By Kerry Muhlestein
Editor’s Note: To read the companion article, “Symbolic Action: A Key to Understanding the Old Testament,” click here.
For many Latter-day Saints the Old Testament is a strange book they feel they should love and learn from; yet it both draws LDS readers in and repels them at the same time. This creates an uncomfortable feeling because they feel they should fully embrace this book of scripture, yet they find themselves holding it at arm’s length. They experience a small degree of guilt for not feeling holding it dear and because the text causes them to wonder how the God of the Old Testament can seem so different than the God they are familiar with in the Book of Mormon or New Testament.
As I end my twentieth year of teaching the Old Testament at a collegiate level, I have come to understand some of the things most LDS readers are missing as they study this blessed book of scripture. I have found that with just a little bit of help members of the Church enter into a love affair with the Old Testament that not only helps them learn valuable lessons, but gives them a renewed picture of and relationship with God. For these people the Old Testament becomes one of the most powerful tools they have in their attempt to draw closer to their Father. I yearn to help more people have this blissful experience. Because Meridian Magazine shares this desire, we will partner to create a regular column that will help readers get what they should out of the Old Testament. In this column I will share what I have found are the most important keys for not only understanding the Old Testament, but also for drawing power and joy from its amazing pages.
The first key is to understand that the message of the Old Testament is a message of love, mercy, and hope. Those are not the themes most people think of when they think of the Old Testament.
Understanding this theme is so important that I have written a book, Return Unto Me, about it. For many the book has helped them to see this message and it has been life changing. One reader emailed me and told me that just before beginning the book “I was wondering if God really remembered me, [such a] small and insignificant person, among spirits without number whom he has created. As I have read, I have been so encouraged and enlightened. My whole mindset has changed.”
Most people are surprised that this type of experience would happen while reading a book about the Old Testament. There are many reasons for misconceptions about the Old Testament but I have found that the biggest reason is that readers focus on one part of story, and not the whole story. Let me give one example of what I mean.
Some people are shocked by the story of Miriam being struck with leprosy. In Numbers 12, Aaron and Miriam accuse Moses of taking too much power upon himself and not sharing leadership with them enough. In many ways Israel was going through what the LDS church would go through during Joseph Smith’s days. Both groups had experienced a marvelous outpouring of communication and miracles from God. Many people in both groups had received a tremendous amount of inspiration and direction from God. In both cases this caused many people to feel that there was no essential difference between the chosen Prophet and themselves. They knew firsthand that God would indeed speak to all of them. They did not yet see that God would speak for all of his people through only one person. Because they did not yet know this, Miriam and Aaron challenged Moses. The Lord answered their challenge with a symbolic action.
Understanding the language of symbolic action is another very important key to understanding the Old Testament. Symbolic action will be discussed further in a future column. For now, let us just concentrate on the storyline. God showed that Miriam and Aaron were wrong in their challenge by striking Miriam with leprosy. As a result she had to withdraw from the camp of Israel.
For many people this is a shock. The answer seems so dramatic, so overblown, so severe. Reader after reader gets stuck in this part of the story and comes away feeling like they are dealing with a harsh, easily angered, unforgiving God. It hurts to think of God this way. It seems contradictory to how we usually picture him. It can even cause fear as we wonder how He may react to things we do.
All of this comes from not looking at the whole story. What we forget is that Miriam was quickly healed. Under the Law of Moses, after being healed she still had to wait outside the camp of Israel during a period of purification. Israel did not move on without Miriam. They stopped. They waited for her. After a week Miriam had been healed and had been fully reintegrated into the House of Israel, taking up her former position of full fellowship with Israel.
When we look at this full story we don’t see a tale of an angry God. Instead we see a God of patience and mercy. When someone had a problem he punished them in a way that would teach them, immediately accepted their repentance, healed them, and fully restored them as if it had never happened. He and his people did not move on without her. They did not hold it against her at any time. They waited and restored. That is the kind of God that gives me hope in my moments of silliness and sin. That is the kind of God that will bring me home to Him even after I have been foolish, slothful, or wayward. That is the kind of God we see in the Old Testament if we will just look at it with more open eyes.
Let us look at another example, the example that seems more wrathful than any other: the Flood. In this story God wiped out almost the entire human race. He speaks of coming out in “hot displeasure” and “fierce anger” (Moses 7:34).
And what a catastrophic anger it was. With the exception of eight souls, every man, woman and child on the earth was killed in that flood.
It is tempting to view this as the work of a vengeful God.
We must again look at the larger picture. Let us first look at the general idea of how God works with us. As a father, I am often slow in figuring out things that others learn more quickly than I do. I think my children are typical in that when I have told them they have done something wrong they are often mad at me. I usually try to reach out to them in extra love as soon as this happens, but typically they do not want to reach back to me.
With one of my youngest, I have finally learned something. If I just reach my hand out to hold hers, she won’t take it. But if I leave it sitting there next to hers, after a while she will reach back out and take hold of it; suddenly we are both okay again. It is a wonderful feeling. It also helps me understand how much God is always trying to reach out for us and how silly we sometimes are in not wanting to take His offered hand. This kind of big picture helps us understand the Old Testament. Let’s keep it in mind as we go through the story of the flood.
As we think of what seems to be such a vengeful story, we must remember all that had happened before it. It helps somewhat to remember that all those who were righteous had already been taken up to be with God. It also helps to remember that Noah preached to these people for 120 years trying to get them to repent and avert this crushing blow (see Moses 8:17). But still, this all seems so vengeful.
We can understand it even more if we remember the added insight we get from the vision shown to Enoch as recorded in the Book of Moses (the Joseph Smith Translation of the first part of Genesis).
Enoch sees that God weeps when He looks at the people He will destroy in the flood (Moses 7:28).
Enoch asks how a being as amazing as God could weep. God then explains that these are His children and that when He sees their misery (apparently misery they bring upon themselves and misery they will suffer as a result of His punishment) that it causes Him great sorrow. He allows Enoch to feel just a little of how much god loves these poor people, and it causes Enoch to weep and move the entire heavens because of the depth of His feeling (Moses 7:41).
Yet even this is not the whole story. We learn from that conversation with Enoch, from Peter, and also from Joseph F. Smith, that even the flood was not the end of the story for those people. When they died in the flood, God put them in a special part of Spirit Prison. There they waited until Jesus Christ himself was in the Spirit World and organized missionary work, beginning with them.
Do you see how that changes the story? God loved these wicked children of His so much that He was pained beyond our comprehension to see them suffer. He worked with them in this life until it was clear that they were not going to change. Then He moved them into the next life, and worked with them there, sending His own son to begin the work. God has never stopped trying to help these wicked children. He is never done trying to get them to repent and return to Him. This is not a God of vengeance! This is a God of unending patience, a God of enduring love, a God of boundless mercy. No matter how long it takes, no matter who He has to send, no matter where his children are, God will keep working with them, trying to get them to become the kind of beings that can experience godly joy and happiness. That is the message of the Old Testament! That is the message we can find in its pages if we just know how to look.
If we will carefully search the stories of the Old Testament, we will find that they never end. Every story is followed by another, and the story is still going on. For every seeming act of vengeance we see a following act of mercy. There are several elements that will help us more fully understand the vengeful acts. We will discuss these in future columns, and I more fully elaborate on it in my book. But for today’s reading, we are concentrating on seeing the mercy in the Old Testament. When the Lord tells us to “reprove betimes with sharpness” and then show “an increase of love” (D&C 121:43), He is speaking of something He has done again and again. He knows whereof He speaks.
For example, He punished the children of Israel in the wilderness. Then He raised up a righteous generation who trusted Him enough to come into the Promised Land. He helped them conquer the Promised Land, where they promptly forgot Him and turned to idolatry. Similarly, when the Kingdom of Judah had become too wicked they were destroyed by Babylon. There they searched after God, and He accepted them back. He prepared a way for them to return to Him, and then to return to their homeland.
He spoke of this in a beautiful vision to Zechariah. In this vision He compared His chosen people to their high priest, whom Zechariah saw in vision. The high priest was filthy and unworthy. Yet God cleansed him, giving him a clean, new raiment and placing upon him a mitre. This represented God’s willingness to cleanse His people and bring them back to Jerusalem. It also represents God’s willingness to forgive and cleanse me and you, to bring us back to Him, no matter how filthy we have become. That is the God of the Old Testament! That is a God I yearn to be with, a God I revel in, a God I seek. My comfort comes from seeing how often He takes a wayward, backsliding people, and brings them back to Him.
As you read the Old Testament, look for this sequence.
You will see God punishing a people who need correction. You will then see Him work with them and give them another chance.
They will return to Him, do well, and then fall away again. He will again punish them, and the whole cycle starts over again. It is similar to the pride cycle we see in the Book of Mormon. Even there the story has not ended. Book of Mormon writers are as emphatic as Biblical writers in declaring that God continues to work with His people. Some may have been destroyed, but a remnant will come back to a loving God who continues to reach after them and plead with them to return unto Him.
When we find this God in the Old Testament, we will find a God who will accept us back no matter what we have done. When we find that kind of God, we will find a sense of peace and comfort that can see us through anything. With that kind of peace and comfort, we are enabled to push forward in all the difficulties of life secure in the knowledge that we will be able to return unto Him. Finding God in the Old Testament, in many ways, enables us to find God in the hereafter. And isn’t that what we all want?
“The Lord will take us back, He will make us into such beings.The oft-repeated plea to return to Him, the never-ending willingness to bring us home, the incessant extension of grace and second chances pervade the Old Testament and should pervade our lives, filling us with joy. No matter how often we have messed up, regardless of how far we backslide, however weak and foolish we are, irrespective of how much we have struggled and continue to fail in our strivings, He can make us into a new, light-filled, perfect creature capable of unfathomable joy.”
Kerry Muhlestein is the author of the following books on the Old Testament. Click on the images to learn more.
 Kerry Muhlestein, Return Unto Me (American Fork: Covenant Communications, 2013), 124.