Acquiring the Learning of the Jews

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After being baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at nineteen, almost fifty years ago, a passion for reading, learning, and studying has distilled upon my soul. This was not always the case.

Have you ever found yourself reading a book, and even turning the pages, to discover that your mind has been elsewhere? That was frequently me.

As a fifteen-year-old adolescent non-member, I preferred to read comic books. I almost threw away my first copy of the Book of Mormon because it did not have enough visual aids. Gladly, the Spirit of the Holy Ghost prompted me to open that book and read Moroni’s promise which was then prominently displayed on the opening page.

My interest in the Hebrew Bible grew after I joined the Church. In my personal journal, I talk about studying the great Prophet Isaiah as early as 1983, almost ten years after my baptism. While the writings of Isaiah and the Prophets have always held a special appeal for me, it was in 1996, while reading the Book of Mormon, that the words of our Savior sank deep in my heart:

“And now, behold, I say unto you, that ye ought to search these things. Yeah, a commandment I give unto you that ye search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah”—3 Nephi 23:1

Learning of the Jews, My Approach

Since publishing the third edition of Isaiah Testifies of Christ in 2017, I have continued to study Isaiah, but have been mostly focused on improving my Biblical Hebrew… in preparation for what I hope will be the fourth edition.

As we approach the study of the great prophet Isaiah in Come, Follow Me, and as I get closer to the fiftieth anniversary of my baptism, some clarity has come to me about “the learning of the Jews” (1 Nephi 1:2). What it means and how each one of us can obtain it.

We are all familiar with the many Scriptures in the Book of Mormon related to Isaiah and to the Jews. For instance:
“I know that the Jews do understand the things of the prophets, and there is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews” (2 Nephi 25:5, emphasis added).

The words save it be jump out off the page. It is clear to me that the Lord, through His prophet, invites all women and men to delve into His word, not just His Jewish children.  

“Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come” (D&C 130:18–19). 

This, and other invitations to feast upon the word (2 Nephi 31:20), comes with a warning that such learning may lead to “look beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14), priestcraft, and teaching of false doctrine. Lest we are discouraged by such a warning, I wonder if there is not a similar pattern in the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood.

The Lord’s blessings to those who magnify the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood are sublime (D&C 84:33–40), yet the condemnation to those who break it are ominous (D&C 84:41). But lest individuals prefer to avoid the effort altogether, there is a second warning wherein the Lord says: “wo unto all those who come not unto this priesthood” (D&C 84:42).

Similarly, with gaining spiritual intelligence. There are pitfalls, but each of us needs to embark in this lifelong love for the Scriptures. It is never too late to begin.

President Joseph F. Smith warned against both the lazy as well as the proud who look beyond the mark:
“Among the Latter-day Saints, the preaching of false doctrines disguised as truths of the gospel, may be expected from people of two classes, and practically from these only; they are:
“First—The hopelessly ignorant, whose lack of intelligence is due to their indolence and sloth, who make but feeble effort, if indeed any at all, to better themselves by reading and study; those who are afflicted with a dread disease that may develop into an incurable malady—laziness.
“Second—The proud and self-vaunting ones, who read by the lamp of their own conceit; who interpret by rules of their own contriving; who have become a law unto themselves, and so pose as the sole judges of their own doings. More dangerously ignorant than the first.”[1]

Here we will address the learning of the Jews, what it is, and how to acquire it. We must avoid looking beyond the mark, which is a combination of teaching false doctrine and priestcraft. We do so when we cease to follow the Brethren or stop listening to the Spirit of the Holy Ghost.

Understanding the learning of the Jews

My father was Jewish, my paternal grandfather was a Lithuanian Jew and grandmother a German Jew. My first cousin is a Rabbi. My mother and maternal grandparents are Chilean. At one point my DNA test showed I was 70% Jewish, which would mean that some of my mother’s ancestors from Spain and elsewhere also have Jewish blood.

But I have often wondered what the learning of the Jews meant. Does it consist of knowing Hebrew and other ancient languages, understanding parallelisms, chiasmic patterns, semitic poetry, the history and geography of Israel, and such? Certainly, all these things play their part, but there is something much more basic.

That is because the learning of the Jews is all about a culture of learning. Such a passion for learning is a gift and if we do not yet possess it, we may plead with the Lord for it: “… seek ye earnestly the best gifts, always remembering for what they are given” (D&C 46:8b). This is especially so if we seek such gifts in order to bless the lives of others and to build up the Kingdom of God.

President George Q. Cannon admonished:
“How many of you … are seeking for these gifts that God has promised to bestow? How many of you, when you bow before your Heavenly Father in your family circle or in your secret places contend for these gifts to be bestowed upon you? How many of you ask the Father, in the name of Jesus, to manifest Himself to you through these powers and these gifts?”[2]

One can fly over Yosemite National Park on a commercial passenger plane, on the way West towards California, and see the beauty of Half-Dome flying at an altitude of approximately 10,000 meters. The view of Yosemite lasts only a few minutes and then it’s over. It is majestic, nevertheless. We can also drive within small portions of the park and see exquisite views. Or ride a bicycle or a horse through portions of the park.

Half Dome in Yosemite National Park is one thing from the air, but a whole other thing when you hike to it!

There is something incomparable, however, about hiking in Yosemite National Park, going into the backcountry, and only coming across one other party of hikers in a day. Or, climbing to the top of Half-Dome, with the aid of the cables, and then stand on the lip looking out onto the valley. It is a breathtaking memory never to be forgotten. You get the idea. Both experiences are uplifting but very different.

It took me four days of reading all day to finish the Book of Mormon before I was baptized. And in the process, my heart was softened, and my world changed completely. I gained a testimony of Jesus Christ in doing so. I called the missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and asked to be baptized. Now, it is taking me months to work through 2 Nephi. Even one line may cause me to ponder for weeks, such as “Wherefore, I know that thou art redeemed, because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer” (2 Nephi 2:3), or “and the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there; and there is none other way save it be by the gate; for he cannot be deceived, for the Lord God is his name” (2 Nephi 9:41).

In last week’s Stake Conference in the Chile, Puerto Montt Stake, the choir rendered Rob Gardner’s “My Kindness Shall Not Depart from Thee” (Isaiah 54:10). While I had heard this hymn rendered by the same choir multiple times over the years, last Sunday it touched my heart so deeply that I had to find out more about this cantata. When I discovered that the theme was Isaiah 54, it touched me even more.

My Suggestions for Learning of the Jews

I would suggest, then, that the learning of the Jews is this (1) passionate intensity filled with questions, coupled (2) with a linger longer with the Scriptures. As Latter-Day Saints, we do all this with a prayer in our hearts and the help of the Holy Ghost as our comforter, teacher, and guide. 

The first thing I learned when I began the study of Isaiah in earnest, was that this labor would be demanding. Like Oliver Cowdery, I had erroneously supposed that all I had to do was ask. When Oliver could not carry out the work of translation, the Lord taught all of us, “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you when you took no thought save it was to ask me” (D&C 9:7).

Elder B. H. Roberts taught that “It requires striving—intellectual and spiritual—to comprehend the things of God—even the revealed things of God. In no department of human endeavor is the aphorism ‘no excellence without labor’—more in force than in acquiring knowledge of the things of God. The Lord has placed no premium upon idleness or indifference here … the truth here contended for—achievement in divine things, progress in the knowledge of them, comes only with hard striving, earnest endeavor, determined seeking.”[3]

For the first several chapters of Isaiah, I kept telling myself. “I will never understand this chapter.” Yet eventually I would get an understanding of sorts. With time I changed my notion to: “This chapter is just as hard as the ones I have completed, yet with work and God’s help I will, in time, come to an understanding.” That attitude is the learning of the Jews.

Towards the end of the project, I was surprised when the Lord revealed to me what one of the chapters was all about before I had put in the effort to understand. This is what I had originally supposed would happen for the whole book. But the Lord wanted me to climb Half-Dome and not just fly over it. But through this tender mercy, He also wanted to tell me that He was pleased with my efforts.

At first, it was taking me seven months to complete each chapter. Not only did I compare each verse in the King James Version to dozens of other Bible translations, but I studied the words of the Brethren, examined the writings of the Jews and of fellow Christians from other denominations; I compared each verse to the English translations of multiple ancient languages, and even tried to get into the original Hebrew when needed.  

Scripture study is much like entering a room and finding that there are adjoining doors and windows that offer additional insights. And those new rooms have yet more doors and windows, and so on.

“For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (Isaiah 28:10). The scriptures seem to form one eternal round.

And yes, I often wondered what this “learning of the Jews” was all about and considered it a curiosity. I had to work very hard for every little bit of knowledge. Only did it dawn on me this week that it was through this effort that I was acquiring the learning of the Jews. And that now I am applying this same approach to my study of the Book of Mormon and other Scriptures.

Any gift we receive, we must work hard to fully develop and take advantage of. We need to seek the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost in the endeavor, most especially when it has to do with the study of the Word.  


[1] Widtsoe, John A, and Smith, Joseph F. Gospel Doctrine.

[2] George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth: Discourses and Writings of President George Q. Cannon, First Counselor to Presidents John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow (1880-1901). Compiled by Jerreld L. Newquist. Volume 1. Salt Lake City: Zion’s Book Store, 1957.

[3] Elder Brigham Henry Roberts, The Seventy’s Course in Theology (1907-1912). Fifth year, p. iv.

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Gregorio Billikopf belongs to the Llanquihue Branch, Puerto Montt Stake, in the south of Chile. He is the author of Isaiah Testifies of Christ and an emeritus academic of the University of California and professor of the University of Chile; author of Party-Directed Mediation: Facilitating Dialogue between Individuals and other books. Gregorio’s paternal grandparents are Lithuanian Jews and German Jews and on his mother’s side of the family he is Chilean. He found Christ through reading the Book of Mormon. You may contact him through bielikov2@yahoo.cl.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Uh, airplanes fly at about 10,000 meters, not miles. Large airliners typically cruise between 4.5 and 8.5 miles in altitude (about 9,200 meters to 13,800 meters). You may want to correct that.

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