If I had the power to do such things, I would make a rule that anyone who wanted to write or speak about the Old Testament had to first read the entire Book of Leviticus three times in a modern translation. By my reckoning, this would take care of about 90% of the really stupid things that people say about our oldest standard work–nearly all of which comes from the starting assumption that the people of Ancient Israel were basically like us except without air conditioning.
This sort of thinking leads people to see the Old Testament as an infallible manual for modern religious living. When we see words like “priesthood” and “temple,” we imagine that they functioned in ancient society more or less–or at least within one order of magnitude–the way that they function for us today. A thorough understanding of the Hebrew temple cult, whose rituals are presented in excruciating detail in Leviticus, will quickly disabuse anyone of such a notion.
Yes, there are human universals, and we can learn things from ancient peoples and their literature. However, we have to pay attention to what is different in order to draw meaningful conclusions from what is similar. Jacob did not have family home evening with his twelve sons. Job’s comforters were not home teachers. And Jonah was not called to the Nineveh South Mission. Most people understand this at some level, but still we persist in suspecting that the people of other times and places were enough like us that we can draw meaningful spiritual cues from their behavior without going through the effort to account for their really very weird assumptions.
Other people are weird. Other times and places are weird. Even in our own time and place there are plenty of real weirdoes, but people who lived in the Ancient Near East 2500 years ago saw the world very differently than we are even capable of seeing it now. So (many of us are learning now) did people who lived in rural New York in the 1820s and 1830s. This culture was dominated by folk-magic beliefs: divining rods, astrology, alchemical transformation, and, apparently, seer stones–all of which, to people like me, are just bizarre.
This is another example of the (not insuperable) problem of all scripture and sacred narrative. The great value of scripture is that it provides continuity for a belief system by showing how God has interacted with human beings over a long period of time. The great problem with scripture is that divine interaction, like any other interaction, depends heavily on the understanding of the people receiving the communication–who filter the experience through assumptions that are always going to seem weird to people who do not share them.
Believing in a god who interacts directly with human beings is a non-rational faith proposition. One believes it or one does not. However, if one does choose to believe such a thing, it necessarily follows that the records of those interactions will reflect temporal, geographical, and cultural assumptions that we do not share. Knowing how to use scripture in our own spiritual life means understanding how to separate divine messages from the situational understanding of the people who received them–be they Ancient Israelites, Roman Jews, superstitious farmers, or Western Americans who came of age during the Eisenhower administration.
And this dynamic will continue. Some day, most of the things that we believe today will be irreducibly, and even incomprehensibly weird to everybody in the world. If there are Latter-day Saints alive in 3015, they will almost certainly look back on our sacred narratives–conference talks, lesson manuals, proclamations, and the like–with utter amazement that anybody could think the way we do. And then they, too, will have to go through the long and laborious project of trying to figure out what God was really trying to say.