A vast amount of historical time is covered in the small book of Genesis. The first eleven chapters skim over roughly two thousand years of history, until we come to the story of a certain man, Abraham, and his family. Then the book slows down and gets micro-focused. Through Abraham comes Isaac and Ishmael, and then Jacob who’s name was changed by the Lord to Israel. In a very real sense, we could say that bible is the story of the people of Israel, the Lord’s chosen people, the descendants of Abraham.
Who was this great prophet and why is his story of such importance? What was the nature of the sacred promises that he gained from God? For what purpose would God choose a certain group of people from among other people?
In Genesis, we are not really told very much about the details of Abraham’s life, or how he came to be so favored of God. In the 12th chapter we learn that his father is Terah, and that Abraham (or Abram) at the time, is married to Sarai, and we learn something of their travels. And then in the next chapter, God tells him to leave his country and his father’s house, and says that he will make of him a great nation. He promises Abraham that “in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen 12:3).
There seems to be a lot of details left out. Through later prophets the Lord calls Abraham “my friend” (Isa 41:8). What kind of life did Abraham lead that would allow for such a close relationship with God? Abraham surely demonstrated his total obedience to God over a long life of purity and goodness. Through sources outside the bible, we can gain new insights to his life and the strength of his character.
Through latter-day revelation, the Lord revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith portions of what was once known as the book of Abraham. This record was contained within a number of ancient Egyptian scrolls that came into the hands of Joseph while he lived in Kirtland, Ohio. Much has been written about the Book of Abraham, it’s history and how it came to arrive in Kirtland (See Nibley’s works like “Abraham in Egpyt”, or the writings of BYU Egyptologist John Gee published through FARMS). Critics have charged for years that the book is a complete fabrication, and that Joseph made the whole thing up - the same charge they level about the Book of Mormon. Some small fragments of the original scrolls have been found in the Chicago museum, but most of the scrolls have been lost, likely destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871 (A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri, John Gee, 2000). The fragments that are left do not contain the records that became the book of Abraham in our Pearl of Great Price, but nonetheless - critics still make the charge that “the scrolls have been found” (when in fact only small fragments remain) and that because these do not translate into the text that Joseph Smith gave us, the whole thing must be made up.
However, other ancient documents have since come to light that provide compelling evidence that our Book of Abraham is a true and accurate record. Hugh Nibley compared the text from the Pearl of Great price with an old Slavonic text called “The Apocrypha of Abraham” and draws many insightful parallels. This apocryphal text was first published in English in 1899, well after the publication of the Pearl of Great Price.
Both texts begin with the account of Abraham as a young man living in the midst of an idolatrous people, and with his own father steeped in idol worship. They both portray Abraham desiring to learn truth, and seeking to find the true God. They both have an account of God blessing Abraham with a great and powerful vision - where he sees the stars and the heavens, and all the earth. In both texts Abraham sees a vision of the pre-mortal world and a group of people being prepared there to come to earth. In both texts, he sees the events in the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. The texts are not exact matches of course, there are many differences. But there are enough parallels to raise suspicion. It would have been virtually impossible for Joseph Smith to have had access to this apocryphal source, so how did he get so many things right?
This is not the only Abraham text to come to light over the past 200 years, and as we get a clearer picture of Abraham from these sources, we see many more connections. Several of them can be traced back into Egypt as their original source (see Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, p. 83 for a list and description of 14 different Abraham records discovered after the publication of the Book of Abraham). Thus, the idea that egyptian scrolls might be found talking about Abraham may once have seemed far fetched, but now can be seen as quite in line with many other discoveries.
In any event it’s clear that much detail from Abraham’s life either did not make it into the bible, or was removed later. As Latter-day Saints we accept that the Book of Abraham, along with the rest of the Pearl of Great Price is revelation from God, and are very thankful to have access to more information about this great prophet. Abraham’s story begins with his refusal to follow after his father’s example of idolatry. Abraham sought the “blessings of the fathers” and to be a “greater follower of righteousness” (Abr 1:2, PGP). His total commitment to God was finally proven in the great test -- as recorded in Genesis -- where he showed he was willing to be obedient even if called to sacrifice his most beloved and long awaited son, Isaac.
Because of his great righteousness, Abraham received certain promises from God. These promises carried forward and have an impact on his descendants, until the end of time. The Abrahamic covenant, as it was called, has at least 3 elements: 1) A numerous posterity, 2) a promise of a land inheritance, and 3) the promise that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through his seed.
4 And I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed;
From the book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price we gain further knowledge that the covenant involved a promise and right to the holy priesthood. It also involved a responsibility of the children of Abraham to carry the priesthood to all the nations of the earth. Abraham was promised that all who accept of the gospel, regardless of their lineage, would be considered by God to be the children of Abraham, and as such would inherit these sacred blessings.
8 My name is Jehovah, and I know the end from the beginning; therefore my hand shall be over thee.
9 And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee above measure, and make thy name great among all nations, and thou shalt be a blessing unto thy seed after thee, that in their hands they shallbear this ministry and Priesthood unto all nations;
10 And I will bless them through thy name; for 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;
11 And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee; and in thee (that is, in thy Priesthood) and in thy seed (that is, thy Priesthood), for I give unto thee a promise that this right shall continue in thee, and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body) 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.
Here we find some answers to a couple of troubling questions. First, why should the Lord choose one race above another? It is from the Pearl of Great Price that we gain the understanding that this is not a selection of favoritism or privilege alone, but a selection to perform a sacred mission. The children of Abraham are charged with bringing the gospel and the priesthood to all the nations of the earth. God does in fact love all his children, all around the world. He simply selects some to spread his message to others, so that all might come into the gospel and be blessed equally. It is a great privilege surely, a high honor to be called to missionary labor. But such a call is not a guarantee of salvation or exaltation.
Notice the interesting fact in verse 10 that one does not need to be a literal descendant of Abraham to gain the blessings promised. All who accept the Gospel are accounted as the seed of Abraham, thus inheriting the same blessings. In New Testament times, the Jews took great pride and placed emphasis on their chosen status as children of Abraham. Many of them assumed that it was their lineage alone that qualified them to be “an holy people”, “chosen... above all the nations of the earth” (Deut 14:2).
The Lord has always attempted to build up and consecrate a people to himself. This pattern began with the children of Adam, and was accomplished with the people of Enoch, and was attempted with Noah and his posterity. He welcomes all who would follow him, all who would obey his voice. Israel may have forgotten these words that God gave to Moses:
5 Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:
6 And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.
John the Baptist rebuked their pride, and taught them in these words:
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.
It was not their lineage that would save them, in reality, only repentance and obedience to the Gospel would save them. Even those who are literal descendants of Abraham, because of their disobedience may not be qualified to be counted as Abraham’s seed and thus inherit the blessings of the covenant.
The Savior taught:
I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.
As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.
Then the unbelieving Jews after seeing the miracles he performed and hearing these words, surrounded him and challenged him:
24 ...How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly.
25 Jesus answered them, I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father's name, they bear witness of me.
26 But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you.
27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:
These individuals that Jesus just denounced as “not of my sheep” were clearly Jews, they had the lineage of the chosen race. But they were rejected by him because of their unbelief. They did not accept him as their Lord, and he did not accept them as his people.
Incidentally he does mention here another faithful group whom he says are his sheep, but who are “not of this fold”:
And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.
We learn from the Book of Mormon, that the Lord here was making reference to the Nephites then living on the American continent. They were a branch of Israel, descendants of Manasseh and Ephraim, who were led away from the land of Jerusalem around 600 BC. He was to visit them also, and teach them his gospel.
A Latter-day Gathering of Israel
Much is also spoken in the Bible about the scattering of Israel, and then the latter-day gathering of Israel. This scattering and judgment of the Lord upon Israel was prophesied by her earliest prophets, including Moses. Shortly before they were led into the land of Canaan for their inheritance, God told Moses that the people would eventually turn to worshipping the false gods of the nations around them, and would break his holy commandments which he had given them in the mountain.
And the Lord said unto Moses, Behold, thou shalt sleep with thy fathers; and this people will rise up, and go a whoring after the gods of the strangers of the land, whither they go to be among them, and will forsake me, and break my covenant which I have made with them.
Then my anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide my face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall befall them; so that they will say in that day, Are not these evils come upon us, because our God is not among us?
Moses gave direct warnings to the people that God would scatter them among all nations if they did not obey the covenant they had made with him. He also promised them that if they would one day repent and turn back to God, he would gather them back to their promised land.
1 And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and thou shalt call them to mind among all the nations, whither the Lord thy God hath driven thee,
2 And shalt return unto the Lord thy God, and shalt obey his voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul;
3 That then the Lord thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the nations, whither the Lord thy God hath scattered thee.
The Prophet Isaiah predicted the latter-day gathering of Israel with these words:
And he will lift up an ensign to the nations from far, and will hiss unto them from the end of the earth: and, behold, they shall come with speed swiftly:
7 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!
8 Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing: for they shall see eye to eye, when the Lord shall bring again Zion.
9 Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem: for the Lord hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
11 Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence, touch no unclean thing; go ye out of the midst of her; be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the Lord.
12 For ye shall not go out with haste, nor go by flight: for the Lord will go before you; and the God of Israel will be your rereward.
The Lord’s people are called to come out of the world - to leave Babylon and to gather together to both Zion and Jerusalem. They are protected and guided as they make this journey - with the Lord to go before them. They become clean through this spiritual journey, and in coming to Zion they come in purity. They are to “touch no unclean thing” and to “go out of the midst of her” (Babylon, or the world). This command to both the convert and the missionary is “be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the Lord.”
Those who issue this call are the Lord’s watchmen, the missionaries, the holy priesthood bearers who go to seek out any who will listen and who desire to be saved. How great and noble is their effort, how “beautiful upon the mountains” are they. It is a time of great rejoicing, for the Lord’s promises are set, and we can rejoice in the sure promise that we will be redeemed.
One more from Isaiah:
Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their head: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away.
Turn, O backsliding children, saith the Lord; for I am married unto you: and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion:
At that time they shall call Jerusalem the throne of the Lord; and all the nations shall be gathered unto it, to the name of the Lord, to Jerusalem: neither shall they walk any more after the imagination of their evil heart.
Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that it shall no more be said, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt;
But, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the lands whither he had driven them: and I will bring them again into their land that I gave unto their fathers.
Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the Lord, and they shall fish them; and after will I send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks.
These are just a few samples of the many bible verses that speak of a latter-day gathering of the tribes of Israel. And they are not speaking of just the Jews (the tribe of Judah) returning to the land of Israel, but of all the 12 tribes of Israel being gathered to both Zion and Jerusalem. There is both a physical gathering to these locations, but even more importantly, a spiritual gathering back into the knowledge and true kingdom of God. As people in the world learn about the gospel, and become converted, they are gathering into the fold of God.
According to the prophecy of Moses, it is the tribe of Joseph (the descendents of his sons Ephraim and Manasseh) who are to lead out this latter-day gathering from the nations:
His [Joseph’s] glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth: and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.
The story of Joseph being sold into Egypt and then eventually saving his brothers and all the children of Israel from famine is also a shadow of future world events. In the latter-days, it is the lost tribe of Joseph - through Ephraim and Manasseh - that will bring the gospel to all the other tribes of Israel, and indeed to all the world.
In the Joseph Smith translation of the bible, we have this explanation and promise made by Jacob to his son Joseph:
7 Therefore, O my son, he hath blessed me in raising thee up to be a servant unto me, in saving my house from death;
9 In delivering my people, thy brethren, from famine which was sore in the land; wherefore the God of thy fathers shall bless thee, and the fruit of thy loins, that they shall be blessed above thy brethren, and above thy father's house;
10 For thou hast prevailed, and thy father's house hath bowed down unto thee, even as it was shown unto thee, before thou wast sold into Egypt by the hands of thy brethren; wherefore thy brethren shall bow down unto thee, from generation to generation, unto the fruit of thy loins for ever;
11 For thou shalt be a light unto my people, to deliver them in the days of their captivity, from bondage; and to bring salvation unto them, when they are altogether bowed down under sin.
Gen. 48: 5-11:3-7 (JST)
Thus the children of Joseph will save them from the spiritual famine which Amos prophesied would come into the whole world:
11 Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord:
12 And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it.
Ephraim and Manasseh did not escape the scattering. By Jacob, Ephraim was blessed to be become a “multitude of nations” (Gen 48:19). This could be a way of suggesting that Ephraim would be scattered among many nations. It is Ephraim and Manasseh who are coming first to into the church, and others will and are following.