Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

OT Lesson 7 (Abrahamic religions)

“The Abrahamic Covenant”

Abraham 1:1–4; 2:1–11; Genesis 12:1–8; 17:1–9

Links to the reading in the SAB: Abraham 1, Abraham 2, Genesis 12, Genesis 17
LDS manual: here


For this lesson, we’re looking at Abraham, a nomadic herdsman with a tendency to hear voices in his head. Schizophrenia is a serious condition, and fortunately in our day people can get the help they need. But at the time of the alleged Abraham, you were much more likely to either harm yourself or start a religion, or both. That Abraham gave rise to three major world religions speaks to the severity of his condition.

The three Abrahamic religions are:

  • Judaism, essentially an ethnic/tribal religion whose foundational doctrine is that God likes them a lot
  • Christianity, which as a universalising religion is open to everyone, and so is the world’s most commercially successful death cult
  • Islam, which for historical reasons has been tightly aligned with law and government, and for this reason it has a record of oppressing women, gay people, apostates, and religious minorities that Judaism and Christianity can only dream about.

Ask: What’s the difference between the Abrahamic religions?

Bill Maher puts it like this:

Or you could think of it like a movie:

Think of it like a movie. The Torah is the first one, and the New Testament is the sequel. Then the Qu’ran comes out, and it retcons the last one like it never happened. There’s still Jesus, but he’s not the main character anymore, and the messiah hasn’t shown up yet.

Jews like the first movie but ignored the sequels, Christians think you need to watch the first two, but the third movie doesn’t count, Moslems think the third one was the best, and Mormons liked the second one so much, they started writing fanfiction that doesn’t fit with ANY of the series canon.

The Abrahamic religions share some notable characteristics:

  • worship of an all-powerful god, with stories of how he has harmed, or will harm, people who didn’t follow his commands
  • sharp cultural distinctions between in-group and out-group
  • an end-of-the-world scenario that they long for

Ask: How would these characteristics influence the thinking of a believer in an Abrahamic religion?
Answers: fundamentalism, clannishness and parochialism, a desire for an end to this world, accompanied by a failure to appreciate this life.

More seriously, I think, is that the desire for a new world saps the will and the commitment to make this world better now.

Main points from the lesson

Mormons like to pretend they are Jews

Mormons like to borrow Israel metaphors from people of Hebrew extraction, and this metaphorical borrowing goes back a long way. Here’s kind of a fun article from the news agency JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency), looking at Salt Lake City in 1927.

In Utah Mormons Call Themselves Jews and Jews Are Considered “gentiles”

The Mormon people regard them-selves as of Israel, too, if you please, and the term “Israel” as applying to themselves is frequently heard in their congregations. They believe themselves to be of Ephraim, and cousins of the Jews, who are of Judah. To a Mormon those not of their faith are regarded as “Gentiles.” Gentiles in Utah often say, in a bantering way, that everybody in Utah outside of the Mormons is a Gentile, even the Jews!

Not a lot has changed since then; Mormons still sing hymns with titles like “Hope of Israel”, refer to missionaries as “elders of Israel”, and even assign each other to tribes of Israel in patriarchal blessings.

Ask: How does this meme benefit the religion?
Answer: Studying the peculiarities of an ancient tribe would seem pretty remote to a congregation, unless there were some way of making it meaningful. The way the LDS Church makes it meaningful is to say, “This is really all about you, because you’re Israel. Somehow.”

Ask: How do actual Jews feel about this kind of cultural appropriation?
Answer: Strangely, as a Latter-day Saint, I never thought to ask. So recently I asked the good people on the Judaism subreddit what they thought about this. You can read the entire thread here, but here are some of the answers.

– The general consensus where I am is that they are an annoying but ultimately harmless group that we should basically just ignore. Stuff like baptizing Anne Frank posthumously is obviously obnoxious, but since we ascribe no meaning to baptism it has no real effect on us.
So we don’t care enough to do anything about it, but yeah, it’s creepy and annoying.

– Meh – No different than Christians claiming to be the true Jews with the New Testament or Muslims saying they are the true torch bearers of the Abrahamic faith.

– I find it entertaining, to be honest. Kind of like the Black Israelites. But to be frank, it’s just one of the many things I find quite humorous about Mormon beliefs.
Sorry for the condescension, but realize that from a Jewish perspective, Mormonism is yet another religion that claims to inherit and replace ours, and my reaction can only be “Oh, well this time I believe you.”

– I think creepy might be a good way to describe it.

– Gross.

– What’s one more group claiming to be the real us? It’s a little annoying, but whatever.

There you have it, folks: annoying and creepy.

Patriarchal blessings

An interesting ritual in the Mormon Church is the patriarchal blessing, usually received in one’s late teen years. In this ritual, an older man called a stake patriarch places his clammy hands on the recipient’s head, and free-associates some stock phrases intended to be pertinent in their life.

As with any oracle, the pronouncements are usually vague and broadly applicable. A good deal of latitude is encouraged in their interpretation. Check out this bit from the church website:

Similarly, the recipient of the blessing should not assume that everything mentioned in it will be fulfilled in this life. A patriarchal blessing is eternal, and its promises may extend into the eternities. If one is worthy, all promises will be fulfilled in the Lord’s due time. Those promises and blessings that are not realized in this life will be fulfilled in the next.

What an enormous rationalisation. What couldn’t be explained away using this logic? “Your blessing said you’d become a giraffe? Obvs in the next life.”

Patriarchal blessings bear some resemblance to psychic readings. Psychics typically use a technique called cold reading, in which the psychic fishes for information by making general statements (guided by observations about the person), and then following up the ones that get confirmed. For a patriarch, it’s a little more challenging because the subject doesn’t speak or move during the blessing, but the patriarch has the advantage of being acquainted with the subject or the subject’s family, and usually chats beforehand about goals or plans. As such, the patriarch will probably be doing more of a warm reading — a reading with the benefit of prior knowledge of the individual. Either way, for both psychic readings and patriarchal blessings, the subject will say that the oracle knew things they “couldn’t have known”.

A feature of the patriarchal blessings is the lineage, where the subject is told which actual tribe of Israel they’re from. Even though the patriarch could name any lineage, a curious number come up Ephraim, but there are outliers. Again, from the church website:

Because each of us has many bloodlines running in us, two members of the same family may be declared as being of different tribes in Israel.

I imagine this is a hedge in case a patriarch, unaware of the lineage of other family members, stuffs up and announces a different lineage for someone. Next:

Patriarchal blessings are sacred and personal. They may be shared with immediate family members, but should not be read aloud in public or read or interpreted by others. Not even the patriarch or bishop or branch president should interpret it.

Ask: Why would it be to the church’s advantage that we not talk about patriarchal blessings?
Answer: Communicating about blessings would mean that more people would know about possible disconfirming details. Of course, it’s sometimes all right to talk about the details that are ‘faith-promoting’. This is a good example of confirmation bias: members count the hits, and don’t talk about the misses.

Long ago, my friend Liz once told me something surprising about her PB: it contained a statement that, to her understanding, meant that she would only live for a short time. Well, I’m glad to say she’s still around. But what an unnecessary burden. And what a strange way of getting information about your life. To give someone a set of vague pronouncements which are supposed to be Very Important Messages from a god, and then send them out the door saying, “Good luck interpreting that!” — how could you blame someone for whatever they came up with? It seems like spiritual malpractice.

I asked her if she’d write her experience for this lesson, and I was very grateful when she accepted. What I didn’t realise was that there was an added dimension to her story. Here’s what she wrote.

The short story is that I interpreted something that was said in my PB as meaning that I would live a short life. This hung over me for many years and made me sad. What a waste of energy.

I was 17 yrs old. Female. My whole life ahead of me, much ambition. I reread my PB today for the first time in many years recalling the impact it had on me in my youth. In retrospect and with the clarity of experience and one might be bold enough to say wisdom, I see the influence it had. At first this was about the implications my PB made about the length of my life. Which stunned me at 17. However I realise there was actually a more subversive message I carried with me….

I realise that my whole life I had been receiving a message that was about my powerlessness as a female in the LDS church and my PB reinforces that by implying that my whole life, however short, is already determined and as long as I do as instructed I will be rewarded when I’m dead. I hate that. Don’t get me wrong; my PB has many motivating and inspirational words, but clearly instructs me to do A B C whilst obeying whatever else the priesthood says.

I believe that anyone and anything you choose to have in your life should help you to fulfill your hopes and dreams, not limit them. If any religion requires you to give those up for God I question why? Why do religions in particular do that? My answer is control. Control of actions, thoughts, intent. When I got married and didn’t have children right away I was asked by my bishop why? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. After that it was all over for me. I couldn’t bear one more minute of the powerlessness and inability to choose for myself within their walls.

Thanks to Liz for her story.

Additional ideas for teaching

The creation of a “scary external world” narrative

From the real manual:

Explain that the ancient Israelites were surrounded by many nations whose people did not believe in the true God. These nations included the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, and others.

And for a short time, the Ammonites and the Midianites.

• Why do you think the Lord put his covenant people in the middle of the ancient world instead of where they could be left alone?

He wanted them to set an example for others and to fulfill the Abrahamic covenant to bless all nations.
As he did with ancient Israel, the Lord has placed us, his latter-day covenant people, in the middle of the world. Our challenge is to influence the world in righteous ways rather than allowing the world to influence us in unrighteous ways.

We’ll see later on how the Israelites tried to “influence the world in righteous ways” through genocide, when we get into the books of Joshua and Judges.

But for now, let’s just take note of a special term: the world. For Latter-day Saints, the world represents everything evil and scary.

Ask: How does the idea of the world benefit the church?
Answer: The Church constructs a “scary external world” narrative to keep members tucked safely inside its ideological bubble. Members reinforce this among themselves by telling each other,

“I just don’t know where I’d be without the church.”

Well, of course you don’t know. You’re terrified to even imagine it. Or:

“If I didn’t have the church, I’d be dead / drug-addicted / a prostitute / lost.”

The purpose is to make the outside world seem insecure and turbulent, and the world inside the church-bubble safe by comparison.

Watch “Mother Knows Best” from Tangled.

Ask: What tactics does Mother use to weaken Rapunzel’s desire to escape her prison?
Answers: Emphasises the dangers of the outside world, offers herself as a loving and safe alternative, tells Rapunzel she’ll regret leaving the tower, emphasises her weakness by telling her she’s not strong enough to survive without her.

Let’s be clear: the world can be a scary place where bad things happen. But it can also be a beautiful place where great things happen, Ignoring this is unhelpful, and is intended to make members dependent on the church for their sense of security. It’s true that one could avoid most of the bad in the world by never venturing out, but this is not a good way to live a happy life. As well, fitting one’s mind into the church’s ideological box will probably keep members from finding out details that the church doesn’t like, but limiting the input in this way will prevent someone from finding the best ideas available.

As for me, I like finding out things and interacting with people all over this amazing world of ours, and I reject anyone who tries to make me feel afraid of “the world” as an entity. Such a meme could only ever work to benefit those who try to frighten us.

Sing along with the class.


  1. Another good one Daniel. Thanks.

    I liked the "retcon” Qu'ran (new term for me) and the BoM as fan fiction.

    Nice discussion of PB's also.

    Speaking of which, the PB hedge I got was the loaded on thick at the end.

    “Now these blessings are contingent upon your obeying each and every one of your Heavenly Father’s commandments, and upon your serving Him with all your strength, mind and might and upon your enduring to the end of your days.”

    Also liked the prayer poster. I once told a friend that I left the Mormon church because I didn't see myself needing help moving anytime soon and was better off taking the standard deduction. But now I’ll say it came down to cutting my losses at that crap table – or table of crap.

    I sang along at the end – I promise to read those scriptures at some point.

    • Wow — each and every one of the commandments? Even the ones that contradict the other ones? There's an escape clause for you.

      Thanks for reading.

Comments are closed.