The Redemption of Abraham
While the covenant of Abraham and the blessings of Abraham are familiar to us, less known is the idea of the redemption of Abraham. The phrase is used by Isaiah when he refers to the God of Israel as "the Lord, who redeemed Abraham" (Isaiah 29:22). This oblique reference to the redemption of Abraham has generated little notice among the scholarly world that begins its recognition of Biblical redemption with Moses and the deliverance of Israel from Egypt.1
Latter-day scripture, however, combined with additional understanding of the significance of redemption to the Israelites, shows the great import of this little reference. These insights reveal that the redemption of Abraham lies at the very heart of Abraham's relationship with the Lord. I believe the redemption of Abraham is one of the many "plain and precious truths" lost in the transmission of the Bible and that understanding the redemption of Abraham gives us a new appreciation for the covenant and blessings of Abraham. We will see that redemption has both physical and spiritual dimensions. To clarify the redemption of Abraham, I will examine both a cultural context for redemption in the ancient Near East and the spiritual insights into redemption from the bondage of sin.
What does it mean to say that Abraham was redeemed? Throughout scripture we can easily recognize many examples of both physical and spiritual redemption. Deliverance from physical bondage occurs repeatedly. The Old Testament tells how the children of Israel were redeemed from bondage in Egypt. In the Book of Mormon we see how numerous peoples were delivered from bondage and captivity. This physical intervention for the preservation of his people demonstrates the Lord's faithfulness to his covenants (Exodus 6:4—8; Mosiah 24:13—16). In addition, physical deliverance functions as a type of spiritual deliverance. It points to something that is just as real but not visible. It is this spiritual redemption from sin and death that the Lord seeks to make available to us through covenants. As we shall see in greater depth, these covenants allow us to receive the redeeming power of the atonement in our lives.
The first chapter of the Book of Abraham offers us a prime illustration of physical redemption. It not only demonstrates physical redemption but also indicates how the Lord is leading Abraham toward a spiritual redemption. Abraham states that his fathers had turned "from their righteousness . . . unto the worshiping of the gods of the heathen" (Abraham 1:5). So while he sought for the blessings of the fathers, they "utterly refused to hearken to [his] voice" (Abraham 1:5). Instead of receiving the blessings of the fathers, Abraham was offered up as a sacrifice to the gods of the heathen by his father. On the altar as he was about to be sacrificed by the priest of Elkenah, Abraham prayed for deliverance and received a "vision of the Almighty." He recorded that "the angel of his presence stood by me, and immediately unloosed my bands" (Abraham 1:15).
In addition to this physical deliverance from immediate destruction, Abraham received promises of spiritual blessings. The Lord identified himself as Jehovah and told Abraham that he would be taken from his father's house to a strange land. He promised Abraham, "I will lead thee by my hand, and I will take thee, to 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, for I am thy God" (Abraham 1:18—19). Here Abraham is told that he will be entering into a new relationship with the Lord. The Lord promises that he will be with Abraham and that he will "put upon [him] [His] name, even the Priesthood of [his] father." The blessings of the fathers for which Abraham sought—"to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledge, and to be a father of many nations, a prince of peace"—will be his through his faithfulness to this covenant relationship.
Before we look at how Abraham entered into this covenant relationship with the Lord, it will be helpful to more fully explain the relationship between redemption and covenant in Israelite society. Some may point out that Abraham did not live in Israelite society and that therefore these cultural patterns might not apply to him. My suggestion is that, just as the covenant of Abraham continues to be central to the life of Israel, the nature of redemption in Israelite society is likewise a continuation of the Lord's dealings with Abraham.
I believe there is a plan of redemption that reflects a general pattern of the Lord's relationship with his children. As Joseph Smith explained, "all that were ever saved, were saved through the power of this great plan of redemption, as much so before the coming of Christ as since; if not, God has had different plans in operation, (if we may so express it,) to bring men back to dwell with himself; and this we cannot believe."2 This great plan of redemption is universal, and a central aspect of that plan is revealed in the role of a redeemer among the Israelites.
The first point in understanding Israelite redemption is distinguishing between deliverance and redemption. Simply put, deliverance requires merely a show of power, but redemption requires that a price be paid.3 Physical redemption of individuals from slavery was a common practice in Israel, as well as in the rest of the ancient Near East.4 People became slaves because they were prisoners of war or because they had sold themselves (or were sold) to pay off their debts.
Here is where the redeemer enters, and it is in Israel where we find a special practice. An Israelite redeemer was a close relative who was obliged by family bonds to redeem his kin. In fact, the term in Hebrew for redeemer, go'el, is best translated "kinsman-redeemer."5
Another important Israelite concept that can help us decipher redemption in the scriptures is covenant. A covenant in Israel was far from our twentieth-century concept of a contractual bargain. Covenants were seen as the creation of a new relationship and the bringing of people into a family relationship.6 Family relations were the basis of society, but strangers could enter into households by covenants that implied "an adoption into the household, an extension of kinship, the making of a brother."7 This can be seen in such covenant-making ceremonies as the covenant meal, which "means admission into the family circle of another, since only the kinsmen will eat together."8 This use of a meal to signify covenant adoption can be seen in the Old Testament where Moses and the elders of Israel partake of a ritual meal with the Lord in Exodus 24:9—11, as part of the covenant at Sinai.9
Covenants could be seen as an adoption. While the metaphor of adoption was very important in expressing the relationship between the Lord and his people, it is not the only one used—the metaphor of a marriage relationship between the Lord and Israel also figures prominently in the Old Testament. This is particularly true when prophets are calling Israel to repent of unfaithfulness: "For the land hath committed great whoredom, departing from the Lord" (Hosea 1:2). While I believe that understanding the use of this metaphor is essential to a study of the Old Testament, I do not see it as informative in clarifying the relationship of individuals to the Lord. This relationship is characterized in terms of an adoption or a new birth throughout scripture.
An interesting feature of Israelite covenants is the giving of a new name that often marked this new covenant relationship.10 This new name reflected the new nature that was part of the new relationship. There are several instances of name changing in the Old Testament. A name change indicates a corresponding change in character and conduct, illustrating the Hebrew belief that names represent something of the essence of a person. A new name shows a new status or the establishment of a new relationship. Sometimes "symbolic" new names are given that are not supposed to replace the old but are to give information as to the character of the recipient.11
It is also noteworthy that these covenants were often made in sacred spaces. Throughout the ancient Near East, sacred space was known as the meeting place of heaven and earth and the site of hierophany, or the appearance of the divine. I believe that it is in scripture, however, that we see covenants made in sacred places. The experiences of Jacob, while slightly later than those of Abraham, are the clearest Biblical examples of the relationship between sacred place, covenant, and redemption.
After Jacob's experience at Peniel where he wrestled with an angel, he has an experience of covenant renewal at Beth-el. The Lord appears to Jacob and tells him "Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name: and he called his name Israel" (Genesis 35:10). With this repetition of the new name comes a repetition of covenant blessings. Jacob is promised that "a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins; And the land which I gave Abraham and Isaac, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed after thee will I give the land" (Genesis 35:11—12).
This promise is a renewal of the promise that Jacob received earlier in the same location. As Jacob journeyed to find a wife he lay down to sleep and dreamed of a "ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven" (Genesis 28:12). In his dream the Lord appeared to him and promised him the land and a great posterity. After he awoke Jacob exclaimed: "How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven" (Genesis 28:17). He then used his stone pillow as a pillar and poured oil on it.12
When we apply these cultural practices of a kinsman-redeemer and an adoptive covenant relationship to a spiritual plane, we can see that the status of Jehovah as the Redeemer of Israel was a result of Israel's adoptive covenant relationship with him. The Lord promised to act as a redeemer because of his family relationship to Israel created by covenant. Indeed, this is the pattern of spiritual redemption that we find over and over throughout scripture. There is a covenant that functions as an adoption, there is a new name reflecting the new relationship and new nature, and there is the promise of redemption. As King Benjamin said, "Because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you. . . . And under this head ye are made free, and there is no other head whereby ye can be made free. There is no other name given whereby salvation cometh; therefore, I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ, all you that have entered into the covenant with God and that ye should be obedient unto the end of your lives" (Mosiah 5:7—8).
This is the same pattern that we see in the life of Abraham. Jehovah became Abraham's redeemer because he became Abraham's spiritual father by covenant—"I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed . . . to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee" (Genesis 17:7). This expression functioned as an adoption formula in the ancient Near East. This is parallel to the declaration to the children of Israel that "I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God" (Exodus 6:7). This promise of a covenant between Israel and the Lord is also set in the context of the covenantal adoption of the patriarchs as a basis for the redemption of Israel. The Lord tells Israel, "I have also established my covenant with them" (v. 4) and "I will rid you out for their bondage, and I will redeem you with a stretched out arm" (v. 6). There are other, more explicit references following this adoption formula that refer to individuals or Israel as son and God as Father (see 2 Samuel 7:14; 1 Chronicles 17:13, 22:10; Hosea 1:9—10).13
The accompanying name change from Abram to Abraham signified this new adoptive covenant relationship (Genesis 17:5). Through this covenant Jehovah became Abraham's kinsman-redeemer. There are several Biblical passages that demonstrate that the Lord's acts of redemption came directly as a result of this covenant relationship. In Deuteronomy 7:8 Moses tells the children of Israel, "because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt." Likewise, Nephi explains to his rebellious brothers, "[The Lord] loved our fathers, and he covenanted with them, yea, even Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and he remembered the covenants which he had made; wherefore, he did bring them out of the land of Egypt" (1 Nephi 17:40). The Lord was the Redeemer of Israel because of his covenant relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
This paper started with a passing Biblical reference to the redemption of Abraham. By examining the Israelite cultural practices of a kinsman-redeemer and an adoptive covenant, we have been able to see how redemption was a central part of the Abrahamic covenant. Abraham's covenant created a new adoptive relationship with Jehovah that allowed the Lord to act as his kinsman-redeemer. This adoptive covenant relationship is further witnessed by Abraham's new name and by the Lord's acts of redemption on behalf of his covenant people—Abraham's posterity.
But in what sense can we say that Abraham himself was redeemed? We've seen the redemption of his posterity because of his covenant relationship, but there seems to be no more Biblical evidence to demonstrate the personal significance of Abraham's adoptive covenant relationship with Jehovah. This is where the Book of Mormon provides a much deeper insight into the relationship between covenants and spiritual redemption than that found in the Bible (see 1 Nephi 13:23—26, 40). Through the Book of Mormon we can see that the redemption of Abraham is more than the deliverance of his posterity. Redemption is a process of personal deliverance from the spiritual captivity from which Abraham, like all of us, needs a redeemer.
When we think of Abraham, of course, we do not think of a sinful, degraded man caught in the "chains of hell" and "the bonds of sin." Nevertheless, the Book of Mormon prophets make it clear that all of us are lost and in spiritual bondage. Again, all of us, even Abraham, need a redeemer. Nephi rejoiced: "I glory in my Jesus, for he hath redeemed my soul from hell" (2 Nephi 33:6). The Book of Mormon records that Abraham had the same experience: "Abraham saw [Christ's] coming, and was filled with gladness and did rejoice" (Helaman 8:17).
Abraham was not a bad person, but he wanted to be better than he was. He wanted "to be a greater follower of righteousness," and he knew that he could not do it by himself (Abraham 1:2). So he sought a new relationship with the Lord. He made covenants and received a new name, and Jehovah became his kinsman-redeemer.
We see the same pattern in the Book of Mormon. In Mosiah chapter 18, those who covenanted with the Lord through baptism at the waters of Mormon were also seeking to be greater followers of righteousness. They wanted to enter into a new relationship with the Lord. They wanted "to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people . . . that [they might] be redeemed of God" (Mosiah 18:8—9). The baptismal covenant created a new relationship between these individuals and the Lord so that they were adopted as his people. It was because of this adoptive covenant relationship that they could trust that the Lord would be their redeemer.
The Book of Mormon explains how we can be assured that we have a redeemer. It follows the same pattern that we have seen in the Old Testament—covenants create an adoptive relationship. A covenant gives us the assurance that we have a redeemer. A covenant relationship with Jehovah as our kinsman-redeemer is an assurance that even though we are in bondage, the price of our redemption has been paid by Jesus Christ. As part of the covenant relationship we receive a new name that represents the new relationship and a new nature. King Benjamin exhorts us—"therefore I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ, all you that have entered into the covenant with God that ye shall be obedient unto the end of your lives" (Mosiah 5:8).
It was through his lifelong obedience that Abraham kept his covenant relationship. Through faithfulness to his covenant, Abraham allowed the Lord to be his redeemer. As the spiritual insights of the Book of Mormon clarify, this redemption occurred as Abraham was freed from the bondage of the natural man and received a new nature. Sanctification is the process of being redeemed and purified from our sins. As Abraham became a "greater follower of righteousness," he left the bondage of sinfulness.
This change of nature brings the possibility of an ultimate redemption—of leaving behind the fallen world and entering into the presence of the Lord. In Helaman 8 the prophet Nephi explains that not only did Abraham, Moses, and other prophets foresee the redemption of Christ, but that he redeemed them, a redemption that meant entering into his presence: "And behold, he is God, and he is with them, and he did manifest himself unto them, that they were redeemed by him; and they gave unto him glory, because of that which is to come" (Helaman 8:23; emphasis added).
Christ manifested himself unto the prophets. Abraham saw Christ and was redeemed by him. This ultimate redemption of entering into the presence of the Lord can also be seen in the example of the brother of Jared.14 The Lord told him that because of his faith and knowledge he was redeemed and could enter into the Lord's presence: "Because thou knowest these things ye are redeemed from the fall; therefore ye are brought back into my presence; therefore I show myself unto you. Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have life, and that eternally, even they who shall believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and my daughters" (Ether 3:13—14; emphasis added).
This confidence in the redemption prepared from the foundation of the world was the foundation of Abraham's faithfulness to covenant. It was this faith in the redemption of Christ that made it possible for Abraham to remain faithful to his covenants and offer up his son. As Paul taught: "By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son. Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead" (Hebrews 11:17—19).
The Lord made covenant promises to Abraham about his posterity but then tried his faithfulness. In Abraham's covenant the Lord had promised him deliverance from the bondage of childlessness, but with the command to sacrifice Isaac it would seem that Abraham was being thrust back into bondage. Only Abraham's faith in his covenant relationship with the Lord gave Abraham the confidence that, despite the present circumstances, the Lord was truly his redeemer and would not abandon him. Abraham was confident that even if he slew Isaac, his son would be raised up again. The covenant promise was "in Isaac shall thy seed be called"(Hebrews 11:18), and so Abraham knew that the Lord would be faithful to his promise and give him back his son.
Likewise, the Lord has promised that the seed of Abraham, his modern covenant people, "must needs be chastened and tried, even as Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son. For all those who will not endure chastening, but deny me, cannot be sanctified" (D&C 101:4—5). In these trials we may feel that we are being thrust into bondage rather than being redeemed from it. In times such as these we must completely rely on the arm of our Redeemer. We need to know that he is tied to us through covenant. We need to know that he is our spiritual father. We need to know that he will not abandon us.
Abraham's faith in his redemption can be a model for us. Once we recognize that Abraham's covenant with the Lord created an adoptive relationship, we can understand the foundation of faith upon which Abraham relied. Abraham knew that the Lord was his kinsman-redeemer. He knew that the price of his redemption had been paid through the atonement of Christ. His confidence in his Redeemer's covenant promises was such that he was willing to offer up his son, knowing that God "was able raise him up, even from the dead" (Hebrews 11:19) in order to fulfill the promise of the covenant "in Isaac shall thy seed be called" (Hebrews 11:18).
The degree of faith epitomized by Abraham was made possible by his covenant relationship with the Lord. His confidence that the Lord was his Redeemer and would fulfill his promises is a perfect illustration of a statement from the Lectures on Faith:
For a man to lay down his all, his character and reputation, his honor, and applause, his good name among men, his houses, his lands, his brothers and sisters, his wife and children, and even his own life also—counting all things but filth and dross for the excellency of the knowledge of Jesus Christ—requires more than mere belief or supposition that he is doing the will of God; but actual knowledge, realizing that, when these sufferings are ended, he will enter into eternal rest, and be a partaker of the glory of God.15
Because of his covenant relationship, Abraham was confident that through his faithfulness he would be redeemed from the fallen world and "enter into eternal rest, and be a partaker of the glory of God." He was confident the Lord would redeem him.
1. A standard account of redemption can be found in Jeremiah Unterman, "Redemption (OT)," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992) and J. Murray, "Redeemer; Redemption" in The International Standard Biblical Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1979). A view that recognizes the connection between redemption and covenant can be seen in: William G. Most, "A Biblical Theology of Redemption in a Covenant Framework," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 29 (January 1967): 1—19 and Stanislas Lyonnet and Léopold Sabourin, Sin, Redemption, and Sacrifice: A Biblical and Patristic Study (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1970), 121. Lyonnet and Sabourin are rare in their recognition that in the description of redemption in Exodus 6:5—7 and Deuteronomy 7:6—9 Jehovah redeems Israel from Egypt to keep his covenant with Abraham.
2. The Evening and the Morning Star (March) 1834, 143.
3. In the Old Testament there are two words, ga'al and padâ, that are primarily translated as "redeem" in English. Both incorporate the idea of "buying back" or "release by the payment of a price" (Murray, "Redeemer; Redemption").
4. For an introduction to redemption in Israel and the ancient Near East, see the articles referred to in footnote 1.
5. The family member who carries the responsibility of redemption is known as the go'el, the present participle of ga'al. One of the best translations of go'el that I have found captures both the family relationship and the action: "kinsman-redeemer" (Robert L. Hubbard, "The go'el in Ancient Israel: Theological Reflections on an Israelite Institution," Bulletin for Biblical Research 1 : 3). The go'el was responsible for buying back sold property; buying back a man who had sold himself to a foreigner as a slave; avenging blood and killing a relative's murderer; receiving atonement money; and, figuratively, being a helper in a lawsuit (Helmer Ringgren, "ga'al," in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. G. Johannes Butterweck and Helmer Ringgren [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1975], 2: 350—55). All of these duties involve the kinsman-redeemer intervening to restore people to their original state, usually through payment. The go'el has been described as the "cultural gyroscope of Israel" whose purpose was to restore equilibrium in the society (Michael S. Moore, "Hago'el: The Cultural Gyroscope of Ancient Hebrew Society," Restoration Quarterly 23/1 : 31).
6. The Hebrew word for covenant is berÃ®t, but the range of the covenant concept in the Old Testament surpasses the use of the term to include actions creating a relationship. Dennis J. McCarthy comments that the relationship is more important than the word, and even though the word might not be there, the relationship can still exist (Treaty and Covenant: A Study in Form in the Ancient Oriental Documents and in the Old Testament [Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1978], 16). He also notes different suggestions for the translation of berÃ®t and cautions against a rigid definition (22).
7. Paul Kalluveettil, Declaration and Covenant: A Comprehensive Review of Covenant Formulae from the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1982), 204—5.
8. Ibid., 205 n. 32.
9. McCarthy comments: "To see a great chief and eat in his place is to join his family . . . the whole group related by blood or not which stood under the authority and protection of the father. One is united to him as a client to his patron who protects him and whom he serves . . . covenant is something one makes by a rite, not something one is born to or forced into, and it can be described in family terms. God is patron and father, Israel servant and son" (McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant, 266; emphasis added).
10. The Hebrew word sem, usually translated "name," can also be rendered "remembrance" or "memorial," indicating that the name acts as a reminder to its bearers and others. The name shows both the true nature of its bearer and indicates his relationship to others. See G. F. Hawthorne, "Name," in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia; D. Stuart, "Names, Proper," in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 3:483—88; and Bruce H. Porter and Stephen D. Ricks, "Names in Antiquity: Old, New, and Hidden," in By Study and Also by Faith, ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 1:501—22.
11. Andersen notes that "in these cases an element of the meaning of the name seems to be indicating ownership or belonging—a common function of naming (cf. [Isaiah 44:5])" (T. David Andersen, "Renaming and Wedding Imagery in Isaiah 62," Biblica 67/1 : 76).
12. Many elements of this experience correspond to temple typology. Stephen Ricks has argued that this story is an example of dream incubation that usually occurred in temples or other sacred space. He suggests an alternate translation of "How dreadful is this place [maqÃ´m]!" as "How awesome is this shrine!" (Stephen D. Ricks, "Jacob: Trial and Triumph," unpublished paper in possession of author, 7). Jacob repeats maqÃ´m as a description of the location, saying, "Surely the Lord is in this place [shrine]" (v. 16), and the biblical narrative comments, "he called the name of that place [shrine] Beth-el" (v. 19). Ricks notes that such stone pillars mark sacred space and that the pouring of the oil "marks that site off as particularly significant" (9). He also comments that the ladder that Jacob saw reaching to heaven could also be translated "ramp" or "staircase." The notions of ascension and connection with the divine realm are principle temple motifs, and the same staircase construction can be seen in the Mesopotamian ziggurat (10). Andrew Skinner suggests that this encounter was Jacob's "first temple experience," where he made covenants and received conditional promises. Through Jacob's faith and obedience these promises were finally realized at Peniel where he was able to enter the presence of God and have "every promise of past years sealed and confirmed upon him," an experience after which he declared that he had been redeemed "from all evil" (Genesis 48:16) (Andrew C. Skinner, "Jacob in the Presence of God," Thy People Shall Be My People and Thy God My God: The 22nd Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994]: 147).
13. Moshe Weinfeld notes that this use of adoption language was widespread in the ancient Near East during this era, saying "the whole diplomatic vocabulary of the second millennium is rooted in the familial sphere" ("The Covenant of Grant in the Old Testament and in the Ancient Near East," Journal of the American Oriental Society 90 : 194). An additional discussion of adoption formulae can be found in Shalom M. Paul, "Adoption Formulae: A Study of Cuneiform and Biblical Legal Clauses," Maarav 2/2 (1979—80): 179. The biblical use of father-son terminology is discussed in F. Charles Fensham, "Father and Son as Terminology for Treaty and Covenant," Near Eastern Studies in Honor of William Foxwell Albright, ed. Hans Goedicke (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1971), 129—31.
14. This text was not available to the Nephites until later in their history, and it demonstrates the continuity of the Lord's relations with mankind throughout different dispensations (see Mosiah 28:17—19).
15. Lectures on Faith 6:5.