Let’s say that you learned to cook by watching others and that you’ve never picked up a cookbook or seen a cooking show. Could you become an excellent cook? Of course you could. But you would be limited by the repertoire of your mentors. And you’d also be the inheritor of their mistakes–and you probably wouldn’t even realize that they were mistakes.
Similarly, most Latter-day Saints interpret the scriptures without reference to commentaries, especially commentaries written by non-LDS biblical scholars. This constitutes a missed opportunity to expand one’s repertoire of scriptural understanding and to avoid perpetuating the mistakes of one’s progenitors. I cannot take credit for for this position or the cooking analogy; Elder Oaks said,
Latter-day Saints know that learned or authoritative commentaries can help us with scriptural interpretation, but we maintain that they must be used with caution. Commentaries are not a substitute for the scriptures any more than a good cookbook is a substitute for food. (When I refer to â€œcommentaries,” I refer to everything that interprets scripture, from the comprehensive book-length commentary to the brief interpretation embodied in a lesson or an article, such as this one.) [Dallin H. Oaks, â€œScripture Reading and Revelation," Ensign, Jan. 1995, 7]
He goes on to note that commentaries are much less valuable than the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I agree completely. But I think his cookbook analogy is just about perfect. Of course you can cook without one, but if you are little bored with Wednesday night=porkchops, then a new cookbook can jump start your culinary adventure. The best cooks don’t adhere slavishly to cookbooks or regard their authors as demigods, but consider them as jumping off points for their own creativity and adventures. I would hope we could regard commentaries the same way. Unfortunately, LDS culture assumes that non-LDS commentaries will contain so much material that is contradictory to the Restoration that they will not be worth reading or, worse, they will destroy faith. This simply isn’t the case. I’ve read dozens of commentaries and I’d wager that less than 2% of the material contradicts LDS teachings (and: if you don’t read about Genesis 3, substantially less than that!). The majority of the text will enrich your understanding of the scriptures and help you realize new insights that will enhance your appreciation of the text and bolster your faith in the essential truths of the gospel. I’d like to give some examples of the kind of material that you’ll find in a good commentary. (My examples focus on Genesis 4-5 only because that’s what I’m working on right now.)
Identification of Echoes of Other Scriptures
When the Lord God is speaking to Eve after the fruit has been eaten, he says, “thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Genesis 3:16). In the very next chapter, using almost identical language, but speaking to Cain, the Lord says, “if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him” (Genesis 4:7). What did the author want you to understand by presenting those two statements of the Lord in virtually identical language? What do these two stories have in common–and how are they different? (In fact, there is a whole list of ways in which Genesis 4 appears to be an amplification of Genesis 3. It encourages us to ponder connections between the coat of skins and the mark of Cain, between the forbidden fruit and not having regard for the offering, etc.)
In the KJV, Genesis 4:7 reads, “sin lieth at the door.” ‘Lieth’ makes me think that sin is lounging around, present, yes, but perhaps taking the afternoon off. A good commentary will tell you that “crouching” is a much better translation and that there is a cognate word in Akkadian that refers to a type of demon. What an evocative image! I could share that with a class (of any age level or experience), ask them to visualize sin “crouching,” and then ask them to think about what the Lord is warning Cain (and, by extension, us) about. We could discuss how we protect ourselves against something that is crouching in wait for us.
Genesis 4:17-24 presents Cain’s genealogy (i.e., of descendants). They are known for creating new technology. (Or: for inventing civilization: cities, music, metalworking, domesticating animals, etc.) Of course, Cain’s line is suspect. What does this tell us about Genesis’ view of human creations? How is that relevant to our understanding of human accomplishments?
Another example: while there is great disagreement among the extant ancient versions over the numbers used as the ages in Genesis 5, the majority have Methuselah dying either in the year of the flood (!) or 14 years later. Which is more likely: That he is part of the unrighteous who dies in the flood or that he is on the ark but not mentioned?
We pretty much skip Genesis 5 because we all know genealogies are boring. (This would be a good example of one of the errors that we can inherit by only learning through mentors!) The comparison of Adam’s line through Cain (chapter 4) and Adam’s line through Seth (chapter 5) is instructive and can easily be used for devotional purposes. In each case, there are ten generations given with the final generation listing three sons. Cain’s line, as noted above, is known for human accomplishments. Nonesuch is mentioned in Seth’s line. What is highlighted there is the begetting of the next generation (important enough that the age of the father is always noted). In other words, the unrighteous line creates things while the righteous line creates people. Special attention is given to the seventh person in each line (which makes sense because the number seven is often symbolic of completeness). In Cain’s line, Lamech boasts of violence and taking lives. In Seth’s line, Enoch is one of the few who (apparently) do not have their life taken. Why? Because he “walks with God.” In Genesis 4-5, the genealogies are not boring lists of names and dates but rather carefully structured narratives designed to make theological points. If you haven’t realized this, it is because your mentors had no idea how to cook Thai food.
Identification of Common Misperceptions of Non-LDS Theology
A common apologetic used to support the 19th-century LDS practice of polygamy is that “it’s biblical.” But most commentaries will point out that the fact that (1) Adam and Eve are designed to by monogamous and (2) polygamy is first practiced by the clearly wrong-headed Lamech in Cain’s line is evidence that it is never God’s preferred path for humanity, but rather something that was tolerated by God. (So if you feel the need to bash Christians, you ought to at least do it with arguments they won’t instantly find spurious.)
There’s more, of course, but I hope I’ve given you a feel for what you will (and won’t) find in a major commentary. One important point: note that everything above (OK, probably not the polygamy bit) has devotional application. Another unfortunate myth among LDS is that “bookish” learning is somehow unrelated to devotion. Nothing could be further from the truth. The entire point of noting that “crouches” is a better translation that “lieth” isn’t to impress your class with your cribbed knowledge of Hebrew but rather to open a discussion about the nature of sin and what we need to do to protect ourselves from it. In this case, the devotional aspect simply won’t happen properly without the ‘book learning’ because we don’t react the same way to something lieth-ing as we do to something “crouching.”
Now for some recommendations. The following series have one volume per book of scripture (with a few exceptions where they combine shorter books). They are all top-notch.
Anchor Bible Commentary
Word Biblical Commentary
New International Commentary on the Old Testament
New International Commentary on the New Testament
New Cambridge Bible Commentary (a little lightweight but a good starting place)
Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary
A Continental Commentary
Expositor’s Bible Commentary (kinda lightweight)
The New Testament Library
anything written by Ben Witherington
The New International Greek Testament Commentary (very dense)
When I study a book, I pick 2-3 commentaries from the list above and then read them (along with the text of course!) one chapter at a time.
Added bonus: if you do this, you’ll have all sorts of interesting things to say in Sunday School (as a teacher or student) and you might become part of our last, best hope for improving teaching in the church. But that’s a topic for another post.