Understanding the Old Testament: Keys to Resolving Difficult Questions
September 1980

“Understanding the Old Testament: Keys to Resolving Difficult Questions,” Ensign, Sept. 1980, 27

Special Issue: Old Testament

Understanding the Old Testament:

Keys to Resolving Difficult Questions

Do you sometimes have difficulty understanding the Old Testament? Does the purpose of some of the book sometimes seem veiled to you? Do there seem to be inconsistencies in the record?

If your response is yes, take heart; you’re not alone. Yet the Old Testament doesn’t really need to be as hard to understand as many think it is. Let’s see if the following orientation is helpful.

Purpose of the Old Testament

Many readers have not focused on the key fact that the Old Testament is primarily a witness of the Messiah—Jesus Christ—who was known to the ancients as Jehovah. As President Spencer W. Kimball has said, “The Old Testament prophets from Adam to Malachi are testifying of the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ and our Heavenly Father. Jesus Christ was the God of the Old Testament, and it was He who conversed with Abraham and Moses. It was He who inspired Isaiah and Jeremiah; it was He who foretold through those chosen men the happenings of the future, even to the latest day and hour” (Ensign, May 1977, p. 76).

The Old Testament prophets witnessed of the reality of God and bore testimony that Jehovah was the Redeemer of the world throughout their record. This message from them about the future atonement of the Holy One of Israel is absolutely central to understanding the teachings in the Old Testament.

Abinadi, an ancient American and pre-Christian prophet, also taught that all of the early prophets pointed toward Jesus Christ: “Did not Moses prophesy … concerning the coming of the Messiah, and that God should redeem his people?” he asked. “Yea, and even all the prophets who have prophesied ever since the world began—have they not spoken more or less concerning these things?” (Mosiah 13:33).

Nephi’s brother Jacob explained his own purpose—and, indeed, the purpose of all the ancient prophets—for writing what they did in their records: “For this intent have we written these things, that they may know that we knew of Christ, and we had a hope of his glory many hundred years before his coming; and not only we ourselves had a hope of his glory, but also all the holy prophets which were before us” (Jacob 4:4).

Even the Mosaic covenant—which, because of its many complex laws, often baffles and discourages Old Testament readers—is a specific, direct testimony of Jesus Christ. Jacob understood this: “My soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ; for, for this end hath the law of Moses been given; and all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him” (2 Ne. 11:4).

If we keep this point in mind while reading the Old Testament, some of the more obscure parts of the record can become clearer to us. And just as importantly, events that have far-reaching, religious meaning in addition to their surface-level, literal meaning can become more significant.

For example, when the passover feast was established, its immediate purpose was to remind ancient Israel of the time the destroying angel passed over the prepared, obedient Israelites in Moses’s day. It also was a reminder of the redemption of Israel from the bondage of Egypt. But readers who keep in mind that the main purpose of the Old Testament is to testify of the Redeemer will also see a Messianic theme in this ordinance—the anticipated redemption of mankind by the Savior. The feast required a “lamb … without blemish” (Ex. 12:5) which was to be completely consumed (Ex. 12:4, 9–10)—a foreshadowing of “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) with “an infinite atonement” (2 Ne. 9:7). Further, the prescribed order required that the lamb’s blood be placed as a sign on the lintel and doorposts of the places where true passover celebrants met (see Ex. 12:7). This procedure takes on much greater meaning when understood in the light of the Messianic mission—it is a reminder that personal redemption can be had only through the blood of the Annointed One, Christ. Peter taught the Saints of former times that redemption comes only “with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:19). And Paul testified that “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7).

Resolving Supposed Inconsistencies

Readers are sometimes distracted from the Old Testament’s important themes by what they consider inconsistencies in the nature of God or in his manner of dealing with his children. But I have found that these problems are usually caused by incorrect interpretations instead of caused by the record itself. And I’ve also found that most supposed inconsistencies can be resolved by careful study—sometimes aided by resources such as the Book of Mormon, trusted biblical commentaries and dictionaries, and the many study helps found in the new LDS edition of the King James Version of the Bible.

The Book of Mormon can provide much helpful commentary on many Old Testament topics because the Nephites had an “Old Testament” record that was more complete than our current version is—the brass plates. Nephi tells us that our Bible is “a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many” (1 Ne. 13:23), and he explains that the brass plates “did contain the five books of Moses, which gave an account of the creation of the world, and also of Adam and Eve, who were our first parents;

“And also a record of the Jews from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah;

“And also the prophecies of the holy prophets, from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah; and also many prophecies which have been spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah” (1 Ne. 5:11–13).

The Prophet Joseph Smith similarly indicated that “many important points touching the salvation of man, had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled” (History of the Church, 1:245).

It is important to remember, too, that the Old Testament doesn’t even pretend to be a complete history, an exhaustive chronicle of everything that transpired from the days of Adam to the birth of Jesus Christ. Often it includes only brief overviews to provide continuity to the overall general history of those centuries. Within this broad framework are found narratives of lesser and of greater detail. The four hundred years of the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt, for example, are passed over in just a few verses, with few details—but the details surrounding their forty years in the wilderness cover over two hundred pages.

Old Testament students should remember, therefore, that what is contained in the writings is true, but often not complete in historical detail. Inherent in this type of history is the possibility that parts of the record are treated with insufficient detail and could easily be misinterpreted. Readers should keep this in mind, and not jump too hastily to conclusions.

Let’s look at two areas in the Old Testament that commonly cause concern in readers.

God’s anger. Some readers complain that the supposed harsh, vengeful Old Testament God seems inconsistent with the loving, peaceful God of the New Testament. The scales of justice and mercy seem to be out of balance.

I feel that the reason people misconstrue the anger of the Lord is that they tend to assume that God’s anger is identical to their own as fallen mortals—they don’t understand correctly the nature of divine anger.

Lehi gives us a more correct definition of righteous anger. When Laman and Lemuel complained of Nephi’s anger toward them, Lehi explains: “Ye say that he hath used sharpness; ye say that he hath been angry with you; but behold, his sharpness was the sharpness of the power of the word of God, which was in him; and that which ye call anger was the truth, according to that which is in God, which he could not restrain, manifesting boldly concerning your iniquities” (2 Ne. 1:26).

The “anger” of the Lord, then, is the truth of God’s justice manifested against the disobedient. When individuals are not in harmony with the eternal principles of justice and accountability, they may perceive the revelation of that truth (through God or his prophets) as anger or harshness. “The guilty taketh the truth to be hard,” Nephi said, “for it cutteth them to the very center” (1 Ne. 16:2). This was often the response of the rebellious Israelites to the consequences of their breach of eternal laws—laws which God is bound by and which he administers in long-suffering, mercy, and love.

God’s favorites. Another complaint of some Old Testament readers is that God seems to have favorites—that he appears partial to some people. One common interpretation, for example, is that the young boy Joseph was unjustly favored over all the other sons of Israel—that his brothers had good reason to resent his dreams of superiority over them.

However, the record reports that the brothers were involved with evil (see Gen. 37:2), and that Joseph, like Nephi in the Book of Mormon, earned the rights and blessings because of his faithfulness and his acquired birthright. Jacob could have said to his sons what Lehi said to Laman and Lemuel: “Ye have accused him [your brother] that he sought power and authority over you; but I know that he hath not sought for power nor authority over you, but he hath sought the glory of God, and your own eternal welfare” (2 Ne. 1:25).

Joseph and Nephi were blessed because of their righteousness; their brothers were rejected because of their transgressions. Laman and Lemuel never did repent, but Joseph’s brothers, long burdened with the guilt of their actions and feelings towards their brother, came to accept Joseph’s foreordained presidency over them.

Another example of so-called favoritism is that Jacob appears to have stolen the birthright from his brother, Esau—that he received it unjustly through deceit and trickery. But what does the scriptural record say concerning this matter? The record indicates that Esau not only sold his birthright, but “despised” it (Gen. 25:34), and that he further disqualified himself for these blessings by marrying nonbelievers “which were a grief of mind unto Isaac and Rebekah” (Gen. 26:35).

When the time came for Isaac to bless his two sons, Rebekah, who learned through a revelation she had received that Jacob was to rule over his brother (see Gen. 25:23), went against the cultural tradition and helped Jacob, the younger son, receive the blessing. When Esau came to claim his blessing, Isaac realized that the important rights of priesthood presidency did, in fact, belong to faithful Jacob, not to unworthy Esau: “Yea,” said Isaac, “and he shall be blessed” (Gen. 27:33). If the prophet-patriarch had acted improperly, he had the priesthood right to revoke Jacob’s blessing. But he didn’t do so, knowing that he had done the will of the Lord. Perceiving that Esau’s concern was for the loss of the temporal gain instead of spiritual blessings, Isaac promised him prosperity, but he also reaffirmed the blessing of Jacob (see Gen. 27:37–40).

Another problem: what is the justification for the destruction of the people in the land of Canaan by the children of Israel returning from Egypt? Although the land had been promised to Abraham centuries earlier, the people living there in Joshua’s day had possessed it since Jacob and his family departed. What right did the Israelites have to drive out its inhabitants upon their return? Why did the Canaanites have to be destroyed as a people? Should such drastic consequences come upon people who seemingly were ignorant of the teachings or moral standards of Israel’s God?

Abraham and Isaac had negotiated peace with their neighbors and had purchased property in the land. The Lord told Abraham that the iniquity of the Amorites who possessed it was not yet full (see Gen. 15:16). But how iniquitous were they over four hundred years later when the children of Israel returned? Did they deserve the treatment they received? The facts are that the people who possessed the land were obsessed with licentiousness, incest, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, and even human sacrifice (see Lev. 18:1–24; Deut. 12:31). These unnatural practices brought the consequences required by eternal law. As the Lord declared, “The land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants” (Lev. 18:25).

But how extensively must iniquity abound until a fulness of accountability is required by the Lord? Again the Book of Mormon provides valuable information: “When ye shall cast out the righteous from among you, then shall ye be ripe for destruction” (Hel. 13:14). “And they perish because they cast out the prophets, and the saints, and stone them, and slay them” (2 Ne. 26:3).

The Book of Mormon also provides specific commentary about the driving out of the peoples of the land of Canaan: “And after they had crossed the river Jordan he did make them mighty unto the driving out of the children of the land, yea, unto scattering them to destruction.

“And now, do ye suppose that the children of this land, who were in the land of promise, who were driven out by our fathers, do ye suppose that they were righteous? Behold, I say unto you, Nay.

“Do ye suppose that our fathers would have been more choice than they if they had been righteous? I say unto you, Nay.

“Behold, the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favored of God. But behold, this people [in the land of Canaan] had rejected every word of God, and they were ripe in iniquity; and the fulness of the wrath of God was upon them; and the Lord did curse the land against them, and bless it unto our fathers; yea, he did curse it against them unto their obtaining power over it” (1 Ne. 17:32–35).

They had “rejected every word of God” and were “ripe in iniquity.” They were a warned, a rebellious, and an accountable people—and they brought the rewards of unrighteousness upon their own heads.

These three examples of God’s “favoritism” illustrate the fact that God is, indeed, a just God and that his dealings with men are based on their own righteousness and obedience.

Prayerful Study

The most important ingredient in understanding the Old Testament is regular, prayerful study. Elder Bruce R. McConkie described the careful, fruitful study that brings growth: “We would like all Latter-day Saint[s] … to read all of the Standard Works, to ponder in their hearts the eternal truths that are found in them, and to get on their knees and ask the Lord in sincerity and in faith for understanding and comprehension and guidance. We would like each of you to read them, either by yourself, … or with your families, and not simply read the words but ponder and pray about their content so that there will come into your lives the desires for righteousness that grow out of the study of the pure, perfect word of God. We would like the Church to start drinking at the fountain—undiluted—the pure, perfect message that the Lord has given by the mouths of his prophets, the message found in the Standard Works of the Church. …

“… It is not reading alone; it is reading, pondering, and praying so that the Spirit of the Almighty gets involved in the study and gives understanding” (Ensign, Apr. 1975, pp. 70–71).

The Apostle Paul said that although the veil over “the reading of the old testament … is done away in Christ, … even unto this day, when Moses is read, the vail is upon their heart.

“Nevertheless,” he said, “when [their hearts] shall turn to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away” (2 Cor. 3:14–16).

Although there are difficulties in understanding the Old Testament when we carefully study it in the spirit of its purpose, the record blesses our lives with testimony, teachings, insight, and examples of great worth.

  • Edward J. Brandt, associate director of the Salt Lake Institute of Religion, University of Utah, serves as bishop of the Sandy, Utah, Sixteenth Ward.

The Taking of Jericho, by Frank Adams

Nailing Christ to the Cross, by Gustave Dore

The Passover, by William Henry Margetson

Isaac Blessing Jacob, by Gustave Dore

Joseph’s Robe, by Diego Rodriguez Velazquez