The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embraces a canon of scripture that comprises the Old and New Testaments, the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the words of living prophets and apostles. It seems, at times, that these scriptures hold different priorities in the eyes of individuals, with the Old Testament tending to find itself at the bottom of the scriptural totem pole. For example, while attending a stake priesthood meeting, one of the speakers spoke about the importance of scripture study and their own growth in developing a productive scripture study habit. In the course of his presentation, the speaker spoke of some advice that he had received by one of his ecclesiastical leaders. According to the individual, he was instructed, “Go ahead and skip the Old Testament, as it has no real value, and go straight into the Book of Mormon.” Undoubtedly, the leader’s counsel to skip the Old Testament had good intentions, encouraging the listeners to focus on what they felt was the most important for them at that time. Yet the outcome of such an attitude toward the Old Testament prevents one from enjoying all that it has to offer. Certainly not everyone feels apathetic about the Old Testament, but what seems fairly common in our encounters with fellow churchgoers is a bit of an intimidation factor in regard to the Old Testament due to difficulties in trying to understand it.

Admittedly, the Old Testament is a difficult volume to read, much less understand. The language, symbolism, and history depicted within it can be challenging, and at times frustrating. Old Testament books present us with an entirely different social and cultural environment, separating us, the modern readers, from them, the ancient writers and peoples living in that distant day and age. This is further complicated when one recognizes that the Old Testament is made up of a number of texts from different periods, resulting in shifting symbolism or meaning from one text to another.

Biblical scholars, clergymen, and laypeople have attempted to elucidate these interpretive difficulties and provide a coherent exegesis, or internal meaning of the texts. They have done so by applying a wide array of methodologies to the narratives and teachings of the Old Testament, including efforts to provide a historical, linguistic, and theological context to each of the stories. Such methodologies have included applying the documentary hypothesis, source criticism, redaction history of the texts, form criticism, literary and comparative studies with cognate languages, and discussions of the texts in relation to their final form. The strength of these approaches is that they allow the Old Testament to be read on its own terms and appreciated for the lessons or principles the authors themselves presented, rather than solely trying to read one’s own meaning into the text, an approach known as eisegesis.

Eisegesis is a favorite methodology employed by Latter-day Saints reflecting an approach to scripture often attributed to the Book of Mormon in that we “liken all scriptures unto us” (1 Nephi 19:23). This approach can be deeply personal and meaningful and can bring in much personal revelation that we seek in our lives. However, if left to itself, we fall short of enjoying all that God has revealed. Additionally, if approached solely from an eisegetical approach, it is possible to create an application that is independent of the text itself. Thus, putting in the work to try our best to understand some of the difficulties presented in our studies of the Old Testament can lead to scriptural literacy that is liberating, enlightening, and inspiring.

Yet the exegetical methodologies listed above are not sufficient to produce a definitive understanding of the Old Testament either. While they do allow for a greater understanding of a given text and its place within the larger textual body, their objective basis means that divine revelation and prophetic authority are often not recognized as legitimate avenues for understanding.[1] It thus seems of value to synthesize the insights from revelation with what academic exegesis can produce through strenuous work. The result can be that we fully engage with scriptural canon in a way that is meaningful and uplifting, offering clarity to the past, present, and future. Thanks to the restoration of the priesthood and continuing revelation, the Old Testament patriarchs are not simply literary examples of righteous behavior but contemporary beings that have engaged, and continue to engage, with the Saints in this dispensation. The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the texts contained in the Pearl of Great Price, by virtue of their inception via divine authority, allow for insights and interpretations to biblical narratives that are not always acceptable to modern exegetical analysis. In our eyes, they continue and build on those narratives in ways that may not always be possible to authenticate by modern scholarship, but that are nevertheless realities and that can be confirmed by faith and revelation.

The genesis (pun intended) of this volume finds its origins in the desires of the editors to bring together a collection of essays on the Old Testament, which have attempted to implement multiple approaches to the texts. We have tried to accomplish this by introducing a unique approach to biblical exegesis that would resonate with adherers to the theology, teachings, and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The purpose of the volume, then, is to provide perspectives using sound academic methodologies, while simultaneously drawing upon insights gained through prophets, apostles, and Restoration scripture. In terms of the volume’s organization, the chapters have been arranged into four sections. The first engages with the antediluvian (preflood) narratives. Dan Belnap begins the volume by addressing the creation narrative depicted in Genesis 1–3 and applying a social critical and anthropological lens to the text, as well as intersecting it with Restoration scripture through which modern application can be made. Andrew Skinner follows with his approach to the Cain and Abel narrative, noting the role of modern scripture in the Book of Moses to help us understand this difficult narrative, while Jared Ludlow provides an overview to Enoch, a figure mentioned once in the Old Testament and yet, who plays a pivotal role in the Book of Moses and later apocryphal writings. Aaron Schade engages with the flood narrative, using modern prophetic teachings to provide greater meaning to the narrative in question.

Section 2 of the book includes four chapters surveying the historical context of the patriarchal period. George Pierce begins by providing an overview of the second millennium BC period of Syro-Palestine, the time period of the patriarchs, demonstrating the value, and challenges, of applying archaeological and historical methodologies to the biblical text. He is followed by Kerry Muhlestein, whose focus is on Egypt during the same period. The next chapter is by Shon Hopkin, who discusses the concepts of covenants and covenant making, particularly in regard to Abraham. John Gee rounds out these chapters by reviewing historical elements related to Abraham’s journeys.

The actual narratives are explored in section 3 of the volume. Avram Shannon discusses the patriarchal narrative while RoseAnn Benson examines the often overlooked narrative of Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and the surprising Latter-day Saint insights that give greater glimpses into this patriarch. We hear again from Aaron Schade, who explores those narratives associated with Isaac and Jacob, particularly examining the difficult narrative of Jacob’s perceived deception of his father. Camille Fronk Olson discusses the other side of the patriarchal narratives—namely, the significant role of the patriarchs’ wives—and in so doing, outlines a greater understanding as to the role of women within the Church today. Finally, John Gee examines the narrative of Joseph through the lens of material culture.

The last section concerns itself with the events of the Exodus. Kerry Muhlestein places the Exodus account within its Egyptian context, as Andrew Skinner and Dan Belnap address the concept of the provocation and the temple in the Sinai events, while Matt Bowen outlines the components of the law of Moses. The volume concludes with Dana Pike, who provides insight into the conquest of Israel as depicted in Numbers, with particular emphasis on the unique narrative of Balaam.

As with any volume, we recognize that we must work within certain limits and page constraints. Thus, we want to be clear that this book is not an exhaustive study of the early biblical narratives but comprises selections of passages or topics that can be difficult to understand. We have had to make judgment calls on what that included. Second, we understand that some may recognize that we are not always trying to break new ground in terms of exegesis, but are rather attempting to synthesize material that may not generally or easily be readily available to many readers. Finally, while we have tried to address some of the more well-known narratives of the early history of Israel, we recognize that there are many other narratives and approaches to those narratives that we have excluded. With that said, we feel that the chapters contained within this volume represent a way to productively integrate academic scholarship into scripture study in a meaningful and uplifting way. In so doing, it is our hope that the volume provides the means by which an audience comprising adherents to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may recognize the value and importance of the Old Testament, even understanding how this volume of difficult scripture indeed still speaks to us today. Indeed, our hope is that through this volume all may develop a love of the Old Testament leading to a lifetime of study and the fulfillment of Joseph Smith’s exclamation: “he who reads it oftenest will like it best!”[2]

—Daniel Belnap and Aaron Schade


[1] While the methodologies purport to be objective, the authors and scholars who engage the methodologies rarely are and therefore bring their own biases to the text. We need to be aware of these preconceived notions when studying any scholarly report or work.

[2] From a discourse given by Joseph Smith on July 2, 1839, in Montrose, Iowa; reported by Wilford Woodruff and Willard Richards. The Elders of the Church encouraged their brethren abroad to continue studying the scriptures and to recognize the omniscience of God in them, for “he that can mark the power of Omnipotence inscribed upon the heavens, can also see His own hand-writing in the sacred volume; and he who reads it oftenest will like it best.” “Letter to the Church, circa March 1834,” p. 142, The Joseph Smith Papers.