Reading The Old Testament: A First-timers Reflection

February 5, 2009    By: Matt W. @ 10:41 am   Category: Life

So ten years ago, when I joined the church, it suddenly became slightly uncomfortable to me that despite having 11 years of catholic school education, I had never read the Old Testament. So I randomly picked a book of the OT to read, as a way of getting started. It was Nehemiah. As you can imagine, that didn’t go over too well. So I then began reading one chapter of each of the Standard works every day. That lasted for about 20 days, and then I lost my Bible in a car accident.  (I bought a new bible, but alas the habit was broken).  So another 9 months passed, I read the D&C and PoGP for the first time, and went on a mission. (I read the Book of Mormon 2 or 3 more times too) and I started at the OT again. This time I made it to Chronicles, then gave up. When I got married, My wife admitted she also had never finished the OT, and we read together, and made it to Leviticus once, then the end of Genesis, then the middle of Exodus, etc. etc. Then we tried backwards and made it to Jeremiah. So last May I bought the Old Testament on CD. It’s the ‘Inspired By’ TNIV edition, with a dramatized rendition by an all African-American cast.  And last week I finished it.

First of all, I have to give a big thumbs up to the Inspired By Production.  It was well-done and very well recorded. The Cast (Including Denzel Washington reading the Song of Solomon and Cuba Gooding Jr.  as Jonah) all did the best that could be done to give honor to their subject matter. When I was listening to Genesis, It transported me into the Temple. It was easy to listen to, and while it is impossible to get through the OT without glazing over sometimes, it held my interest much more than I thought it would. There was room for improvement, of course, as sometimes, the background ambient noise became a distraction, as music began to repeat in certain segments, o r Music didn’t seem to line up 100% with the fore-matter. Another quibble with the audio, albeit minor, was the introduction and exit music to each CD and book of Scripture. With 60 CDs, it frankly got old after the first 3, and I skipped it.

Secondly, while I know Kevin Barney put up a post last year with all the reasons not to like the TNIV, I didn’t have much issue with it. For easy-listening, it was a good copy, and used plain language. For that matter, the language was almost too plain. At sometime in Genesis, I think it became pretty apparent to me that I wasn’t comfortable with the material for my 5 year old. (Maybe it was Onan’s semen, but I can’t remember.) With Onan, and David, and David’s kids, and all the rape, abuse, hate, and darkness in the Old Testament, I came to the startling conclusion that while at one time I had seriously considered being believing in just the Old Testament God rather than in Christ (at least as seriously as a 15 year old considers anything), I now know I definitely need the Christian lense for God, and beyond that, the LDS lense. 

Which brings me to my last point, something I have discovered about myself in the process of reading the Old Testament is that I cannot take it literally. The God presented there is too cruel and unkind. The values are foreign from my understanding of the way things are. So much of it is people doing terrible things, and a God who is praised as a destroyer and feared as a king. While there are some highlights (For me Job, Ecclesiastes and Proverbs) there is so much violence and lack of understanding that I doubt I will ever read the Old Testament again.

So my question is this:

The God presented in the Old Testament isn’t much like the God I believe in. How do I deal with that?

 

36 Comments »

  1. “The God presented in the Old Testament isn’t much like the God I believe in. How do I deal with that?”

    Rethink your beliefs.

    Comment by Jettboy — February 5, 2009 @ 10:58 am

  2. I think God deals with us, as much as He can, on our level – which leads to “our interpretation” when retelling the experience. If we’re acting “telestial,” God deals with us on a telestial level; maybe as a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ.
    One thing I am sure about is those folks didn’t see things the same way as I do. Heck, people living in that part of the world today don’t see things the same way as I do.

    Comment by mondo cool — February 5, 2009 @ 11:21 am

  3. Just thinking out loud here, Matt, but what about if you allow for some of that “disconnect” to be blamed on the people/culture of the time period that the Old Testament came out of, rather than how God actually was. Perhaps they’re not portraying God completely accurately, and they let some of their localized (and less than loving) views slip in to their religious paradigm.

    We know that it is not a “perfect” book (none of the scriptures are) and I just have to step back and recognized that many assumptions they made about God then (when they did not have a fulness of the Gospel) would have been somewhat distorted. For me, it’s the least perfect of all books of scripture, but still very, very, valuable. Some parts are just less valuable for me than others. I learn a lot about how NOT to be from a lot of “bad” examples, too.

    Just a thought. It’s definitely an interesting, for lack of a better word, read. I was forced to make some sense of it last year by teaching seminary. Sometimes it took a lot of extra, insightful resources, but I was able to find much edification. But I know what you’re talking about, and a lot of that I’ll just set aside for now and blame on the mortals.

    Comment by Clean Cut — February 5, 2009 @ 11:33 am

  4. The God presented there is too cruel and unkind. The values are foreign from my understanding of the way things are. So much of it is people doing terrible things, and a God who is praised as a destroyer and feared as a king. While there are some highlights (For me Job, Ecclesiastes and Proverbs) there is so much violence and lack of understanding that I doubt I will ever read the Old Testament again.

    Matt, would you consider this consistent with the 8th article of faith?

    Comment by Aaron — February 5, 2009 @ 11:38 am

  5. I think the answer to this question – and even in some ways its premise – has more to do with what we think about scripture than what we think about God.

    Comment by matt b — February 5, 2009 @ 11:38 am

  6. I am not sure where the balance is Matt. Is God tough, or tolerent, or both? May depend on the situation.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — February 5, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

  7. I first read the OT all the way through as a missionary. I remember feeling deeply embarrassed that I had not read all of the scriptures, and I finally wanted to remedy that lack. I got a new companion who happened to have the scriptures (KJV) on tape. The alarm would go off at 6:00 a.m., he would lean over and hit the play button on his tape recorder, roll over and go back to sleep. But while he was getting a few more winks, I turned my light on and followed along with the tape, occasionally marking scriptures as we went. Doing it with the tape kept up a steady pace that made it possible to finish within a reasonable time; I’m not sure I would have accomplished the feat without that assistance.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — February 5, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

  8. Matt W.

    I think that part of the problem we often face with the OT is that it seems so contradictory to the gospel taught by Christ. This is of course what led to the Marcionite heresy since Marcion could not conceive the God of the OT and NT are the same.

    For me, I believe that Jesus was clearly operating in the belief structure of a first century Palestinian Jew. However, it is also clear that he read that history and its conclusion very differently than most in his time. When I think of him fulfilling the OT, I see it as a filling up. If we imagined a cup being filled with water slowly throughout history, Christ would be the one who filled it full. The OT points to Christ and specifically towards a less violent more charitable God. If you have seen Christ, you have seen the father.

    I see the OT as progressive. There is a shift from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice which later shifts to a sacrifice of a broken heart and contrite spirit. Isaiah and Jeremiah for example challenge the very notions that much of the sacrificial religion was even given by God. I think R. Girard for example has some very interesting ideas on the OT which make sense.

    Comment by J. Madson — February 5, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

  9. I don’t think the Old Testament is as much “progressive” as it is incomplete and partially mangled. It suffers in comparison to the very good composition of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon was buried up in the earth for good reason.

    Nonetheless, there is great stuff in the Old Testament. I have only managed to go through it all the way twice in my life so far, but there are many treasures in it.

    Comment by Tom D — February 5, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

  10. Matt,
    I wrote similar thoughts here a while back, and I always take comfort in the fact expressed by some LDS authors I’ve read, such as Nibley and Joseph Fielding McConkie, that much of the Old Testament was not actually written by prophets. And don’t forget Brigham Young’s comment on the Bible:

    I have heard ministers of the gospel declare that they believed every word in the Bible was the word of God. I have said to them “you believe more than I do. I believe the words of God are there; I believe the words of the devil are there; I believe that the words of men and the words of angels are there; and that is not all,-I believe that the words of a dumb brute are there. I recollect one of the prophets riding, and prophesying against Israel, and the animal he rode rebuked his madness.”

    -Journal of Discourses 14:280

    Comment by Dan Ellsworth — February 5, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

  11. I’ve been reading the OT for the first time myself (I know, it’s not cool that I’m this old and haven’t read it yet)and I’m in the middle of Jeremiah.

    I must confess I’m getting kind of frustrated with the whole thing. Just the other night I leaned over and said to Geoff, “I’m thinking the main theme in the OT is Christ saying to Israel, ‘You’re all a bunch of stupid idiots and I’m really, really sick of you!’”

    I’ve been thinking about that and the NT and relating it to parenting. The OT is like when I’m so frustrated with my kids and I’m screaming and yelling and nothing is working. The NT is like when I try to calm everything down by using my soft mommy voice. “Screaming at you wasn’t working so now mommy is going to try and show you how to be nice by telling you stories and stuff.”

    I hope I didn’t just commit some horrible sacrilege in the past couple of paragraphs or reveal what a moron I am.

    Comment by kristen j — February 5, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

  12. An interesting thing I have found in conversation with people is just how different our personal conception of God is. For instance I view God as a merciful creator who is concerned with how His children are treating their stewardship. A good friend of mine views God as a loving but stern judge who pushes us to step in line with His way. Are either of these views wrong? Probably not, but one of them is a difficult God for me to imagine, and the other one is a difficult God for my friend to imagine.

    I’d say that the Bible is written by people who have different values, different culture, and different ideas of morality (yes, even the prophets). I’m not surprised when I read the Psalms and find them praising God for His ability to kill and destroy – perhaps that’s what mattered to them in those days more. Perhaps they’d view my God as a sissy, while I view their God as cruel. I think it’s easy for us to know God and feel His presence and love. I think it’s near impossible for us to know God’s personality.

    Comment by NoCoolName_Tom — February 5, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

  13. I pretty much view the entire Old Testament as one massive damage control project on God’s part – making the best of an impossible situation.

    Comment by Seth R. — February 5, 2009 @ 10:23 pm

  14. Thanks for the comments all, (and may I say I see no horrible sacrilege at all. Good luck with Jeremiah, it was the hardest book for me.)

    Comment by Matt W. — February 5, 2009 @ 10:59 pm

  15. Matt,
    Ignore Jettboy. If you find it hard to believe in the God of the Old Testament, don’t bend yourself into impossible shapes about it. Just move on and be grateful for Jesus of Nazareth.

    Comment by Ronan — February 6, 2009 @ 10:54 am

  16. I think there are parts of the Old Testament, particularly in the narratives, that do portray a different God from the one I worship. I think this reflect more on the authors and subsequent redactors, editors and compilers than on how God may have wished Himself portrayed in the OT.

    But other parts of the OT, particularly Isaiah, portray a more universal God more consistent with how I understand God. I do not think it was an accident that Jesus more frequently quoted Isaiah than any other OT prophet, or that entire chapters are reproduced in the Book of Mormon.

    A couple of months ago, I attended the funeral for the wives of one of my Jewish partners, and one of the rabbis who spoke quoted liberally from Isaiah some of the more beautiful, hope inducing passages.

    I really enjoyed the perspective in, and highly recommend Thus Saith the Lord: The Revolutionary Moral Vision of Isaiah and Jeremiah,
    Rubenstein, Richard E.

    Comment by DavidH — February 6, 2009 @ 11:26 am

  17. Ignore Jettboy.

    I think this is good advice for all of us.

    (I still think Jettboy is an anti-Mormon masquerading as a Mormon to make us all look bad)

    Comment by Geoff J — February 6, 2009 @ 11:43 am

  18. The majority of the OT was written by scribes many years after the fact, pure and simple. They don’t try to hide this fact. They will often mention a site, like the stone memorial left after Joshua crossed the Jordan river and say “they are there to this very day”, implying a goodly distance from when an event occurred and when it was written about. They also seem to have drawn events from books that we do not have, using phrases like “is this not written in the Book of Jasher?”

    Scribes of Israel, like those of other lands, like to puff up the past with outrageous numbers and present their god as the baddest man on the block.

    My personal standard for judging God and the things of God is this: I use six sources for criteria, 1)the NT, 2)the OT, 3)the BOM, 4)the D&C, 5)writings of modern day prophets, and 6)the gift of the Holy Ghost. If 5 of these lean one way and 1 the other, then the 1 gets rejected. For example, if God didn’t use genocide against the Romans to remove them from Palestine, if he had the Nephites fight only defensive fights against the Lamanites, and if he didn’t slaughter the first-born of the 1830′s Missourians – then I feel ok about not buying into that part of the OT.

    Comment by larryco_ — February 6, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

  19. Seth, that’s how I tend to view it as well.

    However the fact it was all cobbled together out of unknown sources after the exile ought mean we should be careful. I really wish we had the Brass Plates. Wouldn’t that be cool?

    Comment by Clark — February 6, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

  20. I like Brigham’s take as quoted in #10. There is nothing like the OT to remind you that all scripture is written by people and thus filtered by and influenced by people. Personal revelation remains an indispensable component of learning about God ourselves.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 7, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

  21. True that Geoff. Of course it helps to have things like scripture and modern prophets with which to check our personal revelations, so as to be sure they are revelations and not imaginings. I am guilty enough of the latter to appreciate the interdependence of it all.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 7, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

  22. I first read the OT as a child and now that I have children, I try to steer them away from the “raw, uncensored” version of the OT. It is comforting to me to read the BoM and PoGP and understand that God has always been just, merciful, and loving toward his children.

    Comment by E — February 7, 2009 @ 10:28 pm

  23. I just finished reading Who Wrote the Bible by Friedman. It gave me a very much appreciated different perspective on the Bible. It didn’t make me see it as less of a divine document, but did make me really see the writers and how God lets real people with real filters write His Word. I could also see how He seemed to work to integrate different writings so as to give later readers a better understanding than they would get from one person.

    Anyway, I highly recommend it.

    Comment by Heather — February 8, 2009 @ 8:38 am

  24. In my pre-mormon days as a child I had a great illustrated Old Testament which consisted of 2 page synopsis’s of all the main stories. Sadly that is the extent of my OT study.

    Comment by TStevens — February 9, 2009 @ 7:57 am

  25. Agreed Heather. I just sent copies of that book to a few people in my family for Christmas this year.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 9, 2009 @ 9:57 am

  26. I guess to me the question isn’t one of God. I am fairly confident in my understanding and relationship with God and the theology of the LDS church. The relationship I guess I am worried about is the one I don’t really have with the Old Testament. The Old Testament, to me, may as well be the Baggavad-ghita or Oprah’s “the Secret” in my eyes at this point. It’s got some good stuff in it, but I’m not interested in wading through the rest to mine the few pearls.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 9, 2009 @ 10:20 am

  27. I got lucky that I had an institute teacher who had done a fair amount of wading and was familiar with the problems with the OT, but who had a love for OT and helped me see the good stuff in there too. If for no other reason, the OT is crucial to understand as the launching pad for all other scripture. Without a background in OT, you just miss a lot in the NT and BofM, IMO. Wading through it yourself may not be the way to do it though. I wish I had a good book to recommend for getting the good stuff out of the OT.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 9, 2009 @ 10:29 am

  28. Matt, thanks for the honesty of this post. I love the OT—there’s stuff in there that makes me weep with gratitude, joy, charity…. More than just a few pearls. {smile}

    Comment by BrianJ — February 10, 2009 @ 10:48 am

  29. BrianJ: When we get to an OT year in SS, I’ll be looking at “feast upon the word” for your pearls.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 10, 2009 @ 10:56 am

  30. I’ve been discussing the OT with friends of mine along these very lines lately.

    My friend was telling me about recent Bibical (non-LDS) scholars’ renewed interest in trying to figure out who Melchezidek was, and what was the deal with the Melchezidek priesthood vs. the Aaronic.

    Very interesting stuff to read, especially from the LDS point of view.

    The most impressive notion one of these scholars (I don’t have the paper with me, or I’d give you the name) suggested was that Jesus wasn’t just rocking the boat by declaring that he was the Messiah, but that he was declaring a restoration the religion of Melchezidek, of Abraham, of all the OT patriarchs.

    He wasn’t just condemning any corruption had been “inflicted upon” the religion of Moses, but was condemning the whole Mosaic law as inferior.

    Now, speaking for myself, if one starts to see Moses as a Melchezidek Priesthood holder who just couldn’t get his people to be worthy enough to receive the blessings he enjoyed, and therefore with the help of his father-in-law, organized the Israelites the best he could, then it starts to paint the whole Post-Moses Old Testament in a new light.

    As I remarked to my friend, it starts making the history and religion of the Israelites, in my mind, of a caliber similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church. This is a document born during apostasy. No wonder there were prophets like Isaiah and Lehi popping up out of nowhere (no orderly priesthood linages) warning the people.

    Comment by britain — February 10, 2009 @ 9:14 pm

  31. Matt: Deal.

    Comment by BrianJ — February 11, 2009 @ 10:02 am

  32. “The God presented in the Old Testament isn’t much like the God I believe in. How do I deal with that?”

    I think that’s where 3 Nephi in the Book of Mormon comes into the picture. In 3 Nephi we have a resurrected Jesus who acts a lot like the God of the Old Testament, when he destroys all the cities that are laden with secret combinations (organized crime) AND acts a lot like the Jesus of the New Testament when he preaches the Sermon on the Mount and heals everyone. In the Jesus of the Book of Mormon, we see a synthesis of seemingly two very different personalities, in one – which leads me to think they aren’t really so different in the first place. The seeming inconsistencies probably aren’t as so incongruent as we initially think they are.

    My wife and I are currently in the middle of Jeremiah and we’re enjoying the long ride through the OT together.

    Comment by danithew — February 11, 2009 @ 11:12 am

  33. I don’t view the OT as a dispensation of God’s timeless Word. In my opinion, the OT contains the writings of a people who believed in in God. No more, no less. As such it is filled with many assumptions and perceptions of God clearly rooted in the culture and the society. but at the same time, there are timeless truths that shine forth from the people’s genuine experience with God, as they perceived him. It is a rich and fascinating work.

    Comment by Steven B — February 11, 2009 @ 9:03 pm

  34. I don’t buy into the idea of divinely authorized extermination incidents in the OT, on the grounds that the consequences of unrighteous behavior are serious enough even when self inflicted. It is easy to see why wickedness could make a society soft and vulnerable to outside conquest, for example. The only ethical justification I see for killing is self-defense and deterrence, and I don’t think any of those incidents rise to that level.

    I generally consider the works of the later prophets the best part of the Old Testament, though there is some very disturbing proto-Calvinist theology in there. “Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord has not done it?”

    Most OT theology has to be understood with the LORD in the position of a frustrated sovereign, who will some day return to reclaim the country from evildoers. I think it is compelling in that regard.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 12, 2009 @ 8:58 pm

  35. I’m late commenting on an older post here, but I just have to express sincere, heartfelt gratitude for Jettboy (#1.) and his really awesome comments. Every now and then, when I’m having a slow day at work, I’ll come across one of Jettboy’s comments, and it just cracks me up.

    And by “cracks me up” I mean “makes me wince in pain.”

    As far the God of the OT not being like the God you believe in, I cannot say. I try think about it more like “doesn’t seem like the God” rather than “is not like.” Shallow, but the previous 34 comments more or less covered the bases.

    Comment by Scott — February 19, 2009 @ 10:12 am

  36. I have read the Old Testament twice, and of all the comments so far, I think I am most with danithew (comment #32). I agree with him 100%.

    The best commentary I’ve come across for the Old Testament is the Church produced institute manuals. They are very well done, and clarify a LOT of things in the Old Testament.

    Here’s a link – you can read them online:
    http://www.ldsces.org/Institute%20Manuals.asp

    Comment by Chas Hathaway — February 20, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

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