The texts that Latter-day Saints and other Christians call the Old Testament (differing from scholars, who use Hebrew Bible or Tanakh) is both wonderfully rich and very problematic scripture. Its richness derives from its status as an account of how ancient persons saw the world, the nature of God, and the human condition. These venerable writings contain great wisdom and insight, as well as wonderful plays on words and intricate literary forms. They also contain differing viewpoints from different sources that redactors (editors) placed side by side, unafraid that readers would encounter diverse accounts of everything from the Creation to Hebrew law and God’s actions among human beings. Through the centuries, however, because we in the western world encounter them through translation rather than in their original languages, and because we are largely unfamiliar with the wider traditions of the ancient Near East upon which many of the accounts draw for elements of the stories they tell, we have allowed layers and layers of interpretation to build up, and these additions and attempts to systematize or harmonize with our preferred views have become the dominant forces driving how we read these texts. And most often, we just don’t realize that this is what we are doing. This has led, in some cases, to extremely problematic renderings that lead people to reject important truths discovered by science, to blame women for the negative conditions of this world, or to beliefs about black skin being a curse from God, etc. Or, even if not quite so harmful, it has led to quite tortured attempts to make the books seem inerrant and without disagreement with other parts of the texts, or leading some into numerology or other searches for hidden patterns within the writings that unlocks for them some types of secret knowledge.
If these later overlays were removed as much as is humanly possible, what would we find that the texts reveal about themselves and the worldviews and intentions of the original writers? Would we still find these scriptures as meaningful as we do now due to the assumptions we bring and interpretations we add? Could our relationship to these scriptures change in a positive way if we were to let them speak for themselves and allow the genuine distance between us and these ancient writers to truly become clear to us, giving us breathing room to see that these writings are not “history” in the sense we use that term today, that these are not (nor were they intended to be) scientific texts describing cosmos, earth, nature, or human origins?
In this four-part podcast, two wonderful guides to the Hebrew Bible, David Bokovoy and Tom Roberts, join Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon for the first of an occasional series approaching these important texts, concentrating in the early episodes on Genesis and its key (and most problematic) stories.
Episode 194 concentrates on background into the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, the history of scriptural scholarship and approaches to the texts, including the theories emerging from “source criticism” that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) combine the writings of four different authors or groups–abbreviated as J, E, P, and D–that long after they were written were pulled together into one big text by redactors, as well as the climate within Mormonism and wider Christianity for information of the nature that is being shared in this series.
Episode 195 delves into the first of two separate creation accounts in Genesis 1–3, attributed to the P writer. What is this author’s view of God, the cosmos, and the ordered world and how it came to be?
Episode 196 explores the second creation account, attributed to the J writer. How is God different in this story from the God of the first account? How does this writer see the origins of human beings and why God created them? Does this writer see the snake that tempts Eve as (or under the influence of) “Satan,” as so many have interpreted it to be?
Episode 197 continues with the J account, covering the curses God places on the humans, on the ground, and on Cain following his murder of his brother, Abel.
In all episodes, the panelists maintain awareness of the Mormon Matters audience and the wider LDS and Christian traditions that wrestle with these texts and whose members are wary of scholarly approaches to them. Always they provide touchstones for how one might bring some of the insights from discussions like this into one’s congregation, as well as into one’s own spiritual life.
After listening, please share your thoughts in the comments section below!
David Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis–Deuteronomy (Greg Kofford Books, 2014)