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The ‘Indiana Jones of BYU’ explains the covenant of Israel in a way everyone should hear

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Kerry Muhlestein photographing a partially mummified burial as it was uncovered.
BYU Egypt Excavation Project

If you’re ever feeling alone in the world, read the scriptures to find your unique place in the vast family tree of our Heavenly Father. When we do this, we can see ourselves as literal and adopted descendants of Abraham and Sarah, recognizing our part in a long spiritual lineage of covenant keepers who love God.

The same Abrahamic covenant, or covenant with Israel, that existed in ancient times is known to us now as the new and everlasting covenant. “Some people wonder if the covenant is just for the ancient house of Israel, but the covenant is the most inclusive thing in the world, for all of God’s children,” said Kerry Muhlestein, professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. “[It] is the covenant that God made with all of us that He would save us.”

Kerry has traveled extensively through his doctoral studies in Egyptology and is nicknamed “the Indiana Jones of BYU” (he even met Harrison Ford once and joked with him about the moniker). Kerry’s experiences and research give him a unique perspective on the expansive nature of the Abrahamic covenant.

Part of keeping our covenants, he has learned, is shifting from a personal to a communal perspective. When we understand that we are not saved alone, we become, as Kerry explained recently in a video series, “a higher level of a covenant keeper.”

“God, in terms of the covenant, is going to save everyone,” Kerry says. “And not only is that His focus, He wants it to be our focus.”

To make communal salvation our focus, it is essential to understand how covenant blessings manifest in our lives. This understanding prompts us to turn outward and share those blessings with others; we want to help God gather all His children.

Understanding the Communal Covenant

Kerry says that understanding communal salvation often requires a “paradigm shift” for those he teaches. Because our society is so individually focused, he explains, “It’s not natural for us to think in terms of communal salvation and belonging to a covenant community.”

Keeping our covenants involves recognizing everyone as a child of God. “When the scriptures talk about salvation and the covenant, the terms are about saving Israel as a whole,” Kerry says. What was true in ancient Israel is true for us now: God wants to save all His children.

This is not to say that our personal relationship with our Heavenly Father doesn’t matter. That is the key starting point on our covenant journey. Kerry explains:

“You are important to Him as an individual, no doubt of that. But you will become your best individual self when you focus on your relationship with God and each other and on bringing God’s covenant blessings to everyone else.”

Even though we make and keep personal covenants, Kerry says, “Our salvation depends upon, to some degree, what we do for others. That seems to be the way God asks us to be.”

After we understand and recognize covenant blessings in our lives, we naturally want to share them because of the joy and peace we feel. One way to understand our covenant blessings better is to learn about how they manifested for people in the scriptures.

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Understanding Covenant Blessings 

Four key covenant blessings promised to the Israelites are prosperity, promised land, posterity, and protection. For us, these blessings manifest differently than in Old Testament times, but God includes us in the covenant today. This pattern continues His promise to give liberally to all who covenant with Him.

  • Posterity. The covenant blessing of posterity doesn’t always mean having children. “For example,” Kerry says, “Abinadi talks about our posterity being those that we bring to Christ.” Prayer and scripture study can direct us to understand how the blessing of posterity personally manifests in our lives.
  • Prosperity. For the ancient Israelites, prosperity often meant having enough rain so their crops could grow and sustain them. Prosperity is a covenant blessing available to all of us today as well, but it will not look the same from person to person. “Economic means are the least important aspect of [prosperity],” Kerry says. “The most important element [is] prospering in your relationship with God, and knowing that eventually, all that the Father has will be yours.”
  • Promised land. A land of inheritance, or promised land, is often described in the scriptures as overflowing with milk and honey, making it hard to understand how this looks for us. Our promised lands are found in locations where we feel spiritually uplifted, such as church meetinghouses, the temple, and our homes. “In our day, [a promised land] happens more spiritually,” Kerry explains. “We are given, through the covenant, the ability to gather and have a place to prosper.” 
  • Protection. The ancient Israelites needed protection from neighboring invaders; we need protection for our spirits. “If you’re prospering spiritually, [the adversary] wants to come and take that from you,” Kerry explains. The covenant blessing of protection from God keeps us spiritually strong.

Hurt and pain come from living an earthly existence, but we can still have hope in protection from an eternal perspective because of our covenant relationship with God. As Kerry says, “Eventually, God conquers everything that is oppressing you. Eventually, God even conquers death and hell for you. You will be protected. He will be your shield.”

Sharing our Blessings 

Like Lehi, who wanted to share the fruit of the tree of life with those he loved, when we understand and appreciate the blessings we receive from our covenants, a natural outcome is to want to share those blessings with others. Our desire is for our covenants to become communal.

As Elder David A. Bednar taught:

“Partaking of the fruit of the tree represents the receiving of ordinances and covenants whereby the Atonement can become fully efficacious in our lives. The fruit is described as ‘desirable to make one happy’ (1 Nephi 8:10) and produces great joy and the desire to share that joy with others.”

When we try to live our covenants and feel the effects of Christ’s Atonement, it is natural that we will want to share and have others join us. Gathering Israel becomes our desire as we strive to live our covenants on a higher level.

Watch the video to see how taking the sacrament gave Kerry a better understanding of the joy in the communal nature of covenant keeping.

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Video Companion
Make the sacrament more holy

Having a desire to share God’s goodness allows the Spirit to direct us to where we can be the most helpful. We can be inspired to use our talents and resources to create communal covenant belonging in simple and doable ways.

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Become a Communal Covenant Keeper 

There are many ways to share our covenant blessings and help all feel welcome in the family of God. When we shift our perspective, as Kerry asks his students to do, we’re able to see more personal opportunities to create communal covenant belonging. Here are a few areas where you can embrace this approach:

  • The sacrament. One way to start living as a higher-level covenant keeper is to do as Kerry did and turn our thoughts outward during the sacrament. Like Enos, we can pray for our own sins to be forgiven and then pray for the Atonement to take hold in the lives of those in our congregations. This can help us have more love and concern for everyone. 
  • Temple work. In the temple, we first make personal covenants and then return to serve others. The nature of the work becomes about helping those who aren’t able to do the work themselves. “When we go to the temple, we make individual covenants, but we’re doing it with a covenant community,” Kerry points out. “I think part of the reason for that physical setting is to remind us that this is [communal] salvation. This is a covenant community.” 
  • Missionary work. There are many ways to be a missionary and support missionary service. For example, my brother and I left for our full-time missions on the same day, and a family in our ward who wouldn’t have had the opportunity to send out a missionary asked to help pay for our missions. Through my mission experience, I was able to be a communal covenant keeper, and my family and ward family also lived this higher law by supporting my brother and me as we labored in the field.
  • Service. Callings are a way to help us serve as communal covenant keepers because we are asked to think about the needs of others in our church community. When we look at callings as a starting point of our service and don’t limit our ministering efforts, we’re able to expand our reach of love and belonging. 

In each of these examples, the focus is on turning outward and increasing unity—which ultimately leads to an increased sense of belonging and fulfillment. As Kerry shared, “There’s a great joy and peace that comes when you stop worrying about yourself. You’re just thinking, ‘These people need me, and I want to help them.’ It feels like taking the shackles off.”

The ways we open our hearts to create communal covenant belonging don’t have to be complicated to be effective and meaningful both to us and to others. As President Russell M. Nelson taught:

“When we speak of gathering Israel on both sides of the veil, we are referring, of course, to missionary, temple, and family history work. We are also referring to building faith and testimony in the hearts of those with whom we live, work, and serve. Anytime we do anything that helps anyone—on either side of the veil—to make and keep their covenants with God, we are helping to gather Israel.”

When we see each other as fellow brothers and sisters, it helps us understand the communal nature of our covenants. From Adam and Eve to Abraham and Sarah, we are each unique descendants of biblical covenant keepers and all part of God’s eternal family.

Kerry shares more about how the covenant with Israel applies to each of us in his Seek course. Explore the video series here.

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