“Christ and Culture in the Old Testament,” Liahona, Feb. 2010, 22–29
As we approach a study of the Old Testament, many of us may have to overcome conditioning that leads us to look at this rich volume of scripture through the lens of our own culture. Otherwise, imposing modern cultural understandings on a society that existed thousands of years ago will make the Old Testament seem strange or out of touch.
Cultural conditioning may make us wonder why in biblical society it was customary for the elder sister to marry before the younger sister (see Genesis 29:25–26), for women to carry water and other burdens on their shoulders (see Genesis 21:14; 24:15), for people to get off their camels or donkeys as a sign of respect when they greeted other people (see Genesis 24:64; 1 Samuel 25:23; 2 Kings 5:21), for individuals to bow before others (see Genesis 18:2–3; 19:1; 23:7, 12; 42:6), for parents to choose their son’s bride for him (see Genesis 21:21; 24:4; 38:6), or for guests to wash their feet upon arrival at the home of their hosts (see Genesis 18:4; 19:2; 43:24).
We cannot appreciate and understand the Bible if we remove it from its own context and place it in our modern culture. Rather, we have to change our mind-set to better understand the ancient way of life.
The Old Testament provides much useful and interesting information regarding the cultures of ancient prophets, peoples, and civilizations—information about their music, language, arts, literature, religious institutions, monetary system, food, clothing, calendrical structure, marriage practices, and so forth. This information could be just an interesting cultural and historical study if the Old Testament didn’t offer a much greater and more life-changing reward to students of its sometimes daunting content—that of bringing them unto Jesus Christ.
The Old Testament is the first testament of the Savior and records a great number of cultural and religious practices that focus, typologically or prophetically, on Christ and His Atonement. Five examples from the Old Testament illustrate the prevalence of religious practices that provide deeper understanding of Jesus Christ, His Atonement, and our relationship to Him.
After Jesus’s suffering in Gethsemane, He was met by Judas and “a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, [who came] with lanterns and torches and weapons” (John 18:3). Jesus submitted to an indignity when He allowed this mob to take Him and bind Him (see John 18:12).
John’s testimony does not record how Jesus was bound, but Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (1915–85) provided a powerful insight when he said that Jesus was then “led away with a rope around his neck, as a common criminal.”1 This detail is not found in the Gospel accounts and must therefore be ascribed to the prophetic understanding of one sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator.
The rope around the Savior’s neck recalls the practice of fastening a common criminal. It also brings to mind a common practice today in the Holy Land in which individual sheep or goats are led to the slaughter with a rope around their necks. This practice has its roots in the Old Testament world. Old Testament writings anticipated this event in Jesus’s life when Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah “was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7).
Leviticus refers to a religious practice that pertains to the flaying of the bullock after it was slaughtered: “He shall kill the bullock before the Lord. … And he shall flay the burnt offering” (Leviticus 1:5–6).
To flay here apparently means to skin the animal. After the sacrificial offering was killed, the one making the offering or a member of the priesthood would skin the animal. The Hebrew word psht, translated as “to flay,” usually means “to strip off clothing” (see Genesis 37:23; 1 Samuel 19:24; Ezekiel 16:39; 44:19).
Flayed sacrificial animals were symbols of Jesus Christ. Jesus was unceremoniously stripped of clothing—His garments and “coat”—before His Crucifixion:
“Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also his coat: now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout.
“They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be: that the scripture might be fulfilled, which saith, They parted my raiment among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots” (John 19:23–24).
President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) wrote, “How he must have suffered when [the soldiers] violated his privacy by stripping off his clothes and then putting on him the scarlet robe!”2
The flaying of sacrificial animals also anticipated the scourging of Jesus. When He appeared before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, Jesus was stripped of parts of His skin as He was scourged (see Matthew 27:26). Perhaps Peter referred to this scourging or the subsequent nail prints in the Savior’s hands and wrists when he wrote that Jesus bore “our sins in his own body” (1 Peter 2:24). Isaiah had prophesied of the scourging more than seven centuries earlier. Of the Savior he wrote, “I gave my back to the smiters” (Isaiah 50:6).
Several Old Testament passages refer to a special bread-like food that was eaten by temple worshippers or burned on the altar with sacrificial offerings (see Exodus 29:2; Leviticus 2:4; Numbers 6:15). In Hebrew this bread is called halah (plural, halot), which suggests “pierced” bread (from the Hebrew root hll, “to pierce”). Elsewhere in the scriptures the Hebrew root (hll) refers to piercing, specifically to one who is pierced by a sword or an arrow (see 1 Samuel 31:3; Lamentations 4:9).
We do not know why this bread was called halah, but perhaps the dough was pierced or perforated before it was placed in the oven. The pierced bread could very well typify Jesus Christ, who is called the “bread of life” (John 6:35) and who was pierced while on the cross (see John 19:34). Both Isaiah and the Psalmist prophesied of Jesus’s piercing as part of the Atonement: “He was wounded for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5). “They pierced my hands and my feet” (Psalm 22:16).
Just as pierced bread was a significant part of the ancient sacrificial system, Saints during the early Christian era and again during our own dispensation use broken bread as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice. We remember that Jesus Himself broke the sacramental bread in anticipation of His broken body. Matthew recorded, “As they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26).
That the broken bread is an emblem of Jesus’s broken body is clear from statements by modern prophets, including President John Taylor (1808–87): “I take pleasure in meeting with the Saints. I like to break bread with them in commemoration of the broken body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and also to partake of the cup in remembrance of his shed blood.”3
The ancient sacrificial system included several regulations that pertained to beaten olive oil, or “oil made by beating or pounding the olives in a mortar.”4 For example, the daily offering at the temple included two lambs, a drink offering, and flour mixed with beaten olive oil (see Exodus 29:40; Numbers 28:5–6). These three offerings—the lambs, the drink offering, and the flour and oil mixture—were offered “day by day, for a continual burnt offering” (Numbers 28:3).
Beaten oil was also utilized in the temple lamp stand to provide light for those who worked in the temple. God commanded Moses, “Thou shalt command the children of Israel, that they bring thee pure oil olive beaten for the light, to cause the lamp to burn always” (Exodus 27:20).
In the Book of Mormon, Abinadi declared, “He is the light and the life of the world; yea, a light that is endless, that can never be darkened” (Mosiah 16:9). It is only fitting, then, that the beaten oil be used in lamps to give light in the temple, just as Christ gives light to the entire world.
The beaten oil has another connection to Jesus Christ. Beaten oil has been described as “fine and costly”5 and was highly prized, more so than olive oil that was prepared through other methods, such as with an olive press. Beaten oil was used because it symbolizes the Savior in two important ways: First, He is the Anointed One, or the one who has been anointed with olive oil. He is called Christ and Messiah, which mean the anointed one (with olive oil) in Greek and Hebrew. Second, beaten oil anticipates the experience of Jesus Christ just hours before His death on the cross: He too was beaten. Matthew, Mark, and Luke provide these testimonies:
“Then did they spit in his face, and buffeted him; and others smote him with the palms of their hands” (Matthew 26:67).
“And some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to buffet him, … and the servants did strike him with the palms of their hands” (Mark 14:65).
“And the men that held Jesus mocked him, and smote him.
“And when they had blindfolded him, they struck him on the face, and asked him, saying, Prophesy, who is it that smote thee?” (Luke 22:63–64).
President Kimball wrote of this incident: “In quiet, restrained, divine dignity he stood when they cast their spittle in his face. He remained composed. Not an angry word escaped his lips. They slapped his face and beat his body. Yet he stood resolute, unintimidated.”6
Isaiah had prophesied this evil treatment of Jesus Christ seven centuries earlier: “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6).
The laying of hands on the head of certain sacrificial animals was a significant part of the ancient sacrificial system. Various people participated in the laying on of hands, including:
Individual Israelites: “If any man of you bring an offering unto the Lord, … he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him” (Leviticus 1:2, 4).
Elders: “And the elders of the congregation shall lay their hands upon the head of the bullock before the Lord” (Leviticus 4:15).
Rulers: The ruler “shall lay his hand upon the head of the goat” (Leviticus 4:24).
Community members: “One of the common people … shall lay his hand upon the head of the sin offering” (Leviticus 4:27, 29).
High priests: “Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat” (Leviticus 16:21).
Levites: “And the Levites shall lay their hands upon the heads of the bullocks … to make an atonement for the Levites” (Numbers 8:12).
The act of laying hands on sacrificial animals teaches the law of proxy, or the power for one to act as a substitute for another. In this case it symbolically transmits the sins of the people onto the animal’s head. Or, as one biblical scholar has stated, the laying on of hands “identifies the sinner with the sacrificial victim to be slain and symbolizes the offering of his own life.”7 The symbolism of the laying on of hands, in the context of sacrificial offerings, is expressed in Leviticus 16:21–22, where the high priest transmitted Israel’s sins and iniquities to the goat’s head:
“Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat. …
“And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities.”
The sacrificial animals, of course, were types and shadows of Jesus Christ, who bore our sins and iniquities before His death on the cross.
Understanding Old Testament culture can help us unravel the full meaning of Old Testament scripture. This is especially true with items that point to and focus on Jesus Christ. A careful study of this important volume of scripture will help us gain a greater appreciation of Him, His eternal sacrifice, and those who looked forward to His birth.