Historical and cultural context matter in matters both big and small when it comes to reading and understanding the bible.
As the bible student Alan Hayward observed “Bible verses only make sense if you study them in their context, that is, their setting. You need to read the verses on either side of the verse in question. As I have pointed out on several occasions, you also need to make allowance for Hebrew idiom.”1
This is true but not the whole story. However as Matthews et al note, in our desire to read the text carefully we can read into it and therefore must be aware that, “There is an inclination to read our own cultural biases and our own perspectives and worldview into the text as a basis for understanding theological significance if we are not alerted to the differences that existed in the Israelite way of thinking”.2
That is to say understanding the cultural context (which is more than just idiom) is important to proper bible study. This is not some new idea. In 1875 John Thomas clearly applied this approach when expositing the Olivet prophecy, eg:
“First, then, we must bear in mind in the interpretation of this prophecy, that Jesus was speaking to his disciples then living, and not to us. They were to be contemporary with the signs he enumerated; they were to behold the desolation of the city and temple.”3
An example of this struck me recently with reading about Elijah’s meeting with the widow of Zaraphath in 1 Kings 17. When she responds to the prophet’s request for food and drink the woman says in 1 Kings 17:12 “As certainly as the LORD your God lives, I have no food” (NET). Now we might imagine the widow is thus indicating some initial but flawed understanding of God, she recognizes the God of Israel as the living God. We might come to this conclusion and probably draw out some nice lessons (‘over time her faith will develop more until until…’ or ‘God picked out this woman to shelter Elijah because she had a fledging faith which could be developed further’…). However we want to get as close to the original meaning as we can. That means checking the historical context before making conclusions on what is happening.
The IPV Background Commentary: Old Testament makes the following comment: “the woman follows standard protocol by pronouncing her oath in the name of the deity of the person to whom she is speaking. Though she uses a common oath formula, she also unwittingly offers affirmation of Yahweh’s vitality. Her phrase betrays nothing of any personal belief in Yahweh.”4
So what looked like an excellent point turns out to be a misunderstanding of a common cultural action. The world of the Old Testament was firmly polytheistic, this was simply how things were, how people perceived the world. Modern believers, for whom monotheism is a simple given, can forget this and misread the Bible as a result.
Of course we could reframe our comments about the widow to acknowledge the low base she was coming from in learning about the God of Israel and marvel that God works with people without any knowledge of Him! This small example demonstrates the interaction of culture and the text.
Without appropriate study tools some of the nuance would be lost and we could come to incorrect conclusions. However, when we include a consideration of a passage’s historical context using study tools such those mentioned above, we can get closer to the insight of the initial audience.
- Hayward, A. (1973). God’s Truth. Marshall, Morgan & Scott London (p. 21)
- Matthews, V. H., Chavalas, M. W., & Walton, J. H. (2000). The IVP Bible background commentary: Old Testament (electronic ed.). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- John Thomas, “Christ’s Mount Olivet Prophecy Concerning Jerusalem”, The Christadelphian 12, no. 129 (Birmingham: Christadelphian Magazine & Publishing Association, 1875), 149
- Matthews, V. H., Chavalas, M. W., & Walton, J. H. (2000). The IVP Bible background commentary: Old Testament (electronic ed., 1 Ki 17:12). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.