Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament

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Lightning Strikes Twice: Review of Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament[1] by TB Spackman

In 2006, Deseret Book published Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament to widespread approval.[2] Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament (or WOT), a sequel of sorts, has appeared recently, a few fortuitous months before the Gospel Doctrine calendar changes over to the Old Testament as the course of study. WOT is clearly meant to parallel World of the New Testament, from the title to the layout and organization. However, the Old Testament is not the New, and the three authors of WOT faced a much tougher assignment.

Roughly speaking, the New Testament involves less than 100 years of history, two cultures (Greco-Roman and Israelite/Judaic), and a few languages (Greek, and to a lesser extent, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin). By contrast, the Old Testament covers more than 1000 years of history (not counting the deutero-canonical Apocrypha written in the 400 years between the two testaments), multiple cultural influences and languages (Egyptian, Assyrian/Babylonian, Hittite, “Canaanite”, Persian, and Greek) and nearly 3.5 times the amount of text as the New Testament.[3] A similar treatment of the Old Testament from a scholarly Evangelical perspective easily stretched to five volumes, nearly 7.5 times as many pages, and four times the cost of the WOT.[4] The authors of WOT, well aware of the multiple constraints upon them,[5] have nevertheless given the LDS market one of the best Old Testament volumes in years, which I hope finds its way into the hands of every Gospel Doctrine teacher in January.

WOT begins with a 14-page introduction to the world of the Old Testament, with notes on culture, the scripts,[6] relevant languages and Bible translations (besides the KJV, the authors sometimes cite the NRSV, NIV, and NJPS translations, or translate ancient texts themselves), a glossary of relevant terms (such as stela, Masoretic text, and ostracon), and a chronology. They pointedly remind us that Old Testament religion and culture would be quite foreign to us today and that the Israelites were not simply proto-Mormons in the ancient Near East. For example, an introductory section on the names of God in the Old Testament points out something unknown to many LDS, that the usage of Elohim[7] to indicate the Father and Jehovah the Son or Jesus is one based on “Restoration insight, [and] not the Hebrew Bible as it has come down to us.”[8]

From there, WOT begins with Genesis and goes to the end of the Hebrew Bible, but following the historical instead of canonical order. That is, the books in our Old Testament are not arranged in order of events they depict, or chronological order. If one reads the Old Testament straight through, one jumps around in history. Many of the Old Testament books, separated from each other in the current arrangement, actually depict the same time period, and this is how our authors arrange WOT.  The final scriptural chapters treat Ezra and Nehemiah, with sidebars on Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

Large color pictures, illustrations (some commissioned for this volume), maps, sidebars, charts and clay tablets or papyri of ancient texts liberally sprinkle nearly every page. This has several effects. First, such variety easily holds the interest of the average reader, who might not otherwise read a purely textual book about the Old Testament, typically (but wrongly) held to be a dry subject. Second, such visual aids make the text come alive and help readers understand that the Old Testament is more than words on paper or a theological sourcebook. Third, the often striking foreignness of these visuals help readers understand that the Old Testament existed within a cultural and historical context that is not our own, and that to fully understand it, we need to read it within that context. Brigham Young expressed this principle in a way. “Do you read the scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them?”[9]

For example, the creation accounts of Genesis were written within a particular cultural context, including other Israelite and non-Israelite creation stories; stripped of that context and read as if they were modern texts, they are easily misunderstood. As our authors state,

“the power and significance of these stories [of creation in Genesis] can be best appreciated when they are compared with the ancient creation stories that were known in cultures surrounding ancient Israel. In the last 150 years, archaeologists working in the Near East have uncovered hundreds of thousands of records from the ancient world.  Scholars have identified in these records many examples of creation stories from Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan that give us insight and understanding of the ancient worldviews about creation.”[10]

Holzapfel, Pike, and Seely are far from alone in making these kinds of basic interpretive statements about the Old Testament. Peter Enns, an Evangelical Old Testament scholar trained at Harvard, similarly writes that “both Genesis and Enuma Elish [a Babylonian creation story] ‘breathe the same air.’ Whether the author of Genesis was familiar with the text known to us as Enuma Elish, he was certainly working within a similar conceptual world…. The Genesis account must be understood in its ancient context, and stories like Enuma Elish help us glimpse what that context looked like.”[11]

I once had a conversation with a distant relative who was extremely surprised to learn that the texts of the Hebrew Bible were not the only surviving records from the ancient Near East. Indeed, to counteract just this kind of misconception, our authors introduce the reader to non-Israelite texts such as the Enuma Elish mentioned above, the Sumerian King List, Enki and Ninhursag, the Gilgamesh epic, the Amarna texts, and Ugaritic texts for their contextualizing and explanatory power. Non-biblical Israelite texts that shed light on the Old Testament are included as well, such as the Lachish letters, Gezer calendar and Mesad Hashavyahu inscription. When the authors do not translate these records themselves, the scholarly standard translations are quoted, both Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts (or ANET) and the more recent 3-volume Context of Scripture (or COS).[12]

In between chapters on particular sections of scripture are chapters focused on particular themes instead of passages, on such topics the Abrahamic covenant, the social and physical world of the ancient Near East, and the five books of Moses, with half a page on the Documentary Hypothesis. Another chapter entitled “What Kind of History?” explains that ancient conceptions of the genre of “history” were not like our own today, and introduces the Deuteronomistic History. Scholars have noted that Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings sound very much like Deuteronomy in both vocabulary and motifs, and theorized that whoever was responsible for the final form of Joshua-Kings was steeped in or involved with Deuteronomy.

The volume concludes with several thematic chapters. The first treats the story of the text of the Old Testament, how it was preserved, translated, and the process of canonization, etc. The second, “Rediscovering the World of the Old Testament” briefly summarizes the history of the last 200 years of scholarship. The “rediscovery” of the ancient Near East began with Napoleon invading Egypt in 1798, leading to the discovery and eventual decipherment of the Rosetta Stone and Egyptian language, only the first in a flood of discoveries. The final chapter discusses the influence of Old Testament doctrine, concepts, and phrases upon Joseph Smith and the restoration of the Gospel. A page listing sources and an index conclude WOT.

One issue constantly just below the surface throughout this book is the interaction of different sources of knowledge, namely, modern-day revelation and scripture, and our understanding of the Old Testament achieved through scholarly means. This topic alone could easily fill a lengthy book of its own, and LDS scholars will continue to discuss (and disagree over) this complex topic in its various applications. For some readers, this may be the elephant in the room. Some may wonder why the Joseph Smith Translation or prophetic commentary is not cited more often,[13] whereas others may have the same question about source theory, a dominant and widely accepted theory found in undergraduate textbooks and introductions to the Old Testament.[14] Regardless of one’s views of such theories, it is gratifying to see an introduction, however brief, in a mainstream “popular” LDS book. Prior treatments have not received broad circulation.[15] This topic is but one example of our authors introducing mainstream scholarly theories[16] into the broader LDS consciousness, but in a non-dogmatic way and within a context of faith.

Our authors have struck a fine balance between critical scholarship, revealed LDS doctrine, and the strong strain of LDS tradition. Often, they approach a topic by presenting multiple viewpoints, with sensitivity to all three sources, alternately informing, challenging, and supporting the lay LDS audience. This is perhaps less dogmatic than many readers have come to expect, but proves to be a strength.  In following this approach, Holzapfel, Pike, and Seely exemplify the instructions given to BYU Religion professors.

“Where answers have not been clearly revealed, forthright acknowledgment of that fact should attend, and teachers should not present their own interpretations of such matters as the positions of the Church. Students should see exemplified in their instructors an open, appropriately tentative, tolerant approach to “gray” areas of the gospel. At the same time they should see in their instructors certitude and unwavering commitment to those things that have been clearly revealed and do represent the position of the Church. Teachers should be models of the fact that one can be well trained in a discipline, intellectually vigorous, honest, critical, and articulate, and at the same time be knowledgeable and fully committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, His Church and Kingdom, and His appointed servants.”[17]


[1] Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Dana M. Pike, and David Rolph Seely, Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2009).

[2] See the reviews by Julie Smith at http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2006/10/book-review-jesus-christ-and-the-world-of-the-new-testament/ and Kevin Barney at http://mi.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=19&num=2&id=667&cat_id=149. Many others have commented to me in person.

[3] The KJV NT contains 180,565 words, in comparison to 610,303 in the KJV OT. Numbers generated using Bibleworks 8.

[4] John H. Walton, ed., Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009). This series contains 2,928 pages (vs WOT’s 397) and retails for $250 (street price from Amazon 157.47, in comparison with WOT’s retail of $45.95 and street price of $41.36 from Deseret Book.)

[5] Deseret Book and the LDS market were unlikely to support a footnoted, lengthy and expensive popular treatment of the Old Testament, particularly one that included mainstream but critical scholarly conclusions.

[6] Language is independent of script. Bereshīt bara’ ’elohīm would be an example of Hebrew language, but Roman (English) script.

[7] Or as sometimes spelled by Joseph Smith or his contemporaries to more accurately capture the final long i, eloheem.

[8] Holzapfel, Pike, and Seely, Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament, 17-18. This LDS convention, while it has roots in LDS scripture and liturgy, should probably not be read back either into the Hebrew Bible or Joseph Smith’s day, which may account for the otherwise confusing usage of Jehovah in D&C 109. Note also that Joseph Smith typically used Elohim as a plural.

[9] Brigham Young and John A Widtsoe, Discourses of Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1925), 197-98.

[10] Holzapfel, Pike, and Seely, Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament, 22-23.

[11] Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation- Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005). For those interested in further reading on this topic, I highly recommend Enns, as many of the common Evangelical assumptions and problems he addresses among Evangelicals apply equally to Mormons.

[12] James Bennett Pritchard, ed., Ancient near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3d ed. (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1969). William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, eds., The Context of Scripture, 3 vols. (Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1997).

[13] According to the index, the JST receives only the briefest of mention on two pages (p. 6 and 378), though reference to the Book of Moses appears repeatedly.

[14] John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 47-65. Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament- a Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures (New York: Oxford, 2006), 21-30.

[15] S. Kent Brown, “Approaches to the Pentateuch,” in Studies in Scripture Vol. 3: Genesis to 2 Samuel, ed. Kent P. Jackson and Robert L. Millet (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 13-23. Kevin L. Barney, “Reflections on the Documentary Hypothesis,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33, no. 1 (2000): 57-99.

[16] The nature of historical research inevitably requires that even broadly accepted conclusions about the past based on multiple kinds of evidence will remain “theories.” LDS religious education does a disservice to LDS in not preparing them to deal with these theories. Where and how to do so appropriately remains a question.

[17] http://reled.byu.edu/policies.php

5 thoughts on “Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament

  1. Pingback: OTFTW 1: Out of the Best Books | Faith-Promoting Rumor

  2. onika

    This looks like a very interesting book since it addresses the records of other civilizations. I have discovered from my studies that the writers of Genesis were astrologers. I would like to know why. Here is my evidence:

    The ages of the patriarchs are based on the star cycles and each one is assigned to a star kingdom. Nimrod, the mighty hunter before the Lord, is a reference to the constellation of Orion. The god of Orion is Osiris, who is also Ptah, and I’m sure he has some other names as well. Nimrod, revered by the freemasons for being a great craftsman, is either Osiris or a servant of Osiris. Ptah and Osiris are both creator and craftsman. The Demiurge of the Gnostics is the creator and craftsman. He is a lesser god. His symbol is the serpent. He has the same role as Jehovah. Moses raised the serpent up. The freemasons and our church both have the symbols of the craftsman. The serpent, told Eve to eat the forbidden fruit so she could gain wisdom. Afterward she knew how to procreate. In that sense he would be a creator god. Is the serpent really Jehovah?

  3. onika

    I forgot to add the Mandaeans, a gnostic sect from the Mesopotamia area, call the Demiurge Ptahil. Clearly Ptah and Osiris are the same god as the Demiurge. The Demiurge proclaims he is the only god. They believe Abraham and Moses were false prophets (probably because they worship Jehovah instead of Elohim). It appears to me Jehovah is the same god as Ptah, Osiris, and the Demiurge. The freemasons believe the true name of god is Jehovah Baal Osiris.

  4. Daniel O. McClellan

    Thanks for this insightful review. I was in charge of identifying and gathering images for the book and produced a number of the charts and a couple illustrations. I’m glad to hear you thought that the book was visually meaningful. That was definitely what we were striving for.

    I would contribute one comment to your review. Regarding Elohim as the father of Jehovah, Deuteronomy 32:8-9 is recognized by many scholars as an early manifestation of El’s original distinction from YHWH. In the text YHWH receives a portion of the nations (Israel) as one of the “Sons of Elohim,” according to the Dead Sea Scroll attestation of the verse and the reconstructed Septuagint Vorlage. Psalm 82 continues on this theme, although YHWH is called “Elohim” (in the generic sense of “God”) and El is called “Elyon.” I’m not under the impression that this manifests a proto-Mormon theology, and the terms are all used in a variety of ways throughout the Hebrew Bible, but the idea is there. Anyone interested in reading more on this can consult the following publications:

    Otto Eissfeldt, “El and Yahweh,” Journal of Semitic Studies 1.1 (1956): 29–30; Simon B. Parker, “The Beginning of the Reign of God – Psalm 82 as Myth and Liturgy,” Revue Biblique 102.4 (1995): 532–59; Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 49.

  5. Ben

    Certainly true Dan, but for the majority of the Hebrew Bible, El/elohim/eloah and the tetragrammaton are used interchangeably. The problem arises when LDS assume that the OT is the source of this idea, or reflects it.

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