10 Things for Understanding the Old Testament

The Might of Assyria

The Might of Assyria

My semester has ended, and now I enter into a busy summer of reading, writing, travel, research, and some public speaking. I do hope to be writing posts a little more often than I have in the last few months; at least, I have some posts on the back burner I’ve worked on sporadically, to finish off and post.

If you’re settling down for a serious study of the Old Testament, what ten topics do you need to know? I was part of a group discussing this recently, and this was my quick list. Long-time readers will probably recognize repeated themes from my blogging. (I’ve added a little bit of explanation and/or links)

  1. Translation mattersEveryone’s first and primary interaction with scripture is in a language not their own. The Bible, of course, is translated from Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, but even D&C is not the American English of 2017. This means that for most people, their sole understanding of what scripture says is contingent on what the translation implies. Well, what if it’s not a great translation?
  2. Genre is a thingWe recognize the existence of genre or kinds in movies, books, music, food, pretty much everything… but then throw all that out because of Enlightenment inheritance and default to the assumption that scripture is history, with rare and obvious exceptions.
  3. Genre matters tooBut it’s not all written as history (let alone “history written from a modern conception of history”) and misreading the genre creates problems.
  4. Revelation is responsive to questions and circumstances, but Israelites often had different circumstances and questions than most moderns.For example, the Israelites had serious questions about the problem of one God versus many gods. Who was really in charge? What if you only prayed to the God of Israel, but it turned out there was another god too, and as a result, your crops or wife got sick? What happens when your civilization gets destroyed, and you’re hauled off to another country with a different religion?
  5. There are different kinds of interpretation.It goes WAY beyond “figurative” and “literal,” which is really problematic as a binary.  The most important binary, I think, is something like “contextual interpretation” (i.e. what the author meant to say, in historical, cultural context) and “non-contextual interpretation” (i.e. what the passage might say without context, under the influence of the Spirit, to a later prophet, to me personally etc.) These are both legitimate and can coexist, provided we don’t confuse the latter with the former. Oftentimes, we either hear in Church or propound ourselves a personal non-contextual interpretation as if it were “what Isaiah (or Matthew or Deuteronomy) really meant.”
  6. The Old Testament rarely hits you over the head with the point; There’s no Mormon-like “and thus we see.” You have to pay attention and read between the lines.Once again, translation matters. A lot of hints and connections in the text are obscured through translation. This is why the best, most comprehensive understandings of the Old Testament are provided by people who know it deeply and thoroughly, who can pick out the connections, and read between the lines. Along those lines, I recommend Robert Alter’s translations  and the Jewish Study Bible.
  7. If line-upon-line is a thing, then we shouldn’t expect the Old Testament to reflect doctrinal understanding or policies of today.If God will reveal more in the future than he has now, it stands to reason that he has revealed more now than he did back then. So why do we insist on reading the Old Testament as if they had the post-1930 Word of Wisdom, or knowledge of three degrees of glory, as if they were basically modern Mormons living a long time ago? Sometimes, reading in our modern Mormon understanding gets in the way of what it is really trying to say.
  8. No really, translation matters.It does, I promise. Nothing will increase your understanding of and appreciation for the Bible than learning Greek and Hebrew, or (more realistically) getting a modern translation of the Bible. And the Church is fine with that! Really!
  9. Most of what prophets know and how they think comes from the culture and worldview they grew up with. They are not tabula rasa for God to program.Somewhere, the future President of the Church is in a Deacon’s Quorum. He plays video games. He reads books and watches movies. He has a few hobbies. He’s under the influence of his parents, friends, and teachers. He belongs to a culture, and that inevitably affects him.
  10. Culture mattersIn this last point, I was thinking about cultural context of scripture: customs, idioms, etc. What they knew living at the time, that we don’t, because no one bothered to write it down. Lots of great books on these, like this one (Old Testament oriented) this one (New Testament oriented),  or this series,

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5 thoughts on “10 Things for Understanding the Old Testament

  1. A clarification to #9: “He reads [the] books [he is assigned in English class]…”

    But seriously, I think I’ll be passing this list around to my GD instructors at the start of next year.


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