Why I Love the OT

I love the OT. Dave Seely, a professor of religion at BYU and an old friend, has published two bibliographies of LDS work relating to the OT, the first in BYU Studies 37/2 (1997-1998), which is available at byustudies.byu.edu under “Resources,” and then a supplement in BYU Studies 45/1 (2006). I had three items listed in the main bibliograpy and five in the supplement, which makes me among the most prolific Mormon authors writing on OT-related subjects.

One of the ironies of this is that I’ve only actually read the OT all the way through from stem to stern once in my entire life. There was one area on my mission where my comp had scripture tapes, and his idea of joint study was, when the alarm went off at 6:00 a.m., he’d roll over, hit the play button on the tape, and go back to sleep. But I would sit up, turn my light on and follow along, marking things that caught my interest as we went. The steady pace of the tape was probably the only thing that kept me going through every single word. Since, then, I’ve just read specific things in concentrated bursts.

I do love the OT, though. And it is no secret to me as to why. When I was in, I believe, fourth grade, I had a Sunday School teacher who taught us the OT Stories class. Her name was Helen Bingham. She had MS and at that time used a cane; later a wheelchair, and then she died from the disease. She published a book once, a history of DeKalb County, and used the money to finance a two-bus temple trip to Washington, D.C. My wife and I went with my little daughter, who was just a baby, and we had a terrific experience there.

Anyway, Sister Bingham was unlike any other teacher I’ve ever had in the Mormon context. She was a convert to the Church, and she was very serious, to the point of being stern, about her Christianity. Her favorite song was “I Know That My Redeemer Lives,” and it suited her–we kids all knew that her faith was like a rock, firm and immovable. And she didn’t take any guff whatsoever in class; she thought nothing of cracking that cane of hers on the table to bring us back into line. Very old school. But it worked, at least for me. (This is the teacher who convinced me that words like goll and dang were just euphemistic versions of profane words, and they shouldn’t be used. So for years I wouldn’t utter even so much as a darn. I confess to having backslid in the meantime.)

I also remember that when she taught us the OT stories, she didn’t water anything down, she didn’t homogenize things or try to tidy them up. We got the straight stuff, right out of the Bible. No Primaryesque learning activities, and no limiting ourselves to only those stories that were neat and tidy. If it was in the OT and it was a story, it was fair game, and we would talk about it.

I remember when we learned the story of Jacob, Leah and Rachel, that I asked the question how Jacob and Leah were able to have children together, since they weren’t in love. I had not learned the facts of life yet and in my little boy brain two people had to be in love to have babies. She didn’t even flinch, but without going into detail she explained that a man and a woman can have a baby without being in love, which at that time was all the answer I was looking for.

Because she was such a serious and earnest teacher who did not dilute the material but gave it to us straight, she created in me a love of the OT that has persisted my entire life. She was one of the most powerful teachers I’ve ever had the pleasure to learn from, and I just wanted to take this opportunity to do her homage.


  1. Julie M. Smith says:

    Great post. Thanks.

  2. On my mission, I tried to write down every single genealogy in the OT. I was curious for the purpose, as well as accuracy. Let me tell you, those genealogies are way off!

  3. I love the Old Testament. I believe that we, as LDS people as a whole, certainly do not pay enough attention to the messages that are taught in these valuable scriptures. I have even come to understand that during the whole ministry of Christ, He was commentating on the Old Testament. Once we understand some of the symbolism of the OT we can really better understand the rest of the standard works. I know I am a nerd, but I love to study the OT!

    Perhaps some of my students will catch my zeal for the OT and have a desire to study it further because of my love for it as you have expressed your feelings about your teacher. That is the greatest gift a teacher could receive!

  4. Count me in as an OT nerd. And it’s all because of Isaiah.

  5. I also love the OT. Thank you for this post.

    I like what you have to say about your teacher.

  6. Steve G. says:

    On my mission in Germany, I had a companion who was a native and spoke very little English, there was about a month together where we weren’t getting along so well and I read the OT from cover to cover in all my spare time, since we weren’t really talking. Once I finished that I read all the extra books that were in my German Bible. I loved the books of the Maccabees. Too bad we didn’t get that in the KJV.

    I doubt I’ll ever find the time to do that again.

    On the subject of the geneologies. During my mission I charted out timelines for all the begats and deaths. It was the Lectures on Faith that got me interested in the idea. I was shocked at how many of the early prophets were alive at the same time due to the long lifespans. It changed my perception of that whole time period.

  7. Hunter says:

    Great post. The one and only time I’ve ever read the OT in its entirety was all the way back in high school, and I really only did it to be able to say I did it. Since then, I’ve been pretty uninspired by it. Your post has me thinking I need to repent of my “lukewarmness” towards the OT.

    I loved your description of Sister Bingham as “very serious, to the point of being stern, about her Christianity.”

  8. Amen. OT is my favorite book, I think.

  9. I love the humanity of the OT stories. My favorite class at BYU was an English class called “The Bible as Literature”. I loved that we could analyze the Old Testament without the Sunday School viewpoint of everything being black and white. I loved the Jonah does not tell the Ninevites to repent, he simply says they will be destroyed and then gets mad at God for not destroying them.

    I love the OT, and I am working through my second reading right now. I love Isaiah. I wish our church studied the OT more, and I plan to teach it to my children someday. In all its gory and sexy details.

  10. Count me in as someone who loves the Old Testament! It’s my favorite of the standard works; I love the richness and depth.

  11. Steve L says:

    Dr. Seely, if you’re out there reading this, you’re awesome!

  12. Matt W. says:

    As someone who is not a huge fan of the OT, thanks for this. It gives me hope.

  13. Conflicted says:

    I, too, love the humanity of the OT– the “warts and all” aspect of it. I’d far rather have the facts straight-up than “sanitized” versions of history any day. But overall I very much dislike the OT because of the all the over the top cruelty and human rights violations in it, which if they were simply a reflection of a depraved and barbaric culture of the day, would be bad enough. But it’s not just that– many, if not most, of the cruel and inhumane practices were not only condoned by Christ (the LORD of the OT), but commanded by him, as I see it.

    I admit that I am very much a supporter of human and civil rights. I can’t stand to think about the plethora of inhumane ways people treated each other then, often under the full authority and spiritual encouragement of the day. And to think that the LORD of the OT was the same compassionate, loving and patiently forgiving Jesus of the NT (with only a 600 year gap in the chronology, at least as far as the KJT goes), is something I cannot reconcile in my mind, i.e. the inconsistency is very troubling to me, to say the least.

    I seek the advice of your gentle readers.

  14. Jim Donaldson says:

    I taught the OT in seminary last year. It’s perfect for teenagers—lots of blood, sex and moral ambiguity. Great fun. I loved it. You have to hand it to the writers, they pulled no punches. No correlation in the OT. The rabbis, preachers, and the seminary teachers have been scrambling ever since to find a way (often successfully) to make it meaningless and boring, but it’s all in there—human beings acting like human beings. It’s the only lesson manual in the church for which that is true. Well, except for Jesus in the New Testament: he’s the quirkiest guy ever. The scriptures are delicious. People really should read them.

    Great post and tribute to your teacher.

  15. So everyone loves the Old Testament but hardly anyone bothers to spell it all out. Is it really that hard?

    I find that my reading the Old Testament takes one of two different paths. In the better-known portions I read along like other volumes of scripture, but in the long dry spells in between I read like I’m combing for something significant, like a cultural insight or a stray reference that I’ve never noticed before. It’s still rewarding in its own way, but reading the Old Testament is definitely different than any other volume of scripture used in the LDS Church.

  16. Conflicted,

    The God of the OT _is_ Jesus and that the Book of Mormon helps us understand Jesus a little more – because we see that even in his resurrected state he will destroy cities (as he does before he visits the Nephites).

    I don’t understand it completely. But we have to be careful about judging God. If He destroys a city or commands that someone be killed, it’s not because He is by nature a cruel God. We have to ponder, rather, I think, how bad things can get in a city or with a person. When God says “vengeance is mine” he means it – and it means at times he exacts vengeance. It’s as much a part of His divine personality as the Sermon on the Mount.

    The other thing is that the OT isn’t merely describing human beings or God as they were in the past. I suspect the nature of God and the nature of human beings hasn’t changed. In modern times, God and mankind are capable of (and are in fact doing) all the same things that we read about in the OT.

    The OT is barbarous and the modern world is barbarous. The technology is different and our knowledge of things that are happening around the world is much greater – but that’s about it.

    This is what makes the OT so important and valid for us as readers. If we can wrestle our way through the OT we might have a chance of understanding people and God as they really are rather than what we might (foolishly) hope them to be.

  17. Lucienne Jeanne says:

    I agree with Danithew who says that we should not judge God.
    Actually, the OT teaches us that God is merciful and gracious, long suffering and abundant in goodness. I don’t think there is any discrepancy between this moral description of God and his ordering the children of Israel to utterly destroy some peoples of the region.
    We, as LDS people, do know about the premortal existence of spirits.
    Now, let’s do a little bit of thinking. When a particular people had completely rejected God and his prophets and was said to be ripe in iniquity, imagine what would have happened to the souls of the babies who were to go down to Earth and get themselves a physical body through so polluted a channel.
    Those innocent souls would not have had a single chance of accomplishing a successful voyage through mortality.
    I don’t know but I imagine that, it was a way of closing what was in fact a dead end or a one way ticket to hell.
    That is one of the reasons why I think that, though some people think that God appears as a “cruel God” in the OT, he never ceases to be what he is, merciful and gracious, long suffering and abundant in goodness.
    Anyway, as you may guess, I love the OT.

  18. I enjoyed my classes about the Old Testament and I recognize that I have a lifetime of learning ahead of me. I thought David Plotz, a Slate editor, had interesting thoughts about the Old Testament. He is a proud Jew (in blood, but not in practice) who decided to read the Hebrew bible all the way through and comment on it. In this video, he talks about the book that he wrote as a result of that exploration. His insights were quite provacative.


  19. living in zion says:

    The best, most graphic sex manual (forget porn!) is the Song of Solomon. It is the only reason I love the OT. Also, Joseph Smith said the Song of Solomon is NOT inspired writing. All the more reason to laugh in Gospel Doctrine as that book is completely ignored. Can you imagine an adult church class discussing Solomon chapter 7?
    That is classic romance novel stuff. All that is missing is ” .. his glistening chest hair enhanced his finely chiseled torso in the soft moonlight.” Not that I know much about that.
    God is good, and so is the OT.

  20. “fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners” …

    That line appears first in Song of Solomon – and also happens to appear a number of times in Doctrine and Covenants … so something must be going on there.

  21. I think sometimes we need to be careful not to read too much into a statement. I am sure Joseph did say that about the Song of Solomon.

    But that does not necessarily mean it is not worth reading. Not everything has to be inspired enough to be scripture, to be worth reading. Besides that comment, did Joseph say anything else about SoS?

  22. Kevin – thanks for sharing that hearing the straight stuff helped you love the OT. I’m starting to read the picture scriptures with my toddler, and I am strongly inclined to sanitize even those. (We don’t even watch “The Incredibles” because the robot monster is “too scawy”).

    All things at an age appropriate time. But I’ll try to resist the temptation to gloss over things just because they make ME uncomfortable.

  23. I admit I have never read the whole Old Testament, but just recently I heard the David Plotz interview on NPR and found myself a little inspired. I have a goal to read it through and I agree it is quite overlooked within the faith.
    Also, whenever I hear someone say something like, Forget porn, SoS has it all …, or anything like that, my first thought is: Well that person has obviously never seen porn. Good for you.

  24. I’ve never been able to get through the OT when I try to read it. I don’t get much out of it. Maybe I need a teacher like Helen Bingham.