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What was religion for the Israelites?

TitleWhat was religion for the Israelites?
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1981
AuthorsGentry, Leland
Issue Number12
Date PublishedDecember 1981
KeywordsFamily; Genealogy; Missionary Work; Temple Worship; Welfare

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What did the Israelites do relating to genealogy, welfare, missionary work, and the family—the four major emphases of our day? What was religion for them?

Leland H. Gentry, instructor, Salt Lake Institute of Religion, University of Utah. As might be expected, each of the modern priesthood emphases had a counterpart in ancient Israel, but with differences in purpose and approach. Only the family, then as now the focal point of society, appears to have received the same emphasis it receives today.

The Family. 

As head of the family, the father was not only charged with providing his family’s physical needs, but he was also its authority in matters of discipline and education. When Moses taught Israel the law and the commandments, he urged them to teach these things to their children: “And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” (Deut. 6:7.) The Prophet Lehi, a resident of Palestine about 600 B.C., appears to have taken this admonition seriously. Nephi tells us that he was “taught somewhat in all the learning of my father.” (1 Ne. 1:1.)

Motherhood was also held in high esteem by the ancient Israelites. “Give me children, or else I die” were Rachel’s words to Jacob (Gen. 30:1); Samuel’s mother, Hannah, begged the Lord to remove her “affliction” and give her a child (see 1 Sam. 1:11). As a wife and mother, a Hebrew woman was accorded utmost respect by her husband and children.

Children were taught to “hear the instruction of thy father” and to “forsake not the law of thy mother.” (Prov. 1:8.) “Honor thy father and thy mother” (Ex. 20:12) was more than a commonplace saying in ancient Israel; it was a command.


The poor were plentiful in ancient Israel. So were the generous and the greedy. Instituted early was a law commanding the wealthy to permit their fields to be gleaned by the poor, the widows, and the orphans. (See Lev. 19:9–10; Deut. 24:19–21.) “Relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow,” Isaiah urged (Isa. 1:17), and Zechariah quotes the Lord as saying:

“Execute true judgment, and shew mercy and compassions every man to his brother:

“And oppress not the widow, nor the fatherless, the stranger, nor the poor; and let none of you imagine evil against his brother in your heart.” (Zech. 7:8–10.)

Plainly, welfare, even in that day, was far more than merely providing food and shelter for the worthy poor.

Of course all who could work and sustain themselves were expected to do so. Honorable labor was considered a great virtue: “He that gathereth by labour shall increase” (Prov. 13:11); “In all labour there is profit” (Prov. 14:23). “He becometh poor that dealeth with a slack hand: but the hand of the diligent maketh rich. (Prov. 10:4.) “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” (Eccl. 9:10.)

Staying free of debt and practicing thrift were likewise emphasized. If a man owed his neighbor, he was viewed as wicked if he did not meet his obligation. (See Ps. 27:21.) Likewise, the borrower was a servant—literally in bondage—to his creditor until the debt was retired. (See Prov. 22:7.) As for thrift, Isaiah urged the people not to “spend money for that which is not bread … and your labor for that which satisfieth not.” (Isa. 55:2.) Time is valuable, he seems to be saying, and should be guarded in the same way that money is protected.

In spite of these emphases, ancient Israel had its share of welfare problems. One means of providing for those in need was the law of the fast: those who had substance would fast for a time and give the food saved or its equivalent to the poor and needy in their midst. “Is not this the fast that I have chosen?” the Lord asks, “… to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?” (Isa. 58:6–7.) The reference to one’s “own flesh” is likely a reminder of the obligation each has to help provide for those of his own family, whether aged parents or little children.

Students of the Old Testament are familiar with the work of Joseph in Egypt, storing in a time of plenty against a day of need. (See Gen. 41:34–36, 49.) Also well known is the admonition of the Lord to bring “all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house.” (Mal. 3:10.)

Missionary Work. 

Little emphasis was given in ancient Israel to the spreading of the truth to foreign lands—missionary work consisted mainly of preaching to apostate Israel, who demonstrated by their behavior that they were not ready to take the gospel to others on a large scale. As a matter of fact, even though God’s covenant with Father Abraham enjoined the task of blessing “all the families of the earth … with the blessings of the Gospel” (Abr. 2:11), Israel chose to remain somewhat aloof from non-Israelites. Part of this aloofness was due to necessity: whenever Israel mingled with her foreign neighbors, she was quick to intermarry with them and adopt their evil ways. Thus, the Lord commanded that Israel should never make a covenant with or marry the people of foreign nations. (See Deut. 7:2–3.)

It is difficult to spread the word of God when one is forbidden to mingle with potential converts. Still there were exceptions. When Naomi and Elimelech went to live in Moab because of the famine in Bethlehem, their two sons married Moabite girls. At least one of those girls joined the Hebrew way of life: “Thy people shall be my people,” Ruth told Naomi, “and thy God my God.” (Ruth 1:16.) Naomi and her family had obviously done some missionary work, for Ruth’s conversion was thorough and complete. There were probably other similar, individual conversions, accomplished by righteous individuals sharing their faith, but we have no record of them.

That the Lord intended Israel to show the way of truth unto the world is obvious from several Old Testament passages, but no overt attempt appears to have been made to proselyte non-Israelites except in the case of the Prophet Jonah. Rather, the prophets of Israel foresaw the conversion of the Gentile nations at a future time. Isaiah prophesied of a day in which the Gentiles would seek the “ensign” of Israel (Isa. 11:10), and a day in which God’s glory would be declared “among the Gentiles” (Isa. 66:19). Malachi likewise foresaw the day when God’s name would “be great among the Gentiles.” (Mal. 1:11.)

Genealogy and Temple Work. 

The ancient Israelites built temples and performed sacred ordinances therein. It is certain, however, that baptisms for the dead were not performed in Old Testament times. President Joseph Fielding Smith has said: “Christ was the first to declare the gospel to the dead, and it was not until after his resurrection that the privilege of baptism for the dead was granted.” (Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56, 2:114.)

Even so, genealogical activity and record keeping were serious matters for ancient Israelites. “All Israel were reckoned by genealogies; and, behold, they were written in the book of the kings of Israel and Judah.” (1 Cor. 9:1.) Among those whose genealogy was strictly kept were the ancient priests, members of the tribe of Levi and of the house of Aaron. Only the firstborn sons of Aaron were given the right of presidency, and only priests and Levites could perform the sacrificial ordinances in behalf of the people. It was necessary, then, to know who such persons were.

Malachi, of course, spoke of Elijah’s coming to “turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers,” lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse. (Mal. 4:6.) Malachi undoubtedly understood his own proclamation in the same way that we do, for he also spoke of those who, in the end, will be left with “neither root nor branch.” (Mal. 4:1.) When one is neither sealed to his forefathers nor his posterity, this is precisely his condition: he has neither root nor branch.

Record keeping was a permanent part of Israel’s life-style. Beginning with Adam who kept a book of remembrance (see Moses 6:5), we find men keeping an account of their own life and times (see Moses 6:46; Abr. 1:31). Later, we find certain men specifically assigned as record keepers. David, for example, “appointed certain of the Levites” the task of keeping Israel’s records. (1 Chr. 16:4.) Later still, professional scribes were employed to write and interpret that which had been written. Ezra, writer of the book which bears his name, was one of these. (See Ezra 7:11.)

Of particular interest in early Israel was the keeping of a family genealogy. Lengthy genealogical lists are found throughout the Old Testament, but following their return from captivity the Jews pursued the task even more earnestly. Ezra presents a detailed account of Israel by family. (See Ezra 2; Ezra 8; also Neh. 7:5–64.) He also makes particular mention of “the book of the records of thy fathers” (Ezra 4:15), which reminds us in turn of Abraham’s statement that he had preserved in his own hands “the records of the fathers, even the patriarchs, concerning the right of Priesthood” and that his own efforts in writing were “for the benefit of my posterity that shall come after me” (Abr. 1:31).

It is plain, then, that at least family, welfare, and genealogy work were important parts of ancient Israel’s religion, as they are today.

Pure religion, of course, is a matter of the heart. Moses taught the people in his day to “love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” (Deut. 6:5.)

The writer of Proverbs similarly enjoined:

“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.

“In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” (Prov. 3:5–6.)

Loving the Lord and obeying him, then as now, are the best indications of one’s religion.