Abraham: A Man of Relationships

Avram R. Shannon

Two chapters on Abraham may seem excessive, but the importance of Abraham’s narrative to the Old Testament, indeed to the entire Latter-day Saint canon, suggests that even two may not be enough. In the last section, Gee reviewed the journeys described with the Abrahamic narrative. In this chapter, Shannon explores the narratives themselves, giving particular attention to the relationships depicted therein, and, in so doing, presents a perspective by which Abraham may be understood as a true disciple of God. —DB and AS

The story of Abraham is one of the central stories in Genesis and in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible overall.[1] The scriptures themselves call Abraham “the Friend of God” (James 2:23, deriving from Isaiah 41:8), and Abraham gives his name to one of the central covenants in the Church and the gospel. The narratives surrounding Abraham, his family, and his wives provide plenty of space for discussion and investigation, as well for some intriguing dialogue about some difficult topics. Fundamentally, as presented in the scriptures, Abraham’s life is one of relationships. Elliot Rabin, in his study of the concept of a biblical hero, highlights Abraham’s “loyalty and concern for others.”[2] Even the statements in James and Isaiah characterize Abraham based on his relationship to the Lord. Throughout the stories recorded in Genesis, we find Abraham interacting in relationships with Sarah, Hagar, Lot, Isaac, and God himself. These stories highlight his compassion and concern for others and his obedient relationship to the Lord. Relationships with God and his fellow human beings are central to the life and story of Abraham, and we should hold them central if we are to understand what Abraham’s story means to us today, especially as heirs of the Abrahamic covenant.[3] Abraham’s example helps us understand our own relationships with God and our fellow human beings.

Methodological Considerations

As we begin our discussion of Abraham, Sarah, and the various aspects of their life and story, there are a few points that need to be considered from the outset. The first is one of names and terminology. Abraham was born with the name Abram, and Sarah with the name Sarai. As part of the continual unfolding of the Lord’s covenant, he changes their names in Genesis 17. This means that within the Bible itself, for much of the narrative surrounding them, Abraham and Sarah are referred to as Abram and Sarai. This is not, however, how we tend to refer to them in English, where we usually use their covenant names. Although I will be discussing and analyzing parts of the text that happen before the names are changed, I will refer to them as Abraham and Sarah for the sake of convenience and readability.

The other consideration is the relationship between the narratives and story of Abraham in the book of Genesis and the contributions to our knowledge about Abraham’s life in the Book of Abraham, one of the distinctive books of scripture revealed by Joseph Smith as part of the Restoration.[4] It is difficult to determine the exact relationship between the Book of Abraham and the book of Genesis.[5] There are, however, a few observations that can be made that will be useful to the present discussion. The first is that the Book of Abraham is a relatively short book and that it adds only a few aspects to the broader narrative of Abraham as found in Genesis. Much of our present Book of Abraham is centered on Abraham’s cosmic visions, including a discussion of the Creation in chapters 4 and 5. This essay is focused on the narrative of Abraham’s life, and so, those cosmological aspects are not emphasized in this paper.[6] Instead, this paper instead focuses primarily on the portrayal of Abraham’s life as found in Genesis, but in those places where the Book of Abraham provides insight I will incorporate those insights into my discussion.

This essay is arranged canonically, which is to say that the material in Abraham and Sarah’s story is analyzed roughly in the order that it appears in the current biblical text. Biblical scholars have discussed various sources that were later compiled together in order to produce the Book of Genesis and other parts of the first five books of the Bible, much the way that Mormon compiled various sources in the production of the Book of Mormon.[7] Although I acknowledge many of the complexities of this scholarship, generally speaking, what are called “source critical” arguments are not addressed in this chapter. In general, the stories are examined and explored canonically in the way that they have come down in the received biblical text.

God’s Call

The story of Abraham in the Bible begins with him living in a place identified in the King James Version (KJV) as Ur of the Chaldees (Hebrew ᾽or kasdim) (Genesis 12:1). The traditional reading of this toponym places Abraham in a famous city on the banks of the Euphrates in Mesopotamia.[8] There is some scholarship that instead places this city in northwestern Syria rather than in Mesopotamia.[9] Recent scholarship has continued to study and adduce a plausible historical context for the milieu of Abraham and his family.[10]

The heart of Abraham’s story really begins when the Lord tells Abraham to get up and leave his land.[11] There are places in Restoration scripture—and especially in the immense extrabiblical literature surrounding Abraham—that discuss Abraham’s early life and offers valuable insights into Abraham’s background, but this is not the focus of the Bible.[12] In the Bible, the story of Abraham really starts when he receives this command from the Lord: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee” (Genesis 12:1). From a relational perspective, Jehovah’s command to Abraham is to leave not only where he lives but also his “kindred” and his “father’s house.” Biblical scholar Dianne Bergant notes, “In traditional societies such as ancient Israel, one’s identity, livelihood, security, and future were all rooted in one’s status in the household, which was the center of religious, social, and economic life. Such a household consisted of several generations of a family—grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. Abram is told to leave all this, to sever the most intimate bonds imaginable, and to migrate to a foreign land.”[13]

The Lord is calling Abraham to leave his old relationships and to build a new covenant relationship with the Lord, which would positively affect this extended family in the coming decades and become the backbone of the development of the ancestral family of Jacob/Israel.

Thus, the Lord promises to Abraham to give him blessings and to give him the ability to bless the whole world: “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:2–3). Note here that at this point the specific promises of the Abrahamic covenant are not revealed to Abraham—only a statement of God’s blessing over Abraham and of Abraham’s ability to share that blessing with others,[14] including his own extended family. Indeed, this clearly shows that the Abrahamic covenant is fundamentally not just about Abraham receiving blessings for himself. At its core, the Abrahamic covenant is centered on its ability to bless others, and this is clearly mapped out very early here in the stories of Abraham.[15] This serves as another reminder that as the recipient of the covenant, Abraham is required to interact and relate with others to bless them.[16]

The Abrahamic covenant is not possible without Sarah. The Lord’s promises are fundamentally centered around descent and posterity, which means that they are blessings that come through men and women. It is no mistake that when Jacob gives to Joseph the promises of these blessings, Jacob blesses Joseph with “blessings of the breasts, and of the womb” (Genesis 49:25). According to the Doctrine and Covenants, the highest degree of the celestial kingdom and the full blessings of the Abrahamic covenant are limited to men and women together (Doctrine and Covenants 131:1–3).[17] The blessings of Abraham are fundamentally the blessings of Sarah.[18]

One of the first things that Abraham does when he comes into the land of Canaan is to build an altar at Shechem (Genesis 12:6). In fact, Abraham’s itinerary through the land of Canaan is characterized by his building of altars, many of which become holy places or other important locations in later Israelite history. The altars at places like Shechem (12:6), Beth-el (13:3–4), Hebron (13:8), and the Temple Mount (22:14) define and delineate the land for his descendants.[19] These altars mark places of divine promise and interaction, showing places where Abraham interacts with his family, God, and others. Through the course of Abraham’s life, he travels up and down the land of Canaan, in preparation for the divine promises to inherit it for him and for his descendants (13:14–17). As biblical scholar Elliot Rabin notes, “Whereas for Cain, being forced to wander is a punishment, for Abraham, it is a sign of God’s favor.”[20] As Abraham travels throughout the land, he interacts with variety of kings and nobles. Sometimes, as with Melchizedek, these are sources of blessings. Sometimes, as in the interactions with Pharaoh or Abimelech, these are sources of confusion and difficulty, but we see God’s delivering hand throughout the narratives.

Sarah and the Sister-Wife Theme

In many ways the narrative around Abraham is pushed forward by Sarah because the desire for a son and for posterity is understood in Genesis as deriving from her infertility. This makes Sarah’s quest for a child in some ways even more poignant and helps explain her decision to allow Abraham to marry her enslaved handmaid, Hagar, as discussed below. The significance of Sarah to the covenant and story of Abraham cannot be overstated. She is part and parcel with the Abrahamic covenant, her desire for children pushes the interactions with Hagar and the birth of Ishmael, and her reputed beauty causes conflict with others around her and her husband.

There is a repeated story in Genesis, which some biblical scholars call the “sister-wife theme.”[21] This is one of the first parts of the story of Sarah and Abraham in Genesis, and it bears unpacking because it is not exclusive to the Abraham narrative. In this theme, the matriarch and the patriarch (Sarah and Abraham in Genesis 12:10–20 and 20:1–18; Rebekah and Isaac in 26:1–16) pretend to be sister and brother in order to preserve the life of the husband, since they are afraid that the king of the land will kill the husband in order to marry the wife. The wife is protected from the king by miraculous means, and the patriarch usually ends up enriched by the process.

This theme presents some difficulties to latter-day readers of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. It can be uncomfortable to think of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebekah lying to save their own skins.[22] It can also be difficult because these stories look so similar to one another, leading to questions of their role in the narrative and in Israelite history. Holzapfel, Pike, and Seely note that these stories “raise a variety of difficult questions and have been interpreted in various ways.”[23]

On one level, these difficulties illustrate to us one of the great reasons to read the stories of these important figures in the Old Testament. The Old Testament is willing to show us the complexities of men and women like Abraham and Sarah, which in turn helps to remind us that fundamentally, the human story is one of redemption (2 Nephi 2:4–7). Like all of the children of our first parents, Sarah and Abraham inherit a fallen nature, which needs to be overcome through repentance and reliance on Jesus Christ (Mosiah 3:16–19). Some of the discomfort in the examples of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebekah lying can help us to see places where the patriarchs and matriarchs may have struggled, but we know from modern revelation that they have entered into their exaltation (Doctrine and Covenants 132:37). The reminder that we do not need to see the patriarchs and matriarchs as always acting perfectly does not mean that we should ascribe to them gross unrighteousness. It simply means that we can acknowledge that as fallen human beings, they could sometimes make less than perfect choices.

The Book of Abraham adds a distinctive element to at least the first example of this theme. In Abraham 2:22–25, it is the Lord who commands Abraham to lie and say that Sarah is his sister so that “[his] soul shall live” (Abraham 2:24).[24] This solves some problems but raises others—raising the question as to why God is commanding Abraham to lie. In a sermon given on August 27, 1842, Joseph Smith taught, “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill’; at another time he said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted, by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the Kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.”[25] This teaching by Joseph Smith reminds us that the primary reason that we obey commandments is because of our relationship with God, who commanded them. Under this understanding, Abraham’s lying about his relationship with Sarah becomes a test of his willingness to obey God no matter what he commands, a foreshadowing of the testing that the Lord will command when he asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.

Abraham and Lot

As noted, the story of Abraham plays out in Abraham’s family relationships. This is certainly true of Abraham and his nephew, Lot. Although Lot’s most prominent role in the stories in Genesis is in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19, Lot is interwoven into the life and story of Abraham. There are fruitful lessons for us to learn from the interactions between Abraham and Lot.[26]

According to Genesis 12:4, Lot was part of Abraham’s travels from the very beginning, traveling with him as he left his “kindred” and his “father’s house” (Genesis 12:1).[27] As Abraham and Lot begin to grow in wealth, tensions began to arise between their herders. It is worth remembering that, for Abraham and Lot, much of their wealth was in livestock. The Bible informs us that Abraham was “very rich in cattle” (13:2) and that Lot had “flocks, and herds, and tents” (13:5). Because livestock need land to pasture, as their wealth grew, Abraham and Lot were no longer able to live in close proximity. Thus, the biblical narrator informs us that “the land was not able to bear them, that they might dwell together: for their substance was great, so that they could not dwell together” (13:6). The tension is so great, in fact, that “there was a strife between the herdmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdmen of Lot’s cattle” (13:7). This seems to have been a quarrel over pastureland.

According to Genesis, Abraham goes to Lot and says, “Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen; for we be brethren” (Genesis 13:8). Abraham is attempting to nip potential struggles between himself and Lot in the bud by addressing the concern head-on, and he does so by invoking their family relationship. “Brethren” in Genesis 13:8 clearly refers to general kinship rather than to a specific relationship as brothers. Abraham then makes Lot a very generous offer: “Is not the whole land before thee? separate thyself, I pray thee, from me: if thou wilt take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if thou depart to the right hand, then I will go to the left” (13:9). Although Abraham is the elder of the two, and so would be able to claim any part of the land for himself, he offers the choice to Lot to pick whatever part he wants, and Abraham then will honor that choice. One of the things that characterizes Abraham is his generosity in his interpersonal relationships.

Lot chooses the “plain of Jordan,” which the biblical narrator informs us was “well watered every where, before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah” (Genesis 13:10). This choice will, of course, have disastrous consequences for Lot and his family, leading not just to his being captured in battle but also to the loss of his wife and some of his children.[28] Biblical scholar Joseph Blenkinsopp suggests that Lot is “voluntarily taking himself out of contention as the heir presumptive of Abraham by choosing to live not only outside the land of promise but also among people of bad repute,” thus preparing the way for the birth of Isaac and the passing of the covenant through Abraham’s descendants.[29] Abraham allows Lot to choose where to go. Abraham does not focus on his right but instead extends to Lot the privilege of choice.

Part of what is intriguing about this story is that it leads to further communication and blessings from the Lord. After Abraham and Lot part ways, Abraham receives this communication from God:

And the Lord said unto Abram, after that Lot was separated from him, Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward:

For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.

And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered.

Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee. (Genesis 13:14–17)

Having given up some of the more fertile parts of the land in a generous gesture to preserve the good feelings in the relationship between Lot and him, Abraham receives a promise of even more land and, more importantly to Abraham, a promise of numerous descendants. The Lord commands Abraham to look around him and explore in all directions because that will be a gift to him and, especially, to later Israel. In being willing to sacrifice his temporal blessings in favor of his connection to his nephew, Abraham showed the kind of person that he is. This passage in Genesis 13 is the first full articulation of the Abrahamic covenant in the Bible, and it is no mistake that it is given after Abraham’s show of generosity.[30] His care for Lot leads him to to rescue Lot, but that in turn leads to Abraham’s meeting with Melchizedek, a biblically mysterious figure.

Abraham and Melchizedek

Lot’s decision to “[pitch] his tent toward Sodom” (Genesis 13:12) led to difficulties for himself and his family. According to Genesis 14, there was a war between a coalition of kings from places east of the land of Canaan and kings from the area surrounding the Dead Sea, including Sodom and Gomorrah.[31] Lot appears to have moved from his seminomadic experience to living within the border of Sodom (Genesis 14:12). Because of this, when the city of Sodom fell to the coalition of kings, Lot and his family and property are part of the spoils of war.

Abraham hears about Lot and his family needing rescue and gathers together 318 of those who were born in Abraham’s household who were trained for combat. This number is suggestive both of Abraham’s wealth—as his household was large enough to muster 318 individuals for combat—as well as the relative size of the conflict between the two coalitions, since Abraham’s relatively small force is able to rout the invading armies. We do not know how much strength Abraham’s allies Mamre, Eschol, and Aner brought to the conflict, but it is clear that this was a small, guerrilla-type action, since they attacked by night (Genesis 14:15).[32] The attack is successful, and Lot and his family are saved.

This experience leads to an interlude where Abraham meets with the kings of Sodom that he saved but also with Melchizedek, the king of righteousness. Melchizedek is a mysterious figure in the Old Testament who appears only here and in Psalm 110. Because of the mysterious nature of his appearance in the book of Genesis (he appears without preamble and disappears without explanation), Melchizedek has attracted a large amount of discussion and interpretation in both Judaism and Christianity.[33] Because Melchizedek looms so large in Latter-day Saint readings and understandings of priesthood organization, he figures prominently in Latter-day Saint discourse, although his prominence in the priesthood discussion in Alma 13 was the forerunner for this.[34] Alma 13 expands on Melchizedek’s narrative significantly, adding information such as Melchizedek being a king under his father, Melchizedek ruling over a wicked people, to whom he was preaching, how the people repented, and how Melchizedek set up a righteous civilization.[35] The Joseph Smith Translation (JST) contains a lengthy side narrative about Melchizedek that has some continuity with the account in Alma 13 but also has some differences. JST Genesis 14:26–30 talks about how Melchizedek performed miracles in his childhood and was an exemplary priesthood holder.[36] Regarding Abraham, Doctrine and Covenants 84:14 reveals that he received the priesthood from Melchizedek, although the scriptures do not specify whether Abraham received it before, during, or after the interactions between him and Melchizedek in Genesis 14.

None of the additional information about Melchizedek is in Genesis. Therein, Melchizedek is the king of Salem (traditionally associated with Jerusalem) and is the priest of the “most high God” (Hebrew El-Elyon).[37] Melchizedek brings bread and wine, blesses Abraham in the name of the most high God, and then blesses the most high God for aiding Abraham. Abraham then pays tithes “of all” to Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18–20). With only this information in the Bible, it is no wonder that Melchizedek is such a mysterious figure.

We are blessed, however, to have the narrative additions from the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s New Translation because they add valuable information about Melchizedek’s interactions with Abraham. First of all, both Alma and the JST make the point that Melchizedek is known as “prince of peace,” which is a play on words in Hebrew with the name of Melchizedek’s city of Salem (Alma 13:18; JST Genesis 14:33). This connects with Abraham 1:2, where Abraham says that he is looking to become a “prince of peace,” which he says he received by becoming a “High Priest.” Because Doctrine and Covenants 84:14 tells us that Abraham received priesthood from Melchizedek, we can make a connection between Abraham and Melchizedek’s becoming princes of peace with their priesthood blessings.[38]

The New Translation also gives clarity to Abraham’s paying tithing to Melchizedek. JST Genesis 14:37–38 says, “And he lifted up his voice, and he blessed Abram, being the high priest, and the keeper of the storehouse of God; Him whom God had appointed to receive tithes for the poor.” This indicates that Melchizedek was the “keeper of the storehouse of God,” thus one appointed to receive tithes. It also tells that the purpose of the tithing in this storehouse is “for the poor.” In JST Genesis, Abraham specifically pays tithes because of his great economic blessings because “God had given him more than that which he had need” (JST Genesis 14:39).[39] Abraham’s temporal blessings are more than what he needs to support himself, and thus he is willing to use those blessings to the economic benefit of others, which is just one other way in which the Abrahamic covenant becomes a blessing for “all the families of the earth.”[40]

Abraham’s willingness to put his life on the line for his nephew and his interactions with Melchizedek show the high premium that Abraham placed on family and the low premium he placed on the things of this world. This is underscored by his refusal of any of the spoils of the war, and shows that the king of Sodom could not say, “I have made [Abraham] rich” (Genesis 14:23). Abraham understood that it was the most high God who was the “possessor of heaven and earth” (14:19) and that he could give blessings far beyond any temporal treasure. In interpreting the narratives in Genesis, Hebrews 11:13–16 contains the beautiful teachings that Abraham and the rest of the patriarchs and matriarchs were “strangers and pilgrims” who were looking for a heavenly country. Abraham’s covenant perspective was one that focused not on earthly things but on a “better country.” This feeds into one of the great blessings of the Abrahamic covenant—eternal families and eternal relationships.[41]

Abraham’s focus on eternal relationships with the Lord and with family did not mean that Abraham’s life was without strife or trial, however. Sarah’s continued infertility and the fraught relationship with her enslaved handmaid, Hagar, challenged all parties. These interactions are worth looking at in detail, and this will be our next point of investigation.

Sarah and Hagar

Some of the more difficult stories in Genesis relate to Abraham’s interactions with his wives. Abraham and Sarah’s quest for children is one of the driving forces behind many of the choices they made in their lives.[42] As noted above, this includes Sarah’s decision to give her enslaved Egyptian maid Hagar to Abraham as a concubine.[43] The words maid and concubine had particular social connotations in the ancient world. According to Holzapfel, Pike, and Seely, a “concubine is a woman, usually a slave, [who is] married to a man, but who had less legal status terms of inheritance than a wife.”[44] The word that the KJV translates as “maid” in Genesis 16:5 is used to “[translate] a Hebrew word that means slave—indicating that Hagar, Bilhah, and Zilpah were slaves to Sarah, Rachel, and Leah.”[45]

It should be noted at the outset of this discussion that the laws regulating multiple wives were different in the ancient world than in the modern world of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During the Restoration, Joseph Smith received a revelation about why Abraham and his heirs had more than one wife. In the ancient world, men having multiple wives was an ordinary part of the ancient world.[46] It is clear from revelations received by Joseph Smith in this dispensation, however, that Abraham’s multiple wives were not simply ordinary marriages from an ancient perspective but that they were celestial marriages that were approved and sealed in heaven (Doctrine and Covenants 132:34–35).

Just as with plural marriage in the early parts of this dispensation, divine approval did not make the actual marriages any easier. This was especially true in this case because the explicit reason for Sarah giving Hagar to Abraham as a wife was to have children.[47] Genesis 16:2 states, “And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her.” Note that because Hagar is Sarah’s servant or slave, any children that Abraham had by Hagar would legally come from Sarah, at least in theory.[48] E. A. Speiser connects this to Hurrian law, citing a case where “the husband may not marry again if his wife has children. But if the union proves to be childless, the wife is required to provide a concubine, but would then have all the legal rights to the offspring.”[49] There are, however, some struggles between Hagar and Sarah, especially in terms of inheritance.

Some of this tension seems to come from Hagar. Genesis tells us that after Hagar conceives, “her mistress was despised in her eyes” (Genesis 16:4). The word translated as “despised” means to have contempt for someone. Sarah seems to feel that she has made a mistake on some level since she responds to being despised with a rejoinder to her husband, “My wrong be upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the Lord judge between me and thee” (16:5, emphasis added).[50] Abraham tells Sarah, “Thy maid is in thy hand; do to her as pleaseth thee” (16:6).[51] Genesis 16:6 goes on to say, “Sarai dealt hardly with her,” eventually causing Hagar to flee the relative safety of Abraham’s tent and the protection from the world that it represented.

This part of the narrative surrounding Abraham and his family deserves some unpacking. First, it is a reminder to us of one of the key reasons to read the Old Testament, in that it is not afraid to present its characters, even one as significant as Abraham, in all of their complexities. In spite of their covenant desire, there are still struggles in the relationship between Abraham and his wives, struggles that carry over into later parts of the biblical narrative and beyond. As we discussed in connection with Abraham lying about Sarah’s status as his wife, one of the most useful parts of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is its willingness to share with later readers something of the actual difficulties that faced its people. The stories of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar in Genesis reminds us that these are real people, and like all people who have ever lived on this earth, they are people in need of redemption (Mosiah 3:19, Romans 3:23).

Because of the fundamental recognition that redemption is necessary for all of humanity, it is not necessary for us to try and justify or explain away actions in the scriptures that make us uncomfortable. When we see Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah acting in ways in their family that are not good, it gives us space to think about how we can work through our own family environments. Relationships can be very difficult, but difficult relationships do not ruin everything for us. Hagar’s taking advantage of her mistress’s infertility for self-aggrandizement, Sarah’s dealing harshly with Hagar, and Abraham’s unwillingness to intervene in the struggles between his wives are very human responses to the struggles in these individuals’ lives. Yet, for all the difficulties, the family of Abraham is still remembered by the Lord, and each member still seeks the Lord.

Note, for example, the care that the Lord has for Hagar, Sarah’s slave. According to Genesis 16:7, because of the struggles between these two women, Hagar flees into the desert.[52] While in the wilderness, an angel appears to her, bringing her a message from Jehovah. She is first told to return and submit to her mistress (Genesis 16:9). This is not the end of the statement, however. The Lord tells her, “I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude” (16:10). The wording of this promise makes it very clear that Hagar’s descendants are part and parcel with the promises of what we call the Abrahamic covenant, and although there will still be struggles, the Lord remembers her and her sacrifices for its fulfillment.[53] Indeed, Hagar is then informed that she will have a son and is commanded to name him Ishmael, “because the Lord hath heard thy affliction” (16:11). The name Ishmael means “God will hear” in Hebrew, such that Ishmael bears the mark of the Lord’s care for his mother in his very name.

The Lord’s care for Hagar continues in the story of her being kicked out after the birth of Sarah and Abraham’s son, Isaac.[54] After the birth of Isaac, Ishmael is “mocking” (Genesis 21:9).[55] This leads to Sarah requesting Hagar and her son be sent away, because “the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son” (21:10). Abraham does not want to send them away, but he does so after the Lord tells him to (21:12). After Hagar leaves and their water runs out, she “cast[s] the child under one of the shrubs” (21:15).

Yet the Lord’s care for Hagar is still evident in this chapter. Even before she is cast out, the Lord tells Abraham that he will also make Ishmael into “a nation, because he is [Abraham’s] seed” (Genesis 21:13). The Lord reiterates this promise to Hagar herself in Genesis 21:18. Hagar receives comfort and direction from God, reminding the reader once again that he is not a respecter of persons and that he loves all of his children, black and white, male and female, and, as is especially germane to this story, bond and free (2 Nephi 26:33).[56] Being enslaved does not put Hagar out of the notice of the Lord, and she has a role to play in fulfilling of the Abrahamic covenant. For Latter-day Saints, Doctrine and Covenants 132 implies that her relationship with Abraham is a celestial relationship, suggesting that, like Abraham, she has received her exaltation, and she sits on a throne (Doctrine and Covenants 132:29).[57] Indeed, being enslaved did not put her out of the notice of the Lord because none of God’s children are outside of his notice. Hagar illustrates a key part of the relational nature of the Abraham narrative, reminding us that the Abrahamic covenant is about how we relate to each other and how the Lord relates to us.

The Changing of Names and Covenant

As with other parts of Genesis, there are a number of symbolic names in the stories surrounding Sarah and Abraham, including divinely appointed name changes.[58] Abram and Sarai have their names changed or modified as part of their process of seeking the covenant. The name Abram comes from Hebrew words that mean something like “exalted father.” As noted above, Abraham’s life and his story in Genesis focuses on his family relationships, including his desire to have children and to therefore become a father.[59] This has strong resonances with Abraham 1:1–5, which states that Abraham was searching for the “blessings of the fathers.” Indeed, the idea of Abraham and fatherhood seems to be entwined through all of those first few verses in the Book of Abraham, with the word father or fathers appearing ten times in the first five verses.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that fatherhood remains part of the covenant that God makes with Abraham, and (although his name is changed from Abram to Abraham) the idea of fatherhood is still there. The Bible explains the name change as a transformation of Abraham into a “father of many nations” (Hebrew ab hamon goyim) (Genesis 17:5). Although this explanation has elements of folk etymology to it (i.e., the name Abraham does not come from ab hamon goyim), the giving of the name symbolizes the covenant relationship between the Lord and Abraham.

Sarai’s name is changed to Sarah. Unlike the change from Abram to Abraham, the Bible does not give a reason for this particular change. Although this change is probably not even a change in the root of the name, there is a still a symbolic element of receiving a new name as part of the new covenant identity. The new name represents a change from the old identity to a new covenant relationship with the Lord. Abraham and Sarah’s new names are symbols of their covenant blessings and their covenant responsibilities to serve the Lord and to bless his children. This obligation to bless others stands at the center of Abraham’s respect for the rules of hospitality, as shown when he met the three travelers.

Abraham and the Holy Men

We have already noted that two of the major themes in the stories of Abraham are Abraham’s generosity and his obedience. Both of those are displayed in his interactions with the three travelers as recorded in Genesis 18. Abraham was sitting in his tent when he saw three strangers and invited them into his hospitality. There is a little bit of incongruity in what Abraham offers the strangers and what he ends up giving them that serves to highlight Abraham’s hospitality and generosity. In Genesis 18:4–5, when he invites the travelers in, Abraham offers them a “little water” and a “morsel of bread,” which the travelers accept. He then tells Sarah to make cakes using three measures of the good flour. The KJV’s “measures” are not the equivalent of modern cups. “Measure” translates an ancient measurement called a seah, meaning that Abraham’s three measures of flour is the equivalent of roughly ninety-three cups of flour. Sarah would be able to make a lot of cakes with that much flour. Abraham also goes and kills a young calf and serves it the strangers with butter and milk.[60] The lengths that Abraham goes to in order to care for his guests is much more than he offered them at the outset. Rather than serving them a little bit of bread and water, Abraham throws a great feast for them.

Abraham’s generous spirit is especially noteworthy in light of the ancient customs of hospitality. The ancient world could be a hostile place, and so there were cultural protections to protect and preserve travelers.[61] The book of Genesis portrays Abraham in such a way that highlights his concern for these protections—he wants to protect and preserve these travelers. This again highlights the importance of relationship in the Abraham story. Abraham is not only concerned with those with whom he is immediately connected, but he is also concerned with strangers who were passing by. This is a great example of what Rabin calls Abraham’s “unwavering concern toward others, no matter whether they are family or stranger.”[62] Abraham’s willingness to extend love and protection to strangers is not limited to travelers and underscores a key interaction between him and Lord concerning the people in Sodom and Gomorrah, which we will explore next.

Abraham and Prophetic Intercession

After the other two men leave, the third man, whom the scriptures present as Jehovah, lingers behind to speak with Abraham. He asks, “Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do; Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him” (Genesis 18:17–19).

The Lord gives to Abraham quite the commendation here. Note that the Lord frames Abraham’s righteousness as generational—many nations will be descended from him, and he will teach his children to keep the commandments and to do justice. The Lord takes the long view, and his relationship with Abraham reflects that view.

After this, the Lord tells Abraham that he is going to go down to Sodom to see whether they needed to be destroyed, “because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and their sin is very grievous” (Genesis 18:20). Abraham then asks the Lord a famous question, “Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?” (18:23). It is a difficult question to ask at the best of times. God is responsible for both life and death (1 Samuel 2:6), and his ways are not always knowable to humanity (Isaiah 55:8). Although Abraham surely has some sense of this, his relationship with Jehovah is sufficient that Abraham is willing and able to intercede with the Lord on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. As it is recorded in Genesis, Abraham proceeds to continue to ask God to save the city for fewer and fewer people, until the Lord promises that he will not destroy the city of Sodom and Gomorrah if he found even ten righteous people (Genesis 18:32).

Abraham’s willingness to stand between the Lord and the people of Sodom is what is known as “prophetic intercession,” and Abraham is a distinctive example of this. Joshua M. Sears has discussed prophetic intercession by highlighting “the theological discomfort that may arise when modern readers study intercessory accounts in scripture.”[63] It can be jarring for some to see the prophet seemingly protecting people from a presumably loving God. However, Sears points out that this seems to be a teaching tool on the part of the Lord. Sears notes,

We may ask, if God were solely interested in prosecuting Israel, why bother holding conversations with the defense in the first place? God also serves as judge, and judgment would certainly be easier without the debate. But easier is not what he chooses. “Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do[?]” God asks, before deciding no (Genesis 18:17). He tells Abraham of his plans to destroy Sodom, Abraham balks, and the intercessory probing begins (see 18:20–33). One cannot help but sense that God had intended this all along. The invitation to be challenged hints that the prosecution has more in mind than winning. Furthermore, the fact that God the judge so often decides against God the prosecutor suggests that, despite all the talk of death and doom, God the judge really isn’t rooting for God the prosecutor after all. The division between judge, prosecution, and defense begins to break down.[64]

This whole story serves as a good reminder that the occasional barriers that we put between God’s justice and his mercy can be artificial, especially in an Old Testament context.[65]

In fact, Abraham’s question at the outset of his interaction with God here is instructive in how it blurs the categories of justice and mercy: “That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). Note that Abraham is pleading for mercy for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, but he does so with an appeal to the Lord’s justice and righteous judgment. This blurring of justice and mercy is characteristic of the Lord who serves as “judge, prosecution, and defense,” but it also illustrates why relationships are so important in the stories surrounding the establishment of the covenant. Fundamentally, the purpose of the Abrahamic covenant is to help Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants to become “perfect,” which means to be like God. By participating in God’s twinned attributes of compassion and justice, Abraham learns something about what it means to be like God and what the kinds of relationships are that the Lord wants us to build through covenant making with him and our fellow human beings.[66] That knowledge and those relationships will be tested by the Lord as part of the process of making Abraham holy. It is now to the great Abrahamic test that we turn next.

The Aqedah

After all of Abraham and Sarah’s work and faithfulness in acquiring a son together comes one of the most difficult commandments recorded in scripture[67]: “And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of” (Genesis 22:1–2). This commandment tests Abraham’s commitment to the covenant with the Lord, especially in light of the long-awaited birth of his son Isaac.[68]

Child sacrifice was not unknown in the ancient world and was seen as the ultimate of consecration, often done in great extremity.[69] It would not have been outside of the immediate religious world of Abraham. According to Restoration scripture (and some of the traditions that circulated in early Christianity and Judaism), Abraham had already had an experience with almost being sacrificed himself before his travel to the Holy Land (Abraham 1:11–12). The Near Eastern background of the Lord’s command to Abraham makes this command even more remarkable and worthy of discussion. In later parts of the Hebrew Bible, human sacrifice is absolutely not associated with the God of Israel. In the Hebrew Bible, child sacrifice is often associated with the worship of the non-Israelite god Molech, who is worshipped through an act of “passing one’s seed through the fire to Molech.”[70] Some scholars have connected this ritual to the Tophet, a place of ritual burning condemned by the Israelite prophets, or to the Phoenician molk sacrifices, linking this practice to some form of Israelite or Canaanite human sacrifice.[71] The command given to Abraham to sacrifice his son would have felt both strange and familiar.

There are some elements from the Book of Abraham that add another element to this story and, on certain levels, make the command even more heart-wrenching. Abraham 1:10 references that the priest of Pharaoh would offer a “thank-offering of a child,” which appears to be a reference to an attested practice in ancient Egypt.[72] What makes this episode particularly poignant is the addition of the information in Abraham 1:5–7 that Abraham’s “fathers” had turned from the worship of the Lord and tried to have Abraham killed through ritual sacrifice, apparently for his pushing against their idolatrous actions.[73] This means that the command to sacrifice his own son would have pushed against the horror of his own experiences on the altar, a fate that he was saved from only by the timely intervention of the Lord. This heightens the sense of what a difficult commandment this would have been for Abraham to fulfill.

Although the command to sacrifice Isaac is a striking one, it is one with important doctrinal significance to Latter-day Saints.[74] As already noted, this passage begins “And it came to pass . . . that God did tempt Abraham” (Genesis 22:1). The verb that the KJV translates as “tempt” is the Hebrew nissah, which is a verb that means to “try” or “prove.” Rather than being tempted in the sense that the Lord is trying to get Abraham to do something wrong, this is testing whether or not Abraham will do anything that the Lord commands him to do.[75] This is confirmed later in the story of the binding, when the Lord tells Abraham, “Now I know that thou fearest God” (Genesis 22:12).[76] This test was fundamentally about whether Abraham loved God more than Abraham loved his son or his own self-image of himself as a “father of many nations.” Given the amount of covenant and promise that has gone into the birth of Isaac, this is not an empty commandment—this is a real test of Abraham’s love and loyalty to Jehovah. According to John Taylor, Joseph Smith taught the Quorum of the Twelve, “I heard the Prophet Joseph say, in speaking to the Twelve on one occasion: ‘You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other [people] of God, and (said he) God will feel after you, and He will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings, and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial Kingdom of God.’”[77] In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord tells Joseph Smith that Abraham’s obedience to this difficult testing is part of the “works of Abraham” (Doctrine and Covenants 132:32–36).

One of the compelling things about this part of Abraham’s story is how laconic he is about the whole affair. We know from his prophetic intercession in the matter of Sodom and Gomorrah that Abraham is not afraid to intercede with God or even to argue when Abraham does not agree with something. Yet in this case, we do not see him protesting or pleading with God. He simply gets up and does what he is told. Genesis tells us, “And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him” (Genesis 22:3). Note Abraham’s silent obedience here. Abraham’s laconic response to the commandment is one of the features of this story. There could be many reasons behind this, but it speaks to Abraham’s loyalty to the covenant that he made with Jehovah, as does everything in this story.

There is a beautiful and elegant structure to this narrative in Genesis 22. When the Lord first commands Abraham, he responds by saying, “Behold, here I am” (22:1). This is a translation of a Hebrew phrase that can be translated as something like, “Behold me,” or “It is I.” Although obscured by the translation in the KJV, when Isaac asks his question in 22:7, Abraham responds to him in the same way he did to the Lord. Abraham says the same thing again in Genesis 22:11, when the angel of Jehovah stops him from killing his son. This provides a nice symmetry between Abraham’s relationship with Isaac and Abraham’s relationship with the Lord. One of the characteristics of Abraham is his readiness to serve, and his exhortation of “Behold me.” The binding of Isaac is fundamentally about Abraham’s willingness, whatever the difficulty, to do what the Lord asks him.[78]


Abraham is sometimes described as “the father of the faithful.” A close examination of his life and the lives of his family members shows that Abraham earned this title because of his willingness to be embedded in relationships—both with God and with his fellow human beings. Jesus Christ cited Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19 to establish the two great commandments of loving God and your neighbor (Matthew 22:37–39). Abraham exemplifies the process of loving God through loving your neighbor. This is not to say that Abraham did not have his struggles in his life and his relationships, as his interactions with Hagar and Sarah clearly show. Sarah herself had her own struggles with becoming the “mother of the faith,” but her own faith led her to becoming a biological mother long after any expectation of that happening. This did not free her from her struggles with Hagar, but the Lord was able to transform that into a great blessing for the descendants of Ishmael.

The Abrahamic covenant is about relationships, both with each other and the Lord, and in this life, sometimes these relationships are tested. This was true of Abraham and Lot and Sarah and Hagar. Sarah’s trust in the Lord was tested by her long wait for motherhood. Abraham’s relationship with the Lord was put to the greatest test with the Lord’s command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his beloved and covenant son. It is no mistake, however, that the test of Abraham’s life was a test based on his relationships. Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar remind us that as we become the “seed of Abraham” (Doctrine and Covenants 84:34), we do so by entering into covenant relationships with the Lord and with others. As we do so, we are able to say, like Abraham, “Thy servant has sought thee earnestly; now I have found thee” (Abraham 2:12).


[1] Both Latter-day Saint and general scholarly literature on Abraham is immense. The following sources were especially useful in the preparation of this chapter: Dianne Bergant, Genesis: In the Beginning (Minneapolis: Liturgical Press, 2013); Joseph Blenkinsopp, Abraham: The Story of a Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015); Elliot Rabin, The Biblical Hero: Portraits in Nobility and Fallibility (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2020); E. A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Dana M. Pike, and David Rolph Seely, Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2009).

[2] Rabin, Biblical Hero, 121.

[3] David L. Peterson, “Genesis and Family Values,” Journal of Biblical Literature 124, no. 1 (2005): 5–23. Peterson suggests that Genesis is very concerned with family and family values, although those values do not necessarily accord with twenty-first century notions about family.

[4] For a useful and approachable introduction to the Book of Abraham, see John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Provo: UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2017). Gee’s book is especially useful because of his annotated bibliography at the end of each chapter.

[5] This is in contradistinction with the Book of Moses, which, as an extract from the Joseph Smith Translation, is explicitly an inspired revision of the King James Version of the Bible. See Kent P. Jackson, The Book of Moses and the Joseph Smith Translation Manuscripts (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2005), 1.

[6] Readers interested in the cosmographic and cosmological aspects of the Book of Abraham should look at John Gee and Brian Hauglid, eds., Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2005). This book provides a number of essays looking at various aspects of the Book of Abraham and its relationship to ancient and modern astronomy. See also Kerry M. Muhlestein, “Encircling Astronomy and the Egyptians: An Approach to Abraham 3,” Religious Educator 10 (2009): 33–50; Gee, Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 115–20.

[7] For a Latter-day Saint discussion about issues regarding sources and interactions generally, see Daniel L. Belnap, “The Law of Moses: An Overview,” in New Testament: History, Culture, and Society, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2019), 19–34. For a more in-depth discussion, see David Rolph Seely, “We Believe the Bible As Far As It Is Translated Correctly: Latter-day Saints and Historical Biblical Criticism,” Studies in Bible and Antiquity 8 (2016): 64–87. For an accessible discussion of the various arguments in favor of understanding the processes in producing the first five books of the Bible from a literary perspective, see Joel S. Baden, The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2012).

[8] Blenkinsopp suggests that the Mesopotamian connections here indicate an exilic gloss on the original “land of the fathers.” Blenkinsopp, Abraham, 26.

[9] Paul Y. Hoskinson, “Research and Perspectives: Where was Ur of Abraham?” Ensign, July 1991. Because of the Egyptian influence visible in the Book of Abraham, that particular book of scripture is very suggestive of placing Abraham’s Ur in what is now modern-day Syria.

[10] See, for example, John Gee’s chapter on Abraham in this volume.

[11] Rabin, Biblical Hero, 123–24.

[12] There is a useful collection of many of these traditions in John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee, Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001). The material in the Book of Abraham is found in Abraham 1:5–20. Rabin discusses some of the rabbinic background in Rabin, Biblical Hero, 127–28.

[13] Bergant, Genesis, 42.

[14] Blekinsopp, Abraham, 27.

[15] The longer version of the Abrahamic covenant that Latter-day Saints are most familiar with is found in the Book of Abraham, which characteristically for that book, introduces ideas of priesthood blessings into the core idea of the covenant. According to the narrative timeline of the Book of Abraham, this happens right around the same time this shorter version is given in Genesis 12. For a discussion of the Book of Abraham’s version of the Abrahamic covenant, see Monte S. Nyman, “The Covenant of Abraham,” in The Pearl of Great Price: Revelations from God, ed. H. Donl Peterson and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 155–70. See also Shon Hopkin’s chapter in this volume.

[16] Again, this is explicitly laid out in Abraham 2:9–11, but it is perhaps implied in the ambiguous phrasing in Genesis 12:5, which talks about the “souls they had gotten in Haran.” Jewish tradition understands this as bringing souls to the worship of Jehovah. The early Midrashic collection of Genesis Rabbah suggested that Abraham would convert the men, and Sarah would convert the women. See Genesis Rabbah 39:14. This is a convenient English translation: Harry Freedman, trans., Genesis Rabbah (London: Soncino Press, 1983).

[17] “Abrahamic Covenant,” a Gospel Topics essay at ChurchofJesusChrist.org, says that “Abraham made covenants with God when he received the gospel, when he was ordained a high priest, and when he entered into celestial marriage.”

[18] And, as we shall see, they are fundamentally the blessings of Hagar and Keturah.

[19] Shechem is the first capital of the northern kingdom of Israel (see 1 Kings 12:1). Bethel was one of the earliest resting places of the ark of the covenant when the Israelites entered the land (Judges 20:27), and when the Israelite king builds his two national shrines, he places one at Bethel (1 Kings 12:29–39). Hebron was the first capital of David’s kingdom before the capture of Jerusalem (2 Samuel 2:1–3). The significance of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is well known. For a discussion of the relationship between the life of Abraham and later notions of place and space, see Koog P. Hong, “Abraham, Genesis 20–22, and the Northern Elohist,” Biblica 94, no. 3 (2013): 321–39.

[20] Rabin, Biblical Hero, 122.

[21] Holzapfel, Pike, and Seely, Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament, 52.

[22] His interaction with Sarah in these circumstances both in the initial lie in Genesis 12:20 and in the rationalization that Sarah is his sister are two of the three places where Medieval Jewish commentator Nahmanides ascribed sin to Abraham. The third is the treatment of Hagar, discussed below. See the discussion in David Berger, “On the Morality of the Patriarchs in Jewish Polemic and Exegesis,” Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations, ed. Shalom Carmy (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996), 131–46. For a Latter-day Saint reading of the story that largely exonerates Abraham based on the Book of Abraham and its affinities with other ancient texts, see Thomas W. Mackay, “Abraham in Egypt: A Collation of Evidence for the Case of the Missing Wife,” BYU Studies Quarterly 10, no. 4 (Summer 1970): 429–40.

[23] Holzapfel, Pike, and Seely, Jehovah and the Old Testament, 52. In this section (containing page 52) they provide a useful summary of some of the literary problems and suggest solutions.

[24] It is, perhaps, intriguing to note that the Joseph Smith Translation does not make the same change to the story, such that Abraham is still the originator of the idea in JST Genesis. See “Old Testament Revision 1,” p. 29, The Joseph Smith Papers.

[25] “History, 1838–1856, volume D-1 [1 August 1842–1 July 1843] [addenda],” p. 3 [addenda], The Joseph Smith Papers.

[26] Larry R. Helyer, “The Separation of Abram and Lot: Its Significance in the Patriarchal Narratives,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 26 (1983): 77–88.

[27] Raymond Hariri, “Abraham’s Nephew Lot: A Biblical Portrayal,” Tradition: A Journal of Jewish Orthodox Thought 25 (1989): 31–41, especially 31–32.

[28] Hariri, “Lot: A Biblical Portrayal,” 34–35.

[29] Blenkinsopp, Abraham, 32.

[30] Speiser, Genesis, 98. Helyer lists numerous commentaries on Genesis that adduce this lesson from Abraham and Genesis. See Helyer, “Separation of Abram and Lot,” 86n3.

[31] Shinar is the biblical name for Mesopotamia generally. Elam was a kingdom in what is now Iran. Neither Ellasar nor “the nations” can be securely connected to any specific place. The five “cities of the plain” were destroyed in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and biblical scholarship has been unable to connect them to any specific place, with the notable exception of Zoar. See Willem C. van Hattem, “Once Again: Sodom and Gomorrah,” Biblical Archaeologist 44 (1981): 87–92.

[32] Rabin connects this to the idea that God fights the battles for his people because the odds are stacked against the Israelites. Rabin, Biblical Hero, 249. On that idea from a Restoration perspective, see Kerry Muhlstein, “A Savior With a Sword: The Power of a Fuller Scriptural Picture of Christ,” Religious Educator 20, no. 3 (2019): 114–21.

[33] See J. Reiling, “Melchizedek” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, ed. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, 2nd ed. (Leiden: Brill; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 560–62; Moshe Reiss, “The Melchizedek Traditions,” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 26 (2012): 259–65; Ioan Chirila, Stelian Pasca-Tusa, and Elena Onetiu, “Reconstruction of Melchizedek’s History in Rabbinic and Christian Traditions,” Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies 48 (2017): 3–15; Ann N. Madsen, “Melchizedek at Qumran and Nag Hammadi,” in Apocryphal Writings and the Latter-day Saints, ed. C. Wilfred Griggs (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1986), 285–95.

[34] Much of this discourse derives from Joseph Smith’s use of the book of Hebrews in his explanation of the Latter-day priesthood order. See Frank F. Judd Jr. “Melchizedek: Seeing After the Zion of Enoch,” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University: Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 69–82; John W. Welch, “The Melchizedek Material in Alma 13:13–19,” in By Study and Also by Faith, ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1990), 2:238–72.

[35] The immediate source for Alma’s expanded Melchizedek narrative is not explicitly stated in the Book of Mormon. It does contain material that is not in Genesis, which is mostly concerned with Melchizedek’s interactions with Abraham. The only clue to his source that Alma gives is when he says, “Now there were many before him, and also there were many afterwards, but none were greater; therefore, of him they have more particularly made mention” (Alma 13:19). Alma does not specify who “they” are, but he tells the people of Ammonihah that “the scriptures are before you” (13:20), suggesting that wherever this comes from, Alma views it as scriptural. See Judd, “Melchizedek,” 69–72; Welch, “Melchizedek Material,” 263–64.

[36] Doctrine and Covenants 107:2–3 informs us that the higher priesthood was renamed the Melchizedek Priesthood “because Melchizedek was such a great high priest.”

[37] This is a name for God that is most common in the Psalms. Sometimes the element Elyon (“Highest”) appears, as it does here, connected with God (Hebrew Elohim), sometimes it is used with Jehovah/YHWH (as in Psalm 7:17), but often it simply appears as a divine epithet by itself (numerous places in the Psalms, such as (9:2, 18:13, and 50:14). Some biblical scholars have suggested that El Elyon was originally a separate deity who has been conflated with the God of Israel, but the use of Elyon throughout the Hebrew Bible shows that this is not a necessary understanding. See Eric E. Elnes and Patrick D. Miller, “Elyon,” in Toorn, Becking, and van der Hosrt, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 293–99; Judd, “Melchizedek,” 69.

[38] It is intriguing to connect these ideas to the prophecy in Isaiah that Jesus, as the Davidic Messiah, would be a “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

[39] Judd connects this with the JST’s connection of Melchizedek to Enoch in Judd, “Melchizedek,” 79–80.

[40] It also provides a valuable perspective on the relational aspect of the Abrahamic covenant, especially regarding who our “neighbor” is (in light of Jesus’s teachings on the parable of the good Samaritan).

[41] Kent P. Jackson, “The Abrahamic Covenant: A Blessing for All People,” Ensign, February 1990.

[42] Bergant, Genesis, 41.

[43] For a discussion of the Latter-day Saint understanding and deployment of the Hagar stories, see Andrew C. Smith, “Hagar in LDS Scripture and Thought,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 8 (2014): 87–137. Smith has a useful and in-depth examination of the Hagar passages in the Old Testament. See also Carol L. Meyers, “Hagar,” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 266.

[44] Holzapfel, Pike, and Seely, Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament, 64.

[45] Holzapfel, Pike, and Seely, Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament, 66. Although not all of the modern connotations of the word slave are present in the biblical conception, it is important to be aware of the difference in social status between Sarah and Hagar.

[46] Ze’ev Falk, Hebrew Law in Biblical Times (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001), 127–28; Petersen, “Genesis and Family Values,” 15 argues that Genesis has an “expansive” view of what family means.

[47] According to Jacob in the Book of Mormon, this is one of the primary reasons the Lord allows plural relationships. See Jacob 2:30.

[48] Falk, Hebrew Law, 154.

[49] Speiser, Genesis, 120–21.

[50] Meyers, “Hagar,” 266.

[51] Although Abraham will ask the Lord for guidance in the later story in Genesis 21, the Bible gives no such indication that he does so here in Genesis 16. He might have done so, based on Genesis 21, but it is not explicit or implicit in Genesis 16.

[52] Dozeman, “Wilderness and Salvation History in the Hagar Story,” 24, especially notes 4 and 5.

[53] The Bible tends to present Ishmael in a positive light, and there are numerous individuals in later Israelite history (including the Book of Mormon) who are named Ishmael. See Michael D. Coogan, “Ishmael,” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, 329.

[54] Some scholars have suggested that there are a few problems with the chronology in Genesis here, since they understand Ishmael to be an infant here. The early biblical scholar Hermann Gunkel argued that the two stories of Hagar and Ishmael fleeing were two versions of the same story. Gunkel, “The Two Accounts of Hagar (Genesis xvi. and xxi., 8–21),” The Monist 10 (1900): 321–42. T. D. Alexander, “The Hagar Traditions in Genesis XVI and XXI,” Vetus Testamentum Supplements 41(1990): 131–48, argues that the two stories derive from different traditions. Blenkinsopp, Abraham, 53, observes, “We can make sense of the activity of the characters at this juncture only by ignoring Ishmael’s ‘schematic’ age and thinking of him as a young child.”

[55] This is a wordplay on the name Isaac, since the verb translated as “mocking” has the same root as Isaac’s name. It is actually probably better translated as “laughing” or “playing,” but these translations would not explain Sarah’s violent reaction. For a discussion of the various interpretive strands here, see Smith, “Hagar,” 96n32.

[56] Meyers, “Hagar,” 266.

[57] Orson Hyde, an early Apostle of the Restoration, explicitly taught this point. In an address given in 1874, he said, “If you go right into Abraham’s bosom there will be one side Sarah and on the other Hagar.” See Orson Hyde, in Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1875), 17:10. Smith, “Hagar,” 108, argues that “the defense of polygamy is by far the most prevalent usage that Hagar has been put to [in early Latter-day Saint scriptural interpretation].”

[58] On the importance of symbolic names in the Bible generally, see Gahl E. Sasson, “The Symbolic Meanings of Names as a Narrative Tool: Moses, Abraham, and David,” Storytelling, Self, Society 11 (2015): 298–313.

[59] See Sasson, “Symbolic Meanings of Names,” 305.

[60] This shows, incidentally, that the prohibition against eating milk and meat together was not yet on the table in this point in biblical history.

[61] Peter J. Sorenson has a very nice discussion of hospitality laws throughout history, including some discussion of how they might play out for modern Latter-day Saints. See Peter J. Sorenson, “The Lost Commandment: The Sacred Rites of Hospitality,” BYU Studies Quarterly 44, no. 1 (2004): 1–29. For the biblical text specifically, see Peter Altmann, “Hospitality in the Hebrew Bible,” Bible Odyssey, https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/people/related-articles/hospitality-in-the-hebrew-bible.

[62] Rabin, Biblical Hero, 130.

[63] Joshua M. Sears, “‘O Lord God, Forgive!’: Prophetic Intercession in the Book of Amos,” in Prophets and Prophecies of the Old Testament, ed. Aaron P. Schade, Brian M. Hauglid, and Kerry Muhlestein (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2017), 194.

[64] Sears, “O Lord God Forgive,” 194–5.

[65] See Avram R. Shannon, “Law of God/God of Law: The Law of Moses in Alma’s Teachings to Corianton,” in Give Ear to My Words: Text and Context of Alma 36–42, ed. Kerry Hull, Nicholas J. Frederick, and Hank R. Smith (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2019), 129–54.

[66] Timothy D. Lytton, “‘Shall Not the Judge of the Earth Deal Justly’: Accountability, Compassion, and Judicial Authority in the Biblical Story of Sodom and Gomorrah,” Journal of Law and Religion 18, no.1 (2002): 31–55.

[67] Rabin, Biblical Hero, 145–48; Blenkinsopp, Abraham, 87–88.

[68] For a Latter-day Saint discussion on this passage in view of learning about sacrifice, see Blair G. Van Dyke, “Elements of Sacrifice in Abraham’s Time and Our Own,” Religious Educator 10, no. 1 (2009): 51–69.

[69] Blenkinsopp, Abraham, 84–86. For an in-depth discussion of the theological and historical ideas behind this see Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993).

[70] There is an overview of this worship in Geza Vermes, “Leviticus 18:21 in Ancient Jewish Bible Exegesis,” in Studies in Aggadah, Targum and Jewish Liturgy in Memory of Joseph Heinemann, ed. Jakob J. Petuchowski and Ezra Fleischer (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1981), 109. See also Moshe Weinfeld and S. David Sperling, “Moloch, Cult of,” in Encyclopedia Judaica, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007), 14:427–29; George C. Heider, “Molech,” in Toorn, Becking, and van der Horst, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 581–85; John Day, Molech: A God of Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Publications, 1985). Thomas Hieke does not even think that this worship has ritual connotations but, instead, refers to the avoidance of Persian military service. See Thomas Hieke, “Das Verbot der Übergabe von Nachkommen an den ‘Molech’ in Lev 18 und 20,” Die Velt des Orients 41 (2011): 147–67.

[71] First suggested in Otto Eissfeldt, Molk als Opferbegriff im Punischen und Hebraïschen und das Ende des Gottes Moloch (Halle [Saale], Germany: M. Niemeyer, 1935); Morton Smith defends the idea that this worship refers to the practice of human sacrifice. See Morton Smith, “A Note on Burning Babies,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 95 (1975): 477–79.

[72] For an Egyptological perspective on this particular element in the Book of Abraham, see John Gee and Kerry Muhlestein, “An Egyptian Context for the Sacrifice of Abraham,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 20, no. 2 (2011): 72–77.

[73] Gee and Muhlestein, “Egyptian Context,” 75.

[74] This is independent of the Christological significance that Christian readers have often placed on the story, a significance explicitly called out in the Book of Mormon by Jacob in Jacob 4:5. For the role that this story has played in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim discourse, see Jacques Doukhan, “The Aqedah at the ‘Crossroad’: Its Significance in the Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 32 (1994): 29–40. See also Blenkinsopp, Abraham, 86–87.

[75] According to Abraham 3:25, one of the primary points of the creation of the world was to provide a place for this kind of testing of obedience. See also Blenkinsopp, Abraham, 81.

[76] On the connection between the test and the knowing, see Jean Louis Ska, “Genesis 22: What Question Should We Ask the Text?,” Biblica 94 (2014): 257–67, especially 259–60.

[77] Joseph Smith, as reported by John Taylor, in Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1884), 24:197.

[78] Jonathan Jacobs, “Willing Obedience With Doubts: Abraham at the Binding of Isaac,” Vetus Testamentum 60 (2010): 546–59, especially 557–8.