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.