An Indispensable Foundation
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“An Indispensable Foundation,” Ensign, Mar. 2002, 38

Old Testament

An Indispensable Foundation

The Old Testament is like a root system that strengthens our understanding of all other scripture.

I once interviewed several students from China who were studying on one of the Church’s university campuses. They were very bright, and their English was excellent; several had bachelor’s degrees. As a part of their course work they were required to take a Book of Mormon class, but after two weeks they were experiencing problems. The religion department chairman asked me to find out what was wrong.

I called the students together. Speaking for the group, one said, “We do not understand what the teacher is talking about.”

“Could you give me some examples?” I asked.

He replied, “Of course. Who is Adam? What is the Fall? Who is Noah? What is the Flood? Who is Abraham? What is a covenant? Who is Jehovah? What is the house of Israel? What are Gentiles? What is the law of Moses?”

It became clear to me that the Old Testament is like the roots of a great scriptural tree, and one needs to know about the roots to comprehend the tree and its branches.

The Book of Mormon: Rooted in the Old Testament

A primary reason the Old Testament is so closely connected to the Book of Mormon is the plates of brass. These plates contained “the five books of Moses … and also a record of the Jews from the beginning, even down” to the time of Lehi and his family; they also contained “the prophecies of the holy prophets, from the beginning,” including many prophecies of Jeremiah, who lived in the days of Lehi (1 Ne. 5:11–13). They were sacred scriptures used by the prophets of ancient America, who relied on and quoted from them to teach the gospel to their peoples. Some writings on the brass plates were even copied onto the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. It is little wonder, then, that the Book of Mormon has its roots in the Old Testament.

Another reason is that until the coming of the resurrected Christ, the descendants of Lehi and Mulek in ancient America lived the law of Moses, an essentially Old Testament law. The prophet Abinadi taught that the law of Moses was “a law of performances and of ordinances, a law which they were to observe strictly from day to day, to keep them in remembrance of God and their duty towards him” (Mosiah 13:30). The prophet Nephi said, “Notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled” (2 Ne. 25:24). Without a background in the Old Testament, one would wonder, “What is the law of Moses?” when reading these passages. Book of Mormon writers did not take space on their plates to explain much about this law. They knew we would have the “record of the Jews”—the Old Testament.

A third reason the Old Testament is so closely connected to the Book of Mormon is that both are records of the scattering and gathering of the house of Israel. Like an ancient olive tree, the Old Testament provides us with roots, with the Lord Jesus Christ (Jehovah) as the taproot, the main source of life. We learn much in the Old Testament about the “roots” of the posterity of Adam down to Abraham, from whom sprang the house of Israel. How could anyone understand the many references in the Book of Mormon to what has and will happen to the house of Israel without a knowledge of its history from the Old Testament?

A fourth reason the two books are so closely connected is that many Book of Mormon teachings have their source in the people, events, and prophecies of the Old Testament. For example, Lehi taught his family, “All mankind were in a lost and … fallen state, and ever would be save they should rely on this Redeemer” (1 Ne. 10:6). What is a “lost and fallen state”? How did mankind get there? Unless we know the story of Adam and Eve, we cannot answer these questions. And what was the Book of Mormon’s Antionah referring to when he asked Alma, “What does the scripture mean, which saith that God placed cherubim and a flaming sword on the east of the garden of Eden, lest our first parents should enter and partake of the fruit of the tree of life, and live forever?” (Alma 12:21). A person who has read the Old Testament knows that this comes from the book of Genesis (see Gen. 3:24).

The New Testament: Rooted in the Old Testament

The New Testament is actually more integrally related to the Old Testament than even the Book of Mormon. It was written mainly to Jewish readers, an audience that would have been well versed in the five books of Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms, or “writings.” The writers of the New Testament assumed their readers had studied the Old Testament. They primarily viewed the New Testament as the continuation of the story of the house of Israel from where it had ended in the Old Testament, at their return from captivity. They taught that the “Old Covenant” made on Mount Sinai was fulfilled by the “New Covenant” brought to pass in Gethsemane and Calvary. The Lord said: “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah. … I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:31, 33).

We cannot get beyond the first verse of the New Testament without being made aware of the integral relationship between these two testaments: “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1). When there were 28 generations between Jesus and David, why does the writer choose to single out David? Why does the same verse say that David is the son of Abraham when there were 14 generations between David and Abraham? And why is Abraham important? Answers to these questions can be found in Old Testament prophecy, as clarified by modern revelation, that Jesus Christ would be the central figure in the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham (see 3 Ne. 20:25–26; Abr. 2:11). Through the ministry of Abraham’s posterity would come the priesthood, the gospel, and the covenants and blessings of eternal life. And through David came the royal line of kings (see 2 Sam. 7:16), one of whom was the King of Kings, the holy Messiah, Jesus Christ (see Gen. 49:10).

A knowledge of countless New Testament passages depends on an understanding of the law of Moses. Consider the following from the Apostle Paul:

“Now we know what things soever the law [of Moses] saith, it saith to them who are under the law. … Therefore by the deeds of the law [of Moses] there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets” (Rom. 3:19–21).

Paul wanted his Jewish Christian associates to understand that no matter how well a person kept the law of Moses it could not save a person, for no one can keep it perfectly. Therefore, they must look to “the righteousness of God,” or Jesus Christ, of whom the law of Moses testifies. If one understands the nature of the law of Moses, especially as it was being taught in the Apostle Paul’s day, this passage makes sense.

Matthew records: “A woman of Canaan … cried … , saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. … But he [Jesus] answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:22, 24). The Old Testament helps us understand who the “lost sheep” are. In Jesus’ day, they were the Jews, or those of the house of Israel who had returned to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon (see Jer. 29:10–14).

The Doctrine and Covenants: Rooted in the Old Testament

Much of what has been explained here about why the Book of Mormon and New Testament are rooted in the Old Testament is also true for the Doctrine and Covenants. A familiarity with the Old Testament is helpful for the reader of the Doctrine and Covenants. Consider the following passages:

“Behold, this is the blessing of the everlasting God upon the tribes of Israel, and the richer blessing upon the head of Ephraim and his fellows” (D&C 133:34). The Doctrine and Covenants is a record of modern-day Ephraim, and without knowing the Old Testament, how can we know who Ephraim was or understand the prophecies applicable to him?

The Lord told the Prophet Joseph Smith: “Go ye, therefore, and do the works of Abraham” (D&C 132:32). What are the works of Abraham? We could not know without an Old Testament to reveal them.

At the Kirtland Temple dedication the Prophet Joseph prayed, “And if they shall smite this people thou wilt smite them; thou wilt fight for thy people as thou didst in the day of battle” (D&C 109:28). When did the Lord fight for His people and in what battle? Many examples may be found in the Old Testament (see Ex. 14:13–14; Ex. 17:8–11; 2 Kgs. 19:32–37).

Further, many prophets of the Old Testament, such as Moses and Elijah, are integrally related to the restoration of priesthood authority and keys in this dispensation (see D&C 27:9–11; D&C 84:6–16; D&C 107:1–2; D&C 110:11–14; D&C 128:20).

The Pearl of Great Price: Rooted in the Old Testament

The book of Moses is the Joseph Smith Translation of part of the Old Testament. It corrects and adds to Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 6:13 and includes an introductory revelation to the book of Genesis. The book of Abraham is also an Old Testament–related book of scripture. Joseph Smith—Matthew is the Joseph Smith Translation of Matthew 24 in the New Testament, yet it has strong ties to the Old Testament prophecy of Daniel regarding the abomination of desolation (see Bible Dictionary, 601). A significant part of Joseph Smith—History also relates to several Old Testament prophecies. When the angel Moroni came to the young prophet Joseph on 21–22 September 1823, what did he quote? Numerous passages from the Old Testament, including Deuteronomy 32; Psalms 100, 107, 144, and 147; Isaiah 1, 2, 4, 11, 29, and 43; Jeremiah 16, 30, 31, and 50; Joel 2; and Malachi 3 and 4].

The Savior Set the Pattern

Early in His mortal ministry, Jesus set a pattern for using the Old Testament. He frequently said, “It is written …” or “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time. …” After His Resurrection, Luke reported that Jesus used the Old Testament to teach two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus: “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures [the Old Testament] the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). To 11 of the Apostles in an upper room, He said, “All things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me” (Luke 24:44). During His visit among the Nephites, Jesus pointedly admonished them to read the Old Testament writings of the prophet Isaiah, and He “expounded all the scriptures in one” (3 Ne. 23:14).

The Lord is our great Exemplar in the use of the Old Testament. He studied it, probably memorizing much of it as a boy. He quoted from it and lived by its teachings. He said to His contemporaries, “Search the scriptures [the Old Testament]; … they are they which testify of me” (John 5:39).

The Root System

The Old Testament is like the root system of a great scriptural tree, and it contains the genealogical roots of all the descendants of Adam. The Old Testament provides a powerful witness of the Creation, the Creator, the Fall of man, the need for the Atonement, the establishment of the Abrahamic covenant, and the divine destiny of the house of Israel, into which all who covenant with the Lord are to be placed. We will discover deeper meaning in all other standard works when we realize that they all receive strength from their thoroughly imbedded Old Testament roots. The scriptures are connected, and they stand together like a mighty tree of scriptural knowledge.

The Savior Jesus Christ is the great taproot, the major source of our strength in all scripture. The Old Testament is the “book of beginnings” for our mortal sojourn. The Lord wants us to know its message, learn its lessons, and live its precepts. It could rightfully be called “The First Testament of Jesus Christ,” and for each of us it is an indispensable foundation.

Study the Old Testament

Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin

“We delight in the knowledge of the Lord that we find recorded in the Old and New Testaments. We know that Jehovah of the Old Testament and Jesus of the New Testament are one and the same. We are grateful that this sacred record … has been preserved and passed to us to enlighten our minds and strengthen our spirits.”
Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “Christians in Belief and Action,” Ensign, Nov. 1996, 71.

More on this topic: See Chris Conkling, “The Book That Built a Better World,”Ensign, Jan. 1998, 7–11; Lynette H. Kelley, “Loving the Old Testament throughout My Life,”Ensign, Jan. 1990, 15–16; Mary Hazen Johnston, “Learning to Love the Old Testament,”Ensign, Apr. 1986, 56–57.
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  • George A. Horton Jr. is a member of the Oak Hills Second Ward, Provo Utah Oak Hills Stake.

Illustration of roots by Julie Ann Allen

Adam and Eve Offering Sacrifice, by Keith Larson

Jesus in the Synagogue at Nazareth, by Greg Olsen

Elijah Restoring the Keys of the Sealing Power of the Priesthood, by Robert Barrett