Short Take: Eight Tips for Loving the Old Testament

Author's Note
My neighbor and I are writing short columns for our monthly ward (congregation) newsletter, focusing on the Old Testament and related scripture in 2014. Here’s one of my “short takes,” as previously published there..

Read with Your Mind

  • Slow down. We’re to learn and experience, not check a box or win a race. Read aloud sometimes, to force yourself to slow down and make sense of words and syntax.
  • Consult footnotes for different shades of meanings in Hebrew and insights from the Joseph Smith Translation (JST).
  • Other books of scripture are the best commentaries on the Old Testament. See how Old Testament passages are quoted and explained elsewhere in scripture.
  • Use Bible maps and the Bible Dictionary to put people and events in historical and geographical context.
  • If you don’t know a word, look it up. (This will not always help. King James’ English is centuries older than your dictionary.)
  • Remember, we’re reading a translation. No translation – no human language, really – is perfect.

Read with Your Heart

  • The people in the Old Testament are real people leading real lives in the present tense. Put yourself in their shoes. Consider how your own experience might be like theirs.

Read with the Spirit

  • Ask prayerfully for insight and understanding when you read. Gratefully welcome the Spirit when it comes and any insight it communicates. When it doesn’t come, study and ponder anyway.

Short Take: “The Most Correct Book”

The Book of Mormon’s title page suggests the book may contain “mistakes of men.” Joseph Smith called it “the most correct” book but didn’t call it perfect. Though written by God’s prophets and translated by God’s power, it actually cannot be perfect. Here’s why:

  • It is written in human language, which cannot fully describe divine things.
  • Human language constantly evolves. Many words don’t mean precisely what they meant two centuries ago.
  • The prophets could have written more perfectly in Hebrew, but had to use a simpler, more compact language to save space (Mormon 9:31-33).
  • The book is translated from language to language; in translation, any language pair poses challenges. Elsewhere, the Hebrew word describing Mary in Isaiah 7:14 could mean virgin or simply young woman. Other scripture says both apply, but what did Isaiah mean? Similarly, the Russian word for evil also means angry, so whichever English translation I choose limits the meaning more than the author did.
  • We see the prophets themselves still learning, filling in gaps in knowledge with their opinions (Alma 40:19-21) or clarifying earlier writings after further revelation (3 Nephi 28:36-40).

Knowing all this helps us understand why we need so many accounts of the same gospel, prepares us to discover new meaning in familiar verses, and helps us not to be shaken when we encounter human imperfections in sacred texts. In the end, salvation is in the Word, not the words. (See John 5:39.)

Author's Note
My neighbor and I are writing short columns for our monthly ward (congregation) newsletter. We focused on the Book of Mormon in 2013. This is one of my “short takes,” as previously published there.

Short Take: How Much Shall We Hope? For Whom? For How Long? Why?

Author's Note
My neighbor and I are writing short columns for our monthly ward (congregation) newsletter. We focused on the Book of Mormon in 2013. Here’s one of my “short takes,” as previously published there.

Mormon wrote that God’s ongoing work to save each of us will not cease, “so long as time shall last, or the earth shall stand, or there shall be one [soul] upon the face thereof to be saved” (Moroni 7:36).

The broken-hearted mother of a convicted murderer once asked a friend of mine, “Is there any hope for my son?” She knew stern scriptures on the subject.

The friend asked me. I answered, “I will not say that the infinite atonement is less than infinite. There is hope.” (See 2 Nephi 9:7; 25:16; Alma 34:12.)

How much, therefore, shall we hope? Far more than we do now.

How long shall we hope? Until the end of time, which is well beyond death. Until God has done everything that a god can do to save his child.

For whom shall we hope? For ourselves, surely, and for everyone we love. Indeed, for every other human soul. For the lost, the confused, and the apparently hopeless. For the lazy, distracted, proud, addicted, self-righteous, belligerent, rebellious, and, yes, for the criminal. For the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal sons and daughters, and the vilest of sinners. (See Luke 19; Mosiah 28:4.)

Why shall we hope? The Savior said, “I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:16; 1 Nephi 21:16).

Short Take: “Your Words Have Been Stout Against Me”

Author's Note
My neighbor and I are writing short columns for our monthly ward (congregation) newsletter. We focused on the Book of Mormon in 2013. Here’s one of my “short takes,” as previously published there.

When Jesus visited the Nephites after his resurrection, he filled in some gaps in their own records (3 Nephi 23:6-13), then gave them some of the words of Malachi.

In Malachi 3 and 3 Nephi 24 the Lord has two complaints against his people; both are relevant today. First, “Ye have robbed me.” In several familiar verses he promises to shower us with blessings, if we will be faithful in tithes and offerings (3 Nephi 24:7-13), showing that God matters more to us than money.

His second, less-quoted complaint is, “Your words have been stout against me.” His people gripe that living the gospel doesn’t do them any good. It is in vain; there is no profit in it. They think this because they look at the proud and judge them to be happy. They complain that success comes to the wicked, who are able to tempt God without immediate punishment (3 Nephi 24:14-15).

The problem here is that God’s people have the wrong heroes, admire bad examples, and let their envy of the world’s temporary rewards distract them from the hope and joy which are eternally in Christ. Yet there is hope. Those who repent of this, the Lord says, “shall be mine . . . and I will spare them” (3 Nephi 24:17).

Short Take: The King’s Prayer

Author's Note
My neighbor and I are writing short columns for our monthly ward (congregation) newsletter. We focused on the Book of Mormon in 2013. Here’s one of my “short takes,” as previously published there.

King Lamoni’s father, a Lamanite, is learning the gospel from Aaron. He wants immortality and eternal life. He wants the Holy Ghost to change his wicked heart. Aaron tells him he must call upon God.

As he prays, notice that there is no pretense. He doesn’t pretend to faith or knowledge that he doesn’t have. He doesn’t try to impress Aaron or save face with his servants. He’s unafraid to use the if word, where God’s very existence is concerned. He starts where he is, as he is, with desire, a bit of hope, and the early symptoms of faith.

He prays, “O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, will thou make thyself known unto me. . . .”

Notice also that he already knows the exact price of what he wants: “I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day” (Alma 22:18).

We could do worse than to pray like a Lamanite.

By the way, the results in this case were spectacular.

Short Take: It’s Okay to Be Human

Author's Note
My neighbor and I are writing short columns for our monthly ward (congregation) newsletter. We focused on the Book of Mormon in 2013. Here’s one of my “short takes,” as previously published there.

Tucked between splendid sermons and dramatic events in scripture is something we often overlook: down time for God’s exhausted servants. The Lord once put Elijah on a program of diet and exercise before sending him back to work (1 Kings 19:4-8). When starving Alma first went to Amulek’s home (Alma 8:27), he “tarried many days,” regaining his strength, before preaching again.

Thereafter, Amulek preached with Alma and experienced miracles, but he, too, was still human. Publicly joining Alma cost him his wealth and influence. Worse, his friends and family, including his father, rejected him (Alma 15:16). This took its toll. Eventually, Alma took Amulek to Alma’s own house, “and did administer unto him in his tribulations, and strengthened him in the Lord” (Alma 15:18). Then they went back to work.

A final, different example: Captain Moroni misinterpreted the government’s lack of support for his army and wrote a blistering letter to the Nephite leader, Pahoran. He didn’t know the Nephite capital city had fallen. In his mature and gracious reply, Pahoran wrote, “You have censured me, but it mattereth not; I am not angry, but do rejoice in the greatness of your heart” (Alma 61:9).

We could wisely, patiently, and kindly make similar allowances for our own and others’ humanity, and be less inclined to judgment and more determined to see the good.

Short Take: A Psalm of Alma

Author's Note
My neighbor and I are writing short columns for our monthly ward (congregation) newsletter. We focused on the Book of Mormon in 2013. Here’s one of my “short takes,” as previously published there.

In the “Psalm of Nephi” (2 Nephi 4:6-15), Nephi laments “the temptations and sins which do so easily beset me” (2 Nephi 4:18). But then he contemplates the blessings of God to him, and sorrow turns to joy and determination.

In Alma 31 we see Alma grieving for his people’s wickedness. He goes among the Zoramites to “try the virtue of the word of God” (v. 5). Seeing their wickedness up close, he is astonished and cannot contain his sorrow.

In what we might call a psalm of Alma, he cries out, “O how long, O Lord, will thou suffer that thy servants shall dwell here below in the flesh, to behold such gross wickedness among the children of men?” (v. 26). He pleads for strength, comfort, and patience for himself and his companions. Then he prays:

“O Lord, wilt thou grant unto us that we may have success in bringing them again unto thee in Christ. Behold, O Lord, their souls are precious, and many of them are our brethren; therefore, give unto us, O Lord, power and wisdom that we may bring these, our brethren, again unto thee” (vv. 34-35).

Love and determination replace sorrow. He blesses his companions, and they get to work, “filled with the Holy Spirit” (v. 36) and having their afflictions “swallowed up in the joy of Christ” (v. 38). It is a pattern for righteous action in a wicked world.

Short Take: Another Side of the Atonement

Author's Note
My neighbor and I are writing short columns for our monthly ward (congregation) newsletter. We focused on the Book of Mormon in 2013. Here’s one of my “short takes,” as previously published there.

In the garden and on the cross, Jesus suffered the penalty justice demands for our sins, so that we can be redeemed if we repent. This gift is incalculable, and our need for it is absolute. But Jesus suffered more than this. Isaiah and Paul mention it (see Isaiah 53:4-5; Hebrews 4:15-16); Alma explains it.

Jesus somehow took upon himself all our sicknesses, pains, temptations, heartbreaks – everything we suffer. He now knows them all from the inside, “according to the flesh” (Alma 7:11-12.).

He not only knows generally how it feels to struggle with addiction, or to be chronically or terminally ill or love someone who is, or to be caught up in divorce and its aftermath, or to doubt or disbelieve or fear. Because of Gethsemane and Calvary, he knows exactly how these experiences feel to each of us. He not only walks the proverbial mile in our shoes; he walks every mile, and he knows exactly how our shoes feel on our feet.

Alma explains that this qualifies Jesus to judge us with mercy in the end. This experience also fully qualifies him to help us through all our difficulties. This part of the atonement, too, is a wondrous gift to us, from both the Son and the Father.