5 Things to Know Before Studying the Old Testament December 29 2017

Welcome to the study of the Old Testament! Latter-day Saints are about to undertake an exciting journey this year in Gospel Doctrine. The Old Testament is a fascinating book that has had a tremendous influence on the development of LDS scripture and doctrine.  As we begin this journey, I have been invited to share some of the main points I would hope readers would keep in mind. For both ancient and modern Judaism, the spiritual foundation of the Hebrew scriptures is the Torah or “Law” (i.e. the opening five books traditionally ascribed to Moses). As a reflection of this tradition, I have chosen five things that I would encourage LDS readers to keep in mind—my own personal “torah,” if you will, for a religious study of the Old Testament.

1. Genesis

The Old Testament is not a book. It is a library. What I mean by that statement is that readers should not treat the Old Testament as they would a contemporary history book or even the Book of Mormon. The Old Testament does not contain a clear beginning, ending, or central thesis (in fact, the books appear ordered differently in Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish Bibles.) Instead, the Old Testament is a collection of separate books written by different authors over a thousand-year period with different views on God, history, morality, and culture.

    The Old Testament contains a variety of distinct literary genres such as law codes, proverbs, satire, erotic poetry, genealogical lists, prophecy, chronicles, and parables (just to name a few). This means that readers of the Bible should not approach a book like Chronicles, for instance, with its emphasis on sources and verisimilitude, in the same way they interpret a book such as Job or Jonah. Without a basic understanding of a text’s specific genre, readers inevitably misinterpret its intended meaning.

    For example, in the King James Bible, the book of Job begins with the statement: “There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job” (1:1). Yet this is not the way books typically begin in the Bible. In fact, the uniqueness of the literary construct in Hebrew led one recent scholar to render the verse as, “Once upon a time, in the land of Uz, there was a man named Job.” That opening completely changes the way readers approach the book. Reading the book of Job as a parable or a fable, rather than a historical account, changes the entire way readers relate to the story and poetry of Job. I believe that it is important, therefore, to remember that the Old Testament is not a single book, meant to be interpreted in a single manner. Rather, it is a collection of distinct literary genres from ancient Israel that should not be read as a single volume in the way a person typically reads a novel or history book.

    2. Exodus

    Since the Old Testament is not a single book, it does not contain a single perspective on almost any topic of importance. It is wrong, therefore, to ever speak of such issues as the biblical perspective on marriage or the biblical perspective on God. Since the Old Testament is a diverse collection of documents conveying the interests of separate groups, readers encounter a variety of unique and often contradictory perspectives on almost every subject of importance from the nature of God, to God’s corporeality, to the proper relationship between men and women, to the way in which we should see foreigners. Simply put—there is almost never a single “biblical” perspective on any issue.

      For example, parts of the Bible relate well to the LDS view concerning the corporeal (bodily) nature of God. Exodus 24:9–11 presents an account where Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascend Mount Sinai and literally see the “God of Israel” (v. 10). According to that narrative, these men not only saw God’s feet and hand, God literally joined them in eating a communal meal. In this story, God was physical, had a body, and could use it just like a human.  

      Yet God appears much less physical and human-like in Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 4:12 tells its readers that when Israel approached the holy mountain, they did not see a God with a body; they only heard a voice: “ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude (tmwnh); only ye heard a voice.” The Hebrew word in this passage translated as “similitude” literally means “form,” and it refers to a physical manifestation. From Deuteronomy’s perspective, God does not have a physical body and no one could see him.  Latter-day Saints will therefore find some sections of the Bible to accord with their own theological views and others, perhaps, a little less so.

      3. Leviticus

      Since the Bible contains a variety of unique and contradictory perspectives written by separate authors over a thousand-year period, I believe that it is best for religious readers to treat the work as a sourcebook rather than a textbook. Like an anthology, a sourcebook presents readers with multiple perspectives. In order to make sense, a textbook typically presents a single specific point of view. Unfortunately, this is the way that most religious readers have traditionally approached the Old Testament.

      If, however, a reader approaches the Old Testament in the way that it truly appears (i.e. as a sourcebook presenting multiple perspectives), then the collection can serve as a springboard for enlightenment, helping readers to define their own relationship to divinity. In other words, the Old Testament does not define God. Instead, it defines the way that specific groups of ancient Israelites living in a different time and place understood God.

      Adopting this critical approach can help a religious reader when she feels uncomfortable about the way a specific law treats a female rape victim or when a contemporary reader feels uncomfortable with the way God commands the Israelites to completely annihilate the indigenous population of Canaan. If that perspective troubles a reader then the text can serve as a springboard helping him to define his own moral and religious convictions independent from the text.

      But readers should also keep in mind that the Old Testament presents contradictory views that will perhaps fall greater in line with the contemporary reader’s own religious convictions. For example, many readers feel troubled by the way the book of Joshua depicts God ordering the destruction of a foreign people without giving them a chance to even repent. Interestingly, that is a view that seems to have also troubled the author of the book of Jonah who constructs a folktale to describe a time where God showed compassion to non-Israelites and gave foreigners a chance to repent, much to the chagrin of the book’s protagonist. The book almost reads as a response to the theology presented in the book of Joshua. 

      Thus, rather than a manual that perfectly defines God, religion, and morality, the Old Testament should be used as a springboard lifting its readers to further levels of enlightenment as we consider the various ways different groups of Israelite authors understood divinity.

      4. Numbers

      Unlike the Book of Mormon, the Old Testament was not written for our day. Its writers were not concerned with the far distant future. They were concerned with conditions that affected their own time and people. This can be an especially confusing issue for Latter-day Saint readers since our own unique scriptural texts often adopt and reuse Old Testament material.

      A classic illustration of this trend would be the prophecy in Isaiah 29. This text is often presented in LDS scripture as a prophecy concerning Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. Hence, when LDS readers actually read the chapter in Isaiah they may feel confused trying to fit the entire chapter into their understanding of LDS scripture. Instead, it is helpful to remember that by adopting and transforming sacred writings to fit a new context connected with the Restoration, LDS scripture follows the same trend we see happening in both the New Testament and early Jewish writings.

      It is common for later authors to actualize a piece of earlier sacred material into their own time and place, giving the original text a new religious meaning. We see this happening, for example, in the book of Matthew. Matthew presents a total of 14 citations of Old Testament texts that the author links directly with Jesus. He begins with a citation of Isaiah 7:14 concerning a virgin who will conceive a son, and the child’s name will be Emmanuel. However, when that passage is read in its entire context in Isaiah 7 it is clear that Isaiah was not originally referring to Jesus.  

      The child is specifically presented as a sign to the Judean king Ahaz in order to prove correct Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the kings of Syria and Israel. According to the actual prophecy, before this special child (presumably Hezekiah) reached the age of accountability (i.e. knew how to refuse the evil and choose the good), the land before those two kings would be deserted (v. 16). This was Isaiah’s prediction and the sign he gave to establish its validity.

      Jesus, who was born hundreds of years later, could not have fulfilled this specific prophecy. But this does not mean that Matthew got it wrong when he linked the passage with Jesus, anymore than it means that LDS scripture is mistaken to connect Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon with Isaiah 29.  This is simply an illustration of a long, venerable tradition in holy writ where a later author recontextualizes an earlier scriptural text to apply to another community or context. To get the most out of these texts, readers should first identify the original Sitz in Leben or “Setting in Life” in which an Old Testament passage appears and then consider the various ways later authoritative works recontextuallize and adopt that passage in order to give the scripture new religious meaning.

      5. Deuteronomy

      The final point that I would hope readers would keep in mind when studying the Old Testament is to have fun. In fact, many of these stories and traditions were no doubt originally created for that specific purpose. Take for instance the wonderful account in Judges 3 of the fat “Jabba-the-Hutt” like character Eglon who is killed in his outhouse by the left-handed Ehud. Ehud is from the tribe of Benjamin, a tribal designation which means “A Right-Handed Person”—so this makes Ehud a “right-handed left-hander.” The story of Ehud and Eglon’s “filth” that came out of fat belly when he was jabbed in his own outhouse was probably told time and time again around the campfire by Israelite soldiers making fun of their enemies, and now it appears in the book of Judges. These types of stories are indeed fun, and they were meant to make their audience laugh. So enjoy them; laugh with them—be inspired by them.

      The Old Testament is a wonderful collection of ancient material with some of the most exciting stories ever told—stories that have had a tremendous effect upon contemporary forms of entertainment from novels to movies. Have fun. Enjoy the process. Learn about biblical poetry. Learn about type scenes and literary genres, prophecy, and proverbs. I believe that making the Old Testament fun can lead readers to serious reflection upon this material. And that reflection can inspire contemporary readers in the same way it did the New Testament authors and the prophet Joseph Smith.

      So there you have it. My own personal “torah” for religious study of the Old Testament. I hope it helps and that you enjoy a wonderful year.

      David Bokovoy holds a PhD in Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East and an MA in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies both from Brandeis University. David has published articles on the Hebrew Bible in a variety of academic venues including the Journal of Biblical LiteratureVetus TestamentumStudies in the Bible and Antiquity, and theFARMS Review. He is the co-author of the book Testaments: Links Between the Book of Mormon and the Hebrew Bible and the author of Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis — Deuteronomy as well as the forthcoming Authoring the Old Testament: The Prophets, both part of the Contemporary Studies in Scripture series.

      Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis — Deuteronomy
      By David Bokovoy

      Part of the Contemporary Studies in Scripture series

      “This book should be basic reading for serious LDS students of the Bible.” — Eric D. Huntsman, Coordinator of Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Brigham Young University

      Authoring the Old Testament: The Prophets
      By David Bokovoy

      Part of the Contemporary Studies in Scripture series

      COMING IN 2018