Reasons to read the Old Testament #5

This series was first motivated by the far too many members I heard – including missionaries – express the opinion that they didn’t need to read the Old Testament. Every now and then, this opinion was couched as saying they didn’t need to, because they could read the Book of Mormon. This of course is a false dilemma.

It also represents a massive misunderstanding of the relationship the Book of Mormon has with the Old Testament. In short, while the Book of Mormon is one of the greatest aides to understanding the Bible, including the Old Testament, the reverse is also true. To neglect (or worse, to refuse to read) the Old Testament means to miss out on what some of the Book of Mormon is trying to say.

Critics have advanced the opinion that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has replaced the Bible or devalues it because of the Book of Mormon. That’s no excuse for members to adopt those ideas too; preferably we should take our theological hints from more legitimate sources. Others perhaps take the Book of Mormon’s statement that “plain and precious things” have been taken from the Bible to mean that they are unreliable, but this is a mistake. Firstly, it should be noted those plain and precious things were removed after the Bible passed into the hands of the Gentiles, so if anything, if stuff is missing it is missing from the New Testament (1 Nephi 13:25-28). Secondly, it does not say that what is left is unreliable; indeed one of the major purposes of the Book of Mormon is to show that the Bible is true (Mormon 7:9).

If parts of the pre-Christian Book of Mormon are plainer on some topics that’s not because of tampering in the Old Testament, but because the Nephites are “highly favoured” as exiles so that, as Alma states, things were “made known unto us in plain terms, that we may understand” (Alma 13:23). That the Old Testament is hard to understand on some topics is not the direct result of human action but ultimately God’s doing, for “for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it”. (Jacob 4:14) Yet just because it is hard to understand does not make it valuable, for those parts which are hard to understand “are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy” (2 Nephi 25:4), the Book of Mormon is quite clear about the dangers of rejecting any part of scripture (2 Nephi 28:29-30), and the Book of Mormon itself asserts the ultimate interdependence of itself and the Bible, that the two will “grow together, unto the confounding of false doctrines and laying down of contentions, and establishing peace among the fruit of thy loins, and bringing them to the knowledge of their fathers in the latter days, and also to the knowledge of my covenants, saith the Lord” (2 Nephi 3:12).

And you see this as you read it. Reading the Bible helps us understand the Book of Mormon, and reading the Book of Mormon helps us understand the Bible. The narrative of the Book of Mormon leaps into action in the first year of the reign of King Zedekiah, assuming you know who that is and why Jerusalem, Israel and the Prophets are all that important (1 Nephi 1:4). It frequently quotes and comments on biblical passages at length (e.g. 1 Nephi 20-21//Isaiah 48-49, Mosiah 14//Isaiah 53, and many others – 26 chapters worth!), both giving insight and highlighting many of those passages of most importance to us today. When teaching, Nephi, Lehi, Alma and others make frequent allusions and references to biblical events (the Exodus in 1 Nephi 17, the fall in 2 Nephi 2, Melchizedek in Alma 13 and many many others), and if you’re not familiar with these, you are going to miss something. Likewise a reader unfamiliar with the Old Testament is going to miss all the times they are drawn upon and interwoven into the text, and miss things like the allusions to Isaiah 29 in 1 Nephi 22, or Isaiah 5:1-4 in Jacob 5. The Book of Mormon even specifically mentions that it is leaving stuff out because they’re in the Old Testament (Ether 1:3-4); someone who refuses to touch the Old Testament simply isn’t going to know what the Book of Mormon expects them to know. I don’t imagine that, when the authors meet us on judgment day (2 Nephi 33:11, Moroni 10:27), they will be too impressed if we claim their book as a reason that we failed to read writings that they loved and expected us to read.

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Reasons to read the Old Testament #4

Confused at the genealogies in the Gospels? Wonder at who these Jews are, and what they are expecting, and why the Christ was born among them? What is this Temple place? Do you wonder where the titles “son of David” and “son of man” come from, and why they are important? Do you know where Christ got the two great commandments from?

I don’t recall ever reading the New Testament without some familiarity with the Old, so I have trouble imagining what that is like. I do know one is likely to miss a lot, though. The history of the people of the New Testament is established in the Old. The New quotes the Old frequently (often without saying so), and the meaning of many key phrases can only be understood in light of the Old. Christ and the Apostles were immersed in the Old Testament, teaching many people who were likewise immersed, and about things that are the culmination of the Law and many of the prophecies and hopes of the Old Testament writers. One reason for Latter-day Saints to read the Old Testament then is simply because it will allow them to better understand the New Testament.

Reasons to read the Old Testament #3

I’ve mentioned that I’ve always loved the stories of the Bible. What I should probably confess is that I’ve had a long love of the particularly gory ones. Ehud killing the fat king of Moab (Judges 3), Jael putting a tent peg through Sisera’s temples (meaning his head, not a place of worship, Judges 4), Elijah’s epic confrontation with the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18), I loved and love them all. And I know I’m not the only one, for I distinctly remember Blood and Honey, a children’s television programme that involved Tony Robinson giving particularly vivid retellings of the Old Testament stories on location. I loved that too (sadly it doesn’t appear to be available on DVD).

But I know some people don’t quite have the same appreciation for these stories that I do, which I think is sometimes a shame (particularly when that aversion leads them to sanitize such things for youth who might actually find, as I did, such stories appealing). Yet I believe these stories and others that may jar with people’s sensibilities have value beyond that of my own entertainment. I believe, in fact, that what they offer is so valuable that they are a strong reason to read the Old Testament. While each story carries its own lessons, I believe there are three broad points that should lead even those who are averse to such tales to take them seriously:

1) Such stories have a lot to teach about right and wrong. This might seem particularly jarring considering what I’ve just mentioned, and the rather long list of unpleasant acts that can and do occur in such stories. But just because something is described in the Old Testament doesn’t mean that it is being approved by the Old Testament. And Old Testament narrative in particular can often use quite subtle techniques, such as allusion and narrative repetition, to convey its moral viewpoint. Thus Jacob’s trickery of Isaac, where he disguises himself as his brother to gain his father’s blessing (Genesis 27), appears in rather a different light when Jacob just a few chapters later is similarly fooled by Laban into marrying the wrong sister (Genesis 29). Judah’s inappropriate relations with Tamar (Genesis 38) are condemned by their juxtaposition with the account of Joseph resisting temptation (Genesis 39). These stories provide paradigms of both right and wrong doing, and have much to teach anyone paying attention.

2) Such stories can teach us about the difference between our ways and the Lord’s ways. While the above point applies to many such stories in the Old Testament, it doesn’t apply to every story that may offend modern sensibilities. In some cases acts that we may consider wrong under normal circumstances are commanded by the Lord directly, or practices may be apparently endorsed that we are uneasy with. Such stories, however, may well teach us something similar to the account of Nephi killing Laban in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 4). The Lord’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9), and he may on occasion command us to do things that go against our preconceived political, social and religious opinions. Indeed in many respects He seems to make a habit of it. The stories of the Old Testament can also offer a particular challenge to our social mores, those things we might consider the obviously natural and right way of doing things simply because they’re what we know and have grown up with. They may help us resist the myth of progress, and resist the temptation to consider our modern social arrangements part of the eternal Gospel – even such things, to take an aforementioned trivial example, as modern courtship rituals once we consider the stories of Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 24) or Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 3-4).

3) Such stories are honest. This honesty can be seen in two ways. The first is to compare it with what else was being written from that time period. The records of the Egyptian Pharaohs, for example, glorify their victories, selectively remove any mention of their defeats and even remove mention of particular rulers who their successors preferred to forget (such as Hatshepsut). In contrast consider the Old Testament’s treatment of Moses and David: the great lawgiver who spoke with the Lord face to face, and Israel’s greatest king and founder of a dynasty. While Moses is undoubtedly depicted as a figure to be emulated, we are not spared his mistakes and are informed that the Lord prevented him from entering into the promised land because of just such a mistake (Numbers 27:12-14). Meanwhile David’s adultery with Bath-Sheba and his murder of Uriah is not only depicted, but fiercely condemned by the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12:1-12).

But there is another aspect to the honesty of these stories too, and one which bears on their sometimes unsavoury nature. The “horrible” things described in these stories happen. They’re not just stories, and they’re not even just a reflection of conditions in the ancient world. They happen today. We are accustomed to being comfortable in the modern West, but when one looks around the world today there are places where these things happen. Nor is the West immune to such things: some horrific things happen in dark corners out of sight, while just seven decades ago Europe was wracked with war and atrocities that make a mockery of any claims to modern moral progress. They are part of our recent past, they are (across the world, and even hidden amongst us) parts of our present, and we cannot assume they will not form part of our future. Scripture, if it is to be a saving influence on human beings, must deal honestly with the human condition. It must be able to acknowledge the horrible things they do, the horrible things they can experience and the extreme responses such circumstances might call for, in order to provide divine guidance for such times. It is this understanding, I feel, that helps us understand why certain things happen (or are even commanded) in the Old Testament, and why the Old Testament talks about them. We may feel uneasy with them in our present ease, but the time may come – and undoubtedly the time will come for some – when the Old Testament’s account of extreme times is more relevant than ever.

Reasons to read the Old Testament #2

What books are Jesus, Paul and Nephi talking about below?

Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God.
(Matthew 22:29)

Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.
(John 5:39)

And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.
(2 Timothy 3:15–17)

And upon these I write the things of my soul, and many of the scriptures which are engraven upon the plates of brass. For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and the profit of my children.
(2 Nephi 4:15)

A process of elimination quickly establishes that the books to which all these positive comments are attached is the Old Testament. They were the scriptures during Christ’s ministry, since the New Testament wasn’t written yet. They were still the scriptures when Paul was writing, particularly since here he’s talking about those Timothy knew as a child. And Nephi’s access to the scriptures is via the Brass Plates, a collection very close to what we know as the Old Testament, since the writings that went into the Book of Mormon also weren’t written yet. Many of the times that the scriptures (and their positive effects upon us) are mentioned in holy writ, it is the Old Testament that is being spoken of. For “the law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7).

Reasons for Latter-day Saints to read the Old Testament #1: Jesus commands it

I’ve always loved the scriptures. I particularly remember loving the stories of the Bible even before my family joined the Church, so it has been a little troubling to me to hear some members say that it isn’t necessary for Latter-day Saints to read the Old Testament. Obviously that isn’t doctrine, but I’ve heard far too many say it to think it was just an individual idea (which it isn’t, unless we’re talking about Marcion). Up till now I’ve mostly contented myself with extending individual commitments to read the Old Testament whenever someone says that to me, but obviously the idea keeps spreading somehow, and I’m also sure there’s many more who, while they’d never say something like that, simply haven’t read the Old Testament at length (even, as I’ve mentioned before, if they’re following the Sunday School reading plan).

So I’d thought I’d start writing a series of short reasons why latter-day saints should read the Old Testament, beginning with today’s:

And now, behold, I say unto you, that ye ought to search these things. Yea, a commandment I give unto you that ye search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah.
For surely he spake as touching all things concerning my people which are of the house of Israel; therefore it must needs be that he must speak also to the Gentiles.
And all things that he spake have been and shall be, even according to the words which he spake.
(3 Nephi 23:1–3)

Here we find the risen Saviour, having just quoted Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets at length, commanding the people at Bountiful to read them. He then adds his witness that everything Isaiah spoke will be fulfilled, both to Israel and to the Gentiles (i.e us). He quotes it, commands us to read it, and confirms it is true. Which makes Isaiah one of the few books ever that, if you printed it as a paperback and put it in a bookshop, could have the blurb on the back saying “as recommended by the Son of God!”

Do we need a greater recommendation than that?