Why It Is Sometimes So Hard to Understand the OT

TS_scrollA different idea of history

What I say here about the Old Testament will be brief, so brief in fact as to be a caricature. Those who are specialists in biblical studies, are likely to find this woefully inadequate. I plead mea culpa in advance. In spite of that, I think this will do as a brief introduction for lay people like myself.

Latter-day Saints believe that, for the most part, the scriptures are literal histories of different groups of God’s people. The word “literal” means “by the letter.” So, when we say that the scriptures are literally true, we mean that they are true in the way described by the letters and words used to write them. In other words, a literally true text means what it says. However, the question remains what we mean by the word “true” when we say that something is literally true.

Most of the time “What does ‘true’ mean?” is a question we leave for those with too much time on their hands. Even if we can’t answer the question, we know well enough what “true” means, and we can use the word without difficulty. But when we talk about history, the meaning of the word “true” becomes important. Depending on what we mean by the word, the claim that the scriptures are literally true can mean different things to different people.

Since about 1500, the assumption has been that a person could say what is historically true by giving a description that just records what a camera would “see” happening: I know that an event occurred and I just describe what I saw or would have seen had I been there. Supposedly I don’t need an explanatory scheme that tells me how to understand things; I just “tell it like it is.” In contrast, prior to about 1500, people assumed that they could say what is historically true only if they had an explanatory model or scheme for explaining events. They believed that to understand historical events they had to have a model that showed how the events in question fit together in a meaningful way. Because of this difference between modern and ancient ideas of what historical truth is, “literally true” means something different after 1500 than it did before. (For convenience, I will call the time period before 1500 “premodern” or “ancient” and that afterward “modern.”)

Most people who have thought carefully about the issue have come to the conclusion that those before 1500 were right: there can’t be any explanation that doesn’t depend on an explanatory scheme or model. It isn’t difficult to understand why we need explanatory models to write history. Consider the fact that to write any history you have to pick the items that you think are important and ignore those that you think are irrelevant. Then you have to order and describe the events you’ve chosen so that you show how the events are related to each other and how they are significant. To do that, you have to have principles for deciding which events are historically important and principles for deciding how to relate different events to each other. 
For example, suppose I were writing a history of my life today. I wouldn’t write down every detail:

Flinched at 7:28 a.m. and coughed. Took three medium breathes. Blood pressure and pulse raised slightly as I returned to consciousness. Rolled to my right. Saw Janice. Thought, “The alarm is going to off in a minute and we have to get up to meet the plumber.” Raised up on my left arm. Turned left until I was facing the wall. Sat up, dropping my feet off of the side of the bed. Stood up. Turned right. Walked to the bathroom. . . .

Obviously, such a “history” would be ludicrous – and it still would not include all of the facts. It omits many, many of them, such as the state of my digestive system, whether there is a cancer growing in my pancreas, how any particular fact is linked to other particular facts, and so on.
If I am going to write a history, I must choose some events and I must ignore – or not even think about others. And I must link the facts I’ve chosen together in some way. My model of what history is, the principles I have for what is important and what is not, and the possible ways in which things can be related to each other, will dictate which events I choose to mention, which I choose to ignore, and how they are linked.

This may make writing history sound more difficult than it is. After all, most of the time we have some particular purpose for writing our history and that purpose dictates how I will choose and order the events that I include in my history. We don’t usually have to think about what principles we use to decide what to include and what to ignore or how to organize what we include. Nevertheless, we use principles and models to do so; we cannot avoid using them.

This explains the difference between history for historians before about 1500 and those after. It isn’t that modern historians just tell us what happened and ancient ones told us how what event fit into their model of history. The difference is that each uses a different model for thinking about and explaining history, though because it is obvious to us, the modern model is transparent (just as the premodern model was transparent to them). It operates without us noticing it, unlike (for us) the ancient model which, because it is different, stands out.

Prior to modernism, the explanatory model that made history possible in the Near East and West was God’s plan for the world. For ancients the relationship of the world and human beings to God and his purposes was the basic material for history. Showing that relationship was the ultimate purpose for writing history and other purposes were more or less unimportant. Anyone wanting to write a history had to show how the events they were describing fit into God’s plans for the world. They didn’t have to do so explicitly. After all, everyone understood history in the same way they did, so they didn’t have to say “Now I am going to tell you about how God sees the world.” But had they not done so, then they wouldn’t have been writing a literal history. From a premodern perspective, they wouldn’t have been writing what happened, only at best what seemed to have happened.

In contrast, in modernism there were several possible models for understanding history, but eventually they all agreed that one could not use God’s plan to explain history. Instead, to one degree or another, modern historians must use a more-or-less empirical and causal model. They relate events to each other in terms of cause and effect without bringing in causes, like God, that are not part of the natural order of the world. For modern historians, anyone writing a history that includes God’s hand in events isn’t writing a literal history.

In short, this means that we cannot expect to read ancient histories in the same way that we read modern ones. We cannot read ancient histories, like the Old Testament, with the same expectations and questions we have when reading modern histories. We have to read them as those who wrote them intended them to be read.

Some differences between the Hebrew way of thinking and our own

(I paraphrase this section, particularly the last example, from Thorlief Bowman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek (which is not without its critics—I like it anyway).

Besides the fact that ancient histories are written with a different understanding of history, they also reflect deeper linguistic and cultural differences. There are a number of important differences between the way Hebrews thought and the way we do, but consider only a few. For one, our language – which strongly influences how we think about the world – focuses on things. For us, nouns are the most important parts of sentences. A sentence uses a verb to relate the nouns in the sentence to each other. When we say “The cat is on the mat,” we take the cat and the mat to be basic and their relation to be something added to them.

But the Hebrew language, doesn’t focus on nouns or things. Instead, it focuses on verbs—on events, on what happens. We think of events as a special kind of thing, but (something odd from our perspective) Hebrews thought of things as a special kind of event. For us, to exist is, basically, to be a material object. For them, to exist is, basically, to do something. For us, a table is a particular kind of material entity; for Hebrews, a table is something that “acts like” a table. A table is something that does what tables do. Thus, for them, how something is defines what it is.

Because of this emphasis on action, for Hebrews a person is probably the essential example of something. A person isn’t a special kind of thing. It is the best example of any thing at all, an assumption that is radically at odds with the way we see the world. And, of course, for Hebrews the essential example of a person is God.

We can see another difference between our way of thinking and theirs in how we think about change. We think that change has to be explained. If something remains motionless, we don’t look for a reason. But if it is moving, we ask, “What caused it to move?” This has been true since the beginning of Western philosophy and science in 5th–6th c. B.C. Greek Italy and Ionia. In contrast, for Hebrews motionlessness and changelessness needed explanation. In their way of thinking, what stays the same must be explained.

Let me touch on only one more difference between our way of thinking and theirs, something related to the two differences already mentioned: we think that “picture-thinking” is the fundamental way of thinking; the Hebrews did not. When we describe something, we try to describe what it looks like. When they described something, they tried to describe how it came about or how it functioned. For example, when they described Solomon’s temple, they described it mostly in terms of its workmanship. Rather than trying to give us a verbal picture of the temple, they told us its “how.”

The Song of Solomon gives an excellent example of this difference: we expect a picture and it fails to provide one. Speaking of his lover, the young man says: “Your neck is like a tower of David, built for a fortress” (Song of Solomon 4:4). He compares his lover’s neck to a fortress tower covered with shields. That is hardly complimentary if understood in our way, in other words, visually. Imagine a serious English poem in which a young man says something comparable to a young woman whom he loves: “Your neck is like an oak tree.” 

But if the simile is used to show us the “how” of the lover’s neck rather than what it looks like, then it denotes strength of character; it denotes self-confidence and inaccessibility. For Hebrews the tower itself was dynamic—it rises, it towers, it protects. The tower is a tower because it does these things, just as any object is what it is by doing what it does. Therefore, a Hebrew poet can use the tower to represent something else that does the same thing that it does, such as a young girl’s neck, even though the visual similarity is only vague, even if the combination is visually incongruous. Hebrew poetry depends on our understanding what the tower does, not what it looks like.

Hebrews told stories differently than do we

I won’t go into detail here, but sometimes we also have trouble understanding the Old Testament because its writers told stories differently than we do. For example, there were numerous conventions for writing prophecies. Prophets like Isaiah are difficult for us to understand because they used these conventions. But those who knew the conventions (as an educated Israelite would) found them easy to understand, as Nephi does. (After all, he had been given a good Israelite education: 1 Nephi 1:1.) Nephi specifically tells us that we can’t read the Bible as we read other kinds of books. (See 2 Nephi 25:1, where Nephi says that his people “know not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews.”)

So what?

Knowing why you find a book difficult to read doesn’t necessarily make it easier to read. So what can you do? You could get degrees in Hebrew and Old Testament studies, but most of us don’t have the time or the talent for that. We could read what other people have said about the Old Testament, but it isn’t easy to sift the wheat from the chaff, and we might end up reading a lot of chaff for which we don’t have time. But that doesn’t leave us at a loss. Though few of us can do those kinds of things, we can read good books about scripture, and we can take part in Sunday School class, sharing our questions and our understanding of the scriptures with each other. As we read, perhaps the most important thing to do is to approach the things we read humbly and prayerfully, recognizing from the beginning that we may have some difficulty understanding them but, at the same time, assuming that they have something to teach us. In fact, because we often learn more from what we struggle with than from what comes easily, their difficulty may make them better resources for learning.

I think it also helps us if we worry less about what happened and more about what the things we read are meant to teach us about our Heavenly Father’s plan and about our relation to him. The most important question we can ask isn’t “What happened?” or “How can that have happened?” but “What does this teach me that I did not already know?” Sometimes we cannot answer the first kind of question, but we can almost always answer the last.

P.S.: A couple of book recommendations: If you want to read more about the difference between Hebrew thinking and our way of thinking, see Thorlief Bowman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek. If you want to learn more about how the Hebrews wrote stories, see Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative. Or Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative. Alter also has a book on poetry, The Art of Biblical Poetry. Both Alter and Sternberg are good writers and very good at helping us read the Old Testament with “new eyes.”

The is a revised version of something originally posted at Times and Seasons (2005).

Comments on this post should be made at Feast Upon the Word

2 comments for “Why It Is Sometimes So Hard to Understand the OT

  1. M. D. Sessions
    January 9, 2010 at 2:21 am

    I just finished reading the Old Testament from cover-to-cover for the first time. I had tried several times before, but always got bogged down in Job. The writing style perplexed me; I don’t think I gained much, only to confirm how difficult it is to understand, and how different.

    Because the New Testament comes out of the Greek tradition, as you mention, it is much easier to read and comprehend. There are few doctrinal gems I could find in the Minor Prophet’s writing.

    You article is timely for me. I scratched my head as to what is the “take away” I should glean from this book of scripture. I doubt that I will reread it any time soon. I appreciate you insight–I’m glad I am not alone in my feelings.

  2. MarenM
    January 11, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    This is very useful information for adjusting our mindset when reading the OT. Ann Madsen used to hang a saying on the podium during the Isaiah class I took from her at BYU. In bold letters it read: THINK ANCIENT. That helped a lot.

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