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.

Epistles and Revelation in God’s Holy Word

Over the past two months we looked at the various sections on the Bible. Our general overview touched upon the importance they have within the meta-narrative of God’s story and we looked a little at how to interpret them in light of contexts. Today we are talking about the Pauline epistles (1 Corinthians-Philemon), the general epistles (Hebrews-Jude), and the Book of Revelation.

When you receive a letter, email or text message how do you read it? Do you read it with the sender’s voice in your head, filled with emotional charge? We are all humans and we all tend to read into messages. The same problem can arise when we read the epistles found in the New Testament. We can read meaning into what Paul or the other apostles wrote. We tend to apply it to our lives first before we look at the situational (cultural) context.

When we read our own personal letters we typically know the situation or circumstances behind the author’s words. To understand the epistles we have to apply the same scheme. Researching the historical background from Bible surveys, commentaries or even the Acts of the Apostles can shine a light on the reason behind the letter.

Comprehending the purpose of a passage will aid us greatly in applying it to our daily lives.

One thing that I cannot stress enough, which is in part thanks to Dr George Guthrie and seminary, is context. Keeping all Scripture passages in their proper context is crucial in understanding the Bible as the original audiences would have understood them. (As closely as we can make it, that is.)

This goes for the epistles as well as John’s Revelation.

Also known as the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation has been a mystery for most (if not all) of Church history. Why is this? Symbolism. A good percentage of the imagery that John uses are derived directly from Old Testament passages. (When we come to studying Revelation, chapter by chapter, we will look at this in more detail.) What is important to reading this book? Context.

The original audience would have understood Revelation according to their couture and theology (both Jewish and Christian). While this is true it does not mean that it is totally irrelevant to us today. Many commentators and scholars will attest that this work has three distinct genres interwoven: letter, prophecy and apocalyptic. While it, as well as all the epistles, had special meaning for the first century Church, it also has profound meaning for us today.

We can not ignore Revelation on the sole basis that it is difficult to read and understand.

Next week we are wrapping up our study Read the Bible for Life, by Dr George Guthrie, after which we are diving “In God’s Holy Word”. This will be a chapter by chapter study of the Holy Bible using the New American Commentary series, published by B&H (Broadman & Holman).

Keeping God’s Holy Word in Context

The Christian Scriptures have been writing ages ago by people from different cultures for people of those societies. How often do we check the facts when we read magazines or newspapers? This tends to remain in the realm of scholars and students, or folks with certain passions. Why do we not do the same with the Holy Bible or sermons?

For the next six weeks we will continue going through Dr George Guthrie’s study Read the Bible for Life.

In regards to interpreting the God’s Holy Word, there are four areas of context (with a fifth to bring it home). Guthrie lists these as follows: historical, cultural, literary, and theological. The fifth one is personal context (more on this later).

As already mentioned, the Bible was originally written for a different audience in a different period. But this does not mean we cannot get anything out of the passages. In keeping the historical context, as we read the Bible, we need to ask: what was going on in the world around them? And for cultural context: why did they do or believe certain things? The questions will answer a lot for us in understanding the passage as the original audience would have understood it.

The next one, literary context, has several layers to it. The first is knowing how it fits within the rest: how does the passage fit in with the rest of the chapter? How does the chapter fit in with the rest of the book? From there literary context merges with theological context: how does the passage fit with the rest of the Bible? Or it can be worded this way: how does the passage fit in with the Big Picture, the overall theme(s) of God’s message?

In my opinion, theological context is the primary context. The reason for this is it asks the reader to dig deeper into God’s Holy Word and at the same time to dig deeper into one’s own soul. What is the passage telling us about God, salvation, the world or humanity’s fallen state? This last part leads to personal context. After we look into the primary contexts and answer them, we have to turn the Scriptures inward: what is God saying to me right here and right now?

These five areas of contexts will be our main headings for our study In God’s Holy Word. Every book, every passage in the Bible has contexts we need to examine, and examine them we will. Stay tuned for more reasons to study the Holy Bible.