Teaching Opportunities from the Old Testament


Neal A. Maxwell
An edited version of remarks delivered at the Brigham Young University Old Testament Symposium, 16 August 1979.

Teaching Opportunities from the Old Testament

I come to you as one who enjoys teaching from the Old Testament regularly, hoping someday to be able to express my personal appreciation to the King James scholars who have given us the word of God in such beautiful and powerful language as we find throughout the Holy Bible. I have no hesitancy in accepting the five-word definition of what Jesus called “the key of knowledge”: “the fulness of the scriptures.” (See JST, Luke 11:52.)

So far as the students and members of the Church whom you teach are concerned, your task is to make the Old Testament new—new in the sense that they will be stimulated and touched by it as never before. When you have caused others to deepen their personal scholarship in the scriptures—then you have truly taught.

I recognize, of course, that the realities of the classroom include the fact that your best efforts will often be met with indifference. I recognize too that, in effect, you are implanting in many of those you teach little intellectual and spiritual time bombs which, in an instant of insight—will go off someday in an explosion of reminding relevance, jarring those taught into a fresh reality.

However, there will be a few of those you will have the privilege to teach in whom you can create an immediate and personal thirst for the Old Testament. It is they who will deepen their personal scholarship in the scriptures now. These are the students who make teaching such a joy. But, meanwhile, we must not forget all the others.

You have already amassed your own case studies and examples from the Old Testament. Today I will do nothing more than share with you some of the ways in which I teach from that special book, which gives to us more longitudinality than any other book of scripture.

Hopefully, you already apply the principle of multiple use with regard to scriptures, since the same scripture can so often be used to make several different points. This is particularly true if you cluster your Old Testament scriptures so that they are interplayed with scriptures from the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, and the utterances of living prophets, and vice versa. The scriptures need to help each other, just as Church members need to help each other. The reason for clustering scriptures from the standard works is, of course, simple—these truths all come from the same God, and therefore they are conceptually consistent.

By helping your students to avoid skimming over the surface of the scriptures but, rather, to read them, they will come to see a conceptual consistency and the way in which the scriptures assist and amplify each other. The scriptures reflect a high integration because of the true editorial control of the Holy Spirit, another reason for reading them carefully rather than skimming over their surface.

It would be useful, for instance, for you to help students see the literal relationships among the scriptures. We find in Matthew 4:4: “But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” [Matt. 4:4] “Similarly, in Deuteronomy 8:3 we read: “And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.” [Deut. 8:3]

Jesus carefully and repeatedly honored the preceding prophets. This gives us a clue as to how important it is for us to relate the scriptures to each other.

It may be necessary for you to indicate (without belaboring it) how plain and precious parts are missing from the Bible (see 1 Ne. 13:26), and that we should not be surprised when such gaps or incongruities appear. For instance:

“For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14).

“Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?

“Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—

“That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.

“That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.

“Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.

“We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.

“Hence many are called, but few are chosen.” (D&C 121:34–40.)

Jacob 4:4–6 and Hebrews 11:24–28 [Heb. 11:24–28] are examples of precious parts which avoided surgery.

Now to some case studies (or examples) which might be used for various purposes.

First of all, if you wish to focus on the necessity for each of us to receive and to give (in a loving way) corrective criticism in order to grow, why not consider this episode involving Naaman?

“Now Naaman, captain of the host of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master, and honourable, because by him the Lord had given deliverance unto Syria: he was also a mighty man in valour, but he was a leper.

“So Naaman came with his horses and with his chariot, and stood at the door of the house of Elisha.

“And Elisha sent a messenger unto him, saying, Go and wash in Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again to thee, and thou shalt be clean.

“But Naaman was wroth, and went away, and said, Behold, I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and strike his hand over the place, and recover the leper.

“Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? may I not wash in them, and be clean? so he turned and went away in a rage.

“And his servants came near, and spake unto him, and said, My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?

“Then went he down, and dipped himself seven times in Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God: and his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” (2 Kgs. 5:1, 9–14.)

This need we all have for corrective counsel is very real and constant: “He that refuseth instruction despiseth his own soul: but he that heareth reproof getteth understanding” (Prov. 15:32).

If we block out the perspective that comes from others when they can give us evaluative information, we run the risk of being encrusted by ego. Saul learned, firsthand, about this:

“And Samuel said, When thou wast little in thine own sight, wast thou not made the head of the tribes of Israel, and the Lord anointed thee king over Israel?” (1 Sam. 15:17.)

Remember, this was the same Saul of whom we earlier read:

“And he had a son, whose name was Saul, a choice young man, and a goodly: and there was not among the children of Israel a goodlier person than he: from his shoulders and upward he was higher than any of the people” (1 Sam. 9:2).

No wonder the modern-day scriptures say of the tendency to abuse authority and power that it shows up in “almost all” (D&C 121:39).

Continuing on with the same theme, notice how Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, assumed a certain responsibility with regard to his son-in-law, Moses. While we often rightfully read this particular scripture in connection with Jethro’s counsel to Moses to delegate, applying the principle of multiple use, notice what it says about corrective counsel:

“And Moses’ father in law said unto him, The thing that thou doest is not good.

“Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone.” (Ex. 18:17–18.)

Notice the blend of loving concern and candor with Jethro taking the initiative. And Moses, who was the most meek of men on earth, accepted the counsel (see Num. 12:3).

Further, when we are being spoken to by one who is inspired by the Holy Spirit, hopefully he will not hold back simply to be artificially nice to us:

“And Samuel lay until the morning, and opened the doors of the house of the Lord. And Samuel feared to shew Eli the vision.

“Then Eli called Samuel, and said, Samuel, my son. And he answered, Here am I.

“And he said, What is the thing that the Lord hath said unto thee? I pray thee hide it not from me: God do so to thee, and more also, if thou hide any thing from me of all the things that he said unto thee.

“And Samuel told him every whit.” (1 Sam. 3:15–18.)

You can see how these scriptures pertaining to corrective counsel can be clustered in such a way that they would facilitate discussion, a rather broadly ranging discussion, about the importance of corrective criticism in our lives. Then, of course, you could link these with scriptures in the Doctrine and Covenants and New Testament concerning the manner in which the correction should be given and followed up:

“Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy” (D&C 121:43).

“Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many.

“So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.

“Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him.” (2 Cor. 2:6–8.)

If one were to teach of the need for us to follow the Brethren and to be obedient to the prophets of the Lord in otherwise dismaying circumstances, I could think of no better episodes than these:

“And Elijah said unto all the people, Come near unto me. And all the people came near unto him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that was broken down.

“And Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, unto whom the word of the Lord came, saying, Israel shall be thy name:

“And with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord: and he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed.

“And he put the wood in order, and cut the bullock in pieces, and laid him on the wood, and said, Fill four barrels with water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice, and on the wood.

“And he said, Do it the second time. And they did it the second time. And he said, Do it the third time. And they did it the third time.

“And the water ran round about the altar; and he filled the trench also with water.

“And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word.

“Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again.

“Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.” (1 Kgs. 18:30–38.)

To a young man frightened by a mass of enemy soldiers confronting them, Elisha said,

“Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.

“And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.

“And when they came down to him, Elisha prayed unto the Lord, and said, Smite this people, I pray thee, with blindness. And he smote them with blindness according to the word of Elisha.” (2 Kgs. 6:16–18.)

It could be noted how the prophets sometimes do the bidding of the Lord, as Adam did, without knowing all of his reasons. They may be, in a sense, under stress, just as we who follow them are. But they, being wiser and spiritually more mature, do not question as we sometimes do. Furthermore, in the second episode it could be noted that the young lad didn’t, initially, see what the prophet saw, but that through the help and prayer of the prophet he was able to see; his eyes were opened too.

There will be other times when we simply have to trust the prophet, for he will see things we do not see. Just as Elijah knew torrential rains were coming when there was not a cloud in the sky:

“And Elijah said unto Ahab, Get thee up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of abundance of rain.

“So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees,

“And said to his servant, Go up now, look toward the sea. And he went up, and looked, and said, There is nothing. And he said, Go again seven times.

“And it came to pass at the seventh time, that he said, Behold, there ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a man’s hand. And he said, Go up, say unto Ahab, Prepare thy chariot, and get thee down, that the rain stop thee not.

“And it came to pass in the mean while, that the heaven was black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain.” (1 Kgs. 18:41–45.)

Prophets can see major implications in developments when these are no bigger than a man’s hand!

When speaking to Church members about the importance of remodeling our souls, consider using these selections about the heart:

“Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit” (Ezek. 18–31).

And according to his faith there was a mighty change wrought in his heart.

“And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?” (Alma 5:12, 14.)

“Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson” (D&C 121:35)

In all of these instances a new heart is to be made or a mighty change is to occur. And, further, if a heart is so set upon the things of the world, there is little hope for remodeling unless the wrongly set heart can first be broken.

If I were to teach the principle of generosity in human relationships, how marvelous to share with people these scriptures pertaining to the relationship of Jacob and Esau, who were, at an earlier point, severe rivals:

“And Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing wherewith his father blessed him: and Esau said in his heart, The days of mourning for my father are at hand; then will I slay my brother Jacob” (Gen. 27:41).

But years later we read of a moving reunion:

“And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, We came to thy brother Esau, and also he cometh to meet thee, and four hundred men with him” (Gen. 32:6).

Jacob is anxious and assembles many gifts, but he had no reason to fear, for “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept” (Gen. 33:4).

The gifts were offered, but “Esau said, I have enough, my brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself” (Gen. 33:9).

Notice how not only Jacob but Esau has grown. Though Jacob’s anxiety was understandable, generous Esau soon relieved him of his concern.

This episode on generosity could be linked to the later generosity of Joseph toward his brothers. The sibling rivalry was very real:

“Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours.

“And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.

“And his brethren said to him, Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us? And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words.” (Gen. 37:3, 4, 8.)

The relationships were so badly damaged, they almost seemed irreparable. But Joseph’s spiritual maturity made possible their very tender reunion years later in Egypt. Joseph’s generosity was at first anonymous—but he loved them so, he could finally withhold no longer:

“And Joseph made haste; for his bowels did yearn upon his brother: and he sought where to weep; and he entered into his chamber, and wept there.

“And he washed his face, and went out, and refrained himself, and said, Set on bread.” (Gen. 43:30–31.)

“And he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck, and wept; and Benjamin wept upon his neck.

“Moreover he kissed all his brethren, and wept upon them: and after that his brethren talked with him.” (Gen. 45:14–15.)

The guilt of the brothers was still so great that we read later on:

“And when Joseph’s brethren saw that their father was dead, they said, Joseph will peradventure hate us, and will certainly requite us all the evil which we did unto him” (Gen 50:15)

Of course, their fears were groundless. Joseph noted reassuringly how, though his brothers once had evil intentions, God made special use of him in Egypt: “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (Gen. 50:20).

There was marvelous generosity and empathy on Joseph’s part. After all, he had been thrown into a pit and sold into slavery. Later in life, after he had worked so hard, he was betrayed by his employer’s wife, and his employer did not support Joseph. Furthermore, his fellow prisoner, the butler, whom he helped to get out of jail, did not remember him but forgot him. We see from this that bad breaks do not need to break a good man. Surely Joseph’s resilience is related to his generosity.

And why not relate the Old Testament verses concerning the role of the redeeming brass serpent (on which one could look and be healed from poisonous serpent bites) with companion scriptures from the Book of Mormon? The Old Testament relates:

“Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.

“And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.

“And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” (Num. 21:7–9.)

Speaking of the incident, Nephi records:

“And he did straiten them in the wilderness with his rod; for they hardened their hearts even as ye have; and the Lord straitened them because of their iniquity. He sent fiery flying serpents among them; and after they were bitten he prepared a way that they might be healed; and the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished.” (1 Ne. 17:41.)

We see here, of course, an amplification in the Book of Mormon which helps us to further understand that episode as reported in the Old Testament.

And why not connect the need for people to decide as expressed by Elijah when he said, “How long halt ye between two opinions?” (1 Kgs. 18:21) with the statement of Brigham Young about the difficulties Church members will have who try to reconcile the spirit of the world with the spirit of the gospel. (See Discourses of Brigham Young, comp. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1954, p. 348.)

In teaching others (young people particularly) regarding the need for deserved self-esteem, let them ponder the importance of these verses from the Book of Moses and from the Old Testament and note how they converge:

“And when Enoch had heard these words, he bowed himself to the earth, before the Lord, and spake before the Lord, saying: Why is it that I have found favor in thy sight, and am but a lad, and all the people hate me; for I am slow of speech; wherefore am I thy servant?” (Moses 6:31.)

“And Moses said unto the Lord, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue” (Ex. 4:10).

“Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3).

If we are willing to turn ourselves meekly over to the Lord, notice how marvelous he can work with us, but we must be meek and humble!

As to helping the truly repentant to forget their mistakes, how marvelous to read Isaiah 43:25:

“I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.” [Isa. 43:25]

And from Ezekiel:

“But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die.

“All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live.” (Ezek. 18:21–22.)

Isn’t it interesting that the Lord says he will “not mention” our sins to us? How important, therefore, for us to be forgiving of each other and not to mention past errors!

We all have a need to understand that we must walk to the edge of the light, obediently going as far as the Lord has told us to go before expecting him to help us with the next step. Why not, in this connection, link the better known and far more dramatic crossing of the Red Sea with the episode involving Joshua and the children of Israel when the time came for them to cross the flood-swollen Jordan River. Notice that in the latter episode the Lord required them to get the soles of their feet wet first before he stopped up the swollen Jordan so dramatically:

“And it shall come to pass, as soon as the soles of the feet of the priests that bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of Jordan, that the waters of Jordan shall be cut off from the waters that come down from above; and they shall stand upon an heap.

“And as they that bare the ark were come unto Jordan, and the feet of the priests that bare the ark were dipped in the brim of the water, (for Jordan overfloweth all his banks all the time of harvest,)

“That the waters which came down from above stood and rose up upon an heap. …

“And the priests that bare the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the midst of Jordan, and all the Israelites passed over on dry ground, until all the people were a passed clean over Jordan.” (Josh. 3:13, 15–17.)

“And the Lord spake unto Joshua, saying,

“Command the priests that bear the ark of the testimony, that they come up out of Jordan.

“Joshua therefore commanded the priests, saying, Come ye up out of Jordan.

“And it came to pass, when the priests that bare the ark of the covenant of the Lord were come up out of the midst of Jordan, and the soles of the priests’ feet were lifted up unto the dry land, that the waters of Jordan returned unto their place, and flowed over all his banks, as they did before.” (Josh. 4:15–18.)

When, for romantic relief, you are talking about true love between husband and wife, why not share with your students the tender verse concerning Jacob’s virtual unawareness of time as he worked seven years for Rachel: “And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her” (Gen. 29:20).

If you wish to contrast family lifestyles, notice the implied differences in these two families—Eli’s and Adam’s—as they are described:

“For I have told him that I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth; because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not” (1 Sam. 3:13).

“And Adam and Eve blessed the name of God, and they made all things known unto their sons and their daughters” (Moses 5:12).

If one wishes to give the people of the Church some sense of the anguish prophets often bear as they try to lead us, consider this insight from Moses: “I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me” (Num. 11:14). And this is after Moses delegated!

And if students wonder if God will be with them in the midst of their fiery trials, why not link these verses:

“Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you” (1 Pet. 4:12).

“He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God” (Dan. 3:25).

The lesson is that God will be with us in the midst of our fiery trials. There are other statements we could tie to the scriptures, some of them nonscriptural. As an example, let me finish by reading to you from Malcolm Muggeridge, who came late in life—but firmly—to faith in Jesus Christ. You can make the scriptural connections yourselves and provide the doctrinal precision and amplification which might be needed and still rejoice in this eloquence. Malcolm Muggeridge writes:

“I feel so strongly at the end of my life that nothing can happen to us in any circumstances that is not part of God’s purpose for us. Therefore, we have nothing to fear, nothing to worry about, except that we should rebel against His purpose, that we should fail to detect it and fail to establish some sort of relationship with Him and His divine will. On that basis, there can be no black despair, no throwing in of our hand. We can watch the institutions and social structures of our time collapse—and I think you who are young are fated to watch them collapse—and we can reckon with what seems like an irresistably growing power of materialism and materialist societies. But, it will not happen that that is the end of the story.

“You know, it’s a funny thing, but when you’re old, as I am, there are all sorts of extremely pleasant things that happen to you. One of them is, you realize that history is nonsense, but I won’t go into that now. The pleasantest thing of all is that you wake up in the night at about, say, three A.M., and you find that you are half in and half out of your battered old carcass. And it seems quite a toss-up whether you go back and resume full occupancy of your mortal body or make off toward the bright glow you see in the sky, the lights of the City of God. In this limbo between life and death, you know beyond any shadow of doubt that, as an infinitesimal particle of God’s creation, you are a participant in God’s purpose for His creation, and that that purpose is loving and not hating, is creative and not destructive, is everlasting and not temporal, is universal and not particular. With this certainty comes an extraordinary sense of comfort and joy.

“Nothing that happens in this world need shake that feeling; all the happenings in this world, including the most terrible disasters and suffering, will be seen in eternity as in some mysterious way a blessing, as a part of God’s love. We ourselves are part of that love, we belong to that scene, and only in so far as we belong to that scene does our existence here have any reality or any worth.

“The essential feature and necessity of life is to know reality, which means knowing God. Otherwise our mortal existence is, as Saint Teresa of Avila said, no more than a night in a second- class hotel.” (“The Great Liberal Death Wish,” Imprimis, May 1979, Hillsdale College, Michigan.)

No wonder Ezra and his people regarded the ancient scriptures so reverently and read them so eagerly, as should we! “So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” (Neh. 8:8).

May we so learn and teach, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.