I Have a Question

Richard Lloyd Anderson: Jesus showed impressive ability both to use the Old Testament and to depart from it, as he did in the Sermon on the Mount. Even speaking “as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matt. 7:29), he insisted that he had not come “to destroy the law, or the prophets” (Matt. 5:17).


I Have a Question

What Old Testament books are most quoted by the Savior?

Jesus’ Old Testament study began at the time that modern children are in kindergarten. At the age of 12 he brilliantly discussed scripture with Jewish doctors, and at maturity he saturated his message with quotations and precedents from the Old Testament. Our brief Gospels contain some 75 scriptural quotations from the Old Testament, showing his respect for the message and authority of these Jewish books. He knew them well, for he used most of them.

Quite predictably, he quoted the Pentateuch most often. Since these initial five books were the law, questions were most authoritatively settled from them, and they account for about one-fourth of Jesus’ scriptural citations. He quoted nearly as often from the Psalms, obviously finding great personal comfort and prophetic information in this body of devotional literature. Of the prophets quoted, Isaiah is referred to the most; he is quoted directly more than a dozen times. As with many Psalms, the messianic prophecies of Isaiah attracted the Lord. In his earth life, he applied Isaiah’s words to himself and declared them fulfilled. (Luke 4:21.) In the resurrection he continued to unfold “the things concerning himself” from “Moses and all the prophets.” (Luke 24:27.)

History parallels Jesus’ emphasis on the Pentateuch, Psalms, and Isaiah. Dead Sea Scroll discovery has proved the popularity of these Old Testament portions, judged by the number of manuscripts of these books preserved at Qumran. Such information has special interest for Latter-day Saints who know that the Book of Mormon quotes Isaiah more than any other prophet, and that the Savior there stressed, “great are the words of Isaiah.” (3 Ne. 23:1.)

Almost a third of Jesus’ quotations come from Daniel and the minor prophets. He selected predictions concerning the Messiah, personal righteousness, apostasy, restoration, and latter-day judgments. Those who follow the Savior will also find what he found in the Old Testament: instruction, inspiration, and prophetic guidance.

Richard Lloyd Anderson, professor of history and ancient scripture, Brigham Young University

When the Prophet Joseph Smith intently studied the Bible and made his inspired translation, did he say anything concerning the various books of the Old Testament that would suggest either their special importance or lesser value?

I know of no other specific declarations by the Prophet Joseph concerning the relative value of the individual books of the Old Testament while making the inspired translation. He did, however, receive a revelation not to translate the books of the Apocrypha (D&C 91), but these are not in our present Old Testament. The revelations given through the Prophet Joseph solidly proclaim that the Bible is an inspired record written originally by men of God. He said, “I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 327.)

Although all of the books except one have the touch of inspiration about them, obviously some contain greater messages than others. The Prophet’s more frequent use of some books suggests their relative value to us. For example, in his sermons and writings the Prophet quoted from such books as Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel far more than he did from Kings and Chronicles.

Robert J. Matthews, assistant professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University

It appears that quite a number of Israelites in the Old Testament eventually held prominent government positions in non-Israelite countries, such as Joseph who becomes governor of Egypt and Esther who becomes queen of Persia. Is this so, and how many such persons are there known to be?

Daniel and his three friends of noble birth were selected as Jewish lads to be trained in Babylonian culture. They were, however, able to maintain their religious beliefs and Daniel’s dream interpretations made him the third highest ruler in Babylon just before it fell to the Persians. Darius, the Median king, made Daniel the first president over a council of 120 princes who ruled the entire kingdom.

Nehemiah, a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes in the Persian court, was commissioned to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city walls. He was appointed civil governor of Palestine while Ezra was the great religious spokesman.

Actually, such prominence by Israelites is the exception rather than the rule in non-Israelite countries. While in captivity, either in Egypt or Babylon, the Israelites became clannish and often isolated themselves. In later generations, especially in Babylon, significant numbers of Israelites lost their Jewish identity through assimilation. Some may have held important positions, but only after they had accepted Babylonian or Persian customs and gods. Since such persons were probably ostracized from the Jewish community, we have no examples recorded in the Old Testament.

Assimilation was always the most challenging problem for Israelites in exile. Even when they controlled Palestine, they found it difficult to maintain their identity. The tribe of Simeon merged very early with the tribes of the south, especially Judah. Asher took to the sea and was lost among the Phoenicians. Even Judah received a large infusion of Canaanite blood. When the Israelites were scattered, they kept their religious identity only by maintaining very close ties with each other in their synagogues and homes.

Because the Jews have always been a minority in every land except Israel, they have found it difficult to reach positions of influence in gentile countries until the modern separation of church and state.

Victor L. Ludlow, assistant professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University

How did the Israelites sustain themselves for 40 years?

When the Israelites were in the barren wastelands the Lord provided manna from heaven for their basic diet. Flaky, small, and white, it resembled the fruit of the coriander and tasted like honey wafers or oil. It could be ground, stewed, or baked and was gathered fresh early each morning because it would melt if exposed to the sun and would spoil if kept overnight. On the day before the Sabbath, a special double portion was provided so that no one would have to labor on that special day.

Apparently manna provided enough nutrients to sustain life; but for variety, quail were supplied on a couple of occasions. Of course the Israelites had their flocks with them, and the animals supplied the necessary meat, milk, and cheese.

In the Kadesh-Barnea area, where they stayed for many years, the Israelites had water for irrigating grain crops. Even today this area, known as Wadi Feiron, has some water and miles of date palms.

Thus, the Israelites could have supplied many of their nutritional needs independent of manna.

LaMar C. Berrett, chairman, Department of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University

What was the actual political and religious condition of the populace of Promised Land when the Israelites conquered it, and who were the people living there?

In Palestine, Egypt was nominally in control. The land of Canaan was made up of numerous city-states, each independently governed, which paid tribute to Egypt whenever they were forced to do so. Other Hebrew tribes, distant relatives of the Israelites, comprised a modest part of the population in Canaan. It is also worth noting that prior to Israel’s settlement, the Canaanites had developed a linear alphabet, which later passed from Phoenicia to Greece, thus becoming the ancestor to our own.

The material culture and international trade of the Canaanites was highly advanced, but their religious ways stood diametrically opposed to Israel’s. Based on the fertility cults led by the god Baal, the Canaanite religion was an extraordinarily immoral form of paganism, including sacred prostitution, homosexuality, and other orgiastic rites.

The population of Canaan was mixed. In addition to the Canaanites near the sea and a few Hebrew clans, the Amorites are mentioned often in the Old Testament. Abraham descended from this Semitic people. Many of the other peoples listed in the Bible as inhabitants of the land (Hittites, Hivites, Horites, Jebusites, etc.) represent Canaan’s non-Semitic elements, although their tribal names preserve their distant origins. These people fully adopted the Canaanite religion and way of life by the time of the Israelite invasion.

S. Kent Brown, assistant professor of ancient scripture and associate member, Institute for Ancient Studies, Brigham Young University

Why did the Lord permit Israel to war against people in the land of promise?

It is significant that when the Lord promised Canaan to Abraham, he did not give him an immediate right to it, but only a promise of future possession. In Abraham’s day the inhabitants of the land had a claim to it, but they would forfeit this right in the future as they increased in iniquity. Israel could then become the rightful claimant. (Gen. 15:16; 1 Ne. 17:32–40; cf. Ether 2:8–9.)

True, we do not have extensive accounts about the people of Canaan, but we do know that by the time of Moses and Joshua, the Canaanites (or Amorites) had become grossly wicked, for the Lord warned Israel repeatedly not to allow any of the Canaanite ways of life to infiltrate her own. Some of these iniquities were sins of the flesh: adultery, incest, bestiality, and homosexuality. He commanded the Israelites: “Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you: And the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it. … For whosoever shall commit any of these abominations, even the souls that commit them shall be cut off from among their people.” (Lev. 18:24–29. Italics added. Cf. Lev. 20.)

Such individuals, having proven during their mortal probation that they were evilly disposed, filled the purpose of their creation and became subject to the Lord’s judgments in this world. (D&C 76:103–104.) Rather than allowing them to continue to pollute the earth by their wickedness and to contaminate the unborn generations by their perversions, the Lord’s righteous judgments took them from the earth. He did this by various means—floods, fires, famines, earthquakes, and so forth. He also used the sword. The Jaredites, Nephites, Israelites, Jews, and Laban all felt its terrible swift action in their lives.

The Israelites were given the unpleasant task of carrying out the Lord’s judgment against the Canaanites. They were ordered not to allow compassion to overrule their specific charge to destroy (Deut. 7:1–3); neither were they, after they dispossessed the former inhabitants, to conclude they had been successful because they were such a righteous people, for they had not attained that state. They were commanded to remember why the former inhabitants were no longer there. (Deut. 9:4–6.)

The Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance (D&C 1:31); he is constantly at war with it. The Israelites waged war against the Canaanites because the Lord commanded them to. (This is the same reason why Nephi killed Laban.) It was part of the Lord’s overall struggle against unrighteousness. To carry out the Lord’s commandment required an act of obedience on their part, and it showed whose side they were on in the great struggle against evil.

We do not know why the Lord required them to do this; maybe they had to help acquire their homeland, so it would not come totally as a free gift from the Lord. Maybe the Lord was showing them some of the consequences of great wickedness. Whatever the ultimate explanation, we know that the Lord’s ways are righteous, even though we presently understand them only in part.

Keith H. Meservy, assistant professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University

How did proverbs come to be—and how were they used in olden times?

The distillation of a wise idea into a succinct, well-expressed form made it easy to remember; if it were easier to remember it would be easier to pass from one generation to another. And this was the intent—to pass wisdom from the parent to the child.

“A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels: To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; but fools despise wisdom and instruction. My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother: For they shall be an ornament of grace unto thy head, and [decorative] chains about thy neck.” (Prov. 1:5–9.)

At least five different collections of proverbs are contained within our book of Proverbs: three of Solomon’s (Prov. 1:1; Prov. 10:1; Prov. 25:1), one of an unknown Agur (Prov. 30:1), and one of an unknown King Lemuel (Prov. 31:1). Solomon is given credit for having spoken three thousand proverbs. (1 Kgs. 4:32; cf. Prov. 25:1.)

Form and content vary but the proverbs are for those who have ears to hear. “Bow down thine ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply thine heart unto my knowledge. For it is a pleasant thing if thou keep them within thee; they shall withal be fitted in thy lips. That thy trust may be in the Lord, I have made known to thee this day. …” (Prov. 22:17–19.)

Keith H. Meservy, assistant professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University

Does Jewish tradition or history give any clues as to what the breastplates look like mentioned in Exodus 28?

According to these traditions, 12 stones, each engraved with the name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel, were the focal point of the breastplate. Each stone was square and set in gold, attached to a fabric skillfully woven out of 28 threads. One thread of pure gold was spun or folded with six threads of sky blue to make a larger thread. A second gold thread was joined with six purple threads, another with six threads of scarlet, and another with six threads of fine linen. Then these four larger threads were woven into a fabric one span wide and two spans long, a span being one hand width. The fabric, folded double, became a pouch, one span square. The four rolls of gold settings were attached to the outer surface, and the Urim and Thummim was placed in the fabric pouch.

A gold ring was placed in each corner. The two upper rings were attached by gold chains to similar gold rings on the shoulder of the ephod (shieldlike garment worn over the robe). The two lower rings of the breastplate were joined to gold rings of the ephod near the waist by blue ribbons.

When clothed with the breastplate and the other priestly garments, the high priest was prepared to perform his functions. The breastplate fulfilled one important role that Mormons would usually associate with the Urim and Thummim. When the king, the head of the Sanhedrin, or some other accepted person had a special question, he would go to the high priest. The high priest would then look down at a breastplate to see which of the engraved letters would shine out most brightly, and he would then construct the answer out of these letters. For example, when David asked the Urim and Thummim if Saul would continue his pursuit, the high priest Abiathar saw three bright letters: Yod in Judah’s name, Resh in Reuben’s name, and Dalet in Dan’s name. Thus the answer was given: YERED, “He will pursue.”

Jewish tradition indicates that the Urim and Thummim ceased to exist when the first temple was destroyed and the Jews were taken captive.

Centuries later, when the Jews were scattered across Europe, many Jewish communities made breastplates and placed them in front of the mantel of the Torah in their synagogues. These symbols, similar to the breastplate of the high priest, would often contain reproductions of the 12 precious stones. Otherwise, the breastplate and the Urim and Thummim are lost to the Jews.

Victor L. Ludlow, assistant professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University

The book of Exodus mentions the Urim and Thummim. What was its place in Moses’ time? Where did it come from? Can its history and usage be traced through the rest of the Old Testament?

This suggests that the Urim and Thummim was the appointed instrument through which divine revelation and decisions should be obtained.

Through its means, Saul once sought to fix guilt for an offense (1 Sam. 14:41; see the Greek and Hebrew texts); David sought divine guidance to know in advance what kinds of situations would develop (1 Sam. 23:6–13); we infer that the Urim and Thummim were in the Ephod. Saul complained that the Lord neither spoke to him nor revealed his will to him by any means, including the Urim. (1 Sam. 28:6.)

We hear nothing more of the Urim and Thummim in the history of Israel until it becomes obvious after the Babylonian captivity that the Jews no longer are in possession of it. We would take it for granted, however, that until then, righteous kings and peoples used the Urim and Thummim when they sought counsel from the Lord. It is interesting to note that if a Urim and Thummim had been available to the Jews after exile, the problem of lost genealogy could have been solved. This problem was significant for those Jews since priesthood prerogatives were based upon descent from Levi or Aaron. (Ezra 2:62–63.)

We do not know exactly when the Jews lost use of the Urim and Thummim. However, the people were rejecting the prophets in Jeremiah’s and Ezekiel’s time, although the Lord warned them that a time was coming when they would no longer enjoy the light of revelation. Thus one wonders if they lost the Urim and Thummim through wickedness rather than conquest or carelessness. (See Documentary History of the Church, vol. 1, pp. 21–23, for an experience of Joseph Smith. Cf. D&C 3:11; D&C 10:2.)

Keith H. Meservy, assistant professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University

In terms of strength and power and significance, was Israel ever a nation truly to be reckoned with by the major powers throughout the Old Testament? Or was it in fact a small local power on occasion? Was there ever a world power during its time that really troubled itself much with Israel?

The Ten Tribes of Israel to the north and Judah in the south were, from time to time, forced to pay tribute to Assyria until northern Israel was conquered and depopulated by Sargon II in 722 B.C. Judah, however, with the help of the Lord working through Isaiah the prophet and good king Hezekiah, successfully resisted the attack of Assyrian King Sennacherib upon Jerusalem. (See 2 Kgs. 18:19.)

The next big nation to be concerned with Judah was Babylon. As Babylon was overthrowing the Assyrian power (620–604 B.C.) Egypt marched through Judah to get a share of the empire. When King Josiah of Judah resisted, his army was vanquished and he was killed. But Egypt’s power in Judah was short-lived. Pharaoh Necho was soon conquered by Babylon, and between 607 and 587 B.C. Babylon repeatedly tried to subject the Judeans to peaceful submission and tribute. She took group after group of Judah’s leaders into exile. Ezekiel and Daniel were called and actually did their prophetic work in Babylon.

Persia was the next nation to be concerned with Judah. After conquering Babylon (539 B.C.), Cyrus thought it well to let the Jews in captivity return to Judah and Jerusalem. Under Ezra, Nehemiah, and such prophets as Haggai and Zechariah, the little nation was built up again.

The great empire builder, Alexander the Great, showed respect for the people and the God of Judah and gave the nation considerable autonomy. After his empire broke up, there was much conflict between the Seleucid rulers of the area and the Judeans, ending with the Maccabean wars (164 to 64 B.C.; see 1 and 2 Maccabees).

After gaining virtual independence, internal conflicts turned the two last heirs of the Maccabean princes to Rome for help. Rome helped herself to the control of the Holy Land. The mighty Pompey was embarrassed in taking three months to besiege and break into Jerusalem (63 B.C.).

Rome again besieged Jerusalem in her attempts to rule the land with both Vespasian and Titus directing wars against Judah from A.D. 66 to 70.

Once again in A.D. 132 to 135, the emperor Hadrian directed a siege of the land. At that time it was against the false messiah, Bar Cochba. Jerusalem was destroyed again, rebuilt as a Roman city, and renamed; the land remained under Rome until A.D. 635.

It is evident, therefore, that although Israel and the remnant of Israel, Judah, were very small nations, they gave the major powers of the Middle East much concern throughout the centuries; several world powers had trouble controlling the land.

It appears also that for the present and future, certain world powers will continue to be troubled by that land and people, until eventually the righteous reign of the Messiah is established there.

Ellis T. Rasmussen, professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University

Why was it necessary for Elijah to be taken into heaven as he was? Are there other prominent persons who did not taste of death—and do we regard Moses as being translated instead of dying?

“When Moses and Elijah came to the Savior and to Peter, James, and John upon the Mount, what was their coming for? Was it just some spiritual manifestation to strengthen these three apostles? Or did they come merely to give comfort unto the Son of God in his ministry and to prepare him for his crucifixion? No! That was not the purpose. …

The Prophet Joseph Smith has explained it as follows:

“‘The priesthood is everlasting. The Savior, Moses, and Elias [Elijah, in other words] gave the keys to Peter, James, and John on the Mount when they were transfigured before him. The priesthood is everlasting—without beginning of days or end of years; without father, mother, etc. If there is no change of ordinances, there is no change of priesthood. Wherever the ordinances of the gospel are administered, there is the priesthood. … Christ is the Great High Priest; Adam next.’” (Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 2, p. 110.)

Because Christ was the first resurrected being, any prophet who had to perform earthly ordinances before his resurrection had to be preserved in the flesh. Thus, the Lord preserved Moses and Elijah in the flesh so they could confer the keys they held upon Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration.

John the Beloved and the Three Nephites were translated and are still fulfilling responsibilities given to them. Enoch and his entire city were translated and caught up into heaven, to return to this earth at the second coming of Christ. There have also been others, such as Alma, who have not “tasted death.”

The Prophet Joseph Smith discussed the doctrine of translation, a power whereby men are preserved in their tangible, physical bodies, in the following words:

“Many have supposed that the doctrine of translation was a doctrine whereby men were taken immediately into the presence of God, and into an eternal fullness, but this is a mistaken idea. Their place of habitation is that of the terrestrial order, and a place prepared for such characters He held in reserve to be ministering angels unto many planets, and who as yet have not entered into so great a fullness as those who are resurrected from the dead.” (Documentary History of the Church, vol. 4, p. 210.)

Alma P. Burton, professor of Church history and doctrine, Brigham Young University

Why are there no books in the Old Testament from Malachi (about 400 B.C.) to the time of Jesus Christ?

Many people may not realize that approximately 400 years of history occur between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament. However, some translations of the Bible cover part of Judean history during those 400 years with some books of the Apocrypha. Maccabees 1 and 2 are specifically a history of this time. If one examines the Bible used by the Catholic Church, he will find these books usually placed after Malachi, although in some later editions they are placed earlier.

Maccabees 1 and 2 are books of history and not of doctrine, and are not written by prophets. They record the struggle for Jewish freedom from 167 to 63 B.C. The King James Version also contained these books (with others of the Apocrypha) between the Old and the New Testaments in its early printings beginning in A.D. 1611; but they began to be discontinued after about 1830 because most Protestants do not regard them as equal in status with the other books of the Old Testament. The King James Version used by Joseph Smith contained the Apocrypha. The reader may wish to consult Doctrine and Covenants 91, which deals with the value of the apocryphal books. [D&C 91]

Robert J. Matthews, assistant professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University