Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Understanding the Old Testament

Posted by Jim F. on December 20, 2009

Don’t expect Old Testament writers to have written their histories the way we would have written them.

1. We expect an “objective” account, what someone transcribing a video recording would write; they expected an account that showed how the event they were writing fit into the overall work of the Lord.

2. For them history was meaningful to the degree that we could see patterns in it, “types and shadows” to use Book of Mormon language (e.g., Mosiah 3:15). They seem not to have assumed that the types caused the shadows in later events, but that looking backward we can see the meaning of two events by seeing the ways in which one conforms to the other or they both conform to some third type.

3. Old Testament writers liked to use word-play, puns, speech patterns (like “chiasmus”), and etymologies of words because those helped them make connections between things and events.

For example, the name “Jacob” probably means “God will protect.” However, it also sounds like the word for heel. So, Genesis 25:26 says that his name was “heel” or “supplanter” because he had hold of his brother’s heel when he was born.

We think such things are, at best, just decorations that one adds to writing. They saw them as essential to connecting ideas and meanings.

4. They believed that an event could be both literal and symbolic, and that symbolic meaning was as much a part of the event as any other (if not, perhaps, the most important part of the meaning). We think that the symbolic meaning is something we add to the event, that it is something subjective.

5. For Old Testament writers, showing the meaning of the event in question was the important thing, not showing exactly what happened.

If we ignore these kinds of things, then we insist that the writers of the Old Testament must have (or should have) thought like us and that they must have (or should have) written as we would have written. That is arrogance, an attitude that will cause us to read things into the Old Testament that are not there and to overlook important things the writers included.

If we want to understand the Old Testament, then we have to understand it as its writers intended it. If we want to understand it as they intended, then we have to understand it as they wrote rather than as we would write.

Part of that also means being sure that we ask their questions rather than ours. For example, when we read the story of Jacob and Esau, it is tempting for us to moralize, trying to decide whether Jacob was right to ask for the birthright, whether what Rebekah did was right, and so on. Or to take the other side and to insist that Rebekah, as the mother of a prophet had to be doing the right thing, that Isaac, as the patriarch called by God had to be acting righteously, etc. But those don’t seem to be the questions in which the writer of the story is interested. The real questions we should be thinking about are the ones that the writer is writing about. Before we jump into the moral discussions we need to ask ourselves whether that person was interested in those questions when he wrote the story. If we are reading scripture, we want to know what the prophet or scribe was trying to show. Unless we ask that question, we will miss the point.

9 Responses to “Understanding the Old Testament”

  1. Jacob B. said

    Jim,

    Excellent set of posts. I completely agree with you here. We miss so much when read back into the text our presuppositions, assumptions, contemporary perspectives, etc. What advice would you give for making the scriptures applicable to our individual lives and concerns without falling into a solipsistic way of reading the text? I’m thinking primarily of Nephi’s injunction to “liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.” Certainly, coming to a correct understanding of context, authorial intention, and relation to other scriptures/texts would seem to necessarily precede a profitable application to ourselves in the times in which we live. I was just curious if you have examples of the best ways in your experience to go about this.

    Jacob

  2. Jacob B. said

    Oops, I should have read your followup post on studying the Old Testament first. Anyway, if you have any additional wisdom, feel free to drop it here.

    • Jim F. said

      I probably ought to have combined the two posts. But now that they are both up, I’ll leave them.

    • Robert C. said

      Jim, if it’s any consolation, I like the shorter posts since my time for scripture study is (unfortunately) usually only in short bursts.

  3. joespencer said

    Very nice summary of the issues, Jim. In some of my recent writing, I’ve drawn a distinction between the categories of the “historical” and the “evental,” arguing that scripture falls into the latter category rather than the former. I find this way of framing the question helpful because it allows one to assert that the scriptures are other than historical, without thereby seeming to suggest that the scriptures are unhistorical. The category of the evental—clarified, of course—might be the stop on the slippery slope that leads away from the strictly historical reading of scripture.

    • Jim F. said

      My only problem with the distinction you make, Joe, is that it is an academic one. Most members aren’t going to understand what “evental” means, though it is probably not that difficult to explain the term.

  4. BrianJ said

    Jim: I’m really glad you’re writing these posts.

    A question as I read: You (and many other sources) discuss different writing devices employed by the ancient Hebrews as essential to their point; e.g., word-play. How do we know this? i.e., did some ancient Hebrew writer detail methodologies for understanding their writings (unlikely), or is it just the consensus among modern scholars?

    • Jim F. said

      It is the consensus of scholars, though that consensus has a basis in Jewish materials we have from late antiquity and the early medieval period.

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