You recently got called as a Early Morning Seminary teacher, and feel surprisingly sanguine about it. Then you found out that you’re starting with Old Testament this September, and all of a sudden, your confidence in the face of world-weary, eye-rolling teenagers plummeted.
Why is this so tough? The audience is hostile and sleepy. You teach every day, without the luxury of a whole week to think through your 45 minute lesson. You’ve got to get in there every morning to teach about the longest book we know the least, with the hardest material that is also the most foreign, culturally speaking. Not to stack the deck, but you’ve got my respect, Sister Volunteer Seminary Teacher.
So what’s the best way to handle these challenges? I can’t answer from experience, as I’ve mostly taught Institute. I do know, however, about the Old Testament. My suggestions for you others, since I myself am not teaching Seminary.
1) Know it well.
“Oh, is that all?”, I can hear you saying, so let me rephrase as, try to get know it better than you do now.
It’s a big book, and it gets short shrift. Longer than our other three books of scripture put together, we only study it for 1 year. I’ve been in a graduate course with a Jewish professor at a major university who asked a question, and one student responded by citing a Hebrew Bible passage that the prof. didn’t know. So there’s no shame in non-PhD non-Jewish folk not knowing it really well.
That said, the absolute best thing you can do to be comfortable teaching it is, know it as well as you can. And the best way to do that is read it, a lot, especially with a modern translation. It may sound jarring to your ears at first, but short of learning Hebrew (which can make things harder than easier as it reveals the rocks under the surface, it’s not a magic panacea), reading a modern translation is the best way to get closer to the text.
I highly recommend the Jewish Study Bible, with extensive essays and notes from a scholarly Jewish perspective. (If you don’t want paper, it’s also in Logos.) I can’t speak to the 2nd edition yet, but the 1st is excellent. (edit to add) Since it’s from a Jewish perspective, you’re not likely to find it supporting things like readings of Jesus in the Old Testament. It’s instructive to compare the JSB notes with the NIV Study Bible notes for the Old Testament, since that’s done by conservative Evangelicals. I generally don’t recommend the NIV as a translation anymore (it cheats), but the notes can be good. Relying on the NIV Study Bible by itself is a bit like relying entirely on the student manual, see below.
My other general reading suggestions for the OT are here, and I’ll just echo again that for a good LDS overview, pick up Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament. (Edit: Peter Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible does and doesn’t say about Human Origins is currently on Kindle sale. A recommended wrestle with the text.)
What I would NOT do, though, is use your alternate Bible in class as a complete replacement for the KJV, but as a supplementary tool. Why? It’s important for students to get to know the KJV for at least two reasons. First, the idiom of the KJV is generally the idiom of our other LDS scriptures. Learning the one is important for learning to read the others, and recognize allusions, quotations and such. Second, the archaic language of the KJV constantly reminds us that we are reading is also archaic and ancient, different, very much not a current General Conference talk. How to use your new translation then? To get to know what’s going on, and as a backup. When I teach, I tend to use the KJV, and supplement difficult parts either by “now that’s not entirely clear in the KJV, and it’s an important point, so how do modern translations read?” or translating it on the fly from Hebrew myself (depending heavily on the passage.) You could also read them the 1992 FP statement about other translations (to establish the relationship between the KJV and others), and then cite some examples of LDS apostles citing other translations for clarity, such as here.
So start reading and taking notes NOW so that when the time comes to teach, you’ve got more than a 24-hr lead on each lesson.
The seminary manual spends a long time on Moses (replacing Genesis) for the first few weeks, so if you need some good commentary on the Book of Moses, check out Jeffrey Bradshaw’s In God’s Image and Likeness: Ancient and Modern Perspectives on the Book of Moses. He’s a sharp cookie, a committed LDS scientist, and a really pleasant guy to have lunch with.
Also be aware of other LDS resources available to you, like my Old Testament blog posts, the BYU Studies Index of OT articles by lesson, and Religious Educator, a journal for teachers that comes out of BYU’s Religious Studies Center. A lot of their books are also online. This screencast about the world of the Old Testament may be useful too. The bottom line is, you can’t know too much, so “read read read,” says President Hinckley.
If we approach the Old Testament as an internally consistent doctrinal encyclopedia, we’re largely going to be confused and disappointed. This is not to say it does not contain doctrine, but it simply wasn’t written as a doctrinal manual. To draw modern analogues, parts are like the Church Handbook of Instructions, others like the Hymnbook, others like the History of the Church. There’s not really anything that corresponds to the Gospel Doctrine manual. The Bible is an anthology of different genres, all put together between one cover, as I write here.
My suggestion when trying to understand the Old Testament is this. Instead of asking, “why did it happen this way?”, ask instead, “why is the story being told this way?” The Old Testament is not a documentary history. Much of it circulated orally for hundreds of years before becoming important enough to be written down. Ask, then, “what point is the story trying to make? Why tell it and preserve it this way?” Approaching that way, ironically enough, is what Joseph Smith proposed.
“I have a key by which I understand the scriptures. I enquire, what was the question which drew out the answer… To ascertain [a parable’s] meaning, we must dig up the root and ascertain what it was that drew the saying out of Jesus.” TPJS, 253. It applies to more than parables. Everything in scripture is recorded for a purpose known to the author. Trying to put ourselves in the author’s place will help us understand why something is included, why it’s being told a certain way. What is the question or purpose which elicits this story, this passage, in this way and this place?
Said Elder Widtsoe,
“Many Bible accounts that trouble the inexperienced reader become clear and acceptable if the essential meaning of the story is sought out. To read the Bible fairly, it must be read as President Brigham Young suggested: ‘Do you read the scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them?’ (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 197-8). This is our guide. The scriptures must be read intelligently.”
Try to avoid the false dichotomy of “literal vs. figurative.” Scripture is more complex than that.
3) Remember the big picture
Oftentimes, we get caught up on a branch of a particular tree, and miss the forest completely. The nature of the manuals, often focusing on individual verses, tends to point us in that kind of direction, but remember, just as the key to real estate is “location, location, location” the key to understanding scripture is “context, context, context.” Read what comes before and after, and try to keep the historical context in mind, if you can.
Teaching in Religious Education is to be substantive and inspirational. Students should become familiar with the text studied in each course taken and learn the implications of the text for daily living. They should feel free to raise honest questions, with confidence that they will be treated with respect and dignity and that their questions will be discussed intelligently in the context of faith. Where answers have not been clearly revealed, forthright acknowledgment of that fact should attend, and teachers should not present their own interpretations of such matters as the positions of the Church. Students should see exemplified in their instructors an open, appropriately tentative, tolerant approach to “gray” areas of the gospel. At the same time they should see in their instructors certitude and unwavering commitment to those things that have been clearly revealed and do represent the position of the Church. Teachers should be models of the fact that one can be well trained in a discipline, intellectually vigorous, honest, critical, and articulate, and at the same time be knowledgeable and fully committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, His Church and Kingdom, and His appointed servants.
When it comes to bizarre or tricky issues (e.g. Lot’s daughters or something), I wouldn’t hesitate to introduce explanations like those I give on my blog, provided they came with the right caveats and framing. Given that the Bible is “literature” (loosely defined as “a conscious and deliberate attempt to capture something in writing regardless of genre”), as opposed to documentary eye-witness history, the key question, again, is *always* “why would the story be told this way?” not “why did it happen this way?”
Be tentative about everything but core gospel points. “Some people think x, other people think y.” Be careful about doubling down on things you’re unsure of. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” Always always with your comments, your “I don’t knows,” be constructive. Try to instill an intellectual curiosity about scripture, that it has depths and mysteries to be unraveled. The Old Testament is a fantastic place for learning about the fallibility of inspired leadership. Note both of those things: inspired and fallible, which is not an either/or but an and/both. The Old Testament wasn’t written to provide shining examples of heroes to worship, but struggling humans who were chosen by God. I suspect teenagers might respond well to the latter idea more than the perfect, infalliblist idea. On that human/inspired balance, I really like Kenton Sparks’ Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture.
This post was written in haste (as the season is upon us) and is probably only half-baked, but as always, it’s wise to call upon the hive mind for other suggestions, particularly from those of you who have taught Old Testament in Seminary.