The Abrahamic Covenant, Its Influence on Scriptures, and What that Has to Do with Us

by Kerry Muhlestein, author of God Will Prevail: Ancient Covenants, Modern Blessings, and the Gathering of Israel

The Abrahamic covenant is a central theme of the Old Testament, and really of all scripture. Every prophetic writer, whether in the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Pearl of Great Price, the Book of Mormon, or the Doctrine and Covenants, assumes that you know and understand the Abrahamic covenant, and writes based on that assumption. As a result, when we are not familiar with this covenant, there are a number of things in every book of scripture that we miss. We lose some of the message and the rich power in the scriptures without even realizing it. Studying the Old Testament is an excellent time to rectify this situation. This year we are afforded the opportunity to read about the establishment of the covenant and to study some of the places where it is most fully explained. This will allow us to start to understand the covenant the way President Nelson has been asking us to. President Nelson certainly realizes the significance of the covenant, and has been energetically teaching about it throughout his apostolic career, and has even asked us to study the blessings promised to Israel in the covenant.[1] There is no better time than this Come Follow Me year to come to more fully share President Nelson’s desires for us to better recognize, understand, and appreciate what it means to be heirs to the Abrahamic covenant.

The Abrahamic covenant is also known as the New and Everlasting Covenant. Joseph Smith teaches that it was first established between the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost before the world was created. It was then re-established with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It has been re-established in every dispensation, which is at least one reason it is called “new” in addition to being everlasting. Yet we often refer to it as the Abrahamic covenant because when it was re-established with Abraham he was promised that anyone who made the covenant would become part of his seed. Further, the scriptures are written by Abraham’s descendants, who refer to it frequently in connection with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In fact, mentioning those three great patriarchs together is a common way scriptural authors try to get us to think about the covenant.

We enter into the covenant at baptism. We enter into it more fully in the temple, and even more fully when we are sealed to spouse and family in the temple. We renew it weekly when we partake of the sacrament. Hopefully we experience its blessings continually throughout life. Of course this is only true if we keep our covenantal obligations. But what are those obligations, and what blessings do they lead to?

We can best answer those questions when we first understand something else. The central tenet of the covenant is our relationship with God. Everything else stems from God’s desire to have a closer relationship with us. Thus, all of the blessings that flow from keeping the covenant are connected to that core idea. A brief summary of the covenant with that core concept in mind would run something like this:

God wants to have a closer relationship with his children, which would increase both his and our joy. The only way to have a closer relationship was for us to become more like him, for our ability to be close, or one, with someone is limited when we are not capable of understanding them because we are not like them or at their level. As a result, God created a plan where we could become like him and thus be capable of experiencing greater joy. The Savior and the Holy Ghost covenanted with God to do their part in making it possible for God to complete his plan, or fulfill the promises he was making to us.

As part of that plan, we had to leave God’s presence and experience conditions that both allow us to grow and help us to learn to rely on him so that he and his son could help us grow in ways we were not capable of growing on our own. The only way for us to come to rely on them in such a manner was for us to redevelop the kind of relationship that would allow us to be close enough with them to experience their protective and developmental power. In order to create that kind of relationship, God invited us to enter into a formal and intimate relationship with him.

Anytime we enter into an agreement with someone to work together towards a common goal, it creates a kind of bond and intimacy that is not possible outside of such a pact. We call that agreement a covenant. Entering into an agreement to work with God naturally creates a closer relationship with him. Scripturally this close bond is described in a number of ways, but the most common are that God will be Abraham’s (or Israel’s or our) God, and that we will be his people. As a people we are a peculiar treasure and a holy nation to God. The intimate connection with God is also described by God having an everlasting mercy or lovingkindness for us.

This close bond between a covenant holder and God naturally yields a number of things. It allows us to have better and more frequent communication with God, so that he can direct us as is needed. A scriptural phrase describing this is when God tells Abraham “I will lead thee by my hand,” and “my power shall be over thee” (Abraham 1:18). This intimate bond allows us to experience God’s presence more fully, both in terms of having the Holy Ghost with us to both direct, comfort, and change us, and in terms of having ordinances which bring God into our lives, as well as into our chapels and temples which are dedicated to him which allows us to more fully experience communion and oneness with him. All of these things allow us to be spiritually begotten of God, which is part of the change we are hoping for. That spiritual begetting involves priesthood ordinances, taking his name upon us, being born again by the sanctifying power of the Spirit, and so much more.

Of course, when two beings have a close relationship with greater union, communion, and ability to share power and direction, some other things will naturally flow. Just as spouses feel protective towards their covenant partner, and as parents feel protective towards their children, and just as being together so much allows them to better protect each other, so God can better protect his children who have entered into a covenant relationship with him. Some of that protection comes in the form of the higher communion covenant partners have with each other, for it is the communication and willingness to act on that communication that is often the form protection takes. But there are other ways that covenant children are protected by God as well. Scriptural phrases about this protective element are both plenteous and beautiful. Some examples are that God will be our shield (Genesis 15:1), or that no sword will go through our land (Leviticus 26:6), or that we will dwell safely (Leviticus 25:18). This promise of protection does not mean that no harm will ever come to those who are safely ensconced in the covenant, for that would contravene the conditions necessary for us to have a successful mortal probation. Some bad things will certainly happen to everyone, but it is so much less than it would be without the covenant, and all bad things will eventually end for covenant holders. They can be sure that ultimately everything that besets them, every kind of bedevilment, ailment and scourge, including death and hell itself, will be overcome as we find ourselves behind the protective shield of our mighty God.

Covenant keepers will need this protection, for other blessings that flow from the covenant will make both men and Satan want to beset us. This is because another natural outgrowth of union and communion with God is prosperity. When we hear God more, when we are experiencing his power and trying to live as he asks and are being changed by him, prosperity naturally follows. It follows abundantly because of God’s powerful involvement in every aspect of our lives and his ability to magnify every good thing. This prosperity is scripturally often described in terms of abundant yields coming from our labors (see for example Leviticus 26:4-5 and Deuteronomy 28:3-6, 8, 11-12). Yet it also comes in terms of spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical prosperity. It is an oft repeated promise in both the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon. Again, this does not mean that covenant holders will never experience any forms of not prospering. Physical, financial, emotional and spiritual trials are bound to come, they are necessary parts of our mortal probation. Yet the promise of overall prosperity is sure, and full faith in that promise should help us get through the times when we are not experiencing it.

The ultimate form of prosperity is to have bountiful and beautiful posterity. This can take many forms, and is fulfilled over a long time. One obvious form is to have children with whom we can develop close relationships. For some that will happen in this life, for all covenant keepers it will happen most fully in the next life. Abinadi tells us that one of the most important ways this is fulfilled is that all those whom we help come to Christ to receive the kind of covenantal life he can give them become our seed. Undoubtedly there are many ways this promise is fulfilled that we cannot foresee. The promise of numerous posterity is one of the most joyous and important aspects of the covenant.

Of course prosperity and abundant posterity cannot happen if there is no place for covenant families to thrive. Therefore having a place, or a promised land, is an essential part of the covenant. There are several forms having a promised place can take. Often it means having a literal land on which covenant holders can live together, have place for their plenteous children to grow and then live, and land which can yield the food that is necessary for such abundant life. When anyone lives in a place that is yielding abundantly, then others will want to take that land and prosperity from them, so the promise of protection becomes even more important.

We can see the need for a literal promised land in the history of ancient Israel, and also in the history of modern Israel in the early generations of the Restoration of the covenant. A literal promised land has often proved to be crucial for the spread of the covenant and for the prosperity of the posterity of Israel. Yet today we gather to different kinds of places. We gather to our temples and our church buildings and to our homes. These are also fulfillments of the promise. In many ways the promise of land is really a promise of having a place to belong. We are so blessed that we can travel anywhere in the world and find a group of Saints with whom we can immediately feel a bond, and thus we can have a “place” to belong. The covenant brings a promised place in many ways. The more of us who are trying to keep our covenants – or live celestially – the more ways we will find the promise of a “place” being fulfilled. The ultimate fulfillment of this is the true promised land, or the celestial kingdom.

This highlights the greatest promise that flows from our covenantal relationship with God. Our union with him, our communion with him which yields knowledge of how to approach him, his power being manifested in our lives and our beings so that we prosper in becoming spiritually more like him, his protection from all that besets us including death and hell, all of this eventually brings us to the true promised land and state. It brings us to exaltation. If we are trying to keep our covenant, we are promised by God that we will be exalted. This can only happen because Christ kept his covenant, and went through his atoning sacrifice for us.

Elsewhere I have written that “each covenantal promise is rich and overpowering. Taken together, they are staggering. This last promise, that of exaltation, is beyond our ability to comprehend. Truly we suffer from an embarrassment of promised riches.”[2]

Of course, our reception of these covenant blessings is contingent upon our keeping our covenant obligations. These obligations also center around our relationship with God. The covenantal phrase about God being our God doesn’t just mean that He will take care of us in a bonded relationship, it also means that we love and worship him. In fact, our primary duty as covenant holders is to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might (Deuteronomy 6:5). It is this love – the love God has for us and the love we have for God – that  makes every other element of the covenant possible. When we do not love God first and foremost, nothing else in the covenant can happen the way it should. As I have said elsewhere, “above all, both in terms of duty and how it defines them, covenant holders are to love God. This love is to be the primary feeling of their heart, the central emotion of their consciousness, the consuming core of who they are.”[3]

It is only when we love God this much that he will prevail in our lives more than anything else, as President Nelson has taught us must happen.[4] “This kind of prevailing happens because we love, adore, and worship God. When this is the case, then God has truly become our God. Ultimately, loving God is the fullest realization of what it means for Abraham, Sarah, and their seed to have God as their God (Genesis 17:7).”[5]

When we love God, we will naturally want to follow all the instructions he has given us (Abraham 1:2). We call this keeping the commandments, which Christ has said we will do if we love him (John 14:5).

There is something else that is a natural result of loving God. When we love him, we will love that which what he most loves, which is his children. Thus, our close and loving relationship with God, which causes us to become more like him, leads us to love each other. That is why the second great commandment is to love our neighbor.

Loving each other takes many forms. Caring for each other’s needs is one important form. Sharing the covenant, with its attendant news about Christ and the ordinances that link us to him and the father, is another.

Really those are all our covenant obligations. It is a much shorter list than the blessings. In sum, our obligation is to increase our relationship with God by loving and remembering him, which will lead to our increasing our relationship with others by loving and helping them and bringing them to Christ so that they can create the same kind of relationship with God that we are experiencing.

Now that we understand the covenant, and how we enter into it, we can ask how it should affect us. Clearly the largest affect should be that knowing this should help us focus on our relationship with God. It should also naturally help us be mindful of all that God has done for us and continues to do for us. Remembering that should increase our gratitude which in turn increases our love for God, which in turn should increase our love for each other. Being conscious of this will help us magnify this cycle and get more out of it.

There is something else that comes when we better understand the covenant. It allows us to better understand the scriptures. We should recognize that any time scriptural authors mention any aspect of the covenant they are usually invoking the covenant as a whole. Thus, if we read something about loving God, about God being our God, about us being God’s people, or about God protecting us, or us having numerous posterity or experiencing prosperity, or having a promised land, then we should understand that we are reading about the covenant.

As a result, when we read that if we honor our fathers and mothers we will live long in the land which God gives us, then we recognize that we are being taught that if we honor our parents we will receive covenantal blessings. When Isaiah tells us that Israel will have so many children that they will need to enlarge their tents, which will cause them to need to lengthen the tent cords and strengthen the tent stakes, he is telling us that covenant blessings are really starting to flow. Similarly, when he tells us that houses that were once occupied have become desolate, he is telling us that there is a lack of covenant blessings at that point. There are very few chapters in Isaiah that do not invoke some kind of covenant phrase. Coming to recognize them will really help us understand Isaiah.

Recognizing when the scriptures are talking about the covenant, and remembering that we are members of that same covenant, allows us to realize another level of how the scriptures apply to us. When that happens, because covenant phrases are so prevalent in the scriptures, we start to gain added layers of meaning and applicability almost any time we read the scriptures. We start to identify with the covenant holders of the scriptures more personally, and thus we draw more power from them. Above all, we start to see how mercifully God continually works with his covenant people – how he always and unendingly gives them another chance after they have broken the covenant – and we recognize both that he is willing to do that for us, and that we have a role to play in his doing it with scattered Israel. In other words, becoming familiar with the covenant makes the scriptures come alive for us in a whole new way.

Above all, it allows us to experience our relationship with God more deeply, which is what God desires most and is the purpose of the covenant. He sent his son to make that covenant promise possible. He asked his prophets to teach and write about it, from the days of Adam until the days of President Nelson, so that we can experience that bond. He promises that such a relationship is available, and God will always keep his promise.

More Come, Follow Me resources here.

[1] Russell M. Nelson, “Let God Prevail,” General Conference, October 2020.

[2] Kerry Muhlestein, God Will Prevail: Ancient Covenants, Modern Blessings, and the Gathering of Israel (American Fork: Covenant Communications, 2021), 59-60.

[3] Kerry Muhlestein, God Will Prevail, 62.

[4] Russell M. Nelson, “Let God Prevail,” October 2020 General Conference.

[5] Kerry Muhlestein, God Will Prevail, 62.

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