A friend told me that this would be the year she actually read the Old Testament for Sunday School. Everything was going fine…until she got about 6 chapters in and finds stories about drunken prophets, cursed familial bloodlines, and questionable or detestable intimate relationships. The further she dug, the worse it got. So what do we MEAN when we say the Bible is “the word of God” ?
Another friend said to me “well, there’s a lot in there that’s really messed up, but let’s not focus on that…let’s just stick to what’s in the SS manual, read a few verses, have a good discussion, and trust in the Spirit.”
Another friend tells me she HATED the OT and almost turned down her calling to be a Sunday School teacher when she learned that would be the text. Too much that is contradictory, that is extemporaneous, that is irrelevant to today’s society, and that just doesn’t boost her faith in God.
And yet another friend told me “Well, that’s the way the Bible is…and if God wanted us to have something better, he would have inspired people to make it better, so we have to trust that its current form is exactly what God wants.”
To paraphrase Joseph Smith…in the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, what is to be done? Who of all of these parties are right, or are they all wrong together? If any one of them is right, which is it, and how shall we know it? With so many differences of opinion about the exact same book scripture, it seems almost impossible to settle the question by a traditional appeal to the Bible itself.
I realized that this year would be challenging as we attempted to learn from the Old Testament, especially if we followed well-established cultural traditions of cherry-picking out the good, ignoring the bad, and attempting to view the ancient text exclusively through a modern lens. In an effort to help prepare our ward’s Sunday School class for an upcoming year of discussing the Old Testament, I prepared and gave the following lesson.
Psychologists have occasionally observed an interesting phenomenon striking 1st-time visitors to the Holy Land. The victims experience brief psychotic episodes characterized by delusional episodes of erratic behavior such as wandering solo through the deserts wearing little more than bedsheets, preaching street sermons about holiness and purity, ritual OCD cleansing, or proclaiming that they are Jesus / Mary / Peter / Lucifer.
The condition is called “Jerusalem Syndrome” and is triggered when a visitor’s expectations of what the Holy Land should be falls short of what the Holy Land actually is.
The remedy for Jerusalem Syndrome is simply time and perspective – they need to allow the cognitive gap between their Expectation to match up to their Reality. As they spend more time in the Holy Land (or, sometimes, viewing it from a healthy distance,) they gradually become capable of accepting the city for what it is and grow into a new, healthy perspective.
I bring this up to illustrate a point about how one encounters the Old Testament. It is not uncommon to encounter struggles, questions, doubts, concerns, and confusion as one pores through the stories and attempts to decipher the mindset of the ancient authors. Many a Gospel Doctrine student has come away feeling discouraged, disenchanted, or distraught by the apparent disparity between the doctrine of the Old Testament and the New, let alone the Book of Mormon and D&C.
To put it simply – the Old Testament is not what you think, and not what you expect. Don’t cling so tightly to your expectations of what it should be that you struggle to see it for what it is.
Or stated differently: one shouldn’t decide ahead of time what scripture is – they discover it along the way.
The goal of this discussion is to reframe the perspective about the Old Testament, to reset expectations, and to give several cognitive tools to assist in the studying and discovery of this ancient text.
How We Get Scripture
Before we dive into the Old Testament backstory, it would be helpful to review how we get “scripture” in the first place.
A common perspective regarding scripture and revelation is to simply discount the scriptural process itself, as if how we got it mattered much less than the fact that we got it. Such a perspective isn’t wrong per se, and it allows one to have a simple, undiluted trust in both the process and the result. However, it is ill-equipped to resolve the disparities that will naturally be discovered once a serious study of scriptures begins. A more developed understanding of the process will greatly enable the student to better appreciate and synthesize the result, as well as resolve and reconcile challenging aspects along the way.
Most sacred writings follow a process like this:
1) Composition – the author records a message or history that they feel to be worthwhile, either by direct command of deity, inspired motivation, or independent decision.
2) Compilation – Author(s) decide to group several Compositions to group together, either to reinforce a particular theme or message, out of preference for the author or compositions themselves, to make an editorial statement of validity regarding a particular Composition, or merely out of convenience or accessibility. What is excluded from a Compilation, and why, can be as instructive as what was included.
3) Transmission – The process of publishing and sharing a Compilation with others, either via oral histories or written / recorded copies. Those who Transmit the Compilations would decide with whom they’d share, when, which portions, etc.
4) Translation – The Transmission of scriptures would naturally reach a cultural barrier, wherein the language used would need to change in order to proceed, thus necessitating a new Translation. Translators would then face the daunting challenge of attempting to preserve the original meaning of the Composition while dealing with challenges of differing syntax, missing context, and subjective interpretation.
5) Interpretation – Once a Translation of scripture has been received, the recipient then faces the challenge of attempting to decipher what was written, what was meant, what was intended, and what it all actually means.
6) Application – Upon Interpreting a holy writ, the audience must ultimately decide what it means for them and ask how their life will be different and what changes will be made.
So with that exploration of how scripture comes to us, let’s review what the Old Testament is…by first defining what it is not.
What the Old Testament Isn’t
– It is not contemporary with the events described:
The first 5 books, a.k.a. the Pentateuch (Genesis – Deuteronomy) was likely written during the Persian period, 538-332 BC. The anonymous authors were likely the elite of the captive survivors who returned to their Holy land and controlled the Temple.
The Books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, a.k.a. the Deuteronomic History, describe the history of Israel from the Conquest of Canaan (~13th century BC) to the Siege of Jerusalem (~6th century BC) and were likely composed by a single unknown author in the late 6th century BC. The two Books of Chronicles cover much of the same material and probably date from the 4th century BC.
Chronicles links with the books of Ezra and Nehemiah which were possibly finished in the 3rd century BC.
The Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the ‘minor prophets’, were written between 8th – 6th century BC, with Jonah and Daniel likely written much later. The Wisdom books of Job, Proverbs, and Psalms, date from between the 5th to 1st century BC.
– It’s not a systematic theology or doctrinal exposition:
All of Israel’s manner of worship and religious rites are not detailed, nor is all their doctrine clearly defined. Much is assumed about the reader, and much is said in passing that one assumes to be already known.
– It’s not internally consistent:
It is not uncommon to find conflicting views, histories, explanations, or declarations appear side by side, sometimes even in the same book.
– It’s not the product of a single voice:
Examination of early Hebrew manuscripts reveal many different authors, many views, many perspectives, and many agendas, all spread across various time periods.
– It’s not historical, in the modern sense:
The goal of the ancient authors was not to produce an objective record of events as they truly transpired. While much is of their record is verifiable and testable, a lot of it isn’t, because the ancient Hebrew tradition was to use history to make a point, rather than to be historically accurate.
– It’s not complete:
There are several books mentioned in the Old Testament that are missing from the record itself, e.g., the Book of Jasher, the Book of the Wars of the Lord, the Testimony of Shemiah the Prophet, the Book of Edo, the Acts of Solomon, the Annals of King David, and the Book of Nathan the Prophet. Each of these is quoted or mentioned by Old Testament authors, but no known copies exist.
Furthermore, it is possible that authors may be anonymously quoting other scriptures that we don’t know about, without us knowing they are doing so.
– It’s not evangelical:
The authors’ goals were not to win converts, to convince heathen nations to worship Jehovah / Elohim, or to use it as a proselyting tool. It wasn’t written for the convincing of any foreign non-believer that the Hebrew religion was more correct or truthful than any other religion.
– It’s not a finished prescription for living:
The authors didn’t intend to display how their beliefs, faith, and practices brought them happiness, nor does it prescribe, as a whole, a method and manner on how to live according to a particular faith.
– It’s not a ‘static’ text:
Meaning, it’s not the product of a single, unaltered compilation, but rather it has its own history. It has been interpreted, re-interpreted, edited, modified, layered with whatever traditions and interpretations served a community at a time. Part of our challenge a biblical scholars is to pare away the extraneous traditions so the text can speak for itself.
To the Jews, it’s called the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish Scriptures, or the Tanakh, meaning the Torah (the Law), the Prophets, and the Writings. They don’t call it the Old Testament, for doing so implies a (Christian-authored, Judaism-condemning) New Testament.
The Catholic and Orthodox version of the OT include several books that the Protestant and Anglican (KJV) versions do not. Many recently discovered ancient texts (Dead Sea Scrolls, Qumram texts, etc.) include several books from the Old Testament but also contain much that is NOT in the Old Testament.
– It’s not intended to be a witness or testament of Jesus Christ (at least, not directly):
The title “Messiah” appears only twice in the entire OT. The title “Christ” is never used, nor is the common first name ‘Jesus’. There are, however, several references to the Holy One of Israel, which can be interpreted to be used both in reference to the High Priest and the forthcoming Messiah. There are multiple prophecies, particularly in the writings of Isaiah, that reference a period of deliverance, peace, and prosperity, which could be interpreted to refer both to the deliverance of captive Israel from Babylon as well as the Messiah’s millennial reign. Of the many prophecies and writings commonly interpreted as touching the Messiah and His mission, most are nestled within other writings regarding contemporary political events or referencing local historical figures.
– It’s not to be taken 100% literally:
The authors frequently use symbolic hyperbole and metaphorical exaggeration in the same sense that they use history – to prove a point rather than to be factually accurate.
What the Old Testament Is
With all that in mind, it’s much easier now to describe the Old Testament with greater simplicity:
It is a compilation of oral histories of nomadic family tribe that failed to abide by their covenants with God and were therefore subjugated by a neighboring empire. The histories were codified and recorded in attempt to instruct the survivors, reform their religious and social practices, and regain favor in the eyes of their Creator. The histories and doctrines taught were to be a reminder of their relationship with Jehovah, to be a record of how they failed to honor Him, and the consequences that came as a result.
How the Authors Viewed the World
The OT authors and people subscribed to worldview very different from ours today, which can lead a reader into problems, unless they become familiar with the differences and the reasonings behind them.
– Cause and Effect:
Ancient Hebrews and their fellow civilizations didn’t understand laws of science, math, or physics as we do, and certainly didn’t believe in a universe bound by immutable, observable principles. They did, however, believe that things happened for a reason, and that reason was usually the gods around them, for they believed in the existence of multiple gods, goddesses, demons, angels, spirits, and deities. (Note that the among the original commandments given to Moses, none were designed to refute the ideas of multiple gods, but that, of all the various gods to worship, Moses and the Israelites were to choose none but Jehovah, i.e., “thou shalt have no other gods before me.”) The gods weren’t necessarily centered around humans, but were considered to be off ‘doing their own thing’, with humans frequently getting ‘caught in the crossfire’ (e.g., Job).
They believed in magic contained within certain words, and that if a person simply knew the right words or names, they could unlock their power to the working of miracles. Thus certain words were forbidden while others were utterable only within a particular context (i.e., the name of Jehovah). Also, magic could be contained within certain objects, whether small and handheld (such as the priest’s Urim and Thummim) or large (such as bodies of sacred water or sacred mountains) and that if the favor of the gods could be invoked, the magic power could be unlocked.
– Holiness and Sin:
A recurring theme in Hebrew philosophy and religion is the idea of concentric layers of holiness, with the center representing the ideal, ‘righteousness’ being any path that leads straight to the center and ‘sin’ being any path that leads away from it. (Another interesting concept is the idea that the word for ‘repent’ in Hebrew is shuv, which means ‘to turn around’, or to change direction from moving outward to moving inward.
And “Sin” itself was defined differently for them, usually between 1 of 2 categories:
1) Ethical Infractions: murder, theft, violence, dishonesty, fraud, or
2) Ritual Impurities: menstruation, childbirth, bodily sores, certain foods or objects.
This concentric view of holiness was reflected in their daily life. For example, while the entire world was God’s footstool and domain, the “holiest” land was Palestine. And within Palestine, the “holiest” city was Jerusalem. And within Jerusalem, the “holiest” building was the Temple. And within the Temple, the holiest section was the Sanctuary, which contained a Holy Place, which contained the Holy of Holies. And within the Holy of Holies, the ‘holiest’ place was the space between the wings of the cherubim that sat upon the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. This space was known as The Mercy Seat, and was believed to be the very place where Jehovah dwelled or manifested himself to his followers. The entire Israelite world was thus centered around this viewpoint – even the tents around the Tabernacle were arranged in rings with their doors facing towards the Mercy Seat.
This summary of some of their viewpoints is not intended to be exhaustive, but it should give enough of a foundation to a better understanding the motives, intents, and perspectives of the OT authors. With that in mind, lets turn our focus to the various ways in which we, as modern readers, approach a study of the Old Testament.
Approaches to the Studying the Old Testament
The Typical LDS Approach
Most Sunday-only Gospel Doctrine classes are not intended to study the Bible for what it is, usually due to a lack of time, training, and resources. The common approach is to select a narrow range of topics, themes, and religious principles and find portions of OT scripture that support the idea. Problematic areas are usually avoided, which, unfortunately, means class members miss many opportunities to be challenged. Granted, not every problematic area needs to be discovered, explored, and resolved in order for an Old Testament class to be ‘successful’ or for a reader to come to a greater understanding and testimony of God, but there is certainly benefit to be gained by experiencing the OT in its entirety, problem notwithstanding, so that challenges and difficulties can provide stimuli for growth.
The LDS approach to the Old Testament could also be described as “prefiguring confirmationist”. “Prefiguring” means we read the scriptures with a primarily forward-looking view, attempting to make connections from the past to the future, regardless of whether such connections were actually intended by the original author. (Once again, the tension between 1. Composition and 5. Interpretation becomes apparent.) In this approach, the reader uses the ancient text mostly as a predictor or precursor of things to come, rather than letting it stay where it it is in the past. “Confirmationist” means the reader engages in ‘prooftexting’ or selecting and interpreting passages to backup the reader’s individual belief, regardless of whether or not such was the author’s original intent. We frequently read the Old Testament as if most of it points toward a future event and confirms what we already believe. This is a very different approach than how the Hebrews treat their scripture.
In addition to this typical LDS perspective, readers might engage in One or Many of Four Common Approaches:
1) The Literalist
To the Literal believer, the Bible is meant to teach things that are literally true, often idolizing the Bible and rejecting anything that contradicts it, even observed science. Their goal is find God right on the surface of the page, with no desire (and frequently, an uneasy distrust) to plumb deeper depths or confront challenging aspects.
2) The Symbolist
To the figurative or Symbolical believer, the Bible is meant to be interpreted metaphorically. They recognize the Bible as one of multiple records and are open to seeing symbols hidden within layers everywhere. Their goal is to learn how to speak the language of symbols, metaphors, literary patterns, and to find God buried deep within the hidden meanings. They don’t take things at face value and are on the lookout for the new perspective that expounds, or even contradicts, previously held views, in the hopes of coming to a deeper and more pure understanding.
3) The Historian
To the Historian, the Bible is meant to be read as a History of how humans interacted with each other, for better or worse. They recognize that the Hebrew scriptures are an incomplete and sometimes contradictory historical record. Their interest is in learning of the culture, customs, and background of not only the Israelites, but the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, and other cultures that play on the same stage. Their goal is to observe the historical puzzle pieces and attempt to complete as many as possible; they find God in how His children deal with each other.
4) The Theologian
The Theological approach to the Bible is to see all the various viewpoints in how God can be revealed and how He interacts with His children. They require neither historical accuracy nor literal completion, and they recognize that everything in the book poses questions about God, including (and especially) the problem areas. Their goal is to find God in the here and now using the patterns and principles of the there and then. They find God in how He interacts with His children, and attempt to recreate such interaction within Him today; they desire to not only understand the symbols, but to apply them to their own lives, commit to the principles they represent, and come closer to God as a result. They usually require a portion of the other 3 approaches in order for this to be successful.
Most people will move from one quadrant to another at various points in their life, and the progression usually tends to move in the upper-right direction. Some students will naturally gravitate towards one particular quadrant and might even feel a distrust of an opposing quadrant, depending on their background or interests or traditions.
Finally, a 5th Approach has also been observed occurring in tandem with nearly every other approach where the student is honest, humble, and earnestly seeking to come closer to God.
5) The Meditator
To the Meditator, the scriptures are a tool for calming the soul, for tapping into a meditative state, and for moving to a place of spiritual peace, intellectual enlightenment, emotional comfort, and physiological serenity. It doesn’t really matter what is read, as long as the reading is sufficient to allow the reader to entire a state of meditative peace. They feel more open to inspiration (literally the “breath within”) and find enlightenment and understanding about any number of topics, including but not restricted to what they were actually reading. To the Meditator, the scriptures are a tool to unlocking the God within us all.
The Old Testament is a challenging book, no doubt about it. It has scared off plenty of readers, poses more questions than it gives answers, and is frequently overlooked, understudies, misinterpreted, and misapplied. All the more reason, then, for a new perspective on the Book that we still, in fact, believe to contain the word of God. For truly wise men and women will ask questions to which they may not always find immediate answers, and in their reflections they will find God directing and encouraging them in their search for Truth. It is in the very struggle to understand that we grow; perhaps God wants us to ask the right questions more than He wants us to have all the right answers. And asking the right questions will lead us to greater light and knowledge of God, the world He created, how He dealt with His children in the past, and how He continues to reveal Himself to them today.
Regardless of which approach is used, a humble reader will find that God can be revealed by not just the book itself, but by carefully cherishing up the principles that are taught within and then living them. Principles of truth and righteousness can be found within any book, including those that have historical inaccuracies, literary flaws, or questionable doctrines. The more one understands the entirety of the whole, the better they will be prepared to deal with the complexities of the parts.
In the end, we’ll likely have not only a greater understanding of God Himself, but of the world around us, for, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis on why he was able to put faith in Christianity after being an avowed agnostic for so long, “[we] believe in God in the same way that we believe in the sun – not because we can see it, but because by it we can see everything else.”