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How We Taught This Lesson in the Past: Lesson 10: Birthright Blessings; Marriage in the Covenant

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 28, 2010

The current lesson emphasizes birthright blessings, including the importance of the right kind of marriage to preserve the birthright, by focusing on Isaac’s character and family relationships. The older lessons, including these two from 1965, cover the same ground.

Isaac: Succeeding Patriarch Prepared

Concept

Men in important positions seldom simply happen to acquire their station and status; proper preparation brings them to responsibility and proper handling of it directs their destiny.

Basic Scriptural Sources

Genesis 24. this is the account of the selection of a bride for Isaac. Look for all facets and factors important to the problem of proper transmission of Abraham’s call and heritage so that his mission might succeed.

Supplementary Reading

A brief summary of the significant aspects of the call and birthright of Abraham, Isaac and their descendants may be read in Joseph Fielding Smith, The Progress of Men (Genealogical Society of Utah, 1936), pp. 115-119.

The importance of a well-qualified wife and mother to the propagation of a family firm in the faith is a topic that may be read in many books, both ecclesiastical and sociological. Collections of the speeches and writings of our Church leaders often include a section on the subject. See for instance pp. 288-291 of Gospel Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1928), which contains sermons and writings of President Joseph F. Smith. Virtually all of our living leaders speak often on the subject.

Study Questions

1. What is the relative importance of pre-mortal preparation and its contribution toward proper progress here on earth? Could one well qualified there fail here to fulfill that to which he had merited foreordination? Could one relatively undeveloped there develop and excel here? With our limited information about our status in this respect how should we best proceed in order to fail neither our foreordination nor our present opportunity?

2. What are some of the vital functions, common contributions, and potential possibilities of a good mother in the transmittal of the heritage of any good society? (Consider biological equipment, emotional milieu and intellectual atmosphere as well as spiritual conditions.)

3. What were some of the pertinent specifications, both as to restrictions and prescriptions, that guided the steward charged with selecting a wife for Isaac? Why was the matter not to be decided by Isaac’s choosing? Though procedures are different today, are some of the principles of this former system still applicable?

4. What was commendable about the steward’s behavior? Was he evidently a man of reverent faith? What evidence is there that he was or was not? Is it evident that this man was a “convert” and a believer in the God of Abraham?

5. What were some of the evident qualities of person, personality and character of Rebekah? Watch for further indications of her convictions and her decisive power.

6. The ceremony of marriage is not described, but the important aspects of the marriage contract are evident. What were the responsibilities of the parents of the groom in making the proposal and in supplying compensation to those who had raised the prospective bride? What rights of choice or approval did the bride and groom have? What were the powers and functions of the bride’s parents? Was love of mates considered? Was it a prerequisite or a concomitant of marriage?

Commentary

In a revelation given in the latter days, Isaac is named among the worthy ones who “shall be in the presence of the Lamb” when He comes to Mount Zion and the holy city, the New Jerusalem. (Doctrine and Covenants 133:55, 56.) Evidently Isaac lived worthily during his life and bore honorably the calling of his illustrious father. That calling was the mission to bless others through the name, the teachings, and the powers given of God to men on earth through which earth life can develop into eternal life.

How Isaac Was Prepared for the Birthright

It had been made abundantly clear that it was to be Abraham’s seed through Isaac that would carry on the mission. (Review Genesis 12:2; 15:2-6; 17:18, 19; 21:12; cf. also Romans 9:7.) That this mission became the “birthright” of the patriarchal line is also clear, for the priesthood which those fathers bore and passed on was the power whereby covenants were made and blessings poured out “which are the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal.” (Review Abraham 1:18, 19; 2:11.) Some facets of the doctrine and the power that leads to the way, the truth, and the life, that brings salvation and eternal life, had been available to man in varying degrees ever since the time of Adam. However, the powers were sometimes lost and the doctrines bereft of plain and precious truths. These have been restored dispensation by dispensation. (Some such cycles of apostasy ane restoration during later Old Testament times will be noted later in this manual.)

That Isaac was foreknown and foreordained to carry on the calling and dispensation of Abraham is likely. There were repeated promises that Abraham would have a birthright son, as noted above, indicating that the Lord had in mind an individual to be prepared for the mission. Moreover, it has been made known to us that “every man who has a calling to minister to the inhabitants of the world was ordained to that very purpose in the Grand Council of heaven before this world was.” [Joseph Fielding Smith (compiler), Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City; Deseret Book Co., 1958), p. 365. Cf. Jeremiah 1;5; Alma 13:3; Abraham 3:22, 23.] It is not surprising then, and ought not to be disturbing that whereas Abraham’s other sons, by Hagar and Keturah, were given gifts (material things) and sent away, to Isaac Abraham gave “all that he had.” (Genesis 25;5, 6.) The patriarchal status was certainly the vital thing that Isaac was given by his father.

An important step in the preparation of Isaac for the patriarchal functions was the selection of a wife for him. That Abraham considered this matter most significant is evident in the manner in which he proceeded to secure the right person.

The messenger appointed to choose the wife for Isaac was the eldest servant of Abraham’s house, foreman over all of his possessions. (Genesis 24:2.) One can but wonder whether the man so trusted was Eliezer of Damascus, the steward who years before was himself considered by Abraham as his heir-apparent. (Recall Genesis 15:1-4.)

Strict instructions were given to the steward by Abraham, and were received by him by oath and covenant. (Genesis 24:2-9.) It was specified that the wife-to-be of the patriarchal heir was not to be taken from among the Canaanite people among whom Abraham lived. She was to be found among Abraham’s people in upper Mesopotamia, where Nahor and his people had remained, among whom Abraham knew, according to information he had received, that there were several descendant generations. (Genesis 22:20, 24.) Isaac himself was not to make the choice, nor was he to be taken on the quest even for the purpose of persuading the girl should she not be inclined to come. Abraham assured his messenger that the Lord Himself would send His angel to bless and prosper the project. If success could not be attained under those circumstances, the servant was not responsible to try to achieve it in any other way. (Genesis 24:8.)

The steward’s procedure in making sure that the choice he made would be harmonious with the Lord’s will is worthy of note. He supplicated the Lord for a sign, both plain and practical, that would identify the girl approved and appointed. Respectfully and humbly addressing Deity as the “God of my master Abraham,” and asking that he show kindness to Abraham – apparently not deigning to ask favors for himself or of his own sake – the servant presented his petition. Hardly had he finished praying when he saw a girl approaching toward the well where he had stopped at close of day. It was the time when women came to the city well for water. (Genesis 24:11.0 He asked the girl for a drink and she responded exactly as he had prayed that the girl divinely approved would do: she graciously gave him water from her pitcher and in addition volunteered to water the ten camels of his train. He stood by, wondering at her, while she finished the chore. Then, satisfied that his prayers had indeed been answered, he proffered gifts of jewels – perhaps to win her good will, just as it is commonly done in the Near East to this day. (See Views of the biblical World; Jerusalem: International Publishing Co. Ltd., 1960, Vol. I, p. 72.)

Upon inquiring about her identity, he must have been further gratified to learn that she was actually Rebekah, “daughter of Bethuel, the son of Milcah, which she bare unto Nahor.” the Lord had indeed made his journey prosperous. He bowed his head and worshiped, saying:

Blessed be the Lord god of my master Abraham, who hath not left destitute my master of his mercy and his truth; I being in the way, the Lord led me to the house of my master’s brethren. (Genesis 24:27.)

The young lady ran and told her family of her experience and when they heard the story, saw the gifts and learned from whom the messenger had come, Rebekah’s brother Laban ran to usher him in as a welcome and honored guest. But the conscientious servant of Abraham would not even sit down and eat at their urging until he had told of his errand and its success thus far. Bethuel and his family recognized that the matter had proceeded according to the Lord’s will and they could not “speak … bad or good” to the steward concerning it. They gave their consent that she should go to become Isaac’s wife and the compact was concluded by the tendering of further gifts of precious things to Rebekah and her family. When a difference of preference arose as to the time of their departure to go to Abraham’s home and take the bride to Isaac, the matter was settled by their calling Rebekah and letting her indicate whether she would go with the steward as he desired. This evidence of respect for the agency and wishes of the girl involved is noteworthy in that culture of long ago. Her answer, “I will go,” is substantially equivalent to a modern bride’s privilege of saying “I do.”

The felicitations of the family were expressed in the wish that Rebekah might become the mother of “thousands of millions” of descendants and that these would be able to prevail over their enemies. The wish is perhaps properly understood only in the context of the patriarchal, semi-nomadic milieu in which it was spoken, and could mean, “May your clan increase and predominate.” But it has significance too to people cognizant of, and involved in, the covenant of the seed of Abraham. (Cf. Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 27:6; Galatians 3:7-9, 29.)

The marriage tale ends with a brief mention of a happy circumstance which the chronicler thought noteworthy and which strikes a responsive chord with the modern reader. After describing rather colorfully the setting, the excitement and the nicety of procedure in the meeting of bride and groom, the chronicler tersely but significantly says, “… Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her: …” (Italics ours.)

Significant and lovely too was the word-picture of that bride, provided by the writer in the narrative-setting at the well of her home city, as she proceeded to water the steward’s camels. The account says, “… Behold, Rebekah came out, … with her pitcher upon her shoulder. And the damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her; and she went down to the well, and filled her pitcher, and came up.” (Genesis 24:15, 16.) Chastity, charity, industry – these alone were quite sufficient to make her tovat-mar’eh m’od, “very goodly of appearance,” or “very fair to look upon” as the usual translation runs.

Isaac: Man of Peace Prospers

Context

Abraham was able to succeed and pass his responsibilities and blessings on to Isaac because he obeyed the voice of God and kept his great charge and His wise commandments, statutes and laws. Anyone can prosper and succeed by disciplining his way of life in accordance with the principles and practices that find favor with God.

Basic Scriptural Sources

Genesis 25:1-06. The family group of Abraham’s third wife, Keturah. origin of Midian.

Genesis 25:7-10. Death and burial of Abraham.

Genesis 25:11-18. The family group of Abraham’s son Ishmael.

Genesis 25:19-23. the beginning of the family of Isaac. A revelation to Rebekah.

Genesis 26:1-33. The conduct of Isaac, and his influence among the Philistines.

Supplementary Reading

The fact that Isaac’s story is briefer than Abraham’s leaves us less evidence of his contribution in his time. The later writers of scripture were always aware of him and his place in the fulfillment of Abraham’s mission, however. See, for instance, Genesis 48:15; 50:24; Exodus 2:24; Leviticus 26:42; Psalm 105:9; 1 Nephi 17:40; Matthew 8:11; 22:32; Luke 13:28.

The important laws of patience and forbearance and of trust in God’s way of mercy and justice as exemplified by Isaac are clarified in modern scripture – see Doctrine and Covenants 98;23-32. Compare Matthew 5:39; 18:15-17.

Study Questions

1. Do you suppose that Abraham’s sons through Keturah also had responsibilities as the seed of Abraham? (The evidence to confirm or to correct your assumption will be found in accounts later of an important priest of Midian.)

2. Evidence is lacking that Ishmael’s clan bore or transmitted the priesthood of Abraham. In view of Abraham’s restrictions as to the wife for Isaac, is it possible that his second wife Hagar did not transmit the full heritage to her son Ishmael? Recall discussions in the previous chapter on the importance of the mother’s way of life.

3. Does Isaac’s story give evidence that he was in contact with God regularly? Does his status with the Lord seem to be favorable? Cite evidence.

4. What was the noticeable difference in Isaac’s way of life and success therein as compared with surrounding peoples, according to the analysis of his neighbor, Abimelech, king of Gerar? (See episode in Genesis 26:26-31.)

5. Why did the revelation as to the next successor to the patriarchal authority come to Rebekah? What had she asked of the Lord? Is there any indication as to whether or not she passed the information on to Isaac which she received from the Lord? Is there any assurance that since it is not mentioned it is not likely?

6. What is the meaning of the name of each of the twin brothers, Jacob and Esau? Who could know prior to their birth which one would have the potential for patriarchal leadership? Would he have to prove faithful to attain it, or does foreordination fix it upon him unconditionally?

Commentary

Other Families of the Clan
(Genesis 25:1-6, 11-18)

Before unfolding the details of the family history of the birthright line of Abraham’s descendants, the chronicler recorded the names of the two other major family groups. One is the family of Abraham’s wife Keturah. Who she was, where she came from, and when she married Abraham are not disclosed. Some Arab tribes are later known to bear the names listed as the names of her sons. Of the six names, the one most prominent in the Biblical narratives is Midian. The Midianites, later found south and east of Canaan, came into fairly frequent contact with the descendants of Abraham through Israel. The most important of these later affiliations is the marriage of Moses to Zipporah, daughter of Jethro, priest of Midian. Of this much more will be considered in a future chapter.

The generations of Ishmael form the other important family group among Abraham’s progeny. Twelve sons are named in this large family and again there are many names identifiable with important Arab tribes as known in later history. In the Bible account, both Midianites and Ishmaelites are met with rather soon in the Joseph stories, where they plan an important though unpleasant role.

Of all of these sons it is said simply that Abraham gave them “gifts and sent them away from Isaac, … eastward, unto the east country.” Assuming that later Israelitish practices applied in those early days, in the distribution of the estate all sons normally received their portion of the real property, but the birthright son, who carried on the father’s name, work and responsibility, received “a double portion.” It is probably this distribution of property that is referred to in the passage previously cited (Genesis 25:5, 6.) Since it is clear that some things of value were given to all the sons of the concubines, reference was probably made to the more important “birthright calling,” or patriarchal status, when it was said that Abraham gave “all that he had unto Isaac.” (Genesis 25:5.) That Abraham did all this “while he yet lived” is an admirable example of his sagacity; he doubtless thereby avoided the strife which is too often present at the post-mortem distribution of inheritances.

The same chapter (Genesis 25:7-10) recounts the death of the old patriarch Abraham. It is gratifying to note that the old, childish strife between Isaac and ishmael had been overcome or outgrown, and the two of them together are said to have taken proper care of their father in death, burying him in the cave of Machpelah which he had earlier purchased from a certain Hittite inhabitant as a family tomb. Others of his family were also later buried there.

The Generations of Isaac
(Genesis 25:19-34)

As in the introductions to each of the “family group sheets” in the old “book of remembrance” from Adam’s time on, so now the next in the patriarchal line is identified with his family group with the formula, ”These are the generations of Isaac.” (Cf. Genesis 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; recall also Moses 6:5, 8.)

There was a period of waiting and entreaty for children by Isaac and Rebekah as there had been with Abraham and Sarah – although not as long. Isaac was forty years old when he married, and sixty when he became a father. (Genesis 25:20, 26.) Some “lost time was made up,” however, in that twins were born to them. Of these twins, one would be the next patriarchal heir, and other things being equal it would be the firstborn. But other factors are frequently and quite properly more important than incidence of birth in these Biblical families. In this account, as in that of Isaac versus Ishmael, it is evident that the proper heir was foreknown of God; and in this case, as in the case of Isaac, revelation indicated who it should be. Rebekah, the mother-to-be, experienced certain difficulties before the birth of her children which stimulated her to inquire of the Lord about the meaning of her trouble. The principle has doubtless always been valid that “every one that asketh receiveth,” and information was given in this case to Rebekah in answer to her supplication. She was told that what she experienced was symbolic of the strife that would arise between her expected twin sons and between their descendants. She was further informed that he who would prevail over his brother and be the next leader of the clan would be he who was second born of the twins. This revelation doubtless accounts for the fact that Rebekah later felt it necessary to take rather drastic measures to secure the birthright upon the head of him who had the proper appointment and potential for it when it appeared certain that her husband was going to give it to the other twin. It may also account for the name she gave her second-born when she saw his infant hand upon the heel of his brother: “Ya’akov (“Jacob”), she said, meaning “He shall follow at the heel” – an idiom signifying “to assail, circumvent, overreach, or supplant.” This significance of the name is later noted by his brother. (Genesis 27;36.) His brother was named Esau, and later called Edom, perhaps both names having reference to his abundant hair and ruddiness. (See Genesis 25;25, 30. The etymology of the name Esau is admittedly uncertain, however.) How the boys grew up and developed, each in what became his characteristic role, is next briefly told, but the ramifications of their story will be more appropriate to the next chapter.

Isaac’s Reputation and Contribution

Like his father before him, Isaac enjoyed the blessings of guidance and reassurance from the Lord in rather frequent revelations from Him. Confirmation of the official transmittal of the blessings of Abraham to Isaac is the subject of one of the revelations given some time near the middle of Isaac’s life. He had gone, to escape one of those oft-recurring famines, from the Negev to Gerar, situated less than ten miles from the Mediterranean seacoast, in the lower Plain of Philistia. (Genesis 25:11; 26;1.) The Lord appeared to assure him it would not be necessary to go down to Egypt (the usual refuge in drought time); he was told to sojourn in the coastal plain and he would be blessed there. Moreover, inasmuch as he was within the confines of the land promised to father Abraham, the promise of possession of all the ‘countries” of the land was repeated to Isaac, and the forecast of a multitudinous seed who would be a blessing to all nations of the earth was reiterated. Significantly sequential to the pronouncement of the blessings, the conditions upon which the blessings were to be predicated were immediately set forth; it was stated that Abraham had qualified because, said the Lord, “Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.’ (Genesis 26;4, 5; italics ours. Cf. doctrine and Covenants 130:20, 21.) this covenant principle is constant.

While in Gerar, Isaac had an experience in parallel with that which his father had had in Egypt once, and once in the same city of Gerar – that of losing his “sister-wife” [Abraham’s wife was his own niece; Isaac’s was his own double second cousin, once removed, if technical terms were used. As observed before, however, any persons descended from a common ancestor could be and were referred to as “brothers” and “sisters” in Bible times] temporarily to the harem of the king. (Genesis 26:7-11; 12:9-20; 20:1-18.) As in both the former cases, the chastity of the wife remained inviolate though in danger. In all three cases, divine intervention taught the host-king respect for the guest and for his God. In all three cases the “heathen” king rebuked the patriarch for his dissimulation.

Many problems remain unsolved about the reasons for and the significance of these episodes. The record suggests that Abraham was nearly one hundred years old, and Sarah nearing ninety, when their experience occurred with Abimelech; and Isaac was sixty years old when his sons were born (Genesis 25:26), and they had grown to a degree of maturity (Genesis 26:27-34) when he had the similar experience in Gerar with a king named Abimelech. Possibly the Biblical record at these points is not in proper chronological order. Otherwise, what the attraction was that constituted motivation for the actions of the people in these dramas is certainly not clear.

More meaningful by far is the sequel to this story. It is reported that Isaac was so prosperous, and became so progressively affluent and powerful, that the Philistines envied him and feared him. (Genesis 26:12-16.) When they filled with earth the wells which Abraham had dug, and urged Isaac to move away from them, and strove with his herdsmen for water from new wells which were dug, Isaac constantly exercised forbearance; he moved and removed until finally he was established at Beersheba, where he dug out yet another well. The Lord appeared once again to him there, reassuring him of his blessings to come. Seeing how he increased and prospered ever more, Abimelech and one of his friends with the chief captain of his army came as emissaries to propose a non-aggression pact with Isaac. They gave as the reason for their respect for him their observation that they “saw certainly that the Lord was with” him to prosper him thus. The name here rendered LORD is, as always in the Hebrew Old Testament, the sacred name written with the four Hebrew letters (JHVH, Jehovah). Hence the implication is plain that it was awe and respect for their living but unseen God – whose handiwork and nonetheless plainly could be seen – which caused them so to treat for peace. This is the only type of evidence we have that these patriarchs were fulfilling the calling of Abraham to make known the true God in all lands whereunto they came. (Recall Abraham 1:19; 2:9.) Apparently the way they lived and the evidences of God in their lives constituted their chief mode of “missionary work.” Later Moses, and indeed Jesus also, asserted that it should be so. (See Deuteronomy 4:6, 7; Matthew 5:16.)

According to modern revelation, the “law of forbearance” practised by Isaac was a principle revealed to prophets ancient and modern, and keeping it actually did bring them security by the hand of the Lord. (doctrine and Covenants 98:23-37.)

The conclusion of Isaac’s life will be noted later.



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