A Year to Study the First Testament of Christ

Latter-day Saint course of gospel study for 2006 is the Old Testament – the first Testament of Jesus Christ. This book of prophetic voices from the past prefigured the coming Messiah. No matter how familiar we are with its covenants, Hebrew roots or ancient symbolism, the commentaries below remind us in a sublime way that there is always more to learn when it comes to God’s word.

Below are three newly published works that will enhance Old Testament study. They are for readers familiar with Old Testament stories, seeking deeper understanding, and for the more serious scriptural student wanting a careful and extensive technical discussion of Old Testament texts and writings.

Paul Y. Hoskisson wrote, “All of us can use a little stretching once in a while” (Sperry Symposium Classics, The Old Testament, 2005). So wherever you are in your study, pick an aid that will stretch you – that will fuel your interest in this foundational record. The Old Testament supplies the groundwork for later revealed scripture. To more fully comprehend all scripture, we must first understand the original law, its types, and covenants.

Gospel Doctrine and Sunday school teachers will find the commentaries below helpful for lesson preparation.

Prophets, Priests and Kings
By Andrew C. Skinner

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I enjoy Andrew Skinner’s work. I think this is one of his best books yet. Skinner, professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University, writes, “the most poignant and visible symbols of the Messiah were living symbols… whose callings, speech, and actions mirrored Christ’s, those who were themselves anointed… to perform their special duties in imitation of the Anointed One to come in the meridian of time” (7). Who were these living symbols? Prophets, priests and kings of the Old Testament.

In ancient Israel, three groups of people were anointed to perform responsibilities. “Prophets were anointed to their callings” (usually by their predecessor), “Priests were anointed to their office” (as outlined in Exodus 40:15), and “Kings were anointed by the prophets” (7-8). Skinner explains, “Jesus Christ, the Anointed One, fulfilled all three roles of prophet, priest and king, and even more” (8). As the words of the hymn declare, Jesus is our ultimate Prophet, Priest and King.

Skinner helps us see how the Old Testament consistently points to the Savior. For starters, examine the life of Adam. The Fall gave life to all humanity. Christ gave spiritual and eternal life to all humanity. “The actions of both Adam and Jesus Christ gave life to the entire human family, each in his proper order, and each inextricably linked to the other” (10).

Think of other figures in the Old Testament. Skinner will help you identify their similarities to the Messiah. “To experience what Jesus himself experienced is, by definition, a similitude” (13). You will see how the brothers of Joseph (of Egypt), while attempting to destroy Joseph’s life, actually brought about their own salvation. This is the same for Christ’s enemies. Little did they know His death would mean their redemption. Joshua led God’s people to the Promised Land as the Messiah leads the way to the eternal land of promise. David, both shepherd and king, possessed great courage as “a gatherer and a uniter” (77). The parallels to the Savior are obvious. Isaiah, like Jesus, ministered in a time of political unrest, spiritual apostasy and called for a reformation of society. The similitudes are abundant – Elijah, Hezekiah, Jonah, Esther, Deborah, even Cyrus (a Gentile king) demonstrate attitudes, roles and actions that mirror the life of the Savior.

But Skinner’s book is not just about Old Testament figures. It is about us. He reminds us that all disciples of Jesus Christ must at some point offer sacrifice “in similitude of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ” (14). “All disciples of Jesus Christ, like Adam, must become likenesses of their Master, and their lives must point to him” (14). When we take the Savior’s name upon ourselves, we become a similitude of Christ. Additionally, Skinner makes the point that the Lord said the celestial kingdom would be populated with similitudes of Jesus Christ (D&C 138:11-13).

So we face a challenge. “Our challenge is to take the lessons taught in the ancient written testimonies and use them to become more Christlike… Perhaps the greatest lesson on types and similitudes is the one which some of us find the most difficult to accept, but by not accepting it, we rob ourselves of the true picture of our own relationship and similarity to God: We too are similitudes of the Messiah” (136).

Prophets, Priests and Kings is a page-turner, if a doctrinal commentary can be such. I was fascinated, not only by what I learned about the men and women of ancient days, but also about myself.

The Pearl of Great Price: A Verse by Verse Commentary
By Richard D. Draper, S. Kent Brown, and Michael D. Rhodes

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This is a fantastic, nitty-gritty commentary on the Pearl of Great Price – scripture of inestimable value, as its name implies. Yet, Hugh W. Nibley said sometimes we treat it “more or less like a convenient bit of pocket money, a ready fund of occasional texts to be dipped into.” “But,” Nibley continues, [The Pearl of Great Price] “is capable of conveying knowledge of undreamed of scope and significance.”

The Pearl is my favorite standard work. It gives us insight to our own divine nature, the heavens and God’s awareness of our potential. But I have never tackled these revelations word by word. To do so has been more than amazing. Studying with this commentary has been marvelous, expansive, a loaded learning experience. Sometimes I felt as if I couldn’t take it in fast enough.

In the introduction, Richard Draper uses the word “mining” to explain the way the authors delved into the Pearl – word by word, verse by verse, chapter by chapter. This has never been done before. Plenty of good material on the Pearl exists, mostly about specific topics or themes. But no study of the actual text itself has been done. So “mining” is the perfect way to explain this effort – a “mining” of “the material in its context” to expose the riches of this priceless book so readers can more fully understand, explore and enjoy its doctrines. If you are looking for a study aid that will really break the Pearl down for you – this is it.

Richard Draper, Kent Brown and Michael Rhodes are experts in ancient scripture, with Rhodes having unique expertise in Egyptology. Three more worthy authors could not have collaborated on such a project. Their work is detailed, clean, and brilliantly motivating. Scholarly? Yes – but surprisingly readable and engaging.

The book begins with an enlightening background on the Pearl of Great Price, how it came to be. Published in Britain, largely due to the efforts of Apostle Franklin D. Richards. I learned details I had never known about the book’s genesis. Immediately following, is a background on the book of Moses, after which, actual study of the text begins. Each chapter starts with an introduction, followed by inclusion of the actual text without numbered verses. Expanded notation from the text supplies the remainder of the chapter. Each verse is taken apart, almost to its every phrase. For instance, for Moses 1: 2 the following note explains the phrase, “and [Moses] saw God face to face”:

[2] saw: Sight is the basis for witness or testimony; see 1 John 1:1-3; 3 Nephi 11:15 (“did see with their eyes”).

face to face: The implied intimacy is no small thing; this phrase may imply an embrace or touch, that is, face next to face (see the reference to touching in Abraham 3:11-12). The phrase also occurs in Moses 1:31 (20).

Consider another note from Moses 1:15 when Satan comes to test Moses after intimate conversation with the Lord:

[15] thy glory… is darkness unto me: The passage plainly affirms that Satan’s coming has brought a perceptible darkness. The two handwritten manuscripts use the term “blackness”. (26)

These verse-by-verse notations give you an idea of how detailed, yet instructive the commentary can be. After the above notations, authors issue a final Comment to wrap up the section. For example, at the end of Moses 1 we read, “To each person who seeks divine light, darkness may also come in one form or another – either before or after, according to these models – to test whether that person can stand more of the light” (29).

Verses are illuminated within context, using both ancient and modern sources. When helpful, Hebrew roots and words are given, references to other ancient texts are offered, and modern perspectives included. I found myself leaping around the standard works, looking up fantastic cross-references. The study was delightful.

As you move through the Pearl with this study guide you will find verses building on each other – what you learn from a Hebrew root in one verse will bear light on the next. After a certain phrase is explained, including the reason for its usage, other verses, similar in language will come alive in new ways.

In-depth commentary on the family of Adam and Eve, Seth and Enoch, Enoch’s visions, Noah and the Flood, the Creation, Abraham, Abraham’s visions, the Facsimiles in the book of Abraham, Joseph Smith – Matthew, Joseph’s History and the Articles of Faith is included and explored.

I can’t say enough about this book by Draper, Brown, and Rhodes. It is a must-have for the serious scriptural student. As Elder Richards wrote in 1851 of the Pearl, [it is] “not particularly adapted nor designed as a pioneer of our faith to nonbelievers”, but as the authors conclude – it is for those with strong testimonies who wish to “defend the holy faith by becoming possessors of it” (Preface to the Pearl of Great Price, 1851).

Sperry Symposium Classics – The Old Testament
Edited by Paul Y. Hoskisson

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Once again, Sperry Symposium Classics has put together a stellar book of lectures. “They represent some of the best Latter-day Saint commentary that has been produced on the Old Testament” (viii). Since some themes in the past have been broad while others have been fairly narrow, Paul Y. Hoskisson, editor, includes a list of all published lectures since 1978 in the back of the book and encourages serious students to avail themselves of the entire series.

The book offers accessible reading to all Latter-day Saints, although a few of the chapters present material that is a bit more technical. Authors include Russell M. Nelson, Robert Millet, Andrew Skinner, Kent Brown, Catherine Thomas, Hugh Nibley, Terry Ball, and Richard Draper, to name a few.

Topics range widely. I will mention several. Isaiah’s words, the book of Haggai, covenant and redemption, Elijah’s mission, Melchizedek, the law of Moses, the Abrahamic test, Jacob in God’s presence, provocation in the wilderness, and Pharoah’s introduction to Jehovah. “Some authors discuss the Old Testament itself, others offer explanations and interpretations, and still others use the Old Testament as a springboard to discuss Restoration Theology” (vii).

I have included only one excerpt. It is from Terry B. Ball’s lecture on Isaiah and the Great Arraignment. Ball gives us a helpful biography on the man Isaiah and the people of his day. “When we think of an Old Testament prophet, we may picture a humble, simple man, one living in the wilderness and being fed by ravens like Elijah the Tishbite, or perhaps a gatherer of sycamore fruit and a herdsman like Amos. Isaiah, however, seems to have been a man of relatively high social station who could find audience with kings (see, for example, Isaiah 37; 38:1)… the complexity and beauty of his writings, complete with all the poetic elements of metaphor, parallelism, and elevated language, reflect his station as a well-educated man” (197).

Ball then explains some of the spiritual maladies afflicting Israel during Isaiah’s ministry. The genius is that Christ commanded us to study the words of Isaiah (see 3 Nephi 23:1). Are we not at risk for a similar spiritual “diagnosis”? Read Ball’s explanation of this verse from the first chapter of Isaiah:

The ox knoweth his owner,

and the ass his master’s crib:

But Israel doth not know,

my people doth not consider.

(Isaiah 1:3)

“Isaiah seems to be suggesting a hierarchy of intelligence and obedience among these creatures. First is the ox, smart enough and obedient enough to know its master, whom it should obey and to whom it should look for guidance. Next is the ass, which may not know its master but at least knows where to look for the food its master provides. Last is Israel; these people know comparatively nothing concerning their master or where to receive sustenance. To make matters worse, not only do they not know these things but apparently they do not even care: “my people doth not consider.” The message to Israel is vivid. They are so spiritually bankrupt that God considers them less responsive than even domesticated animals” (198).

Ball’s essay was one of my favorites – candid, straightforward with valuable information. But Sperry Symposium collections, in general, are not light reading. You can read a lecture here and there, however, and feel like you jumped into something deep and tantalizing without committing a lot of time. To stir your scripture study out of routine or monotony, snack on a few essays from this collection.

Other books published for this year’s Old Testament study, not included in this review, are Old Testament for Latter-Day Saint Families, edited by Thomas R. Valletta. Click here to read the review. And The Savior and the Serpent by Alonzo L. Gaskill – an exploration into the Fall, its misinterpreted events, and how we can see the Creation story as our own. Gaskill is a convert to the Church and currently teaches in the department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University.