“And Always Let Your Context Be Your Guide”: Reading the Bible in Context

Over at Jesus Creed, the inveterate and insightful blogger “RJS” has begun a discussion of the role of historical context for biblical interpretation.

RJS begins the post by talking about creation in the Bible vis-a-vis science, and rightly suggests that how one reads the biblical material is affected by how one understands the historical/literary context of Genesis.

In other words, progress in the science/faith discussion involves not simply reading Genesis literalistically, as if that is a default approach of faith by which science must judged, but learning to read Genesis in context, which means reading it as best as we can with ancient eyes (a major point that drives my book The Evolution of Adam as well as my popularly written e-book Genesis for Normal People.)

RJS then shifts focus to address the issue of context more broadly, linking to my recent post (posts, actually, going back a couple of weeks now) on God’s violence in the Old Testament. RJS cites the question I raised at the end of the linked post:

Do these episodes of violence tell us what God is like or is the picture of God in the Old Testament mediated for us through ancient tribal culture the Israelites and their neighbors participated in?

Of course, though phrased with intentional provocation, this is a huge question, filled with layers of nuanced intermingling of a host of underlying issues.

I am glad to see RJS and others asking these sorts of questions, and I hope the comments at Jesus Creed lead toward greater insight.

  • http://thecolourofsojourn.wordpress.com Elizabeth

    Asking the right question is so important in the journey to solid conclusions, and I think that question is a winner. Thanks for sharing. This whole series has made me think and has helped me a lot. Understanding the depth of the difficulties shouldn’t make faith impossible, and your series has developed that point well.

    Is it possible to grapple with this question without a yes-or-no answer? Could it be possible that these stories do describe aspects of God’s character, but mediated through ANE limitations? There is an inherent limitation anyway when humans try to convey or understand God’s character, even when a lot of them do so together (as in a shared cultural understanding of God). So we recognize that aspects of these stories don’t mesh with the presumably more accurate portrayal of God in the Gospels, because of inherent human limitations.

    I think most conservative evangelicals would agree that a more full understanding of God only emerges when the entire Bible is taken together – and even that is never going to come close to a complete understanding of God. If we understand the specific limitations of certain cultures (i.e. ANE theology), that helps us see where those particular writers may have missed something without calling into question the usefulness of the Bible as a whole in understanding the nature of God.

    I’m not sure that eliminates the difficulties, but it seemed like a reasonable place to start for me. Am I at all on the right track?

    • peteenns

      As long as taking the Bible as a whole does not result in ignoring or explaining away the hard parts. Theologians like Walter Brueggemann would say that the messiness is there to force us to grapple with who God is rather tehan think we can control him through our exegesis.

      • http://thecolourofsojourn.wordpress.com Elizabeth

        That makes a lot of sense. Thanks!

  • Wright

    What do you think of the approach Greg Boyd has most recently taken WRT the violence in the Old Testament?

  • James

    “What are we learning about what God is really like (the one pole) by how he behaves toward Canaanites or Midianites–killing everyone, dividing virgins among conquerers–in view of how that portrait of God is mediated to us through the ancient tribal culture (the other pole)?” The obvious answer is, God hates sin. This is evident in the entire context of canonical Scripture. Yes, we need to feel the full force of the raw language God allowed to remain in Holy Writ–not to immunize ourselves to its sting but allow it to sting us to death in those areas that need to die. Resurrection to new creation life is the end in view.

    • peteenns

      But James, one of the main points I’ve been trying to raise here is why God kills Canaanites when everyone else is sinful, and throw into the mix the driving factor that their land is to be given to the Israelites? Yes, God hates sin, but there are others ways of dealing with it, like…..all that Jesus stuff.

  • gingoro

    Pete How confidant are you that we understand the language and that our text is good?

    • peteenns

      As for language, I don’t think that is a major obstacle. There is always more to learn but biblical Hebrew is not that complicated. ASs for the text, well, that gets us into all sorts of text-critical issues involving the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc., which raises the larger question “what do we mean by ‘text.’”

  • rvs

    Thanks for this helpful discussion. Context–in my experience–is infinite, slippery, and seldom helpful when it comes to ultimate concerns. When people tell me that they are going to “contextualize” an idea, or a claim, I usually grab my wallet and also start to think about how the rhetorical strategy of contextualizing works vis-a-vis truth claims. Contextualizing is a persuasive maneuver, not a descriptive one–in other words. People who contextualize without admitting that they are being persuasive tend to concern me.

    And now–suddenly–I find myself thinking of that South Park episode based on the Lord of the Rings. The kids are given (by accident) a highly inappropriate movie, and the adults who own the movie want very much to put the film “in context.” –Great satire on the limits of contextualization.

    • peteenns

      I’m not sure I agree with you, RVS. Are you suggesting that historical context should never be considered when interpreting the Bible, or any other ancient text? Many would argue that context helps prevent the manipulation of texts.

      • rvs

        Well… I’m not anti-context. I guess I think that context is important in a supportive role, as long as we all admit that acts of contextualization are types of arguments (i.e., we contextualize in an effort to tell people that x,y, and z are the most important factors–out of the 1000 factors that we might have noted, if given the time and space to produce even more context). No amount of context, however, seems capable of answering some of the deeper questions, the “why” questions.

        Concepts, archetypes–they strike me as more successful vis-a-vis the “why” questions. Contextualizing Moloch is helpful, to be sure, but in the absence of sound theological concepts (equipment to be gained prior to attempting rich contextualization), the harder questions about violence, the problem of evil, etc., seem …hard. I suppose to I would want to distinguish between righteous and manipulative contextualization, too. Your point about the manipulation of biblical passages due to a total lack of “context” is convincing.

        Maybe also I have been influenced by that “Historical Point of View” banter in The Screwtape Letters. Historicism can be used to bad ends, but I suppose that this is true of every methodology.

        • peteenns

          Is there a non-contextual interpretation?

          • rvs

            Hmmmm, non-contextual. I believe that this is an ontological question. Does non-context exist? Or, is there just more context (turtles all the way down)? That’s a tough one. …Maybe you are asking a rhetorical question, haha!? What about interpretations based on inner light or revelation of some sort? Such interpretations might get us out of conventional notions of a context-based mode, assuming that the source of the inner light/revelation is supernatural and unbounded.

  • James

    We can’t change the biblical storyline but we can attempt to understand and apply it better. The Jesus stuff is near the end of the story and fits much better with our modern sensibilities–but even his story is pretty gross–the way the cross. We should look for echos of that theme (sacrificial love) in the OT narratives including the parts about gifting the land and killing Canaanites in the process. It’s not much of a stretch for us to see ourselves (and potentially the whole world) as the favored (loved) ones and the forces of darkness set to oppose the light as the enemy to be annihilated. Rough language but we get the point. As for the actual history of the conquest and the divine intent expressed by what really occured–again we’ve got only the OT narratives to go on and whatever ancient contexts are open to study. And, of course, the Jesus stuff to reinterpret the whole.

    • peteenns

      Sacrificial love in land acquisition and slaughter of a population? Do you mean God “sacrificed” them for the Israelites? The reading you suggest, James, is allegorical—which is fine with me, on one level, but could be criticized for obviating the theological tensions. I also have to push back a bit when you say “all we’ve got is the OT narratives to go ….” The conquest is one area of archaeology where the archaeological record conflicts most seriously with the biblical story.

    • Bev Mitchell

      I suggest that you have a listen to two very recent sermons by Greg Boyd that compares shadows to the real thing. He suggests that we should come to grips with just how unlike the real thing shadows really are – sometimes to the point of being essentially their negation. This is also the very point Pete is making using a completely different approach. Boyd’s text is Colossians 2:16-17, where Paul talks of the things of the OT being a shadow of the things to come (eg. the revelations encountered in the NT). Do have a listen to “Shadow of the Cross” and God’s Shadow Activity” at this site: http://whchurch.org/sermons-media/sermon-podcasts
      Click High Quality Video to find the list.

  • James

    Yes, this is how it happens in the story, with allegorical application if you like. But even in that shocking account that God seems to condone, there are exceptions–Rahab, the Gibionites, etc. As it turns out, Israel isn’t even up to the ban (herem, the total immolation of a population as sacrifice to the deity). Most of the Canaanites apparently survive and they all have to get along at some level. Maybe the stories of Exodus and Conquest (central as they are to Hebrew identity) are told in ‘heroic’ fashion–a common occurance confirmed by archaeology. Yet, we believe the God of creation is somehow present in all the histories of the world. And the sacrificial (redeeming) love of Christ spreads back on the whole mess just as it does over our messes today.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com Sabio Lantz

    You said,

    “Of course, though phrased with intentional provocation, this is a huge question, filled with layers of nuanced intermingling of a host of underlying issues.”

    Whereas to many of us, it is a much simpler question — one the could be applied to the Mahabharata and other ancient texts. The “layers” and “nuanced intermingling” seems to me to happen when someone is trying to avoid a simple question. Isn’t part of that question really simple. The problem is, the obvious simple answer would just alienate too many believers and so we have to answer with nuances …