaanites. We only connect them because the name is the same and they were both cursed. And connecting them has been useful to perpetuate the myth of the “curse of Cain.”

  16. Clinton on February 14, 2006 at 11:59 am

    The answer to the question of the cursed land is found in the Book of Jubilees chapter 9-10ish. This also gives a tertiary understanding of why Canaan is cursed. Darn claim jumper.

  17. Robert C. on February 14, 2006 at 4:54 pm

    Book of Jubilees 9:15 mentions fornication which is consistent with the notion that Ham (and hence Canaan) is being punished for some sort of sexual immorality (whether for literally looking at Noah’s nakedness in some disrepsectful sense, or for some graver sin for which looking at his nakedness is a euphemism). And Jubilees 10:32 just seems to refer back to the Noah/Ham incident.

    Mike, although I think a good case can be made that the curse on Canaan in Gen 9 was written retroactively (comment #15), I still think it’s useful to read the text as though it was written chronologically (I’m appealing to a literary approach here not necessarily a literal approach). Good point about the curse of Cain.

    At this point, I would answer BrianJ’s question by first making Mike’s distintion between antediluvian and postdiluvian Canaan, then point out that the curese in Gen 9 is toward the people of Canaan not the land itself. So as long as Abraham abnd his posterity doesn’t become wicked (like many of the Canaanites will become), the curse will not apply to them.

    This doesn’t address Julie’s question though–why Canaan, a centrally-located land? One possible answer would be to show the rest of the world that the God of Abraham was more powerful than their other Gods, a theme that seems common in the OT. It would be interesting to follow the theme of exodus and migration (in scriptures and for the pioneers) and see if there are patterns. My conjecture would be that the Lord’s people leave lands when there is little chance of missionary work and high risk of wickedness propogating, and the Lord’s people enter lands where there is more chance for missionary work and less risk of absorbing surrounding wickedness….

  18. Clinton on February 14, 2006 at 5:14 pm

    There is a discussion on the Curse of Ham that those on this thread may be interested in (JEF Sunday School Lesson #6). I guess I should have spelled out my comments about Jubilees a little more clearly. The problem with Canaan and the land of Canaan was that, according to Jubilees, Noah’s sons Ham, Shem, and Japeth divided up the land. Japeth got land roughly to the West/North. Ham got land to the South (Egypt). Shem the favorite Son got the center land. The son of Shem which is the progenitor of Abraham gets the land which is pseudo equivalent to Palenstine. After Noah’s death each of his sons and grandsons migrated to their assigned lands. The exception however was Canaan the son of Ham. Canaan stole/settled Abraham’s progenitors land of Palestine. In Jubilees Ham, Shem, and Japeth get after him and tell him that he will recieve the curse that Noah pronounced on the land of and posterity of anyone who tried to sieze another sons/grandsons inheritance. Abraham goes to Canaan to reclaim his inheritance. This of course is the reasoning behind Abraham/Moses/Hebrews settling/invasion of these territories.

  19. Robert C. on February 14, 2006 at 7:33 pm

    Thanks Clinton, that’s very helpfu–I clearly didn’t read Jubilees very carefully. For the record, the reference for Canaan stealing the lands and being cursed is Jubilees 10:29-33.

    Do you think the curse on Canaan for stealing the lands is a continuation of (or reference to) the curse pronounced on Canaan when Noah was naked (Jubilees 7:10 and Gen 9:25), or is this a new curse for a new sin?

    (For Cassuto’s take on the curse Noah pronounced on Canaan look here.)

  20. Clinton on February 15, 2006 at 10:33 am

    I think that your question can be answered at more than one level Robert. At the simplest level I would say that it is a secondary curse for breaking the oath made by Noah’s sons in Jubilees 9:14-15. I would also suggest that this may be a rabbinic explanation of why Canaan is the one cursed for Ham’s indescretions. In other words Noah’s curse was capriciously aimed at Canaan but his posterity would deserve it. However I think these explanations are not getting to the REAL issue which can only be seen from an anthropological (not Mormon theological) view. I don’t have but a few minutes to write so I will quickly summarize. I think that the Curse of Ham and the inheritance issues are solely the Isrealites justification (in their own minds) for genocide of the Canaanites and subsequent religious prosecution of their beliefs. I know my comments sound harsh – but an unbiased modern day objective I think that is a logical conclusion. However examined from a 2000 B.C. eye I think it is a whole different story.

  21. Clinton on February 15, 2006 at 10:33 am

    I think that your question can be answered at more than one level Robert. At the simplest level I would say that it is a secondary curse for breaking the oath made by Noah’s sons in Jubilees 9:14-15. I would also suggest that this may be a rabbinic explanation of why Canaan is the one cursed for Ham’s indescretions. In other words Noah’s curse was capriciously aimed at Canaan but his posterity would deserve it. However I think these explanations are not getting to the REAL issue which can only be seen from an anthropological (not Mormon theological) view. I don’t have but a few minutes to write so I will quickly summarize. I think that the Curse of Ham and the inheritance issues are solely the Isrealites justification (in their own minds) for genocide of the Canaanites and subsequent religious prosecution of their beliefs. I know my comments sound harsh – but an unbiased modern day objective I think that is a logical conclusion. However examined from a 2000 B.C. eye I think it is a whole different story.

  22. Clinton on February 15, 2006 at 10:46 am

    Sorry about the double post. Robert thanks for posting Cassuto views. I have left notes below each one.

    (1) Posterity bears consequences.
    The castation of Noah seems to be a controversial explanation of the this curse and only later in the game. In fact the first time in Rabbinic lore that this is discussed it happens in a scene where 2 rabbi’s are arguing about possible explanations and neither contestent is favored. The explanation doesn’t seem to fit though since Ham’s other Sons are not affected by the curse.

    (2) Canaan really means Ham.
    This seems like nothing but supposition on Casutto part. However I don’t think I would completely write it off.

    (3) Canaan was the transgressor.
    This is a very late interpretation and there is nothing in the text that supports the contention. I think I would reject this conclusion.

    (4) People of Canaan cursed.
    This sounds like interesting reasoning. However I think it fails under later scrutiny. The Canaanites religious, personal, and sexual lives in both historical and biblical records appears to be NO different than those of each and every other of the 70 nations known to the Isrealites. I think this is a modern interpretation but it fails miserably with further scrutiny.

    Robert, you have mentioned this book several times and I am guessing that Casutto backs himself up better than what you have presented here. I would love to hear what you believe are the strengths of his arguments and you personal opinions on the matter. I am enjoying our dialogue here.

  23. BrianJ on February 15, 2006 at 4:04 pm

    Mike,

    Thanks for the clarification. I think you answered my question quite soundly.