An Introduction to the Old Testament

Old Testament Teacher Resource Manual, (2003), 7–9


Elder Boyd K. Packer told Church Educational System teachers:

“There is great value in presenting a brief but carefully organized overview of the entire course at the very beginning. …

“Those few beginning periods, so brief an investment of time by comparison, make it possible for the students to locate themselves anywhere along the way. They have something of a feeling. They retain much more when they know how all of the pieces fit together, and the light of learning shines more brightly. The preview forms a framework and is more than worth the time and work invested in it” (The Great Plan of Happiness [address to religious educators, 10 Aug. 1993], 2).

Take the time to develop and teach an introduction and overview to the Old Testament. Help your students understand the importance of the Old Testament and look forward to the stories, truths, and insights that they will read and learn during this school year. Strengthen your own and your students’ understanding of the divine mission of Jesus Christ.

What Is the Old Testament?

The Old Testament is a record of God’s dealings with His children from the Creation to about 400 B.C. The word that was translated as testament could also be translated as covenant. A covenant is a special relationship with the Lord into which a person or a group may enter. The Lord sets the terms for the rewards (blessings, salvation, exaltation) and the efforts (obedience to rules and commandments). A covenant is fulfilled when people keep their promises and endure to the end in faith, with the Lord giving blessings during mortality and salvation and exaltation upon completion. The Old Testament contains covenants and doctrines the Lord gave to His children to prepare them for the first coming of the Messiah and to teach them how to return and live in His presence.

The Old Testament is an inspired voice from the past with vital messages for today. It also contains the historical and doctrinal roots from which all of our other scriptures spring and lays a foundation for understanding who we are today and what we believe. With the help of modern revelation we can more correctly understand and appreciate the Old Testament.

Why Should We Study the Old Testament?

President Marion G. Romney, then Second Counselor in the First Presidency, said:

“The message of the Old Testament is the message of Christ and his coming and his atonement. … I do not think that there is a more simple or clear and relevant explanation of the Old Testament message than the one written in [2 Nephi 25–33]. It would seem to me that a careful, prayerful study of these chapters would be a requirement for anyone who wanted to understand and teach the message of the Old Testament. In these chapters Nephi sifted out the important from the unimportant. He also explained how these teachings are important to us who live in the latter days [see 2 Nephi 25:23–26]. …

“… The message of the Old Testament is the message of salvation and the commandments which we must obey in order to partake of the salvation offered” (“The Message of the Old Testament,” in A Symposium on the Old Testament, 1979, 5–6).

Ancient and modern prophets have stressed the value of the Old Testament in helping us come to know God. The Apostle Paul wrote Timothy, saying, “From a child thou hast known the holy scriptures” (2 Timothy 3:15). The scriptures that were available to Timothy contained writings we have today in the Old Testament. Note what Paul said about these holy writings:

  • They are able to make one “wise unto salvation” (2 Timothy 3:15).

  • They are “given by inspiration of God” (v. 16).

  • They are “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (v. 16).

  • They help the righteous become perfect and “throughly furnished unto all good works” (v. 17).

A significant amount of the Book of Mormon contains scriptures and references to the Old Testament. The prophet Nephi taught many truths to his people from the brass plates. These plates contained writings we have today in the Old Testament, including the writings of Moses and Isaiah. He said he used the writings to:

  • Help them know “concerning the doings of the Lord in other lands, among people of old” (1 Nephi 19:22).

  • “More fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer” (v. 23).

  • Liken the scriptures to themselves for their profit and learning (see v. 23).

Elder Boyd K. Packer said:

“In the Old Testament course, you learn of the creation and fall of man, the foundation for the temple endowment. You learn what a prophet is. You become familiar with such words as obedience, sacrifice, covenant, Aaronic, Melchizedek, and priesthood.

“The whole basis for Judaic-Christian law, indeed for Islam, is taught to you.

“The ‘why’ of tithes and offerings is explained. You read prophecies of the coming Messiah and of the restoration of the gospel. You see Elijah demonstrate the sealing power and hear Malachi prophesy that Elijah will be sent with the keys of the sealing authority.

“In seminary you learn to know the Old Testament. Now almost abandoned by the Christian world, it remains to us a testament of Jesus Christ” (in Conference Report, Mar.–Apr. 1990, 49; or Ensign, May 1990, 37–38).

The following insights are some that make a careful study of the Old Testament not only meaningful but critical:

  • Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament, is the premortal name for Jesus Christ, who is the promised Messiah.

  • Jehovah (Jesus Christ) created the heavens and the earth.

  • The Fall of Adam and Eve was a real and necessary step in the progression of all mankind.

  • God can and does intervene directly in the lives of individuals and nations.

  • We receive blessings from God by making and keeping sacred covenants.

  • Idolatry in any form is spiritually destructive.

  • The Lord has promised a literal gathering of Israel in the last days.

  • There are prophecies concerning the Lord’s first and second comings.

  • The Father’s plan of happiness is taught to His children through His prophets.

The differences of time and culture bring special challenges to a study of the Bible, the Old Testament in particular. In addition, the record we now have is not complete. Many parts and covenants “which are plain and most precious” were taken away (1 Nephi 13:26). Much that was lost has been restored by the Book of Mormon, the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, and other modern revelation (see 1 Nephi 13:33–41). There are other parts of the Bible that seem to be cloaked or hidden in symbolic language. Such prophetic cloaking has been helpful in one way because those who removed the “plain and precious things” left those more obscure passages relatively intact. Thus, many great truths have been preserved to be read and understood by the power of the Holy Ghost and the “spirit of prophecy” (2 Nephi 25:4) that God has made available to the Saints of the latter days.

How Is the Old Testament Organized?

The Bible is not one book but a collection of books; that is what the word bible means. The Old Testament contains thirty-nine books that can be grouped into four main categories based on the nature of their content. Not all of the books were placed in the Bible in the order in which they were written.

  1. 1.

    The Law—This group consists of the first five books, Genesis through Deuteronomy, which were written by Moses. They give a history of God’s dealings with His children from the creation of the earth until the Lord took Moses. They are often called the Law because they record God’s revelations to Moses that contain the law of Moses. These five books are also called the Torah and the Pentateuch, a Greek word meaning “the fivefold book” (see Bible Dictionary, “Torah,” p. 786, and “Pentateuch,” p. 748).

  2. 2.

    The History—This group consists of the books of Joshua through Esther. As the name implies, they are mainly historical narratives.

  3. 3.

    The Poetry, or Writings—The next five books, Job through the Song of Solomon, were written mainly in a Hebrew poetic style.

  4. 4.

    The Prophets—The remainder of the books in the Old Testament contain the teachings of the prophets whose names the books bear.

For more detailed information on the origin and history of the Bible, see “Bible” in the Bible Dictionary (pp. 622–24).

Some Important Gospel Principles to Look For

  • Even though many “plain and precious things” have been taken from it, the Old Testament was preserved by the hand of God and contains important teachings for our day and for our benefit (see 1 Nephi 13:20–29; Articles of Faith 1:8).

Suggestions for Teaching

video icon Old Testament Video presentation 1, “Introduction: Time Capsule” (12:16), can be used in teaching the Old Testament overview (see Old Testament Video Guide for teaching suggestions).

Old Testament Overview. The Old Testament was preserved for our day and for our benefit. (30–35 minutes)

Tell students that a time capsule is a container that holds records and objects representing the culture of a specific time period. Time capsules are made and preserved to be opened at a future date. Ask your students to help you create a time capsule to be opened in the year 2050. Draw a large box on the board to represent the time capsule and list in it ten items the students feel would represent the last five years of your country. Allow for a brief discussion of what each item would reveal about your society. Help your students understand that the Old Testament is much like a scriptural time capsule. It is a collection of many different types of scriptural writings from the past preserved for our discovery.

Have students open their Bibles and find out how many pages are in the Old Testament (Genesis through Malachi). Tell them that Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden about 4000 B.C. and the book of Malachi was written about 400 B.C. Ask them to turn to where they think the middle point of Old Testament history would be; then have them turn to Genesis 12 and tell them that the prophet Abram (whom the Lord later renamed “Abraham”) lived around 2000 B.C., about halfway between Adam and Malachi. Have students compare the number of pages we have on the first two thousand years with the number for the next two thousand years. (The introductory material in “The Books of Genesis, Moses, and Abraham” in the student study guide [p. 9] discusses what the Lord has done to give us more information about those first two thousand years.)

Have students turn to the table of contents in their Bibles. Help them mark the parts of the Old Testament (the Law, the History, the Poetry, and the Prophets) and discuss what each part contains (see “How Is the Old Testament Organized?” p. 8 in this manual).

Have students name some of their favorite stories from the Old Testament and tell why they like them.

Tell students that this year they will be studying about real people with real challenges and problems:

  • Have you ever been asked to accomplish something that seemed impossible? Then you will relate to what Abraham was asked to do.

  • Have you ever been treated unfairly by your brothers or sisters? Then you know how Joseph may have felt.

  • Have you ever been confronted by a bully? David also had that experience.

  • Have you ever been afraid of a task you were asked to do? This year you will learn how Gideon handled such a situation.

  • Are people today tempted to break the law of chastity? Both Joseph and David faced that temptation but reacted in very different ways.

Share your testimony that the problems those ancient Saints faced were much the same as our own. Remind them that although the Old Testament is from the past, its doctrines, histories, and stories are of great value today. The Old Testament was organized and preserved for our day and for our benefit.

Tell students that we can come to understand the Old Testament only if we open and study it. Ask them to comment on the relationship of people’s attitudes toward the Old Testament and their ability to understand the gospel principles it teaches. Encourage students to approach their study of the Old Testament with sincere effort and a prayerful attitude.