LESSON: INTRODUCTION TO THE OLD TESTAMENT
Purpose: To help class members transition from our discussions of Church history and doctrine in this dispensation, to the Old Testament record of a very different culture and dispensation.
Imagine for a moment that you have gone to the movies with a much older, or much younger, family member. You’ve gone to see the latest Harry Potter movie, or perhaps the most recent installment in the Lord of the Rings franchise. One of you has read all the books and seen all of the earlier movies in the series; for one of you, though, this is the first time you’ve been exposed to that universe. You’re sitting side by side, eating popcorn out of the same bucket. Are you having the same experience? Why not?
Let’s try another thought experiment. All of you on this side of the room have been members of the Church for a number of years. You’ve read the scriptures, listened to Conference, attended Sunday School. You on the other side of the room are not LDS, and perhaps aren’t especially religious in any tradition. You’re just as bright as the rest of the class, and speak English just as well, but you’ve had very different experiences.
Okay, you Mormons, we’re playing a game and I hold up a card with this word on it. [Write “Grove” on the board.] What does that word suggest to you? Why? Now, you non-Mormons who aren’t especially familiar with Joseph Smith – what does the word “grove” mean to you?
Again, you non-Mormons hear about someone being fed “bread and water.” What does that mean to you? And you Mormons, it’s Sunday, and the phrase “bread and water” comes up – what do you think of?
What accounts for the difference?
Note, too, that it isn’t just a different mental image that each group comes up with. When you’re LDS, the word “grove” is probably all wrapped up with everything you know about Joseph Smith, and maybe reminds you of a Family Home Evening or a Primary class where you learned about the First Vision, and so all your feelings about home and family and Church classes through the years might be a part of your impression every bit as much as the bare outline of the First Vision story.
LESSON DISCUSSION AND APPLICATION
We are just finishing a year where stories from Church history in this dispensation have played a major role in Sunday School. We aren’t all that far removed from the days of Kirtland and Nauvoo and crossing the plains – the people who went through those events spoke our language, and shared our general ideas of government and culture. You may never have yoked oxen to pull a covered wagon, but you’ve seen covered wagons, and maybe visited parts of the Mormon Trail, and imagined what it was like to be a pioneer. There world was somewhat different from ours, but not so different that we have any trouble understanding it with a little imagination and little explanation.
We are about to begin a new year of scripture study, though, based on the Old Testament. On the one hand, the Old Testament is very familiar – you grew up hearing the stories of Adam and Eve, and Noah and his Ark, and Moses and the Ten Commandments. On the other hand, the Old Testament is an ancient record, about people whose outlook and understanding of the world was almost entirely alien to us. When the Old Testament speaks of “gardens” and “groves” and “tents” and “priests” and “kings” and “wives,” we may think we understand, because all those words have familiar meanings in our world – but even if they do refer to the same objects, we won’t have the same associations and cultural understandings.
It may not be important if we visualize Ben Hur-like Roman chariots and Roman armor when we imagine Pharaoh’s armies pursuing the Israelites to the edge of the Red Sea, or if we imagine the baby Moses floating in the bullrushes in something that looks more like an Easter basket from Wal-Mart than whatever it was that people 3,000 years ago imagined.
On the other hand, if we read about the snake in the Garden of Eden with the same childish simplicity as when we first heard that story, we will be missing something. If we read the books of Job and Jonah as if they were journalistic accounts of literal historical events, instead of the literary creations that the ancient Jews understood them to be, then we will have a very different understanding of scripture than the people who wrote them had.
We have been taught time and time again that “the Book of Mormon was written for our day.” How is that possible? [Whatever other suggestions are made, bring out the idea that Mormon and Moroni, as editors, had a prophetic view of this dispensation and deliberately selected the sermons and arranged the narrative to fulfill their purpose: “to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great thigns the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they might know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever – and also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.” (Title page)]
The Old Testament shares some of the characteristics of the Book of Mormon, but differs from it in others. The Old Testament covers roughly the same number of years as covered by the Book of Mormon. But it draws on stories and teachings that are much, much older than the Book of Mormon. Other than the chapters of Isaiah that were copied onto the plates by Nephi, the Book of Mormon accounts were written more or less at the same time as the events they record. It is possible, perhaps, that some of the Old Testament books include stories that were written down more or less at the time they happened – modern revelation tells us, for instance, that Adam wrote a “book of remembrance” (Moses 6:5) – but these most ancient sources, if they were written down, have not existed for thousands of years. Instead, the stories of the patriarchs and even the early prophets and kings of Israel were passed along orally, or were written and copied and recopied.
One consequence of the way the accounts were passed along from century to century in this way is that there came to be multiple versions of the same histories. This is something we should easily understand – and we can even understand how multiple versions of the same events can be equally “true” no matter how different they are:
Think of how many times we have told the story of the Mormon pioneers. Sometimes we want to emphasize their trials and tribulations to show how wicked their persecutors were or how valiant they were despite hardship, so we talk about babies being born during rainstorms, and about handcart pioneers dying in the snow in Wyoming, and about graves left on the plains as one after another family member died of cholera.
At other times, we want to emphasize how brave and noble and inventive they were, so we talk about singing “Come, Come Ye Saints” around the campfire, or about pioneer children singing as they walked and walked and walked and walked, or about building an odometer so they could keep track of how far they had come.
These narratives are different, and serve different purposes, but – assuming the underlying facts are all true – one narrative is just as “true” as another one is.
We need to recognize the same thing about the construction of the Old Testament. Different traditions preserved different versions of events. One group of stories emphasized the role of Yahweh – Jehovah – as their God, while another group emphasized Elohim as the name of God. With the light of modern revelation we don’t have any problem reconciling these different accounts, but to someone else, they might look as though different Hebrews were worshiping different gods. One group of records favored by Israelite priests emphasized the role of priests in sacrifices and other temple rituals; another variety of records emphasized the laws given by God to Moses, laws that could and should be followed by the covenant people regardless of whether there were priests around to offer sacrifices. Both records were true, but different.
At some point – most scholars belief that point was a few hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ, when the Jews returned to Jerusalem from their Babylonian captivity – the various versions of the records were brought together and edited into one collection of holy books, more or less the Old Testament we have today, but written in Hebrew and Aramaic rather than English, of course.
In a sense, the Old Testament shares that characteristic with the Book of Mormon, in that a large collection of history and prophecy and doctrine was edited to form an “official” holy record. But where Mormon edited the Nephite records to teach the people of our day that Jesus is the Christ, the Jewish scribes edited their records to emphasize the origins of the Hebrew people, their covenant with God, and the continuation of their chosen status despite the loss of their Israelite kingdom.
As we read and discuss Old Testament scripture this year, we need to remember that it is a record of God’s dealings with the human family, and the covenant people, that some elements of the gospel were taught to people in all ages, and that there is much that we can and should learn from the Old Testament. But we also need to keep in mind that these records were not primarily written for us: we can’t assume that we automatically understand cultural references from these other times and places; and we have to remember that these ancient records are not written the way we write.
That is, the Hebrews did not write history the way we do. That is, where we strive to write “the facts, ma’am, just the facts” in a literal, journalistic way, the ancient Israelites had other storytelling habits that seem to us to be more fanciful, more legendary than historical, and which are “true” in a different way than we understand history.
We need to remember that even though the words we read are English, the words may not convey to us what the Israelite prophets intended. Just as we might say “He was hungry enough to eat a horse” without meaning that someone could literally eat a horse, we have to remember that an ancient Israelite report that something lasted “forty days” or “forty years” might not mean literally that something lasted one more than 39 days or years.
We need to remember that we have a scientific world view. We understand something of how the planets move, and of what causes eclipses and earthquakes and tidal waves. The ancient Israelites did not understand those things, for the most part – so we need to remember that the Old Testament should not be read as a textbook on geology or astronomy or biology.
But along with what it is not, we need to remember what the Old Testament is. It is a record, however incomplete or imperfect, of God’s dealings with mankind. It does contain elements of the gospel which prepare us to return to God. As much as the Old Testament was written by and for an ancient people, it also records prophecies that are coming to pass in our day, or that we still look forward to. It does discuss the covenant that Abraham made with God, a covenant that we are the heirs to, and shows how men and women are blessed for keeping that covenant and suffer when they depart from it.
What aspects of the Old Testament do you find most attractive or helpful?
On top of the cultural differences that can make it hard for us to truly appreciate the Old Testament, we have an added difficulty: We read the Old Testament using the King James version, a translation made more than 400 years ago so that its language is almost different enough from modern English to qualify it as a different language. The Church has asked us to continue using the King James translation no matter how difficult it sometimes is, so that is the version we will read most often in Sunday School.
When you have difficulty reading the Old Testament in the King James translation – and you will have difficulty, or else you’re not really reading to understand – what resources do you have to help you understand both the language and the cultural differences, so that you can really understand?
[Be prepared to discuss – or to suggest and discuss:
1. Joseph Smith translation – what it is and is not, where it is found, etc.
2. Reading difficult passages in a mission or native language
3. Consulting other English translations – NSRV, NET – where to find them, how they have been quoted in Conference, the fact that they are not “banned” from use by Latter-day Saints
4. Commentaries, with suggestions – and warnings]
This brings us to two other scriptural sources that we will be discussing in the first weeks of the Old Testament year: the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham, in the Pearl of Great Price.
As we’ve already mentioned, the Book of Moses is the Joseph Smith Translation of the first part of Genesis, with a preface about the call of Moses as a prophet, and then from the Creation of the world through the first part of the story of Noah.
[Discuss the Joseph Smith Translation, making these points – depending on time available and on what may have been brought out in the discussion just above:
1. We call it a “translation” because that is the word Joseph Smith used, although that word is used differently from how we ordinarily use it today.
2. Joseph Smith considered this revision “a branch of my calling.” He began work on it in 1830; although the bulk of the work was done by 1836, he returned to the project throughout his life.
3. We don’t have a detailed report of the process of translation, but since most of it is in the handwriting of scribes, we assume that Joseph dictated most or all of it. He used a large copy of the Bible marked where additions or deletions were to be entered, and dictated those changes to a scribe who wrote them on manuscript paper, often pinning slips with additions to the pages of the Bible.
4. Joseph was reading for understanding, not purely for devotional purposes – that is, he asked for and received revelation, sometimes simple inspiration and sometimes elaborate visions (e.g., D&C 76, re: the three degrees of glory, was received as he was working on the translation.) A secondary account by Lorenzo Brown puts these words in Joseph’s mouth: “I read the first chapter of Genesis, and I saw the things as they were done, I turned over the next and the next, and the whole passed before me like a grand panorama; and so on chapter after chapter until I read the whole of it. I saw it all!” (Sayings of Joseph, by Those Who Heard Him at Different Times.)]
Our Old Testament lessons will also be drawing from the Book of Abraham, another record translated by Joseph Smith, but with a source very different from any of our other scriptures. Archaeologists – or treasure-seekers, it’s hard to tell them apart in this context – plundered an ancient tomb near Thebes, Egyipt, in about 1820. Some of the mummies found there were sent to New York City for exhibit and sale, and eventually, four of them arrived in Kirtland Ohio, in 1835. The Saints there, as fascinated with all things Egyptian as the rest of the world was in that generation, raised a large amount of money to purchase those mummies and the papyrus scrolls that had been found wrapped with them. Joseph Smith’s diary shows that for the next six months he spent some considerable time studying and translating those papyrus records. One of the documents he produced during that time, with some later revisions, was published in 1842 as the Book of Abraham, a first person account of the ancient patriarch Abraham.
Exactly what materials Joseph Smith had, and how he produced the Book of Abraham, has become something of a controversy. His collection of materials was believed to have been destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 – but in the 1960s, a very small part of those materials, including the facsimiles published with the Book of Abraham, turned up in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and were acquired by the Church. Egyptologists today say there is nothing in those scraps that have survived that can be translated as the Book of Abraham, and detractors regularly try to cast doubt on Joseph Smith’s prophetic gifts based on the Book of Abraham.
Rather than go into detail concerning the controversy or the rebuttals made by faithful LDS scholars, I will suggest these things:
1. Joseph Smith had prophetic gifts, and was a seer. Studying the King James Bible opened his mind and spirit to the reception of a vision of the three degrees of glory, and caused him to see the “grand panorama” of the vision first seen by Moses thousands of years ago. I have no doubt that having his mind turned to Egypt and the ancient patriarchs, like Abraham, who lived there, could open for him a vision from God of the events written down as the Book of Abraham.
2. We’ve already seen that “translation” as used by Joseph Smith had a different meaning from the usual modern sense of converting text in one language to text in another – without further information, we should not limit our understanding of his “translation” of the Book of Abraham to what might be the usual meaning.
3. In the past few weeks we have seen the Church publish new articles on difficult historical issues – the origin of the restriction of the priesthood, and the 19th century practice of polygamy, and the multiple accounts Joseph Smith gave of his First Vision. I will not be surprised to learn in the next days? or weeks? that the Church has prepared a significant article on the Book of Abraham, or that the scholars working on the Joseph Smith Papers project will offer greater understanding in the coming months. I am perfectly content to wait for these coming resources to better understand the history and translation of the Book of Abraham.
Most of our Sunday School sessions will, however, be based on the Old Testament. I don’t know what other Gospel Doctrine teachers have planned for their classes, but I have been working on my lessons already for quite some time now. We will of course be following the scripture sections outlined in the Gospel Doctrine manual, and the purpose of each lesson will be the purpose statements outlined in the manual.
I do, however, hope to do something a little different this year. Rather than merely retelling the very familiar stories from the Old Testament, the ones you have been hearing from the days you were in the Primary nursery, and asking only “And how can we apply this to our lives today?” I hope to go a little further, a little deeper, to discuss what is really being taught by the scriptures. How far and how deep we can go naturally depends on what you bring to class – if you have read the assigned scriptures, if you have thought about them, perhaps consulted a commentary or two, or read the assigned story in another translation as well as the King James version, we can start from there and not have to use our time retelling the stories.
I love the Old Testament, and look forward to our discussions.