The Word of God
Dan Vogel, ed.
The Mormon Christianizing of the Old Testament
Melodie Moench Charles
[p.131] Many of us tend to assume that others, regardless of when or where or how they live, share a similar, if not identical, view of the world with us. Thus many Christians often expect Christian ideas and Christian behavior from the people of the Old Testament. Certainly some of the passages in the New Testament encourage this approach. For example, Jesus in the book of John claimed that the Old Testament scriptures bore witness of him (5:39) and that Abraham “rejoiced to see my day and was glad” (8:56). Peter said Jesus was the prophet Moses had prophesied would come and implied that Moses and all the prophets from Samuel on had understood that Jesus would be the fulfillment of their prophecies (Acts 3:20-24; Deut. 18).
Mormons are particularly prone to “christianize” the Old Testament and to people it with believers like themselves, who hold the same priesthood, believe in the same God, anticipate the same salvation, and practice the same religious rites that they do. LDS president Wilford Woodruff was certain that “all the teachings of the Patriarchs and Prophets have shown us but one gospel.”1 Woodruffs predecessor John Taylor rhetorically asked, “What! do you mean to say then, that all these [Old Testament] men had the gospel? I most assuredly do, for without that they could not have had a knowledge of life and immortality.”2 The Messenger and Advocate, an LDS publication of the 1830s, claimed that “from reflection, we have been forced into the conclusion that the gospel was as well known among [p.132] the ancients as among any other people.”3 Because Mormon scriptures, as well as the LDS temple ceremony, describe an Old Testament people with Christian and Mormon ideas, many Mormons assume that the Old Testament itself describes such practices and beliefs.
What is the basis for this view, and how extensively does Mormonism reinterpret the Old Testament as a document about Christian people? Although John 1 in the New Testament claims that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made,” it does not claim that any Israelites in the Old Testament knew that Jesus created the world. Like the New Testament does, LDS scriptures identify the Word as Jesus, the Only Begotten Son of the Father,4 but Mormon scriptures go further. They tell that Moses was taught that God and his Son together created the world and that Adam also helped in the creation.5
We see hints in Mormon scripture that Adam and Eve were not deceived or tricked by a serpent into committing sin but instead knew that the Fall was a part of the plan of salvation from the first. With a good understanding of the consequences of their actions, our first parents consciously made the right choice to disobey one commandment in order to obey another.6 This was the origin of sin in the world, and all people acquired a “carnal, sensual, and devilish” nature through this act.7 After Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden, they were told to offer sacrifices which they understood as symbols of the future sacrifice of Jesus Christ and were baptized for the remission of sins resulting from their transgression.8 Adam then preached the Atonement and baptism to his descendants; and he and others received the same priesthood we find in the LDS church today.9
Mormon sources claim that others besides Adam were aware of Jesus Christ. The Bible presents a sketchy but tantalizing view of Enoch, who “walked with God and he was not, for God took him” (Gen. 5:24). Mormonism fills in details, saying among other things that Enoch preached a gospel of baptism and repentance and belief in Jesus Christ’s atonement for “original guilt.”10 Although the Bible gives no support for this view, Mormon scripture tells us that prior to the flood Noah, who had a full understanding of the Christian gos-[p.133]pel and had been given the priesthood,11 preached baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. If baptized, the people would receive the Holy Ghost as had their ancestors and would not perish.12
Abraham too held the priesthood according to Mormon sources.13 The biblical promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the sands of the sea becomes, in the Book of Abraham, a priesthood blessing with a figurative cast: those who accept the gospel will also be called the descendants of Abraham.14 John (8:56) in the New Testament and Helaman (8:17-18; RLDS He. 3:50-51) in the Book of Mormon agree that Abraham rejoiced in knowing that Jesus Christ would come. Abraham (3:18-23) was shown that mortal beings are eternal and existed in a pre-mortal state, where the great ones were assigned special earthly roles. Two different pre-mortal spirits offered to help the rest survive their probationary period of mortality (Abr. 3:24-28). Abraham (4) also saw that creation was not the work of one god but rather of a committee of gods thinking and acting in unison.
The Pearl of Great Price describes Moses seeing all that ever was on earth or ever would be as well as much of what was in heaven.15 His account of the council in heaven identifies the two principal characters as Satan and “mine only Begotten” (Jesus) and explains why Jesus’ proposed role in the salvation of humanity was more acceptable than Satan’s (Moses 4:1-4; JST Gen. 3:1-5). The tempter of Eve, just a serpent in Genesis, was really Satan, who prompted Cain’s violent action against his brother Abel and who continues to entice people to do evil.16 Moses clearly understood and preached about Jesus Christ, God’s Only Begotten Son, who not only assisted in the creation of the world but who also would come to earth as a mortal to save humanity from the effects of the fall of Adam.17 Moses knew that the serpent he lifted up in the wilderness symbolized Jesus.18 He also anticipated a resurrection from death and a judgment to determine the state of post-mortal existence.19
Prophecies supposedly available to the Israelites but found only in the Book of Mormon testify of the Messiah in explicit detail. For example, Zenoch prophesied that the Messiah would be lifted up; Neum said that he would be crucified; Zenos claimed that he would be buried in a sepulcher and that three days of darkness would follow, during which time rocks would rend and the earth would groan (LDS 1 Ne. 19:10; RLDS 1 Ne. 5:239-44). (If the Jews of [p.134] Jesus’ time had knowledge of such explicit prophecy, it is hard to imagine them being too blind or stubborn to see that these matched the life of Jesus.)
Not only did these otherwise unknown prophets preach about a messiah, but the Book of Mormon teaches that the Old Testament prophets did also.20 For example, “the prophets” said that the Messiah would be named Jesus Christ and would come to earth 600 years after Lehi left Jerusalem, and some Book of Mormon writers claimed that all the prophets preached about this messiah.21 Twentieth-century Mormon commentators have insisted that “the spirit of prophecy is indeed the testimony of Christ, and every prophet down from Adam has made Christ’s mission on earth the sum and substance to which all else points.”22
Another subject which Mormon sources address is the Law of Moses, meaning all of God’s laws from Exodus to Deuteronomy. Because many Mormons think that the Mormon version of the Law’s origin is found in the Old Testament itself, let us contrast the accounts in the Old Testament and in Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible. In Exodus 34, Moses delivered at least a part of God’s law to the Israelites. Then he went to the mountain to talk to God and returned to find his people worshipping idols. In his anger, he shattered the tablets on which the Law was written. Then “the Lord said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables which thou brakest. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenants, the ten commandments.” Compare this to the same passage in the Joseph Smith translation: “And the Lord said unto Moses, Hew thee two other tables of stone like unto the first, and I will write upon them also, the words of the law, according as they were written at the first on the tables which thou brakest; but it shall not be according to the first, for I will take away the priesthood out of their midst; therefore my holy order, and the ordinances thereof, shall not go before them; for my presence shall not go up in their midst, lest I destroy them. But I will give them the law as at the first, but it shall be after the law of a carnal commandment” (JST Ex. 34:1-2).
Doctrine and Covenants 84 (RLDS D&C 83) buttresses this account. Moses tried to persuade his people to accept the Melchizedek priesthood, which “administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the [p.135] knowledge of God.” The people “hardeneth their hearts” and would not accept it, so the Lord in his wrath “took Moses out of their midst, and the Holy Priesthood also.” So from Mormon scripture, and not from the Bible, comes the notion that the second law God gave to Moses was inferior to the first. God originally gave the complete gospel of Christ to Moses on Mt. Sinai. When Moses returned to God after angrily breaking the tables of the law, God replaced the law he initially gave the Israelites with an inferior law, a law more suited to wicked, weak-willed people. Therefore, the Law of Moses was not given as a blessing or an aid in righteous living but rather as a burden, an oppressive punishment imposed by an angry god because of their wickedness and weakness. It was a law of “performances and ordinances” or “carnal commandments” given because “they were a stiffnecked people, quick to do iniquity and slow to remember the Lord their God.”23
Though the higher law was taken from the Israelites, some gospel teachings, baptism for the remission of sins, and the Aaronic priesthood remained.24 Paul told the Galatians (3:24) that the purpose of the Law of Moses was to point them to Jesus Christ. Mormonism asserts that this was the purpose of the Law for both the Israelites and the Nephites.25 Not only were the sacrifices in the Law “types and similitudes” of the sacrifice of Jesus for sin, but “all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world unto man, are the typifying of [Jesus].”26 The Evening and the Morning Star, the first Mormon periodical, commented that “whenever the Lord revealed himself to man in ancient days, and commanded them to offer sacrifice to him, that it was done that they might look forward in faith to the time of his coming and rely on the power of that atonement for a remission of their sins.”27 According to the Book of Mormon, the Israelites should have understood this.28 They should also have known that the Law by itself never had saving power; obedience to the Law had to be coupled with faith in Jesus Christ.29
Another significant Mormon assertion relevant to an understanding of the Mormon view of the Law is that Jesus Christ is the God of the Old Testament. God the Father created this universe through his son who is also a god.30 The Son of God came to earth as Jesus Christ, taking on a mortal body.31 Jesus, appearing to the Nephites, said that he was the one who gave the Israelites their law and made the covenants with them.32 The Jews were condemned that [p.136] in crucifying Jesus, they crucified their god.33 The Book of Mormon tells us that the Nephites as well as their Israelite ancestors knew that the Lord they worshipped was the Son of God. Mormon writers have assumed that the Israelites who wrote the Old Testament used Jehovah to denote one god and Elohim to denote another.34
Why do Mormon scripture and commentary not match the contents of the Old Testament? Moses (1:41; RLDS D&C 22:24b) learned in the Pearl of Great Price that people would remove important passages from the scriptures he would write. Doctrine and Covenants 6:26 (RLDS D&C 6:12a) explains that there are scriptural records that have been kept back because of the people’s wickedness. The “conspiracy theory” of 1 Nephi 13 (RLDS 1 Ne. 3) tells us that designing and wicked people systematically removed parts of the scriptures which were “plain and most precious” and that originally these scriptures contained “the plainness of the gospel of the Lord.” Jacob 4:14-15 (RLDS Jac. 3:22-26) adds that because the Jews preferred the esoteric to the plain, “God delivered to them many things which they cannot understand because they desired it.” Thus the apparent absence of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament is explained by deliberate deletions or obscurings.
But the differences between Old Testament thought and later Mormon reinterpretations are fundamental and not easily explained away. Much of the core of Old Testament belief is destroyed when Mormon/Christian ideas are imposed upon it. The following distinguishing features of Old Testament theology are relatively consistent and are irreconcilable with Mormon commentary on the Old Testament.
The conception of God is the most significant difference between Old Testament thought and Mormon reinterpretations of it. The Israelite deity was single, not multiple.35 The God of Israel demanded that the Israelites acknowledge no other god, and eventually their theology displayed complete monotheism (Is. 40-55). How then could the righteous Israelite accept the creation account in Mormonism’s Book of Abraham, where “the gods” rather than “God” created their world?
The one God was responsible for everything, both good and evil. As Amos (3:6) said, “Shall there be evil in a city and the Lord hath not done it” (see also Job 2:10). There is no room here for the Christian view of Satan as the prince of this earth, the father of lies, [p.137] the tempter and seducer—the being responsible for evil in the world.36 Satan appears only four times in the Old Testament, each time as one of God’s servants whose function it is to question and test the genuineness of human virtue.37 In no case is he the semi-deity of the New Testament who has a kingdom and great power which he exercises independently of God’s wishes. He is not a rival deity who wants or gets worship from wicked mortals.38
More important, the Israelite God could hardly have a son who exercised power along with him, who was co-creator and governor of the world. Israel’s one God was called Elohim (or God), Yahweh (or the Lord—Jehovah in the KJV), Yahweh Elohim (or the Lord God), or other interchangeable titles. There is no support in the Old Testament for the idea that the titles referred to different beings. If their god were to come to earth as a mortal being (LDS Mos. 13:34; RLDS Mos. 8:13), he would not be in the heavens directing world affairs as well. The true god was beyond destruction or death, and certainly not subject to an agonizing death on the cross (LDS 2 Ne. 10:3; RLDS 2 Ne. 7:5-7). Old Testament theology simply does not allow multiple deities, a devil in charge of evil, or a son of God who is also a god. Yet Mormonism asserts that all of these ideas were understood and taught by Old Testament people (see Moses 1-2; Abr. 4; RLDS D&C 22; JST Gen. 1).
According to the Israelite view, the Law was not an inferior replacement for a gospel they were unworthy to live, a punishment for Israel’s stubbornness, but was instead a feature of God’s covenant with them. He offered them the exalted position as his special people if they would obey his law (Ex. 19:5-8). To the Israelites, the Law was not merely a set of rituals to be mechanically obeyed but also the ethical requirements which formed the moral basis of their society. The Law was a gift and a blessing. If obeyed, it would make them separate, distinct, and holier than any other people (Lev. 19). Obedience to the Law was the means by which the Israelites became acceptable to God and achieved a relationship with him. There is no indication that any kind of baptism was ever a part of the Law or that its sacrifices prefigured Jesus Christ.
The idea of a messiah was not very prominent in the Old Testament, appearing only in the later books. The prophecies about him are vague. Had the Old Testament prophets Haggai (2:21-23) and Zechariah (6:12-15) known, as Book of Mormon people did, the [p.138] exact time of his coming, they would not have assigned the role of messiah prematurely to Zerubbabel and Joshua, both living before 500 B.C. Even Jesus’ apostles only gradually understood that he was the Messiah they had been expecting (Mk. 8:27-33; 9:9, 31-32; Mt. 16:21-28).
What sort of messiah does the Old Testament say they should expect? Old Testament messianic prophecies talk of a king born from David’s lineage, who would establish peace and prosperity similar to that enjoyed in David’s United Monarchy. This king would rule wisely and justly. There would be a return to the conditions of paradise, where plants produced abundantly without human labor and neither men, women, nor beasts did violence to any creature. This ruler would liberate his people from political oppression and would establish an ideal, peaceful, morally governed kingdom.39
This messiah was never described as the creator of the world. He was not the god to whom they prayed or the god who saved them at the Red Sea. He was a righteous mortal who was an instrument of God, not a deity at all.40 No Jew expected his messiah to atone for anyone’s sins or to be crucified and resurrected. As a prominent Old Testament scholar has argued, “A Messiah who suffers and dies as a substitute for all men in the New Testament was unknown in Judaism.”41 The Israelites were told explicitly that human sacrifice was neither necessary nor acceptable to their god.42 A messiah who dies in this fashion would have been unthinkable.
We run into another problem when we look at the Old Testament view of an afterlife. Christian salvation chiefly applies to a post-mortal realm: a resurrection, a judgment, and the righteous dwelling eternally in a heavenly bliss with God and Christ. Jesus’ sacrifice made all this possible. This is the theology of the afterlife held by the Christian Israelites in the Book of Mormon, and Mormon scripture asserts that at least some Old Testament people also believed in this Christian heaven.
The theology presented in the Old Testament itself is unlike this. (The handful of exceptions are all quite late.43) The afterlife is not a state to be joyfully anticipated. All people experience the same sterile and monotonous existence there, sometimes described as a state of sleep. Robert Pfeiffer has summarized references to this afterlife: “‘The sleep of death’ (Ps. 13:3) is more than a phrase: it [p.139] expresses exactly what most ancients regarded as the situation of the shades in Sheol, which is the land of silence (Ps. 94:17; 115:17), forgetfulness (88:12), darkness (Job 10:21-22) and destruction (26:6; Prov. 15:11). The shades know nothing of what befalls their sons on earth (Job 14:21), and they can never come up to the land of the living (7:9): ‘Till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep’ (14:12; cf. Jer. 51:39, 57). The dead know nothing (Ecc. 9:5); ‘there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave …” (9:10).44 The inhabitants of Sheol were thought to be outside the interest and care of the Lord.45 Because the afterlife was a dismal half-existence, Israelites expected to be rewarded for their righteousness or punished for their wickedness here and now. The idea of a redeemer who would facilitate salvation in the post-mortal realms is alien to this view.
Mormon scripture says that all of us are in a fallen state because of Adam’s fall. But in the Old Testament the Fall is never referred to after its first telling.46 Adam’s fall is not an explanation for humanity’s sinful state because in the Old Testament men and women are not inherently sinful. The Israelites were not aware that they had inherited an evil nature; in fact, the Old Testament assessment of humanity’s basic nature tends to be positive. Furthermore, the Law provided people with a way to make atonement for the sins they commit, for example, through sacrifices. If they were obedient, they were in God’s favor. What need then had this people for an atoner to take away the effects of Adam’s sin or their own?
Typically Mormons try to reconcile these views by overlaying the commentary from Mormon scripture and church leaders on the Old Testament. When the two are in conflict, the deletion, conspiracy, or obscurity theory is invoked and the Old Testament is declared inadequate, inaccurate, or incomprehensible. In such contests the Old Testament will almost always be supplanted by a Mormon revision of it. The Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, and church leaders interpret the Old Testament to support a particular viewpoint, just as the writers of the New Testament did. To learn about the Old Testament we must study the Old Testament itself. If we try to “believe in their belief,” to understand the Old Testament as Israelites themselves would have understood it, then we can begin to understand the Old Testament’s contribution to the shape of Western society.
Melodie Moench Charles holds a master’s degree in theology from the Harvard Divinity School. “The Mormon Christianizing of the Old Testament” first appeared in Sunstone 5 (Nov./Dec. 1980): 35-39.
9. Moses 7:1; RLDS D&C 36:1a; Moses 6:67; LDS D&C 84:16; JST Gen 6:70; RLDS D&C 83:2f; LDS D&C 84:17-18; Moses 6:7; Abr. 1:3; RLDS D&C 83:2g-3a; JST Gen. 6:7. See also Harold B. Lee, Address to Seminary and Institute Faculty, “Priesthood,” 17 July 1958, 4-5.
18. LDS He. 8:13-15; RLDS He. 3:46-48. But compare Jn. 3:14 which identifies the serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness as a type of the Son of Man, but does not say that Moses understood that it was.
34. George Reynolds, in The Contributor 3 (Oct. 1881): 16-17; James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1972), 465-66; Boyd Kirkland, “Elohim and Jehovah in Mormonism and the Bible,” Dialogue: A JournaI of Mormon Thought 19 (Spring 1986): 79-93; Boyd Kirkland, “Jehovah as the Father,” Sunstone 9 (Autumn 1984): 36-44.
43. Ezek. 32:21-27 and Is. 14 speak of a separation of the righteous and the wicked in Sheol. Is. 26:19, Dan. 12:2, and Ezek. 37 all speak of a resurrection from the dead. These are all exilic or later.