Learning to Love the Old Testament

My first contact with the Old Testament was childhood stories of Noah, David, and Daniel. I loved them, and eagerly awaited each retelling. Later I began to read a synopsized collection of Bible stories, and when I was ten, decided to read the Bible cover to cover.

I made the attempt more than once, always with predictable results. A ways past Genesis I bogged down in the laws and specifications of the tabernacle construction and quickly lost interest.

A number of good things came out of my attempts, however. One of them was that I became impressed with the covenant that the Lord had made with the Israelites. I decided, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that I wanted to be a “Christian Jew,” for I was afraid that we Christians had somehow abandoned too much of the covenant. The great recurring theme of the Old Testament, that the Jews are the covenant people and have been promised eternal blessings, seemed to be ignored by the Christian religions.

My interest in religion waned for a time, but at nineteen I rediscovered the scriptures when I became converted to the restored gospel. With the added insight of the Restoration, the scriptures became a source of rich and unending delight. Furthermore, I felt that by joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I had accomplished my earlier desire to be a Christian Jew. My new religion had a “covenant” feeling to it, taking the Old Testament promises, such as the gathering of Israel, seriously.

Since I feel such a link between my conversion to the gospel and the Old Testament, I’m glad that Church leaders often stress the importance of that book. It is not easy to read, and I suspect that many may not succeed in their first attempt. Possible reasons are myriad. Its length is enough to weaken any reader’s firm resolve. Some parts of it are repetitious, and others are meticulously detailed with instructions that may seem irrelevant to modern life.

How, then, do you get past these barriers?

Over the years, I have developed several techniques you might find helpful in learning to love and understand the Old Testament. First, don’t try to read it cover to cover on the initial attempt. Start instead with a familiar story—Daniel in the lion’s den, or David and Goliath. Or read a short book first, such as Esther. This can provide encouragement to read more.

Second, skip around. If you aren’t interested in how many cubits long the tabernacle was, turn to another chapter or book. You can always return, after the Old Testament has become more familiar to you.

Third, read a short selection each day. A chapter a day has worked well for me, especially when I’m in the middle of detail on diverse laws and ordinances or a multichapter census. Often I can then spend time on another book of scripture as well to avoid boredom. This technique also allows me to read slowly and carefully, discovering interesting single verses. A gem I found this way is Deuteronomy 29:29 [Deut. 29:29]. (Go ahead, look it up!) I would never have come across this verse except by taking Deuteronomy one chapter at a time.

Fourth, study a specific topic throughout the Old Testament. This is a tactic I enjoy because of the variety and freedom it affords. One of my favorite themes is the heart—broken heart, new heart, heart of flesh versus heart of stone, circumcised heart. Studying topics which are thought of as New Testament concepts often gives me an appreciation for the depth of the gospel taught in the Old Testament. This was brought home to me by a comment of a Jewish friend. She couldn’t understand the appeal of the New Testament. To her, Jesus was little more than a plagiarist; practically everything he taught was a quotation from the Old Testament. For me, finding the scriptures in the Old Testament that the Savior uses in the New Testament enriches my appreciation and understanding of both testaments.

Fifth, don’t hesitate to use the resources provided in the LDS edition of the Bible. This edition contains a Topical Guide, a Bible dictionary, cross-references, supplements from the Joseph Smith Translation, and maps—all tremendous aids, especially in topical studies. If you want more help, there are plenty of resources available.

Sixth, appreciate all you are capable of understanding at present. The technique I have used the most in studying the Old Testament, and especially in trying to understand the prophetic books, is a style of reading. I do not worry about details until I have a general feeling of tone and meaning. I do not claim to understand Isaiah, but I enjoy reading his writings tremendously. I savor the imagery of Israel’s latter-day glory, of the Lord’s great love for his people, of the Messiah. These descriptions give me warm, deep, tender feelings. I don’t always know what specific events Isaiah is referring to, or whether he is describing the past, present, or future, but I know that I want to be in the Zion he describes, and not outside her gates.

Certainly reading the Old Testament cover to cover is a worthwhile goal and is important to a fuller understanding of the scriptures and the history of the ancient Israelites. But if you’re not quite ready for that effort yet, try another approach. Indeed, to understand and use the Old Testament as a source of inspiration and doctrine, you will need to rely on a variety of study styles and techniques.

The harvest is worth the effort.

[photo] Photography by Michael M. McConkie

Mary Hazen Johnston serves as Mia Maid adviser in her Manchester, New Hampshire, ward.