What is the Old Testament and what does it contain? How could a record of things so long past be of any value today? Of what worth are its pages to the Latter-day Saints? For many, the bulky size of the book is an almost impassable block. The strange names, laws, and customs seem to support the notion of its rumored difficulty. For others, the multiplicity of its books is an insolvable puzzle.
In proper perspective, however, the Old Testament is a valuable work of scripture. It forms a panorama of the history of God’s covenant people, from the Creation down to a period just prior to the coming of Christ in the meridian of time. Its pages do not contain a detailed chronicle of historical data, but, instead, they testify of divine superintendence over the destiny of mankind and of significant events in the history of the house of Israel. The thrust of the record is to preserve narrative, testimony, and prophecy that teach principles and truths of the gospel and its covenants.
The Old Testament deals with five major gospel dispensations or periods of revelation and covenant. The dispensations of Adam, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham are treated in an abridged fashion, with only selected events presented. These dispensations are all recorded in the book of Genesis, where over 80 percent of the book is concerned with the dispensation of Abraham and the establishment of the covenant people of Israel.
More than 90 percent of the remainder of the Old Testament provides an extensive account of the fifth gospel era, the dispensation of Moses. This dispensation begins with the children of Israel in bondage in Egypt and concludes with the people of Judah as a provincial state to the Persians in the Promised Land. The historical scope of this portion of the record may be arranged in nine major periods, each of which contains a part of the story of the Old Testament.
First is the era of Moses. Beginning with a brief account of Moses’ early life, the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy record the trials and blessings, the obedience and disobedience of the children of Israel, from the time of their sojourn in Egypt until their eventual preparation to enter the Promised Land. Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Jethro, and Joshua emerge as the major characters during this 120-year period. (See page 30.)
Most of the narrative covers less than four years of this interim in any detail, but the revealed covenants, commandments, and ordinances are extensively enumerated. The patient concern of the Lord for his children as he attempts to provide them with the blessings of his kingdom, according to their responsiveness to him and his prophets, is well illustrated during the scriptural reports of this time. (See page 36.)
Next follows the period of the conquest of the land of Canaan as summarized in the book of Joshua. This approximately 20-year span tells of Joshua’s miraculous conveyance of Israel across the river Jordan and the ensuing campaigns to secure inheritances for the tribes of Israel. As this era drew to a close, Israel’s compromise and partial compliance with the commandments of the Lord left them in a state of apostasy. (See page 46.)
Third, the era of the Judges is reported in an abbreviated form in the book of the same name. During this period of many decades, the rebellion of the Israelites had served to cut them off from continued assistance from the Lord in their establishment in the land of promise, independent of all other peoples. (Judg. 2:20–23.) Without prophet or king, “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (Judg. 17:6; Judg. 21:25.)
During this interval and as circumstances and the needs of the people arose, the Lord called individuals as judges to assist in the affairs of the tribes. Others would come forth to assume the right to judge among the people for power and their own gain. Some were leaders among their tribe; some over regions encompassing a number of tribes.
Of the 15 judges mentioned, only eight have stories, even in part, of their judgeship. Deborah and Gideon are examples of righteous individuals called to assist their people. The story of Abimelech is one of wickedness and the seeking of power. Samson’s story is one of dedication to the Lord, but also of his failure to righteously fulfill his opportunities. During this span of Old Testament time is also found the story of Ruth, the dedicated convert from Moab who was the paternal grandmother of David and a direct ancestor of Jesus Christ.
The era of the Judges concludes in the early chapters of 1 Samuel with the accounts of Eli, the priest and judge, and with Samuel established as priest, judge, and prophet in all Israel. The people, unwilling to accept the kingdom of God according to the divine pattern, rejected this long-needed prophet and sought for a king after the manner of the nations of the world.
The remainder of the book of 1 Samuel recounts the fourth period of the dispensation of Moses, the reign of Saul. The 40-year regency of Israel’s first monarch is the story of the lifting up of a humble servant and the demise of a proud and jealous man, who was disobedient in his stewardship and finally forsaken by the Lord. This era also witnesses the anointing of another to be king, David. His experiences as a champion of faith in the victory over Goliath and as a true “brother” to Jonathan are among the classic stories of the scriptures.
The book of 2 Samuel contains the next period of history—the reign of David, who ruled as chieftain among the people of Judah for seven years and then, after winning the support of all Israel, held the scepter as the second monarch over the Lord’s people. David unified the nation and established Jerusalem as the great capital of the nation of Israel. At the height of his greatness, he succumbed to temptation and passion and, finally, murder in the affair with Bathsheba. Tragedy followed within his family as the prophet Nathan had prophesied. With the hope of an eventual redemption, the ironically glorious, yet personally tragic reign of David ended. (See page 62.)
The Golden Age of Israel, under the reign of David’s son Solomon, is the next chapter in the Old Testament story. In the first half of the book of 1 Kings are recorded some of Solomon’s successes and failures. He constructed and dedicated Israel’s first temple to the Lord. Elaborate palaces, government buildings, and military fortifications were also erected as Israel blossomed as a power among the nations.
Her place as a trade center and economic power, while enriching the nation, brought decided foreign influences among the people. Political compromise and treaty through intermarriage of royal households sowed the seeds of Solomon’s fall from favor with the Lord and eventually the division and fall of the nation.
After the death of Solomon the period of the divided kingdom begins. The concluding half of 1 Kings and all of 2 Kings records the gradual fall of a divided nation. The power struggle that followed Solomon’s death resulted in the tribe of Judah, along with the assimilated Simeonites of that region and half of the tribe of Benjamin, uniting to form a southern monarchy called the kingdom of Judah. The remaining ten and one-half tribes in the north founded a kingdom called Israel, or sometimes Ephraim, after the tribe that dominated in leadership among the others.
The scriptural record of this era is difficult to follow, for it is a seesaw account, dealing for a time with one kingdom and then with the other. Time lapses also occur in the story, as significant events in the lives of only a few of the kings are contained in these writings. The interwoven chronicle of the northern kingdom of Israel covers two centuries, with some 20 monarchs named as reigning for periods varying from a few months to 40 years. Jeroboam, Ahab, Jehu, and Hoshea are among the most well known.
Prophets raised up by the Lord to this nation included Elijah, Elisha, Amos, and Hosea. From her inception until her fall, this nation was an idolatrous and immoral people, warring almost continuously with either her sister country, Judah, or her neighbors. In 722 B.C. the final conquest against rebellious Israel came to an end at the hands of the Assyrians, who carried captive to their homeland almost the entire population of the northern tribes. Their later escape from bondage and migration into uncharted northern regions has resulted in their additional identification as the “lost tribes” of Israel.
In comparison, however, the southern kingdom of Judah endured nearly three and one-half centuries under the rule of 21 reigning monarchs. Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, first occupied the throne of Judah. Asa, Jehoshaphat, Uzziah, Hezekiah, Josiah, and Zedekiah are among the best known of this kingdom’s rulers who followed. The prophets Joel, Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah, among others, were the Lord’s consecrated representatives in Judah.
The twin evils of idolatry and immorality similarly brought the eventual downfall of the southern kingdom, but some of the kings who were righteous and strong leaders were successful in forestalling the overthrow of the people and in effecting some reforms. In 587 B.C., during the reign of King Zedekiah, the wickedness of the people of Judah finally caused the destruction of Jerusalem, and they were taken captive by the Babylonians.
Note: The books of 1 and 2 Chronicles are primarily a parallel, but also a supplementary, account of the story contained in 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings.
The transport of the masses of Judah to the north to Babylon began the eighth period of the Mosaic dispensation or the exile of Judah. The scriptural account of this era is very incomplete. Only through the records of the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel, and later Queen Esther, do we experience with them in part their bondage.
In time, the vassalship over Judah changed from Babylon to Persia. The decree of King Cyrus of Persia proclaiming the return of Judah to the land of promise introduced the final chapter in the story of the Old Testament. The books of Ezra, the record-keeper, and of Nehemiah, the appointed governor of his people, relate the struggles of the restoration of this people.
Assisted by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, the nation first rebuilt the temple and then continued on to rebuild Jerusalem and restore the land. This final recorded century of the people of Judah in the scriptures concludes with the warnings of the last prophet, Malachi, who reechoed the message of the preceding prophets that had been sounded to their forefathers. But apostasy harnessed the people of Judah until the Messiah should come.
The dispensation of Moses spanned almost a millennium of time. And the reason that it was named after Moses was because the revealed covenant and law of God to this people was the law of Moses—the “schoolmaster” of performances and ordinances to bring Israel to Christ. Their rebellions against the Lord prevented their reaping the blessings and benefits of the law. Their experiences and the revealed messages of the prophets remain as a testimony of the importance of true and righteous principles.
Of the value of the Old Testament, Nephi wrote, as he was instructed in vision: “The book … is a record of the Jews, which contains the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; and it also containeth many of the prophecies of the holy prophets; and it is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many; nevertheless, they contain the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; wherefore, they are of great worth. …” (1 Ne. 13:23. Italics added.)