Genesis 1-11, Cultural Context

Genesis is thousands of years before our present. The first major sections (chapters 1-11) has next to no information of their culture. From the passages we can gleam that they had a civilization, society, art, and metal work (Genesis 4:21-22). Apart from what the Bible tells us we know nothing of how their day-to-day life was before the flood.

“The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5, ESV).

How is this an aspect of culture? Culture is the worldview of a people group: how they think, what they believe, and how they behave is respect to the world around them. The culture is the primeval world was filled with evil. To be honest it was not that different than later biblical periods or even compared to our age. “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” Judges 21:25b. The original audience of the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy) knew all too well how rebellious people can be, even when they had the blessing of seeing God at work before their eyes. Half of the kings of Judah and all of the kings of Israel had led their people into evil.

The cultural context here is one that repeats throughout human history: sin and judgement.

When we get to Exodus we will look at the cultural context of the original audience as we study the contexts of their own stories found in Exodus through Deuteronomy.

 

God’s Holy Word, In Context

Keeping the Bible in context is not necessarily an easy task to do, for we are thousands of years removed from when they were originally written. We will be using contexts to examine each passage of God’s Holy Word: historical, cultural, literary, theological and personal. For most of the Books of the Bible these will be looked at in umbral terms, meaning the context does not change from chapter to chapter. While other contexts will be examined passage to passage, depending how the story or section is divined.

For this study you will need a Bible commentary, a study Bible, and/or other reference material. Personally, I favour the New American Commentary for two reasons: 1. I have half the series in my personal library, and 2. it is a good balance of in depth word-study format and easy to read for laypersons. It does not matter which commentary or commentaries you use, the information we will examine should be found in most is not all series.

Last June, in the post “Keeping God’s Holy Word in Context“, we briefly looked at the contexts as layout by Dr George Guthrie in his study Read the Bible for Life, (published by LifeWay). We will look at what each type of context means, plus I will briefly explain what you can expect in regards to each context.

  1. Historical Context – This is regarding the history of the events in the passage and of its writing. This includes the timeline of events as it relates to the rest of the Bible and today; the original audience, (traditionally excepted) author, place and time of writing; and the world in and around the place in the passage. I will post several timelines in these sections: AC (After Creation), BC & AD (Before Christ & Anno Domini),  and BP (Before Present).
  2. Cultural Context –  This context is related to historical context in that it not information that we can necessarily get out of the passage itself, but we need to look at the broader picture of archeological finds and other texts from the era in which it was written. This includes things like: the social structure, practices, politics, home life, communal life, even what they believed and why.
  3. Literary Context – While each book of the Bible is found in a specific section does not mean that it is necessarily similar to the other texts in the same section. For example: the book of Lamentations is found in the section Major Prophets but it is poetic lament over the fall of Jerusalem. Similarly, a passage within a book can be a different literary genres. Each passage (or group of passages) will be examined in light of its literary genre, the genre of the book, and the section of the Bible the book is found in. Patterns, and repeated words or phrases, will also look at for they give us a hint at what is important in the passage, what the author wants to convey to the original readers/hearers.
  4. Theological Context – This one is linked to the previous context. Each passage in God’s Holy Word is filled with theological truths. Several major categories of truths are: God, creation, humanity, sin, and salvation. How the passage fits in with the “Big Picture” of the rest of the Bible and how it fits in with God’s redemptive story are essential aspects we need to discuss before we can look at the application of the passage.
  5. Personal Context – Bringing the message home is what all true Christians desire. The trick here is to examine the first four contexts before looking at ourselves. One statement that I have heard over the years is “Reading the Bible is like reading someone else’s mail”. While this is true we should never allow it to hinder us from reading and studying the Holy Scriptures that have been passed down to us for the millennia. Instead of reading the Bible through the lens of our twenty-first century culture and norms, instead of looking for what we want the passage to say, we need to prayerfully look at the passage for what the Holy Spirit wants us to see in light of the above contexts.

Remember, the Old Testament was first the Holy Bible of the pre-Christ Jewish communities in Egypt, the Levent and ancient Babylon and Persia. Along with the New Testament, the Holy Bible first belonged to the early Church. The books of the Bible were first written for them. But it is still God’s Holy Word for us today.

The Study: Update

Over the past many months I’ve been reading and posting on the introduction to Genesis 1-11, based on the New American Commentary, volume 1A. There are over 100 pages of information on various academic fields on the background of Genesis and how we got the version we have now.

This coming month this study will be looking at the various types of context that we looked at last summer. The format of “In God’s Holy Word: The Study” will look different than what it has been so far. Questions will be posted with the idea being that anyone should be able to use any commentary series and/or and study Bible to find the contextual answers. Applying the Scriptures to a personal level will be based on the contexts and personal conviction.

 

Part 5a: Intro to Genesis

Interpreting Genesis

(The New American Commentary, vol. 1a, Genesis 1:1-11:26, pages 63-68)

There are many ways we can read the book of Genesis. Whether as fables, myths or stories of morality, we all see the tales differently if we approach Genesis with our preconceived notions. Genesis is a story of people interacting with the created world and its Creator. Interpreting any ancient text has its difficulty and the Old Testament is not exempt from this. Today we will look at several methods of interpretation. This includes how Jews and Christians have looked at it in the past and how scholars look at it today.

Many times we hear a story and we take its perceived understanding for granted, or we tend to disagree with it. Looking at Genesis 1-11 (creation to the flood and to Abraham’s father, Terah) we may not all agree on the deeper meaning of the text. Let this not hinder us from going In God’s Holy Word together. Let the Holy Spirit open our eyes and minds as we study “Interpreting Genesis”.

Next time we will be looking at the “Pentateuchal Criticism”.

Questions on the readings are coming soon.

Part 2: Intro to Genesis

Literary Genesis

(The New American Commentary, vol. 1a, Genesis 1:1-11:26, pages 25-41)

When we break it down, the literary composition of Genesis is interesting . Like the name “Genesis” suggests, it is all about genealogies. (We will look more at the name of Genesis in part 3). The importance of these genealogies (tōlĕdōt) is at the core of the purpose of the book.

With a simple overview we can see it can be broken down with the use of genealogies and accounts. The use of the Hebrew phrase tōlĕdōt (transliterated) divides Genesis into twelve distinct units that “form an unmistakably coherent, unified story line.”

Click here to go to the questions on the readings.

Part 1: Intro to Genesis

We begin our study “In God’s Holy Word” looking at the “Introduction” to The New American Commentary on (vol 1a) Genesis 1-11:26, by Kenneth Mathews.

With nearly 100 pages of material (pages 21-112), divided into seven sections, we will look at the reasons and methods used by the commenters in compiling the commentary. After we read and work through the introduction we will dive into Genesis 1 through Genesis 11.

I encourage you to borrow a copy (from a library) or buy your own copy of this commentary, so you can follow along and work through the commentary with us.


Introduction & Commenting on Genesis

(The New American Commentary, vol. 1a, Genesis 1:1-11:26, pages 22-24)

The Book of Genesis is filled with all sorts of stories: from creation of the world to the annihilation of civilizations—from the destruction of two cities to saving the ancient Middle East from famine. We read not only of early mankind and their struggles and triumphs but, more importantly, we read of how God has worked throughout history and His plan for our future.

These stories are amongst the most well known from the entire Old Testament. They seem to be so far removed from us today that most of us do not give them a second thought. They are good or interesting to read, but they also have theological, philosophical and moral truths.

Click here to go to the questions on the readings.

English Bible Translations

When I browse through the Bible or Christian section of a bookstore I notice the various translations, and options for many of them. Why are there so many? Which ones can I trust to be the most accurate translation? Many Bible scholars have tried to answer this in the past, and many more will do so in the future. (All you need to do is do a web search for “history of Bible translations” or look at the preface of any study Bible.)

What is the reason for so many?

One thing we have to remember is that no matter the translation (this includes the King James Version) it is still an interpretation of the original Hebrew (for Old Testament) or Greek (for New Testament). Within the English speaking world there are numerous Bible societies and Christian Bible study publishers. Each is rooted in a different Christian church denomination, and each publisher wants to translate God’s Holy Word to the best that they can.

(A sad truth is copyright fees. This mean to use another’s published translation fees are required).

Within the realm of translating the Bible there are two main camps. They are word-for-word and thought-for-thought. Some people add paraphrase as a third category, but this would be inaccurate. A paraphrase is a retelling and not a translation, so I will be leaving this one out in this post.

Below is a condensed version of the translation continuum, with thirteen of the most common ones used. (Click here to check out the meaning of the abbreviations.)

There are many reasons people have for choosing a translation to use. They range from easy to read, what their church uses, or which one they believe is “more accurate”/ “God inspired”. I will not speak out against any of these reasons. Every person has his/her own convictions in this matter.

As a lay-Bible-schalor and a recent Bible college graduate, I want to encourage any one who is serious about studying God’s Holy Word to use multiple translations. Each one will say something differently without removing the actually meaning of the story or theological concept.

The recommendation that I have been given by many of my professors is to use translations from across the continuum or spectrum. Study the Scriptures from Bibles that you do not use to memorize or are unfamiliar with. The reason for this is to gain new eyes and new understanding. Reading from a new translation will definitely get our attention on matters that may be ambiguous in another translation, or a new way of wording that the Holy Spirit can use to enlighten our minds on things of God.

What Bible translation do you use? 1) ..in your personal devotions? 2) ..in your church? Why did you choose this particular translation?