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If you want to fully understand any work of literature, you need to understand the historical and cultural contexts in which it was written. I think this principle is somewhat underemphasized in high school and college English classes. However, considering that many books people read nowadays (in English class but especially the books people read on their own) are set in the present day or somewhere near it and were written within the last twenty years, I understand that many people don’t necessarily need to think about a book’s historical/cultural context.
The Bible, though, was written 2000+ years ago and the various books of the Bible were set in cultures very different than ours (by “ours” I mean 21st century Western Christianity and democracy). Just like any text, we will not understand the Bible very well if we don’t study the context in which it was written.
But it seems we Christians think we will comprehend the Bible just fine without any such research. Pastors and lay people alike seem to assume they can just pick up the Bible and know what it’s saying. We all hear that we should read the Bible to know God better, but when do we hear that we should consider the Bible’s context when reading it? The mindset of “read your Bible” with no mention of its historical/cultural context implicitly states that we can all understand our Bibles just fine without studying its context. The result, whether we realize it or not, is we come to the Bible with our context in mind and interpret it through that lens, meaning we’re superimposing a 21st century Western context on a (mostly) ancient Near Eastern text. We’ve learned to skew the text to what we think it means rather than considering what the author intended to say to his original audience. And so, misinterpretation happens.
I know this isn’t the case among all Christians. But I think it’s telling that I spent my childhood in church, the better part of the first decade of my Christian life in churches that were a part of the popular megachurch reformed movement (in that same time frame I read many books born from that movement and listened to sermons by its leaders), and I don’t recall ever hearing about the importance of reading the Bible in its context. I’ve talked to other Christians who had the same experience. The bottom line is we need to do a better job emphasizing the importance of the Bible’s historical/cultural context.
I used to think the study of the Bible’s historical/cultural context was just for people who were particularly interested in it. It was just for those people and the rest of us could safely ignore it if it didn’t pique our interest. But I realize now that’s absolutely not the case. This isn’t a matter of “if we like it.” We simply cannot interpret much of the Bible correctly if we don’t consider its context. It’s not possible—we’re not reading it for what it is saying. We may twist passages into what we think they say or what we want them to say. But that’s not the same as truly interpreting the Bible correctly or well.
Here are some common examples of how we misinterpret scripture because we fail to account for its context.
To start off with an example that many evangelicals are likely aware of, let’s look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Once someone understands that Jews and Samaritans abhorred each other, the parable takes on new significance. It becomes (to some extent) a story about eliminating man-made racial and ethnic barriers and loving people who are supposed to be your enemy. Plus, to highlight the Samaritan’s compassion even more, it helps to know that, according to bible scholar Gary Burge, a “day’s stay at an inn would cost one-twelfth of a denarius.”[i] The Samaritan gives the innkeeper two denarii—that’s 24 days he pays for the hurt man! Plus, he promises to reimburse the innkeeper for any extra expense he may have. This is a paradigm-shattering story of incredible compassion, but if we don’t know the story’s background, it sort of falls flat.
A commonly misunderstood passage in which one of the verses in particular is almost always taken out of context is Psalm 127. The verse I’m referring to is verse three: “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him.” This short psalm begins emphasizing God’s protection and provision: “Unless the Lord builds the house…Unless the Lord watches over the city” (verse one). This psalm is about God’s provision, not necessarily how great of a gift children are.
In the ancient Near East, children were crucial to a family’s well-being, which is why it was so devastating for a woman to be barren. They helped with work around the house and any trade in which the family (particularly the father) was involved. Sons in particular carried on the family name and legacy. In their patriarchal society, if the father died his widow was left in a very vulnerable position. But if he had a son or sons, he could trust that they would be able to provide for the widow. This is why Naomi and Ruth were in such a desperate position and why Ruth wanted to marry Boaz, because Naomi’s husband died and then both of her sons died (one of which was married to Ruth).
Concerning the psalm’s final verse, “court” can also be translated “gate,” and the city gate was where official town business happened and where town elders heard disputes (hence the word “court”). A family’s sons in particular would be able to represent the family’s interest at the city gate. So the reference to children and having a “quiver…full of them” is referring to God’s provision. The psalmist isn’t simply gushing about how great children are (although it’s clear here and in other passages that children are a blessing from God).
The passage in Exodus of the Golden Calf is baffling to 21st century Western Christians. When we read it through the lens of our context, the Israelites look like complete idiots. We think, “Of course the golden calf you just made isn’t the god you brought you out of Egypt!” The logical conclusion, for us, is to think the Israelites were downright stupid. You may have heard some evangelicals perpetuating this idea or perhaps you’ve heard a pastor rail against the Israelites for how stupid they were.
Again, an understanding of the Israelites’ culture will help us. As John Walton writes in the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, “From the ancient Near East (mostly from the Late Bronze Age), there are pictures of gods standing atop various animals, especially lions and bulls…Moreover, there are depictions of bovines (these are generally from the Iron Age)—most likely bulls—that have no rider whatsoever. In the first set of images, the animal clearly functions as the seat or pedestal for the deity. In the second, there is no deity, which may raise possibilities for understanding the use of the golden calf here”[ii]. As a side note, if you are interested in seeing one of these pictures, go to Google Images and type in “Adad on a bull with thunderbolt.”
It’s possible that the Israelites were doing precisely what they thought needed to be done to reassure them of God’s presence. If they provided the proper pedestal (the calf), then God’s presence would be among them (since God’s other representative, Moses, was still on the mountain). It appears that they didn’t just make a god out of thin air. They did what they thought needed to be done to worship Yahweh (note that the worship Aaron calls for in verse five is still directed at Yahweh). Either way, however, they violated the prohibition against making images (Exodus 20:4), which is a law they already agreed to (24:3). They disobeyed God, but that doesn’t make them buffoons. They simply did what they thought was appropriate.
Lastly, the most misinterpreted passage of these examples is Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. We read it and assume Jesus must be mad because people are selling things in God’s temple. We have a notion that God’s house should be holy space and that money is inherently corrupt. Therefore, we assume Jesus doesn’t want money and business and the extortion that must come with it to be in God’s space.
However, at the time of Passover (when this event happened on both occasions—John 2 records the first time it happened at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry), pilgrims to Jerusalem had no choice but to buy animals to sacrifice in Jerusalem. And in order to do that, they had to exchange the money from their province to a currency that would be accepted by the sellers of the sacrificial animals. In other words, these transactions had to be done.
It’s certainly possible that there was some extortion going on, and that may have been part of the reason Jesus was so angry. But the bigger reason is because much of this massive operation was taking place in the outer court—the only place where Gentiles were allowed to worship Yahweh. Whether intentionally or because of a lack of thought about the Gentiles, the Jews were taking up the only space Gentiles could properly worship the God of Israel. Thus, in the passage Jesus says, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17). And then He refers to Jeremiah 7:11 when He says they’ve made it “a den of robbers”—which is what Jeremiah says to rebuke the Jews for thinking they can do whatever they want but still be safe in God’s temple just because it’s God’s temple (just like a robbers’ den is where they feel safe from retribution). Jesus is furious because His people don’t care about others. They think they’re God’s special people and no one else is allowed in. But Jesus wants them to know they are not safe from judgment just because they go to God’s temple.
Again, I think understanding the Bible’s own context is underemphasized nowadays. Put simply, if we know the Bible’s context we will understand it better. And if we understand it better, we will understand God better as well. For that reason, I think the extra studying is well worth the effort.
If you’re interested but don’t know where to start, here are some recommendations. There are three podcasts I like for historical/cultural study of the Bible: The Bible Project, The Naked Bible Podcast, and Pillar Seminary’s Pillar Podcast. In some of the first episodes on The Naked Bible Podcast Dr. Heiser goes through an extensive list of books that cover all aspects of Bible culture and history. As far as an easy-read to start with, I recommend Jesus, the Middle Eastern Storyteller. Also, I highly recommend the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, which is available to purchase online and in app form through the Tecarta Bible app.
[i] Burge, Gary. “Chapter 4: Stories About Compassion.” Jesus, The Middle Eastern Storyteller, Kindle Edition, Zondervan, 2009.
[ii] Walton, John, and Keener, Craig. Tecarta Bible App: NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Tecarta, 2019. Version 7.15.12. Apple App Store.