Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Studying the Old Testament

Posted by Jim F. on December 20, 2009

What are the scriptures for? How should we use them? How do we use them?

“Proof-texting” is a procedure that begins by assuming we know the doctrines and then searches through the scriptures to find something to back up the belief. Because it begins with what we assume we know rather from what the scriptures teach, proof-texting always runs the danger of “wresting” the scriptures.

Jesus accuses the Jews of wresting the scriptures by proof-texting in John 5:39.

See also 2 Peter 3:16, Alma 13:20, and D&C 10:63.

“Wrest” is the word from which the modern word “wrestle” comes, and it means “to twist or wrench; to pull violently.”

How do we avoid wresting the scriptures?

Read 2 Nephi 25:1. Why didn’t Nephi’s people understand Isaiah? According to Nephi, why do we find the Isaiah difficult? Why do we find the rest of the Old Testament difficult?

What does Nephi say is necessary to understanding Isaiah (2 Nephi 25:4)? How might that apply to the Old Testament as a whole.

What is the spirit of prophecy?

The phrase occurs in the Bible only once, in Revelation 19:10. But it is a very popular phrase with Book of Mormon writers: Jacob 4:6; Alma 3:27, 4:13, 5:47, 6:8, 9:21, 10:12, 12:7, 13:26, 16:5, 17:3, 25:16, 37:15, and 43:2; and Helaman 4:12-23. (It also occurs in D&C 11:25 and 131:5; and in Joseph Smith History 1:73, Footnote 4.) How would the spirit of prophecy help us understand the Old Testament?

Nephi gives another requirement for understanding Isaiah in the last half of 2 Nephi 25:5. What is that requirement? Does that explain anything about our difficulty with the Old Testament? Nephi explains how he understands Isaiah in 2 Nephi 25:6. What makes him able to understand the way the Jews have written? How can we get something like that ourselves?

In 3 Nephi 23:1 Jesus adds to Nephi’s instructions about understanding Isaiah. What’s the difference between the searching that Jesus commands the Nephites and the searching he condemned in John? What does the word search imply?

On searching the scriptures, see also Proverbs 25:2; Ecclesiastes 1:13 and 7:25; 1 Nephi 5:10; 2 Nephi 5:33 and 32:7; Jacob 4:6; Mosiah 1:7; Alma 14:1; 33:2; 3 Nephi 10:14, 20:11, and 23:1 and 5; Mormon 8:23; Moroni 7:19; and D&C 1:37.

In 3 Nephi 23:2, Jesus gives still another addition to our understanding of scripture study. How can Isaiah have spoken of all things concerning Israel? Mosiah speaks of “types” and “shadows” in the scriptures (Mosiah 3:15 and 13:31). What have these to do with speaking of all things in the scriptures? Does Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 help us understand the way the Jews understood scriptures?

An LDS scholar, Avraham Gileadi, identified four “keys” to scripture study. Though he spoke of them as keys to understanding Isaiah, I believe they apply to all of the Old Testament. In his terms they are:

1. Having the spirit of prophecy.

2. Knowing the “letter of prophecy,” the ways in which the Jews used their words, letting the scriptures speak for themselves rather than imposing our beliefs about what they say onto them. This includes such things as noticing the literary structures the Old Testament uses to tell its story, watching the kinds of speeches used by Old Testament writers (e.g., lament vs. prophecy, the speech of a messenger vs. first-person speech, poetry vs. prose, etc.), noting parallels in verses and between stories, paying close attention to the kinds of metaphors used, and, when necessary and if you have the resources, paying attention to the way Hebrew words differ from our own.

3. Searching the scriptures. We must go beyond just reading the words of scripture, particularly of the Old Testament. We must make connections among them and with our own lives. One way of making that connection is to read between the lines, trying to find what is going on and how that relates to other scriptures and ourselves. Another is to see the way scriptural passages are connected to each other by the ways the prophets have written them (the rhetorical forms they use). And, of course, we must pay careful attention to the ways in which the scriptures are linked to each other: The Book of Mormon helps us understand the Bible, but the Bible can also help us understand the Book of Mormon.

4. Recognizing the “types” used in scriptures. We must see the ways in which the scriptures speak not just of one time period or another, but the ways in which they speak of any and all time periods. For example, to see understand how the Jews thought about their exodus from Egypt, an event which became a central type in their understanding and explanation of their history, will help us understand the Book of Mormon better, because the Book of Mormon writers often use references to the exodus to explain their understanding of Book of Mormon history. If we ignore the importance of that event to the understanding of Book of Mormon writers, then we are likely not to understand fully what they are teaching.

Here are some suggestions for scripture study:

  • Read the scriptures as they were written
    • Don’t worry about whether the meaning you find is figurative or literal. Instead, ask, “What does this mean?”
    • Ask yourself why the writer thought it was important to include this passage.
  • Read to understand—studying
    • Read aloud
    • Read with questions in mind
      • The wrong kind: How does this square with the scientific account of creation? How many animals were on the ark? On which day of the week will the Second Coming occur?
      • The right kind: What does this word mean? Is this event supposed to remind us of anything?
    • Use context to help you understand
      • Textual context: To whom is the passage addressed? What comes before and after it?
      • Intertextual context: Who wrote this? When? Why? How does it relate to other scriptures?
      • Genre: What kind of writing is this—a letter, a testimony, a doctrinal exposition, . . . ?
      • Audience: To whom was this book addressed?
      • Problem: With what problem is the writer of this passage concerned?
    • Understanding words
      • Definitions: Am I sure I know what each of these words meant to the writer?
      • Roots: Does knowing the root of the word help me understand its meaning?
      • Other uses of the word or phrase: Do other scriptures use this word? How?
      • Difference from expected wording: Is this different than I would usually expect? How? Why?
    • Understanding connectors and antecedents: Do I know how this passage connects to the passages that came before and to those that come after? Do I know how its parts connect to one another? It may help you to draw lines from passage to passage connected, from pronoun, etc. to its antecedent.
    • Joseph Smith Translation: Does the JST help me understand this?
    • Metaphorical language
      • Metaphor and simile (language that compares): What metaphors or similes (comparisons) does the writer use? What do those comparisons tell us?
      • Figural: What other events does this remind us of? For example, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac reminds us of the Father’s sacrifice of the Son.
      • Apply the passage to yourself: Does this say something about my life?
  • Look for rhetorical patterns and see whether they suggest a connection that you otherwise don’t see.
    • Some patterns of repetition
      • Repeated initial words
      • Repeated end words
      • Repeated adjacent words
      • Repetition in reverse order
      • Irregular repetition
      • Repetition of words with the same root (eg. “sacred” and “sacrifice”)
    • Some structural patterns
      • Phrases and sentences with the same structure
      • Lists
      • Chiasmi
  • Use other translations for comparison—sometimes reading another translation will help you understand difficult passages in the KJV
    • New American
    • New International
    • New Jerusalem
    • New King James
    • Translator’s
    • Translations into other languages
  • When needed, use good feferences and commentary
    • Oxford English Dictionary—this is important for Bible words and helpful for the other standard works
    • Webster’s 1828 — this is a good dictionary for anything written by Joseph Smith
    • Topical Guide
    • LDS Bible Dictionary
    • Concordances
    • Atlases, handbooks, commentaries, etc.

20 Responses to “Studying the Old Testament”

  1. Coffinberry said

    Cool. Now I just wish someone would come up with a similar in-depth look at the Primary 6 manual (also Old Testament). Sigh.

  2. robf said

    Thanks Jim. Does anyone here have a preference for any of the online Interlinear Bibles to help get to the meaning of original Hebrew or Greek words in the scriptures?

  3. joespencer said

    Jim, it’s great to see you putting notes up again! Great stuff here.

    Rob, the Blue Letter Bible is the best I’ve seen. On any given verse, you click on the little blue “C” box to the left of the verse and it brings up the passage in both the Hebrew and the Greek (Septuagint) for the O.T. It also opens up, at the same time, brief dictionary entries for each word used in the Hebrew and Greek, hyperlinked to pages with much more extensive detail: a brief Strong’s entry; the Gesenius Lexicon entry (you have to click on “read the rest of the entry to see it all); snippets from other instances of the same word; and so on. Back on the first page there is also a “tense” box to the right of each word, which opens a little window with some clarification about the tense of verbs. http://www.blueletterbible.org

  4. robf said

    Thanks Joe, that’s much better than what I was using before.

  5. Jim F. said

    Rob, I agree with Joe. The Blue Letter Bible is a great tool.

  6. BrianJ said

    I started with Blue Letter Bible, then moved to—well, added (since I never gave up BLB)—the NET Bible online, and now I also use parallel Bible a lot. The last one doesn’t offer any help with original Hebrew/Greek, but I like seeing all the different translations.

  7. Robert C. said

    Jim, this connection between Nephi, Christ (in 3rd Nephi) and John regarding the injunction to “search” the scriptures is great!

    Note: I think the KJV of John 5 is more difficult to understand than other translations. In particular, John 5:39 is confusing since the KJV translates “search” as an imperative” whereas most modern translations take this in the indicative (“you search”). See various renderings of John 5:39, and a couple notes, here.

  8. Jim F. said

    Robert, I think that John 5:39 makes sense in context only if you understand the verb in the indicative.

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  10. KirkC said

    Does anyone else have the LDS Scriptures CD-ROM Resource Edition? The one with Greek/Heb? I don’t know Heb, but I do have a working knowlege with Greek. I was wondering if others have had success working with that CD, or do you still prefer other online sites?

    I know the CD applies the Greek text that the KJV uses, and differs from the Greek NT I normally use at home in a few areas.

    • joespencer said

      I use both, Kirk. I’ve just found that it depends on what I’m using the resource for.

    • Jim F. said

      I haven’t known about the LDS Scriptures CD-Rom before this, much less the Resource Edition. For those who are like me, can you say more about it?

      • joespencer said

        It is available from Church Distribution for $6.00 (see here). It has the triple combination in a handful of languages, as well as the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. The Hebrew and Greek can be viewed interlinearly or on their own, and they can even be looked at in transliteration. What I’ve found nicest about the program is that a simple double click on a Hebrew or Greek word will generate a list of passages where that (Hebrew or Greek) word appears. At $6, it’s not a bad purchase.

      • Jim F. said

        Thanks, Joe. This sounds like a great resource. More people should get it. In fact, I may require my students in the “reading scripture” class to get it next week.

    • Jim F. said

      I suppose the decision was to use the Textus Receptus rather than the contemoprary editions of the New Testament in order not to have to get engaged in scholarly questions about the Greek text.

      Under the circumstances, I think that decision makes sense.

  11. Bob said

    Jim, thank you for your fine efforts on helping me on my understanding of the OT.
    However, what I can’t get passed, is the hundred of years of the common man reading his Bible only with the aid of a candle. Was he wasting his time because he did not know the things you have outlined? Is scholarship a requirement to obtain the meaning of the Bible?

    • joespencer said

      I don’t mean to answer for Jim, Bob, but it seems to me that Jim has provided the outline of a return to precisely such “common” readings.

      I wonder if we don’t sometimes make a mistake today and think that “common” readings from eras previous to the rise of historical critical scholarship were somehow “unthoughtful” or “simple.” My experience with Joseph Smith’s readings of the Bible, and he was hardly acquainted with the kind of resources we have today, is that he had a remarkable knack for uncovering structures, for asking poignant questions, for getting seriously productive work done.

      In a word, isn’t the problem that we conflate “common” readings with “simplistic” readings?

      • Bob said

        Thanks for the reply. Maybe I watched “A Christmas Carol” too much again this year, and felt a need to defend the common man. I do find him simple, but not simplistic. So too do I find Jim F. a simple man, but no way a simpltic thinker. And I agree with you on JS.

    • Jim F. said

      Bob, I hope that the materials I’m putting up don’t require much attention to academic scholarship. I’ve tried to avoid using much more than a dictionary.

      I also think that people were generally better readers (if they could read–which is a big if–and if they could afford a Bible, another big if). As Joe says, I’m hoping that my notes will help people see that they can learn to read slowly and carefully without knowing Greek or Hebrew or reading the latest scholarly articles in academic journals.

      Thanks for saying that I am simple but not simplistic. That was very kind.

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