I always used to feel a little bit anxious when Sunday School cycled back around to the Old Testament. My anxiety stemmed from two places: First, the sheer enormity of it—it is more than twice as long as the New Testament. How was I ever going to read through the whole thing? And second, the seeming impenetrability of some of the language—it was a maze of unfamiliar people, geography, and teachings. People joke about the Isaiah chapters in 2nd Nephi (of the Book of Mormon) being hard to read; for me, those were a piece of cake compared to parts of Deuteronomy and Leviticus.
So, at the beginning of each four-year cycle, I committed to read verses identified in the Sunday School Guide for each lesson and hoped that I would come away with something that made attendance worthwhile. That worked for me—until it didn’t. At some point, and I don’t quite remember when, it dawned on me that the Old Testament must be more than a collection of haphazardly scattered verses that nicely support Latter-day Saint ideas and practices. These ancient teachings had sustained the early Israelites and modern-day Jews through invasions, deportation, persecution, and the horrors of the Holocaust! Yet, in Sunday School, I found myself struggling to stay awake. I must be missing something, I thought. This realization about the Old Testament came at a time in my life when I was, more generally, reconsidering my overall approach to belief and faith, what I now see as the time I entered the “wilderness.”
So, I went to Wesley Theological Seminary, a Methodist seminary in Washington, DC. The very first class I registered for was “Introduction to the Old Testament.” Taught in two sections by two different professors (both well-known and respected in the world of Old Testament scholarship), these survey courses helped the Old Testament come alive to me. I stopped trying to find the ways in which the Old Testament reinforced my existing perspectives and started allowing the Old Testament to teach me what it had to offer. And what it offered was as unexpected as it was profound. It was, in fact, life-giving. It is impossible to overemphasize the impact that the Old Testament had, and continues to have, on me. I entered Wesley at a time of great spiritual tumult in my own life, and my faith was saved by the Old Testament. We have a special obligation to take the time to understand this sacred book on its own terms.
We have a special obligation to take the time to understand this sacred book on its own terms.
Prophets. The Latter-day Saint notion of a prophet is grounded in the Old Testament! The Old Testament not only provides for us the two archetypal examples of prophetic leadership, Moses and Elijah, it also demonstrates variety in the prophetic voice and the many surprising ways God works through those called to speak His word. If we are to understand the ways in which God works through modern-day prophets, we need to steep ourselves in the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament. Of all Christian denominations—because we sustain modern-day prophets, seers, and revelators—the Latter-day Saint faithful need this background.
Abrahamic Covenant and House of Israel. As President Russell Nelson has articulated in multiple ways over the last few years, the Abrahamic Covenant looms large in everything we do as a church and individually. That covenant is not only articulated for the first time but also embodied throughout the Old Testament. It is in the Old Testament that we see how this covenant plays out for Abraham and then over his generations. Further, it is only in the Old Testament that the specific promises given to each of the sons of Jacob/Israel are recorded—something that matters for those who have received something called a “patriarchal blessing” highly valued in our faith community (Genesis 49). Though the Pearl of Great Price does offer some insight on these topics, the fact remains that the vast majority of our understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant specifically and the House of Israel generally comes from the Old Testament. Again, given our understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ’s role in our modern time, a better understanding of the ancient promises made to Abraham and his posterity is crucial.
Foundational Scripture. It’s remarkable to consider how much other scripture refers back and rests upon an Old Testament foundation. For instance, The Book of Mormon is built on a foundation of Old Testament ideas—in fact, familiarity with those ideas is assumed in Book of Mormon language (e.g. there is no explanation of the Abrahamic Covenant in the Book of Mormon, it is simply assumed that the reader already has that foundational knowledge). The Pearl of Great Price’s Book of Moses owes its existence to Joseph Smith’s reading of the Old Testament. Even the Doctrine and Covenants, a decidedly modern text, contains numerous revelations in which God self-identifies and refers to early Latter-day Saints with phraseology pulled directly from the Old Testament (see for example 8:3, 36:1; 50:44; 61:25; 103:16-17; 109:1; 136:21). Of course, Jesus expressly taught in his mortal ministry from the texts that make up the Old Testament. For example, Jesus’s teaching about the two greatest commandments, to love God and love our neighbor, comes from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18. When Jesus refuted the devil’s temptations after His forty-day fast, He did so with Old Testament teachings (mostly in Deuteronomy). When Jesus cleansed the temple, He cited language found in Isaiah and Jeremiah (Mark 11:15-18; cf Isaiah 56:7, Jeremiah 7:11). In short, the story of Jesus makes it exceptionally clear that, among other things, Jesus knew and taught from Israel’s scriptures. Given the pivotal role that the Old Testament plays in the Latter-day Saint canon, and Jesus’ example of reliance upon Old Testament texts, we need to take every opportunity to learn this book of scripture better.
Messiahship. Though Christians have understood the notion of “messiah” in ways that are slightly different than their Jewish friends have—specifically Christians’ seeing Jesus of Nazareth as “The Messiah”—the idea of a messiah (an ‘anointed one,’ translated as “chrīstós” in Greek) comes from, and is most explored in, the Old Testament. The first followers of Jesus, all of whom were Jewish, pulled from this ancient messiah tradition as a way to explain Jesus and what he was doing. Our modern views about and language expressing “Jesus as the Messiah” owe their existence to a reinterpreted Old Testament idea. Similarly, Book of Mormon language directly cites messianic language that comes from Isaiah (among other scriptures) as a way to understand Jesus’ role. As is evidenced by Easter classics like Handle’s “Messiah” or the Christmas hymn “O Come, O Come, Immanuel,” Christianity generally, and the Church of Jesus Christ specifically, owes much of its liturgical language about Jesus Christ to the Old Testament. As a people who sees themselves as carrying a modern-day message of The Messiah for the world, better understanding the messianic tradition can only help us.
Obviously, this shortlist of why we Latter-day Saints need the Old Testament is incomplete, but I hope it is illustrative. And I am optimistic this list drives home that during this upcoming year when Latter-day Saints focus on the Old Testament in our 2022 Sunday School cycle, we need to do much more than merely look at all the ways in which the Old Testament supports what we believe. Quite the opposite in fact. Perhaps even more than all other Christian denominations, the conviction and sacred text of Latter-day Saint tradition both suggest that we have a special obligation to take the time to understand this sacred book on its own terms. And this is the year we can really begin that journey. This year, we need to dig into the Old Testament with a seriousness and willingness that demonstrates our commitment to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and an openness to have some old ideas challenged to have new ideas take root.
This year, for the first time ever, I am moving into this cycle of the Old Testament study with excitement and anticipation. I am ready to take time to really explore this marvelous work of scripture, looking to be taught. The Old Testament is a modern-day miracle.