Studying the Old Testament
What are the scriptures for? How should we use them? How do we use them?
â€œProof-textingâ€? is a procedure that begins by assuming that we know the doctrines and then searches through the scriptures to find something to back up the belief. Because it begins with what we assume we know rather from what the scriptures teach, proof-texting always runs the danger of “wresting” the scriptures.
Jesus accuses the Jews of wresting the scriptures by proof-texting in John 5:39. (See also 2 Peter 3:16, Alma 13:20, and D&C 10:63.) “Wrest” is the word for which the modern word “wrestle” comes, and it means “to twist or wrench; to pull violently.”
How do we avoid wresting the scriptures?
Read 2 Nephi 25:1. Why didnâ€™t Nephiâ€™s people understand Isaiah? According to Nephi, why do we find the Isaiah difficult? Why do we find the rest of the Old Testament difficult?
What does Nephi say is necessary to understanding Isaiah (2 Nephi 25:4)? How might that apply to the Old Testament as a whole.
What is the spirit of prophecy? The phrase occurs in the Bible only once, in Revelation 19:10. But it is a very popular phrase with Book of Mormon writers: Jacob 4:6; Alma 3:27, 4:13, 5:47, 6:8, 9:21, 10:12, 12:7, 13:26, 16:5, 17:3, 25:16, 37:15, and 43:2; and Helaman 4:12-23. (It also occurs in D&C 11:25 and 131:5; and in Joseph Smith History 1:73, Footnote 4.) How would the spirit of prophecy help us understand the Old Testament?
In the last half of 2 Nephi 25:5 Nephi gives another requirement for understanding Isaiah. What is that requirement? Does that explain anything about our difficulty with the Old Testament? Nephi explains how he understand Isaiah in the next verse, 2 Nephi 25:6. What makes him able to understand the way the Jews have written? How can we get something like that ourselves?
In 3 Nephi 23:1 Jesus adds to Nephiâ€™s instructions about understanding Isaiah. Whatâ€™s the difference between the searching that Jesus commands here and the searching he condemned in John? What does the word “search” imply? (On searching the scriptures, see also Proverbs 25:2; Ecclesiastes 1:13 and 7:25; 1 Nephi 5:10; 2 Nephi 5:33 and 32:7; Jacob 4:6; Mosiah 1:7; Alma 14:1; 33:2; 3 Nephi 10:14, 20:11, and 23:1 and 5; Mormon 8:23; Moroni 7:19; and D&C 1:37.)
In 3 Nephi 23:2, Jesus gives still another addition to our understanding of scripture study. How can Isaiah have spoken of all things concerning Israel? Mosiah speaks of “types” and “shadows” in the scriptures (Mosiah 3:15 and 13:31). What have these to do with speaking of all things in the scriptures? Does Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 help us understand the way the Jews understood scriptures?
An LDS scholar, Avraham Gileadi, identified four “keys” to scripture study. Though he spoke of them as keys to understanding Isaiah, I believe they apply to all of the Old Testament. They are:
1. Having the Spirit of Prophecy.
2. Knowing the â€œletter of prophecy,â€? the ways in which the Jews used their words, letting the scriptures speak for themselves rather than imposing our beliefs about what they say onto them. This includes such things as noticing the literary structures the Old Testament uses to tell its story, watching the kinds of speeches used by Old Testament writers (e.g., lament vs. prophecy, the speech of a messenger, etc.), noting parallels in verses and between stories, paying close attention to the kinds of metaphors used, and, when necessary, paying attention to the way the meanings of Hebrew words differ from our own.
3. Searching the scriptures. We must go beyond just reading the words of scripture, particularly of the Old Testament. We must make connections among them and with our own lives. One way of making that connection is to read between the lines, trying to find what is going on and how that relates to other scriptures and ourselves. Another is to see the way scriptural passages are connected to each other by the ways the prophets have written them (e.g., through the rhetorical forms they use). And, of course, we must pay careful attention to the ways in which the scriptures are linked to each other: The Book of Mormon helps us understand the Bible, but the Bible can also help us understand the Book of Mormon.
4. Recognizing the various “types” used in scripture. We must see the ways in which the scriptures speak not just of one time period or another, but the ways in which they speak of any and all time periods. For example, to see understand how the Israelites thought about their exodus from Egypt, and event which became a central type in their understanding and explanation of their history, will help us understand the Book of Mormon better, because the Book of Mormon writers often use references to the exodus to explain their understanding of Book of Mormon history.