Chapter 12, part 1 of The Blessings of Abraham: Becoming a Zion People
By E. Douglas Clark
Go ye, therefore, and do the works of Abraham. – Doctrine and Covenants 132:32
Legacy on Earth and Abraham’s Bosom in Heaven
With multitudes weeping over the passing of their beloved friend, Abraham’s body was laid to rest beside that of Sarah in Hebron, in the Cave of Machpelah, in what would later serve as the final resting place also for the bodies of Isaac and Jacob and their wives.
With the acclaim and adulation of a grief-stricken world, one might suppose that Abraham’s interment would have followed the manner of contemporary kings with a jewel-encrusted sarcophagus or a massive pyramid or some other monumental marker to forever memorialize the patriarchal leader of mankind. That there was no such marker must be attributed to what Abraham himself had wanted.
Further, his legacy can better be appreciated by noticing what he didn’t leave behind. For we have no statue or bust of the Patriarch like those magnificent representations made of and by his contemporary pharaohs, and even pharaohs far more ancient, who left their faces forever enshrined in stone or paint.
Similar endeavors seem to have occupied many monarchs throughout history, who sought to ensure that their royal visage would endure for all time. We can thereby contemplate the countenances of rulers like Ramses II, or Alexander the Great, or Julius Caesar, or even a mighty monarch in the region of Nimrut in present-day Turkey, perhaps the very Nimrod that was Abraham’s mortal rival. But of Abraham himself, no such statue exists, or apparently ever did.
The great irony of all this is that Abraham actually held and exercised the divine royal patriarchal authority to which all these kings so ardently aspired. For all their pretension to power and for all their elaborate work in leaving their likeness eternally enshrined for mankind, they were only pretenders to the divine royal authority actually held by Abraham, who never thought to commission a bust of himself.
With the treasures of the earth that God bestowed upon him, and with the multitudinous following he had, and with the popularity in his day of images of stone, Abraham might easily have ordered, or allowed to be made, a royal statue of himself. That he did not reveals something important about his character and what he cared about.
And if he left no creed that we know about, one of his like-minded latter-day descendants – President George Albert Smith – did, and in so doing seems to have captured perfectly the essence of Abraham’s life as well:
I would be a friend to the friendless and find joy in ministering to the needs of the poor. I would visit the sick and the afflicted and inspire in them a desire to be healed. I would teach the truth to the understanding and blessing of all mankind. I would seek out the erring one, and try to win him back to a righteous and happy life.
I would not seek to force people to live up to my ideals, but rather love them into doing the thing that is right. I would live with the masses and help to solve their problems that their earth life may be happy. I would avoid the publicity of high positions and discourage the flattery of thoughtless friends. I would not knowingly wound the feelings of any, not even one who may have wronged me, but would seek to do him good and make him my friend. I would overcome the tendency to selfishness and jealousy and rejoice in the success of all of the children of our Heavenly Father. I would not be an enemy to any living soul.
Knowing that the Redeemer of mankind has offered unto the world the only plan that would fully develop us, and make us really happy here and hereafter; I feel it not only a duty, but a privilege to disseminate this truth. 1
Or, if Abraham’s great motive were to be captured in one sentence, it would be what another like-minded descendant – Nephi – wrote of himself: “The fullness of mine intent is that I may persuade men to come unto the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and be saved” (1 Ne. 6:4).
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would be laid to rest in the same cave and the site would be venerated for ever after as the grave of the Patriarchs; the eleventh-century official in charge of maintaining the area was called “The Servant to the Fathers of the World.” 2
But it is Abraham’s personal legacy of kindness that still echoes in the name Hebron, which in popular etymology is said to derive from the Hebrew word for “friend,” 3 making it the “place of the friend.” 4
The Arabic name of the city, el-Khalil, similarly means “the friend,” who is memorialized yet again in the name of the mosque covering the cave: Haram el-Khalil, “Sacred Precinct of the Friend.” 5 And friendship was practiced there at least into the Middle Ages when the weary and needy could still find food and lodging at a charitably endowed institution called “Abraham’s guest-house.” 6
But the tradition of hospitality begun by Abraham was hardly confined to his burial place, for he had taught his posterity well. His oldest son, Ishmael, was “a strenuous observer of all the precepts of his [father] … imitat[ing] him in being … munificent and compassionate; for he was extremely … hospitable, courteously entertaining travelers, charitably and generously succouring the indigent … visiting the sick, and comforting the afflicted.” 7
He in turn transmitted these virtues to his large and noble posterity, 8 who handed them down through the generations that still remember their forefather as they pray, “Liberality belongs to the Prophet of God, Abraham.” 9
And it is that liberality that they emulate. Speaking of the history of nomadic hospitality, Raphael Patai notes that it is a continuation of Abraham’s own “exceeding hospitality … The hospitality of the Bedouins, the modern-day heirs of Abraham, has often been described. It is a noble trait, exhibited proudly even by the poorest Bedouin, and impressive even in the modified and reduced form in which one encounters it among Arab city folk.” 10
Isaac also “became wise and intelligent, and he loved to give the poor and needy bread and raiment. He made peace between man and his neighbour and he comforted the unhappy and despairing, and he helped them with all his power; he was beloved by all who knew him and he became famous and praised by all.” 11
The heritage was important in Judaism, and figured even in the national survival of ancient Israel: when Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill the baby boys, “the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live” (NRSV Exodus 1:17). In doing so, says the midrash, “they modeled their conduct on that of their progenitor, Abraham.
They said, Abraham, our ancestor, opened an inn where he fed all the wayfarers, men who were uncircumcised; and, as for us, not only have we nothing with which to feed them, but we are even to kill them. No, we will keep them alive!'” 12
Thus was kept alive also the Abrahamic heritage of kindness.
The “followers of Abraham . . . possess three traits: generosity, simplicity, and humility,” 13 says Jewish tradition. And as a recent study observes, the ancient Hebrew practice of hospitality and mercy, of helping “the poor and disadvantaged – the sojourner (outsider), the fatherless, the widowed,” was an Abrahamic heritage continued by all three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, “inspir[ing] countless beings through the centuries to individual acts of lovingkindness and participation in correcting oppression,” and “also influenc[ing] many people outside those traditions.” 14 Such has been the global spread of kindness inspired by the life of Abraham.
And such has been the almost unbelievable influence of one man, whose effect on the world and whose reputation in it eclipse that of the haughty monarchs with whom he once had to deal. So widely revered had he become in the early centuries of the Christian era that the Roman Emperor Alexander Severus – ruler of the dominions once governed by Nimrod and Pharaoh – kept an image of Abraham among his other gods. 15 It was part of the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to make Abraham’s name great among all nations. 16 According to the Reverend W. F. P. Noble,
Not the mighty Nimrods nor Pharaohs … nor any other man, has left such a broad mark on the world. His name is known where the greatest emperors and conquerors were never so much as heard of. There is no quarter of the globe to which it has not been carried, and it is the only one which is venerated alike by Jews and Christians and Mohammedans; for whatever be their differences . . . , all of them … claim an equal relationship with this distinguished patriarch, saying, “We have Abraham to our father.” 17
And it is to Abraham their father that they aspire to go, for the highest destiny sought by his righteous posterity is to share in the eternal rewards promised to Abraham. In both Judaism and Christianity from early times, the righteous are finally to be received into the “bosom of Abraham.” 18 As an Armenian apocryphal source states: “Those who are worthy rest in his bosom.” 19
Orson Hyde commented about Abraham that “I suppose he has a pretty large bosom and a large heart, large enough to embrace all the faithful from his day down to the end of time, for in him and his seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” 20 Jews today still pray to be blessed by “the One who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” 21
So it is also in Islam, as Muslims throughout the world pray: “O God … bless Muhammad and the family of Muhammad as Thou didst bless Abraham and the family of Abraham,” and “make us, O Lord, the comrades … of Abraham Thy Friend.” 22
Muhammad himself, according to Islamic tradition, asked for equality with Abraham and commanded his community to ask for this,” 23 and Islam indeed considers itself “the community of Abraham.” 24 In an Islamic funeral rite when the dead person is given instructions on how to answer the questions that will be posed, the person is told to say, among other things, “God is my Lord … and Abraham, Thy friend, my Father.” 25
Islamic tradition holds that Abraham sits enthroned in the highest heaven, 26 a tradition showing his “very special position” in Islam. 27 Modern revelation to Joseph Smith similarly tells that even as Abraham “hath entered into his exaltation and sitteth upon his throne” (D&C 132:29) – the surpassing glory of which is emphasized in Jewish tradition 28 – so will all those who “do the works of Abraham” (D&C 132:32) likewise “inherit thrones” (D&C 132:19).
Similarly, according to the Testament of Isaac, the aged Isaac heard the archangel Michael promise: “There has been prepared for you the throne beside your father Abraham … You shall go away to rejoicing which has no end, and to light and bliss which have no limit, and to acclaim and delight without ceasing.” 30
Notes to Chapter 12
18See generally: Kittel and Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 3:825-26; James, Testament of Abraham, 72-75; Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 5:268 n. 318; Fitzmeyer, Gospel According to Luke (10-24), 1132; and Meyer, Mark and Luke, 477 -79. In the Book of Mormon, compare Alma 7:25: “that ye may at last be brought to sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob . . . in the kingdom of heaven to go no more out.”