Yet, some Church members may approach such a course with some trepidation.
“There’s no question that the Old Testament is an exciting thing to study, but many of the Church members don’t think so,” observed Brother Russell T. Osguthorpe, Sunday School general president. “I keep thinking, ‘Why?’”
Brother Osguthorpe and his counselors in the Sunday School general presidency, Brother David M. McConkie and Brother Matthew O. Richardson, discussed the course in a recent Church News interview.
“Probably one of the main reasons is we feel less familiar with it. We feel that it’s harder to understand than other volumes of scripture.”
He said that if he felt that way as a learner, he would take it as a personal challenge to determine how to better understand this book of scripture.
“And if that means talking with others, studying with supplements, whatever it might be, I would do it to help me gain a deeper, better knowledge of the Old Testament.”
Noting that there are multiple doctrines that could be taught in any one lesson from the Old Testament, Brother Osguthorpe cautioned against trying to cover too much in a single lesson.
“If you try to do that as a teacher, you are doomed to having problems,” he said.
Instead, he explained, a teacher should focus on a single doctrine and bring in other scriptures to illuminate it.
“But have it be rooted in the Old Testament,” he said. “Thus, people can relate more easily to it and learn what they need to learn.”
Brother McConkie spoke of the value of the study aids that were incorporated into the LDS editions of the scriptures in 1978, including footnotes, cross references, the Topical Guide and selected passages from the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.
“When the Church did that, it was one of the most important things to have happened, certainly in our lifetimes, and probably in this dispensation,” he remarked.
The study aids tie the Standard Works together as a unit to augment one another in teaching and clarifying gospel precepts, he said.
Brother Osguthorpe said Church members have what a friend of his characterized as “an embarrassment of riches” in the array of scriptures that are available to them. “What that means is, if you’re having trouble understanding, say, Isaiah, there’s help on the way. And the help is right there in those footnotes. That’s why we have these additional books of scripture, to help understand these principles of the gospel.”
Brother Richardson said it is unfortunate when members overlook that help and go to published commentaries.
“I’m not saying those are bad. But there is great power when we use scripture to help us understand scripture.”
Brother Richardson said there are dramatic stories in the Old Testament that can give modern readers insights into the day-to-day challenges they encounter in their own lives.
“These were inspiring stories, in many cases. They are heart-wrenching stories in other cases. We’re seeing the pinnacle of man and also the lowest elements of man. And we see those things in our lives today. The question is, how do we take these stories and apply them to benefit our lives?”
Brother McConkie added, “We’re an Old Testament church. This is illustrated by the fact that the powers and keys we profess to have today were turned to the Prophet Joseph Smith by ... Elijah Elias, Abraham.
“The story that runs through the Old Testament and connects everything is the story of a covenant people, of God’s covenant with them and how it affected their lives and what happened when they violated those covenants.”
He said the Old Testament contains the story of the everlasting covenant of God.
Brother Richardson said he has been in Israel many times, where he has observed how Israelis educate their young people by taking them to historical sites and telling the scriptural stories that transpired at those sites.
“They say, ‘It’s not just a great story, but this is who we are,’” he said. “I think, as Latter-day Saints, we can do the same thing. We’ve just finished our study in Sunday School of the Doctrine and Covenants. We’ve looked at our history as Latter-day Saints and, now, by studying the Old Testament, we can see the foundation of God’s people from ancient times to the present day.”
Brother Osguthorpe emphasized a team approach in the study of the Old Testament whereby the teacher invites individual learners in the class to do certain things in the class to help edify everyone, much as a foreman at a construction site directs the work of craftsmen with their various skills in the building of a house.
“We can edify one another,” he said. “We can build each other up, and each one has something different to offer. One might have been a lifelong student of Isaiah. Another might know about the children of Israel. The teacher thinks about how to invite these individual people to make their contributions.”
The teacher directs the discussion by explaining the doctrine and then invites individual class members to build on that doctrine, Brother Osguthorpe explained.
“And, this is why a teacher can’t effectively prepare a lesson during sacrament meeting,” Brother McConkie added. “I say that facetiously, but the reality is that, as a teacher, you have to start a week ahead of time. You read through the material, you read the scriptures, you pray and ponder, and you think about your class.”
“And it might be just one doctrine you focus on in that lesson,” Brother Richardson added.
“You don’t have to teach it all,” Brother McConkie responded, “so you can be a brand-new member of the Church and can still succeed.”
“That is important,” Brother Osguthorpe said. “You don’t have to be a long-time student of the Old Testament to teach it effectively.”