One of my favorite episodes of one of my favorite TV shows, The West Wing, deals with the subject of religion. A Republican candidate for President (played by Alan Alda!) who is not very religious is talking with the President (played by Martin Sheen) who is a Democrat, but a very faithful Catholic. The Alan Alda character says he used to go to church until his wife got him an old copy of the Bible and he started reading it. At which point President Bartlet replies “You can’t take it literally” and “I’m more of a New Testament man myself.” (Watch the scene here)
A friend whom I follow on Twitter yesterday wrote that his wife was reading through the Old Testament and “having a very hard time seeing how God is so vengeful and angry in Old Testament, different in NT, Book of Mormon.”
My first answer to the question is that the culture of the Old Testament is so different from the culture of the New Testament and that God is dealing with his people in a way that they can understand him. Not to say that God is changing who he is, but is manifesting himself to his children in a way that makes sense for them. In the Old Testament the Jews are coming into contact with cultures that have gods who are very much real people, who interact with their believers in very real ways, demanding sacrifices and feasts, etc. So, God gives the Israelites the Law of Moses with it’s strict prescriptive way of living. Not just because “everybody’s doing it”, but because the Israelites almost begged him to. We see in certain places of the Old Testament where this is evidenced. The Israelites saw that all of these other peoples had kings and they wanted a king. God tried to tell them that they did not need a king, that a king would not be a good idea for them, but they kept whining and insisting, so God gave them a king (1st Samuel chapter 8). You can see that God did not want the Israelites to have a king, he much preferred that they follow and obey him instead. But God gives his children what they desire, what they ask for, even if he knows it is not the best thing for them. He loves his children.
I feel that the way in which God interacted with his people was similar. He would much rather have been the kind, loving God that we recognize in the New Testament in Jesus Christ, but the Israelites were not ready for that God to be revealed to them, and would not have accepted that kind of a God, so God gave them a God that they would accept. We see how hard it was for the Jews to accept Jesus’ higher law when he came, imagine God giving such a law in the Old Testament. The people would have rejected it outright and probably gone off after some other religion with it’s pretty idols and fancy rituals.
Let me repeat: God does not change, but he does tailor his message to what his people are willing or able to understand and accept. As we come to know him and learn more of his doctrine he gives us more and helps us to live the higher law until we are like him completely. We learn little by little, line upon line. The basic principle is that God loves his children and wants them to be happy and to be able to return to live with him. But he also understands the concept of eternity. We have all of forever to continue to learn and progress to be like our Father in Heaven, and so, if he simplifies things for us a little while we are in our earthly life, that is okay. He does not want to overwhelm us with precepts that we cannot understand, or with commandments that we cannot hope to keep.
I personally love the Old Testament, but I will admit that it takes some getting used to and a lot of extra work to understand. Luckily, there are some wonderful resources with the Institute Manual that helps explain some of the culture and customs that we are not familiar with, as well as some of the language. And of course we have the other scriptures, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants. Use the footnotes! The cross-references can be extremely helpful. And one cannot forget to pray. Ask him who caused these words to be written what he wants you to learn from them. My biggest suggestion, though, is to treat it like you are reading a foreign language. For those who have ever tried to read a book in a language that they are learning it can be frustrating, feeling like you have to look up every unfamiliar word. But you don’t, and you shouldn’t. You should read the book, or the passage and just skip any word you do not understand, trying to fill it in from context. Don’t read word for word, but try to get a feel for what the whole sentence or paragraph is trying to say. Step back and read for the big picture. And I find that reading the Old Testament in this way helps find the most important parts and makes it for a rewarding read.