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How do Mormons teach the Old Testament?

As Mormons start 2014 and turn to a new Gospel Doctrine topic, let's explore ways we can teach the Old Testament more honestly and effectively.

Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Teacher's Manual-35570000A week from Sunday, the LDS adult curriculum will cycle back to the Old Testament, one of four scripture topics that rotate on a four-year track. I love it that we Mormons spend an entire year on the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, and that we take it seriously as scripture that should be meaningful for our lives.

But of course there are ways that we could teach it more effectively and honestly. In the newest Mormon Matters podcast, I joined with USU professor Phil Barlow (author of Mormons and the Bible, a modern classic recently reissued by Oxford University Press) and Carrie Miles (a scholar of business and organizational psychology whose international development work has involved teaching the Bible in various cultures) to discuss the coming year and teaching from the Gospel Doctrine manual. As Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon put it:

We have a dual challenge: (1) to try to be as faithful as possible to the scriptural text and the context in which it was written and the people who lived in those places and times, while (2) still honoring in some way the Christian and LDS overlays that have become deeply ingrained in ours and others’ faith journeys and worldviews—framings and understandings that can only generally handle grafting in a few new pieces at a time.

Some of the questions we address include:

  • How can teachers open up discussion beyond literalist readings of the Old Testament without damaging their students’ faith?
  • How do we present passages like Ezekiel 37, which have specifically Mormon interpretations (the stick of Judah, etc.) but also an older, richer history within the context of Israel’s story of exile and redemption? Is it possible to be faithful to multiple understandings of a prophecy or text?
  • What outside sources (commentaries, interpretive works, biblical translations) would be helpful for GD teachers to consult as they prepare their lessons and learn more about the OT?
  • How can we honor women such as Deborah who do not get their due in the GD manual?
  • How can we move beyond the Mormon tendency to assume that religion in the OT was a prototype of our own religious practice today — including the ideas that Solomon’s temple was “just like” LDS temples today or that a biblical prophet was “just like” a modern one?

That last question arose from an experience I had many years ago, before I had even converted to Mormonism, and a missionary exclaimed to me that the Washington, D.C. temple was exactly like Solomon’s temple. I didn’t respond to her, because she seemed a very sweet person, but I wanted to say, “Really? You guys are sacrificing animals in that temple? What ELSE are you doing in there?” But it certainly caused me to think about appropriate ways to help Latter-day Saints understand more about the Old Testament without simply appropriating it for our own uses.

I hope you’ll give the podcast a listen. As Dan sums it up, the overall questions we’re trying to explore here is, “What riches does the Old Testament possess that would be wonderful to convey even if they might complicate current LDS assumptions?”