Enjoying the Old Testament


Feeling intimidated by the book’s size and complexity? Take courage with these ideas.

Enjoying the Old Testament

Have you ever had to complete a project so large that you didn’t even know where to begin? Maybe it was writing a research paper, overhauling the engine of a car, building a house, earning a degree, or taking on a new Church calling. It can be overwhelming! This is the way some people feel about reading the Old Testament. A few challenges in this daunting task are:

1. Length. The Latter-day Saint publication of the King James Version of the Old Testament is 1,184 pages long. Think about it—1,184 pages! Many of us rarely read a book so long.

2. Language. The Church uses the King James Version of the Bible for English-speaking members. It was beautifully written by translators who believed that Jesus is the Christ. It was written, however, using words and grammar from the 17th century! It takes practice to get used to this way of writing.

3. Time, Place, and Culture. The people of the Old Testament lived a long time ago, in a place most of us have never been, and in settings very different from modern times.

4. Complexity. Some parts of the Old Testament are difficult to understand. Sometimes the Joseph Smith Translation (JST), other scripture references, and statements from living prophets can help us with these difficult parts. Other times we must wait until the Lord gives additional understanding.

Because of these challenges, perhaps you decided long ago that the Old Testament just wasn’t for you. Not so! Church leaders feel so strongly about this scripture that the curriculum for Primary, Sunday School, and seminary has been built around it for an entire year! Our leaders also quote from it, often at general conference.

With some basic information about the Old Testament, some simple suggestions for scripture reading, and consistent effort, you can make the reading of the Old Testament an uplifting and enjoyable experience.

Seek the Spirit

First and always, seek assistance from Heavenly Father in prayer. President Howard W. Hunter (1907–95) has said: “There is nothing more helpful than prayer to open our understanding of the scriptures. Through prayer we can attune our minds to seek the answers to our searchings. The Lord said: ‘Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you’ (Luke 11:9). Herein is Christ’s reassurance that if we will ask, seek, and knock, the Holy Spirit will guide our understanding if we are ready and eager to receive” (“Reading the Scriptures,” Ensign, Nov. 1979, 64). I have learned not to study the scriptures without first asking for help from Heavenly Father. I know He desires to help us. He wants us to understand, but we must ask.

Choose a Specific Time to Read

Second, people who read the scriptures regularly and consistently do so because they follow a personal plan to get it done. President Hunter taught: “Perhaps what is more important than the hour of the day is that a regular time be set aside for study … A half hour on a regular basis would result in substantial accomplishment. A quarter of an hour is little time, but it is surprising how much enlightenment and knowledge can be acquired in a subject so meaningful. The important thing is to allow nothing else to ever interfere with our study” (Ensign, Nov. 1979, 64; emphasis added). Rather than trying to find an “open spot” each day for your scripture reading, set aside a specific time each day and you will find yourself reading much more consistently.

Consider How the Old Testament Is Organized

Third, find the page “The Names and Order of All the Books of the Old and New Testament” in the front of the Bible. Consider marking the following on that page:

  1. 1.

    The books of Genesis through Deuteronomy are historical books, sometimes called “the law.” They are also called the “five books of Moses” because Moses wrote or spoke much of what is in them. These books tell us of the history of the earth as the Lord revealed it to Moses. Genesis begins with the Creation of the world and Adam and Eve. Deuteronomy finishes at the end of Moses’ life.

  2. 2.

    The books from Joshua through Esther are also historical books and tell the continuing history of the children of Israel for about 600 years after Moses and are often called “the history.” They are generally placed in chronological order.

  3. 3.

    The books of Job through Song of Solomon contain teachings, psalms, and proverbs and are known as “the poetry” or “the writings.”

  4. 4.

    The books of Isaiah through Malachi are the teachings of “the prophets” from about 800 to 400 B.C. They are not in historical order.

You will also find at the bottom of the page a listing of the contents of the appendix. You can use the Topical Guide to search more than 750 subjects for scripture references from all the standard works. The Bible Dictionary contains 1,285 biblical topics prepared from the Latter-day Saint perspective. The Joseph Smith Translation portion of the appendix contains the Prophet Joseph Smith’s changes that are too long to include in the footnotes. The Gazetteer lists place-names shown on the maps by letter and number. These study helps are provided to assist you in getting the most out of your scripture study.

Use the Scripture Study Helps

Fourth, I have come to rely on the wonderful resources in our scriptures. For example, before reading a chapter, get a basic understanding of what is in it by reading the chapter heading.

After the Prophet Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, one of the first things the Lord instructed him to do was to make numerous corrections to the Bible. These corrections are called the Joseph Smith Translation (JST). Many of the JST changes are printed in the footnotes and on the last pages (797–813) of the 1979 Latter-day Saint publication of the Bible. These changes can often completely alter the meaning of a verse. For example, in Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh, the King James Version says that “the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh” (Ex. 9:12). The JST changes this mistake to “And Pharaoh hardened his heart, and he hearkened not unto them” (footnote 12a).

The footnotes also offer word and phrase helps. For example:

HEB: This means there is an alternate translation of the original Hebrew word. For example, the Bible says, “And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth” (Gen. 6:6). But in footnote 6a we find that an alternate Hebrew translation for “repent” is “to be sorry” or “have compassion.”

IE (“that is”): This gives a simpler explanation of a difficult word or phrase. For example, the Bible tells us Goliath wore “greaves of brass” (1 Sam. 17:6). Footnote 6a helps us understand that greaves means shin armor.

OR: This gives us an easier word for an archaic English word. For example, footnote 4a in 1 Samuel 24:4 [1 Sam. 24:4] tells us that skirt is an archaic word for hem, corner, or border.

Maps can help us visualize the distances and locations of significant sites and journeys. A new set of maps and pictures has been recently placed in the scriptures. If we want to add them to an older set of scriptures, they may be purchased through the Church Distribution Center (compact, regular, and large, item nos. 36086, 36087, and 36088, U.S. $1.00).

Decide to Read for Understanding

Fifth, have you ever skipped over words, phrases, or verses you didn’t understand because you just wanted to get through a certain amount of reading? President Hunter has advised: “It is better to have a set amount of time to give scriptural study each day than to have a set amount of chapters to read. Sometimes we find that the study of a single verse will occupy the whole time” (Ensign, Nov. 1979, 64). The Lord has commanded us to “search the scriptures” (John 5:39)—not just skim them. In scripture reading, patience is a virtue! Tell yourself that how much you gain from and enjoy your reading is far more important than how many pages you read.

Gather a Few Additional Study Resources

What is a cockatrice? Who was Dagon? What is corn? (You may be surprised!) What did the prophet Isaiah mean when he prophesied that 10 acres of vineyard would yield one bath? Helpful explanations can be found in the Bible Dictionary at the back of our Bible.

Another great help is an English-language dictionary. Not all difficult words in the Bible are defined in the footnotes or Bible Dictionary. Do you know what “woe” or “verily” mean? (Prepare for another surprise!)

As I look back on nearly 30 years of scripture study, one of my most enjoyable experiences was when I determined to study the Old Testament 30 minutes a day. That year I selected the Old Testament institute student manuals (32489 and 32498; U.S. $3.25 and $3.75) as my study assistants. The manuals are easy to read, and I was amazed at how often an explanation or picture answered my question.

A time line provides a historical overview and helps place the people and events we are reading about in order. The time line found on page 50 in this issue of the Ensign and the chart “Chronology Tables” on pages 635–45 of the Bible Dictionary will be useful.

Read Selectively

Sixth, as wonderful as the Old Testament is, all of its pages are not of equal value. Most people enjoy reading the story of David and Goliath more than reading Moses’ numbering of children of Israel. As you read a chapter heading, ask yourself: (1) What can I learn from this chapter? (2) How might this chapter benefit me? (3) Will I learn something about Jesus Christ? (4) Do I feel spiritually prompted to carefully study this chapter? Consider seeking inspiration to understand difficult portions of your reading.

Start at the True Beginning

Seventh, begin your study of the Old Testament in the Pearl of Great Price! If we do not, we miss the flood of inspiration and doctrine in the book of Moses, the Joseph Smith Translation of Genesis 1:1 [Gen. 1:1] through Genesis 6:13 [Gen. 6:13]. Once we have finished reading the book of Moses, we can turn to Genesis 6:14 [Gen. 6:14] and continue our reading.

Search for Doctrines and Principles

Eighth, use a different style of reading when you approach the Old Testament. Alex J. Morrison, a professional golf instructor, told of several experiences he had playing golf with baseball legend Babe Ruth. The Babe outmatched him in size and strength, yet Morrison consistently hit the ball straighter and farther. Morrison finally pointed out to Babe Ruth that he was trying to hit a golf ball the same way he hit a baseball. Babe asked the pro to teach him. Morrison agreed, and with practice Babe improved his golf game significantly (see A New Way to Better Golf [1931], 15–16).

Scripture reading is a different “swing” from reading a newspaper or novel. The most important parts of the scriptures are not details or storylines, but the doctrines and principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ within the stories.

Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has counseled: “As you seek spiritual knowledge, search for principles. Carefully separate them from the detail used to explain them. Principles are concentrated truth, packaged for application to a wide variety of circumstances. It is worth great effort to organize the truth we gather to simple statements of principle” (“Acquiring Spiritual Knowledge,” Ensign, Nov. 1993, 86).

What are doctrines and principles? Just as there are laws and truths that govern the physical world (gravity, motion, and so forth), there are fundamental laws and truths that govern the spiritual world, which we call doctrines and principles. As we are empowered by a correct understanding and application of physical laws and truths, we can gain power in spiritual matters by a correct understanding and application of fundamental principles and doctrines.

Let’s consider the example of the story of David and Goliath. On the surface it is a story of a young boy defeating a giant, but if we are searching for doctrines and principles, we will find:

  1. 1.

    There is a living God in Israel.

  2. 2.

    God is more powerful than any man or army.

  3. 3.

    We should trust in the arm of God and not trust in our own wisdom.

  4. 4.

    Those who trust in God will be supported by Him.

It takes a little practice, but those who learn to look for doctrines and principles will find not only greater “distance in their swing,” but greater enjoyment in their scripture reading because they are learning much more.

A Prophet’s Promise

Few people become proficient at anything by practicing only occasionally. President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) said: “The treasures of both secular and spiritual knowledge are hidden ones—but hidden from those who do not properly search and strive to find them. Spiritual knowledge is not available merely for the asking; even prayers are not enough. It takes persistence and dedication” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball [1982], 389–90).

Take courage. Set your goal and develop a habit of scripture study. Work at it. A better understanding of the Old Testament will greatly enhance your understanding of Heavenly Father’s plan. President Gordon B. Hinckley has given us this promise: “I am grateful for emphasis on reading the scriptures. I hope that for you this will become something far more enjoyable than a duty; that, rather, it will become a love affair with the word of God. I promise you that as you read, your minds will be enlightened and your spirits will be lifted. At first it may seem tedious, but that will change into a wondrous experience with thoughts and words of things divine” (“The Light within You,” Ensign, May 1995, 99).

Much-Needed Nourishment

Elder L. Lionel Kendrick

“Our spirits should never be deprived of the much-needed spiritual nourishment which comes from scripture study. Without this spiritual food our spirits become starved and weakened to temptation.” Elder L. Lionel Kendrick of the Seventy, “Search the Scriptures,” Ensign, May 1993, 14.

More on this topic: See Dallin H. Oaks, “Bible Stories and Personal Protection,”Ensign, Nov. 1992, 37–40; Bruce T. Harper, “Daily Scripture Study,”Ensign, June 1984, 31–33; F. Craig Sunbury, “I Have a Question,”Ensign, Sept. 1975, 38–39.

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[photo] Photo by Welden Andersen

[photo] Photo by Craig Dimond

[photo] Photo by Michael McConkie

Timothy L. Carver is a member of the Lincoln Ward, Layton Hills Utah Stake.