In this post, I’m not going to go into justifications of this vs. that, just recommendations of five basic books that will make anyone’s Old Testament experience much more rewarding. If you do want more detail, options, and justifications, look at the more detailed posts linked at the bottom.
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I want to preface with something Elder Ballard said recently in a BYU devotional.
“I am a general authority, but that doesn’t make me an authority in general. My calling and life’s experiences allow me to respond to certain types of questions. There are other types of questions that require an expert in the specific subject matter. This is exactly what I do when I need an answer to such questions. I seek others including those with degrees and expertise in such fields. I worry sometimes that members expect too much from Church leaders and teachers, expecting them to be experts in subjects well beyond their duties and responsibilities. The Lord called the apostles and prophets to invite others to come unto Christ, not to obtain advanced degrees in ancient history, biblical studies, and other fields that may be useful in answering all the questions that we may have about scriptures, history, and about the Church. Our primary duty is to build up the church, teach the doctrine of christ, and help those in need of our hep. Fortunately the lord provided this counsel for those asking questions.”seek ye diligently and teachone another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118) If you have a question that requires an expert please take the time to find a thoughtful qualified expert to help you. There are many on this campus and elsewhere who have the degrees and the expertise to respond and give some insight to most of these types of questions.”
Today, I’m pointing you to some academic experts to answer your questions, or at least, change how you think about those questions. I don’t want to draw overly bright lines between devotional and academic study, since Elder Maxwell said that
“for a disciple of Jesus Christ, academic scholarship is a form of worship.” -On Becoming a Disciple-Scholar, ed. Henry B. Eyring (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1995), 7.
If I had to pick just five books I wished everyone would read for their Old Testament study and teaching this year, this is what I would say.
First, a modern Bible translation. I can’t overstate how game-changing this is, in numerous ways. Everyone I have known who picks up a modern translation and uses it has gained greater appreciation and understanding of the Bible. If you only have the budget or time for one new book this year, go for this. Latter-day Saints shouldn’t feel any theological reluctance in consulting other translations, since prophets and Apostles have done so in The Ensign and General Conference. (See here.)
For the whole Bible, I’d recommend the New Revised Standard Version Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. The NRSV translation is descendent of the KJV, a revision of a revision of a revision based on Greek and Hebrew manuscript discoveries, etc. As a study Bible, it includes many notes on cultural, literary, and historical background. For the Old Testament alone, with notes and essays from a Jewish perspective, I highly recommend the Jewish Study Bible, which is meant for laypeople.
Second, if you feel like the Old Testament is completely foreign and can’t tell Ruth from Rahab, pick up Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament. It’s LDS, general, has lots of illustrations, and covers the whole Old Testament but not in so much detail to overwhelm. I reviewed it very positively here. Alas, it’s hard to get in print, and I don’t know how well the Kindle or Deseret Book electronic version layout works.
Third and Fourth, we need a paradigm shift about how we approach the Bible and the Old Testament in particular, if we want to understand it and profit from it. This was the hardest category to limit to two book and will get its own post. But I think the one-two punch of Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes and This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities will do two things. The first book makes us aware of how naturally and unconsciously we misread scripture, because we don’t share the authors’ cultures. We “fill in the gaps” with our own cultural understandings— foreign to the ancient Near Eastern world of the Bible— which leads to misunderstanding. And then, thus sensitized to our mental impositions on scripture, Strange and Sacred fills in those gaps with ancient understandings instead of modern.
Fifth, a history. The Old Testament covers more than a 1000-yrs of history, and sometimes doubles back on itself, recounts the same things more than once. To get a good grasp of the main story, you need to read an introductory center-of-the-road history. Hershel Shanks anthology, Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple fits the bill. It covers the story, raises the necessary issues, and does an admirable job, for the most part. NB: I don’t understand Amazon’s pricing here. Purchased new from the publisher, Biblical Archaeology Review (which Shanks edits), it’s $22. And if you want a magazine which is balanced, reliable, accessible, and talks about the Bible, history, archaeology, and interpretation, Biblical Archaeology Review is fantastic. You’ll see me reference it in the coming year repeatedly.
So, there are your five books which will help the Old Testament make much more sense to anyone: youth, missionary, grizzled old High Priests leader…
For more detailed recommendations, see
- OT Recommendations Part 2: Bible Translation and LDS Tradition
- OT Recommendations Part 3: Paradigm Changers
- OT Recommendations Part 4: History and Culture
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