SCRIPTURE IN CONTEXT
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
This unbearably long run-on sentence is perhaps among the most recognizable opening lines in English literature. Despite its setting “in the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five,” attentive readers of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities readily recognize the narrative as a work of fiction. They notice the metrical rhythm and cadence as a highly stylized literary device. They observe the polar opposite contrasts permeating the text. They appreciate the hyperbolic language of the superlatives. They note that even though the next line offers a description of the kings and queens of England and France, Dickens does not identify these pivotal characters. Beyond the literary clues, historians would tell us that A Tale of Two Cities intentionally conjures imagery of the primary forces that led to the French Revolution. In other words, instead of reading the story as historical narrative, it is best to understand this literary masterpiece as historical commentary.
Text in Context
As any competent teacher of literature will tell you, one of the most important keys to understanding any literary work is context. The illustration from Dickens attests to this. Someone who reads A Tale of Two Cities as historical narrative, rather than historical commentary, will miss the point. Dickens’s concern was not with the historical accuracies of the period, however true they may be. Rather, his concern was more sociological. He wanted his readers to empathize with those who suffered because of the huge disparity between those for whom it was the best of times and those for whom it was the worst of times. Understanding the narrative within all the relevant contexts permits the reader to extract most accurately from the text the message and details Dickens intended.
If context clues are important for comprehending literature that is 150 years old, imagine how much more important they are for comprehending Scripture, written over two millennia ago. In any given passage, several contextual issues will surface. These include cultural, geographical, historical and literary, among others.
Cultural context. Cultural context pertains to how people think and behave based on their environment. The book of Ruth is replete with examples of cultural norms and customs. The climax of the story relies on its audience getting the fact that Ruth’s survival depended on a kinsman redeeming her. Another cultural issue is found in 3:7, “Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning the redemption and the exchange of land to confirm any matter: a man removed his sandal and gave it to another; and this was the manner of attestation in Israel.” It is interesting to note that by the time of Ruth’s composition, the sandal ceremony in 3:7 was not readily apparent. It had to be explained. The author did not want the audience to miss the significance of the act, so he provided a brief commentary on the relevance of the sandal ceremony.
Cultural context also relates to how people understand reality. For example, ancient Hebrews believed that people felt emotions with their kidneys and thought with their hearts. In Deuteronomy 6:5, the Lord commands Israel to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” However, when the Synoptic Gospels cite this passage, they include both heart and mind (Mt 22:37; Mk 12:30; Lk 10:27). Unlike the Hebrews, the Greeks rightly identified the mind as the seat of the intellect. To avoid confusion, the Gospel writers explain the Hebrew concept of “heart” (lēb) by translating it as “mind” (dianoia).
Geographical context. Geographical context is concerned with the location of events, particularly in relation to other locations in the narrative. Immediately after Solomon’s death, the united monarchy of Israel dissolved into two separate nations. While Solomon’s son Rehoboam ruled the kingdom of Judah, Jeroboam ruled the northern kingdom of Israel. Early in his reign, Jeroboam rebuilt Shechem as the new capital city and constructed altars in Dan and Bethel. These two cities were located at the northern and southern extremes of Jeroboam’s kingdom, enabling every citizen of Israel to stay within the nation’s borders to worship. Thus no one had an excuse to return to Jerusalem, where they might have been tempted to “revert to the house of David” (1 Kings 12:26). A sense of the geographical context of 1 Kings 12:25-33 helps the reader infer the significance of Jeroboam’s choice of sites.
Historical context. Historical context relates to the sequence of events, not only in the immediate narrative context, but also in the broader history of the world. As an example, consider the short prophetic book Haggai. This book is set “in the second year of Darius the king, on the first day of the sixth month.” This date formula, along with other information taken from ancient Near Eastern texts, allows us to date the book of Haggai very precisely to the year 520 B.C. In fact, the New Living Translation is so confident of the historical data that it has translated Haggai 1:1 as follows: “On August 29 of the second year of King Darius’s reign . . .” However, knowing the date is only significant as it relates to other events in Israelite history. So the fact that the book of Haggai took place in 520 B.C. indicates to the reader that the events in the book occurred after the Babylonian exile, which ended with the decree of Cyrus in 539 B.C. Thus the concerns of Haggai are different from the concerns of preexilic prophets like Amos and Hosea. Moreover, the historical context sheds important light on one of the main issues of the book, namely, the reconstruction of the temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians sixty-six years prior to Haggai’s prophetic message.
Literary context. Literary context pertains to how a book is structured and how the individual passages and literary units fit within the whole. Literary analysis is an imprecise art. As a case in point, Thomas Krüger’s commentary on Ecclesiastes summarizes eight separate scholarly attempts to outline the literary structure of the book of Ecclesiastes. However, the fact that scholars have invested considerable time in the endeavor demonstrates its importance for understanding the book.
A less complicated book in terms of its literary structure is the aforementioned prophetic book Haggai. Although there remains room for discussion, the following outline represents a basic understanding of its literary structure.
I. First Word from the Lord (1:1–1:15)
A. Question 1 (1:3)
B. Consider (1:5, 7)
II. Second Word from the Lord (2:1-9)
A. Question 2 (2:3)
B. The Lord Will Shake the Heavens (2:6)
C. The Lord Will Shake the Nations (2:7)
D. The Lord Will Fill the Temple (2:9)
III. Third Word from the Lord (2:10-19)
A. Question 3 (2:12-13)
B. Consider (2:15, 18)
IV. Fourth Word from the Lord (2:20-23)
A. The Lord Will Shake the Heavens (2:21)
B. The Lord Will Overthrow the Nations (2:22)
C. The Messiah Will Rule the Earth (2:23)
One quickly notices that the climax of the book comes in the final section. The imperative “consider” (literally “please set your heart,” śîmû [naʾ] lĕbabkem) forms an inclusion, or bracket, around sections 1-3. Whereas the first three sections raised questions, the final section supplies the answer. The answer rests not in any earthly kingdom but in the messianic kingdom whose power lies not in horse and chariot but in the strength of the Lord of Hosts.
A subcategory of literary context is genre. Genre analysis is concerned with how a particular type of literature is to be understood. Some examples of genre include proverb, lament, military annals, genealogy, itinerary, prophetic oracle and hymn. When Nathan confronts David about his affair with Bathsheba, he tells David a story. In fact, he tells him a parable, but David misunderstands the genre. David thinks Nathan is recounting a tragic injustice in the kingdom that requires royal intervention. Instead, Nathan uses a short fictitious tale to confront the king about his abuse of power. It is not until Nathan reveals the genre by declaring “You are the man” (2 Sam 12:7) that David understands the gravity of the situation. Having a proper understanding of the intended genre of a text is imperative for proper biblical exegesis.
Example from 2 Kings. A contextual analysis of 2 Kings 7:1-2 illustrates the importance of attending to the various contextual issues of a text.
But Elisha said, “Hear the word of the LORD: thus says the LORD, Tomorrow about this time a measure of choice meal shall be sold for a shekel, and two measures of barley for a shekel, at the gate of Samaria.” Then the captain on whose hand the king leaned said to the man of God, “Even if the LORD were to make windows in the sky, could such a thing happen?” But he said, “You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat from it.”
Even though many readers may not be able to immediately locate this text in its historical, literary and geographical contexts, a quick glance at the narrative surrounding the text would resolve those issues. The narrative is set in the ninth century B.C., in the midst of an Aramean siege on Samaria. Samaria was Israel’s capital city, while Aram was Israel’s hostile neighbor to the north. The siege had left Samaria in such dire straits that four Israelite lepers determined it was better to risk defecting to Aram, where there was food, than to starve to death in Samaria. As a prophetic narrative, the main point is to demonstrate not only Elisha’s validity as a true prophet but also the Lord’s power over both Israel and Aram.
The passage also raises an important question about the cultural context. What is the meaning of the clause “Even if the Lord were to make windows in the sky”? Note how several modern translations render it.
ESV: “If the LORD himself should make windows in heaven”
NRSV: “Even if the LORD were to make windows in the sky”
NIV: “even if the LORD should open the floodgates of the heavens”
NLT: “even if the LORD opened the windows of heaven”
Taken literally, the text would suggest that God would install panes of glass in the sky. Common sense would lead most modern readers to realize that this expression is a reflection of human observation rather than scientific analysis. It would be preposterous to posit that on the basis of carefully constructed scientific experiments the ancient Hebrews had determined that there were sheets of glass that required divine latching and unlatching. Most people would implicitly deduce that the phrase used here in 2 Kings 7:2, and again in 7:19, explains how the ancients perceived the atmosphere.
Imagine living in rural or semi-urban ancient Israel, in which you have no Internet access, no television, no radio or even Encyclopedia Britannica. Columbus had not sailed to the New World, Magellan had not circumnavigated the globe, Sputnik had not yet orbited the earth, Neil Armstrong had not walked on the moon and the Hubble Telescope had yet to capture one image of the galaxies of the universe. If you’re an ancient Israelite, what do you know about the world? How big do you imagine it to be? What shape is it? Where does the sun go at night? Where does the moon come from? Where have the stars been hiding? What’s on the other side of the sea, or the mountains? How far down does the earth go, and what’s beneath it? How deep are the lakes and seas? Where does spring water come from? Where do rain and snow come from? The answers to these questions would be as obvious to you as they were to ...