The Book That Built a Better World

So familiar to us are Old Testament moral values and teachings about God that we may be surprised to learn how fundamentally different that scripture was for its time and place.

The Book That Built a Better World

To modern viewers, the 1943 Broadway musical Oklahoma! hardly seems revolutionary. Only by comparing it with other popular musicals of the era—with their rousing chorus-line openings and whimsical plots—can we begin to appreciate how truly innovative it was to open a serious, well-plotted show with a solo ballad. Popular theater has since become so similar to Oklahoma! in form that few modern theatergoers realize the genre was ever different.

So too with the Old Testament. If we take its teachings for granted, we may overlook its singular contributions to humanity.

From proclaiming the preeminence of the merciful, just, and righteous God of Israel to asserting higher ethical and social responsibilities concerning war, women, slavery, marriage, family, and the poor and downtrodden, the teachings of the Old Testament spoke for a better humanity, stirring people to lead lives answerable to a supreme God. This ancient scripture set forth codes of human conduct as well as a doctrinal foundation that have endured the ages and influenced the history and cultural development of much of the modern Western world. Old Testament doctrine and moral values also represented a dramatic departure millennia ago from the belief systems of the cultures surrounding ancient Israel.

Indeed, Old Testament teachings may well have been the most innovative of their time. Compared to the prevailing morals of biblical time and place, the doctrines taught in the first five books of Moses—the Pentateuch, or Torah (“the law”)—were radically different. Although some ancient peoples independently developed or adopted similar values, 1 from Moses’ time through early Christianity the sacred writings of a small group of Hebrews 2 were a principal source of truth to the world.

The Supreme God of Israel

A primary contribution of the Old Testament was the doctrine of a supreme and all-powerful God, the creator of the universe. The God of Israel boldly forbade worshipping other gods (see Ex. 20:3; Deut. 4:35, 39; Isa. 45:18) and making graven images (see Ex. 20:4). The Shema Yisrael, a highly sacred prayer of the Jews, begins with a passage from Deuteronomy 6:4 [Deut. 6:4], “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord,” also quoted by the Savior when asked to explain the first of all commandments (see Mark 12:29).

This strong pronouncement meant that Israel could not become like the pagan nations who worshipped many different false gods. Altars were to be made of uncut, not carved, stone (see Ex. 20:25), and no pagan groves were to be planted (see Deut. 16:21). Moses and other biblical heroes, unlike the heroes of surrounding cultures, were never depicted as semidivine or magical beings. Wizardry, magic, tattooing the skin, and consulting the dead were forbidden under Mosaic law (see Lev. 19:28, 31; Deut. 18:10–12). In all ways, Israel was to be “holy,” “special,” “peculiar,” separate, and different from all other nations (Lev. 10:10; Lev. 11:44–45; Lev. 19:1–2; Lev. 20:24–26; Deut. 7:6; Deut. 14:2; Deut. 26:18). Indeed, “the root of the Hebrew word for holiness—Kedushah—means ‘to be separate.’” 3


The morality of the Old Testament was equally rare and unique. Although most ancient cultures had minimal laws against theft and other antisocial behaviors, ancient Israel worshipped a God who was completely moral and holy and who commanded his people to be the same.

Though the gods of most of the other Mediterranean peoples seem petty, indifferent, and amoral, the God of the Old Testament is just the reverse: “Whereas the gods of Olympus … pursued beautiful women, the God of Sinai watches over widows and orphans.” 4

The Old Testament introduces morality into its earliest pages. Scholars have pointed out similarities between the Noah story and the Gilgamesh epic, an ancient Middle Eastern poem composed before 2000 B.C. But these scholars sometimes overlook the moral differences between these narratives. In Genesis, the reason for the Flood was to end universal wickedness and violence (see Gen. 6:5–13); in The Epic of Gilgamesh, noisy humans were keeping the gods awake, “so the gods agreed to exterminate mankind” by flood. 5 Morality is central to one story, absent from the other.

We might also contrast Old Testament morality with that of the ancient Greek classic the Odyssey. The hero, Odysseus, casually mentions that the first thing they did after leaving Troy was to go to Ismaros, where they “stormed that place and killed the men. … Plunder we took, and we enslaved the women.” 6 There is not a hint of apology or remorse about his action. But the Israelites went to war only if God so commanded, and they required a moral justification for such a course of action (see, for example, Deut. 9:1–5).

Some people are disturbed by violence and other harsh realities in the Old Testament. It was a barbarous time in the world, a time of murder, adultery, and child sacrifice, yet in Israel such practices were outlawed (see Ex. 20:13; Lev. 20:2). And slavery, though permitted, was changed to a more humane indentured servitude whereby slaves were allowed to rest on the Sabbath and freed after seven years (see Ex. 20:10; Ex. 21:2). A woman captured in war could not be touched until after she mourned her dead relatives for a full month and was then married (see Deut. 21:10–13). All ancient cultures discriminated against slaves and women, but those cultures with Judeo-Christian roots in the Bible eventually began to end such evils.

The God of Israel required his people to treat the disadvantaged with compassion. He taught them to respect the deaf and the blind (see Lev. 19:14), the aged (see Lev. 19:32), and servants (see Lev. 25:40–43). Additionally, the Israelites were commanded to be kind toward the poor and toward strangers (see Lev. 19:9–10, 33–34) and to use just weights and measures (see Lev. 19:36). Even animals were accorded kinder treatment (see Deut. 22:4, 6, 10) and were given the Sabbath rest (see Ex. 20:10). 7

The morality of “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Lev. 19:18) came logically from a God who said, “Ye shall be holy: For I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). These concepts from Sinai helped inspire later prophets such as Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah with their great resounding cries for compassion and justice—a “prophetic protest against social injustice [that was] without close parallel in the ancient world.” 8

The Hebrew word tzedakah—often translated as “charity”—carries perhaps the most important moral value of the Old Testament. Its root actually means “justice” and “righteousness,” denoting not only feelings of charity but also actions of goodness and justice. 9 This concept of justice underlay many aspects of Hebrew social order: a person could not be punished for another’s crimes (see Deut. 24:16); at least two witnesses were necessary (see Deut. 19:15); and Israelites were commanded to exercise righteous judgment, without favoritism toward the poor or the mighty (see Lev. 19:15; Deut. 1:17). Thus even kings were not above the law. Because in Israel kingship was seen as an undesirable compromise with the world (see 1 Sam. 8:7–22), only in Israel could a prophet come to condemn a king to his face on behalf of an oppressed person. Elijah thus addressed King Ahab, and Nathan condemned King David (see 1 Kgs. 21:1–20; 2 Sam. 11–12). These events were without parallel in surrounding cultures. 10

The ethical code and teachings of the Bible, one scholar has said, represent “Judaism’s finest contribution to the world. God is ethical. And those who would serve him must also be ethical.” 11 The Savior taught this imperative as the very greatest of commandments. When asked which is the great commandment (see Matt. 22:36–39), he answered by quoting from the Torah (see Deut. 6:4–5; Lev. 19:18).

Of course, Jesus and all of the prophets taught much more than a system of ethics. Their teachings included crucial gospel doctrines and saving ordinances that presupposed and embraced moral principles and obligations and yet were by no means reducible to mere ethical codes. As influential as certain moral assumptions underlying Old Testament theology were to Western history and culture, Latter-day Saints know also that all of the Hebrew prophets knew more of gospel fulness—its doctrines and ordinances—than has been transmitted to us in the Old Testament record. 12 Those saving doctrines and ordinances of the gospel are eternal, even though certain applications of the law are subject to change—for example, replacement of the “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Ex. 21:24) standard of retribution with the Golden Rule and “love your enemies” ideals of conduct (see Matt. 7:12; Matt. 5:44).

Marriage and Family

The Old Testament firmly establishes standards on marriage that were originally given to Adam but lost to many cultures through apostasy. In many ancient societies, for example, laws prohibiting adultery had degenerated to the point of applying only to women, not men. 13 However, the Old Testament reaffirmed the Lord’s standard of purity, prohibiting both men and women from committing adultery (see Ex. 20:14). According to one scholar, the Old Testament’s laws on sexual purity made modern civilization possible, for “societies that did not place boundaries around sexuality were stymied in their development.” Indeed, Old Testament laws “ensured that sex no longer dominate society, heightened male-female love, … and elevat[ed] the status of women.” 14

While it is true that in Old Testament times cultural traditions were less strict toward men than toward women regarding some moral issues (allowing easy divorce, for instance), the Savior attributed this condition to the hardness of people’s hearts, for “from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8; see also Ensign, Jan. 1993, 59–60). As it stood, the ideal of marital fidelity (see, for example, Gen. 2:24; Ex. 20:14, 17) was truly revolutionary. The law of Moses even enjoined newlywed couples to spend much time together (see Deut. 24:5). Other biblical scripture reinforced the sanctity of marriage (see Prov. 5:18; Prov. 12:4; Eccl. 9:9; 1 Cor. 7:2–3; 1 Cor. 11:11; Eph. 5:22–23, 25). These family values and others have spread to become the ideal if not the practice of much of the world.

Humanity, History, and Science

The God of Israel created a unique view of humanity. To the Hebrews, kings were not semidivine beings, but neither was mankind considered to be merely a low order of nature no higher than animals. Rather, people blessed with spirits, free agency, and the ability to do good or evil were of utmost importance to God, who cared about their condition in this world and in the next.

The Jews and early Christians before the time of Augustine (A.D. 354–430) considered humans to be imperfect but also responsible and capable of free choice. Unlike many other religions, Judaism and Christianity viewed the material world as having been created by God and called “very good” (Gen. 1:31). While the Old Testament acknowledged many human weaknesses, it still exclaimed triumphantly, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” and “Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour” (Ps. 8:4, 5).

Some skeptics see the Bible as the enemy of history and science without realizing that, in part, it made science and history possible. Surrounding Israel were religions of accommodation that merely sought to help people survive in, not change, their worlds. In contrast, “Judaism … affirmed that [history] was a meaningful process leading to the gradual regeneration of humanity.” 15 By introducing the concept of linear historical progress—the idea that because history is leading to a millennial state, our actions matter in helping create a better world—the Old Testament inspired great changes in human history. Whereas other religions of the period never “produced a major social revolution fired by a high concept of social justice, … ‘the prophets of Judah were a reforming political force which has never been surpassed.’” 16

This progressive worldview gave impetus to a study of the surrounding world and its phenomena, affirming that these things were the creations of a rational, omniscient, divine being. In cultures for which the universe was a great cyclical mystery without reason or progress, “there was no confidence that the code of nature’s laws could ever be unveiled and read, because there was no assurance that a divine being … had ever formulated such a code.” 17 That God had pronounced the natural world good and had given man dominion over it (see Gen. 1:28, 31) generated appreciation for nature and increased confidence that its discoverable secrets could help improve the human condition.

Some modern persons dismiss the Old Testament as archaic, irrational, chauvinistic, or violent. They would do well to consider how much worse off the world would surely be without this inspired document that has given much of Western civilization its moral foundations.

What do we as Latter-day Saints think of the Old Testament and its past, present, and future impact on us and the world? Do we appreciate the fact that its God-inspired values—preserved by a relatively small community—survived ages of widespread turmoil and false beliefs to eventually spread teachings regarding God and morality throughout the world in preparation for greater revelations to follow?

From this perspective, the Old Testament is indeed a glorious document to admire, study and ponder, and be eternally grateful for. Perhaps this is one reason why the Savior said of those people who could not accept the writings of Moses and the prophets (that is, the Old Testament) that “neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (Luke 16:31). In rejecting the Old Testament, they rejected also the giver of this remarkable, sacred book.

[illustration] Engraving detail from Moses Coming Down from Mount Sinai, by Gustave Doré

[illustration] The God of Israel required his people to treat the disadvantaged with compassion, as the widow did to the famished prophet Elijah. (Elijah and the Widow Woman, by E. S. Hardy © Providence Lithograph.)

[illustration] The Ten Commandments codified concepts that were far from standard in other societies of Old Testament times. (Illustrated by Greg K. Olsen.)

[illustration] Painting by Lyle Beddes

[illustration] Old Testament Prophet Teaching from Scriptures, by Scott Snow

Chris Conkling is first counselor in the stake mission presidency, Santa Clarita California Stake.

Show References


  1.   1.

    A form of monotheism was introduced briefly into Egypt in the fourteenth century B.C., and later Greek philosophers talked of a supreme God. Hittite treaty documents use words similar to those in God’s covenant with Israel. The “eye for an eye” of Ex. 21:24 and some other elements of the law of Moses are also found in Hammurabi’s code of the eighteenth century B.C. See D. Winton Thomas, Documents from Old Testament Times (1961), 27–37, 143–50.

  2.   2.

    Deut. 7:7 tells us that Israel was “the fewest of all people” compared to the surrounding kingdoms.

  3.   3.

    Louis Jacobs, The Book of Jewish Values (1960), 102.

  4.   4.

    Huston Smith, The Religions of Man (1989), 351–52.

  5.   5.

    The Epic of Gilgamesh, trans. N. K. Sandars (1972), 108.

  6.   6.

    Homer, Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (1963), 146.

  7.   7.

    Animals were not to be abused or mistreated. For example, an ox and an ass were not to be yoked together; being of unequal sizes, they both would suffer (see Deut. 22:10).

  8.   8.

    G. Ernest Wright, The Old Testament Against Its Environment (1962), 60.

  9.   9.

    See Barry W. Holtz, Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts (1984), 20–21. Tzedakah is the root word in such names as Zedekiah (“Jehovah is righteousness”) and Melchizedek (“prince or king of righteousness”). It is interesting to note that the range of meaning of tzedakah is neatly comprehended by the definition of charity in Moroni 7:47 [Moro. 7:47]: “the pure love of Christ.”

  10.   10.

    See Smith, The Religions of Man, 372.

  11.   11.

    Lowell L. Bennion, The Unknown Testament (1988), 47.

  12.   12.

    See Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (1976), 39.

  13.   13.

    Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage (1954), 29–46.

  14.   14.

    Dennis Prager, “Judaism, Homosexuality, and Civilization,” Ultimate Issues 6, no. 2 (1990): 2.

  15.   15.

    Henry Bamford Parkes, The Divine Order: Western Culture in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (1969), 14; see also S. G. F. Brandon, Religion in Ancient History: Studies in Ideas, Men and Events (1969), 380–81.

  16.   16.

    Huston Smith, quoting in part William Albright, in The Religions of Man, 366.

  17.   17.

    Joseph Needham, as quoted in Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (1976), 132–42. Because the medieval Christians believed that a reasonable God had created the universe, they had confidence that they could use reason to learn something about it (see pp. 132–33).