Teaching Old Testament for Seminary

You recently got called as a Early Morning Seminary teacher, and feel surprisingly sanguine about it. Then you found out that you’re starting with Old Testament this September, and all of a sudden, your confidence in the face of world-weary, eye-rolling teenagers plummeted.

Why is this so tough? The audience is hostile and sleepy. You teach every day, without the luxury of a whole week to think through your 45 minute lesson. You’ve got to get in there every morning to teach about the longest book we know the least, with the hardest material that is also the most foreign, culturally speaking. Not to stack the deck, but you’ve got my respect, Sister Volunteer Seminary Teacher.

So what’s the best way to handle these challenges? I can’t answer from experience, as I’ve mostly taught Institute. I do know, however, about the Old Testament. My suggestions for you others, since I myself am not teaching Seminary.

1) Know it well.

“Oh, is that all?”, I can hear you saying, so let me rephrase as, try to get know it better than you do now.

It’s a big book, and it gets short shrift. Longer than our other three books of scripture put together, we only study it for 1 year. I’ve been in a graduate course with a Jewish professor at a major university who asked a question, and one student responded by citing a Hebrew Bible passage that the prof. didn’t know. So there’s no shame in non-PhD non-Jewish folk not knowing it really well.

That said, the absolute best thing you can do to be comfortable teaching it is, know it as well as you can. And the best way to do that is read it, a lot, especially with a modern translation. It may sound jarring to your ears at first, but short of learning Hebrew (which can make things harder than easier as it reveals the rocks under the surface, it’s not a magic panacea), reading a modern translation is the best way to get closer to the text.

I highly recommend the Jewish Study Bible, with extensive essays and notes from a scholarly Jewish perspective. (If you don’t want paper, it’s also in Logos.) I can’t speak to the 2nd edition yet, but the 1st is excellent. (edit to add) Since it’s from a Jewish perspective, you’re not likely to find it supporting things like readings of Jesus in the Old Testament. It’s instructive to compare the JSB notes with the NIV Study Bible notes for the Old Testament, since that’s done by conservative Evangelicals. I generally don’t recommend the NIV as a translation anymore (it cheats), but the notes can be good. Relying on the NIV Study Bible by itself is a bit like relying entirely on the student manual, see below.

My other general reading suggestions for the OT are here, and I’ll just echo again that for a good LDS overview, pick up Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament. (Edit: Peter Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible does and doesn’t say about Human Origins is currently on Kindle sale. A recommended wrestle with the text.)

What I would NOT do, though, is use your alternate Bible in class as a complete replacement for the KJV, but as a supplementary tool. Why? It’s important for students to get to know the KJV for at least two reasons. First, the idiom of the KJV is generally the idiom of our other LDS scriptures. Learning the one is important for learning to read the others, and recognize allusions, quotations and such. Second, the archaic language of the KJV constantly reminds us that we are reading is also archaic and ancient, different, very much not a current General Conference talk.  How to use your new translation then? To get to know what’s going on, and as a backup. When I teach, I tend to use the KJV, and supplement difficult parts either by “now that’s not entirely clear in the KJV, and it’s an important point, so how do modern translations read?” or  translating it on the fly from Hebrew myself (depending heavily on the passage.) You could also read them the 1992 FP statement about other translations (to establish the relationship between the KJV and others), and then cite some examples of LDS apostles citing other translations for clarity, such as here.

So start reading and taking notes NOW so that when the time comes to teach, you’ve got more than a 24-hr lead on each lesson.

The seminary manual spends a long time on Moses (replacing Genesis) for the first few weeks, so if you need some good commentary on the Book of Moses, check out Jeffrey Bradshaw’s In God’s Image and Likeness: Ancient and Modern Perspectives on the Book of Moses. He’s a sharp cookie, a committed LDS scientist, and a really pleasant guy to have lunch with.

Also be aware of other LDS resources available to you, like my Old Testament blog posts, the BYU Studies Index of OT articles by lesson, and Religious Educator, a journal for teachers that comes out of BYU’s Religious Studies Center. A lot of their books are also online. This screencast about the world of the Old Testament may be useful too. The bottom line is, you can’t know too much, so “read read read,” says President Hinckley.

2) Change your conception and approach.
 Now, as to that Seminary manual
If you rely entirely on the seminary manual for understanding, a lot of things simply won’t make sense. From looking at it, the manual appears to treat virtually the whole OT like documentary history that was written to convey modern doctrinal bullet points.

If we approach the Old Testament as an internally consistent doctrinal encyclopedia, we’re largely going to be confused and disappointed. This is not to say it does not contain doctrine, but it simply wasn’t written as a doctrinal manual. To draw modern analogues, parts are like the Church Handbook of Instructions, others like the Hymnbook, others like the History of the Church. There’s not really anything that corresponds to the Gospel Doctrine manual. The Bible is an anthology of different genres, all put together between one cover, as I write here.

My suggestion when trying to understand the Old Testament is this. Instead of asking, “why did it happen this way?”, ask instead, “why is the story being told this way?” The Old Testament is not a documentary history. Much of it circulated orally for hundreds of years before becoming important enough to be written down. Ask, then, “what point is the story trying to make? Why tell it and preserve it this way?” Approaching that way, ironically enough, is what Joseph Smith proposed.

“I have a key by which I understand the scriptures. I enquire, what was the question which drew out the answer… To ascertain [a parable’s] meaning, we must dig up the root and ascertain what it was that drew the saying out of Jesus.” TPJS, 253. It applies to more than parables. Everything in scripture is recorded for a purpose known to the author. Trying to put ourselves in the author’s place will help us understand why something is included, why it’s being told a certain way. What is the question or purpose which elicits this story, this passage, in this way and this place?

Said Elder Widtsoe,

“Many Bible accounts that trouble the inexperienced reader become clear and acceptable if the essential meaning of the story is sought out. To read the Bible fairly, it must be read as President Brigham Young suggested: ‘Do you read the scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them?’ (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 197-8). This is our guide. The scriptures must be read intelligently.”

Try to avoid the false dichotomy of “literal vs. figurative.” Scripture is more complex than that.

3) Remember the big picture

Oftentimes, we get caught up on a branch of a particular tree, and miss the forest completely. The nature of the manuals, often focusing on individual verses, tends to point us in that kind of direction, but remember, just as the key to real estate is “location, location, location” the key to understanding scripture is “context, context, context.” Read what comes before and after, and try to keep the historical context in mind, if you can.

4) Respond with intellectual humility
For many people, it seems that Seminary (and especially Old Testament) was their source of learning space doctrine: weird or obscure or ultra-conservative bits. This was rarely coupled with a humble “this is my view”, but rather these space doctrines were portrayed to them as Gospel Truth Written in Stone by the Finger of God Himself. Here, the BYU advice to Religious Ed. profs is important.
Teaching in Religious Education is to be substantive and inspirational. Students should become familiar with the text studied in each course taken and learn the implications of the text for daily living. They should feel free to raise honest questions, with confidence that they will be treated with respect and dignity and that their questions will be discussed intelligently in the context of faith. Where answers have not been clearly revealed, forthright acknowledgment of that fact should attend, and teachers should not present their own interpretations of such matters as the positions of the Church. Students should see exemplified in their instructors an open, appropriately tentative, tolerant approach to “gray” areas of the gospel. At the same time they should see in their instructors certitude and unwavering commitment to those things that have been clearly revealed and do represent the position of the Church. Teachers should be models of the fact that one can be well trained in a discipline, intellectually vigorous, honest, critical, and articulate, and at the same time be knowledgeable and fully committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, His Church and Kingdom, and His appointed servants.

When it comes to bizarre or tricky issues (e.g. Lot’s daughters or something), I wouldn’t hesitate to introduce explanations like those I give on my blog, provided they came with the right caveats and framing. Given that the Bible is “literature” (loosely defined as “a conscious and deliberate attempt to capture something in writing regardless of genre”), as opposed to documentary eye-witness history, the key question, again, is *always* “why would the story be told this way?” not “why did it happen this way?” 

Be tentative about everything but core gospel points. “Some people think x, other people think y.” Be careful about doubling down on things you’re unsure of. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.”  Always always with your comments, your “I don’t knows,” be constructive. Try to instill an intellectual curiosity about scripture, that it has depths and mysteries to be unraveled. The Old Testament is a fantastic place for learning about the fallibility of inspired leadership. Note both of those things: inspired and fallible, which is not an either/or but an and/bothThe Old Testament wasn’t written to provide shining examples of heroes to worship, but struggling humans who were chosen by God. I suspect teenagers might respond well to the latter idea more than the perfect, infalliblist idea. On that human/inspired balance, I really like Kenton Sparks’ Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture.

This post was written in haste (as the season is upon us) and is probably only half-baked, but as always, it’s wise to call upon the hive mind for other suggestions, particularly from those of you who have taught Old Testament in Seminary.

24 comments for “Teaching Old Testament for Seminary

  1. I have not heard of Jeffrey Bradshaw’s book. Is it something I can read as the class goes on, or should I try to read the whole thing before class starts?

    Would you recommend to the youth to use a modern translation? For me, I would never have read long chunks of the OT if I all I had as KJV. It just doesn’t sit in my brain well. So I exclusively use modern translations (NRSV, JSB) unless comparing to the BoM or PoGP.

    I used your “Instead of asking, ‘why did it happen this way?’, ask instead, ‘why is the story being told this way?'” last Sunday at my stake’s seminary kick-off and got really positive feedback. I combined it with Michael Austin’s “The OT is not a book; it’s a library” to introduce genres and the idea of limited shelf-space (i.e., These stories, instead of other stories, were remembered, written and shared for hundreds of years. They must have resonated with ancient Israelite audience.)

    I often need to the reminder to be intellectually humble. I get so excited that I forget not everyone likes viewing scripture through the documentary hypothesis.

  2. Bradshaw’s book is sequential, so you could read through it as you go.

    I’m really torn about recommending a modern translation to the youth. My fear is, if they start modern, they’ll never pick up the KJV language. On the other hand, if it’s a question between not reading at all, and reading a modern Bible… hard choice. I’d probably point them to the free NET Bible online (do seminary kids read off their phones, or paper?).

  3. Kind of weird seminary is so out of sync with Gospel Doctrine in Sunday School. You’d think it’d be nice to have some sync so kids can discuss things with their parents.

    BTW – I’m of the opinion that early morning seminary is a waste just because it’s so early. I learned far more when I was in the weekly program that had a class in the afternoon with the rest being manuals you had to do nightly. (No idea if it’s structured remotely the same as in the 80’s anymore)

    BTW2 – the Jewish Study Bible on Logos doesn’t come with the Tanakh text unlike the print edition or (I assume) Kindle edition. The Kindle version costs $23 while the Logos version is $32 + $10 for the Tanakh if you want it. Kind of a no-brainer honestly despite the limits while using the Kindle app.

  4. BTW3 – love your idea that reading the KJV pushes the idea this is an alien culture and not some 21st century GA speaking in Conference. What a great insight. I’d never thought of it that way before.

    I always love your posts on these sorts of things Ben. Keep it up.

  5. Thanks Clark.
    True enough, Logos only give you the notes. But the added functionality is quite worth it, imo. All the scriptures quoted become mouse-over popups, which makes them so much more useful. Of course, the notes can also be used with any other Bible in Logos, and some are free, I believe.

    I think I heard the “KJV helps remind it’s ancient” from Blake Ostler, but I can’t recall anymore.

  6. I have been studying the Old Testament for the past 10 years with particular interest and with scholarly sources. Every time I open it I am taught humility. How little we know. How very little.

    You forgot one thing Ben. Let me help you out: “Also, as a good resource, please make sure you pick up a copy of my book on Genesis 1. It just might save your marriage.” :)

  7. I’ve never been a regular seminary teacher (I too have taught Institute), but I have subbed plenty of times. That is a tough gig, I don’t mind admitting, and I admire anyone willing to take it on.

    When I first started teaching GD, the curriculum rotation went through eight years, not four, so we spent two yours on each volume of scripture before rotating to the next one. Teaching OT over two calendar year (as opposed to one academic year) is much easier in my view.

    Here is my GD intro to the OT that some teachers might find useful:


  8. I think it was from reading your posts, Ben, that I got interested in Enns’ books. (If you haven’t posted about that, my bad, and ignore the rest.) Isn’t one of Enns’ major points that, in fact, the NT writers often did not really care about (or misunderstood) the “context, context, context” of the OT? Even Jesus is portrayed as quoting OT scriptures out of context. Do you have any suggestions for raising that issue?

    Also, how far does context really get us? Because, unfortunately for me, the more context I learn, the less prophetic our modern prophets look. I still have so much more to learn so I don’t mean to draw any conclusions yet. And I’ve also read of the many interesting ways that JS’s teachings, seemingly unwittingly, parallel non-biblical-yet-ancient stuff. I just haven’t learned much OT context that strengthened my faith that our modern prophets are reliable interpreters of the OT.

  9. “the more context I learn, the less prophetic our modern prophets look.”

    I’ve faced this problem, too. I concluded that my initial conception of “prophetic” just didn’t jive well with reality. In other words, since I have a spiritual witness that Joseph Smith was a prophet, however he behaved is how a prophet behaves. I needed to change my definition of a prophet, rather than judge Joseph Smith as failing to hit the mark.

  10. Ryan Mullen, I accept your solution as a possibility. It’s hard for me to change my way of thinking there, but maybe that is the right solution. Even so, it forces me to ask, where does context really help me? Matthew (and his portrayal of Jesus) uses OT scriptures in ways that look (to me) like they’re wildly out of context. Many Mormon scholars now treat Nephi’s use of Isaiah 29 as a pesher rather than an actual explanation of Isaiah 29 (contrary to the presumably-McConkie position taken the LDS headnote). And I guess that’s okay. But it also makes me wonder why we instinctively value the original context if the scriptures themselves suggest that the original context is, perhaps, meant to be disregarded.

  11. I freely admit that my solution may not work for everyone. It’s helped me tremendously, though, and my respect for Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, etc. has only grown as I shed my childhood notions of de facto prophetic infallibility. These guys were as flawed as the rest of us, and yet the church they founded is still growing, challenging and improving people’s lives.

    As for your questions on context, I am interested in Ben’s answer as well.

  12. I’ve definitely pushed Enns, on multiple occasions.

    -“much OT context that strengthened my faith that our modern prophets are reliable interpreters of the Old Testament”

    I don’t think they are, but I also don’t think they are supposed to be.
    Prophets throughout scripture are largely focused on their contemporary challenges and issues, and (whether knowingly or unknowingly) reinterpret the past to apply to the present.

    For LDS who are aware of this, tension arises, because we tend not to distinguish between contextual interpretation (meaning, “what did this mean in its earliest context?”) and recontextual interpretation, which ignores context in order to apply to a new situation. This shouldn’t surprise us too much, since Nephi blatantly announces that he’s reinterpreting Isaiah for his people. As my friend Carl pointed out, you don’t need to “liken” something unless you’re applying it to something different than it was originally for. It’s a seminary scripture, 1 Nephi 19:23. This is precisely what the New Testament authors do, as well as Jesus, the Dead Sea Scroll authors, the Old Testament within the Old Testament and so on for a long time. Contextual interpretation develops fairly late in Christianity and Judaism.

    So while I appreciate greater contextual awareness from our doctrinal and spiritual leaders, I generally don’t expect it and don’t consider the lack to be a prophetic failing.

  13. Context is useful for understanding how the Israelites at the time would have understood their own traditions, stories, and scripture.

  14. Ben S, I suspect she means more interesting things restored that end up lining up with the OT in a way that perhaps regular people (including GAs) aren’t aware. That said I think a lot of LDS stuff that lines up is often more interpretations of the OT era from late antiquity that may not line up with what scholars think was going on in the time attested by the OT.

    To give an example so people can say I’m fixated on seer stones, Joseph’s explanation of the U&T has some interesting parallels to some ideas from late antiquity – especially Josephus and the DSS. It’s not exact but surprisingly close. But this is quite at odds with the typical view of the U&T of the priests from before this era (where typically they’re seen as lots one throws out rather than someone indicating letters).

    I think we thus have to be careful. I think sometimes we latch on to interpretations of pre-Christian Israel that line up with our views because they line up with those views. However often those interpretations are fairly controversial at best in terms of how the OT itself is viewed as history. A subtle but important distinctions. (Of course some might say that the scholarly reconstruction, often from extremely limited evidence, might be problematic – however one might think that one has then ceased really appealing to the historic OT literature)

  15. Whoops. Sorry, was replying to a different thread in the wrong window. I shouldn’t reply while sending out FedEx.

  16. Ben S. I went back and revisited your list that was linked for recommended reading. I see you mentioned the JPS Torah and Anchor Bible Commentaries. Wondering how you like the Hermeneia? Nickelsburg in his first volume on 1 Enoch cites Hugh Nibley in a footnote and credits Mormons with being one of two people who believe that a book of Enoch is part of the canon (obviously referring to the Enoch chapters in the P of GP). Then for more on Enoch, the 2d volume of Jeff Bradshaw’s and David Larsen’s In God’s Image and Likeness takes on the rest of Moses and then goes to Genesis and the Tower of Babel. http://ldsmag.com/article-1-14240. Hopefully, Jeff will continue with a volume on Abraham, then Jacob (which I believe is his favorite) and Joseph.

  17. I’ve only used Holladay on Jeremiah, but I liked it. It has no Genesis volume yet, though.
    As I recall, it’s too technical and critical-oriented for lay people with no language training.

  18. It is very technical, but I’ve found (along with David Larsen) that John J. Collins’ Daniel is very good (even for lay people). I thought Nickelsburg’s 1 Enoch (2 vols. w/2d with VanderKam) was excellent as well. While there isn’t a Genesis volume, you could kind of say that about the Anchor Bible since Speiser is over 60 years old and do we have any idea when Hendel’s update will be done? I also understand there’s a new ICC Genesis in preparation from John Day.

    Of course, none of these will be super helpful for a seminary teacher. Perhaps the Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible eds. Dunn and Rogerson is something that would be easier. It does have some technical material, but is aimed more for an educated lay reader. It also includes a short commentary on 1 Enoch by Daniel Olsen (and the Margaret Barker Isaiah is interesting as well).

    For a short, readable commentary on Leviticus, I found Milgrom’s Continental Commentary which adapts his three volume AB on Leviticus is more helpful.

  19. Milgrom on Leviticus was free recently from Logos. (I post this stuff on Facebook…) Now it’s Hermeneia on 1 Peter.

    I don’t mind the technicality, obviously, but I don’t want someone’s first exposure to a real commentary to be original language technical/criticial, since it would be pretty useless. I don’t want to scare people off.

    Oh, and the new AB on Genesis? When I visited with Hendel in 2007 or so, he thought he’d be done “soon.” So, don’t hold your breath.

  20. The seminary curriculum only spends 4 days (out of 160) on Leviticus, so I probably won’t be reading an entire commentary on it. If you know of any good, short articles, let me know.

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